Conversation: Aslı Çavuşoğlu and Özge Ersoy

"191/205," 12'' LP, 7'16'' and list of words, 2010 (detail).
Murder In Three Acts, film/performance, 2012. Commissioned by Frieze Projects. Photo by Taylan Mutaf.

At the time of this writing, Aslı is in London, working on Murder in Three Acts, part of the 2012 Frieze Projects. In a real-time performance, she directs a professional crime drama crew that relies on objects. These props take on different roles and identities; they are murder weapons, evidence for crimes, and art objects at different points. Aslı builds an expert group to create and assert narratives around these objects, drawing parallels between forensics laboratories and the contemporary art scene where the value of objects are always negotiated by experts before reaching wider audiences. Here there is a common thread that appears in her works: she takes on the role of an archaeologist, finds obscure or ambiguous objects and histories, and choreographs narratives for and about them. This artistic method is also visible in a recently published book on her work, where she is the artist ‘on display’ and the co-editor at the same time. In the book, Aslı commissions texts, puts different pieces of her practice together, and creates a narrative about her work. Below is my conversation with Aslı, tackling the aforementioned issues as well as continuities and discontunities in her works.—Özge Ersoy

The below text was commissioned for Aslı Çavuşoğlu, published by Art-ist and Revolver Verlag, Istanbul, 2012.

“In Different Estimations Little Moscow,” 2011, 12’45” (video still).
Commissioned by BORUSAN A.Ş.

Özge: My first question departs from an artist’s interview that I read yesterday. In the interview, Mary Ellen Carroll says that she abstains from creating a visual style that denounces its artist right away and at the same time, she is aware of the difficulty this lack of a “clear” visual style causes in creating a sustainable career. Carroll, who speaks about recognizability, visibility and developing an artistic practice, is influenced by an art historian, George Kubler. According to Kubler, biography can be used as a tool for an individual to look at her production and career impartially. This leads us to a curious question: How do we write our own biographies? Especially, how is the production history of artists written? If we look at your art practice, we realize that there is not a formulaic or formal approach. Do you think there is a common sensibility in your works? Or, would you rather say that each of your works develops independently and that it would not be useful to make connections or find relationships between them?

Aslı: How I relate my works with each other—mostly on a linear axis—is a question that I am asked quite often. I must say that I am a bit uncomfortable with the tendency to relate things with each other, which is motivated by a concern to label/brand the artist’s work. For me, the best example to demonstrate that linear connections don’t have an absolute counterpart is how atoms connect with each other: just because an atom is activated by another atom doesn’t mean that its destiny is dependent only on that atom; it can be activated by another atom to generate another substance. At a moment, when even storytelling and listening to music have had their share of inter-narrative or hyper-narrative options, it is more interesting to ask why we still want to explain the world along a single linear axis.

Özge: Here I would like to bring up Magnificent Seven (2006), a project that deals with this issue specifically in relation to the artist presenting or promoting herself. For this work, you invented an artist collective of seven people, created works for every single artist, and thereby impersonated seven different characters. I’m curious if the timing of this project coincides with a period when you were questioning your own artistic identity and style?

Aslı: In this project, first the characters emerged, and then their works that they could have produced along these characteristics have come about. Similar to Pessoa creating more than 80 characters and writing poems in the style of each, the artists I invented had their own birthdays, schools they have attended, books they liked, and even their own unique political views. Their works were therefore distinct from each other. I experimented with this in a different way in Delivery6 (2009). I sent 70 books from my library that have influenced me, to the author of the thesis—whom I have never met—and wanted the quotations in the thesis to be made from these books. I was curious if s/he would write a text similar to mine in style, if s/he were to read the books that influenced me. The result was a surprisingly similar text but still quiet distinct from mine in terms of style.

I should add that Magnificent Seven was also an attempt at an alternative collective, which was formed by splintering instead of convening. Moreover, it was a response from the other side of the Bosphorus to Beyoğlu, which is the cultural center of Istanbul.

Snapshot from a CSI-NY episode.

Özge: I would like to talk more about a word you used—similarity or resemblance. In In Patagonia After Bruce Chatwin (2009) and If Something Bad Happens It Happens To Me (2008), you create resemblances by impersonating others. By repeating stories, situations or rather by reenacting them, I think you are tackling the notion of singularity. Is this a counter position towards a system in which authenticity and originality are appraised?

Aslı: I don’t get excited about works that I have absolute control over. I think that type of works tend towards rhetoric. In the last couple of years, I have worked with film and performance because these media enable experimentation. I would not define In Patagonia After Bruce Chatwin and If Something Bad Happens It Happens To Me as reenactments. In these works, the emphasis is on the uniqueness of experience and not being able to be anything other than who you are. For example, In Patagonia After Bruce Chatwin begins like this: “I wish I were Bruce Chatwin.” Before or during adolescence, there are moments—possibly experienced by everyone—when you come to find yourself and understand that you cannot be anybody other than yourself. This comes with confusion and maybe with some disappointment. It is impossible that you be Bruce Chatwin, even if you perform every single action Chatwin describes in the book—you cannot be anybody but yourself.

Özge: In these works, you are somehow at the center, you are the one who performs these experiences, whereas in In Diverse Estimation a Little Moscow (2011), you work with nonprofessional actors to tackle the “Point Operation” [“Nokta Operasyonu”] in Fatsa, a trial of  the 12 September 1980 coup d’état. On the one hand, we are talking about your own experiences. On the other hand, you approach a historical event, which you didn’t experience but researched, through the experience of others.

Aslı: The film is about the impossibility of reenacting the experience of an autonomous local government experiment in Fatsa and the punishment by the state that followed. There are many fragmented stories of this experiment in Fatsa that is told in pieces by different people. Due to lack of resources and a wide discussion platform around the issue, many lived experiences have become myths and mixed with other stories. I tried to communicate this dehistoricized cacophony in the film.

Some of the people, who I worked with during the research, witnessed, or even participated in the local governance experience. Also, the cast we worked with consists of people from the younger generation, whose parents abstained from telling the history of Fatsa because of the trauma they have experienced. Most of them discovered this aspect/side of Fatsa, while the film was being shot.

Murder In Three Acts, film/performance, 2012. Commissioned by Frieze Projects. Photo by Taylan Mutaf.

Özge: While doing your research, you interviewed people that have lived through the “Point Operation”, and gathered their stories, and yet you decided to work with a cast from the younger generation once you were behind the camera. I don’t think you try to teach these young people—who have not lived or even heard of the Fatsa Operation—their own history. So I would like to deliberate on this choice a little. Why did you direct your camera towards the youth in Fatsa? Were you interested in the distanced performances that could emerge because they are so removed from the recent past?

Aslı: As it is customary in our country, the experience in Fatsa has been forgotten even though only 30 years have passed since its occurrence and of course, this was an important trigger for the project. Above all, I wanted to do something, when I witnessed the serious transformation of the spaces that were actively used during the local government period, and their detachment from their own histories like the people. The former Meat and Fish Administration [Et ve Balık Kurumu], where thousands of people were arrested and subjected to torture, is now a ruin that is waiting to be part of Ordu University. The project was triggered by a curiosity about the relationship of a generation—who is clueless about the prior function of a part of their school— would have with these spaces.

“Delivery6,” artist’s book, 2009 (detail).

Özge: In the film, we see abstracted, associative and remembered fragments of stories, which seem disconnected from each other. It is obvious that you evade a conventional documentary approach. Here I’m curious about the reason why you placed an informative text about the “Point Operation” in the beginning of the film, which is reminiscent of an encyclopedic format. Why did you want to create such a contradiction?

Aslı: Until the end of the 90s, it was prohibited to publish books on the Fatsa experience. When I was a high school student in the 1990s, I learned about the Fatsa experience and “the Point Operation” from the single book on the topic written by Pertev Aksakal, which I covered with a newspaper and read secretly. Pertev Aksakal’s book is not banned anymore and there is a dissertation by a Boğaziçi student, which is yet another resource on the topic. There is also the trial indictment, where the film’s title comes from. It is taken from the introduction of the badly written indictment and is used in a paragraph that defines Fatsa. However, there is no other material on the subject. On the one hand, in sources such as Wikipedia, it is a past historical event that has a hollow historical explanation, such as “The Battle of Sakarya”. On the other hand, there are residues of memories shared by people, who were leaders or witnesses to the event. To expose this contradiction, I wanted to provide two different types of knowledge, together.

Özge: Your research, enriched by reading the existing texts and by conducted interviews, reminds me of the meticulousness of a social scientist. Yet, in the work, instead of claiming to be objective and distant, you are interested in colliding different types of knowledge.

Aslı: With the convenience of producing art under the guise of science, I thought the film could reflect that information is in fragments. In this way, the process doesn’t only reflect what happened in Fatsa but goes one step further and inquires into how people’s memory functions or how memories had to function as defense mechanisms. People that we consulted, who insisted on staying in Fatsa after the event, are around 60-70 years old now. They had a difficult time finding some of the places where the events occurred, and there were even conflicts amongst them as they had different perspectives on the events. In the end, I wanted to remain true to the process of this experience, which I also became a part of, and to communicate it in this fragmented manner.

In Turkey, we are accustomed to moving on to the next item on the agenda without discussing anything in depth. Then, when you want to go back and look at it, you give up because either the resources are scarce or they are inaccessible.

Özge: What you have just said reminds me of the last scene of the film. Here, your camera shows a junction that connects 4 or 5 streets to each other and a car going in and out of them. We witness the driver entering each street with urgency and excitement but anxiously coming out of every single one. This creates the feeling that this person wants to go on fiercely but never knows which direction to go. The shots taken from a hilltop also call security cameras to mind.

Aslı: I wanted this scene to be an auto-portrait that conflates my experience, research, and the feeling of constantly taking a wrong direction in the research with the history of Fatsa.

Özge: This scene also seems to reflect your subjective view on recent history. Yet, instead of taking your own camera to Fatsa, you wanted to work with a large film crew. Can you elaborate on this particular decision?

Aslı: People, who made documentaries on Fatsa, shot guerilla style to keep the budget low and not to encounter any problems with the authorities. I wanted to go to Fatsa with a big film crew and bulky equipment because taking on this task with a larger crew and budget, without feeling the need to conceal, would subtly suggest that this issue is worthy of discussing without any shame and restraint.

“191/205,” 12” LP, 7’16” and list of words, 2010 (detail).

Özge: I see a similar concern in your work 191/205 (2009). For this project, you found 191 of the 205 words banned by the Turkish Radio and Television Corporation in 1985—including “memory”, “freedom”, and “equality”—and transformed them into a rap song, in collaboration with Fuat Ergin. You thereby channeled banned words into a popular medium. In other words, you reversed the condition of interdiction and forgetting by deciding to speak loudly about it. Can we say that you wanted to normalize the perception of these issues?

Aslı: We wanted to expose the abnormality of censorship; it is increasingly normalized as we encounter it so regularly. By producing the censored words in the form of a rap song, which could be listened to only as a rap song, the listener could remain clueless about its content. Whether you know the content of the project or not, you still realize that there is an act of civil disobedience as you sing along to the song and utter the banned words.

Özge: I am also curious about the differences between working alone and working collectively. For instance, how is this reflected in In Diverse Estimation a Little Moscow?

Aslı: Working with people that I didn’t know before towards a common goal of shooting a film, observing the particular balances in the community, where everyone is assigned defined tasks and occasionally intervening as a director, made me think that we experienced a small, communal experiment. The fact that people, who got along really well before the shooting, grew apart by the end allowed for a space of observation for me since we were also working with people, who got segregated politically after the local government experiment. The whole crew experienced the difficulty of coming together, even if it was for a professional goal. In this way, we were able to see what had been achieved in Fatsa from a different perspective.

Özge: One can say that you are questioning how lapses in memory can occur, what gets stored and preserved— especially in In Diverse Estimation a Little Moscow. When we think of these lapses and discontinuities, we confront the question of how we write (hi)stories. In your project, Words Dash Against the Facade (2011), presented in the Performa11 Biennial, there are again stories that you reconstruct from collected fragments. For this project, you organized a tour where you attempted to interpret building facades.

Aslı: For Words Dash Against the Facade, I departed from a fortune-telling system about which there isn’t much information. In this divination method that is said to be used in Ancient Greek, Sumerian and Babylonian

Civilizations, people interpreted building facades. I was curious about how far one could go in interpreting facades departing from such little information. The first building we tried to interpret was Hearst Tower—a skyscraper covered with reflective glass. Because the facade of the building constantly changed with the reflected image of the surroundings, it was a good starting point for telling fortunes from the facades. If you also consider that tools of divination have historically been reflective surfaces such as mirrors, cups filled with water, this was unavoidable as an introduction to ‘divination for beginners’.

We tried to interpret another facade through the windows. We tried to decode the windows as a musical score, in which the big windows correspond to a full note and the small ones to a half note. Then, we discussed the possibilities of reading/interpreting these musical notes diagonally or from left to right.

Here, I must say that I am interested in divination methods because they are based on certain systems. For instance, if you wanted to be the inventor of a divination system consisting of a dozen volcanic stones, you could create an interpretation system from how certain combinations of stones came side by side at a certain distance. As the interpretation system solidifies, as if you invented it, the interpretation arises from the system you created and become the suggestions of the stones. Fortunetellers say, “This is what the cards are saying” because they forget that they are the ones loading the cards with meaning. The act of consulting a fortuneteller is rather narcissistic in my opinion because it arises from the desire to hear that you continue to exist in the future.

“Words Dash Against the Façade,” performance, 2011. Commissioned by Performa11, NYC. Photo by Paola Court.

Özge: This makes me think about how inanimate objects tell stories. How do objects become witnesses instead of mere documents? Forensics or the divination systems you mention seem to blur the distinctions between subject/object and evidence/witness.

Aslı: What comes to mind first is of course archeology. In forensics, objects that are considered evidence at the murder site or dead bodies speak. The process of completion in this work is also very bizarre and hypothetical. As in Meno’s Paradox, how can you know that you found what you are looking for, if you don’t know what you are looking for?

Özge: Here we can go back to the art historian we talked about at the beginning of our conversation. In writing the “history of things”, how can we implicate the motivations for the making of objects in the historical narrative and what is the role of biography in this context? Your relationship with this artist book is significant right at this point. You are the artist analyzed in the book and you also are acting as the editor of this analysis.

Aslı: This is akin to an archeologist’s situation, who defines the shape of an artifact by integrating the fragments: one day, you may decide to substitute the shape of the integrated whole with another one. Likewise, I can think of my practice through different relationships as long as I continue to produce.

Özge: And how did commissioning texts from writers on your own work complicate these relationships?

Aslı: Considering that this book is both a monograph and an autobiography, one finds herself making suggestions on how to read the works. Archeologists, too, decide to dig a certain site based on their prejudices about the ancient culture that they are looking for and where it might be found, even depending on their ideological leanings. For example, the reason Germans played such an active role in the Boğazköy excavations in the 30s is the possibility of constructing a lineage with an Aryan race from Central Asia through a potential similarity with Hittites, thus demarcating their place of origin from the rest of Europe. Bruce Chatwin goes to Patagonia with a preconceived idea based on what he has read and heard. These sound like solutions to Meno’s Paradox. If you are lucky enough, you can find something else, while looking for something.