Letter from Şener Özmen

People watch ongoing fights in Kobanê from the surrounding hills. Photo by Savaş Boyraz. Originally published on October 11, 2014 on e-flux alongside Hito Steyerl's text "Kobanê Is Not Falling."

Below is a letter from artist Şener Özmen, dated October 8th, 2014. Özmen sent this text to the audience of a talk he planned to attend in Istanbul that day, which was a discussion between artist Hito Steyerl, curator Fulya Erdemci, and himself on Steyerl’s video “Is the Museum a Battlefield?” The talk was organized six weeks ago in the context of The Moving Museum’s “A Public Cycle: Nasılız? Nasılsınız?” and did not anticipate how that day would turn out. Based in Diyarbakır, Özmen was not able to leave the city because of the protests to support the resistance in Kobanê in northwestern Syria—an ongoing battlefield between ISIL and the People’s Protection Units (YPG)—, leaving thirty-three people dead throughout Turkey. Özmen’s letter opens up a discussion as to how the artists position themselves in institutional structures, and poses a question that Steyerl also articulates in her text “Kobanê Is Not Falling” published as an e-flux announcement on October 10th: “What is the task of art in times of emergency?” —Özge Ersoy

Dear friends,

I wouldn’t want to begin with an apology. As you know, today, on Wednesday, October 8th, upon Övül Durmuşoğlu’s invitation, Hito Steyerl, Fulya Erdemci, and I were going to discuss Hito’s video “Is the Museum a Battlefield?” at The Moving Museum, which Hito showed at the 13th Istanbul Biennial. We would perhaps go back to square one, and perform brand new readings. I’m not sure if we would watch the video again. But I think we would. As you also know, “Kobanê Protests” that have caught on like wildfire primarily in Diyarbakır and the neighboring cities and districts prevented me from attending the talk. Yesterday, I had to write to Hito, as well as to Fulya and Övül about the current situation, all day long. Tuesday morning, I inspired confidence in my son Robîn (i with the circumflex accent)—whom many from the art scene already know—that the day would be a beautiful one. I had a 7.15pm flight to Istanbul and wanted to spend more time with Robîn. This was part of our conversation:

Robîn: Why are you going to Istanbul?
Me: To give a talk…
Robîn: You can talk here…
Me: But I was invited to Istanbul and the talk is going to happen in Istanbul.
Robîn: That’s nonsense!
Me: Might be…. Do you want me to get you anything?
Robîn: I don’t want pens… (He’s talking about the pencils that Volkan Aslan and I got from ArtInternational.) Could be a toy, though…
Me: Like what?
Robîn: A tractor…
Me: OK…
Robîn: When are you going to be back?
Me: On Thursday night…
Robîn: How many nights does that make?
Me: Just a few…
Robîn: Are you going to talk alone?
Me: There is Hito, there is Övül, there is Fulya, you know them all…
Robîn: Hito and Övül have visited us before. Why didn’t they talk here and now you’re going there?
Me: Shall we go?

I held Robîn’s hand and took him to the new mall near our home, to the Dinosaurs exhibition. I took a couple of photographs with my cell phone. We hung out around the escalators, we wandered around the floors. There was not a soul around… It took us an hour or so. We went back home, reluctantly. On our way back, we saw a crowd in front of the building. They were collecting aid for Kobanê. Janitors were organizing the stuff that arrived there. We had prepared them in advance. I saw Zelal and our neighbor Müşerref by the stairs. They had taken the big sacks down. I walked into the market. 50 bags of pasta, a couple of bundles of diapers, milk, etc. We loaded up and went home. Robîn had questions: “For what? What happened? Why don’t they have homes?” I could only say, “There is a war…” Just because I know he would ask, “What are they fighting for?”, I say, “Because they don’t want us to live on our land…” There will be other questions—I don’t want to answer them anymore. It’s 7.15pm… There are a couple of more hours. Anyhow, I start getting ready—I don’t want to take much with me as I would stay for a short while. One, maximum two t-shirts… There is a hustle on the other side of the road. There is a light smoke. In a while, it thickens and grows. We are watching… The owner closes down his shop in broad daylight. Then I sense there is something wrong. There are rubber tires in the middle of the road that goes to the airport—they are burning. I talk to Övül on the phone. We write to each other… I say, “I will come.” I go down to see what is happening, and walk into the crowd. People turn cars upside down, the fire rises, they shout slogans… Hell breaks loose in an hour. The three-day-old baby of my sister-in-law, Arîn, is in our home. The smell of war reaches her tiny nose. We wanted to take baby Arîn and her mother in to our place since they’ve been tear-gassing Bayramoğlu. Then they have tear-gassed our neighborhood. We shut down the doors, the windows… This is nothing major—we are used to it. But guns… who are using the guns? I call Cengiz. He got stuck in Dağkapı. I then call Berat. And Erkan. My father was in Cizre. I call him. He says that they blocked the roads to Mardin. I give a call to Döne Otyam. They decided to postpone the Mardin Biennial. That’s fortunate. Everyone I call is stuck somewhere… We follow the news… When the night falls, tracer bullets explode, one after another. Automatic guns in some places in the city. There are explosions. I don’t know where. Hito and I write to each other. She says, “Stay with your family…” So does Fulya. I tell Övül that I can’t make it there. We are awake all night long. Halil calls, I talk to Azra. Süreyyya calls. Süreyyya also calls Cengiz. People are killed and wounded. We watch RUDAW, Med Nûçe… Then the governorate announces the curfew…

On Tuesday morning, I got up before everybody else and watched Hito’s “Is the Museum A Battlefield?” once again. Turkish subtitles on the left, and Kurdish subtitles on the right, translated by my dear friend Kawa Nemir. Where is the oligarchic wealth? Hito takes us to highlands in south of Van—to a battlefield there. To a rocky place on the slope of a mountain. 10-15 Cobras arrive… We see Hito as well. She is wearing a black t-shirt. A man talks about a German guerilla code named Ronahî (Daylight). There are traces from the fighting. Mekap shoes, şûtiks (waist belts), pots and pans… There are empty shells made by General Dynamics. Here it is, a museum… Previously, I said at my solo exhibition at Pilot Gallery, “Museum workers are immortal…” Hito deciphers and reveals—museums are the cultural spaces of the oligarchic wealth, and definitely a battlefield.

Just like that… I was a sophomore in high-school if I’m not mistaken. The military had decided that all the students would go to the garden of the municipality where they exhibited dead guerilla bodies. It was an awful sight. There were three dead bodies underneath the alcove. The commander stood on top of a stool and told us that our end will be similar to theirs. It was written PKK, with a ball-point pen, on the woman’s Mekap shoes. And there was a star. Half of her head was gone. No one cried. Who could cry anyway!? That was part of the education!

Robîn, my dear son, I apologize to you! Not once, not ten times…

Sincerely,
Şener Özmen

Wednesday, October 8, 2014
Diyarbakır

Translated from Turkish by Özge Ersoy