Speech in Parallel to the "Heart" Exhibition // "The Right to Reprise Performance"
Speakers: Ekin Bernay, Agah Uğur, Simge Burhanoğlu
Siyah Beyaz Gallery / Maslak
Transcription: Burcu Dimili
Translation: Ceren Sak
On October 27th, performance artist Ekin Bernay, collector Agah Uğur, and Performistanbul & PCSAA founding director and performance curator Simge Burhanoğlu discussed the right of re-performance, affordability and sustainability of performance in collections. You can find the transcription of the talk below.
Simge Burhanoğlu: Today we will talk about the right to re-perform performance. Before we get into the topic, I would like to take a step back to talk about how this path started. As Performistanbul, we have been fighting for the survival of performance art in accordance with its organic structure since we were founded in 2016. The first time this issue was brought to the field of art was at Mamut Art Project. We realized that performance has always been like a stepchild among other disciplines. I think it cannot find its place in the market due to a perception stemming from the materialistic approach of the world. I also think there are financial and economic reasons that account for this, and consequently its development is always slow in this direction.
When I visit fairs, what I personally notice is that while everyone buys paintings, videos, installations and photographs, performance is always positioned as a marketing tool that is needed to draw attention to these fields. However, performance art is a contemporary art discipline and should be treated as how other main disciplines are. But so far, it has been a discipline that has been used as a show and a form of entertainment at gallery openings. On the contrary, while curating performances with Seyhan Musaoğlu at Mamut, which was organized in 2017 with the theme "Matterless", we came up with the idea of offering performances for sale. We researched how it could be done, we prepared contracts from scratch, and realized we could only put the performance into collections through the right of re-performance in accordance with its nature. The videos and photographs, which you know as documentation, are not the performance itself, but only the output. However, so far, everyone who has collected this documentation has been under the misconception that they have bought the performance itself. We focus on selling the idea and experience rather than a materialist approach. In fact, what we are buying is just a signed piece of paper with a contract. Today we will be discussing this issue with Agah Uğur and Ekin Bernay. Our discussions with Mr. Agah started in 2017 and we signed the contract in 2019. He included the right to re-perform Ekin Bernay's performance "What Do You Want?" in his collection. Thanks to Mr. Agah, we were able to talk about this issue through concrete examples.
For the first time in Turkey, you [Mr.Agah] have opened a door by purchasing the right to re-perform a performance. Where does your desire come from to go beyond solely providing an artwork a physical space, but in a way, give life to it too– and how does it feel to have a performance in your collection?
Agah Uğur: I act on my feelings and desires. I have the luxury of not having to answer to anyone. It wouldn't be like this if it were an institution, of course. There are actually many reasons. First of all, I am all for the idea in art. Rather than the object itself, it is the idea of that object that is striking, the way it strikes me, the excitement I feel while explaining it to others... This is what I care about most in art. Therefore, the absence of an object is like an extension of that. This idea developed very naturally. Moving and living works excite me. I also like the fact that they have the possibility of coming to life again.
Simge Burhanoğlu: At the Çanakkale Biennial,curated by Azra Tüzünoğlu, Ekin's performance "What Do You Want?", which is in your collection, took place again. Through this, the performance that took place for the first time in 2018 continued to reproduce itself. Connecting this to the subject of practice, I would like to ask you about how the trust in your relationship and the notion of vitality played a role in this process.
There is a work by Elmas Deniz in your collection exhibition "The Body's Field of Struggle", and Ahmet Öğüt's idea of pouring asphalt in the gallery is also in your collection. You only take these as ideas, no matter whether they are realized or not. There is a practice there; in the performance there is a living person. That's why death is even mentioned in the contract. While many artists prefer to realize the work only when they are alive, Ekin preferred that the performance continues to live even in the opposite case. How did it make you feel to talk about life and death while preparing and signing a contract? Can you talk about the relationship of trust between you and Ekin, what you felt when you delivered your work?
Ekin Bernay: It is something so intertwined with your life, really. I call what I've been doing since 2016 a performance. That relationship of trust was built on the fact that I trusted Simge a lot, I believed that she would do it in the right way to protect me, and I trusted and believed in Mr. Agah a lot. I will never forget, the day we signed the contract was a very special day. It was also very special because we opened a door. Yes, it was a very nice thing for me personally, but it was also very important for us that it left a permanent mark.
Simge Burhanoğlu: This is also very important for the survival of performance art and the artist. Why does performance art have to transform into different forms in order to be sold? Why does it have to abandon its own structure? Why can't that sustainability be ensured by respecting its organic structure? How does it make you feel, Mr. Agah, to have a contract signed that requires responsibility towards a human being, to have a human being living in between?
Agah Uğur: It strengthens the spirit of the work. I'm glad that performance art is no longer solely a part of gallery openings. Most of the recent works are much stronger, they don't turn into a show. There was a time when we used to see much more crowded, dancing, moving performances. Now I am happy to see much more simple and powerful performances.
I'm surprised that art professionals can be so idealistic in such a materialistic world. You accept to live with so little money from the beginning. It is a field where the angle of the income pyramid is very steep. Among you, performance artists are perhaps the ones who make the most ambitious choice. They enter this field on purpose, for their own desires. For their egotism, for their happiness. This in itself is a reason for me to be interested. On the other hand, the aim of the vast majority of NFT producers is to make money. I want to make you feel this difference. On the other side, I think it is a good thing to have restrictions in the contract. Not everything should be handed over to the one who gets the right to re-realize. For example, in ours, we had a clause of no more than one realization per year. Now, if Ekin wants to change it and says let's make it three, I would still comply. It is a good thing for me that there are fewer restrictions.
Simge Burhanoğlu: As the discipline of performance art expands and grows, it is necessary to draw its outlines correctly. Again, in Mr. Agah's exhibition curated by Halil Altındere, there is a live performance by Gözde Mimiko. I think this work was also included in your collection as a re-realization. You are continuing on this path. I hope it will inspire other collectors.
Agah Uğur: Yes, the work was included in the collection as a re-performance right. Until I saw Ekin's exhibition, I preferred not to have any memory of the performance, but the book with 900 responses is wonderful. It is very special to keep a few things that will leave a trace.
Ekin Bernay: Actually, in the case of this exhibition, when Sera Sade opened this space to us, we thought about how we could organize it. Each time we focus on what is missing, what has not been done, is there a path that has not been overcome, where should we dig? Of course, some people participated in the "Heart" performance, but the works in the general exhibition are live works that trigger the performance. Re-communicating with these objects through their editions ensures the continuation of the performance. This is an indicator of how the artist and the performance will live through the editions each edition. In a way, the performance gives birth to itself every time.
Simge Burhanoğlu: In 2019, we did an exhibition called "This is Not a Performance" where we really focused on documentation and remnants and we were saying "this is not a performance." What was left of the performance were remnants in different forms. It could be a photograph or a smell. We were also looking at the kinds of documentation. But it was this point where we said, how can we go beyond documentation? With this in mind, we included performative objects. Not everyone can buy the idea or the right to re-perform, but it is easier to access these objects that bear traces of transformed performances by changing their size and materials. Ekin, as an artist, how would you describe the importance of preserving this vitality?
Ekin Bernay: It is a really difficult process. The expression of this art is both very difficult and also immediately understandable because it touches from a very sincere place. There is a concern of distance or distancing, but this can also be solved in an instant. For example, we established very strong relationships with our neighbors here. Our neighbor Hüseyin made the first heart. Since I come from dance background, I think the same thing happens in dance. It's about the body. There is a fear about the body somewhere in people. Reservations come into play. Actually the opposite is so simple. There are no intermediaries and no tools, you are alone with yourself. Being in human form is a problem in itself, but I believe that what is done with the body is transformative.
Simge Burhanoğlu: Mr. Agah, there are many different works in your collection. Why are you drawn to performance art and how can we pave the way for more of it?
Agah Uğur: Will the art market make room for this, probably not. There is a possibility that the new generation of collectors will be more interested in this. The virtual world plays a much bigger role in the new generation. Probably it might not be a bad idea to make this journey with people who are not as fossilized in their perceptions, who are not strictly formed, who are free from forming prejudices, who care about art, who invest in it. People who make a lot of money from crypto are much more likely to invest in this. It might be a better idea to introduce and endear this art to the new generation. For me, the medium itself is not important. There are many works I like, but if it doesn't fit the mission I have drawn for the collection, I don't buy it. I am interested in abuse of power, migration, bullying, women.
Simge Burhanoğlu: Our only concern is to change the system of valorization for the continuity of performance art and its artists. Because we have to remember that documentation and photography only come into existence after the performance is realized. But in order for the performance to be realized, it needs to be invested in and supported beforehand, when it is just an idea.