BY Sam Thorne in Interviews | 21 AUG 15
Featured in
Issue 173

All Together

Sam Thorne discusses activism, collaboration and the uses of absurdity with Ahmet Öğüt

BY Sam Thorne in Interviews | 21 AUG 15

Over the last dozen years, Ahmet Öğüt has realized close to 70 works around the world, from New York to Amman. His sheer busyness can seem almost antic. Projects have ranged from temporary tattoos to an affordable eye-tracking system for people who have been paralyzed, from hybridized cars to a vip lounge for art-fair interns. Though seriously intentioned, Öğüt has an affection for the surreal: there was 203 Mehmet yildizs (2009), a football match in which all 22 players were named Mehmet Yildiz (the commentary sounds like a nonsense poem) and Ahmet Cevdet Bey Presents Tunnel of Fear (2011), for which Öğüt ‘fused’ with the artist Cevdet Erek to become a failed alchemist named Ahmet Cevdet Bey. More recently, though, the jokes have become serious, even angry, with short-term projects replaced by slowly unfurling campaigns. The last few years have seen Öğüt initiate The Silent University, a nomadic place of learning run by asylum-seekers, as well as a debt-relief programme for students.

We met in New York on a sweltering afternoon in late May. For a couple of hours, we wandered around the Lower East Side, discussing his thoughts on collaboration, activism and absurdity and his recent solo exhibitions – both retrospectives of sorts, but very different ones – at the Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, and the Chisenhale Gallery, London.

Somebody Else’s Car, 2005, two-channel slide projection. Courtesy: the artist

Sam Thorne  The first work of yours I saw was ‘Somebody Else’s Car’ (2005), a series of photographs that show you deftly applying pieces of paper to a couple of parked vehicles in order to transform them into a taxi cab and a police car. In one of the images you’re just a blur, fleeing the scene. It seems to me that this is one of your recurring strategies: a speedy intervention followed by your sudden disappearance.

Ahmet Öğüt  ‘Somebody Else’s Car’ asks several questions that are still present in my practice. Where does an artwork, and the role of the artist, begin and end? Over the years, my work has developed from object-based artworks to platforms, campaigns, debates, rumours, challenges, failures and surprises. Sometimes they make a demand for structural change. In turn, I have transformed from a prankster to an initiator, interventionist, negotiator or mediator. My instinct has always been the same: not to limit myself to practical jokes within the symbolic realm but rather to address and repurpose different social structures.

My disappearance isn’t so much about leaving as about the moment of shifting a position. I want to experience a work as anybody else might, as a guest. Instead of being obsessed with ownership or authorship, I would rather be a passerby.

ST  A few years after ‘Somebody Else’s Car’, you explored the language of surveillance in much of your work: from signs installed in public spaces that read ‘This area is under 23 hour video and audio surveillance’ (2009) to your installation Ground Control (2007–08), which I first remember seeing at Kunst-Werke Berlin.

  For Ground Control, the floor of the exhibition space is covered with thick asphalt. When the work was first installed in a tobacco warehouse, as part of a group show organized by Rodeo Gallery in Istanbul, the ideological aspect – alluding to a state apparatus of control – was more apparent. In Germany, however, it felt more linked to 1960s-era minimalism or conceptual art. Likewise, when it was first shown in Turkey, it was made in three hours and hardly cost anything. By contrast, installing it for the 2008 Berlin Biennale was extremely complex and expensive; it took days to figure out how to make it happen, and manual labour costs much more in Germany. The end result was the same, but the socioeconomic and geopolitical realities behind each installation were also heavily present.

ST  Many of your projects deal with the changing shape of cities. For example, Exploded City (2009– ongoing) comprises maquettes of buildings that have been destroyed by terrorist attacks. Names are given – Belfast, London, Madrid, Mostar, Mumbai, Oklahoma, Sarajevo – as well as dates. I’d say that your work isn’t only site-specific, it’s also highly attentive to the passing of time.

  The notion of time and its connection to the role of reconstructing recent history has always been of great importance for me. Governments often use laws as tools to turn the recent past into the distant past. This can erase critical incidents from our social memory. The buildings in Exploded City are globally anonymous, but locally well known. It’s an imaginary metropolis that reconstructs these sites in the moments before they were destroyed or attacked, before they became known as ruins. Instead of constantly forgetting, we should be constantly remembering.

Happy Together: Collaborators Collaborating, 2015, documentation of performance at Chisenhale Gallery, London. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Mark Blower

ST  It’s two years since the Gezi Park occupation in Istanbul. What does that moment in recent history mean to you now?

In Turkey, we are continuously oscillating between optimism and pessimism. The Gezi revolt was a unique moment of solidarity and an inspiring time. We saw that people with radically different views can demonstrate rare tolerance to stand side by side. We witnessed, and are still witnessing, the transformation of public spaces into sites of resistance. They became tactical places for the freedom of expression, for a battle of wits between the public and the government.

Since then, we have all realized that now is the time for consistent long-term strategies. Many groups that formed in the wake of Gezi are doing this with a specific focus: grassroots associations, ecological collectives, feminist and transgender groups, neighbourhoods struggling against eviction, architects against gentrification, anti-capitalist groups, workers against precarious employment and migrants’ solidarity networks – to name just a few.

ST  I was in Istanbul earlier this year and the sense of disappointment about the aftermath was palpable. Several people expressed a general feeling of malaise; a number of artists were talking about wanting to leave the city.

  People have been frustrated; we’ve seen increased oppression over the last two years. There is more control over movement in urban spaces and every form of communication. However, like many of my friends, my pessimism has turned, once again, to optimism following the recent general election in Turkey: some long-needed good news has finally arrived. The ruling party has lost its majority, while the People’s Democratic Party has gained a lot of ground.

ST  What role do you think artists can play in politics?

  I see a lot of artists doing activist work, but they do it while wearing another hat, so to speak. They don’t necessarily feel the need to link it to their own artistic practice. That’s what I do, as well. Sometimes, there is no point in using the title of ‘artist’. We switch roles frequently as part of everyday life, in order to respond to our basic needs, urgencies, emotions and crises. I’m not interested in definitions of roles, but rather in how we use the facilities and tools each can provide. We often underestimate art’s capacity to achieve things.

Exploded City (detail), 2009, scale-model buildings, vehicles, mixed media, 4.3 × 4.8 × 1.6 m. Courtesy: the artist

ST  Around the time of Occupy, October magazine published a round-table discussion in which Martha Rosler was asked how artists can best be political. She said something to the effect of: ‘Organize, organize, organize.’

  Yes, that is crucial, but we also need to question the failures of organization.

ST  What do you see those failures as being?

AÖ  The struggle of continuity. I would respond to Rosler’s comment by saying it’s also about: ‘Continuation, continuation, continuation.’

ST  Many of your projects have been shaped by differing states of silence, blindness and invisibility. The Silent University (2012–ongoing), for example, is an education platform run by refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants. For Performa 09, you collaborated with a blind artist, Devorah Greenspan, to paint a portrait of the Armenian-Turkish journalist, Hrant Dink, who was assassinated in 2007.

  I always try to think of how to turn disadvantaged conditions into an advantage. A blind painter working in a completely dark room suddenly turns her limitation into something else. It’s the same with The Silent University, which challenges the idea of silence as a passive state.

ST  Collaboration has always been central to your work and was the focus of your recent exhibition, ‘Happy Together: Collaborators Collaborating’, at Chisenhale Gallery in London.

AÖ  A number of my collaborations have been with people of various professions. For the Chisenhale show, rather than bringing together actual works, we invited ten of my previous collaborators, including an auctioneer, a firefighter, a hairdresser, a stuntman, a lip reader and a sportscaster. It was a kind of retrospective, but formed through their collective memories and experiences. The gallery was transformed into a TV studio to stage the discussion and, afterwards, to present a film documenting the event. I sat silently with the audience. For me, reconfiguration is not simply reorganizing; it’s about reinventing new ways of experiencing and then learning from that.

ST  ‘Happy Together’ opened a month after ‘Forward!’, your retrospective at the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, which is your largest show to date. It included Bakunin’s Barricade (2015), a new work inspired by Russian revolutionary Mikhail Bakunin’s 1849 proposal to place art works in a barricade to prevent Prussian troops from passing. Works from the museum’s collection – by El Lissitzky, Pablo Picasso and others – were hung on crowd-control barriers and upturned cars.

  We had long conversations about how to bring together many of my works in a way that could still be dynamic enough to include the collaborative, discursive, pedagogic aspects of my practice. We put learning and collaboration at the heart of the exhibition, in a room that was constantly changing. I included my long-term commitments: campaigns, projects and collaborations with different groups – activists, hackers, asylum seekers, refugees and interns. They were represented not as artworks, but as references to my ongoing and evolving engagement with those groups.

ST  Both these exhibitions were about reconfiguring past works in new ways. What are your plans for the future?

  Right now, I’m working towards the British Art Show 8, which opens in Leeds in October. It will be a continuation of my ‘Day After Debt’ campaign, which was launched last year at The Broad Museum at Michigan State University in collaboration with Protocinema. I invited five artists – Dan Perjovschi, Martha Rosler, Natascha Sadr Haghighian, Superflex and Krzysztof Wodiczko – to make sculptures that function as coin-operated machines or collection boxes. We collaborated with The Debt Collective, a student-debt-cancelling initiative founded by Strike Debt/Rolling Jubilee, which is an offshoot of Occupy. ‘Day After Debt’ is a counter-finance strategy that secures control over the surplus of the artwork in the future. The sculptures in the exhibition function as collection points for public contributions. A Letter of Agreement between the artists and potential future owners is part of the project: it ensures that all present and future proceeds collected by the sculptures will go to The Debt Collective.

For the British Art Show, the campaign continues with Jubilee Debt, a network of activist and awareness groups in the UK. We are currently working with the lawyer and curator Daniel McClean to draw up a new version of an agreement, which will guarantee that the money will always go back to the organization. We’ve invited three new artists – Liam Gillick, Susan Hiller and Goshka Macuga – to make new sculptures that will eventually be auctioned.

ST  How does this campaign connect to your earlier remark about continuation?

It requires long-term engagement in order to see whether such an idea could work. I’m interested in the counter-financial aspect of this, which is highly connected with the speculative nature of the art economy. I’m thinking of Gayatri Spivak’s idea of ‘affirmative sabotage’ – not to destroy, but to repurpose for something else. Or Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi’s argument for ‘algorithmic sabotage’, which refers to counter-strategies within the abstract sphere of finance. Either algorithmic or affirmative, we need a kind of ‘sabotage in time’ that is productive, joyful, genuine and parasitic.

In the words of the Beastie Boys: ‘I’m tellin’ y’all it’s sabotage […] I’ll tell you now, I keep it on and on.’ Imagine that song playing in the background, with Sharon Hayes standing on a street corner holding a sign that declares: ‘Organize or Starve.’ Yes, we should get organized, but we always need to bear in mind: continuation, continuation, continuation!

Ahmet Öğüt lives in Amsterdam, the Netherlands; Berlin, Germany; and Istanbul, Turkey. This year, he has had solo shows at Chisenhale Gallery, London, UK, and Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, the Netherlands. His work was included in ‘Every Inclusion is an Exclusion of Other Possibilities’, SALT Beyoğlu, Istanbul; ‘Fairy Tales’, Taipei Museum of Contemporary Art, Taiwan; and ‘Are you talking to me?’, Wilhelm-Hack-Museum Ludwigshafen, Germany. Currently, his work is included in ‘Inside the City: Public Space and Free Space’ at Gesellschaft für Aktuelle Kunst, Bremen, Germany, which runs until 11 October; the British Art Show 8, which opens at Leeds Art Gallery, UK, on 9 October; ‘La Vie Moderne’, the 13th Biennale de Lyon, France, which opens on 10 September; and ‘The School of Kyiv’, the Kyiv Biennial 2015, Ukraine, which opens on 8 September. 

Sam Thorne is the director general and CEO of Japan House London.