When Does Orange Become Red: A Conversation with Elmas Deniz

The series of texts we launched in April 2022 at m-est.org where artists interpret weather reports continues with an interview with the artist Elmas Deniz. Our conversation was shaped by an effort to describe the pressure areas we inhabit. This text, which can also be read as the negotiation between the artist’s desire to represent the world they live in with the responsibility of to sense and to keep records, takes me to another text that Elmas and I produced in collaboration: In our Self-Doubt performances in 2016, we asked each other whether the source of our anxiety could be entirely from within. We both continue to think about the possibility of trying to describe together—adopting the sharing, transmitting, passing on as a method—, which lies at the core of the act of reporting.

Commissioned for the World Weather Network, a constellation of weather stations located across the world, and with the invitation of SAHA – Supporting Contemporary Art from Turkey, this series addresses 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. At m-est.org, we prioritize and host artistic responses to ideas of change, crisis, and future, focusing on various elements of the weather as an embodiment at the intersection of bodies, peoples, and landscapes. —Merve Ünsal 

Elmas Deniz, A Conversation at the Isle of Mollusks, 2020. Video, 15’.

Merve Ünsal: When we first discussed this interview, you said you wanted to begin with Atmospheric Disturbances (2008) by Rivka Galchen. At the heart of the book is the idea that meteorological states can describe people’s moods. Another idea is that meteorologists’ methods and interpretations may not match reality, and there are differences between data and reality. Let’s start by talking about this book. What does it mean to you that the weather is portrayed as a flexible reality?

Elmas Deniz: The quote on the first page of Galchen’s book is valuable to me: “We cannot tell what the weather will be tomorrow (or the next hour) because we do not know accurately enough what the weather is right now.” While the weather is constantly changing, we try to stop and freeze some moments and try to describe them. Perhaps a new epistemology is needed for all components of ecology—a new philosophy that belongs to the realm of things intangible and ungraspable but still exists, moving, in motion.

For example, clouds are made up of water droplets. They’re transparent and disappear when you get up close. Our experience is quite different when we are inside them. Looking at them from a distance, we describe their shapes and call them amorphous. The weather itself, climate, and ecology coincide with things that we cannot easily comprehend in forms that are not clear. The representation of reality has always intrigued me. It has always made me think that we try to freeze, fragment, and name things that have continuity and flow. For example, is the river separate from the plants and stones in its bed? Is it just water? Is rain just the water between the cloud and the ground? What does it turn into when it falls to the ground? When does orange become red?

The relationship between data and reality always brings to mind the example of Werner Herzog’s phone book. He roughly says that conveying data and reality as they are does not work in art. A city’s phone book reflects reality; it represents the city, but what does it do to convey the truth like this? What could weather analysis say about the larger reality? I think what worries us is that we won’t be able to know or measure the upcoming weather. Of course, minimizing the variables can be profitable for our extractivist species, whose ultimate goal is economic profitability. Therefore, the emphasis on precision and results orientation cannot be avoided. Weather forecasts exist to control the future.

Elmas Deniz, History of a Particular Nameless Creek, 2019. Photo by Kayhan Kaygusuz. Botanical drawings in watercolor.

MÜ: How do you interpret the atmospheric disturbances of the city you live in, Istanbul? 

ED: The sky is not visible because of the city lights at night. This is what upsets me the most. However, a night with plenty of stars signifies that the weather will be clear tomorrow if nothing goes wrong. I miss being able to observe this.

Weather is something that is actually felt. I think ts impact on us is more important than the measurable part. When we started working on this interview, Istanbul was extremely humid and hot. However, there are places where the weather is always like that. The vegetation allows it. Large-leaved plants with aerial roots live in these geographies. The air and the life around that air system evolve and transform together. Istanbul’s vegetation will be unsuitable for such humid weather as the city’s heat and water retention changes. On the other hand, the temperature on the asphalt and the temperature felt on the grass are quite different from each other. The new artificial wind corridors formed by vertical architecture shift away from the air corridors of thousands of years. What we know about the old and what is happening now do not align.

Istanbul experienced a burning summer. We were overwhelmed by the heat. This is different from my childhood summers spent in the South. It would have been hot back then, but we loved it. We used to watch the fluctuations of the hot air rising from the asphalt, but despite everything, that heat never made anyone feel morbid, young or old. The heat in Istanbul this summer was extreme; it was like a disaster. On the other hand, like last year, I expect that winter will be late this year. Now, summer and winter clothes are hung together in my wardrobe. I don’t know if we should expect a summer day at the beginning of December.

Elmas Deniz, Eluding “humans,” 2019. Lightbox.

MÜ: We recently read that the death toll in Pakistan, as a result of severe flooding due to global heating, is over a thousand and that approximately one third of the country has been under water since June. Our definitions of catastrophe and natural catastrophe are constantly changing due to global warming. Scales and the temporality of these scales test the limits of our perception. How do you establish the relationship between artistic production and the impact of the global warming catastrophe on humans and non-humans? What does it mean to you to produce art under catastrophic circumstances?

ED: Weather that people manipulate in one geography leads to drought and heat waves in another. As in every system, parts that seem disjointed affect each other. We only know what we can name. We know very little. In Jean Baudrillard’s book The Consumer Society (1970), there is a section where he talks about shopping mall air conditioning. He called it the desire for ‘“eternal spring.” It is an ethical problem to cause the death of other people while trying to live comfortably. This debate is not even new.

Our issues are global problems arising from the local. These things happen because we don’t have transnational governance tools. I’m not talking about holding meetings. I’m referring to being a subject of political decisions. For example, I should have the right to vote, have a say, and oppose the massacre in the Amazon Rainforests because it will affect the climate where I live.

The artist’s work is to hope and insist amid dystopia—like the myth of Sisyphus. Resisting despite everything is to carry up the same load every morning and to keep going. I also think of Kassandra, who foretold the devastating war in Troy, who struggled to warn people, and no one believed her. Despite everything, the power of resistance is inherent in art. Acceptance of the unknown is also intrinsic to it.

Elmas Deniz, About soft bodied evils, 2019. Video, 05’30”.

MÜ: We had previously discussed how your childhood in Izmir and the Aegean region affected the ideations of nature in your work. Is it critical that your artistic production refers to where you live? What does the idea of locality correspond to in your works?

ED: My production is inspired not only by my childhood away from the city, in the countryside, in a place where the creek meets the sea, but also by living in a giant city deprived of nature. On the other hand, I also like to produce works in more than one context. I made works in Colombo, Vladikavkaz, Stockholm, and Marseille. Concepts, questions of common urgency, and poetics connect these works. Sometimes phrasing an overly local question can lead to global issues. Depth then becomes the bar that the works set.

I would like to discuss The Isle of Mollusks and A Conversation at the Isle of Mollusks here. In these recent videos, I am calling out to the mollusks whose oxygen we have reduced and whom we have massacred. I produced these works in the place where I spent my childhood. On the one hand, it is vital for me to take a feminist position, to respect and draw attention to the rights of the oppressed, defeated, and exposed to brutality. On the other hand, the urgency of talking about the seas and oceans most affected by global warming is evident. We know that two-thirds of fish species are now extinct. Some might say that a large number of these creatures is related to their relative insignificance. A call beyond the relationship that a person can establish with someone similar to themselves is what I’m trying to make in this work. A Conversation at the Isle of Mollusks ends with me offering coffee to the mollusk. However, I lack the faculties to establish a relationship. “Because a person knows what is best for everyone, they think what they like is appreciated just as much by someone else.” And then I say: “Beautiful mollusk! I made you coffee! Because coffee is a wonderful thing.” In the next frame, we watch the coffee in my hand meet with salt water in slow motion. Besides the absurdity of this effort, there is also an ultimate failure.

Elmas Deniz, Lost Waters, 2019. 3D wood relief. Photo by Sahir Ugur Eren.

MÜ: In the works you exhibited at the 16th Istanbul Biennial, you had interpreted the ideas of loss and transformation through two different places that are significant in your personal history, and showed a sensitivity that transcends place and time. What do you think are the potentials and limitations of art in keeping track of changes in nature and the environment?

ED: My works Lost Waters (2019) and History of a Particular Nameless Creek (2019) are about tracing culture, loss, and disappearances. Lost Waters is a topographic relief of the region of Istanbul where I live. In this work, I mark the creeks that have now been transformed into street names. 

History of a Particular Nameless Creek is about a creek two meters from where I grew up and the place where this creek merged with the sea. I started with the question of what I remember about this creek. I continued my research with the history of the ancient city that used to exist here. The existence of this creek at the time facilitated the finding of this ancient city. However, the stream was taken underground by environmental reorganizations and then disappeared. Archaeologists say that water was necessary to make sculptures. But there is no other narrative that unites them. In this installation, I invite viewers to make these connections, to look at life around a creek that didn’t even have a name.

We could consider art as a tool of record keeping. I’m not talking about things collected and organized for an archive but about constructing a web of relationships. For these works, I combine the elements from my memory with writing, drawing, traces, and signs left here and there by others. When curator Nicolas Bourriaud extended the invitation to the artists, he had positioned the biennial as “another kind of anthropology.” This is a method I used to call “subjective,” but now I call it looking at the past through an artist’s perspective. I think of lost waters or disappeared street names as an artist who grew up by a creek, and I want to convey the ideas, stories, and narratives around them. In my work, I seek to research methods of remembering the past. 

Elmas Deniz, Under the Panorama, 2012. Mixed media object.

MÜ: This reminds me of a work you made ten years ago, Under the Panorama (2012). For me, this work embodies photography’s potential to represent a moment. You show a photograph of Istanbul that we take for granted, which could be considered romantic, and through an assemblage, you reveal that this city’s foundations and the invisible side are made of garbage. What does the relationship of this work with Istanbul and its image mean to you? What would you do differently if you worked on the same idea today?

ED: I started this work by thinking about the pollution in the seas and how our waste ends up in the sea. Even the small grains of sand in the sea are formed from the crumbling down of human-made things. I wanted to think about the need to look behind something that we take for granted, such as the image of Istanbul. I’m constantly bickering with things we call beautiful but that we ignore. We can also say that finding this is also wrangling with the very nature of considering something beautiful. The invisible side of pollution has always caught my attention. I wanted to convey these ideas by combining pollution with an image of an admired city.

If I were to take up this work again today, I would consider changing the title. I would say “Inside the Panorama” or “In the Middle of the Panorama” rather than “Under the Panorama.” On the other hand, this work highlights an obvious problem. These days, I’m trying to think more about works that propose solutions than this type of visibility. 

Elmas Deniz, The Tree I Want to Buy, 2014. Video, 04′ 55″.

MÜ: I want to talk about The Tree I Want to Buy (2014). I think this work contains an essential element of self-reflectivity: Your relationship with nature that you have formulated through ownership is processed alongside your clumsiness, failures, and naivete. When we think about the work in the context of causality between capitalism and global warming, the dialogue about owning a tree can be interpreted as a domesticated version of harshly possessive instincts. What do you think about the relationship between ownership and global warming?

ED: The Tree I Want to Buy touches on two issues. The first is the commercialization of natural resources, that is, the transformation of nature into a tradable commodity. This element is revealed through my inner voice as a voiceover in the video. I talk about equating success with financial success with money. Do we really need to own the things we love? The second issue is the relationships around money and my inability to buy. Ownership distorts our view of the commons. We can’t think straight. I find it valuable to think about elements that cannot be accumulated and should not be owned by anyone, such as air, water, plants, and soil.

I try to consider issues like this from many different perspectives in my artistic production. I’m beginning to think this is an “environmental philosophy.” We are witnessing the extinction of nature and numerous species but also the deterioration of the way people relate to one another. We have to accept that neoliberal capitalism harms us and the environment we live in.