Exit Archive

Spring 2006 | v.02 n.01 |

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Nancy Atakan


Before the political and economic innovations initiated in the 1980s by the Turgut Özal administration, Turkey had a closed economical system that restricted foreign trade, travel, and currency. Consequently, a technological climate based on imported goods essential for the use of new media by artists did not emerge in Turkey until the last half of the 1990s. Another impetus for change from a traditionally oriented atmosphere began with the implementation of the international biennial. At the first International Istanbul Biennial in 1987, Turkish artists showed work along side that of international artists. In the subsequent Istanbul biennials the Istanbul art community became familiar with curated and themed exhibitions while most participating Turkish artists started to gain acceptance to the international art circuit.

Therefore, in the early 1990s when I became interested in ‘new media’ and began research for a book entitled Arayışlar, Resim ve Heykel’e Alternatifler (Searching for Alternatives to Painting and Sculpture), art work using new media had not been accepted by local galleries, institutions, and collectors. In 1994, working with a group of other artists under the title of STT (Art Definition Group), I helped to transform an unused garage into an alternative art space to present work emerging from an on-going group video project.

Continuing to show in alternative spaces and aiming to gain acceptance for work made using new media such as colored photocopies, digital prints and video, between 1997 and 1999, first in a space rented from the local municipality, next in our studio, then in a gallery rented from Istanbul Technical University, and finally in a local art magazine, three other artists and I organized three shows entitled “Arada” (In Between) and one called “Ardarda” (Back to Back -- a word in Turkish that also contains the Turkish word ‘arada’).

By 2000 not only had video and digital art been accepted, but the Istanbul art community had become polarized into two groups, those working with ‘new media’ and those using conventional techniques. To help bridge this gap, we, the four ‘arada’ artists, invited other artists working in different mediums to exhibit with us in an artist organized project. Between 2000 and 2004, three exhibitions resulted from this coordination, “Yerli Mallar” (Local Produce), “Yurttan Sesler” (Voices from the Homeland), and “Aileye Mahsustur” (Families Only). In addition to these joint projects, we have also exhibited separately. For example, Gülçin Aksoy showed in the 2001 Asia Biennial in Bangladesh, Neriman Polat showed in the 1999 6 th Istanbul Biennial and the 2003 Venice Biennial, Gül Ilgaz also showed in the 2003 Venice Biennial, and I in the 2002 “Between the Waterfronts”, Istanbul/Rotterdam Cultural Exchange as well as the 2003 8th Havana Biennal Cuban Pavilion Video Film Program.

As some of the first artists to make videos and digital prints in Turkey, we continue to work with new media. Most of our work touches on sociological or psychological topics related to life in Istanbul. For example, one of my most recent video works from 2003 entitled The Sun Always Rises in the East deals with globalisation. Even though one of the first covered shopping centers (Bazaars) was built here over 400 years ago, today, shopping malls based on American models are popping up all over Istanbul as symbols of modernization. For this video work, I filmed inside a shopping center in North Carolina and inside the Turkish covered bazaar. Later, I projected the film onto the ceiling of one of the most popular Istanbul shopping centers. More of my work can be seen at www.nancyatakan.com.

Figure 1. The Sun Always Rises in the East, Nancy Atakan, 2003

In her 2002 Untitled video work Gülçin Aksoy dealt with the topic of surveillance. For this piece she videoed the outside of an apartment building across from hers and recorded the sounds made by their inhabitants as they went about their normal evening activities.

Figure 2. Untitled, Gülçin Aksoy, 2002

While both Gülçin and I manipulate images, edit our films and add sound, Neriman Polat uses one shot videoed images. Any editing is minimal by VHS to VHS. In this untitled video, she explicitly demonstrates her obsession with and even erotic attraction to television. Generally, she films intimate inside scenes such as her studio, her bedroom, her kitchen or her bathroom.

Figure 3. Neriman Polat, Untitled 2002

Curators Speak about Video Art in Turkey

To present different perspectives about new media (particularly the most prevalently used technique, video), I interviewed seven local curators. I first spoke with Beral Madra, curator of the 1 st and 2 nd Istanbul Biennials. She said: “The video technique is used by Turkish artists, but we should still ask if 'New Media' or even 'Video Art' with full significant content and technical skill has truly developed in Turkey.” (1) In her opinion video art is used because it is easy to make, easy to transport, easy to show, and gives instant results.

Being particularly interested in political art, she finds the artist’s viewpoint and their intention of particular importance. In her opinion, video art needs to be part of an installation and contain some element of Surrealism or Hyperrealism. For example, she pointed out important early 1990 video works that emerged from workshops sponsored by the Goethe Institute cultural exchange program for Marmara University teaching assistants and students. One of these workshops held at BM Contemporary Art Center (an institution she founded) resulted in a video installation about water transportation that played on phenomena related to the spectator's perception.

Two other artists working with video whose work she supports are Ergin Çavuşoğlu and Ethem Özgüven. As a professor at Bilgi University, Özgüven makes short videos that he refers to as social advertisements. He has also works with a project to teach filming and editing skills to females of all educational levels living in rural areas. As a result of this program, a corp of local residents capable of recording for the media their viewpoint on important issues can be found outside of the urban centers. (2)

At the 2003 Istanbul Biennial, Madra found of particular significance, Ergin Çavuşoğlu’s video installation called Entanglement. This work makes spectators feel as if they are being monitored by lights in a prison courtyard or by helicopters flying over a city underseige.

Figure 4. Entanglement, Ergin Çavuşoğlu, 2003

Vasıf Kortun, curator of the 3rd Istanbul Biennial in 1992, said “I cannot define ‘new media’ because ‘new media’ is always in the process of becoming ‘old media’. Artistic production continually changes with every new technology.” (3) He had observed that until five years ago artists working with new media predominately used photography or photographically based work such as digital prints whereas today most artists are making time-based work with a few artists of the younger generation making sound-based work.

In Istanbul, Kortun founded two art institutions, Platform, a contemporary art center with exhibition space, lecture halls, archives, and a residency, and Proje 4L, a non-collecting contemporary art institution/museum. He still manages Platform, but only serves on the board at Proje 4L.

Even though they show a lot of media based work at both institutions and a manageable postproduction studio will soon be installed at Platform, Kortun ascribes the emphasis on ‘new media’ to economics. While he cannot afford to transport large installations and huge artworks or pay for artists to come to set up their work, he can find finances to invest once a year in DVD players and video beamers and to transport videos using a fast courier service. Unfortunately, Kortun has observed that many students, artists, and spectators have incorrectly interpreted this trend as a sign of support for this type of work, but he does not believe technology to be essential for good work. For example, he says that the Nordic countries have amazing technology and schools, but most of the work is dull.

He believes that Turkish artist’s obsession with speech explains their past fifteen year concentration on work described through a relationship with narrative structures. Even in photographical works, he has observed that a narrative unfolds. For example, Bülent Şancar, in his work from the early 1990s, did not present single images, but images in a narrative sequence.

Another artist using narrative in his videos, Fikret Atay appeared in two shows Kortun curated last year. Atay, a Kurdish artist who lives and works in a small town in Eastern Turkey called Batman, filmed his video work showing street children taking shelter and dancing to keep warm in a bank-o-matic. To film Rebels of the Dance he used a borrowed high 8 camera and edited from VHS to VHS. Dan Cameron, the curator of the last Istanbul biennial, selected this video for exhibition and it is now in the Tate Modern Collection. I asked Atay if he saw himself as a video artist. He said that he begins with the concept and then chooses an appropriate medium. (4)

Figure 5. Rebels of the Dance, Fikret Atay, 2003

In general, Kortun believes that in Turkey, an interface between programmers and artists or between hardware and software does not exist. Turkish artists making videos rely on ready software such as Final Cut Pro and do not look for possibilities to manipulate software. Rather than exploring the possibilities of technology, they simply use it as a new tool to articulate a new sentence. Only artists who studied film or new media in the USA such as Ali Ömer Kazma or Haluk Akakçe differ.

In his video installations, Akakçe, who received his MFA from the Art Institute of Chicago and has exhibited work in the 2001 7th Istanbul Biennial as well as at the New York Whitney Art Museum at Philip Morris in 2002, blends Art Deco, sci-fi and cyborgs, architecture, comic-book romanticism and fashion “into a shape-shifting world that on some level mirrors contemporary reality, with its transforming or evaporating distinctions between nation and corporation, public and private, technological and organic, even genders and species.”

Ali Ömer Kazma who also exhibited in the 2001 7 th Istanbul Biennial after studying at the New School in New York is interested in the social implications of the camera. Kortun commented that small cameras are less intrusive and more intimate than large professional equipment. Of course, as he also pointed out, using the camera’s microphone brings problems with sound, but a large crew with a boom operator would have prevented Kazma from capturing the intimate moments of the soccer players in the locker room during the year he filmed a local team. From this project, not only did Kazma produce a feature film shown in theaters, but also a video installation for galleries. Likewise, he could not have captured the spontaneity of a child playing with a video game in another of his short videos called Mr. Loading.

Figure 6. Mr. Loading, Ali Ömer Kazma, 2001

Fülya Erdemci, coordinator of the 4 th and 5 th biennials, places an emphasis on aesthetics and searches for work showing a balance between content and format. While stressing the importance of receiving an art foundation whether as a sculptor, a painter, a photographer, or filmmaker, she does not find technological expertise essential.

She has observed that not only in Turkey but also in Europe, predominately, artists have adapted the language of documentary for artistic purposes. At the 2002 Dokumenta Exhibition in Kasel, she noticed that 80 percent of the work was video and 80 percent of the videos were documentary and political in nature. But, in her opinion there is another trend as well. Some artists see video as a visual language and use the medium to research alternative visual formats.

As an example, she pointed out Ebru Özseven who choses very banal topics to manipulate our perception of time. In a video work entitled Bitter Chocolate, she captures the action of making a chocolate cake. By varying speeds of the action, taping one minute very slow and the next a bit faster, she produces a type of visual game that allows a detailed observation of this act. Making a cake takes on a dream-like state and becomes an artistic action. More than documentation, through experimentation with the tools of video, Ebru searches for different visual formats and each frame of the video becomes like a painting. (6)

Ali Akay, believes that after 2000, digital prints, digital videos, and video installations have begun to have an exchange value in the art market, but the number of galleries and collectors is still very limited. Gradually a new generation of art collectors who watched MTV, grew up watching television, playing video games and were exposed to video art during their travels abroad has begun to emerge. In his opinion, little difference exists between western art and art made in Turkey, but Turkish artists finding it hard to finance artwork, may go into advertising or filmmaking as their predominant profession.

Seza Paker’s artistic endeavors exemplify the type of work Akay finds significant. She uses traditional materials such as paint, pencil, ink, clippings from newspapers, pages from her sketchbooks together with new materials, animation, video and photography, to show a mental process. For example, to create a multiple layered piece, she combines photographs of a space with drawings, then photographs this combination, and next incorporates these into a video work. After manipulating sound and adding subtitles her work becomes a perfect example of work referred to by Robert Morgan as post perceptual. For another piece, she first videoed her designs, then photographed the video of her designs, later made an animated film of the photographs of her video, and finally drew designs of the animation. Akay called this virtual journey a cybertrip, a term he took from Hegel. After finishing the cybertrip, she shows the designs along side the video and photographs. In this manner, she not only mixes materials for individual artworks, but also shows a mixture of techniques side by side in one exhibition space. (7)

One of the younger cuarators, Erden Kosova, says that the contemporary art production in Turkey of the last decade has been heavily based on techniques of narration related to the complex social texture of the country fed by numerous traumas, political and cultural conflicts with little emphasis on epistemological reflection or experimentation with the used material and technology. The relative poverty experienced in the first fifty years of the Turkish Republic produced a cultural environment tending to employ and recycle 'poor material'. The first generation of artists that used some form of new media followed Arte Povera tradition while the later generation of younger artists ironised this 'belated' arrival of modernization. The younger artists have had more access to foreign art catalogues and magazines, first-hand encounters during the Istanbul Biennials with the artists and works produced elsewhere and opportunities for artist-in-residence programmes, grants or scholarships in Western and Northern Europe. Therefore, they adopted the recent technologies of presentation [digital editing, projection etc.] successfully, but they retained this use as instrumental to develop their narrative works. (8)

Levent Calıkoğlu emphasized the lack of technical support. Galleries and artists do not have the equipment that is available during the biennials. Since few artists own their own cameras, a type of cooperative sharing takes place. Artists borrow equipment from the few who own computers or cameras. Without understanding the concepts, theory or history, younger artists tend to use video because it is fashionable. While the 2001 biennial showed the highly sophisticated productions of such western artists as Chris Cunningham, the 2003 biennial by not placing emphasis on technical expertise could include more of the naive, almost amateur video work done in Turkey. (9)

Documentary or Pseudo-Documentary Video Work

All the curators agreed that most Turkish video work is documentary or pseudo-documentary. Each mentioned Kutluğ Ataman, the most internationally known Turkish artist working in this genre. He participated in the 1997 5 th Istanbul Biennial, 1999 Venice Biennial, 2002 Sao Paulo Biennial, 2002 Documenta 11 in Kassel, and the 2003 Tate Triennial. Coming from a background in filmmaking, he makes hybrid work that brings together fictional film, documentary video, and even the genre of pornography. For his video installation, Women Who Wear Wigs, Kutluğ arranged four video projections side by side to show interviews he had made with a prostitute, a woman with cancer, a Moslem student (who would only allow her voice to be recorded), and a transvestite.

Figure 7. Women Who Wear Wigs, Kutluğ Ataman, 1999

Another artist mentioned by all the curators, Esra Ersen, comes from a background in fine arts, but uses the language of documentary to poetically present social situations. She participated in the Istanbul 1995 4 th Istanbul, the Biennial 2002 Manifesta 4 in Frankfurt, the 2003 8 th Istanbul Biennial, and showed work in 2003 at the Walker Art Center in the USA. For the video work Brothers and Sisters, she gained the trust of illegal immigrants living in Istanbul and taped them in their natural surroundings. For the Turkish spectator who is used to thinking of the Turk as the migrant worker abroad, it was interesting to be reminded of the numerous African, Bulgarian, Moldavian illegal workers living in Turkey. This led to a realization that these illegal workers in their own country are more marginal than the Turkish workers in Europe who do have a legal status.

Figure 8. Brothers and Sisters, Esra Ersen, 2003

After the birth of her first child, Canan Şenol, another young artist compared her post-natal home confinement in a modern apartment building with that of a confined prisoner. During this period of her life, she made a pseudo-documentary piece about the inmates of Turkish prisons that were conducting a hunger strike against the use of single cell, increased surveillance new prison units that would replace the traditional community-type prisons. For this poetic work, Şenol interviewed the strikers and arranged images of these interviewees in a rotating four-cell grid with images of their only nourishment; sugar cubes, sugared water, and sponges for wetting their lips.

Figure 9. Hunger Strike, Canon Şenol, 2000

Another young artist from Eastern Turkey, Halil Altindere, who participated in the 1997 5 th International Istanbul Biennial, works not only as an artist, but also as an artist/curator. He believes there is a danger that spectators can be mesmerized by technology, and totally overlook gaining an understanding of the concept of a work. Perhaps coming from a marginal culture makes him particularly sensitive to the various sub-cultures living in the city of Istanbul. His film, Who are you Looking At ? while appearing to be spontaneous, is actually staged. (10) Most people living in Istanbul would not object to being filmed. To attain the atmosphere of aggression, he asked various members of the Istanbul sub-culture who live in the city center to scream at and attack his camera. In this manner, he created a fictional narrative that resembles a documentary video.

Figure 10. Who are you looking at? Halil Altindere, 2002

Şener Özmen who lives and works in the eastern city of Diyarbakır creates work that ironically depicts his marginal position. In his film that uses low technology, Road to Tate Modern, he portrays a Don Quixote type figure that travels across the roughed terrain of Eastern Turkey searching for the route to the Tate Modern. In this video, he spoke in Kurdish and later added English subtitles.

Figure 11. Road to the Tate Modern, Şener Özmen, 2003

Coming from an older generation of artists, Gülsün Karamustafa, who participated in both the 1992 2 nd and 1995 4 th International Istanbul Biennial, had worked in the 1980s and early 90s as an art director and film maker. Known particularly for her interest in issues related to migration and the kitsch life style in Turkey, she made her first art film in the late 1990s. Feeling a need to attain a high quality of image and sound, she chose to work with a professional crew and professional artists. In her short film entitled Men Crying she used three male professional actors who had been very famous in 1970 Turkish cinema to act out her scenario depicting Turkish men’s methods of showing emotion. Filmed in black and white, this film seems to take on the characteristics of a melodramatic 1970 film, but it still captures a quality of timelessness. (11)

Figure 12. Men Crying, Gülsün Karamustafa, 2001

Local Universities

At present there are no video art or new media departments in local universities. Youth wishing to become professional video art filmmakers enroll in photography, cinema, or visual communications departments of the university. Most artists presently making video work have fine arts backgrounds and are mainly self-taught. Recently a few universities have begun to teach animation, web design, and sound engineering.

Elif Çelebi who teaches at the Marmara University makes aesthetic video works such as Desire, a film she made for an exhibition curated by Ali Akay about a modern version of Dante’s Devine Comedy.

Figure 13. Desire, Elif Çelebi, 2001

Çevdet Erek an architect/sound engineer who both studies and teaches at Istanbul Technical University made a video/sound installation for the 8th International Istanbul Biennial. In his work, either he begins with visual images and brings them into a relationship with sound or he begins with sounds and puts them into a relationship with images. (2) For his 2002 video installation, In the Courtyard, he used three DVD projections to show manipulated images of his university’s exterior and 6 speakers to generate the sound of the environment. The installation with distorted images of buildings was reminiscent of the chaos and distruction after an earthquake.

Genco Gulan, who studied at the New School in New York and teaches computer design at Yedi Tepe University believes “new media” defined as a combination of bio-technology, artificial intelligence, and digital communication technologies, will bring radical changes not only in the arts but also in all fields of life. In a video piece called “Grundig” he filmed a female swim team playing rugby underwater with a TV monitor as the ball. He made this piece that shows a power struggle in which players try to both capture and get rid of the screen, to symbolize his love/hate relationship with media. (13)

Selim Birsel who teaches at Sabancı University makes videos that depend totally on perception. Some of his films resemble MTV video clips that capture a time between sleep and wakening.

Figure 14. Selim Birsel

Ali Demirel an Ankara based artist who spent several years working with media art in the United States makes political statements. In his video entitled Why is it This Way? he downloaded and manipulated images from the television broadcasts of the 2002 election campaign. Other examples of his work can be seen at www.magnetmus.net. Halil Altindere selected this piece for one of the exhibitions he curated for Proje 4L in 2003.

Figure 15. Why is it this way? Ali Demirel, 2002

Internet as Exhibition Space

While virtual art tends to be relatively unique here, there are several important examples. In 2000 two artists, Güven Incirlioğlu who teaches at Yıldız Univiversity in Istanbul and Hakan Topal who works in the New Media section of the New Museum in New York City, created an online collective dedicated to art and politics that was included in the 8th Istanbul International Biennial. Using photographic tools and exchanging data between New York and Istanbul, these artists surreyed the urban landscape siding with the losers to show, the desolate, neglected, ruined, derelict individual living a peripheral existence. Realizing that both the east and west have oppressed and deceived people struggling to exist with the present disparate distribution of capital and power, they made their online project called www.xurban.net. (14)

Başak Şenova, one of Turkey’s youngest curators is particularly interested in promoting new media art work. In our e-mail communication she said that since new media signifies a potential for innovatively using emerging digital communication technologies within the field of contemporary art to broaden the boundaries of modes of presentation, all of the artists in Turkey working with video can not be considered as new media artists. In her opinion, a conceptually sophisticated artwork always needs to be connected to the discourse of its medium/media. (15)

Şenova has been working with several groups to promote new media endeavors. For instance, in 2002, she worked with a group of engineers, designers, architects, curators and writers to found ‘NOMAD’ ( http://www.nomad-tv.net) with the aim of searching for experimental approaches to digital art.    

Since then, she has also helped to launch several projects such as CTRL_ALT-DEL ( http://www.project-ctrl-alt-del.com), Turkey’s first sound-art endeavor. Between September and November of 2002 in Maastricht, Netherlands, and Istanbul, Turkey, more than 30 people from 16 different countries participated in workshops, panels, performances, and made a website and an exhibition centered around new media.  

Furthermore, the 2003 site-specific project, memetics, encoded interactive responses from viewers as sounds, actions, and visuals of knowledge to create a narrative quality. Also in 2003, over a three-day period, working in a public art project, GLASSIGHTS, http://www.kuzudesign.com/glassights artists projected their video work onto the panes of three windows of an apartment/gallery. In this project, while proposing ways of perceiving the city and being an inhabitant of the city, these artists also re-considered the inherited physical implications of looking at and through window-glass.

A web-based project launched in early 2004, projectpitch, used identical visual images from different geographic areas such as the USA, Turkey, The Netherlands, China, Hong Kong, Russia, and Scandinavia, to research problems related to globalization. Later in 2004, they plan to capture live video images of people in three different cities as they move through urban spaces for a series of installations entitled urbanflows. This project will use Max/MSP/Jitter and custom software mobile telephony. At the present, this group is also collaborating with the Israeli Center for Digital Art, Holon, to originate other new-media related projects. (16)

There are several other artists who have on-line projects: Aras Özgün, A turkish video artist and scholar, lives and work in NY. http://www.pyromedia.org He is the co-founder of Turkish Autonomous group www.Korotonomedya.net; Mali Üzelgün is currently publishing Kısa Devre, a periodical published in various formats, including internet, video, CD, posters http://www.korotonomedya.net; Genco Gulan has created an on-line museum called www.istanbulmuseum.org



1. Interview with Beral Madra, Istanbul, Turkey, November 9, 2003

2 Interview with Ethem Özgüven, Istanbul, Turkey, January 9, 2004

3 Interview with Vasıf Kortun, Istanbul, Turkey, December 5, 2003

4 Interview with Fikret Atay, Istanbul, Turkey, January 10, 2004

5 Julia Caniglia, “Henry Urbach Architecture”, Art Forum, May, 2000.

6 Interview with Fülya Erdemci, Istanbul, Turkey, January 9, 2004

7 Interview with Ali Akay, Istanbul, Turkey, January 7, 2004.

8 Interview with Erden Kosova, email, January 6, 2004.

9 Interview with Levent Çalıkoğlu, Istanbul, Turkey, January 13, 2004.

10 Interview with Halil Altindere, Istanbul, Turkey, January 10, 2004.

11 Interview with Gülsün Karamustafa, January 9, 2004.

12 Interview with Çevdet Erek, Istanbul, Turkey January 20, 2004.

13 Interview with Genco Gulan, Istanbul, Turkey, October 29, 2003.

14 Interview with Hakan Topal, email, January 19, 2004.

15 Interview with Başak, Şenol, email, January 22, 2004.

16 Interview with Çevdet Erek, Istanbul, Turkey, January 20, 2004



Note: Taken from her paper "New Media from the Periphery" in Constructing Boundaries - the Discourse of New Media Aesthetics (February 20, 2004, Seattle CAA Panel Presentation)

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