Conversation in Istanbul


In 2013, Caitlin Franzmann met Merve Kaptan in a dark arcade in Kadikoy, on the Asian side of Istanbul. They had a conversation. The conversation continued across oceans through the clouds of technology. Caitlin returned to that same arcade in 2014 on an Asialink supported artist residency. For three months, they shared time, space and thoughts. Their conversation seems to have no end.


C: My fondest memories of Istanbul generally involve food and conversation, many shared with you. This is our second written ‘conversation’, the first forming a part of your torna conversation series. I take pleasure in the unknown trajectories of dialogue. I prefer a conversation that holds certain openness to individual opinions or values being challenged. I think that listening is as equally as important as speaking from the heart for any real growth of self or understanding of others. Tell me about your attraction to the conversational style of writing.

M: Like you, I really enjoy the various paths of a sincere dialogue. One can find out a lot about the other person not only from what they are actually saying, but also how they deal with the paths you are leading each other onto through the conversation. You can do that better within the written format as opposed to a face-to-face one I think. I like how you give each other some time to reflect on thoughts before responding.

C: True. But whilst there is value in time to reflect, the written conversation does lack the power of seeing someone’s eyes, hand gestures and pauses that can speak volumes. There is also power in the ‘Invisible Movements’ – what I like to think of as the unseen energies transferred in social interactions and dialogue. What is felt. Sound as a material within my installations and participatory works helps me to explore these interests. Sound is vibrational. It can be felt in a whole body kind of way. It can be both atmospheric and disorientating and can evoke a more intimate interaction with the wider world of architecture, objects and other living beings. Why do you use sound in your work?

M: How you explained it made me think of Forest (for a thousand years…) by Janet Cardiff and George Miller. It was an incredible work. You are also very good at using sound in that way. I use spoken word but I also like the sound the reader creates in their head when they read a text quietly. It is a silent sound – if I can say such a thing! I really enjoy lack of sound too. It is very tricky to achieve. It is more than just not having any sound but creating a conscious silence within the work. I saw Nicholas Mangan’s show at London’s Chisenhale Gallery recently. It was amazing to experience the silence in parts of his installation. Silence is meditative and repetitive, like watching water or fire.

C: I’ve not seen this particular work of Nicolas Mangan’s, but I do however really connect with his interest in the relationship between energy and social transformation, particularly looking back to ancient rituals in attempt to understand how society has evolved. These ideas were of interest to me whilst spending time in both Indonesia and Istanbul, where I felt there was a consciousness of that connection to the earth and animistic practices still existing in the everyday of society. I think that Australia has such a rich history in this regard though indigenous connection to land that is not understood or nourished by enough of the Australian population. I am in the process of trying to understand the role of Contemporary art and myself as an artist and citizen in such matters.

Prior to the 13th Istanbul Biennial, curator Fulya Erdemci asked, “does art-as-public-domain and activism share the same goal of changing society? In the face of urgency, can art and its institutions be mobilized as a useful political tool? Or will art lose its power in the collision?” (1) What are your thoughts on these questions?

M: Haha.. art did loose its power in the collision, when Erdemci and her team were too worried about the shut-down of money and power taps during the 13th Istanbul Biennial. I find it hilarious how these people talk about such issues in such a serious manner. And when it actually happens, when there are real, angry people on the streets, their tails go in between their legs and they run behind the curtains. I don’t respect them nor their agenda, I am sorry.

C: No need to apologise! From my conversations with other artists in Istanbul I got the sense that many felt a heaviness or inability to make work following the Gezi Protests and the ensuing political upheaval. From the stories I listened to, it seemed that art and activism did collide in a very beautiful and powerful way initially, but somehow could not be sustained. Can you share your experience?

M: Why could it not be sustained? Perhaps it was artificial to begin with? Otherwise, I don’t see how it cannot carry on. I don’t like such romanticism of things. Artists and writers went through world wars, military coups, concentration camps, mass killings and still awful things constantly happen to so many people in the name of politics in Turkey and around the world. As artists, we need to be aware and angry if necessary, respond creatively and work on finding ways to explain ourselves in such a mess.

Also, the word ‘activism’ is a bit of a weird one, don’t you think? What is activism? It has some kind of an imposition attached to it; has a way of moulding and then prepping a group of people for a march. I am not a very group oriented person. What do you think? Am I over-reacting?

C: I also find mass action challenging as there often seems to be so many differing agendas and values that the ‘act’ might come across as confused and irrational. But at the same time, the power of the collective action to effect social change is evident from major historical movements and this should inspire us. Anger is necessary, but what we choose to do with the anger is more important – responding bravely and creatively is one approach. I also think that activism is not only a group of people marching. A conversation can be a form of activism.

M: Yes, you are right.

C: I am curious about the upcoming 14th Istanbul Biennial SALTWATER. Curator, Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev refers to these kind of movements we are talking of as knots that ’suspend the flow of waves’. She speaks of a traumatised past of wars, ethnic cleansing and political uprisings, but there is something quite optimistic and inspiring about her thoughts for the future – a hope for recognition of past losses and the creation of alternative waves of history. She concludes with the proposition that ‘Perhaps a wave is simply time – the feeling of a difference between the high and the low points of a wave able to mark the experience of time, and thus of space, and thus of life.’ (2) This sounds pretty Zen to me. What are your thoughts?

M: It is indeed! It is a very beautifully written text. I like how she uses the notion of salt in her curatorial outline, it being both a killer and a savior. I am curious to see how she will use this within the city context. Quite strangely though, being familiar with the Bosphorous all my life, I never thought of waves in relation to Istanbul until I started living on one of the Prince’s Islands myself! I always thought these colossal waves only happened on land: inside the streets, on people’s gestures, wrapped around the continuous sounds rather than on water by the shores of the city.

C: You are very considered with your choice of words for your text and sound works. Can you tell me about your process in creating text work? You mentioned how you labour over a sentence for a very long time. I enjoy how you use simple language, like how you might speak to a child and yet there is something dark that lies underneath the words.

M: As an artist who writes, I am quite lucky to have English as my second language. It straightaway puts an exciting barrier between the language and my understanding of it. When it is your mother-tongue, you feel a word in your stomach, your whole being is familiar with it. But when it is a second language, everything is artificially learnt and that familiarity leaves its place to a trust of dictionaries and experiences. I like factual narration in text. You get a very strange realism if you stick to facts when explaining something, like kids do. When the content of the text is already quite hard to take in, it becomes stronger, somewhat tragic when simple structures are used to communicate it. I try to do that in my work.

C: How do you find translation affects your work?

M: Translation is very difficult. I have stopped doing that now. I could translate my work to explain to you what the text is saying, but whatever language it is written in, it needs to stay that way as the final work. Also, text is not as universal as sound or image. One needs to speak that language for the artist to create a bridge. It is difficult, but I am learning to deal with it.

C: I think of all the translated texts that I’ve gained so much from and feel like translation is incredibly important. But the act of translation really requires intense study and perhaps deep questioning of the author to understand and do justice to their choice of words. And poetry is so much about rhythm, that it adds an extra challenge to the process.

I understand that some work is just meant to be only for one language, but I am envious of your ability to consider your writing in two languages and invest the feeling you want into each version. It is a little like working site-responsively and then transferring that work to a foreign place and audience. There is always potential for something to be lost in that process. But perhaps it is good to also think about the unexpected moments that are possible when a work is translated/transferred. For example, during my first week at torna you gave me Nazım Hikmet’s book ‘Human Landscapes from my Country’. I found myself understanding a little more about Istanbul through his prose. This raised my appreciation of the power of poetry to affect and raise one’s consciousness. Imagine the pleasure that Hikmet would derive from knowing his words spark many conversations still today.

M: Yes, I was going to mention Hikmet too. I always thought he could not be translated, but was happily surprised to read that English translation. I also think his sentences are so simply and well put together. They feel so much from this geography that I think it is an obvious result to have one of his works or even a few of his sentences spark a conversation! I feel the same way about another great Turkish writer – my favourite – Orhan Kemal.

C: Could you share something from Orhan Kemal’s writings that makes you feel the geography of Turkey?

M: I couldn’t translate him into English now; I wouldn’t do the words any justice! One of my favourite books by him is ‘Ekmek Kavgası’. It has short stories about random, ‘unimportant’ people, people who face unfairness and who are unfair to others themselves; who are so soft and so hard at the same time. I find that with the people of these geographies. Everyone looks rough, and strongly opinionated but there is a frail side to everyone. That’s what makes these lands beautiful I think.

C: I find groupings of land masses into continents such a complex and intriguing topic. It is like many forms of taxonomy – quite easy to grasp on the surface until you start to pull it apart and question the logic. Continents could be defined by size, separation by oceans, cultural differences, politics, tectonic plates or something else entirely. Istanbul seems to be in the margins of Europe, Asia and the Middle East. Perhaps it is more a core, rather than margin?

M: There are layers of such ‘groupings’ in Istanbul but I am not sure how much un-layering we do here and how much of it is helping us being who we are. Istanbul is in a weird location. It has everyone and everything. It feels like a soup that lost its taste now from too many additives. If anything, I think being in the margins as such, has made us all schizophrenic. We have a little too many identities and no corners to run to when we need a gentle pick-me-up. For that reason, I feel closer to Anatolia than to Istanbul.

C: If Istanbul were a person, how would you describe her?

M: I like the question, but I can’t refer to it as a ‘she’ nor a ‘he’; I’ll say ‘it’! I have been thinking a lot about Istanbul recently. Unfortunately, I don’t like it as much as I did 10 years ago. Istanbul is like a very very famous distant relative. I like to think I have a private, special relationship with it but it would be naïve to think so. It is a very beautiful and a very ugly ‘it’.

C: It is this tension that I find so intriguing about Istanbul. I hope very much to visit again and find more beauty in the ugly and ugliness in the beauty so that these words no longer have meaning.



Author: Merve Kaptan and Caitlin Franzmann

Merve Kaptan (b. 1984, Istanbul) graduated from Goldsmiths College, London in 2007 with BA Fine Art and Contemporary Critical Studies. After receiving her Postgraduate Certificate in Filmmaking from London Film School in 2009, she completed MA Fine Art in Central Saint Martins, London in 2012. She currently works with performance, sound and text. She is the co-editor of folio magazine and is the co-founder of torna, a project space and artists' bookshop in Istanbul.Caitlin Franzmann (b 1979, Gympie) originally trained as an urban planner and in 2012 completed a Bachelor of Fine Art at Queensland College of Art. She creates architectural interventions and participatory installations that are responsive to their context, process-based and intimate to encourage slowness, curiosity and mindfulness. She has exhibited nationally and internationally, including at National Gallery of Victoria, Institute of Modern Art, Museum of Contemporary Art and Indonesia Contemporary Art Network. She is co-director of Brisbane-based feminist collective LEVEL.

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