In conversation with Aikaterini Gegisian and Fatma Çiftçi

K.P: How does a collaboration between a Turkish artist living in Turkey and a Greek-Armenian artist based in the UK materialise? What are the common grounds and references for such a dialogue?

F.C: Aikaterini and I met in 2008 during my residency at Spike Island Studio’s in Bristol, supported by what was then the Turkish Foundation Platform Garanti (later transformed into SALT). Our studios were next to each other and this allowed us to meet and become friends. At the end of my stay in the UK, I invited Aikaterini to join me on a research trip to East Anglia to explore the erosion of the coastline supported by Visiting Arts and RSA through the Arts & Ecology International Bursary. The three-day trip served not only as a testing ground of new ideas but also as a way of understanding how we look at and think about images. While exploring the landscape and searching for evidence of the erosion, we also discussed how we could work together and what such collaboration might entail. I remember that upon our return and looking through our photographic documentation in order to write an initial proposal for a joint project, we paused at a sign written on a wall of a building “There is no God”. This was the beginning of our collaborative efforts. I returned to Istanbul and Aikaterini started a PhD in London but we kept this friendship and the collaborative spark alive for many years, over skype conversations and through visiting each other in London and İstanbul.

A.G: As Fatma mentioned, we met for the first time at Spike Island in Bristol during her residency there. I was a studio holder at that time and I often used to stop by her studio for a chat. Soon, this everyday ritual evolved into a friendship. In 2011, I managed to spend two weeks with Fatma in İstanbul while she was in residency at PIST studios and revisited the material from our first joint journey in East Anglia a few years back. While evaluating how we reacted to the coastline of that specific geography, our dialogue turned into the representation of the sea in our respective cultural spheres. This was an attempt to think how the sea (and in our case the Aegean) has entered into disparate cultural texts and oppositional national narratives. If I remember correctly, at some point we started compiling a list of popular films in Greek and Turkish cinema that somehow were related to the sea and through this exchange we came to our eureka moment. We discovered a Greek popular musical produced in 1967, The Most Bright Star (Το πιο λαμπρό αστέρι), which was remade and adapted into a Turkish melodrama The Black Eyed One (Kara Gözlüm) 3 years later, in 1970. These two films feature the same plot and gave form to our collaborative dialogue. We began the process of deconstructing the films, isolating fragments and weaving them into a collage film. I applied for support from Arts Council England trough their Artist’ International Development Fund and we completed the production of the film during a two-month residency in İstanbul in the summer of 2015. Seven years after our first meeting, we finally shared a studio space and the time to nurture our collaborative ideas.

K.P: Why have you chosen Istanbul as the geographical locus to present In Reverse and is there a particular reason to exhibit at DEPO?

A.G: I used to have friends in Istanbul since I was a teenager, but I started visiting the city more frequently over the past ten years. I was fascinated with the architecture and was drawn to its transcultural history as it echoed my personal diasporic background. İstanbul became the source of inspiration for Sea Blues (2014-2017) a series of collage works that explores Bosphorus and the city’s Ottoman and Byzantine architectural heritage. A substantial part of the photographic albums utilised for the collage project The Small Guide to the Invisible Seas (Armenian Pavilion, Venice Biennale, 2015) was also sourced in İstanbul. Building on the networks that emerged over the years, while concurrently working with Fatma in the summer of 2015, I participated in the creative life of the city and was introduced to a number of curators, artists and filmmakers. The connections cultivated at that time resulted in presenting two joint artist’s talks in artist-led initiatives; one at the Studio of Urgency at SALT (invited by filmmaker Cana Bilir-Meier) and the other at Pasajist. As the city had become so central, both in my own practice and also in the collaborative dialogue with Fatma, we agreed that Istanbul was the best location for the articulation of the dialogic and discursive environment that we wanted to establish.

F.C: Apart from Aikaterini’s close ties with İstanbul, another reason for deciding to work in the city was the fact that since I am a Turkish passport holder, frequent travelling to Europe and, especially the UK, proved to be difficult. During that period of time that we shared a studio in İstanbul and during the production of the collaborative video collage Beethoven vs Chopin (2015), I arranged a series of studio visits from curators and art professionals. One of them was Serra Özhan Yüksel, a colleague and project coordinator at Anadolu Kültür Foundation. It was in our discussion with Serra when the seeds to develop an exhibition proposal for DEPO were planted (DEPO is part of the Anadolu Kültür Foundation). Serra suggested that our interest in a cross-cultural dialogue and the representation of gender identities corresponded both with Anadolu Kültür Foundation and DEPO mission, which emphasises the importance of direct cultural relations between Turkey and its neighbouring countries. Because of its connection to the civic agenda of Anadolu Kültür Foundation, DEPO holds a special position within İstanbul’s creative ecology since it acts as a platform for collaboration between artists, collectives and other non-profit organisations. This was rather important as we wanted to produce an exhibition that both stressed the collaborative nature of our relation but also reached socially and culturally diverse audiences in the current political context in Turkey.

K.P: Why have you decided to employ certain mediums and techniques for the works on show? Are these related in any way to the conceptual backdrop of In Reverse?

F.C: The exhibition In Reverse is the result of a long term collaborative exchange with Aikaterini Gegisian, first enacted through the production of the short collage film Beethoven vs Chopin (2015). The video is constructed from fragments of two films that share the same plot: The Most Bright Star, a musical produced in Greece in 1967, which was transformed into a romance entitled The Black Eyed One and released in Turkey in 1970. The two films are juxtaposed with a third one, Some Like it Hot, a comedy produced in Hollywood in 1959. Although two popular female stars lead the Greek and Turkish films highlighting with their personas the position of working women, our collage film takes another viewpoint and focuses on the male protagonists that go by the nicknames of Beethoven and Chopin. In this work, we decided to avoid deconstructing, as in many feminists’ art practices, the way the female body has been represented in popular cinema. Instead, Beethoven vs Chopin (2015) is concerned with questioning gender relations through the exploration of masculinity from the point of view of two female artists. This collaborative female exchange forms the initial conceptual backdrop of the exhibition In Reverse. The song I Wanna Be Loved by You sung by Marilyn Monroe in Some Like it Hot punctuates the narrative of Beethoven vs Chopin (2015), and forms the symbolic trigger for the linking of lives, geographies and cultures in the exhibition.

A.G: The emergence of this female gaze in Beethoven vs Chopin (2015) that Fatma describes, becomes the agent for the critique of national and gender identities in the exhibition. In the making of In Reverse, we engaged in collaborative research, in order to break the boundaries between distinct cultural tradition that moulded life and society in Greece, Turkey and Armenia and thus open up space for dialogue. Once we started selecting the works for the exhibition, we began to focus more precisely on the way popular and vernacular cultures (from popular film to embroidery) have shaped not only narratives of modernity but also gender representations and national identities. In exploring the historical constructions of the individual and collective body, we employed a range of representational strategies from video, photography and collage to sculpture and embroidery. Although the general considerations of gender relations were similar, our individual body of works manifested different themes and material. Fatma utilised traditional female crafts in works such as I will be a soldier 2 (2017) and Sultan Mustafa Mosque (2017) exploring how social systems construct collective bodies. On the other hand, I used mainly found images and postcards that marked female and male iconography and I engaged in the mixing of pop and vernacular cultural symbols, in works such as Self-Portrait as an Ottoman Woman (2012-2016), Weaving-Homage to Parajanov (2017) and The Split (2014). Weaving became a central metaphor in the exhibition, expressed in the use of actual female craft techniques, as well as in the evocation of cultural references of textile production. For example, Fatma utilised traditional cross-stich embroidery to represent a scene of toy soldiers in I will be a soldier 2 (2017) and used lacework to construct Takke prayer hats that are reshaped into architectural forms of mosques in Sultan Mustafa Mosque (2017). On the other hand, I referred to textile patterns through the re-imagining of the lace scene in Sergei Parajanov’s Colour of the Pomegranates (1968) in the photographic installation Weaving-Homage to Parajanov (2017). Propelling a range of symbolic languages into action, the decision to employ a diversity of media and heterogeneity of cultural references in the exhibition was a strategy that allowed us to question images as containers of histories that shape and reshape bodies.

K.P: How do the works of each artist engage in a discourse of reciprocal meanings and to what degree do the two individual films (My Pink City and Once Upon a Time in İstanbul) interact and interweave themes of seemingly diverse narratives?

F.C: The dialogic motif in the video collage Beethoven vs Chopin set the basis for formulating In Reverse as a collaborative exchange, a strategy that was also reflected in the choice to include two older film works in the exhibition. Our two individual films, Aikaterini’s My Pink City (2014) and my film Once upon a time in İstanbul (2009) act as portraits of the cities of Yerevan and İstanbul respectively. Providing a biographical layer to the exhibition, both films are shaped by the juxtaposition of different conceptual images of the cities. Once upon a time in İstanbul (2009) is constructed through the jarring of a found 16mm film that captures the everyday life of İstanbul in the 1970s with a narrative text that shapes a utopian image of the city. The text is a dialogue taken out of the Turkish popular film Feride (1970). In My Pink City (2014) Aikaterini brings together documentary material located in former Soviet Armenian archives, with her own observations of the life of contemporary Yerevan. Through the coming together of different views of the city, both films explore the historical transitions in İstanbul and Yerevan.

A.G: Apart from acting as portraits of İstanbul and Yerevan, our individual films are also unified in their use of archival material. In the continuous movement of going back and forth in time, through the use of archive material, the films question how urban space is reshaped by changing economic and political systems. In My Pink City (2014) this is more pronounced, since the film clearly records the shifts in the post-Soviet landscape, focusing on the construction of new buildings and the gentrification of areas of the city. In this film, the city literally becomes a map that reflects the political changes. On the other hand, Once upon a time in İstanbul (2009) comments on the transformation of İstanbul by using nostalgia as a reflecting tool. By focusing on the past, Fatma’s work, presents an idealised image of the city that reminds us what has been lost in our contemporary experience of İstanbul. Concurrent with the centrality of gender identities in the exhibition In Reverse, in both films the exploration of a shifting urban space is framed through gender interplay. However equally important the films introduce an autobiographical aspect to our collaborative exchange. They are portraits of two cities that we have adopted as home, either permanently (in Fatma’s case) or temporality (in my case). I was born and raised in Thessaloniki, while Fatma in Ankara. Thus, these city-portraits in transition, framing our individual biographies and participating in the reciprocal dialogue that we set up, provide a contextual backdrop for the rest of the exhibition.

K.P: The work on display surveys through the visual language of popular culture and cinema ideas on gender relations as well as interpretations on aspects of femininity and masculinity. What are the reactions of your audience given the particular societal and cultural constraints of your chosen location for the exhibition?

A.G: As the collaboration with Fatma matured through the exhibition In Reverse, I was very much interested in exploring how the inappropriate dialogues that we set up between diverse media, techniques and disparate symbolic languages would be interpreted by the audience. Would they be able to identify any of the cultural references presented in our works, and, would they interpret our exchange as a critical examination of identities across geographical and historical borders? The answer to the question was given partly during an artists’ talk, moderated by the curator Beral Madra, that we held in the opening days of the exhibition. In the discussion that followed we engaged with a diverse audience (as was our intention by holding the exhibition at DEPO) and we were confronted with observations that echoed our own experiences. The audience was genuinely interested in the idea of cultural dialogue between Turkey and its neighbouring countries and in discussing incidents that highlight continuous cultural ties that challenge specific notions of national identity. In that sense, the exhibition allowed for a further coming together of minority voices in the city, especially at a time when civic liberties in Turkey are tested.

F.C: During that artists’ talk, it was quite astonishing to learn that many in our audience had visited Armenia and could recognise the critical portrait of Yerevan that Aikaterini was presenting in My Pink City (2014). On the other hand, I had the opportunity, since I live in İstanbul, to spend more time in the exhibition and I met some local visitors, for example people that worked in the nearby coffee shops. What was evident in my conversations with them, was their engagement with the archival images in our works. They were both happy and surprised to encounter historic images of İstanbul that induced feelings of nostalgia, of a time that life in the city was easier. In general, visitors understood the connections of our individual works and our collaborative film project and they understood how they fitted within the larger framework that the exhibition attempted to establish.

K.P: How do you see your artistic utterance developing and evolving following this collaborative process?

F.C: Collaborating with Aikaterini is really important to me. It is a unique opportunity to combine our different perspectives as two female artists who live in different parts of the world. I feel that we have found a balance in our working methods and precision in articulating our collaborative voice and I see our practice maturing further in the future.

A.G: I agree with Fatma that it is our cross-cultural female gaze that brings power, criticality and energy to our collaboration. In more practical level, the next stage in our journey is staging the exhibition In Reverse in Greece, in order to continue our dialogue, compete the cultural exchange, and as such culminate the work we started almost 10 years ago.

By Kostas Prapoglou