Excerpts from interview with Köken Ergun, questions from Petra Heck sent by e-mail on May 5, 5:30 p.m.


PH – About your split-screen installation “The Flag”. I want to ask you why you chose the split screen, and whether you can then also say a word about your working methods in this particular work? For instance, did you ask for permission to shoot at the April 23 Children’s Day Celebrations, which mark the establishment of the new Turkish Parliament, and hence the official demise of the Ottoman Empire back in 1920?

KE – I frequently get asked that. I have been wondering why that is. I think the audience is under the impression – I must somehow be conveying that – that this ceremony is closed – a ‘closed crowd’, if we would use Elias Canetti’s terms – but it is not. It is a public event. So it is definitely possible to record it. I might have gone a bit nearer to the subjects than anyone else would do, that is true. But I could see that the subjects I shot were happy about it. They want more and more people to see their performance.

You see, what is happening there is a ritual, and rituals construct the cultural codes we live with. It is not the cultural codes that create the rituals. In other words, rituals create myths, not the other way around. And rituals are obligatory. Myths, like religion are at the discretion of its worshipers. Therefore the state supports rituals of this kind and makes them obligatory for its citizens, by way of making these days holidays, like the Queen’s Day you have in the Netherlands, or the Turkish Childrens Day we see here. On these holidays there are demonstrations, parades, performances, stuff that ‘reminds’ you of your state and your citizenship. In Emile Durkheim’s terms, this is ‘ritual time’, where the effervescence of the ritual allows the individual to feel and move as part of a community. However, as soon the celebrations are over, or the national day has ended, the citizen regains his or her individual status, gets out of the community spirit. This is why the state repeats these rituals every year, because it wants to prolong this feeling of unity, so that you always remain a good citizen, part of the community, which must feel together, move together…. To remind us, and to get us back to the community mode at every ritual time. It is this community mode that can create the strongest energy: the energy of the masses. It is capable of creating the biggest wars. And it did. Think of the crusaders, or how the Third Reich managed the masses. However, there are always ways to escape this power too, or not to be part of it. For example, what happened on your Queen’s Day this year was remarkable. An individual refused to give in to the effervescent power of the ritual, and the state. He reacted against it, by crashing his car into the crowd which was the community he didn’t participate in, and was opposing.

As for the use of two screens: I have been very influenced by the work of Eija Liisa Ahtila. I think she is one of the reasons that I started making videos. While working in theater, with Robert Wilson, I saw the world more as three dimensional, live. But then I saw a work by Ahtila, ‘The House’, and I was so impressed by it. Then I became interested in the two dimensional world of film. But if you allow the audience to look at one subject from two or three different points of view at the same time, you can get closer to the three dimensional. Maybe this is why I like using multi-screens. For example, my last work, WEDDING, is three screens. But even better, the cubists did this on a single canvas. But best of all: life is three-dimensional, without making any extra effort, with no artificial push. This becomes the main question once again: how to represent life so it looks like life? Or do you construct a completely new life?

PH – I read somewhere you see “The Flag” as an act of exorcism of your fear about the rising nationalism in the world, but especially in Europe. Would you comment on this rising nationalism you see in relation to “The Flag” and you relation to rituals? I also read in an interview something about the strategy of “national education”. Can you tell me more about this strategy and its relation to your work?

KE – Yes, I think nationalism is the biggest headache for mankind now. It has been created in Europe. One cannot help thinking that only 100 years ago there was nothing like nationalism, because it was still the time of multi-cultural states or empires. Then it grew like a bacteria and from Europe it contaminated the entire world. For example, I am watching the semi-finals of the Eurovision Song Contest as I am answering your questions. And it is so ridiculous how they are pushing ‘nations’ and nationalism with lame contests like this. It is extremely ironic that it is taking place in Russia this year, one of the older and stronger states of the east, which did not have as much nationalism as in the west of Europe – and mind you, it had communism for a while. At this moment we are all witnessing how they are hosting one of the most exagerrated Eurovision showcases. This thing is not about co-existence, it only fuels more and more nationalism. It makes me very angry, in the same way I am angry to the growing nationalism in my home country.

The young Turkish Republic is a rather diminished nation state built on the ruins of a big multi-cultural, non-colonial empire. The Ottoman style of co-existence (different from that of the short-lived Hapsburg empire) was swiftly replaced with Turkish nationalism and excluded all other cultures that used to live in this remaining part of the Ottoman Empire. Although the new republic was secular in formation, the non-Muslim cultures were the quickest to be kicked out of the new system. Muslim cultures, like the Kurds, remained within the new republic, and were not pushed out as fast as the Greeks or the Armenians, who by then had their own nation states. But this does not mean that the remarkably large Kurdish minority (so large that it is maybe not right to call it a minority) flourished and was made an integral part of the new nation state. They lived – and remain – under various torments. What you see in “The Flag” is the source of this torment. The oath that the kids are taking is something we grew up with, and it is still repeated every Monday morning and Friday afternoon at every single school in Turkey. This is again a ritual, a ritual of the state. As I said above, rituals have the power to create myths. So it is these rituals that create the feeling of citizenship, and subsequently the nation state. Especially in young minds. I strongly agree with Eric Hobsbawm’s theory about the two most important things in creating the nation state: national education and military service. “The Flag” is about national education, while its sister work, “I, Soldier” (which is often screened together with “The Flag”) is about military service. With these two works I try to demonstrate the process of nation building. Both national education and military service is obligatory in most nation states. The state makes it unlawful not to send your kids to primary school, as the same state will get you if you refuse to go to the military. Both in national education and in military service, repetitions and recitations are key practices. Students, like soldiers, are taught with verses, songs often supported with music and even dance. During this process a community is being built, because it is ritual time again. We can call this kind of community building “muscular bonding”, since it is attuned to the rhythm of the body, by way of verse or music, or choreography. Like many other millions of kids of the Turkish Republic I underwent this attempt to mold me through these state rituals, and it is no wonder that when I started to express myself with video, one of the first things I did was to go to the stadium when they were celebrating one of these national days. I had to get this out of my system. It is really a kind of exorcism. I had to share it with others who have been subject to this kind of national education.

There is a very famous anecdote that Hobsbawm uses in one of the volumes of his big work about European history: as you know, the state of Italy is quite a new state, like Germany. At the first sitting of the first ever Italian parliament, one of the founders of the nation state whose name I don’t recall now, addresses the enthusiastic crowd of MP’s: ‘Ladies and gentlemen! We have created Italy! Now we have to create Italians!’

This is the spirit of nationalism!

PH – In this work you shot an official celebration ceremony, whereas in TANKLOVE and Untitled you created the action itself as a performance. Can you elaborate on these different formats? Do these different approaches function on the same level within your artistic practice?

KE – I have a love/hate relationship with theater. Although I tried very hard to be accepted in the acting school, after being accepted it didn’t take me long to realize that I had made this choice not because I liked theater or wanted to be an actor, but that I liked some kind of performitivity that I couldn’t yet describe. So when I moved away from theater and got involved in filmmaking, or let’s say contemporary art, it was no coincidence that I found myself making things centered around performances of some sort. I have this theory about ‘live performance’ versus ‘ life performance’ that I often repeat: that live performance is the aestheticized performance of all art forms, such as theater, cinema and performance art, even exhibitions. ‘Life performance’ refers to acts we do in order to maintain our cultural lives, whether this is eating, dancing, sex, discipline. Above we named them rituals. ‘Life performance’ is another way of saying that. Some call it ‘cultural performance’. It is performances like these that I find more true. And if art is about truth, then it is necessary to examine performances like these, rather then the artistically beautified performances. So part of my work is to capture on video these kind of ‘cultural performances’, like in ‘The Flag’, ‘I, Soldier’, or most recently WEDDING.

Practices of the other kind are also performative, like in ‘Untitled’, which is a repetitive performance in reaction to a political problem/abuse, or TANKLOVE, which is a restaging of an historical act in reaction to another political abuse. It is hard to say that these fall more into the category of art and the others aren’t, because as soon as you edit the footage of rituals and re-present it, it becomes an artistic expression. I do not worry about that now; I think both of them point in the same direction. With works like Untitled, and TANKLOVE I might be trying to find a different kind of director’s theater, while with the other ritualistic works I focus on the director-free theater. Or one which is directed not by an individual but by a community spirit. I think both practices serve the same purpose for me: I am looking for different kinds of ‘mimesis’. In this sense, they do function on the same level. They are etudes; different approaches to the same concern.

PH – The third and last work in the presentation is called ‘Untitled’, wherein you perform yourself, wearing different types of scarves, until you start crying. Does this use of your own body make it a personal protest or statement, or should we not take your personal act that privately? Was it just easier to perform yourself instead of hiring somebody to do the job of ‘acting’?

KE – This was my first video piece. And also the first one in which I am exorcising something. It is my anger toward the president of Turkey at the time, and all the secular elite in general. He was appointed by the publicly elected parliament, but not voted for by the public. He came from a law background, and his assignment was deeply and gladly supported by the army. Shortly after taking the presidency, the general elections resulted in a sweeping victory by the current ruling AKP party of Tayyip Erdogan. They come from a more religious-slash-conservative background. So naturally most of their wives wear headscarves. And in Turkey, like in France, women who wear headscarves are not allowed to enter certain institutions, or spaces that are governed by the state. For example in Turkey, they are not admitted to universities, cannot be civil servants. This is a basic violation of human rights in my point of view, but because a headscarf is unfortunately seen and also used as a religious symbol, the secular- minded population in Turkey sees it as a threat to Atatürk’s secular republic. Atatürk died in 1938. Anyway, yet another national day, the biggest one, Republic Day, was around the corner. And traditionally the president holds a Republican Day ball in the presidential palace, which again was first occupied by Atatürk, and is the king of all state buildings/state controlled spaces. Until then [2003] no woman with a headscarf had ever entered that building. None. So this bright president has a brilliant plan: he sends out one-person invitations to all the members of parliament so that their wives will not be able to come. I hate him forever for that. And I had to do something about it. This is why I decided to perform the piece myself. It was my anger, and I had to perform my own exorcism.


for the rest of the interview see: