with the breath of the wind like a small cloud

Supported by the SAHA Art Initiatives Sustainability Fund 2021-22, m-est.org will publish a series of texts focusing on the weather reporting of the respective locations where the invited artists and writers are based. The series intends to address the artistic strategies to measure, report, fabulate, and tell stories about the weather, air flows, circulation, and other high to low pressure aspects of our practices and cities. The texts will be accompanied by talks and lectures between spring 2022 and spring 2023.

We start this series with a text by artist Merve Ünsal, the founding editor of m-est.org. She discusses the wind as a recurring idea, a traveling sound, a familiar storyteller, an unexpected embrace. Merve’s piece sets the tone for the series that delves into ideas in progress and intimate exchanges we rely on to support each other’s practice. —Özge Ersoy

Merve Ünsal

My maternal grandmother passed away this past August. We buried her on a scorching day, admonished by the men in the family when our headscarves slipped or when a bare shoulder was revealed—all five foot one inches of her would have been furious if she were there. At one point in the afternoon after the funeral, my younger sister, my mother, and I were sitting in a small room to be able to be sad without anyone asking us to fetch a coffee, when suddenly the wind blew the window open, and I was certain for a brief moment that my grandmother had arrived in her new form. Her fast-paced walking, probably developed in response to the fetchings of coffees and hasty coverings of shoulders, re-emerged in this cooling wind, clearly contrasting with the heat of Ankara in August, revitalizing and chastising us for having shut ourselves up in a room in her home. Then and there, the wind became our much-beloved matriarch, playful and full of life, lifting skirts and unburdening heavy hearts.

The funeral home1, a site of often conflicting stories, gendered, fractioned, generationed, is further complicated by the host, my grandfather. During those days right after her loss, he uttered this sentence: “The wind blew, the tent trembled, and my mother died.” The undeniable physicality, the penetration of the wind as an invisible, all-encompassing element that shakes, trembles a structure that shelters, is jarring. The causality that his mind constructed between the wind and the death makes sense—being killed by homesickness is overspoken, dying after a tent trembles is material, defying description, it is that and that only, perhaps corresponding much better to the loss of a mother.2

In 2017, I traveled to Fogo Island in Canada, located on the eastern shore to the Atlantic Ocean, for an artist’s residency. Having grown up in a big city, I found myself in an incredibly unfamiliar landscape upon arrival. During this residency, I stayed in a wooden house for the first time and this house was located right next to the ocean shore. I was on Fogo Island in November, which, I later found out, was the season of the winds. And the house rattled with the winds from the ocean, all the time. I would either have to come to terms with this constant soundtrack—a luxury, I kept telling myself, compared to the urban cacophony of sounds that I’m used to in Istanbul—or, I failed to articulate the alternative. Having recently watched Twin Peaks for the first time before traveling to Fogo, my companion-ghost became the giant, whom I decided was rattling the house by going up and down the stairs. I tried to imagine the sounds of the house to be linked to sharing the house with him, a gentle, benevolent giant. Solitude3 and the idyllic image of artistic productivity were completely escaping me as I spent most of my time there trying to figure out which sound came from where and why. I’m realizing now that this was the beginning of an act of tuning in or synchronizing the howlings, figuring out a way to be entrenched should a disharmony arise, learning to live and stay with the rattle.

I had been invited to the residency to work on a text that would look at the impact and overuse of militaristic words such as project and trajectory in texts on contemporary art. I began my work by reading Hannah Arendt. Her articulation of the anti-utilitarian struck home: she describes the anti-utility of the Nazis, who moved millions of Jews and “setup costly extermination factories. In the midst of a strictly utilitarian world the obvious contradiction between these acts and military expediency gave the whole enterprise an air of mad unreality.”4 The howling wind on Fogo Island thus became a text on sitting with pain5 and its hosting bodies as something that artistic practice can hope to achieve. As I started to see a tenuous link between utility, anti-utility, and the shroud of ambiguity that language helps weave, I thought about how passing on6 is often obstructed in the family context; while tendernesses and smells and recipes and wisdoms are disposed readily, what one feels about something or what they remember can feel withdrawn, partially concealed. (Perhaps family is the very shroud of ambiguity that is required for self-preservation and death is the knot that holds it all together?)7 The cupboards that we dove into were entangled intersections of temporalities, persons, hopes, projections, concealments and I felt like a naive voiceover in my own narrative, doomed to be entrapped by ellipses.

My grandmother always spoke of the nine joints in the throat; she always warned us to think before speaking at least nine times. I always thought that this was a survival mechanism that she had developed in response to living in a patriarchal household. Now I consider this warning more gently, as I don’t consider the nine joints to be filters—they are tight embraces, caresses that can guide the unspeakables into forms that can be attuned to and perhaps be heard by nine entities. Each of the nine times was not to eliminate what was to be spoken; nine did not refer to levels of articulation, but rather the ability to hear and to hear better the utterance so as to be one with each other. In shaping my practice to think about and through difficult pasts and presents, my grandmother’s nine joints guide me now to treat them as stations of hearing, listening, and only then speaking.

Zareh Khrakhuni, a poet writing in Armenian, had written a poem called “Departure” to be published posthumously. The poem resonates with me now as it speaks about being dragged into the unknown with the breath of the wind like a small cloud.8 This poem gives a body to the wind. The wind breathes and is not a breath itself and the wind’s breathing can then perhaps turn whispers into scoldings into repentance in a horrible misplaying of a game of telephone. Imagining the embodiment of the wind facilitates understanding an entanglement of bodies, temporalities, spaces, and entities and the wind thus becomes more than an element that landscapes are subjected to. And as a body, it would be as fallible as other bodies that I know.

Guided by the specters of the nine joints and the breathing wind, this past September, I built With the Wind. With the Wind is a radio transmission. Installed on SAHA Studio’s balcony and constructed from locally-derived materials, the wind-catcher made of repurposed ventilation pipes is from where the transmission is made. The transmission has two channels: the first channel is the sound of the air passing through the wind-catcher and the second is the sound recordings collected from various media channels including TV and radio from Turkey in which sets of words are collated about Taksim and its surroundings. The sound recordings are realigned constantly. The wind is utilized as an element that carries, narrates, and collects; With the Wind is added onto the already-existing infrastructure of the air vents in the studio space, with which I search for the possibility of radio transmissions to be embedded in a place. Using the method of montage to expand language, I attempt to oblige the already-existing transmissions to be reconstructed. This work is also an articulation of my wondering what site-specificity can mean, now. Near an increasingly policed Taksim Square, I hold on to the narratives and whispers about what the square has been and what the square can become, knowing and appreciating that there is no linear text that can be written about this place; the best I can hope for is to hold my ear against the ground, the trees, the walls, the winds that carry, the winds that erode.

It was this budding self-consciousness about space that accompanied me on a research trip to Mardin in November 2021. This particular corner of Anatolia on the border with Syria is charged with layers of violent history (is it acceptable to draw comparisons in terms of the level of violence? Is this like the Richter scale? Trying to determine at what point things begin to crack and rumble?). I tried to eavesdrop and to be within the earshot of as many things as possible. The generosity of the local community that embraced meandering artists led to the telling of many stories, both personal and overheard. (Overhearing is a critical part of artistic research that we can’t always footnote.)

There is so much water in Mardin; water seeps through the walls, forms pools underneath our feet. The old part of the city is interconnected through a web of wells and I am told by someone that wells are signs of previous life, that if there is a well without a building attached to it, that means there used to be a building there. We speak into the wells and record the echoes of our voices, we make sounds, we throw things in to see how deep each well is. The hollowness of the sounds is both impressive and terrifying, not unlike the trembling impact of the wind, making the familiar unfamiliar.

My now 92-year-old grandfather has been losing his hearing over the course of his life, relying for hearing aids in one ear and he has lost his hearing completely in the other. Trying to imagine what not hearing was like for my grandfather, I always imagined a howling in his mind instead of a void and that he would be tuning in to some of those howls when he paid attention. (I would notice a coming into focus whenever he comprehended something he heard.) If listening9 is an act of tuning in and attuning to, adjusting the sounds inside so as to be able to take in the sounds penetrating and permeating our lidless ears, then narratives, accounts, testimonials are settled into and embedded in that state of tuning. In the construction of memories, the nine joints serve to open up, becoming omni-joints. The wind reaches up through the throat and into the ear, grasping at the trembling air particles as languages and times stumble, airs of unreality coming in and coming out, thresholds dissipate.

This text is available in Turkish thanks to Çağla Özbek’s translation, here.

Merve Ünsal, With the Wind, 2021. In collaboration with Gizem Bengisu Erenler and Kerem Altaylar. Repurposed venting pipes, metal wire, polyurethane foam, speakers, microphone. Installation view from SAHA Studio Open, Istanbul, October 2021. Photo by Kayhan Kaygusuz.

Endnotes

1 “Like other things, these gifts of memory move along specific routes, raveling and unraveling worlds in the process. Memory does or doesn’t transfer across space (as organized kinds of places) and time (in the sense of generational logics), and it is here that we can see, perhaps most clearly, that gifts can be given long after the spherical world in which they make sense has collapsed. And gifts can return from a world not yet fully made to a world long since passed away. If these are the gifts of death, then gifts of death are indeed the condition for true beginnings.”
—Elizabeth Povinelli, “Routes/Worlds,” e-flux journal, September 2011

2 In William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, the dead mother is an absent protagonist, signified but unarticulated verbally as the drawing of a casket in the first few pages of the book. The emptiness of that shape, the hollowness resonates with my grandfather’s tent.

3 “I could not sleep for a long time after that day. The image of the sound and the sound itself had been separated from each other; the only remaining thing from the Gardener were the dogs.” —Sema Kaygusuz, Karaduygun, 25 [translation my own from the original in Turkish]

4 Hannah Arendt, Origins of Totalitarianism, 445. New York: Meridian Books, 1962.

5 Pain as a symptom of outgrown attachments (whether you outgrow, or the times or the context outgrows you) in which case the inability to let go/to jump ahead/to adapt causes pain.

6 I’m thinking of dear Nancy Atakan’s use of the term passing on here and what that has meant for her practice.

7 “is to sew yourself into your own shroud using the tiniest of stitches
how to translate this?
I take inspiration from John Cage who, when asked
how he composed 413311, answered
“I built it up gradually out of many small pieces of silence”
Antigone, you do not,
any more than John Cage, aspire to a condition of silence
you want us to listen to the sound of what happens
when everything normal/ musical/ careful/ conventional or pious
is taken away”
—Anne Carson, Antigonick, 5-6. New York: New Directions, 2012.

8 I accessed the poem in Turkish, translated from the original Armenian.

9 “Her style of recitation was intelligent, for it presupposed the existence of the poem whose words she was speaking as a whole which had been in being before, she opened her mouth, a whole of which we were hearing merely a fragment, as though for a few moments, as the actress passed along a road, she had happened to be within earshot of us.” —Marcel Proust, Time Regained, 456