Conversation: Köken Ergun with Özge Ersoy
Köken Ergun’s work, which I have been following for the last ten years, has always pushed me to question how the camera intervenes into an event and change the social dynamics. After all, how does the camera record the conditions of belonging or even alter them? Köken and I met a few times in the last year and recorded our conversations. Below is an edited version of these extensive discussions. —Ö.E.
Özge Ersoy: Let’s start with your most recent project Young Turks (2013–2015) to discuss how your agency as an artist with a recording camera has changed since I, Soldier, the two-channel video you made in 2006. As of this moment, Young Turks is exhibited at Garage Museum of Contemporary Art in Moscow, where the installation is centered around a two-channel film projection.  In this film, you look at students and teachers who are part of an international network of Turkish schools—which are active in more than 100 countries worldwide—, and document the Turkish Language Olympics, organized back in Turkey, where students from these schools compete in reciting poems and singing songs in Turkish, or performing Turkish folk dances, etc.
For me, there are two conceptual threads in the video. The first one starts with foreign children who prepare for the Olympics in their home country. It continues with the teachers who assist them, the schools that facilitate these interactions, and finally we have you, looking at this particular structure. I think you have a rather distant, observant role here—it’s not easy to figure out your own position about the Turkish schools, their de facto diplomatic mission, their soft power, or what constitutes a culture that is “typically Turkish” for that matter. The second thread starts with foreign children, as well. It continues with the audience who watch these children performing on stage, and ends with you watching the audience with your camera. I believe your interest lies in the multiple acts of watching rather than the politics of this structure.
Köken Ergun: The Turkish schools of the Gülen community are part of an expansionist project, and the Olympics are the popular face of this expansion.  The Olympics promote activities of the Turkish schools to the Turkish public who are expected to support their expansion in return. The Olympics are also an extension of universal expositions that started in the 19th century—but a smaller and rudimentary version of it. Think about it: This is the opportunity for non-passport holding middle class citizens to see the rest of the world, just like how it was with the universal expositions in the past.
At the Olympics in Izmir, Turkey, the interplay between curiosity and proximity results in most interesting interactions between the host and the “others.” You see women squeeze Ugandan boys’ cheeks, congratulating them for speaking Turkish eloquently, or applause for their folk dance moves, etc. This is what I look at in this project—how people interact and show their feelings in these gatherings. I’m not interested in documenting how the Gülen Movement functions or how Turkey pursues expansionist politics, but rather how these projects are consumed or interpreted by ordinary people. This is why I have a lot of close-ups of the audience as well as fairgoers. What I’m interested in is the aesthetics of this expansionist project.
Özge: The audience in Izmir consists mostly of women. In one of the peak moments of the film, your camera captures a middle-aged woman who holds a sign that reads, “This has been our dream.” She has tears in her eyes and a euphoric expression in her face. She seems to take the ownership of the Olympics, she’s proud, and it looks like she’s been waiting for that moment for a while.
Köken: She held that sign for almost two hours, crying silently. No one gave her strange looks. What is it that she’s so proud of? I’m not sure if it’s only about Ugandan boys performing Turkish folkloric dances. It feels to me that she is almost “religiously” proud of a bigger narrative carried on by her country. Holding that banner throughout the event, she must have felt like a flagbearer of this expansionism.
But when you talk to people who work for the Gülen schools abroad, you realize they want to have a softer and friendlier attitude compared to the old colonial powers. In Kenya you have the Austrian School, the French School, but Gülen schools are not called Turkish schools; the one I filmed in Nairobi is called the Light Academy for example. Some teachers are aware of the criticism towards them, that there is a somewhat colonial agenda behind their schools, but they emphasize that they’re against such policy or practice. I assume that popular activities like the Turkish Olympics are made in order to promote this soft approach/face. But whether it transfers to the outside world like that is another matter.
There is an enormous organization behind the Olympics. Hundreds of people work for it throughout the year. Art directors travel to a different country every week, musicians record songs with big orchestras, and teachers produce custom-made choreographies for students/performers. On the one hand, you have this extremely rigorous structure in order to highlight a soft and universalist approach. On the other hand, you have the reaction of the audience back in Turkey, who receives these efforts, I believe, in a completely different way. I’m interested in the interplay between these two and the bizarre spectacle it produces.
In the video, I show people wandering around the fair, holding taxidermized crocodiles, smelling vanilla beans—items that are brought from far away countries where the Turkish schools have reached, sometimes even before the Turkish embassies. As I said before, this is not dissimilar to the interactions at the 19th century universal expositions. That said, in Izmir, you don’t see a human “zoo” where people throw bananas and nuts at foreign students—there’s a rather new type of interaction here: People take zillions of selfies with these kids. There’s a moment in the film where you hear an announcement that says, “Please don’t touch African children too much,” while they’re trying to take photographs with them. This is exactly what I’m looking at—how the middle-class Turks deal with the rest of the world, how they struggle with their inferiority complex, and how all of this turns into a spectacle.
Özge: The reception of the Olympics is fragmented through different cameras, including your shaky hand camera, your Director of Photography’s camera on a tripod, the camera of the organization on the crane, and hundreds of cell phones that record what’s happening on the stage at the same time. I wonder where you position yourself in this network of the act of watching. After all, you focus on the audience but you still want your DOP to film the stage.
Köken: Yes, the Olympics are highly documented public events. The multiplicity of these documentations makes me inquire about my own position with the camera in particular and the position of the arts in life in general. The more I make films, the more I question this position. But, nevertheless, I remain to be of the many cameras in any event I shoot. Maybe in the next project, I might turn the camera directly to myself to challenge this. But at the moment I choose to document and to represent.
In Young Turks, I chose to work with two synchronized cameras and later to show them as a two-channel synchronized video. My camera was recording the audience’s reactions when they’re watching the performance on stage, documented by another camera on a tripod. There was a moment when the presenter on the stage said, “We are so grateful to you because you sent your sons from all over Anatolia to Africa.” This is precisely where I wanted to see how people had silent tears in their eyes—this is the detail I’m looking for. And to be able to represent this moment to the audience I needed to show them both the action and the reaction, at the same time.
In the future, if I want to challenge “representation” all together, I will probably look for a different approach, and maybe that approach will be omitting the camera completely.
Özge: I would like to think that your interest in the Olympics is related to the symbols, images, and materials produced as part of a ritual, which is a recurring theme in your practice. If we go back to your earlier videos, in I, Soldier (2005) and The Flag (2006), you focus on public ceremonies, documenting the rituals of strong, established institutions such as the state or the armed forces. In these works, you are quite distanced from your subject; you rather observe them from a distance. I think that the way you inquire about rituals changes after these works. You turn your camera to immigrants’ weddings in Berlin (Wedding, 2006–2008), Filipinos in Tel Aviv (Binibining Promised Land, 2009–2010), Caferi Shiites in Istanbul (Ashura, 2010–2012), and most recently the Turkish Olympics (Young Turks). The common denominator is that these groups are somehow marginalized in the larger community they live in, and that you spend time with them, following their respective rituals for months. How do you think your perception of rituals has changed over time, through these works?
Köken: For me, rituals are the key to understand society. But my interest in rituals started with an attempt to understand myself. Let me start with I, Soldier (2005, 7 min.). I shot this video at a stadium in Istanbul on May 19th, the National Day for Youth and Sports in Turkey. It looks like a simple documentation of the ceremonies but I believe there’s a sense of revenge and resistance against the state discourse and discipline in this video. I was 28 years old at that time, and I was desperately trying to say, “I’m not one of you.” In the video, there are long moments of close-ups of a high-ranking soldier’s face. Why did I make this choice? I can’t answer it easily but it might have to do with my fascination with macho attitudes in men, it might have to do with me being gay. But at that time, I didn’t realize that there was something to do with my own emotions.
There was a similar sense of revenge in The Flag (2006, 9 min.) that I shot on April 23rd, the National Sovereignty and Children’s Day. This time, there was a strategy behind it, in the sense that I wanted to have a second national celebration to complement I, Soldier. So it was a professional decision, not an intuitive one—it was the first time that I aestheticized my experience. I see this as the first moment of my “degeneration,” as this was the attitude of a professional artist. The word “degeneration” doesn’t have to have negative connotations. I mean that with this decision I included myself into the system of artistic production and started to take decisions somewhat informed by the norms of the art world, as I perceive it.
After I finished these videos, I moved to Berlin and something changed in me there. Although I spent a lot of time living abroad before, mainly in New York and in London, they were not permanent stays, but my moving to Berlin was to stay and for the very first time in my life I felt like a foreigner, a guest, a being without a country. I felt what we call gurbet for the first time.  So when I wanted to make a new work there, I intuitively looked at an immigrant community. I started going to weddings of Turkish and Kurdish people there, and in the end I produced a three-channel video installation. This was a professional decision too, due to my ongoing fascination with Eija Lissa Ahtila’s work, which I saw for the first time at Okwui Enwezor’s Documenta in 2002. My background is theater, so I was also interested in the theatricality, in the idea of stage, in dance, in make-up, in the movement that dominates these celebrations.
The theme of gurbet continued when I started going back and forth to the Levant.  This geography is full of dislocated people. I encountered the Filipino community in Lebanon for the first time. I made a work about them in Israel, titled Binibining Promised Land (2009–2011, 38 min.). It was while doing this project that I became aware of the fact that I wasn’t only making work about a certain social group, which remained unseen in the greater society but also the very process of my “bonding” with that group was part of the work itself.
I was in Tel Aviv for a residency when I came across this fantastic poster of a Filipino beauty pageant to take place inside the main bus station. I immediately contacted the organizer from the phone number written on the poster, introducing myself as a filmmaker who wants to see and maybe film what they are doing. The voice on the other side of the phone just said: “Sure! Come tomorrow, my friend.” The next day I found myself at their rehearsals in an ordinary corridor of that giant complex. I just observed what they were doing without filming. An hour into the rehearsals we became “best friends.” Two hours into it, the girls invited me for dinner at their shared apartment. Three hours later we were making noodle soup at a cramped flat for a group of 50 Filipinos; all of them guest workers working all around Israel, mostly as caregivers. I was enjoying myself tremendously and felt extremely comfortable in their company. They said the same for my company. Somewhere in between I started taking photos but it was more for them to put on Facebook than for me to use them in an art project. I forgot about the film camera altogether. I think I even left it there before we went out to the church for the evening service. After that, as a larger group, we went back to the bus terminal and partied until the morning.
Then I started meeting them every Saturday afternoon—the start of their off-day—, and hanging out with them in various joints inside the bus station until Sunday afternoon when they would board buses and head of back to the cities or towns where they worked. I was also helping them to organize the beauty pageant and other events, which I documented with my camera. This footage would compose my film Binibining Promised Land. But I felt that the time I spent with them and the interaction we had was actually the most important thing. I realized that this was becoming the main characteristic of my art(istic) practice. I also thought that the audience of the film would not be able to feel that interaction between us and this was the first time I questioned representation. I thought about leaving representation altogether. In other words, leave art, because I believed that the process was more fun and satisfying than the end product—the artwork. But now I think differently. As much as the artwork about a people will not really represent that people or my experiences with them, and certainly not all of the personal transformation I lived through that process, it still has a value as something to be made and shared. In fact, all the social groups that have been subjects of my works wanted to be known and seen by a wider public. This leaves me with a sort of duty and this has to be carried out with a certain ethic that affects both sides.
Anyway, at this point in my life, I can say that rituals and the “art” that I do about them are tools for me to bond with different social groups. This enriches my life experience.
Özge: You mention that you like to become friends with the people we see in your videos, that you like to keep in touch with them after the work is finalized. For me, that type of friendship starts on an uneven base, because you have the camera in your hand, which immediately creates a power hierarchy. So I tend to find your statement a bit naïve, for lack of a better word. After all, you’re the one who selects the images, who decides on the sequence, and ultimately who shows them in a format you want, also choosing your audience. So I’d like to go back to this issue. How do you negotiate the power dynamic that the camera introduces immediately?
Köken: This is an issue that has to be evaluated case by case. What you’re saying is a generalization too. Not all interactions formed through the camera have to be selfish and calculating acts. Let me talk about Ashura (2010-2012, 20 min.) here. In this work, you see me filming some members of the Caferi community in Istanbul rehearsing for the day of Ashura when they perform a reenactment of the Battle of Karbala. However, I didn’t start this work with a camera in my hand. I first watched the Ashura rituals for some time, and then I called them to say that I wanted to meet them. We met and stayed in touch for about six months when I started building friendships with some members of the community. It was with these friends that I discussed how to best document their ceremonies, which led the way for them to invite me to their rehearsals from the beginning, a month before the day of Ashura. In the first two weeks, I went there without a camera and met many people from the neighborhood. Their religious leaders greeted me saying “You are one of us now.” When I felt it was the right time to shoot, I asked them if I could bring my camera with me. Some were surprised, and some complained about me not bringing my camera beforehand. They also wanted to be seen by other people. I believe I have built that relationship of trust through my personal experience. In other words, I created an ethical proximity with my subjects through interactive cognition, not with a general idea of ethics that I carried from outside.
Köken Ergun, Ashura, 2010–2012. Three channel video installation with sound. Courtesy of the artist.
Özge: I’m also curious about how the events you record change with your presence there with your camera. There’s a breaking point in Ashura where you move away from the event, the rehearsal, and turn your camera to the backstage. Something crucial happens here. A young man looks directly into the camera and asks you, “Do I look handsome, brother?” Here you make your presence visible to the viewer for the first time.
Köken: I think that moment is the climax of Ashura. Something really shifts when the camera no longer produces a distance between the subject and myself. At that moment we are almost deleting the camera from our experience: I’m no longer the director or the artist but someone close to them, an insider, and also someone from the group I’m creating a representation of. The artist as the tool of representation is no longer instrumentalized. There is always a way to make the camera disappear.
Özge: I’d like to ask you how we could think about rituals with and through art forms. How could art contribute to the ways we discuss the inexhaustible need for rituals and social customs in today’s world?
Köken: I think rituals preceded culture and religion. Over time, they evolved into culture, religion and even arts. Then these broke into fractions: “our” religion, “their” religion, etc.
There is still a need for new myths and rituals, even in communities where spirituality doesn’t play an essential role in social life anymore. Some German scholars see theater as a ritual for communities where religion is no longer dominant. I agree with that. For example Wagner’s Bayreuth festival has become a ritualistic act for the followers of his mythology inspired theatre experience. Everyone who goes to Bayreuth knows the plot of The Ring by heart, and there is almost nothing new except for the interpreters. They attend the performances with a sort of spiritual commitment, to experience the performance once again and also to be in the “special,” church-like environment—the theatre that Wagner built himself. The whole experience of Bayreuth has so many codes, repetitions, rules, forms, and invariances—all characteristics of rituals. Lights go off, ouverture, act 1, intermission, long picnic lunch outside, a certain type of food eaten, certain dresses worn, etc. There are so many forms that resemble rituals in the general sense. You can even think about clubbing as one of the modern rituals, with its specific codes and repetitions. So when art looks at rituals, it is actually looking at its origins.
Özge: I’m thinking about a conversation with philosopher Boris Groys, where he says that both contemporary art and contemporary religion use the same tropes and tools, such as digital networks, performances, the principle of participation, and the combination of texts and images.  Both are interested in the audience, in the public sphere, and both have the claim of immortality if we think of art’s emphasis on conversation, restoration and reproduction. Do you agree with this argument?
Köken: Omar Kholeif and I discussed this previously.  I’m someone who believes that art and religion have more in common than arts and science. So I agree with Groys to a certain extent. But I think it’s too soon to think that the arts can turn into a religion. There are of course ritualistic aspects in the arts, such as museum-going or opera going. But when you look at the history of religions over 1,000 years, contemporary art is too young of a phenomenon to be called a religion. I think Enlightenment is a much more powerful religion in and of itself. Contemporary art could be only a small extension of that. But there are positions that challenge that view, too. I mean the position of seeing contemporary art as a secular and enlightened practice.
In 2015, I participated in an exhibition titled “Rainbow in the Dark” (curated by Sebastian Cichocki and Galit Eilat in collaboration with SALT, Istanbul).  The curators suggested inquiring into the power of popular religious and spiritual imagination and what kind of a role this played in artistic production in recent years. They found out that there are “religious” artists too. It was one of the rare contemporary art exhibitions that looked into religion with and without a critical approach at the same time. In fact some works were looking at the Enlightenment with a critical approach.
Özge: To me, it looks like neither religion nor contemporary art offers salvation, but both articulate themselves around a sense of belonging, i.e. participation and community-building. I wonder if it’s possible to build collective subjects, through either of them. Or how could contemporary art complicate the way we think about the potential of that collective subject?
Köken: There has always been a need to act collectively—religions and rituals are both ways of touching and living together. But our contemporary codes are rather individualistic. It’s a struggle to get involved in the collective. This happened in Tahrir, Tel Aviv, New York, and Istanbul, but we’re not exactly sure how to continue. That’s why it might be useful now to think about and understand the collective defined in religions. Scholar and mystic Ibn-ül Arabi changed the way I look at these issues. He likens belief to a wall and the prophets to the bricks that make it up, along with the people. I like the sense of patience and perseverance here. This is the collective attitude.
Both religion and art use abstraction: there’s a belief in and an aesthetic attachment to abstract things. Religion has been hijacked and misled to strictly organizational and rigid structures as in the case of the hierarchy of the Church in Christianity. Much of the old religions have lost their promise of a universal collectivism that had never been rigidly defined but was in fact grew pretty emotionally as well as collectively at the time. People are in search of new ways of establishing a collective. Why shouldn’t art lead the way?
January 2015–February 2016, Istanbul
Köken Ergun, I, Soldier, 2006. Two channel video installation with sound. Courtesy of the artist.
 Developed by Garage Museum of Contemporary Art (Moscow) and Protocinema (Istanbul and New York), this exhibition is the first comprehensive presentation of the project.
 This primarily religious community is led by the reformist Turkish-Muslim preacher Fethullah Gülen, who has been living on a secluded compound in rural Pennsylvania since 1998 when he faced imprisonment in Turkey by the military backed judiciary. Along with a global network of schools in over 100 countries, the movement also runs a media empire and several business organizations. Since their initiation, the movement has always attempted to ally itself with the state, gradually becoming a part of the Turkish Republic’s strategy of international dominance.
 Absence from home, in Turkish.
 The Levant is an approximate historical geographical term referring to a large area in the Eastern Mediterranean, including Cyprus, Syria, Jordan, and Palestine, among other countries.
 “A Conversation Between Boris Groys and Maria Hlavajova: In the Absence of the Horizon,” The Return of Religion and Other Myths, eds. Maria Hlavajova et al. (Utrecht: BAK, 2009), 73–81.
 “Who’s Afraid of Religion?: Köken Ergun in conversation with Omar Kholeif” Ibraaz, 8 May 2014, www.ibraaz.org/interviews/133.
 For more information, see: saltonline.org/en#!/en/959/karanlikta-gokkusagi.
Edited by Merve Ünsal
Köken Ergun (b. 1976, Istanbul) studied acting at the Istanbul University and completed his postgraduate diploma degree in Ancient Greek Literature at King’s College London, followed by an MA degree on Art History at the Bilgi University. After working with American theatre director Robert Wilson, Ergun became more involved with video and film. His multi-channel video installations have been exhibited internationally at institutions, including Palais de Tokyo, Stedelijk Museum Bureau Amsterdam, KIASMA, Digital ArtLab Tel Aviv, Casino Luxembourg, Protocinema, Wilhelm Hack Museum, SALT, and Kunsthalle Winterthur. His film works have received several awards at film festivals including the “Tiger Award for Short Film” at the 2007 Rotterdam Film Festival and the “Special Mention Prize” at the 2013 Berlinale. Ergun’s works are included in public collections such as the Centre Pompidou, the Greek National Museum of Contemporary Art, and the Kadist Foundation.
Özge Ersoy is a curator and art writer based in Istanbul. She is the program manager of collectorspace and the managing editor of m-est.org. ozgeersoy.tumblr.com