Merve Çaşkurlu interview – 2013

(This text excerpted from:

NEW MEDIA ART IN TURKEY:
A RESEARCH ON CURRENT SITUATION AND A DEVELOPMENT PROPOSAL
by
Merve ÇAKURLU BELGESAY 

YEDİTEPE UNIVERSITY GRADUATE INSTITUTE OF SOCIAL SCIENCES)

A3. EKMEL ERTAN

1. How would you define the art of new media? What does new media art contribute to art in general?
The definition of new media art is a little complicated. During the 90s our catchall term for all this used to be “multimedia”, but “multimedia” is seldom used these days. For the last 30 years we’ve been discussing the use of communication and computing technologies in art. I think that what we mean by new media art is a form of art that utilizes new technologies as a medium. Digitally drawing and painting or taking digital photographic images, therefore, does not qualify as new media art. However, it’s also possible for an artist to engage, in a technical sense, with new media without actually using it, through the artist’s handling of the concept or their approach to topics and the subject matter. For instance, Ebru Kurbak’s piece at Amber’s most recent exhibition was made up of a mesh that she herself had weaved; it made no use of materials such as electronics or circuits, etc. But the artist’s conceptual starting point was crucial. It was a purely analogue piece, but it was also a work that was critical of technology and the global environment that technology has wrought. The mesh consisted of conductive fibers and its width was calculated based on a range of wave lengths. It was called “data catcher”. The idea is that you’re able to capture the data through the air. All manner of data that we use is at once floating through the air and the piece aimed to question this fact. In the absence of these devices, this work, both conceptually and narratively, could not have existed. So this can be labeled as new media work, despite new media not having been used in its conception. I regard new media art as a branch of art that either utilizes technology directly as a medium or one that, again, conceptually uses technology as a medium.

We can’t speak of any contribution that new media art has made to art. This is like asking “what does art add to art?”. If these happen to be the conditions and the environment that we live in, then the artist will inevitably end up using this medium. When video came on the scene in the 70s, artists began to shoot video. Technology has always been a part of the art world. It was never divorced from it. Likewise, new media art is something that is part and parcel of life as it exists today. When talking about art, I take the 60s as my starting point. For instance, the EAT exhibitions held in the 60s were considered new media art.

Art pieces we see today are simply an extension of that. Back then they had analogue computers, whereas today we’re using digital computers. Sensors were also being used in piece created in the 60s. Just to give an example, Rauchenberg used a receiver/transmitter attached to a tennis racket in one of his works. Most works today that we regard as interactive make use of receivers, transmitters, Wi-Fi, etc. Of course, the term new media artist didn’t exist back then. Artists who worked with plastics, who were also looking for new avenues to explore, wound up collaborating with engineers. The story of EAT begins with Rauchenberg and Bill Kluver working together on an art piece. Bill Kluver foresees technology being put in the service of the artist and realizes that this has the potential to create unique things. But Kluver believes that the relationship between the artist and the engineers should be on an equal footing and that the work should be carried out within that framework. In other words, the arrangement should not be one where one side implements the other’s idea. The artist is not privy to the information that the engineer has and vice versa. A hierarchical way of working does not bear synergy. Bill Kluver believes that the collaboration between the artist and the engineer, their equal relationship, their mutual understanding and their joint productive effort is what actually mobilizes the creative aspect. Today’s artist is thusly different; in the 1960s it was not possible for an artist to comprehend or design a circuit board. Today, however, people are being taught courses on things like arduino, programming, etc. This, in fact, it what digital technology has to offer; accessibility of all these technologies by individuals, the artist and the designer. Once you begin to use these devices, they also become tools with which you can begin to express yourself. This is similar to knowing how to use paints and brushes. So the ease of accessibility as it is now has changed the artist’s profile. Today the artist is able to do on their own what an engineer could do within their own capacity.

2. In this respect, which countries around the world would you say are currently leading the way?
America is one example. Exhibitions containing such works were held in the 60s. The “Nine Evenings” exhibition held in New York in 1966 can be cited as an example. But before that, in 1966, American artists were invited to an art and technology exhibition in Stockholm. The works displayed at the Nine Evenings exhibit take their influence from this festival in Stockholm. Since the beginning of the 60s, there had been many similar exhibits in London and even around the Balkans. Europeans were pioneers in holding such exhibits and got there before the Americans.

With regard to institutions, we can point to the Media Lab at MIT. Ars Electronica is the earliest festival of its kind, dating back to 79, and still continues to maintain its influence. It occasionally devolves into a fair show, but it is still a very important event. Institutions such as the ZKM are another example.

3. What role does new media art play in the art industry? (Are there any authorities providing statistical information on this issue?) How does the system function? Galleries, sponsors, etc.
New media art is not all that vital to the art industry, although the situation is less dire than it is in Turkey. New meda is not situated in the mainstream of art, but it also happens to be a niche area. New media, therefore, does not occupy a huge role within the “art industry”. Art Basel, which we would consider a part of the art industry, does not contain any works on new media. Even when it does, it’s not regarded as significant.

4- Given the wide availability of technology and the internet, why do you think the use of such tools is limited?
This has to do with perception. One of the problems involved is the closed-off nature of commonly used devices such as the iPhone. For instance, I’m only able to use this gadget as much as the interface will allow me. However, during the age of mechanical devices, you were able to directly intervene and fix something when it malfunctioned. Digital technologies, on the other hand, lack transparency and are therefore not accessible to artists. They aren’t things that you can learn, work on or understand. Additionally, new media presents other problems. The advances taking place in the societal consumption culture are mind-boggling and internalizing and understanding them takes time. Art can only manifest itself after it has been understood. Technological works caused excitement at first, but they weren’t very artistic.

5- What role does new media art currently occupy in the art world in Turkey? How do you see the future of this field?
The outlook for new media art in Turkey is not very different from the rest of the world. But it’s worse than it is elsewhere in the world. When you look abroad, you can at least see that they have an institutionalized structure, festivals and organizations. Turkey has none of these, and this applies to art as well.

In Turkey, we can point to an art industry that has only developed over the last 10 years. Here, we have to ask what we mean by art. If we talk about art as a commodity, then Turkey can be said to have an industry; or if we are referring to art as a PR tool, then yes, Turkey’s industry is booming. Yet if it’s art that is beyond all this, then it’s safe to say that you won’t get many acclaimed Turkish artists attracting the attention of the wider world.

If you ask me, the emergence of new media as an art in Turkey dates back to Techne and Amber. Prior to that, there were a few people such as Teoman Madra on the scene who worked individually, however, we did see pieces being created that were based around video art in the 80s. These were outside the scope of new media and are still not considered as new media today. These handful of artists were nonetheless the first to use emerging technologies. These works are purely individual efforts and cannot be viewed as pioneering influences of the new media field. The field started off around 2006-2007 with the arrival of Amber and other similar exhibits. The past 10 years have seen only around 5 new exhibits focusing on new media art. New media art exists as a niche and BIS remains the only supporting institution. With all that being said, the widespread use of technological devices indicates that the field is apt to develop as it has in other parts of the world. In time, there will be more institutions and festivals cropping up.

6- With regard to new media art, do you believe that there are unique works being created in Turkey? Which artists and events do you consider to be original?
Of course there are original works being made. Burak Arıkan, for instance, is an internationally renowned artist who has created significant works in the field of new media. You could also add artists such as Ebru Kurbak, Ali Mihrabi, Mahir Yavuz and Orkan Telhan to that list. But there’s a difference between an artist who uses new media and a new media artist. I’m talking here about artists who have made a career out of new media art and continue to work in this field. There are very few such individuals. If you ask me, these artists provide a far deeper and formidable critique due to the their medium of choice, because it would be impossible, or at least very difficult, to ask questions regarding today’s technologies through oil paintings. When you use that particular technology to ask questions about the medium, then the question emerges as part of the medium and the material itself.

7- Why did new media take as much time as it did to develop when it was already a rising trend around the world in the 90s?
The internet arrived in Turkey around 95-96. So in order for art to materialize, it is necessary for the artist to feed on this method of communication and information transmission. Turkey isn’t actually that behind. There wasn’t a lot going on globally from the 60s until the 80s, but developments in this field really began to take off after the 80s. These developments took place in Turkey around the mid-2000s. Turkey generally tends to fall behind and views these developments passively. There’s no knowledge being amassed in this part of the world, but the available knowledge is being used.

As Visual Communication Design departments begin to pop up around local universities, we witness the concentration of people around this field. Turkey still lacks new media departments; new media is also absent from art schools, so these artists all alight from visual communication design and the master programs of these departments.

If the artist dwells more on the technical aspects of the work, with the artistic input playing second fiddle, then this is really a problem with their artistry or their lack of talent. But this is not something we can generalize; it also applies to the artist who paints pictures.

8- How aware are Turkish art enthusiasts and collectors of this fledgling field? Does it attract them? To what do you attribute their enthusiasm, or lack thereof?
For example, we, as a festival, don’t reach a very large audience? One reason for this is the already minute size of the art following community. We also lack PR. Those who do attend don’t have much of an idea about the field, but I’m not sure this is specific to Turkey. The German art follower is also oblivious to digital art, but as there’s a more vibrant cultural environment they tend to be aware of a lot more. It’s understandable that digital art goes over people’s heads, since there’s a distinct lack of cultural availability in Turkey. In contrast though, information and communication technologies are democratizing art in the same way that they are democratizing life. This type of art is now accessible to all. Photography, for instance, is effective in democratizing both cinema and art. Art isn’t just a static artifact that sits in a palace somewhere; it is everywhere and it is easily accessible. With new media, we’re crossing a threshold. This mode of art is something that everyone can access and understand and communicate with upon being exposed to it.

9- What kinds of educational and developmental phases do new media artists go through around the world? In other words, how do they grow and what are the resources that enable them to flourish?
Internationally, there are many departments that offer new media art education (In Turkey, new media is understood to mean mass media). Here I’m referring to art departments that are primarily concerned with new media. Art schools in other parts of the world have internalized new media as a medium. A share of the artists come from these departments, but some of the enthusiasts are artists who usually work with plastics and there are also individuals from engineering departments who end up creating art. The difference is that there is serious scholarship in this area around the world with a parallel academic output. In Turkey, if you discount visual communication, there’s nothing that approaches this field.

Bilgi University’s Visual Communication Design department has made very significant contributions in helping this field get noticed. I began by teaching courses on Interactive Design at Bilgi University’s Visual Communication Design department; a first for Turkey. I currently offer the same courses, together with project courses, at the Sabancı University. These projects all involve the use of new media. Not all are artistic, but it’s fair to say that the fields or art and design are now continuously blending into each other. The new media artist especially is beginning to work in a way that is very similar to the designer’s method.

10- Do you think there are enough educational possibilities and resources for new media art to develop in Turkey?You don’t see any books being written or original resources created in this area in Turkey. Whereas you’d find many publications on the subject if you went to a bookshop in, say, London, it’s unlikely that you would find any in this country. But the internet is open and it is the most expansive pool of resources available.

11- What efforts are you making in this area? What sort of processes did you have to go through? (What is your mission and vision for the future?)
I received my degree from the Electronics and Communications Engineering department at the Istanbul Technical University. I tired of engineering after a while and, at the time, I was taking photographs and engaging with design. Later, Murat Germen and I set up a design company called Forumist. Not only was I interested in design and photography, but I was also an engineer and I knew how to program. It was around this time that the concept of “multimedia” began to emerge. I was also working on a few things using programs on my computer. Forumist, therefore, began with multimedia design. In addition, we were working on things like photography and book design. Departments that were established in 97 didn’t have the means or the background to offer third year courses to students moving from the second to the third year. I received a job offer from Bilgi University and began teaching courses such as Introduction to Multimedia and programming. So I eventually veered towards design and education. The work I was doing with students led to more meaningful and artistic creations. Once I saw that the infrastructure was beginning to emerge, I knew that we had to establish an event in this field. In order for students to become productive, we had to let them know about what was going on in the rest of the world. In addition, we had to give them a venue where they could exhibit their works. They had no other space in which they could exhibit their creations. This is how Amber was born. This is Amber’s mission. We aim to create awareness around this field and provoke and spread critical thought about the relationship between technology and art. Today, technology dominates. It wields great power over the entirety of life in the post- capitalist world. New technologies are democratizing information, but this freedom must also trickle down to real life. That is to say, we have to ensure that the devices we use offer transparency to the regular individual. We teach Arduino, electronics, programming and software development, while also viewing technology in a critical light. Most of today’s ecological problems are due to technology. For instance, we can perceive the damage caused by power plants that run on coal, but the harm that electromagnetic environments cause eludes us. You need openness in order to be able to understand how this network functions, who it connects together and how, and the relationships based on interests. Amber attempts to show people how they can intervene in technology and the tools they need to achieve this. At the moment we’re trying to set up Amber Fab. “Fab” refers to a fabrication lab, a concept that was developed by MIT. There are about 100 internationally known fab labs. This is basically a workshop containing everything from 3d printers to a CNC milling machine to a sewing machine with a laser cutter. People who come here will have the opportunity to realize just about any of their ideas and to create a prototype. We’re attempting to democratize the factory and production process in order to democratize information. This space will be non-profit and accessible for a very low fee. If you break your chair, you’ll be able to bring it here and fix it. Making repairs plays a significant role in changing consumption habits. We hope to set Fab up in a location that is accessible to the man on the street. We therefore plan to have it in the Taksim area rather than at the university, thereby saving people the trouble of having to go though campus security. This is a two year effort and we’re currently awaiting the response to our applications. If we’re able to acquire funding, it should be operational by the end of summer.

In addition, we’re also working on a project called “Hybrid City”. This is a side project tied to our “Open Data Open City” project. We’re essentially trying to establish an open data portal. The project is about making data open. Public institutions should make their information open and available and transparency and information sharing and the usability of information must be ensured. When you display information by superimposing it on a map, that isn’t open data – it’s simply an interpretation of the data. But if it’s possible to provide the data on the map, then that’s considered open data. Viewers can interpret this in different ways.

For instance, in Europe you have the right to “freedom of information”, but this has no function in Turkey. Openness is a cultural matter of extreme significance for Turkey. One phase of the “Open City Open Data” project involves the collection of this data and another its visualization. This way, the data will become readable. The data, as you see it on an Excel spreadsheet, is not comprehensible. But it becomes easy to understand once the designer puts it into a visual form. Another dimension to this is social: Why and how might we open up this information? How do we convince the institutions to cooperate? So this is a three phase project. “Hybrid City”, on the other hand, is comprised of four phases that include Prague, Athens, Marseilles and Istanbul. We will also be holding exhibits and conducting seminars. Furthermore, our partner in Athens will be holding the “Hybrid City” conference on May 22-23-24. Marseilles will also be hosting a number of events in November. However, the open data portal I’ve mentioned will be implemented on the internet.

12- Which institutions and people do you work with in Turkey and around the world?
In Turkey we work with universities. ITU, Sabancı University, Bilgi University and Kadir Has University are a few examples. We also work with organizations such as the Bahçeşehir University’s BUG – an organization that focuses on games. Beyond these universities, there’s no organization that we work with closely. Organizations in Turkey are quite closed-off anyway. Institutionalizing art or having very close relations with organizations isn’t very ideal, as it prevents art from being independent. The only worthy example in Turkey in this sense is the SAHA association, established two years ago. They compile a pool that the Turkish artist can use in order to hold their exhibits abroad. It’s the first time a private association of this kind has been established in Turkey. We encounter many associations similar to us in Europe. Almost all of these associations receive support from their Ministry of Culture for three to four years. They also receive support from the city’s municipality. So if you’re receiving support from the Ministry of Culture, you also have a sound infrastructure in place. Here in Turkey we’ve also worked with the government, which views the relationship as one they might have with a contractor. You receive the support after you’ve submitted your list of expenses. But when you lack the capital, you are forced to borrow in order to keep working. We didn’t encounter any problems, but this way of working is far from ideal. The same thing occurred during Istanbul 2010, when we covered all the expenses ourselves and gave them the bill. The organization we work with in Slovenia, for instance, receives their funds first and then is free to spend it throughout the year.

13- What’s your criteria when choosing artwork? Or what sort of methodology or approach do you use when producing new media work?
Initially an idea presents itself. After extensive drafts on paper it materializes into something and is then implemented.

14- What do you think has to be done in order for this field to grow in Turkey? (organizational support, sponsorships, research, databases, education, collectors, etc.) I would like to see new media departments being set up in art schools and for there to be more organizations like us. There ought to be more support, both from the government and other institutions, for new media, or rather for independent art. Unfortunately, the increasing number of organizations do not represent art in Turkey. It’s necessary to conduct rigorous research into just how much these organizations are contributing to culture and art in general. Currently, no such research exists. As it is, art has been left at the mercy of private capital, and private capital has already taken sides. Koç is Borusan’s rival, Borusan is Garanti Bank’s rival – these camps have been established. Then, on the other hand, you have a somewhat different organization such as the IKSV. As a result, independent art is unable to acquire a share of the budget. We see Koç sponsoring the IKSV, but there are a range of authorities tasked with making decisions and everything hinges on them. But there’s still a lack of democratic structure. Around the world, at least, you have state funds and private funds. For instance, we receive funds from the European Community and many other centers. But structures such as these are absent from Turkey. If companies were to unite and establish different funding structures – perhaps distribute funds from a pool of resources like the Mondrian Foundation using different criteria – a greater number of projects could be realized. To give you an example, no one, apart from a select few, visits organizations such as Salt Galata. They can’t even enjoy a coffee in the cafeteria. It’s obvious which class of individuals organizations like these serve. This type of cultural space is also necessary, but it’s wrong to funnel all the money into these institutions. Currently, the country has neither an AKM (The Ataturk Cultural Center) nor an opera house. In their absence, all you have left is the IKSV, Salt, Arter, Borusan etc. At least Akbank fulfills its social obligations by supporting children’s plays and taking the Akbank Chamber Orchestra on tour around the whole of Anatolia. Of course, this state of affairs has to change. European Community projects are perhaps successful in achieving this. If you look at the projects being carried out, you see serious social studies and other efforts that aim to get in touch with people.

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