What Makes a Flag Real
Interview with Hasan Özgür Top by Inez Piso
Hasan Özgür Top takes his artistic practice beyond the field of contemporary art. With his sharp analyses of visual codes used by national authorities and armed organizations like ISIS, he blurres the definitions and breaks the invisible frame through which we perceive and consume the available information. Top elaborates about his fight against future amnesia and how he tries to put footnotes on the recent history that is the being written as we speak.
The first thing that he shows me when we start our conversation is not a physical artwork or a video, but an excel spreadsheet titled: ‘Children in ISIS videos’.
It contains an extensive list of data, such as the durations of the videos and numerous keywords. ‘This is one of my archives where I have collected almost two thousand videos that ISIS uploaded and published on the internet. After watching them, I analyze them and collect the data in this spreadsheet. I write down the duration of each video, at what moment a child is featured and in what particular situation, whether the child appears in a school, or is shown speaking or not, and so on. I even have a record of the seconds where no one appears and nobody speaks’.
When I ask him until what age he considers a minor to be a child he responds: ‘This question is key. Who is the child and how do you define a child? Where do you draw a line, how to define a subject? The relevance of this within an investigation frame should be carefully limited. These questions should be answered from an awareness of your own subjective point of view.
The children in the ISIS videos interest me because the way they are represented shows us something about the ideology that this organization wants to project and imprint on the future. It is important to point out that the moment you are differentiating a child from an adult, you do that from a particular cultural background and even from a socio-economic background.
I mean, it is a real privilege to be able to consider minors under 18 as children, since in other parts of the world this age can be much lower. This problem of definition is a good example of how I deal with my own position as a subject when I am defining the framework where my investigation will take place. But yes, to come back to your questions: I have another file in which I document the cases where the age of the child isn’t clear and its appearance is stuck in the grey area of adolescence.
The children featured in the ISIS videos are just a small part of a much larger research that revolves around broader issues such as radicalism, online radicalism, state propaganda and social engineering. From these issues my interest in anarchism or jihadism arises and how, for example, the political party that governs Turkey (AKP) is using popular culture such as soap operas and social networks as a smart propaganda tool. My artistic and research methods are based on disassembling the ways in which these topics take a place in the structures of our society.
I want to lay them bare in order to get to their roots in the past, but also analyze their possible consequences in the future. I am also following closely what kind of marketing these groups and institutions are using, what commercial strategies they adopt from our contemporaneity and how they become tools for the propaganda. It all comes down to dismantling these abstract topics by very concrete examples and getting back to a basic core that can show many contradictions.’
When I ask him about how he deals with the possibility of blanks and limitations of, for example, the access to certain knowledge, as something that every researcher comes across, he answers: ‘It is true that I am very aware of the impossibility to know everything, and I recognize that I need help from other people who have a more specialized view. At the same time I need to establish a good framework from where I can carry out my investigation. Then I ask myself: “What is enough for the basics?”, and I think that when you have 2000 videos, you can start to work with it as a good source of information.
The categorization and structure of any archive is key. I also learned a lot from other archivists. Last year I organized together with the artist Köken Ergun a series of talks in different venues titled: “After the archive?“. During a series of conferences we invited other archivists from very different fields. We discussed the existence of these archives, their methodologies and structures, but particularly important was the question of how those archives could have survived through time. This was a project that was very well received because we brought together a heterogeneous audience (both from the art world and other fields), in order to raise awareness about the archives that could be on the verge of disappearing or are in an unfortunate condition -as is the case for the Cumhuriyet newspaper archive in Turkey. Many archives are disappearing in Turkey, many journalists are being imprisoned and nobody knows what will happen with those files and the information they contain.
The archive is so relevant for me because I want to base my work on facts and data. This is why the archive is like the foundation of a building onto which I can construct more complex issues.
Like I said, I want to go back to the basics and I think that in these times hard knowledge is a very powerful weapon. What I want to do is share “my weapons”.
Of course it is a challenge to find ways to do that, because it is not that simple. The first impediment I encountered is that sharing ISIS videos is illegal in Turkey for example. This is why I am always looking for ways to present it within a different framework that is neither illegal nor invisible. What I really want is the ability to create an open space for research that is more durable than the ephemerality of a political meme that pops up and then disappears on social media. Art has this possibility, to last longer than the artist’s life, or to be understood beyond its moment of creation. ‘
Hasan Özgür Top tells me that his new work, a video titled The Atelier, is about a local factory where Syrian refugees produce the Turkish flag. ‘This new work is also a clear attempt to go back to the basics. It deals with the Turkish flag that is excessively represented in public spaces in the eyes of foreigners. We are already used to that overrepresentation. When I worked as a fixer for some foreign journalists, I saw the representation of the flag through their eyes and I started an investigation about the origin of our flag, almost as a fetish object. Not only the history or the urban legends of this symbol intrigued me, but I was really interested in the question of where this piece of fabric is created in order to become this icon loaded with symbolism. And it was under these premises that I found a small factory, actually more like an atelier. Here I discovered, paradoxically, that it was Syrian refugees who are sewing this flag. This short film tries to demystify and dismantle the most basic symbols and take them to their minimum expression. When I went to the source of the flag’s creation, I could interview the workshop owner who proudly showed his production site.’
Top closes the spreadsheet that was still open on his computer and opens the video file that contains his new work The Atelier. It starts with images of Turkey’s landscapes that weren’t able to escape the appearance of the red flag with the white moon and star on it. The video shows unfinished construction sites in the middle of nowhere, sites that seem to lack any urban planning or engineering logic. Then Top’s camera moves through the intimate spaces of a small workshop where these loaded symbols are produced. At first, he presents this as the space where the Turkish flag is produced, but soon he discovers that other flags such as the Kurdish flag are produced here as well. Top explains to me that the shop owner even had plans to open another establishment of his shop in the north of Iraq, but in the end it didn’t happen. In a subtle way Top exposes the mere economical interests that preside the company, all under the appearance of making an allegedly sacred symbol. Top records the shop owner behind his desk when he starts to tell a famous story that is part of the Turkish collective memory: ’At the end of the independence war’, – you can tell from his face he is making a wild guess because he doesn’t remember exactly which war-, ‘anyway’, he continues ‘the reflection of the moon and a star on the shed blood turned into the image of the current Turkish flag.’
While looking at the video Top tells me about the poet Mithat Cemal Kuntay who wrote the famous phrase: What makes a flag real, is the blood on it. Top comments, stating that: ‘Actually what makes the flag real is not the blood but, the Syrian refugee who is sewing it.’
Various workers do indeed appear, who unlike the workshop owner, remain completely silent and don’t speak in the video. Top cleverly combines images that show their presence with the owner explaining that cheap labor is part of his corporate success. Top admits: ‘I am a storyteller, I know. A big influence and inspiration proceeds from the powerful ways of how stories are told in Hollywood. I am intrigued by these popular methods that have a big impact and become so successful that they can even legitimize a nation whether it is the Turkish one or the Kurdish.
What I am aiming at is to demystify a symbol and to expose the raw reality in which a flag is simply a basic material like cotton or nylon. We are the ones who imbue objects, such as a piece of fabric, with meaning Wasn’t it Otto von Bismarck who said: “Laws are like sausages, it is better not to show how they are made…” What I am trying to do is exactly the opposite: to dismantle a myth until it becomes uncomfortable, until the point where a symbol can signify exactly the opposite of what is was designed to transmit. I want to show the weaknesses in something that we assume to be so solid.’
Hasan Özgür Top (Ankara, 1987) is an artist based in Istanbul. Top holds a MA, Marmara University, Institute of Fine Arts, Painting, Istanbul, 2015 and his BA, Marmara University, Faculty of Fine Arts where he graduated in Painting, Istanbul, 2014. His first individual exhibition will be at Proyecto Amil in collaboration with Protocinema in Lima, Peru will be in January 2018. Selected group exhibitions include The Multiplier Effect, Mixer, Istanbul, 2017; Replaced, Rampa, Istanbul; If you can’t go through the door, go through the window, Alt Art Space, Istanbul and 1Sergi, Marmara University, Faculty of Fine Arts, Istanbul all in 2016. The Ways We Stand By, Protocinema Emerging Curator Series, Proto-5533, Istanbul; YFD VI, Zilberman Gallery, Istanbul, both in 2015 ; Borders Orbits, Siemens Sanat, Depo, Istanbul and Connecting the Dots: Workshops, Artist Diaries, Pera Museum, Istanbul, 2014; Prescription, Karşı, Istanbul, 2012; Even My Mum Can Make a Book, Manzara Perspectives, Istanbul, 2011; Two Shadows of ‘The Public’: Screen and Space, Lothringer 13, Munich, Two Shadows of ‘The Public’: Screen and Space, Depo, Istanbul, 2010. In 2012 Top’s videos were screened at That’s How We Do It In Istanbul, B15 Occupato, Rome, and Counter Manipulation, NO-TAV Camp in Turin.
Inez Piso (Netherlands, 1988) is a curator residing between Amsterdam and Istanbul. She studied Art History and holds a MA in History of Contemporary Art and Visual Culture from the Universidad Autónoma Madrid. She worked at the exhibition departments of the MNCARS Reina Sofía and CA2M Dos de Mayo Art Center. She worked as an assistant curator for ARCOMadrid. Her recent curatorial projects have been Living with Ghosts at Schloss Ringenberg (DE), Breathing Space, a performative project at the Arnhem Museum (NL) and De Schaduw van de Haan at the Vishal (NL). Her projects often unfold around invisible structures that have tangible consequences. Currently she works on a research project about the undiscerned silence in Istanbul.