ISTANBUL — “Diyarbakır is under martial law. It is the most important city in Kurdistan. With its 250,000 citizens, it seems as if pacification has been imposed successfully. The army is omnipresent, but the monitoring seems to have loosened […].” This could have been the news broadcast in Turkey on November 21, on October 8, on September 13, or on August 18 of this past year, but it definitely wasn’t. The footage, in fact, dates back to September 11, 1985, over 30 years ago, when it was broadcast on French television. In 2011, it resurfaced in Istanbul as part of the video-installation “Heure de Paris: Separation” by Barış Doğrusöz, where the artist combines televisual footage from French and Turkish news reports during the 1980s. The work gives a lasting impression of the media environment reporting on Turkey during those years: It wasn’t permitted to film in the country, so images were illegally obtained from people who filmed inside moving cars, obviously affecting focus and quality.
I visited the artist’s studio in May 2013, when the sense of social and political asphyxiation in Istanbul was already both obvious and worrying. But life continued somewhat unmolested — the economy was rather good and the visual presence of the Syrian conflict kept to a minimum in the streets of Istanbul. Then a few weeks later the events of Gezi Park released the steam that had built over years of political maneuvering — it’s hard to tell how many, it depends how far back you want to go — and a new ground opened under our feet, bringing new waves of violence. This new context has injected Doğrusöz’s work with a new life, uncovering the politics of visual representation in and about Turkey, across the difficult 20th century. For many years there was a state monopoly on radio and TV, and Turks living overseas did not see televised images of the country until this monopoly ended in 1994 and a new era of liberalization — both financial and political — of the media would begin, with questionable success, as recently witnessed: Mainstream media failed to cover the protests in 2013 as police violence spiraled out of control; the court imposed a gag order on investigations into the Ankara bombing; and, at present, the editor-in-chief of Cumhuriyet newspaper Can Dündar, is under arrest for publishing footage of state intelligence sending weapons to Syrian Islamist fighters.
In focusing on the period of the military dictatorship, Doğrusöz also draws from Turkish maps and data charts that appeared on television during that period; since images of the country were not available, visuals were replaced with maps in foreign media. “Heure de Paris: The Map and the Territory” (2011–14) and “Heure de Paris: Separation” (2011) were recently exhibited together in the group exhibition How Did We Get Here? at SALT which showcased the charged atmosphere of the 1980s through artworks and archival material related to the period.
The ’80s in Turkey not only saw the coup d’état and the subsequent military dictatorship, but also the liberalization of the economy in line with the neoliberal spirit of that time. A clever assemblage of magazines, censored books, films, and other items from popular culture in the exhibition allowed the viewer to study the country through multiple perspectives. A display of books that were banned after the 12th of September military coup — such as the Turkish translation of Georges Politzer’s 1969 book Elementary Principles of Philosophy, (the first book to be banned) or the harmless children’s book One Peach, a Thousand Peaches by Azeri writer and social critic Samed Behrangi — informed the audience about the strange logic of the dictatorship, and how it contrasted with fertile social and political movements of the period that tirelessly contested authority. The exhibition showcased a number of videos from the 1990s and early 2000s by Serdar Ateşer, a well-known alternative musician and sound engineer cum-artist, that reveal the late-1980s construction of the second Bosphorous Bridge and its disastrous environmental consequences — bringing to mind a third bridge that is now under construction, as well as the popular struggle over different ferry lines in the early 2000s, a time when the CHP, Turkey’s Republican People’s Party, lost its place in parliament.
The work, however, that shed light on the mechanisms of political protest during that period was the video of a trip Ateşer and the videographer Ezel Akay took to the small town of Aliağa, north of Izmir. After the 1989 concert “Human Rights Not Tomorrow, Now!” — which focused on the dismal human rights situation in Turkey with the participation not only of musicians but also of artists and intellectuals — an environmental action was held in Aliağa to protest the construction of a thermal power plant in the city, with a reduced line-up from the original concert.
Hale Tenger’s work “The Closet” (1997–2015), produced in San Antonio, had never shown before in Istanbul prior to the exhibition. The three-room installation resembles one of those semi-derelict modernist apartments in Turkey, but a tilt in the wall lining and some spatial inconsistencies transform the rooms into a field of uncertainties. The recording playing on the radio in the first room broadcasts a football match punctuated by radio news from 1981, giving a sense of the mood of the period: How many terrorists were being arrested, jailed, or killed? Surprisingly, the artist remembers having listened to similar radio broadcasts on the long drive from the Aegean coast to Istanbul only a few months ago. What does this say about the direction of history and politics in a territory like this one?
For Tenger, reconstructing a work that had not existed for nearly two decades, the artist revealed to me in a recent conversation, does not feel any different now. As one crosses from one room into the other, the spaces become more and more intimate until one is inside the closet, surrounded by familiar objects and particular smells. One is left wondering whether the home, the privacy and intimacy of the familiar abode, is always a place of rest and refuge. Home can also be a place of violence, a place we would like to escape but cannot; the shackles of tradition, and history — the installation’s reference to the Turkish language books as the intellectual site of Turkish nationalism is far from innocuous. Can the home provide any assurances for the future? Turkey is asking itself that question as we speak.
Other works in the exhibition approached the oppressive circumstances of the years of the military dictatorship with much seriousness. Halil Altındere’s “Welcome to the Land of the Lost” (1998) is a melancholy and memorial work in which postal stamps are produced not with the images of founders and politicians, but those of missing persons — thousands of people are believed to have disappeared and been lost forever in Turkey since the 1980s, without any hope of finding them. And Aslı Çavuşoğlu’s “191/205” (2010), a song produced with rapper MC Fuat, includes 191 out of the 205 words that were banned from radio and television by TRT (Turkish Radio and Television Corporation) in 1985 on the grounds that they damaged linguistic unity — but they just happened to be key words for political discourse: memoir, life, nature, revolution, freedom.
Curators Merve Elveren and Erman Ata Uncu not only captured the politics of trauma but also the overall uproar and energy of this convoluted period that stretched from the military dictatorship to economic liberalization. On display were erotic magazines which were sold inside black plastic covers; spreads from the popular magazine Sokak exposing different identities and sexualities, and activism for LGBT rights and against domestic violence; and coverage of art and politics in different magazines throughout the 1980s — all activities that are almost impossible to get away with in today’s environment of tight censorship as has never been experienced, even during the darkest days of the dictatorship. It’s also worth noting that one of the magazines showcased in the exhibition, Nokta, still publishes today. It had an entire issue confiscated recently, its chief editor, Cehveri Güven, has been repeatedly arrested, and the magazine was temporarily banned from the internet in Turkey. According to the courts, the magazine had not only criticized the government, but its chief editor was also part of a coup plot to overthrow the government.
How Did We Get Here? was both synchronic and diachronic: it was specific enough to provide a bird-eye’s view of a period while remaining reflexive and self-critical to permeate the fabric of time. The exhibit understood history as a construction that affects our thinking about ourselves; the future of that past isn’t a solid closed vault, but a porous body of water, navigable in any direction. The extravagancies of the ’80s, as described by Bora Gürdaş in a review of this exhibit, are not very different from the here-and-now: palaces, a new bourgeoisie funded on religion and militarism; ambitious infrastructure projects in a country where wealth is made by poverty and poverty is created by wealth; airports, stadiums, and skyscrapers, combined with millions of refugees and a general feeling of helplessness and ‘bad luck,’ which is neither necessary nor unavoidable.
The fundamental qualitative difference between the period of the military dictatorship and our own is a cognitive one: While those inhabiting the 1980s had a clearer view of historical cycles and periods — beginnings and ends, democracy or otherwise — for us, in light of the economic success of global capitalism, it is a lot more difficult to distinguish between war and revolution, crisis and boom, democracy or the absence thereof, with everything being dominated by a market-centric discourse. And, accordingly, we do not know how we got here from the ’80s, or if actually there was any movement across time at all, except in circles and repetitive cycles. History is not a clear progression or an accumulation, but rather a temporal rupture, so that the past becomes incommensurable with the present. The risks of being the future of our own times — occupying double-edged temporalities — are enormous, yet the alternative is not between risk and predictability, but between risk and demise.
How Did We Get Here? was on view at SALT Beyoğlu (İstiklal Cd. No:136, Turkey) and SALT Galata (Banka Sk No:11, 34420, Turkey) September 3–November 29, 2015.
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