15 March 2021

INTERVIEW: ALPER TURAN

Alper Turan, Photo: Maurine Tric, Protocinema, Istanbul

Alper Turan is a curator from Istanbul currently based in Berlin. Despite the challenges caused by the pandemic, he curated the group exhibition, "A Finger for an Eye", commissioned & presented by Protocinema within Protocinema's Emerging Curator mentorship series, at Poşe in Istanbul (until the 23rd of March), focusing on queer positioning as a response to the ongoing attacks on queer representations, symbols from the Turkish government. We talked about how Alper's curatorial practice has developed throughout the years and what it was like to curate a physical exhibition that needs and calls physical interactions during a pandemic. 

Mine Kaplangı: Alper, your curatorial practice mainly focuses on topics related to queerness. Your collaborations underline an ongoing research, which is important, especially in Turkey's current political environment. Can you tell me more about your research focus?

Alper Turan: After two years of curatorial work with a collective my independent projects start to be informed by queer thinking and queer way of living. This starts with the "Positive Space" exhibition at operation room in Istanbul that I curated. It investigated HIV & AIDS – a big taboo and an urgent subject in the context of Turkey. Without reducing HIV to a problem of queers, the exhibition probed seeing it as a trans-generational and trans-national trauma that still shapes non-normative sexualities and ways of being. With "Positive Space", I delved much more into queer curating. This does not entail only working with queer artists or showing the work dealing with queer sexuality; but understanding 'queer' as a strategical position contingent to different contexts and time-spaces. A set of fluid tools to think and act beyond binaries, norms, centers. It is an active fight with normativising powers, ranging from heteropatriarchy to identity politics. 

‘‘What makes queer art queer?’’ is an overarching question of my PhD research, if we need to know the sexual biographies of the artists to see something queer in a practice or how curatorial work or institutions canonize and limit the queer potentials. These are the concerns that navigate my research and practice. Having said that, I try to apply queer theoretical thinking, everyday practices, or resistance strategies to exhibition-making as much as possible from building up relationships with the artists, institutions, community to installing an artwork. In the projects I realized in Turkey, I am trying to respond to the ongoing violence manifested in many different ways against queer existence and its threatening visibility. 

What makes something transgressively queer in Turkey might not feel the same in another context. Defining one’s curatorial or artistic pivot as queer as someone coming from the Middle East comes with luggage that you have to cleverly and carefully unpack. Likewise, as a curator who recently relocated to Berlin, I am revising and updating my understandings of queer. 

Cansu Yıldıran, "Fallacy series" and Dorian Sarı "untitled (you, me, inside, outside)" in "Finger for an Eye", Protocinema at Poşe, Istanbul, 2021, photo: Zeynep Fırat

"A Finger for an Eye", installation, Protocinema at Poşe, Istanbul, 2021, photo: Zeynep Fırat

MK: How did you embed these concerns in your curatorial work for the current group exhibition "Finger for an Eye" at the art space Poşe in Istanbul, which is part of Protocinema's curatorial program?

AT: I was invited to be the Emerging Curator for 2021 – this is Protocinema’s generous and instructive curatorial prgramme since 2015. Since spring 2020, we have been actively working on conceiving the exhibition, besides shoulder-to-shoulder mentor Mari Spirito, I have three other mentors with whom I am in constant dialogue. From the initial exhibition idea to the installation plan, I have been mentored by David J. Getsy; Krist Gruijthuijsen, and Maura Reilly. "A Finger for an Eye’ is installed at Poşe, Istanbul – an independent space run by artist Larissa Araz. The exhibition brings together the new productions of Baha Görkem Yalım, Cansu Yıldıran, Dorian Sarı and Istanbul Queer Art Collective (Tuna Erdem & Seda Ergul). In the last years, the Turkish state’s LGBTI policy shifted from passive ignorance to active attack, and especially in the last year, public LGBTI visibility and visibility symbols have been targeted more than ever. The rainbow flags and colours are being censored, rendered illegal. To give a strategical answer to this ongoing and escalating violence, "A Finger for an Eye" is an exhibition exploring alternative queer forms, gestures, images which cannot be easily-deciphered or targeted by the power mechanisms. The artists adopt and appropriate artistic strategies such as censor, and erasure to deceive the sensors of authority while simultaneously experimenting with abstraction, reduction, non-figuration, and non-colouration while securing queer positions.

MK: Where does the title "A Finger for an Eye" come from? 

AT: The title suggests a break in the retaliation, so, not an eye for an eye, or a tooth for an eye, but a finger for a scrutinizing eye of the phobic state. It comes from the exhibition’s motivation of not playing the same game with the power of which eyes are already always blind with anger, and it proposes a fight with a non-indexical (middle) finger. So to say, the artists willfully accepted the censor on queer visibility and the ban on rainbow colours, and they produced provocative works while being untargetable. "A Finger for an Eye" also connotes an expression in the Turkish language, (putting) a finger to a (blind) eye, often used when “criticizing” a work of art that is too direct and obvious, which does not give any room for expansive decoding. As if the artwork’s message is too clear, it is a failure. It is putting the elephant in the room on a pedestal; that is how it is redundant. It is funny to hear this expression often as if there is a silent consensus that good art is the one that hides perfectly. The title plays with that expression by undermining it.

"A Finger for an Eye", Protocinema at Poşe, Istanbul, 2021, Exhibition video documentation by Beril Ece Güler.

MK: How did you decide on the participant artists and their work within the exhibition theme?

AT: I wanted to bring together forms and images, which sustain and proclaim its queer expression, but not in conventional queer art’s – which is fraught with figurations, camp aesthetics, agitprop imaginary or graphic and in-your-face expressions of sexuality, but instead in abstraction. Of course, it was to by-pass the ongoing censorship on queer expressions. I deliberately mimicked the authority and invited the artists by saying that ‘‘I don’t want any rainbow colour and any human form in this exhibition.’’ I wanted to radically limit the artists and to give them strict instructions by way of imitating the oppressor, impersonating the censors, and by calling for artists to adopt the strategies of oppression, to appropriate them to create new visual signifiers that move and exist beyond oppression. Two of the artists, Baha Görkem Yalım and Dorian Sarı, have been already practising abstraction and minimalism, so my invitation was in line with their interest. For Istanbul Queer Art Collective and Cansu Yıldıran that was a bigger challenge. IQAC, as a performance collective, had been performing dominantly with their own bodies and they define their practice as being ‘aggressively visible’ as queer subjects. Thus I invite them to experiment on being ‘aggressively invisible’ or ‘passively visible’ for the exhibition. Cansu Yıldıran, as a photographer who mostly works with ‘marginal’ communities and renders them visible via her easily reproducible and diffusible photographic shots, actively censored her works with different lighting techniques. Even though we still see queer people and collectives we cannot identify or target them.

MK: In your exhibition text, you describe the show as proposing "spy-like positions that are undetectable but contagious." How does the exhibition investigate the invisibility and abstraction within queer positioning?

AT: The method we built up with the artists was like the work of a spy. I was impersonating the oppressor and the censor officer and the artists were responding to me with works that are navigating under the willful censorship but still evocating queer desires, giving contours and hints but leaving the picture to be completed with the imaginations of the audience. 

Istanbul Queer Art Collective, by abstracting their bodies from the performance, made an instruction-based performative installation that invites the audience to interact with the objects provided. While using and employing these objects, the audience is to repeat the queer sexual gestures and movements or produce new queer forms and symbols. One instruction says ‘‘Draw a rainbow’’ but there are only the pastels with grey-scale colours. Turkish government’s attacks are stupidly iconoclastic, they believe that even drawing a rainbow would turn children gay. This is scary, but also interesting. In a way, they think that queer visibility has a contagious potential, even seeing a rainbow flag on the street would pervert the public. By complying with the collective’s instruction, many visitors draw rainbows with different shades of grey. The original colours are forbidden but these are still rainbows. Baha Görkem Yalım, in their video work, translates poetry they wrote into hand poetry, actively abstracting discursive and readable into corporal and something hard-to-decipher. They call for the communication of queer desires and anger in different channels.

Baha Görkem Yalım "A Monument for the Unfound", 2021, photo: Zeynep Fırat

MK: Was it challenging to imagine a physical exhibition during a pandemic? And do you think visiting an exhibition space during a pandemic will change how people interact with the exhibition?

AT: For "A Finger for an Eye", with Protocinema, we formulated a way of exhibition-making that is responsive to pandemics. Besides Cansu Yıldıran, other artists are all based around Europe, and we ‘‘remotely’’ invited them to the exhibition to take place in Istanbul. Artists neither flew nor shipped artwork, instead, they conceived their works which were then produced locally in Istanbul with the help of our local assistants and friends. This methodology is what Protocinema developed as a mission now since it’s high time to reform and dematerialize art once again if we claim to be conscious and responsible, to reduce both consumption and extraction long-term. This way exhibition-making as remote-engagement and correspondence definitely gave another perspective to my practice and I will be employing and investigating this strategy in the near future, within and beyond pandemics.

The exhibition spaces and museums have been open to the public in Turkey since October. Even though I believe in the necessity and power, especially in inclusivity and accessibility of digital models, I find it important to insist on the physical as long as the regulations permit. We are doing the exhibition "A Finger for an Eye" in a physical space, as we value the importance of keeping a foot in in real life experiences with art and people, and we will also make it accessible to the world wide web and to be experienced, read and informed about it online. For this exhibition, we have an accompanying ProtoZine, with a text in which I expand on my ideas and each artists’ work. 

In terms of the audience interaction with the exhibition and the curator’s inherent role to care, what is challenging was when IQAC came up with an idea of the performative-installation, which calls the audience to TOUCH the objects in the middle of the pandemic, which forbids any kind of haptic relation. I panicked when I first heard their idea, but then I really admired the brilliance of the work. The title of this work is ‘‘You don't have to follow the instructions.’’ With the title, the artist reminds the audience that whether they touch the objects or not is at their own risk. By way of this very gesture, the collective also invites us to think of another ongoing pandemic, the AIDS pandemic. How queer communities worldwide have to establish, practice, and negotiate various forms of responsibility, risk, and care without state support is an important point to remember in the current crisis.

 Istanbul Queer Art Collective, You Do Not Have to Follow the Instructions, photo: Zeynep Fırat

MK: Will there be a public programme supporting the exhibition?

AT: We started having live conversations on Instagram, each Saturday until the end of March, I will be talking to one participant artist. We started with Cansu Yıldıran on 6th March, and the next one will be with IQAC on 13th. Considering that the artists are not based in Istanbul, and some of them are showing their works in Turkey for the first time, the live conversations are helping us to introduce the artists to Turkish audiences and beyond. We are also planning on extending our conversations in the coming weeks by inviting speakers from various disciplines to investigate the concepts exhibition arose from different perspectives. Our program can be followed via Protocinema’s Instagram channel

MK: How did you experience the lockdown period so far?

AT: It has been tough, but it’s been challenging for everyone, so any complaint would be wrongdoing for those in a more precarious position. Everyone I know tries to adopt new survival strategies, and I am no different. I have just moved to Berlin in the middle of the pandemic – it’s definitely not the best time to move somewhere new. But this is how it is. Although I have been lucky to have developed some projects, it has been distressing. I have cancelled works, cut in fundings, and suspended programs. It’s almost impossible to see the future from today’s position. Thus it's imperative to establish new strategies to make art possible, and it shouldn’t be temporary solutions for the pandemic. It’s a perfect moment to detect and revise what was actually not working in the art world.

MK: Besides the current exhibition, what keeps you busy these days

AT: I have been busy with research on key issues of the exhibition, such as abstraction, invisibility, camouflage, translation in a queer perspective. In the near future, I will be working on the gender-neutral grammatical structure of the Turkish language and in the long run, I dream of building up a fictional queer archive. I recently started working for Slavs and Tatars Studio for their Pickle Bar, I am one of the curators of the Pickle Bar satellite in Vienna, conceived as a part of Wiener Festwochen 2021. Besides, I am pretty much concerned with finding a room and more sustainable plans in Berlin 


All images are courtesy of Protocinema at Poşe, Istanbul, 2021, Supported by the Consulate General of the Netherlands in Istanbul and Pro Helvetia, The Swiss Arts Council, Switzerland,  FfAI - The Foundation for Arts Initiatives


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