Köken Ergun interviewed by November Paynter
August 2006
Published in PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art, issue 85, December 2006, New York. Reprinted by permission of PAJ Publications/The MIT Press

Born in 1976, in Istanbul, Köken Ergun studied with actress Y¦ld¦z Kenter and playwright Güngör Dilmen at the Istanbul University Acting Department, followed by a postgraduate diploma in Ancient Greek Theatre at London’s King’s College. He holds a Masters degree from the Istanbul Bilgi University Visual Communication Design Department, with his dissertation entitled Stress on the Contemporary Body in New Media Arts. An earlier Post-Graduate Diploma dissertation was written on The Representation of Iphigenia in Euripides, Racine and Goethe. Ergun is currently a Phd candidate at the Theatre Dramaturgy Department of the Istanbul University.

Between 1998 and 2001 Ergun worked as Assistant Director to Robert Wilson on productions such as The Days Before: Death Destruction & Detroit III. In 2001, he presented his first solo work, a large-scale installation performance, in Istanbul’s Rumeli Fortress. This initial step into art performance led Ergun to move into the field of art video and performance and he began exhibiting in Europe and the United States, at institutions including KIASMA Museum of Contemporary Arts (Helsinki), Platform Garanti Contemporary Art Center (Istanbul), Exit Art (NYC), Art in General (NYC), Badischer Kunstverein (Karlsruhe), Sparwasser HQ (Berlin) and Sculpturens Hus (Stockholm). His video works have been screened in film festivals in Europe at both the Oberhausen Film Festival, the Odense Film Festival and at The Amsterdam Documentary Film Festival. In 2004 Ergun was an artist-in-residency in New York, at Location One and he is currently an artist-in-residence at Kuenstlerhauser Worpswede, Germany and the Foreign Artist Exhange of the Austrian Government, in Vienna.

Köken, please tell us a little about your interest in theatre and performance and how you moved away from these fields to begin working in the field of contemporary art.

I think I have always been “dramatic” in a sense. When I was a child I always dreamt of “the other”, almost always being better, stronger than “the self”, but not because I was unhappy with my current state or upbringing. I think I just liked fictionalising and dreaming for the sake of creating a different world around me. So I would dramatize other states, other people, like I was creating my own mythology. My roots go back to the lands of the Ancient Greeks of Asia Minor so I was already very familiar with the myths and legends of the Aegean from an early age. One of the reasons I wanted to study theatre was because of this connection with Greek mythology and theatre.

Maybe I also sensed an existential suffocation at that early age towards the greater world (not necessarily to my immediate surroundings) and escaped from that general reality by being dramatic. Istanbul is a very gray city, it can be very depressing in the winter, very misty and dirty, even more so during my childhood. Not everybody is lucky enough to have a fantastic view of the city or the Bosphorus, and sometimes all you see is a gray city skyline, a poor skyline. I remember Istanbul being perpetually gray, and even as a child I understood about the political struggles and the hard times that consumed it. I knew that there was a better world out there, one that was not so full of struggle and political contestation. So I pictured our surrounding reality from the position of different characters all the time. I could easily relate to those who didn’t live in Istanbul, those that came from other places, non-places. I still like these non-places and enjoy the ability tolocate myself somewhere else that is not necessarily anywhere in particular.

Through this relationship with a drama of sorts, I ended up being accepted to an acting school having attended an audition merely to test my abilities. I entered prematurely which perhaps manifested its problems later on and thus I soon realised that theatre was not for me. Or rather this form of representation was not for me. I didn’t find it sincere. I disliked all those Checkovs and Shakespeares. They didn’t fit my body, my body was too Eastern for them. But the teachers forced us to adjust our bodies to these heavy minded creatures that existed in their plays. For me there was little of interest in theatre produced between the time of the Ancient Greek writers and Beckett. The body in these two examples were closer to mine. All the plays and characters that came after Euripides and before Beckett were a mere nuisance to me. With a few exceptions of course, like Maeterlinck who I still feel comfortable with.

Then, just as I was preparing for auditions for film schools I found myself working with Robert Wilson. He showed me a different aspect of theatre. He made me aware of the importance of timing. Not specifically his own timing, but a sense for timing in/for a work of art. I think this is one of the most important elements of art production. It is all about timing, as Bob (Robert Wilson) would say.

Bob wouldn’t “teach” me things, he wouldn’t teach anyone anything. What he did was much more interesting, he would create a space for you to think that there is an alternative. This is very important and many people who criticize his work today overlook this important motive in his practice. Once you understand that there is another, you can move on yourself. This is pretty much similar to the teachings of Shamanism, Taoism, or that of Bektashis in Turkey. As soon as I understood this other, I moved towards contemporary art and away from theatre, also away from Bob’s work, which I found a very natural development, and I think he would be comfortable with it too. So, with this new sense of timing that I had acquired, I felt more comfortable working in the field of contemporary art, especially with video and performative video.

Can you explain why you chose not to pursue this new sense of timing within the genre of performance itself and instead chose to work mainly with video, which steps away from the act of live performance into that of documentation?

I am still not content with the representation techniques of either theatre or performance. Many things disappear in repetition or staging. In other words, there are two kinds of performance: the first is performed not for the sake of performance, but for any other reason, either to continue the flow of life (like eating or sex) or to serve a cultural reason (like discipline or punishment). I call this life performance as opposed to live performance. The second is performance made only for the sake of re-performing these first forms of performance. It is pure repetition, but we are somewhat afraid to call it so. We call it art instead. We call it theatre. Brecht said “everything is theatre”. It is true, but then why repeat it on stage and ruin it? I have gradually come to have a problem with this. When I was in the first years of my acting studies I absolutely loved the idea (of mimesis), but now I prefer the first form of performance, the natural one. Actually you don’t even need to describe it as natural because there should not be an unnatural. Just like the Chinese do not specify gender in language, so being male or female doesn’t mean anything and being naked doesn’t mean anything either... I want the Western world to be more like this in terms of performance.

It would be interesting if there were no theatre for a while, no stage, no performances, just a very long hiatus; during which period we can come to accept that everything is an act of performance by itself, without direction by another. The world exists and moves by itself, not by mankind. The whole idea behind Western performing arts is the central figure “I”. And this is why I don’t like the theatre we see everywhere, or the performances we see in the art world. The most selfish “I” is still too central. Both the actor and the director think that by putting themselves in the foreground they will achieve something. What they achieve is a perfect repetition. Or perfect egoism. But, I think to re-present a performance (of the first form) by another un-live medium like video is more interesting. This is why I started to document performances of the first kind and apply my own direction with a very little editing, just to help link the timing of the individual segments into a single work. I don’t want to add more to the original performance I have simply filmed.

There seems to be a strong tendency for artists in the region of the South East Mediterranean and East Europe to work in the medium of video and often by using some form of documentary technique. Reasons for this include the relatively cheap cost of shooting simple handheld video footage, the ease of sending work abroad for exhibition and the perception of curators from overseas who still seem to prefer work that depicts other cultures as succinctly as possible. Along with a shift towards photography this similar approach to video was prevalent in the Free Kick exhibition presented during the 9th Istanbul Biennial and in which you participated. Can you comment on the commonality of video in the region?

I think it is not only these practical reasons that make video a preferred medium amongst artists in the Middle East. I think we have much to tell and video seems to be the perfect medium for this. Video is an extension of film, which is an extension of theatre, which is an extension of performance, which is an extension of ritual. All of these creative forms contain drama in it one way or another. Or rather a form of story telling, if we attribute an Eastern term instead of the Western use of “drama.” If you look at the region’s past; painting and sculpture have not been a common artistic practice for story telling. While in Christian culture they prospered due to their depiction of religious myths backed by the church. Islam and Judaism prohibited any visual representation of religious figures or myths. Therefore, painting does not exist in the same way as a driving force for contemporary fine art practice in this region. In the same way periods such as Abstract creativity did not emerge in the medium of painting, but proffered more in the form of literature (mostly poetry), and much later, via a borrowed modernism, from film. A clear example of this is the strength of filmmaking in Iran. On the other hand, for us documentation is also a way of story telling, because I think there is so much happening in the region that it cannot be interpreted in a logical way. We like to capture and represent narratives with no personal commentary, either visual or verbal. So the documented event tells its own story.

This does not mean that our Western counterparts have less to tell. But I do believe that they have been saying the same things for over a century now. Back in the 30s, one of the strongest critics of the modern Western individual, Robert Musil argued in his The Man Without Qualities that “in history there is no change.” The exhaustion of the Western civilization, and the Western self (again the “I”) was almost complete at the time of his writing. Since then the dam has not broken, it has not even cracked. Western society continues to chew over what it already had in its mouth back then. I think in the Eastern parts of the world we have more food on our plates, so we don’t hold it in our mouths for so long, we either spit it out in anger, or digest as much as we can. I think mediums that have more “storage space” for story telling transform our large resources and our desire to project them in a more productive way. Painting, sculpture and even photography have less storage space in this sense, so maybe that’s why we resort to video.

Those who left Turkey in the 60/70s to follow opportunities in Europe and America rarely returned. But, now the trend appears to have shifted and this generation find it more productive to divide their time between home and away, and to communicate the inspiration they get from life in Turkey elsewhere and to share their experience of living elsewhere back home. Your movements over the last six years, with periods spent in Istanbul, London and New York, exemplify this tendency. But you maintain that your inspiration nearly always comes from home, in particular from Istanbul. Do you therefore find it beneficial to produce work elsewhere with distance from the original subject and in the context of a different form of cultural perception and how do you differentiate the way you experience and are inspired by your home city of Istanbul and other cities you have lived in such as London and New York?

I have never been as inspired by any city other than Istanbul. This doesn’t mean that most of my works taste of Istanbul, as they say. I think it is the embodiment of the city and its character in my work, and in my character. In a city you grow up in and interact with; you copy attributes of its architecture, its people, its public transportation system, its nightlife. I operate pretty much like the architecture of Istanbul for example. And with architecture I am talking about is the architecture that you wouldn’t even call architecture. It is an architecture that develops not according to styles or creators (again the “I”), but according to necessity and flow of daily life. So just like the two forms of performance I described earlier, architecture also comes in two forms. It is the first form that integrated with my body, but the second I was taught to integrate my body with.

Unfortunately, in modern Turkey we are being taught to live in the organized and self-centred created by Western culture. Just imagine: teaching a child of Istanbul to live as a Western urban citizen in an organized system. Imagine what he sees around him and what he is taught. This is why the new expensive schools in Istanbul are built outside the city like gated communities of say 70s/80s London, so that the children of wealthy or pretentious Western-type families can’t see the real world outside. This points out the most obvious character of Istanbul: it is a city of dichotomies. This city is the epitome of being ‘bi-’. It can embody any given attribute in two or more different states at the same time with an absolute chaotic comfort. For example, if you leave it to its most natural form, many Western attributes will not apply here. But, we don’t leave it to its natural form. We force it to change. We raped this city and its people to look like, to feel like, to walk like, to dress like Westerners. The petrified, mutant body that comes out of this rape is what inspires me the most. And ironically I am one of these mutant bodies, so I constantly question my own existence and my own positioning in Istanbul first as a micro-cosmos and also in the world as a macro-cosmos. Therefore, being away from Istanbul and re-thinking it from a Western geography and
culture does lead to a more cohesive understanding of my own self and culture.

On the other hand, in Western cities I am more interested in the minorities than the indigenous community. In New York for example, I am inspired by black culture. Although we Turks have no immediate historical or geographical similarities with them, I feel closer to them for some reason. I think it is something to do with trying to distance oneself from colonial attitudes. I first felt this attraction to black culture at a nightclub, in one of the old Body & Soul parties. Everyone was dancing with the same enthusiasm and exorcism I saw in the countryside of Turkey. I was not taught to dance like that, I was taught to imitate the Western detached way of dancing. It is very hard to explain. I can’t describe it with words...

Two recent works in particular reflect on the mutant body. The first is “Untitled”, 2004 and the second “I, Soldier”, 2005. In Untitled you present a series of self-portraits of yourself applying and donning a variety of headscarves in different styles and with different ties devised by a range of Islamic traditions. Viewing a man undertake this procedure at first gives the work a comic stance, but the austerity and seriousness of his intent and later his tears imply the societal contradictions and trauma that this solitary appendage induces. Whereas “Untitled” is concerned with a female, religious relationship with the bigger societal picture, “I, Soldier” presents the opposite extreme of bodily trauma experienced in Turkey, that from a male, secular position. Filmed during a national day dedicated to the youth of the republic, this two-channel work shows a soldier voicing with grandiose authority a nationalistic military poem. In Turkey every male youth must complete a period in the military and many view this imposition as a form of mental and bodily trauma. In “I, Soldier” it is not only those in official uniform that are seen going about their regulated duties, but also boys from the military school who perform rehearsed activities either in synchronisation with the rest of the group, or its antithesis - in competition against one another. Can you describe your interest in specific cultural bodily trauma in the two works “Untitled”, 2004 and “I, Soldier”, 2005.

Both are similar in the way they deal with the mutant body I mentioned earlier and its dichotomies (I deliberately use it as plural) - in both works I celebrate these dichotomies. The headscarf piece Untitled was inspired by a deliberate and ugly act of the current president of Turkey. The wearing of headscarves is not permitted in state controlled spaces in Turkey, such as its universities, court-houses and even the parliament for that matter. Despite Turkey being one of the strictest secular countries in the world, its public elected a conservative party with Islamic tendencies, which was actually quite successful for a while. However, as soon as they came to power the lowbrow, high-bureaucrats and the army started to exaggerate the headscarf issue, which has been an ongoing argument since the 70s. On the Republic Day the president always hosts a ball at the presidential palace, which is also another state space where headscarves should normally not be allowed. But, because almost all wives of the members of the Justice and Development Party wear türban (headscarves), in order to avoid this clash of the secular and sacred, the president arranged for and
distributed one-person invitations for the ball, in effect allowing only the husbands to attend. This outraged me and I wanted to apply the stress of living with a headscarf on my own body. So I made Untitled in which I wore different types of headscarves over and over until eventually I burst into tears at the end.

The work I, Soldier is a personal exorcism about my fear of the military discipline and also my secret attraction to its male qualities. There are two national days in Turkey dedicated to certain age-groups: the 23rd of April (denouncing the Ottoman parliament in Istanbul and opening of the new Turkish parliament in Ankara in 1920) is dedicated to kids of primary school age, and the 19th of May (the start of the war of independence against the Allies in 1919) is dedicated to the youth of high school age. So, during one’s schooling, you experience both of these horrid relics. For the celebrations, children are trained to take part in choreographed performances, which take place in the biggest stadium in the city. And despite the bitter Istanbul weather (it often rains during these two days and is even colder in the East of the country) you are forced to wear tights, march around the running circuit, salute the mayor and an available general, make ridiculous movements, mimicking both the socialist-realist ceremonies (and some of the Russian Futurists for that matter) and the Olympic games... So one day, I decided to video tape all the state day celebrations of the Turkish republic one by one, thinking that I would put them all together at the end. But, there was one soldier that I came almost face-to-face with in the stadium, screaming nationalism from the top of his lungs, and it was his position that encouraged me to make a single work around the May 19th celebrations. Every male citizen of Turkey has to do his military service for twelve months and I still haven’t done mine because I am studying. When I listened to this one soldier it occurred to me that I would be trained in the same manner whenever I do my military service. Even after months of completing the work, I am still afraid of him, my hair stands on end when I hear him screaming. The more I show him to other people the better I will exorcise him. So I think it is a very personal work, but it also means a lot in different ways to other people. One European curator resembled it to Leni Riefensthal’s Olympia for instance.

Do you think that the bodily stress that you perceive in these subjects is just that, a perceived stress from outside, or is it a stress that is also endured by the subject and how do you differentiate between the two?

In Untitled, it is her stress and my stress combined, and both are very internal. In other words, I didn’t make this video as an Orientalist would write about Beirut from his cold home in Weimar... The headscarf issue has been an ongoing issue for the Turkish public as long as I remember. It is all around us, whether you are a believer or not. So there is absolutely no way of staying perpetually isolated from this bleeding wound in our society. Over the years, my observations accumulated to be able to have a general idea of what these women are facing and prior to performing the piece for video, I spent time with friends and distant relatives who wear headscarves. I have listened to their stories about the hardships as well as the comfort of wearing a headscarf. You would always read such stories in newspapers, or see it on television, but this is perceiving the stress from the outside, because there is the medium of “the media” in between you and the subject. And most of the media in Turkey is either pretentious (mimicking the West), or
controlled in one way or another by the state or corporations who suck on the tits of the state. But when you have a closer human contact with the türbanl¦lar (Turkish slang for women who wear headscarf: türbanl¦) you can appreciate their dilemma more. On the one hand, you have the Islam religion, which says you have to obey the book, Kuran-¦ Kerim, which in turn says all female believers should cover every part of their body, but the face and hands. If you consider yourself a Muslim woman, you must apply this to yourself. At least this is what they believe. Then on the other hand, you have a republic of only eighty something years on top of an Islamic empire of five hundred years who prohibits women covering their head in state controlled spaces. Is this freedom?

Of course a third aspect to the story is radical Islam, which we Turks knew and experienced centuries before the West woke up to its reality after 9/11. Radical Islam is operated solely by male power and intellect, and often uses the turban as a symbol for their case against the secular state. They often use the word “chastity” in relationship with the turban, placing the other women who don’t wear it in the category of prostitutes, and this in return forces the turban wearing women, to act like symbols of chastity. Can you
imagine a bigger stress than this? At the end, as you can see there are three major kinds of stress imposed on a türbanl¦ women; one by the religion which orders them to cover up, the other by the state which “encourages” them not to, and third by the radical Islamists who uses them as the symbol of their case/movement. Therefore, women who wear türban cannot be free and detached from all these major stressors, but they will also not go out there and scream at the top of their voices that they are stressed. To think like this is very naïve. So they often keep the depression inside, which I find very sad, and unfair. It is these feelings, which bring me close to them. I know that having been raised with a secular-Western attitude, I cannot fully appreciate their situation, but I definitely got a hint of it when I was wearing these turbans and constantly watching myself in the mirror. It helps to deconstruct your given identity for a moment.

I, Soldier” was shown in the hospitality zone of the 9th Istanbul Biennial in the exhibition “Free Kick. A number of works in this exhibition caused political backlashes. Were you concerned that your piece could create controversy in this context?

I was a little bit concerned about the specific soldier in the work, who reads the poem. I recorded his entire performance at a very close angle and didn’t ask his officialpermission. But on the other hand, this entire performance in the stadium is open to public and anybody is allowed to film it. That is the whole idea behind this public performance, promoting pride and honour of your homeland. I had infiltrated into an area where only press is permitted, but still, as part of the loose discipline that you see in Turkish police, the guards who are supposed to control that area didn’t even ask me what I was doing. If you look “different” enough, they wont touch you. They think you are the other, eccentric media/artist type. This is part of the chain of dichotomies that I keep talking about. The irregular but friendly use of discipline in Turkey is something I absolutely adore. The Western world would describe this as “uncivilized.”

Showing your works in different locations can result in complex questions that relate to locality and geography. “Untitled”, (2004) was recently shown in New York, how do you feel this work translated in this specific context and how was the response to the work different in New York to the response it received in Turkey?

Most viewers there found it beautiful, and intriguing. I can never forget an Upper East side type woman with heavy make up and huge hair exclaiming: “Oh wow! This is so beautiful, I’d love to have it in my living room!” If you don’t know the wide conflicts around the issue of the headscarf, it is natural that you would find it beautiful, because in a way it is also playing with religious portraits in Western art but this is not the primary concern of the piece. My concern was more about portraying the stress on the female
Islamic persona, enforced by the secular state. First of all, although America is defined in its constitution as a secular state, in practice I believe that it does not truly maintain a secular situation. Therefore, Americans are not familiar with the secular sanctions against religious practitioners, as you would see in France or Turkey. It is not part of their life yet, but I am sure it will be. This work can best be understood by viewers who are enlightened about Islamic practices, because it is complex and confusing enough and I like that, I like to point in one direction, but shoot in another. For example, although I have a critical approach to the military pride in I, Soldier, I also like the fact that some elder women in Istanbul cried while watching the work. They thought it promoted the army in a very strong way. You see, nowadays because of the new government the army is criticized a lot in public and the elder generation finds it hard to believe because they are still under the impression that they lived with its support for so many years. When I showed it to my mother and aunts they also thought I was promoting being a soldier in Turkey.

The performance “Homeland Security” that you made while on residency in New York refers to a more recently enforced form of bodily stress that in America became most evident after 9/11. By introducing a security control at the gallery entrance were you more interested in exploring the audience’s reaction or the effect of the work as a statement within your own practice?

Both. It was a playful work, even a nasty one. Like in Untitled and I, Soldier it points in one direction, but shoots in another. It was dealing with a form of discipline we were already accustomed to in the Middle East, but was new to the West at that time. When I was working for the Istanbul Festivals I witnessed many Western audience members complaining about our routine security checks prior to their entrance to the concert halls. Some guests arrogantly attributed this to Turkey being a police state, and some argued that it was a violation of human rights. They simply didn’t comprehend why such controls were necessary and didn’t have the remotest idea how they could be daily routine for us. After 9/11 the “Free West” became introduced to the security discipline of the “Policed East.” However, the art world was still immune from these security checks, so when I was invited to make a new work for a public art exhibition called Public Execution that used Exit Art as their opening venue, I wanted to see all the so called “art elite” subject to a
security check. Virtually every guest was surprised to see be confronted by a metal detector and two security officials waiting for them. While some guests were obviously annoyed, the majority entered in silent submission. Almost nobody thought that it was a work in the exhibition, which I liked a lot. I also deliberately used African American security officers to add to the stress, and documented the whole process with three cameras.

In New York you did produce several works related to the local context. How do you feel that the new influences that surround you in Germany and Austria, where you are currently based, will affect your artistic practice in the short and longer term? Will these other cultures ever inspire you more than home?

They both trigger different kinds of inspirations. I have found home away from home in Berlin for example. I am working with Turkish immigrants, shooting their wedding ceremonies. Weddings are another form of life performance for me and the Turkish community in Berlin is very “grotesque,” stuck between their conservative but relaxed Eastern origins and a liberal but uptight society. In a way, I have found the perfect Turkish mutant bodies in Germany, and to see them perform with their confused identities within the traditional ceremony of a wedding refreshes me. I am planning to represent this condition of the “grotesque” in my new works.

Of course, in Europe, wherever there are immigrants, there is also nationalism, and even racism. In Austria this is strikingly noticeable. Last year, during an election campaign, the ever-homogenous streets of Vienna were adorned by the billboards of a right wing political party that read “Vienna Will Not Be Istanbul”. This text was accompanied by a portrait of the party leader, his arms crossed, trying to look serious, but with a stupid grin on his face. It was frightening. This form of constipated racism infuriates me, but it also gives me a lot of material to work with. In general, I have serious issues with nationalism. I find it dangerous and aesthetic at the same time; very performative. In my works I have been trying to deal with this phenomena, and what I see in present day Europe drives me to keep working with it. Ironically, nationalism is as yet still a baby. It is a relatively recent product of the dual revolution (the French Revolution and the British Industrial Revolution). This new-born nationalism finally led the world to its partial destruction in the 1st World War. Despite this destruction humankind cultivated it into a form of racism, which in turn caused the 2nd World War. I think that this history is only the teenage angst of nationalism and there is so much more to come. I won’t be so naïve to say that art can save us from this evil, but it can at least propose a different perspective. I myself would be happy if I can facilitate this slightly. Therefore, yes, in general the West
also inspires me.