"There is another possibility", Conversation on the 'Counter" exhibition, Irmak Canevi.



IRMAK CANEV? Let's start our conversation with the name of the new exhibition: “Sayaç” (Counter). What is Counter? Where is it? Where in the work is it?

ZEREN GÖKTAN Counter is a system that gets updated each time new data is entered; it reads the increase in something. In short, it is 'keeping tally'. If you ask me where in this exhibition it is, I can tell you it refers to a few processes. Firstly, it refers to the shrouds that are made of beads that were strung one by one. And then it refers to the counter on the internet which can be accessed by scanning the QR code made up of the beads. This counter reads the number of women killed by violence in the year 2013. The counter has the threat of increase in its nature, so it is the precursor of violence.

I.C. It is a disconcerting increase, one which invokes haste. As the number increases, hope decreases, as if one by one.

Is violence against women a topic you dealt with before?

Z.G. When I was shooting the video “Hepimiz Gönüllüyüz” (We're Volunteers) in 2006 I had the chance to interview many NGO volunteers. We filmed at Mor Çat? Women's Shelter and at the Kamer Foundation. That same video featured an interview with Ay?egül Yordam about “N'ettim Size” (What Have I Done To You), one of the first albums that had been recorded to raise awareness about violence against women. Thanks to “We're Volunteers”, I had the chance to examine and study a subject I was already concerned about as a citizen.

I.C. This is an exhibition that spans two different fields. Apart from the beads that are in view, there is a thought-provoking virtual dimension to this project. Let's take on the material side of it and talk about the objects on display, shall we?

I know you first encountered the Egyptian shrouds in a museum in Paris. In your previous works I had noticed a tendency to deal with the akin, meaning the local. This time you were inspired by cultures that existed thousands of years ago in a different land. Could you talk about this encounter that lead to this exhibition and the process that brought “Counter” to being?

Z.G. I wanted the exhibition to have the feeling of an installation. I was looking at a reference that would bring two different areas together, I guess. Something that would make real and virtual worlds overlap, a sheath that would cover both of them. When I saw the shroud, it all became clear. I was deeply affected by these shrouds that were made by the Egyptians to protect the dead and to lead them to their afterlives through their stories. These shrouds that were made entirely of beads had symbols and figures on them.

Ancient Egyptian culture added the last touch to the conceptual structure in my mind. The reference to ancient Egypt gives the exhibition the feeling of a passageway. I'm transmitting metaphorically the reference this rich culture gives to life-after-death by diverting it to the virtual environment in “Counter”. I'm creating a space where past is shown in the virtual environment. It's like throwing a curve ball if you will.

I.C. When you go inside the exhibition space, you are welcomed by dolls made of beads hanging between the ceiling and the floor spreading colourfully throughout the entrance.

Z.G. Every doll is in fact a key chain. A lawyer friend of mine was given one of these as a gift, which I chased down. That bead doll key chain lead to my working with the Ümraniye Prison. They were hand-made by several inmates. I gave them a sample and they chose the colour they wanted and made them. If you look carefully, you can see that they are all made by different people. I used the bead dolls as 'readymades' and only interfered with their uses. I tied all of them together from where the keys go and from their hair. Since I thought of the exhibition space as a gateway, the dolls sway between the ground and the sky. These dolls can be construed as images of the dead women reflecting on the exhibition floor. They are, in fact, witnessing the journey we're taking towards the monument for their own bad fate.

I.C. Why were the bead shrouds and dolls all made by male inmates?

Z.G. I've been collecting prison bead works for a long time now. My friend who works with prisons is often given these as presents. As a matter of fact, I've been aware of this culture for some time now. The interesting thing is that these types of works involving beads are exclusively made in prisons. It is a culture that belongs to prisons.

I attribute these bead works to the unique atmosphere of prisons. These confined spaces bring about unique works. I seek the reason for the existence of bead work in the state of being incarcerated.

I.C. What would you feel if we were to imagine these works as having been done by men convicted of violence against women?

Z.G. I asked the prison workers to not tell me what crime the inmates were in prison for. I didn't ask any of the inmates either. This could have caused unnecessary prejudice. There could be men convicted of sex crimes among them. “Counter” is neither an education nor a rehabilitation project. Regardless, I can safely say that this project was the only means through which the inmates could communicate with the outside world. For this reason alone our collaboration was a positive and constructive experience for all involved.

I.C. I get a sense of penance here. Apart from your identity as an artist, can we also think of you as an intermediary to a symbolic reckoning of sorts?

Z.G. I'd never thought about penance. You might be right, as there is a lot of work invested in this. But I can say this: The fact that the prisoners accepted me means a lot. It should not be forgotten.

I.C. “Counter” also has a monumental aspect to it. When one says monument, it is possible we think of an ostentatious landmark. The one in my mind is a physical monument in a real town square. But yours captures a similar existence in the virtual world. This thought excites me. What kind of a monument is “Counter”s monument?

Z.G. I'd always had the idea of building a monument via a virtual counter dedicated to dead women. These were the times where women deaths were on the rise, in fact it was the first time we had become aware of these deaths.

The monument is a consequence, not a cause. This counter turns into a monument by way of many different factors coming together. It is a monument that lives on. It gets updated, archived, tied to links and it creates a memory. There is an important contradiction here. The purpose of the monument is, in fact, to destroy its own reason for existence. The monument, which takes life in an unavoidable, unstoppable wave of violence, holds a message to end this violence. It is a mechanism that vies for its own demise. In short, the monument will have fulfilled its purpose when it parishes and the women live.

I.C. Is the idea of a monument on the internet yours?

Z.G. When I was thinking of making a counter I ran into this website called “Iraq Body Count” (www.iraqbodycount.org) and was very affected by it. I thought it created a memory about the Iraq war and the civilian deaths that followed, and that it could be a monument that would relay this memory to future generations. When my research for my doctoral thesis lead me to the website “Joods Monument” (www.joodsmonument.nl) I knew I was on the right track. It is a 'digital' monument, as they call it, and is dedicated to keep alive the memory of the Dutch women, men and children that couldn't escape the Nazis during the holocaust. I think some monuments have their place on internet and that there is a lot to say about this topic.

I.C. What is the importance to this virtual-and-yet-real monument being on the internet?

Z.G. We now live in a new era. Nowadays, social media is a very important setting for socialising and acquiring information. It's a platform where dialogues can be initiated on the use of this information. There are also conveniences brought about by technology. The internet is a setting that is open to updates in which the user can be fully interactive. Another reason for the monument being on internet is that all the information in relation to this project was gathered through media scanning. I guess I wanted people to know where the media scanning originated from.

I.C. Could you talk about the media scanning and the essence of the monument?

Z.G. When the Ministry of Family and Social Policies published figures on violence against women, it caused public indignation. But figures were all that was made public. “Counter” remembers the women who lost their lives with their names. I believe by doing this, we humanise our woman victims. The list begins at 2013 and goes back to 2008. My purpose in doing this cronologically was to draw attention to the evolution in the language the media uses when they cover these events. For example, “female murder” is a new term. It's quite peculiar to note that the word “murder” wasn't even used before. The words that are used give us the opportunity to analyse the evolution in language when talking about this sensitive and important subject.

I.C. Many ideas come together in “Counter”. This may well be your most elaborate work. What is the glue that holds it all together?

Z.G. What is the glue that holds it all together? Very good question. Interactive media theorist Geert Lovink has a very good definition for tactical media: “Creating temporary consenseus zones based on unexpected alliances.” I guess I'm trying to create, in the physical realm world, these areas that show up in social media. Through this I want to make way for different readings and encounters. These distinct areas take hold of one another and coexist. Allies meet, devices work together and real and virtual come together.

I.C. In your animation 'Ekmek Ku?a??' (Breadzone), you created an uncanny topography from loaves of bread. You reanimated this dead nature in the virtual world painting it pixel by pixel. We observed your digital painting through a virtual eye. In your video 'Yerüstü' (Aboveground) you made us look at the hands of compassionate men, stroking doves. You took interest in the subculture that escaped everyday worries and maybe even bigger problems thanks to their doves spreading out into the sky. You showed us in slow-motion their hands stroking doves. You introduced us to a subculture that existed on rooftops. Whilst filming volunteers in “We're Volunteers”, you asked what 'volunteering unconditionally' meant. You took interest in the anatomy of a socially responsible volunteer. And then there is, of course, '?ç-Sel' (In-Flux). You defined time through an hourglass and a little wooden sculpture that flowed from the heavens to earth back and forth, accompanied by your breathing. “Counter” seems to be the natural consequence of all these works. While the beads take over from the pixels, the dolls flow away and the men string the beads. “Counter” seems to complete the cycle. Could you talk about this a little?

Z.G. As I'd said in another interview, I don't intend to create a linear link between my works. It appears by itself through time. When creating their works of art, artists invest their personal repertoire, what they have soaked up from the history of art, their interactions, current affairs in society, personal memories and, perhaps most importantly, their mysteries and feelings. They go through many different processes, and this repertoire infuses and surfaces. “Counter” breathes through all of my previous work. It feeds from everyone I've worked with.

I.C. You designed documentary photographer Ahmet Sel's exhibition at the Depo and its book. The book was about a group of young men who had done time in the '80s.  Again you worked with ex-inmates. Could you talk about this subculture you take an interest in?

Z.G. The fact that I worked with inmates again for “Counter” is no more than a coincidence. That “Davutpa?a Orta 3” and “Counter” shared the same time-frame some time ago will of course have helped me understand prison psychology. Also, I have always been interested in the little ideal realms and spaces people create for themselves. Because these places arise from need, they can be very creative, yet so simple, pure and sincere. In this juncture, it is not important what you do, but rather why you do it. They have a distinct posture, these little realms. People, who have come together through unspecifiable pursuits, devise surreptitious cultures. Perhaps we, the artists, are also after realms like these. And I like unravelling and exploring these realms. It is a similar kind of realm, merely stringing beads in prisons. Prison beads are a genre of their own. This method, this mentality belongs there.

I.C. Shrouds are woven out of beads for dead women. What does this mean?

Z.G. I see these shrouds as a kind of quilt. These shrouds the men in prison have hand-made with patience is evidence to a lot of effort. Every single bead is steered through millimetre-thin pieces of paper and then they are strung. For the QR code to be scanned correctly, every little bead has to be in the right place. We are talking about true devotion here. “Counter” is also the product of a one of a kind collaboration. This devotion can be seen in the shrouds. The already-present allure of the material, colourful beads coming together and being strung, the togetherness of naïve expressions and symbols of love inspire a sense of touch mixed with compassion.

I.C. Let's talk about the texts on the sheets, then. “Biz Ayr?lamay?z” (We're Inseparable), is one of them. Who are these inseparables? It seems to me that real and virtual become one and overlap in this project. What would you say?

Z.G. Before I started to work on this project, I collected similar bead works from all around. From the bazaar, internet, prisons... I would copy these motifs that are used in bead work and create designs out of these motifs. I noticed that the texts in some of the works I'd collected were famous Turkish song verses and choruses ever-present in people's memories; like “Biz Ayr?lamay?z”. So every sheet took the name of one of these love songs. As familiar with these lyrics as we are, as many times as we use them in daily life, often we can't remember which song they belong to. I also noticed this: Many of these have become slogans. Many of the chants sung by fans at football stadiums are from the lyrics of these songs. I wanted these lyrics to, on one hand revive these love melodies in the observer's mind, and on the other, simply to be there and urge the viewers to think about the subject matter of this exhibition. The shrouds also make references to symbols of love such as flowers, bugs, hearts, and butterflies.

I.C. You use QR codes to switch from the physical realm to the virtual realm. You devise a gateway. This sense of a gateway felt throughout the exhibition finds its official visual as a QR code. The dolls on hangers give way to the visitors through the emptiness behind the net on the shrouds, and the codes give way to death so that the names live on within the virtual realm, so that they are remembered, commemorated and never forgotten. This is my take on it. How did you come up with the idea to link the two realms with QR codes?

Z.G. QR is an acronym meaning 'quick response'. It is already a widely used tool. I had been intrigued by the black-and-white pixelated format of the QR for a long time. I had already had the chance to work with pixels in my new media works. The similarities between the beads and the pixels opened a whole new gate in my mind, so to speak. While passing from one side of the project to the other, the QR codes worked as a key, in fact. And with this, the keys that were lacking on the dolls were now there, I suppose. I wanted the visitor to confront the dark reality of violence, to be caught on the wrong foot after all the expressions of love and suddenly come face to face with “woman murders”.

I.C. Then the practical concern here overlaps with a more important metaphor. In that, 'quick response' also points to the urgency of the matter and prompts us to intervene posthaste.

You worked with inmates for a long time during this project. What kind of an experience was it for you? Should this be perceived as a social responsibility project as well?

Z.G. It was an unforgettable experience. To breathe in that atmosphere, to see it, to be in it, it was quite extraordinary. I cannot forget the help I got from the staff at Ümraniye Type T Department Of Corrections. Especially warden Mehmet Ç?tak, prosecutor Ersoy Yüce, corrections officers Kenan Poyraz and Serkan K?d?l, and inmates Osman and Ethem have been great help. I would like to thank again to all those involved in this project. We should of course mention the contributions of “Kad?n Cinayetlerini Durduraca??z Platformu” (Platform To Stop Female Murders) as well. They were a great help to me at cross-referencing the data.

The inmates contributed from the heart. First, we set up a work station. Then we experienced, we tried, we stumbled, and together we found the right way. The bead dolls were hand-made by several inmates. There were ones I never met or even saw that contributed to the project. When I first started out, I had an idea of how hard it was going to be, but I had the most difficulty on the easy part. We would meet at the prison two times a week but regardless, I was out and they were in...

I.C. Lastly, I want to take a look at “Counter” from the point of view of your last work, the photography exhibition “Siyah Ku?u Vakas? ” (Black Swan Event). In “Black Swan Event” you followed the footsteps of destruction. You told of our life experience's weakness in the face of incidents that we deem improbable. One of your photographs, in which you built stories on things that disappear, was of the skeleton of a cat that was caught by its chin. Just like the key-chain dolls are caught by their hair here, at the exhibition space. Isn’t it that which is caught is in fact a catastrophic moment?

In the sheet that you named “Bir ?htimal Daha Var” (There Is Another Possibility), the reference you make to swans and “Black Swan Event” is, I think, crystal clear. In a world where we recognize white swans, isn't it true that the black swans present the other possibility?

Z.G. It is also within the realm of possibilities that the violence, which we deem inescapable and never-ending, come to an end. “Counter” talks about this dichotomy at every turn anyway. Black and white, real and virtual, to die or to not be killed...