About the Curator
Mari Spirito is Executive Director and Curator of Protocinema, a cross-cultural, site-aware art organization commissioning and presenting exhibitions and public programs in Istanbul, New York, and around the world since 2011. Protocinema is a nonprofit 501(c)3, free of “brick and mortar,” and sites vary to respond both to global concerns and changing conditions on the ground. She recently sat down with Art+Culture founder Chris Vroom and Protocinema artist Ahmet Öğüt to discuss Ahmet’s artistic practice.
Ahmet Öğüt and Chris Vroom Interview for Protocinema Editions
Chris: Thank you for making time today to discuss your practice and also for partnering with Art and Culture to support Protocinema through the production of Analogue Collage No. 1, your new limited edition print. Protocinema is a dynamic New York/Istanbul based organization that produces incisive and critically acclaimed art installations around the world. For our readers, Ahmet Öğüt is a Berlin–based conceptual artist whose works span a broad range of media including video, photography installation, and drawing.
Ahmet, it’s been a tremendous pleasure to watch your work evolve over time. It is varied in composition, execution, and subject matter. Would it be fair to begin by suggesting that a common concern across much of your work centers around power structures, concepts of society, and the ways in which artists and diverse populations at large negotiate those interactions? In much of your practice you have an intention of engaging the audience in a variety of different ways, driving activism and engagement. Can you elaborate on your approach to “anti-systems” in your work Bakunin’s Barricade (2022) in Cleveland, at the FRONT Triennial, curated by Prem Krishnamurthy, on view now? I think it’s a beautiful illustration of how individuals can articulate resistance in different ways.
Ahmet: Thanks, it’s my pleasure to be here with you and also to acknowledge the reason for us getting together is Protocinema. I’ve been working with Mari Spirito for over eleven years, since the very beginning of the Protocinema adventure. I’m honored to be part of this collaboration Art and Culture initiated together with Protocinema.
Going back to your question; I wouldn’t say what I do is anti-system, but it’s rather about not taking the system as a given. Sometimes the negotiation process with institutions can be antagonistic; or the way Chantal Mouffe would say; friendly antagonistic. Working with institutions there’s constant push back and forth: means there must be constant resistance to keep the values and cultural heritage in its place. Governments pressure institutions to the direction often not progressive; being afraid of losing the funds and licenses institutions put pressure on artists, and even at times ignore public concerns. To avoid this pressure to take over our heritage and freedom there must be a constant push back.
For example, There’s an active tension in Bakunin’s Barricade, which was inspired by Mikhail Bakunin’s unrealized proposal to put works of art from National Museum in front of the barricade of the socialist insurgency in Dresden against the invading Prussian troops in 1849. This installation blocks the entrance to the exhibition space, conjures self-defense and civil resistance. This conditional artwork has the potential to be activated whenever an uprising is happening in any country. When there’s a war, when there’s an uprising, what kind of other functions can the museum have in moments of crisis? What would the functions of artworks in their storage have? We have seen examples of the museums turning into shelters. Let’s remember, in 2011 Townhouse Gallery served as a refuge for protestors and during mass demonstrations at Tahrir Square. A recent example is the Museum Crisis Center, a venture that links museum personnel with international funds and provides various kinds of support to cultural institutions all over Ukraine. Another example I witnessed recently when I visited Sally Tallant at the Queens Museum during high risk Covid times. The Queens Museum has become a food pantry, doing essential work to provide food for a huge line of families from the immediate neighborhood. On the other side of the museum there was another line of people waiting to get free PCR tests. At the same time, there were still exhibitions on view inside the museum. The institution assessed the needs of the community and adjusted. It was a beautiful example of the multiple-function beyond being just a contemporary art museum.
Some people were reading Bakunin’s Barricade as purely symbolic. But when Bakunin’s Barricade was acquired by the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam in 2020, the work became no longer symbolic. The contract, which is an integral part of this artwork, states that the buyer of the work consents to lend the barricade to third parties if this is requested in light of ‘radical economic, social and political transformative events and movements raising serious public concerns regarding fundamental human rights, including those described in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Stedelijk Museum agreed with this legally binding contract.
Chris: I wanted to touch on the Silent University, which is included in the 17th Istanbul Biennial, opening next week. What is your idea of objective reality? Some of the ways in which objective reality can be changed is by exchange of information. Silent University seeks to do that for refugees and displaced persons. Can you talk about the genesis of that program and how it evolved?
Ahmet: It’s hard to believe that it has been 10 years since the first initiation of Silent University. The Silent University is a solidarity-based knowledge exchange platform by displaced people and forced migrants. Since 2012, it has involved those who have had a professional life and academic training in their home countries, but are unable to use their skills or professional training due to restrictions of migration laws, language limitations and other bureaucratic obstacles. It has active branches in Sweden and Germany. Previously it had branches in Amman, Athens, London and Copenhagen. Currently a new branch is being formed in Istanbul. I knew that Silent University had to be autonomous and independent in order to operate in multiple places. Importantly, it needs to be independent from the initiator (meaning me) or collaborating institutions. The idea is that each branch becomes sovereign and autonomous after the first years. I wanted to have ideological, and practical principles that defend to the core of the idea. Instead of turning the project into an organization, we would rather be a parasitic institution and change the collaborating institutions. The spirit of this activity is political in itself—it doesn’t have to be about political topics. It doesn’t have to be about one person’s individual struggle because not having the right documents. The system tells people that this is your individual problem and you need to be able to prove your documents to get status for asylum. I want to invert the concept of disadvantaged: I tell the institutions that this is a systematic problem, and institutional administrative limitations should not be projected as the problem of our lecturers. The lecturers teach in their own native or preferred language. They don’t need to first provide an IBAN or an ID number to be able to be paid in order to be a lecturer at the Silent University. It’s a productive struggle for everyone and we have been observing how the institutions could transform themselves when they are willing to.
Chris: Truly incredible, Ahmet. I wanted to also talk a little bit about your ideas around national identity, because your work has dealt with migration, homophobia, racism, and, as an artist of Kurdish heritage, your legacy is part of who you are. How have some of these ideas manifested in your work? For example, in your project Apology for Modernity at the NSK State Pavilion in Venice (2017)?
Ahmet: Yes, this is an important topic. The NSK State Pavilion in Venice was a pavilion that had a utopian formation. The NSK State has no physical territory and is identified with no existing nation-state, allowing it to collaborate with migrant communities, humanitarian protection applicants, and stateless individuals. To be an artist from the Global South, or Middle East, predominantly means that you are expected to produce works about your own background, geography, ethnicity, to bring your otherness with you. Unfortunately, we see this even in historically important exhibitions and biennales nowadays and there is little resistance to it. Being a Kurdish artist is a very important part of my identity but I never instrumentalized it as a tool to build my art career.
I thought I wanted to become an international artist when I started doing contemporary art, yet I didn’t know how to speak English until I was 24 years old. Even if I conceptually believed in the necessity of being an international artist, behind the scenes it was not easy because; as I didn’t even have a passport that allowed me to travel to the West without a visa. For most countries and for each group show, I was spending a month at a minimum preparing documents to travel for three days to an opening and to install my work. I did this for many years and still I didn’t realize that it was an obstacle to believe in the concept of being an international artist by default.
This also relates to the question how art institutions maintain to remain international when it comes to negotiating with their government for how to invite their collaborators from any part of the world without the hierarchy of border crossing privileges. On what grounds can museums and art institutions invite International artists to collaborate with them? Institutions need to participate in that fight—sometimes they do it and sometimes artists need to tell them to do it. Now I have a Dutch passport so I can actually travel much more easily than in the past, but there are always other obstacles, as the world changes so rapidly. Then there is Covid, there is war, and all the consequences. It’s really about how we negotiate with governments to keep the artworld international and we are not any closer to that yet.
Chris: That is true, and we don’t know what is ahead of us in that arena either. This leads us to this new artwork you’ve produced as a limited edition print to support Protocinema called Analog Collage Number One. What were you thinking about and how was it made?
Ahmet: Analog Collage Number One is an analog collage—I’m not cutting or scanning, it’s only a juxtaposition of a detail of an image that I found in Istanbul in archives, altered with light and re-framed. Istanbul was the most populated city in the 1600s. During the last era of the Ottoman Empire it was still a very important epicenter. When you go to secondhand shops or bookstores here you will see how incredibly diverse and global and insanely beautiful Istanbul was looking at those postcards. This image looks like an old science fiction film, showing an antiquated spaceship like architecture looming over an old town, an outdated idea of the future; a retro-futuristic one. I decided to photograph it with light reflecting on its surface. In response to accelerated digital living, I wanted to do the opposite and create a work without any tools other than the camera and light.
Chris: Ahmet, thank you so much. I want to make sure that everyone reading this interview knows to visit your upcoming exhibition in Latvia, Survival Kit 13, and the 17th Istanbul Biennial, opening to the public September 17th. It’s been a pleasure talking to you. I very much appreciate all of the work that you’re doing andI look forward to keeping track of your efforts in the future.