“Sameness is what every oppressive system is trying to create, including the military as well as heteronormativity. And queer is basically a stance against this sameness”
Tuna Erdem and Seda Ergul, co-founders of the Istanbul Queer Art Collective, talk with Diana Georgiou about politics, protest, censorship and how these topics are dealt through processes of repetition, failure and drag in their queer Fluxus-inspired events.
Diana: Tuna and Seda, you moved to London from Istanbul only one month ago, and, while we are really excited to have you here, I understand that your decision was, unfortunately, the result of the increasing violence and government-led restrictions on freedom of expression, press and assembly. The staff of national TV stations and newspapers have been fired, jailed, some beaten and most replaced with pro-government individuals. Can you tell us a little about how terms such as “right-wing” and “left-wing” function in the context of Turkey and what type of rhetoric they have been advancing to arrive at the point where leaders such as Erdogan are being supported? I sense that the context is different from what led to the election of Trump in the US and what will inevitably lead to the re-election of a right-wing government in the UK.
Tuna: It is a very similar and, at the same time, a very different situation. May’s “strong and stable government” rhetoric is so familiar to us. It is exactly what Erdogan used to justify a new election merely four months after the last one, and what led to the result of the latest referendum. Trump’s populist slogan “Make America Great Again” finds its reflection in Erdogan’s rhetoric of “The New Turkey”, which is supposed to make the country as great as during the Ottoman times. But what you call “right-wing” in Europe and USA has also a specifically anti-Islam and xenophobic rhetoric. In Turkey, paradoxically, it is the supposedly left-wing political party which is anti-Islam and anti-Kurdish. What makes the party seem left-wing is the impression it gives of supporting a process of westernization. This left-wing party is also the founding party of the Republic and restrictions on freedom of expression are old problems dating from the inception of the Republic. In a sense, Erdogan was first elected fifteen years ago because people had enough of this left-wing rhetoric, but in time he became a version of what he supposedly opposed. As you can see, it is a very complex situation. Furthermore, when democracy seems to be threatened in the West by the rise of the right wing, that is the main threat you must contend with. In Turkey, on the other hand, you are also afraid that Western countries might decide to “bring you democracy”.
D: From what I understand it was never illegal to be LGBTQ in Turkey. However, does that mean that society respected the queer community? And is the queer community supported by other allies? For instance, the Gezi protests in 2013 brought together diverse organisations and people from different social backgrounds to protest the government. Is this coalition something that pre-existed or is that something that came about because of the resistance?
Tuna: It was never downright illegal to be LGBTQ in Turkey but there is no legislation against discrimination and hate crime, which makes life very precarious for queers. In fact, Turkey is one of the countries with the highest number of trans murders. Also, there are instances where the basic rights of trans people have been hijacked, like when a famous trans singer was banned from going on stage in the 1980s. More recently, trans individuals were fined for “exhibitionism” for merely going about their lives in the clothing of the gender they identify with. Although NGOs fighting for LGBTQ rights have been working diligently for over two decades, society is still homophobic and transphobic. While the queer community has feminist, anarchist and leftist allies, these supporters have a problematic relationship with LGBTQ politics, to say the least. The Gezi movement was an important moment in spreading coalition. We personally joined the Gezi movement because we were afraid that, the way things were going, we would not be able to do the Pride parade. It all started with the ban of International Labour Day demonstrations that take place on the 1st of May each year. The government closed down public transport and traffic in major bridges, roads and so on, to prevent people from reaching Taksim square where the demonstrations were going to take place and where Gezi Park is situated. Then, throughout May, not a single demonstration could happen on Istiklal Street (the street that leads to Taksim square and Gezi Park), where there is usually at least one demonstration daily. Whenever a group holding a sign came together, even if it was just five people, the police used gas. This street is also where the Pride parade is held every year. So, by the end of May, when the Gezi movement started, we joined in to defend not only Pride but public assembly in general. The LGBTQ community had also specific reasons for defending Gezi Park against demolition as the park is a cruising area for gay men. When a very wide spectrum of people came together at Gezi, most of them had never even met a LGBTQ person before, yet, they ended up resisting side by side. The Gezi movement was dispersed very violently by the end of June but, paradoxically, when we still took to the streets for the Pride parade on the last Sunday of June, no one cared to stop us. Considering the preceding violence towards public protest, that was the first occasion that a demonstration was not stopped. So, with the Gezi protestors joining us, Pride 2013 became the biggest to date with over fifty thousand people.
Seda: We actually did a durational performance about this entitled “50.000”. We took the famous huge rainbow flag that has been part of the parade since the beginning, sat in front of it in the type of costumes we would normally wear to a Pride parade, and attempted to hammer fifty thousand nails on wooden panels. We went on for twelve hours but couldn’t succeed in achieving fifty thousand, which to us, indicates how huge the number is. The following year, in 2014, the Pride parade was even bigger with approximately seventy thousand people attending Pride. In 2015, when we were expecting even more people, police crackdown with tear gas and plastic bullets prevented us from demonstrating.
D: But was the Pride not an event that was taking place with the approval of the authorities? At least until 2016 before it became banned?
Seda: No. The most you can say is that they condoned or turned a blind eye to it. But of course, theoretically, you don’t need to have an official permission to assemble in public since that is a constitutional right.
D: So how do you know when and where the parade is happening?
Seda: We just all know that it’s on the last Sunday of June but prior to the march there is also Pride week in Istanbul that has a website with events in clubs and other spaces around town. There is a call on social media too.
D: What about notifying the police for your protection during the march?
Tuna: Hahahaha… No.
Seda: The police has always been present, not to protect us but mainly to prevent us from marching; and members of the pride committee used to talk with them and arrange things as soon as we arrived. But since the police were already there, they could have prevented certain right-wing protesters from using physical violence against us.
D: Were you arranging things with the police on the actual day whilst the march is happening?
S: There have been instances when the pride committee talked with the police to convince them to let us march, while the gathered crowd just waited for the result. Many among the crowd didn’t even notice this transaction; they just assumed the march was yet to start. There was this one instance, in 2009 I think, when the police finally let us march, they made this absurd announcement to the crowd: “the homosexuals will walk. Can the heterosexuals among you please disperse?”.
D: But what about closing the street down and blocking the traffic in advance?
Seda: They don’t need to. Istiklal is a pedestrian street that leads to Taksim square and then Gezi park. This street is where everyone, until recently, went to protest. Whether right-wing or left-wing, people collected signatures for petitions of all sorts and news cameras went to ask the opinion of the “people on the street”. It is not like this anymore. Until recently, it was like a Speaker’s Corner, a podium and a performance place all rolled into one. It is on that very street that we did a Fluxus performance entitled “Sunday Event II: Gezi Park”, in 2014, one year before the Gezi movement.
D: How about opposition from society? And how does the Media respond to Pride?
Seda: The Media doesn’t respond. The very few times that they will mention that a Pride took place, it will be a tiny article with a generic stock images of something that will remotely remind you of a same-sex relationship. The online media provides better coverage. In 2003, during the first Pride parade, this lack of visibility had its benefits. A lot of people joined the march because they were reassured that the press wouldn’t expose them. We understand, of course, that every individual has their own reasons not to want visibility but, it’s been so many years now that, as visible queers, we are tired of still not seeing significant changes.
D: Let’s talk about Turkey’s presence in the contemporary art scene both on a local and international level.
Seda: Even though there had been prominent Turkish contemporary artists in the past, it is difficult to talk of a contemporary art scene. It was the Istanbul Biennial that galvanized the local artistic community in the late 1980s and led to the proliferation of art galleries, the opening of contemporary art institutions, like Istanbul Modern, SALT and ARTER, and art fairs like Contemporary Istanbul, Art International and Mamut Art Project. Once the institutions were in place more independent work started flourishing. That’s when we could talk of a vibrant contemporary art scene and Istanbul really had become an important destination for the international art world. However, all this is in decline right now. Many of the galleries that had opened then are now closing down. Even institutions like Istanbul Modern and SALT are in a precarious situation mostly because their spaces are being closed down as part of a massive reconstruction of the city.
D: Are there other artists that you are in dialogue with or know of in Turkey that work with feminist or queer frameworks? The few artists that come to mind are CANAN and Şükran Moral who we have worked with and know about the censoring of one of her shows that involved two women being sexually intimate with each other.
Seda: Of course, there are contemporary artists working within these frameworks that we are in dialogue with, many of which recently came together at the Future Queer exhibition, curated by Övül Durmuşoğlu for the 20th anniversary of Kaos GL, the first LGBT NGO of Turkey. Both CANAN and we, as the Istanbul Queer Art Collective were part of this exhibition together with most of the important queer artists in Turkey like Erinç Seymen, Nilbar Güreş, Erdem Taşdelen and Gözde İlkin. Another exhibition called Who Would Have Thought that has been part of the Pride week events for the last 3 years also brings together queer artists and we have exhibited our previously mentioned work “50.000” at the very first of these exhibitions.
Tuna: Censorship works in mysterious ways in Turkey. Most of the time, contemporary art is not seen important enough to bother with, it is regarded as an activity that only a handful of people are interested in. But when something is picked up and exposed in social media by the right-wing trolls, like in the case of Şükran Moral, the artist becomes a target. This is a much more dangerous position to find yourself in than a downright ban. Even the government itself can use social media to stop art events from happening instead of banning them. For instance, an MP from the governing party started a character assassination against one of the most important curators in Turkey, Beral Madra. Because of this, she had to withdraw from her curatorial position at the Çanakkale Biennial and this also led to the cancellation of the event. Although no one banned or censored the biennial, they still managed to prevent it from happening. And even when there is a ban, the official reason given is an absurd excuse, unrelated to the work itself. For example, when Işıl Eğrikavuk’s public work was taken down by the municipality, they claimed it was causing “visual pollution”. So, as you can see, censorship is a problem precisely because it is both random and indirect.
D: Your own work with the Istanbul Queer Art Collective is very inclusive and always brings people together regardless of their artistic background. While you are working with queer frameworks, at the same time, you have also worked a lot with Fluxus techniques and ideas. And you were also both teaching at universities. Can you tell me about the crossovers or disjunctions, if any, between Fluxus, queer and education?
Tuna: Contemporary art in Turkey is considered a western activity. Whatever you end up producing, it is perceived as an adaptation of a western idea. So, we thought we should just go straight to the point and start with the adaptation of a specific “western” idea, to see what would emerge from it in the context of Turkey, but also in relation to queer. The departure point is the publication of the Fluxus Performance Workbook edited by Ken Friedman, Owen Smith and Lauren Sawchyn (2002). Our aim was to re-create every work in the book. Of course, this sets us up for failure, as some of the works are literally impossible to execute. But we embrace this, since we are firm believers in the “queer art of failure”. The book offers a set of “recipes” or scores that we can use as a response to a political and/or creative situation.
Seda: What’s interesting is that Fluxus seemed to be a very complicated subject for my students in the music department. They seemed to find figures like John Cage much more profound, whereas with Fluxus they feel that there is no structure, very little artistic reflection and the whole artistic establishment is being mocked. While they recognize that the course is intellectually stimulating, I suspect that Fluxus is a part that they don’t find particularly valuable. As musicians, they are happy to take on non-traditional genres such as minimalist work but they are not so comfortable, even a little shy, when it comes to performing Fluxus scores. All these problems my students have with Fluxus are the exact reasons why I value it. Especially because it situates Fluxus at the boundaries of art and non-art.
D: I want to talk a little bit about your piece for the SoundActs Festival that took place in May 2016, Athens. I had the pleasure of experiencing this piece first-hand and I was captivated by your vocal orchestration. The piece is entitled “South – The Border Oath Version” and it is both of you along with artist Leman Sevda Darıcıoğlu. The word “South” is here a reference to the Fluxus event score “SOUTH no.3” where Japanese composer Takehisa Kosugi asks performers to turn the word “South” into sounds by pronouncing every syllable and letter in every combination possible. For your remake, you have replaced the word south with the script of the Turkish military oath that soldiers are obliged to repeat every time they start their border watch duty. You mention in an interview with Artfridge that your aim is
“to steer away from the inherent stability of language, toward the unstable, performative, immediate, humorous and playful world of sounds. By doing so, we hope to call into question the inherent stability of physical borders and the conceptual foundations that lie behind our need for them.”
It also made me think of how repetition often renders an act absurd. But I also felt that in your case, that repetition had a certain harmony that simultaneously highlighted the absurdity as well as transforming the act, the oath, into an altogether different type of gesture. Perhaps a more hopeful gesture. You made your way through the crowd looking like a queer child’s anti-hero role model. Seda was wearing a hardhat with a tinsel Mohawk sprayed to look like a roman helmet while Tuna had a cosmic presence with a costume that was a cross between a space suit and a military outfit with a cape. Leman was in the middle sporting a military camouflage pattern on what looked like a one-piece swimsuit along with pink rubber boots. Siren-like and seductive, your voices were bringing the audience in but at the same time at the cost of destroying the significance of the oath. Probably an intentional move on your part but in terms of failure this seemed like a perfectly orchestrated piece.
Tuna: Repetition is a prerequisite to the oath in its military context. Not only is it repeated over and over again by the soldiers but also certain words are repeating in it: the word nation is repeated three times and the word land twice. The oath is like a charm that creates these very concepts of land and nation. And we should keep in mind that in Turkey military duty is obligatory. Every heterosexual man over the age of 18 has to spend 12 months of his life as a soldier. So think of the repetition! Thankfully repetition does not just produce and reproduce nationalism.
As any child would know, repetition also hallows out the meaning of words, distorts and mocks them. And as any minimalist artist would know, repetition is a tool that enables one to detect even the smallest differences in what would have passed as sameness.
And sameness is what every oppressive system is trying to create, including the military as well as heteronormativity. And queer is basically a stance against this sameness. Of course, the costume aspect of it is very important for us as well. After all, the military makes you wear uniforms precisely to erase any sign of visual difference and create an imaginary unity. Taken together with our costumes, what we presented can be considered a “drag version” of the oath. As to the impression of an orchestrated harmony, it was actually the result of a big failure. We had a 4th artist, Onur Gökhan Gökçek, who was supposed to be performing with us but couldn’t get a visa and in the end we had to adapt the performance to the three of us. This contingency is what leads to your interpretation of the sirens – which we also thought about through the figures of the three graces and the three furies, even though it was in retrospect as an unintentional harmony.
Seda: Maybe complete failure is not possible. Complete failure would be a kind of success. And South is a sound piece that allows a possibility of harmony, in comparison to some of the other performances we made that were truly banal, mundane and boring to watch.
D: Was Street Cleaning (2012) one of them? You were cleaning a sidewalk with sanitary towels and toothbrushes whilst people across the street and pedestrians were looking at you. What prompted this performance?
Tuna: The sidewalk we cleaned is in front of a park called the Artists Park. Exactly opposite the sidewalk, there are some steps where people get together to socialize, have drinks and look at the Bosphorus. The municipality decided to stop cleaning the area thinking that it would prevent people from congregating on the steps. This complete neglect of the park turned it into a garbage dump. So, we thought that by cleaning we were highlighting what the municipality should be doing. For us, the people on the steps were our pre-established audience even though it turned out that they were completely disinterested or they just watched us without remarking. It was the people passing by that were more concerned. Middle-aged women were genuinely trying to explain to us that we were using the wrong tools and that we wouldn’t manage to clean if we carried on using sanitary towels and toothbrushes. At the moment, the municipality is building a café on top of this area, which won’t serve alcohol and it will become a sanitized family space. Not to mention that the building is illegally built on top of an archaeological site that dates back to the Byzantium.
D: I want to end with your last work before you left for London, the installation “Just in Bookcase” at the House of Wisdom exhibition in Berlin.
Seda: Once we decided to try to make London our new home, we started to get rid of almost everything we owned. But our books were our most cherished possessions and we could not let go of them easily. We decided to honour our books by creating a card for each one and selecting which books we would bring along in a single suitcase weighing no more than 20 kilos; the weight allowed on planes and the weight allowed to the Greeks forced to leave Turkey in 1964. The result is a suitcase containing the thoughts, feelings and memories we accumulated over the years about our bookcase.
Tuna: We also made stamps for the cards that were meant to represent the different criteria we used when we tried to choose which books to keep. We categorized our books asking questions like “If we were going to a desert island which books would we take”, “if we were going to a place where there were no books in Turkish which would we take” and so on. Then we made a stamp for each category and stamped the cards accordingly. And all this, in a sense is still connected to Fluxus, because the suitcase could be considered a “fluxkit”.
D: You have transformed such an experience into what I consider to be a very poetic representation of exile. So, while the books had to be disposed of, the cards here served as a reminder not only of the books, but of a process of abandonment by one’s native land and perhaps a reconciliation with a nomadic state. In other words, not only did you pack your suitcases for London, but you also packed your nation-bound past into a state-less future, which is now in Berlin and who knows where next. I think this reflects a number of queer and feminist creatives that have made London their home. And with the current process of Brexit, there is the sensation that nomadism has always been a familiar state for the queer community. Maybe queer solidarity is stronger from a global perspective but we look forward to working with you on this local level for now.