Interviews

An Oppositional Artist in Turkey on Censorship, Political Unrest, and “Terrorism”

Ferhat Özgür, “Luncheon on the Grass” (2008), 150 x 225 cm (all images courtesy of the artist)
Ferhat Özgür, “Luncheon on the Grass” (2008), 150 x 225 cm (all images courtesy of the artist)

ISTANBUL — Since winning the November 2015 elections, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his AKP party have taken extreme measures to silence anyone who raises their voice to criticize government policy, going so far as to claim that the definition of a terrorist should be changed to include “supporters” like MPs, civil activists, artists, academics, and journalists. In public, some topics have become totally censored, including the Armenian genocide after WWI and the ongoing persecution of Kurds in the southeast of the country, where Amnesty International estimates that there remain 200,000 people under 24-hour curfew and scores more who have been killed by Turkish security forces, who have been waging a near-constant battle with the Kurdish minority since 1978. As the country comes to terms with its seventh major terrorist attack in less than a year, which saw four people killed and dozens more injured, it appears less and less likely that any de-escalation of this conflict is on the horizon.

Equally disturbing is what is happening in Turkey’s public sphere. Several prominent members of the Turkish intelligentsia have been arrested and detained in Ankara’s ongoing suppression of dissent, including three academics who are being held on charges of promoting terrorist propaganda for publicly reading a declaration that reiterated a call to end security operations in the southeast against the Kurdish minority. Or the incident that took place on March 6, after clashes erupted in Istanbul when the Turkish newspaper Zaman was forcibly taken over and effectively Erdoganized by government officials. This in addition to the recent arrest of members of the peace initiative Barış İçin Yürüyorum (I Am Walking for Peace), who were detained and charged on December 31, following their participation in a peaceful rally in the Turkish city of Sur. Among those arrested was artist Pınar Öğrenci, whose work is currently on view at the MAXXI Museum in Rome. These and other incidents have foregrounded calls by international human rights activists, questioning whether Turkey deserves accession into EU.

Ferhat Özgür is an artist and academic living and working in Istanbul. His practice comprises a wide range of media, including painting, video, photography and installation. He has been showing regularly since the early 2000s, including the 10th Istanbul Biennale and 6th Berlin Biennale, and his work has been exhibited in numerous international shows, including at the Michigan University Museum of Art and MoMA PS1. Known for his themes critical of Turkish governmentality, Özgür investigates the relationship between society and political structures, urban gentrification, memory, and history. His work asks important questions about the role and place of art within a Turkish society that is increasingly defined by its intolerance toward any form of criticism. In Turkey, he has faced considerable opposition due to his practice, yet he has persevered, infusing his works with humor and irony. Arising from the tensions currently facing artists and Turkish society at large, his practice remains an enduring example of how artists can develop an oppositional voice despite persistent conditions of both overt and covert censorship.

Ferhat Özgür, “I Love You 301” (2007), public art project, Radikal Art
Ferhat Özgür, “I Love You 301” (2007), public art project, Radikal Art

Özgür spoke with me about the marginalization of public space, urbanization, censorship, and the current state of contemporary art in Turkey.

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Dorian Batycka: Since the initial wave of civil unrest that began in 2011, with protests agains the urban development plan for Istanbul’s Taksim Gezi Park, there seems to have been a distinct reversal and crackdown on any type of dissent in Turkey. What are your thoughts on the current political climate and how has it changed in the last five years?

Ferhat Özgür: The Gezi Park protests, or the “June Resistance,” was the figurative straw that broke the camel’s back. It was symbolic of some ongoing political unrest that included Erdoğan’s strongly advocated proposed change from a parliamentary system to an American-style executive presidential system: privatization of governmental institutions, excavations for the construction of the hugely controversial giant Çamlıca Mosque in Istanbul, destruction of the environment, riot police using water cannon and tear gas to prevent May Day marchers in Taksim Square, the Reyhanlı attack that killed 52 people, an alcohol ban, Turkey’s support for Obama’s plan to topple the Assad regime, annihilation of atheists and all other marginal groups such as gay, lesbian, bisexual, etc., and, finally, censorship of civil rights. These issues all triggered the resistance.

For the first time ever, the demonstration was a platform where cultural, ethical, political, and denominational diversity combined into a common vision for the future. As a united voice against the discriminative statements of the ruling party, it stood out as a demand for solidarity, democracy, and freedom of expression, and against the government’s encroachment on civilization. It gave us strength to keep our hope fresh for democracy. During the demonstration, as you might remember, a new word came into our global vocabulary when Erdoğan described all the protestors as chapulling, or “just a few looters” Yet in one way or another, the Gezi protest seemed to have achieved its aim in terms of being a potential threat to Erdoğan for the subsequent general election on June 7, 2015. The Kurdish HDP [People’s Democratic Party], which I supported over the last two elections, succeeded in entering the parliament, breaking the 10 percent threshold. Since then, AKP’s fear to survive as a single party, to realize Erdoğan’s desire for a presidential system, was so clear that to disqualify or discredit HDP’s democratic reliability was the only solution. The democratic rights of the Kurdish people were restricted, and smear campaigns were started, blaming them for the serial bomb attacks at peace rallies in Suruç, Ankara, and Istanbul, which unfortunately caused severe harm over the social consensus towards the HDP.

Ferhat Özgür, “Jerk Off” (2008), 30 x 40 cm, drawing on paper
Ferhat Özgür, “Jerk Off” (2008), 30 x 40 cm, drawing on paper

The recent attacks, coming one after another in Ankara and Beyoğlu, proved that nowhere is safe any longer. We have become a country where all oppositional thoughts, behavior, discourse, and meetings are associated with and seen as severe threats to the government. Arrests of peaceful petition signatories, police attacks at Honour Pride and World Women’s Day, censorship of criticism, cases of revilement towards Erdoğan — these are clear signs of the fact that we are heading toward a dictatorship. Many of the newspaper columnists, attached to the AKP, attempt to convince people to accept the presidential system in order to get rid of terrorism and quit the fight between the PKK and the Turkish Army, which means [for the Turkish civilian population] “Either Blood or Erdogan.” In this sense, my expectation for peace would be the right of people to express their needs and complaints without experiencing fear, arrest or torture, which seems rather impossible under the current circumstances.

DB: President Erdoğan recently labeled journalists “terrorists” and has claimed that fighting terrorists outweighs any and all democratic freedoms. Consequently, the Erdoğan government has put plans into motion to expand the legal definition of “terror crime” to include journalists seen by the government as supportive of the opposition. What has been the response of the artistic community to these and other crackdowns, also including the closure and subsequent takeover of the anti-AKP newspaper Zaman by government officials on March 6?

FÖ: Expanding the legal definition of a “terror crime” is likely to be one of the most controversial and dangerous obstacles to the use of social and individual democratic rights in the future. One can predict that anybody who criticizes the government, who raises his voice on behalf of freedom and democracy, who attends peace rallies, who marches for protecting environmental sources, who backs other minority rights, or who stands by those who are struggling with censorship will be labeled a potential terrorist. A couple of months ago we saw the arrest of some outstanding opposition voices of [Republican newspaper] Cumhuriyet, Can Dündar and Erdem Gül. After three months or so in jail, they were released. Yet, on this occasion, Erdoğan defied the court decision claiming that the Turkish media should not have unlimited freedom. He also maintained that there should be no absolute freedom anywhere in the world media either. Since then there has emerged another new implementation called the “trustee appointment,” to secure the national stability against “suspicious institutions.” Subsequently, AKP’s appointed trustees to the newspaper Zaman turned it into a propaganda mouthpiece for the Turkish regime within 48 hrs. It was very brief. Why did they do so? Because Zaman was supported by Fethullah Gülen’s sect, an opposition, or “parallel construction” as described by the AKP, that aims to knock down Erdoğan’s regime sooner or later.

To react to all these controversial situations, as part of the artistic community, you do not feel all that strong, because there is nothing you can do about it except to produce images or signs that can change people’s minds or perceptions in a better way. I mean, if you want to act within artistic terms, these are the only instruments you can play with; otherwise all resistance requires politically organized constructions to move together. In this sense, through our condemnation letters published in media and meetings, we try to raise our voice both as AICA and Censorship Groups in Arts initiated by Pelin Başaran, founder of the Black Ribbon Project.

Özgür, “Metamorphosis Chat” (2016), installation view, Michigan University Museum of Art (click to enlarge)
Özgür, “Metamorphosis Chat” (2016), installation view, Michigan University Museum of Art (click to enlarge)

DB: Throughout 2015 and 2016, there has been a return of large-scale state violence in Turkey impacting the Kurdish-dominated regions of the southeast, as well as seven terrorist attacks targeting both civilians and security forces in Ankara and Istanbul in the last year alone. In response, peace initiatives have been held to protest sanctions against the Kurdish population, leading to the arrests of several prominent artists and activists following a peace rally in Sur in December 2015. How has the arts community responded to threats of violence and arrest? And what do you see as the role of art and culture in the face of increasing censorship and government repression?

FÖ: Initiated by some of the peace lovers, including our colleagues Pinar Öğrenci and Atalay Yeni, the rally in Diyarbakır in December 2015 called “I Am Walking for Peace” was a demand to end the ongoing traumatic destruction in southeast Turkey, yet it resulted in the arrests of some of the protesters. Here the oppressive state mechanism did not tolerate humanitarian solidarity. In response to all these arrests, sanctioning, banning, targeting, threatening, intimidation, humiliation, obstruction, aggression, delegitimization, and alienation methods, I would say that artistic images are the most effective instruments to give direct and permanent messages to change people’s consciousness. As Boris Groys stated: If the consciousness of people changes, then the changed people will also change the world in which they live. This might sound like a rather utopic expectation in our current situation, yet art history is full of similar utopian revolutions. On the other hand, one should not restrict the role of art and culture to only the artistic community. This might sound like a somewhat comprehensive topic that we cannot fully interpret here, but I see all constructive and educative actions for democracy and peace that implemented by a majority as a kind of performative visuality derived from a spirit of togetherness.

DB: In much of your work, you use irony to critique sociopolitical and cultural paradigms, such as in “I love you 301” (2009), where you use a karaoke format with statements like, “a person who denigrates the Government of the Republic of Turkey,” inviting the audience to participate in speech acts foregrounded by overt criticism of the government. Do you feel it is possible to make critical or socially engaged art like this in Turkey today? And are there any exhibition venues dedicated to supporting this type of work?

Özgür, "Things I Point Out" (2015), installation view,
Ferhat Özgür, “Things I Point Out” (2015), installation view, Batumi Photo Days, Odessa

FÖ: For over a decade, extreme neoliberal practices, together with nationalist trends, made up the sociopolitical and economic agenda in Turkey empowered by the undisputed victory of the ruling Islamist party, AKP. The lack of left wing politics, together with the privatization of many public-sector services and the ambition of the ruling party to restructure the state through constitutional changes full of Islamic and nationalist issues, prepared the way toward a different Turkey that might have served the interests of the intellectuals and artists. In conjunction with these developments, I try generally in my works to manifest the anxiety and annoyance of the ongoing unrest by using post-media images and borrowing language and visual material from journalism, advertisements, caricatures, and poster art, aiming to provoke an awareness in the public domain.

In “I love you 301,” I explore my devotion to political issues that frequently rock and agitate Turkey’s common consciousness and social psychology. The lyrics of this famous love song are the text of Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code (TPC), which is a threat to freedom of expression. This law has not only prosecuted human rights defenders, journalists and other members of civil society, but it also caused the tragic assassination of Hrant Dink.

“I Love You 301” was exhibited for the first time in 2007 in Karşı Sanat Çalışmaları gallery in Istanbul. We should not be pessimistic regarding the exhibition venues availability for this type of work, as there are some independent spaces and galleries that do devote themselves to innovative and avant-garde practices, such as Depo, Mars, Karşı Sanat, etc.

Özgür, "I Love You 301" (2008), karaoke video installation, Trienale Bovisa, Milan
Ferhat Özgür, “I Love You 301” (2008), karaoke video installation, Trienale Bovisa, Milan

DB: What are your thoughts on the recent cancellation of the Post-Peace exhibition at Akbank Sanat due to what organizers described as the “delicate political situation in Turkey,” or the closure of SALT Beyoğlu, allegedly due to what Director Vasif Kortun has described as “technical reasons”? Do you see these as overt forms of censorship by the government, or as more nuanced forms of self-censorship?

FÖ: While these are really controversial subjects, unfortunately they exceed my limited information because I have no idea what is happening within these institutions. Personally I see the cancellation of the Post-Peace exhibition as nothing more than censorship, which we also condemned at AICA. In our statement we warned the institution to back the exhibition dedicated to peace instead of submitting to fear and anxiety. To link the cancellation to the “delicate political situation” is somewhat unconvincing, as they continued with all their other activities at the same time. Speculations about the closure of SALT are at variance with one another. Vasıf has already denied the rumors that there are necessary permits which presumably will not be forthcoming before the end of the year. That is a good news!

DB: In an interview from 2011 with curator Hans Ulrich Obrist, Wikileaks founder Julian Assange made the observation that censorship in the West is often “more subtle, more nuanced, and harder to see.” In cases like the current situation in Turkey, where censorship is becoming more flagrant, naked, and laid bare, Assange suggests that therein lies an opportunity because “the signal that censorship sends off reveals the fear of reform, and therefore the possibility of reform” — which arguably remains latent when apathy and insouciance prefigure conformity to self-censorship. Do you agree with Assange’s seemingly paradoxical statement? Do you feel that in situations where censorship is becoming more blatant, like in Turkey today, there lies an opportunity for reform?

FÖ: Assange might be correct to outline two different aspects of censorship as “latent” and “blatant” or “hidden” and “laid bare.” The former stabs you in the back because you cannot see or feel it beforehand, like in the case of the 2007 Ergenekon Trials, when many journalists and opposition lawmakers were accused of plotting against the Turkish government because of their views. Remember that that resulted in lengthy prison sentences for the majority of the accused. Here, as Assange stressed, censorship worked rather subtly. Whereas in the latter scenario you take your preventions and develop a strategy of resistance, which gives you an opportunity that can be described as “pragmatic realism,” a term you’ve used in our previous conversations. For instance, the law forbidding the sale of alcohol after 10pm did not work because people started storing it beforehand. We cannot talk about any kind of opportunity when it comes to self-censorship. You either have it or you don’t.

Özgür, "We Are the Builders" (2013), 11.45 min.
Ferhat Özgür, “We Are the Builders” (2013), 11:45 min

DB: Recently, a petition submitted by the group Academics for Peace entitled “We will not be a party to this crime,” calling for “the state to abandon its deliberate massacre and deportation of Kurdish and other peoples in the [southeast] region,” received over 1,400 signatures from Turkey and abroad. In response, the Turkish government detained 27 academics over alleged “terror propaganda” for signing the petition. How do you feel about the language of this petition and the Erdoğan government’s decision to prosecute its signatories as terrorists?

FÖ: First of all, no one should be classified as either a “signatory” or a “coward,” which is what happened, because everybody shows their reaction in different platforms. There might be some problematic points in the petition that caused some misunderstandings, but all in all it was just a humanitarian call to save innocent civilians. The Council of Europe recently expressed their great concern over the arrest of these academics on charges of supporting terror, calling it unacceptable. The “terrorist” propaganda is an open-ended concept — anybody can interpret it arbitrarily. To the signatories, the petition was freedom of speech, while the government took it as a statement supporting terrorist organizations. What is said there is that both sides are providing victims every day for an endless war that is very unlikely to be solved with guns, but instead requires negotiation and discussion.

DB: My inner (and incorrigible) nihilism looks at the situation in Turkey as strangely reminiscent of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, where the two main characters wait in vain for someone who never arrives. In a way, Godot is defined solely by her absence, which can be seen as a metaphor for state of art in regimes that actively (and covertly) censor freedom of speech and expression. Impatient, impotent, and in turmoil, we all bicker with pointless small talk, leading to an omnipresent existential angst. Lacking a strong and vociferous public sphere, do you feel that this theme of absence and the perpetual uncertainty it creates can be used to describe the Turkish arts scene today?

FÖ: No, never! Turkey has never waited for Godot. By contrast, the Turkish contemporary art scene has defied those who depend on “Godot awaiters.” There are numerous artists and groups who have taken risks despite all the obstacles. I do see ineffective academics and artists, those who differentiate art from politics, sitting sluggishly in their accustomed or guaranteed corners. By occupying significant positions, they are a dangerous power, as they constitute the silent majority who shape the general consensus. Whereas political art in Turkey is a rather small minority.

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