Discussing the Public through Can Altay’s Ahali

Display of the journal changes each time it is installed. Image from fai website.

Merve Ünsal

Ahali: An anthology for setting a setting, recently published by Bedford Press, is a set of selected contributions to the eponymous journal. Can Altay has been doing Ahali: a journal for setting a setting sporadically since 2007. From the get-go, the journal organically adapted to the context and the situation in which Altay was invited to present it, ranging from book fairs to exhibitions. In collaboration with Bedford Press, it was re-formulated as a book, shedding its zine-cum-journal aesthetic. The transliteration of the journal in the book form opens up new forms of dissemination and increases the urgency of this question: As the production of art is increasingly about setting up conditions and situations, then what is the positioning of the artist as editor?

The cover of Ahali: An anthology for setting a setting
The cover of Ahali: An anthology for setting a setting

The journal is an artist’s project and stems from Altay’s desire to share ideas and collaborate with other artists, writers, architects, “spatial” thinkers. The journal is thus a point of communication, or contact, that is presented in a spontaneous, low-production manner depending on the framework in which the journal is reproduced. While at a book fair, the presentation is setup as a print-it-yourself situation, presented with a printer and a stapler, in an exhibition format, the journal is treated as an object on display that transcends the invisible boundaries of the art work by inviting the viewers to form their own “journal” and leave the exhibition space with a copy. The journal provides the content for the book, while the time-specific nature of a journal—even if it is not a periodical—is essentially altered in the book format, producing a new context and a new specificity. The materially cheap form in which the journal is distributed is exactly what the book hinges on but is also divorced from through the “produced” form of the book. Furthermore, the binding—folded on the right side of the book and bound together at the spine, producing a sealed accordion—is a nod to the folded pamphlets of the journal, transformed between the two covers. This specific form of the design thus begs the question, could an anthology escape objectification or rather, staticness?

The dynamics of the journal is injected into the book through a couple of tropes. The editorial of the book is on the cover, an idea initially formulated for the journal; while the contents of the journal differed, depending on the collation of the viewer/reader, all of the issues from the same episode had the same cover. This is a critical gesture within the context of the book—the book is formulated through the initiative and the editorializing perspective of the author, which is anchored by having the editorial on the “outside.”  The transparency here by no means really opens up the editorial process but rather serves as an acknowledgment from the editor, grounding the entries that are brought together through his initiative, dialogue, and execution of the publication. This is precisely why the editorial here is not an introductory statement, but a text on the cover that frames and speaks to every contribution in the book.

Each of the contributions to the book is called an “essay.” The notion of trying, inherent in the form and etymology of the “essay” is crucial as Ahali tests out trials, both visual and verbal, through the rubric of the publication, interrogating the very form that it celebrates. The essays are gathered under “umbrella” terms such as “model-making”, highlighting the free-form associated with the essay, as well as the importance of adaptability of form in praxis. In other words, while the invitation from Altay clearly pulls the “entries” together, the freedom with which each contributor articulated their position is precisely what produces the compelling multi-positioned, praxis-based publication, distinguishing Ahali from a traditional anthology of essays. Ahali is uniquely positioned for representing an artist’s practice (Can Altay’s) as a journal collated from other thinkers’ work, which freezes Ahali at a certain time and place. In other words, this anthology is not necessarily an anthology of essays on the three sub-headings but rather is Can Altay’s work with Ahali here and now, a product of a specific collaboration with Bedford Press, interrogating the form of the definitive anthology.

Display of the journal changes each time it is installed. Image from fai website.
Display of the journal changes each time it is installed. Image from fai.

Another strategy is to include a contribution by Can Altay, in addition and in contrast to the editorial, situating the editor as one of the authors of the book. Altay’s “creative” input (“Becoming Globe”) complements his editorial position as he becomes one of the many authors. Altay’s contribution is in the memory of Hüseyin Bahri Alptekin, an artist who would have contributed to Ahali had he been alive. This essay is quite personal and addresses issues that Alptekin and Altay would have discussed in the context of Ahali; Altay gives voice to an absent dialogue. The complementary gesture of this essay highlights the dual position of Altay as the editor of the book and as a contributor to the book, taking ownership of a part that is from the position of Can Altay who is not editing the book; he becomes one of the voices that are brought together. This gesture reads as Altay’s way of distinguishing between his roles and is thus an important marker of the shifting positions he assumes in his practice.

The title of the book (and the journal) also points to an ever-evolving “situation” as Ahali is a Turkish word for a community specific to a time and place. Inherently, if the Ahali changes depending on the invitation and the umbrella theme, then the book will evolve into collections of essays that might vastly vary from the current one. Altay, in his editorial for the book differentiates “ahali” from “cemaat”, which is a community in the more traditional, general sense of the word. For me, “cemaat” denotes a less mindful coming together, a mass that has more of a body than a self-consciousness about their being together, whereas “ahali” is all about an aware presence, an affiliation that is perhaps claimed rather than given. The commonness that defines the contributors to Ahali is first and foremost defined by their relationship to Altay as all of the contributors were invited by the artist. The community formed by collaboration hinges on Altay, calling into question the very nature of collaborations and formings of groups, associations that spring from invitations. Ahali hosts Can Altay’s “ahali” and perhaps this organic, transparent way of editorializing an anthology is the “imperfectness” that makes this book appealing.

This specific relationship between the contributors and Ahali leads me to the questions: What are the productive conditions and spaces that the artist constructs through the format of the book? At what point does a publication become merely self-reflective, rather than self-reflexive? And what are the potentials liberated by readership, the public act of reading? At the end of the day, making a book is sharing; Can Altay extends his “ahali” to form a new one among his readers, his exhibition spaces shift to be bound between the covers of the book, all of which identify a critical perspective on the nature of viewership that will evolve to include the next episode of this editorial project, be it a book, an exhibition, or something else.

Ahali: An Anthology for Setting a Setting
Can Altay
With contributions by Agency, Bik Van der Pol, Celine Condorelli, Chris Evans, Luca Frei, Mike Nelson, Nils Norman, Paul O’Neill and others.
Designed by Future Anecdotes Istanbul
Bedford Press
June 2013, English
21 x 14.8 cm, 174 pages, b/w with ills
ISBN 978-1-907414-26-8