At the Edge of all Possibles: An Interview with Zeyno Pekunlu
At the Edge of all Possibles (2014) is a lecture/performance by the Turkish artist Zeyno Pekunlu presented in the form of a video. During its play the words gradually narrate the facts of Gezi Park (2013), meanwhile a subject clearly emerges: the voice of the artist. We can definitely see other elements as paradoxically part of her body like the table or her computer, but what easily captures our attention are some keywords that aims to underline some crucial moments of the Gezi Uprising. Although the video is visually powerful, the voice of the artist still remains hypnotic and able to drive us into an imaginary place made by some frames invisible to our eyes but clearly present in our mind.
Inspired by Walter Benjamin’s essay The Storyteller (1936), this performance exactly reveals what Benjamin identified as “the end of the art of storytelling”: the lack of the truth as an epic value which shows up only through the collective sharing of the human experience, the human experience as messenger of wisdom. This “end” definitely coincides with a centuries old process where two factors have been overlapped: on the one hand, the lack of the relationship between narrator and listener based on an oral tradition and, on the other hand, a solitary human condition quintessential of the initial phase of the novel. A condition that reaches its apex on the present days with the proliferation of information, narrations, images, videos, so on so forth.
As mentioned above, for those who patiently listen, Zeyno’s voice definitely captures the attention of the public. For that matter, she creates an open and thoughtful process into the general entropy made up by the amount of images and videos available. In this work the aesthetic gesture coincides with the narration of the human history and the legacy of its feelings and emotions. Nevertheless it also coincides with a socio-political action and the need to narrate the reality as it is perceived.
At the Edge of all Possibles is not a performance in the public space but a performance about a particular public space. An artwork that actually strengthens the concept of “public space” that is for its own nature blurred. An artwork where the spectator can almost see the city of Istanbul and its community as they vividly brighten in our imagination through Zeyno’s words. Although the use of different media and the different topics she faces in her work, the lowest common denominator between them is actually the accumulation of information. The reality and the society – both “real” or “virtual” (does this this distinction still make sense in the age of the Internet?) – are metaphorically “under the fall” of common places and prejudices that usually coexist. These works becomes indeed a sort of mirror, a lens with which is possible to observe the contents available in our everyday life, with a particular attention on gender studies. The amount of information – whatever visual or written – used by the artist into her projects, definitely contributes to position them in this delicate and fragile area inbetween art and activism. Zeyno’s work asks the viewer to go beyond the aesthetic and the content. They ask us to be identified with. They ask us to move from our comfort zone (the parterre area) and perform an active role where we’re allowed to ignore what we actually still don’t know.
Giorgia Noto: Your work “At the Edge of all Possibles” seems to be a little bit different from the other in terms of practice. Your projects start with a large amount of research: you go through different kind of archives, from the traditional movies, passing through the Internet, going to the exploration of the traditional icon and symbol.
Am I going too far if I say that in the specific case of “At the Edge of all Possibles”, seems like you want to take a distance from the images and the videos in order to focus your attention elsewhere?
What actually dazzles me is how you transformed the noise of the crowd in a single and powerful harmony.
Zeyno Pekunlu: Usually in my works I use the method of rearranging ordinary and mostly habitual texts, images or videos intending to open up a critical space. These works attempt to invert the social functions of materials through deformation, contextual detachment and categorization. Comprising a spectrum of materials from national anthem to Turkish melodramas, from cheat cheats to YouTube videos, most of my works aim to go through public and private manifestations of different forms of subordination to problematize the technologies of power.
In this sense, yes, “At the Edge of all Possibles” is quite different from the other works I made. It is about a direct and personal story. This lecture performance pushed me out of personal needs and observations. Since many years I am part of several local and international political networks, and right after the Gezi Resistance in Istanbul, in summer of 2013, my colleagues and myself were invited to many meetings and talks to reflect upon the events taking place in Turkey. The presentations that we made in those political gatherings were mostly focused on methodological issues: we were talking about the path leading to the uprising, the political actors in the occupation and the tools we intended to create to continue after the end of the occupation. Actually when these “formal” meetings were over and we shared social times, the tone of the conversations usually changed. People were in fact curious about the daily life during the occupation, the questions were more personal such as: “How was it possible to sleep there every night?” or “Where did we take showers?” or “Weren’t you afraid under the police attack?” etc.
Similar with many resistances of the last decade, almost every moment of the resistance was documented and published online. We had GB’s of images, videos and documentations. Thousands of articles and books were published. All these materials were either witnessing the “truth” or analyzing it. On the other hand, in personal conversations with friends, we could see that everybody had a different story to tell about the same days spent in the same space. Yet, these personal but collective experiences and emotions weren’t discussed publicly. I started to reflect upon a possible “lack” by asking: “In this era of excessive information, is there anything still not represented?” and “How can a personal story during an extraordinary moment in time be told?”
So I felt compelled to tell my side of the story, focusing on emotions and how they change their meanings during an uprising. It was a hard decision and also a hard preparation process, since my intention was to talk about emotions without being emotional and without romanticizing the event. One of my first decisions was not to use any still or moving images. The reason behind this decision was my observation about the over circulation of similar images and their involuntary role of fixing the story in certain emotions. So, I used the elemental tool of storytelling and focused on words and human voice.
GN: Gender is one of the topic you address the most in your works. I think for example at the recent “Pretty Furious Woman” (you just presented at the last edition of Jakarta Biennale) where for three weeks you learned working the traditional Beksi Silat, or “How to properly touch a girl so you don’t creep her out?” a collage of videos from YouTube where men explain to the male users how to pick up a woman.
Giving this as a frame, how do you think Art and its proper language (and if) can contribute to a real effort? Is the Art a vehicle for social topics?
ZP: I am a feminist woman living in a region where the society is well organized to disadvantage women and the laws are poorly executed. Hence as an individual and as an artist it is more and more crucial to reflect and address gender issues. Personally, I think gender is relevant and embedded in any issue in any geography, from class to ecology, from nationalism to art market.
I think art can be contemplated as a language if we consider it as a way of thinking and sharing knowledge (I am using knowledge in the broadest sense possible). Yet, I don’t exactly see it as a tool to respond to or solve social issues. Personally, what makes me worry in my daily life or what intellectually interests me somewhat finds its way to the works I create. It is not a conscious decision to address the issues but an organic process.
GN: Which are the main issues that cross your path when doing your work?
ZP: As you also observed, I recently made several works concerning gender issues, specifically about the construction of masculinity. I think in Turkey and in many other countries, feminist studies did a great job in the last 30 years digging and analyzing the representation of women in products of popular culture such as literature, cinema, advertisement etc. In comparison masculinity is still a fresh issue and I am more curious to investigate about how manhood is constructed through popular images and discourses.
Yet, the question of masculinity is part of a broader research theme that motivates and underlies my work: political and personal aspects in the circulation of knowledge, data and information. For example, “Minima Akademika” and “Everything I Know” are both ongoing projects that disable information by accumulating them without practicing any kind of categorization. This intentional distortion of information accumulation process implies that boundaries and potential of information are reshaped again and again in intimate relation with social experiences of the individual. This helpless effort to collect actually incites questions on the imaginary division line between the social and the personal through the notion of knowledge and act of knowing.
These works built upon the questions about the essence of genuine information and its reproduction processes stand out as absurd attempts of categorization and archiving regarding the function of constant information flow.
GN: Which is your public? Which kind of thoughts or reactions prevail when you approach your projects?
ZP: I don’t think about a specific audience while researching or creating the works. What I do is a sort of dumpster diving to the leftovers of the popular culture. I want to think they are accessible to any public. So, if the question is which public has access to the works, it is of course somewhat limited to the contemporary art audience.
A less expected audience emerged from the academy. Some of my works got popular among feminist studies, anthropology and sociology scholars. Often they ask for my permission to show the works as lecture materials.
GN: “The field of art has become a field of possibilities, of exchange and comparative analysis” (S. Sheik). What do you think about your role as an artist and human being in the contemporary age? Nothing or anything seems so safe in this world. The only certainty is this fact: we are all human beings. Probably, I must admit, my question is affected by the last bad news coming from Istanbul.
ZP: Both as an artist and individual I try to rethink everything that we consider as given in an attempt to create a possible critical space. This could sometimes mean literally questioning the authority as an activist/individual or constantly questioning it via the art works. I don’t know if this is a “role” but this is the way I chose to live my life. And if I weren’t an artist, I would probably do the same thing with different tools.
GN: What do think is the relationship between art and activism? It is a very delicate and somehow ambiguous issue. A place where the Art can easily be reduced to a simple tool, to a comment. I actually think that the Art should make an effort in terms of speculative attitude and definitely perform a position in the society (world events, political change etc.)
Art should be indeed an aesthetic action, a lens look at the world from another perspective and maybe as a tool to better read and understand the present days.
ZP: Following my previous comment about the “role” of the artist or an individual, I don’t think there is a simple answer. What I can tell from my experience is that I have many artist friends who are politically engaged with many struggles in their lives but they don’t represent those struggles in their works. Then, I have other artist friends who constantly bring up political questions in their works but they don’t engage with actual movements. Then there is another group, which is both engaged and show their social responsibility in their works. So, what “being a politically engaged artist” means becomes ambiguous to me.
On the other hand, we can replace the word “artist” with another profession, a doctor or hardware designer etc., and ask the question again, and then we would have the same difficulties to answer it. Most of the time, in the political groups I am engaged with, I feel useless compared to a graphic designer or a lawyer. Thus, according to me, the political organizations and our engagement to them is not about our professions but about how we can reimagine and experiment with a community that we are hoping to experience one day.
That’s because I think we should focus more on how we can politicize our environment as artists and question the relationships inside the art world.