I. Ata Doğruel, Durational performance (in collaboration with Eva Martino), VENICE INTERNATIONAL PERFORMANCE ART WEEK 'Co-Creation Live Factory Prologue 1,' European Cultural Centre (Palazzo Mora), Venice, 2017, photo LorenzaCini.
Andrea Pagnes on Turkish Performance Art
Writer: Andrea Pagnes
Translation: Murat Güneş
Simge Burhanoğlu, founding director and curator of Performistanbul1 invited me to write about the new Turkish performance art scene: my experience, vision, feelings, predictions, and thoughts in regard. Our cultural liaison has consolidated collaborating at the VENICE INTERNATIONAL PERFORMANCE ART WEEK 2017, the live art exhibition project that I initiated in 2011, together with my wife and art partner German artist Verena Stenke, with whom we form the artist duo VestAndPage. I am Venetian born. So, to tackle the subject from my perspective, I could not ignore the reciprocity that Venice had with Turkey, especially with the city of Istanbul, for almost a thousand years. History offers us the means to understand the present and imagine the future, as well as an artist without knowledge of his/her/their past, origin and culture, would be like a tree without roots, just as without experience human life would have no reason to be.
Growing in a city like Venice, I have learnt of the Doges, the Sultans and the Moors since my childhood: the Ottoman-Venetian wars with their the epic naval battles, legends and historical facts that make a young imagination fly, dreaming of an East only a couple of thousands of miles away from home. Despite their millennial rivalry to rule the Eastern Mediterranean, the commercial and cultural relations between Venice and Istanbul lasted for centuries. However, to this days and age, the two cities seem quite distant from one another. If on the one hand, Venice is still capable of maintaining its attractiveness as an international pole for art and culture, it has become besieged by tourism, mirroring the decadence of an increasingly closed Old Continent (Europe) and of a country (Italy) distressed by nationalist and populist outbreaks, economic recession and migration impact.
On the other hand, the recent history of Istanbul is all complexity. Particularly during the years of the Cold War, Istanbul was the capital of a still uncertain, wounded nation; a hub of obscure diplomacy games between the East and the West. With the turning of the new century, it gradually offered the image of a new country: an energetic, proud Turkey gratified by its status as a member of the G20, merging as a protagonist in the new bipolar geopolitical scenario shaped between China and the United States. With a leadership role in the Middle East and as a bridge on the Mediterranean of moderate Islamic currents, the ‘black and white' narrated by Orhan Pamuk seemed to dissolve. A new dawn was spreading over all that was, but not precisely in a way as many Westerners thought. In fact, after an initial phase of democratization and economic reform, Turkey has increasingly been moving away from democratic and constitutional standards since the mid-2010s.
The choice to transform the parliamentary system into an authoritarian presidential regime, while bringing about a more Muslim society in the country to secure a leading position in the Islamic world, has become very critical of Turkey's attempts to integrate with Western nations.2
In these last years, Turkey has experienced persecution of the opposition; restrictions on freedom of the press, speech, and expression; state Internet control; with its president campaigning for the reintroduction of the death penalty and openly declaring to be against the equality between men and women3 as well as birth control and family planning.4
Why this to say about performance art? For performance art is inherently political. When it ties directly to the social, it turns as a way to express discontent, concerns, anger, and sadness in front of what performance artists perceive as unjust, along with their hopes, perseverance, resilience, and trust in change. Even when performance is not too topical in this sense, it is still a political act for the very nature of performance art and its role of inquiry on the relationship between the self, the others, the outside, the private and the public sphere.
From 2008 to 2016, we had the privilege to exhibit and perform in Istanbul four times. 5 On our first visit, wandering its streets, we got to know many of its neighbourhoods, all with their distinct characters, where the past seems perpetually licking into the present to coexist on the verge of precariousness. The ancient and the modern, Islam and the secular, the rich and the poor are all present, and questions lingered: what is the true identity of this city? Is it a modern metropolis where the East foams into the West and vice versa, or an agonizing remnant of a once-great empire? Should the Turkish people embrace Western (European) culture, or should they remain true to their heritage? Are their culture and identity decaying or only transforming? If at times embracing the new implies to destroy the former, not just in the sense of historical tradition and cultural heritage, but also in people’s hearts, views and beliefs, hence how will people change?
We came back to Istanbul the second time in summer 2013, a few weeks later authoritiessanctioned the brutal state crackdown on the mass protest at the Gezi Park. To the evidence of those dramatic facts, a question raised in my mind: if a State leadership centralizes all powers, violates the rights of its citizens and aggressively takes massive enforcement and repressive measures against them, what new dungeons will these people crowd?
At that time, we were not so much familiar with the performance art scene in Istanbul other than the oeuvre of Sükran Moral, her courageous, outspoken criticism against the male-dominant Turkish society, more broadly to denounce the violence and abuses that women and other underrepresented groups in society suffer everywhere.
Of course, we learned of Erdem Gündüz’s ‘Standing Man’ as almost the whole world did. To Ataturk’s principle “Peace at home, peace in the world"6 Gündüz enacted a peaceful gesture: just standing silent and still in front of the Ataturk Cultural Center. It was a civil act of protest arose from his keen disappointment of the bias of the Turkish media and their failure to report the events in Gezi Park and Taksim Square in a correct, objective way; and also to condemn the police’s brutality. Although in Gündüz’s intention his demonstrative act was not a performance, it rapidly transformed into a silent durational people gathering, a ‘happening’ described by many as a collective civil revolutionary action blurring the edges between art and life. ‘Standing Man' acquired an immediate international resonance. It became the living manifesto of the protest movement against the Turkish government; a symbol for equality, resistance, hope and ultimately freedom by compellingly taking a stand against the violation of fundamental human rights7 and in memory of all those who lost their lives to express their belief.
“My concern was not to perform a piece, but what you can say with only the body. Sometimes the attitude of the human body may be more meaningful than that of a language. Today in Turkey, the government is systematically demolishing human rights and freedom of expression every day. It is hard to speak as freely as you think. There is no freedom of access to information. There is no freedom of speech and thought.”8
In those turbulent times, we became acquainted with an emerging performance art scene in Istanbul, still in its embryonic phase, collaborating in the frame of IPA Istanbul with Turkish performance artists Burçak Konukman and Çiğdem Üçüncü9 who shared with us their worries and concerns and were driven by the urgency to respond radically to the current socio-political situation through their art.
We spent many hours discussing in which ways performance artists should use their body as a tool to produce artistic actions that may have beneficial effects on a society when it turns out to be oppressive: how should performance art contribute to change clichés, conservative norms, imposed rules? How can we attract and educate a new audience to perceive performance art not as an utterly odd and delusional form of mere entertainment, but as a vehicle to stimulate reflection on crucial issues about both the individual and the society? How can performance art stir an ethical or political reaction without becoming commonplace in a society? Which strategies should performance artists adopt to overcome the scarcity of funding as well as the difficulties to interlace long-lasting cooperation with cultural institutions?
When questions link to socio-political contexts of which I have insufficient knowledge of their dynamics (for not living them in the first person, and that was the case), proper answers are not always within my reach. However, in virtue of the experience gained personally and professionally along the years, I believe that there are general lines that are valid everywhere.
In this present time, to be a performance artist also means to be ready to navigate at the margins, feeling disoriented, floating adrift between edges and boundaries and all that is liminal and transitional as a creative resource. Across thresholds and gaps, the view on the configuration of the things that constitute the world and the reality widens. The senses and thoughts start to focus with unusual intensity. However, performance art cannot change society in the short term, but when the practice is constant, to explore shifts in freedom, agency, identity, the self and its relationship with the others, can gradually produce unexpected results on society over time.
States of emergency can represent a fertile opportunity to shape a new cultural-artistic scene where performance artists can recognize and identify themselves within, provided that they are persistent, uncompromised, open and courageous in pursuing their artistic ideas and political credo by confronting issues which affect their lives, the society and the environment in which they live and operate. As long as there are convergences of purposes, commitment to a cause, coherence of dialogue and collaborative consistency among them, intertwining and sharing urgencies, new artistic movements can arise, albeit temporarily, to impact societies beneficially. If otherwise, the risk to end entrapped into unrevealing creative isolation is higher, despite all the right intentions.
In other words, during moments of social crisis performance artists are called to empower their visions. Visions should also serve to inspire tangible collaborative planning, continuously looking — from the beginning to its end — at the changing of necessities of the elements that compose and characterize the plan itself. When a collaborative project is active, collective, affectionate, capable to involve a plurality of voices that take risks and present ideas prioritizing the necessity of a care (both in social and individual terms), within this framework, it is, therefore, possible to establish an ongoing discursive creative platform to address specific topics of interest. On the other hand, I also believe that pretending to do straight politics employing performance art is detrimental to creativity itself. If any, performance art can stimulate new ways of thinking by confronting the real, proposing further readings of reality itself, and only later it may contribute to change particular social situations, as well as it may not turn out to be productive at all in this sense.
It takes clarity, determination and “special energy, over and above one's creative potential, a special audacity or subversiveness, to strike out in a new direction.”10 It is that kind of energy and determination that are needed to strive for noblest ideals, which we perceived in Simge Burhanoğlu when she came to visit us in Venice in December 2016.
At that time, Simge had just founded Performistanbul. Our partnership has been lasting since then. Her insight, sensitivity, unpretentious, concise words and to the point impressed us. She had clear objectives, a mission to accomplish.
“I felt pain in my chest for my country and my people, so as many Turkish artists of the younger generations feel the same. I believe in individual actions that become art, sparking empathy among people, capable of bringing them to consider more in-depth situations that involve all of us, the need for freedom, respecting human rights. I met with performance art by coincidence. I did not choose it, but I understood that performance art is ‘the place' where I want to be. It enlightened my path, so in turn, I am working hard to inspire others through the energy that performances art can create. We need to explore new ways of expression according to the urgencies of our time. What performance art taught me is that to be a performance art curator, I need to be liquid, ready to adapt myself to every single unpredictable circumstance. Since life has become so fast, and our human existence almost reduced to an amount of digital data, I think performance art can help us to slow down and feel to reclaim the preciousness of the lived momentum, as well as the quality and beauty of all that is real. I see performance art also as a natural medicine to help people to find themselves, a tool to reach, gather and heal them. I very much believe in the power of performance art as a medium to transfer the social conscience back to society itself, because I trust in people.”11
Since its inception, Performistanbul has been operating locally and internationally to investigate the precarious and urgent role of performance art in society, challenging and expanding the notion of performance art of questioning how embodied/individual actions can create social meanings, at the same time promoting performance making as a strategy for equality and resilience. Thanks to Burhanoğlu's efforts and passion in pursuing her vision, in the last two years, a new performance art scene has rapidly merged in Istanbul. Performistanbul has become a referential space, place of gathering and opportunities for emerging performance artists that otherwise they would have found themselves operating too isolated with consequent difficulties in presenting their work in appropriate, appreciated ways.
Performistanbul is also a learning environment based on the concept of "artistic community" and founded on the principles of cooperation and collaboration. 12 A fluid space of agency that favours more the becoming than the being, and at the same time an “accumulator of subjectivity”13 that does not ossify. Eventually, Performistanbul encourages emerging performance practitioners to find ruptures and adversities in the societal structures, as well as the cracks in the conventional, to perform from there ‘that-which-is-not-yet.’ Enabling young artists to become aware of their stance concerning otherness is a necessary step to take to enforce, maintain or change their position when contexts change, being it beneficial to shape a uniquely creative, output-driven practice over time.
The platform took a step toward a new phase by presenting NEEDED: YOU, a long durational live process held between 16 February – 16 March 2018, with participating artists: AslieMk, Batu Bozoğlu, Ebru Sargın L., Ekin Bernay, Gülhatun Yıldırım (who attended the VENICE INTERNATIONAL PERFORMANCE ART WEEK Summer Camp 2015, realised in conjunction con IPA and Live Arts Cultures Association), İ. Ata Doğruel, Leman S. Darıcıoğlu, Özlem Ünlü, and Selin Kocagöncü.
Curated by Simge Burhanoğlu, NEEDED: YOU was also meant to lay the foundations of Performistanbul Live Art Research Space (PCSAA), providing a dedicated space for performance art. It is Turkey's first initiative to host resources, archive documentation, publishing, and with particular attention to performance art education and its development while aiming to bring the live art to wider audiences and explore today's new dialects, methods and concepts. Its construction ended in 2018.
“Performance art has been defined as motivated by a redemptive belief in the capacity of art to transform human life, as a vehicle for social change, and as a radical merging of life and art.”14
Since the last two decades, the growing state of the global crisis has brought structural changes that have transformed modern societies in different fragmented cultural landscapes of class, gender, ethnicity, race, and so on, that value modernity and the contemporary very differently. The Self has no stable inner core. Identities are no longer fixed nor felt determined by old traditional norms. Today one’s own identity is shaped more by personal experience and life story. Hence it inevitably undergoes continuous metamorphic processes, according to the ways that it is addressed or represented in society. Within this scenario, performance art is not anymore a matter of utopian redemption, but instead of placing the body, the self, the identity "within the realm of aesthetic as a political domain (…) to provide the possibility for radical engagement that can transform the way we think about meaning and subjectivity (both the artist's and our own)."15 Today, performance art also comes into play as an art form that confirms the value of individual life stories that can stand in multiple different ambiences.
Simge came back to Venice in December 2017 to attend CO-CREATION LIVE FACTORY Prologue 1, the new project of the VENICE INTERNATIONAL PERFORMANCE ART WEEK, supporting the participation of Istanbul performance artists Leman Sevda Darıcıoğlu, Batu Bozoğlu and I. Ata Doğruel.16 Their decency, attentiveness, determination and pride captivated us. Each of the three performers had a remarkable endurance skill and a particular way to be a ‘body of dissent’ emotionally, intellectually and spiritually. They shared a substantial similarity: conscious respect of oneself and the other; a rigorous dedication to investigating how things should be adequately done, focusing on enhancing their vision and find concreteness in their actions.
While Batu Bozoğlu and I. Ata Doğruel took part in the class tutored by Boston performance artist Marilyn Arsem, Leman worked together with us for ten days. Also, in June 2019, she joined us to work at DIS-SENSUS, the Summer Camp of the VENICE INTERNATIONAL PERFORMANCE ART WEEK that we organise every year at Forte Marghera. Sourcing from the depths of her anguish, Leman is an artist that performs stories of hers where wounds are beyond language, enduring fragile, without disguising moments of failure, for these are the liberating moments in which all theories, paradigms, schemes, and narratives that we use to justify our way of being, reveal their fatuity and inconsistency.
What should be learnt from this emerging generation of Turkish performance artists is that we do not need to wait until death to practice mourning, marking time from place to place and then come back to that elusive out there, which seems to contain our answers. We might as well toss a coin and trace signs for a few days on a black wall to see what happens, as Batu did. Alternatively, improve our confidence hand to hand, even in the darkness, our vulnerability tightened to a string, as Ata did. Also, these are poetic ways to transgress the normative and not forget to shine. Same as Gamze Öztürk did at “Project ID — In Between Identities”, which we co-curate last week in The Hague. To denounce the widespread domestic violence against women in Turkey, a situation that, despite the emancipation and the ongoing gender equality struggle, seems to worsen also due to the return of the fundamentalism determined to impose old and new constraints on women, she subtly performed only with her hair.
Andrea Pagnes (VestAndPage)
Text originally written in summer 2019.
1. Performistanbul is an international performance art platform founded in 2016 with an initial aim to unite performance artists under one roof.
Based in Istanbul, the platform continues to embrace its “spaceless” identity by carrying out a flexible work model which consists of collaborating and developing projects with various art institutions, digital platforms and artists in the world. Performistanbul has completed over 156 performances in various locations, collaborating mostly with museums, galleries, public spaces and international organizations including Pera Museum, Pi Artworks, Elgiz Museum, IMC 5533,Istanbul Biennial (2017, 2019), Caroline Garden’s Chapel (London), International Venice Performance Art Week (2017, 2019) and Live Art Development Agency (LADA).
Performistanbul established Turkey's first Live Art Research Space (PCSAA), in the purpose of making a significant impact on the education and development of performance art by housing essential resources on live art. Together with PCSAA, Performistanbul Publications was founded to translate foreign sources into Turkish in order to publish them on digital platforms in Turkey and to provide further resources in the field.
2. Kálnoky, Boris, ‘Erdoğan Returns to Muslim Instincts,' (Interview with Gareth Jenkins), in Der Welt, January 25, 2010. accessed on July 4, 2018.
3. “You cannot place women and men into equal positions. Their creation, nature and very constitution are different.” Erdoğan’s words during his speech at KADEM women association, November 24, 2014, accessed on July 5, 2018.
4. Agence France-Press, ‘Family planning not for Muslims, says Turkey's president Erdoğan', in The Telegraph, May 30, 2016, July 7, 2018.
5. AFLOAT: W.I.L.L. (cetacean), video installation, in the frame of the exhibition project ‘Past Is Not Alone’, Basilica Cistern/Yerbatan Sarnici, 2008; FRATRES, durational performance, Tiyatro Z, in occasion of ‘Galata Perform - Visibility Project’, 2009; Thou Twin Of Slumber: Pupae, Mixer Gallery, in occasion of ‘IPA Platform’ (tutoring one week intensive workshop class at Salt Galata); Aegis II (Dreams), Alt, in occasion of ‘Transient Bodies’, presented by Open Space Istanbul and Open Dialogue Istanbul, 2016.
6. Gönlübol, Mehmet, Uluslararası Politika, ‘Atatürk'un Tamim, Telgraf ve Beyannameleri,’ C. IV, (1917-1938), Ankara: EskiDost Sahaf, 2000, pp. 549-552.
7. The principles of interrelation, indivisibility, and universality of human rights are the cornerstones of international human rights law, as first emphasized in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights in 1948 (at that time signed by 48 states among which Turkey). The 1993 Vienna World Conference on Human Rights noted that States must promote and protect all human rights and fundamental freedoms, regardless of their political, economic and cultural systems. UN Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner, ‘What are human rights?' (permanent link).
8. Erdem Gündüz's speech at the 2014 Oslo Freedom Forum, October 21, 2014, accessed on November 18, 2015.
9. In August 2013, Turkish artist Burçak Konukman and German artist Jürgen Fritz (co-founder of the performance art collective Black Market International) invited us to participate as tutor artists at IPA Istanbul. On the final day of our workshop class, Çiğdem Üçüncü performed the ṣalāt of the afternoon in Taksim Square as a demonstrative act of peace. Today she is a socio-politically engaged freelance photojournalist who publishes internationally.
10. Sacks, Oliver, The River of Consciousness, Toronto: Knopf, 2017, p. 138.
11. Resumed words from the conversations we had with Simge Burhanoğlu during the VENICE INTERNATIONAL PERFORMANCE ART WEEK (2016 and 2017), via Skype (2018), and by ongoing email correspondence.
12. VestAndPage, ‘Temporary Artistic Community,' in Fragile Body – Material Body, III VENICE INTERNATIONAL PERFORMANCE ART, Venice: VestAndPage press, 2017, pp. 13-43.
13. Lepecki, Andre, Exhausting Dance: Performance and the Politics of Movement,
London and New York: Routledge, 2006, p. 28.
14. Jones, Amelia, Body Art / Performing the Subject, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998, p. 13.
15. Ibidem, p.14.
16. Leman Sevda Darıcıoğlu, Batu Bozoğlu, and I. Ata Doğruel, supported by Performistanbul, participated at ‘CO-CREATION LIVE FACTORY Prologue 1,’ VENICE INTERNATIONAL PERFORMANCE ART WEEK, December 7-16, 2017: (permanent link).