Within the context of Filip Berte’s installation “House of Eutopia” DutchCulture and the Treaty of Utrecht foundation organized a seminar on the character of “Creative activism in Turkey”. During the heyday of what has become known as the Gezi Park protests [which are still ongoing] old fashioned protest proved to have lost its effect. The battle fought by the “Chapullers” (the protesters’ alias) needed and still needs alternative and more disruptive ways of protesting. Creativity is an essential ingredient of their actions. Not only in Turkey, but also world-wide creative activism plays an increasingly important part, not least because of social media. We all know examples of these practices. DutchCulture and Treaty of Utrecht foundation invited five eloquent speakers to shed their light on this phenomenon. Their assignment: offer insights into social change, creative activism and the role of artists in protest. Change Agent Kirsten van den Hul, who moderated the event, would help us get the most out of the speakers.
Robin Celikates examines the relationship between civil disobedience and creative activism. Celikates is Associate Professor of Political and Social Philosophy at the University of Amsterdam.
Kirsten van den Hul welcomed the panelists and the international audience. After a short introduction on the work and practices of DutchCulture and Treaty of Utrecht foundation Robin Celikates took the floor. He argued that activism should be more than merely symbolic – it needs a confrontational aspect. Occupy Wall Street was an example of this practice. Nonetheless he continued, to fully understand what happened, one needs the perspective of a participator. As nobody predicted or planned what happened, it is very difficult, or impossible, to reconstruct what caused the creative activism to be what it was . According to Celikates it is only explainable by the cumulative power of creativity. Scientific explanations are able to describe what happened, how it happened, but not why it happened. For Celikates this is still unclear as well. The too simple picture of a young highly educated middle class finally avenging itself on Anatolian traditions is indeed too simple as the Gezi Park protest were a coming together of various movements. What they did share was a feeling of autonomy: by creating their own spaces, and organizing them in their own way. And if necessary, by defending them by any means necessary. It was only to this background protests such as “The Standing Man” could make such an impression.
Ipek Sur of the 7 Hills Foundation presented some of her findings of the ongoing research [which she carries out in collaboration with Nancy Hoffman] with the audience. In future a publication will contain all of the findings, for now she touched upon a few keypoints: Instead of throwing stones, people started writing messages on the wall. With lots of quotes from popular culture. Later on it became digitalised: “no bread, let them eat peppergas’. Alike this sentence; it was very important to be in what is happening, but at the same time to be joking about it. That is were the art came in. Examples galore, including: Reading man, Naked man [lecturing the police, on how to interpret the islam], Red Hack. Concluding her visual presentation was the remark these protests were spontaneous and fast, full of authentic contents, humor. With the protestors believing art is for the people, that no copyright is allowed, that digital distribution is the key, these protests do reflect the 21st century media activism.
Deniz Dirim explained how Mediamatic, an Amsterdam based art institution, dealt and deals with the protests. For people of Turkish background living in the Netherlands the Gezi days were bizarre: willing to be there, but not able to be there, what could one do? That is where Mediamatic initiated the “What to do in Amsterdam? Park project”. Attendants could discuss what was, is happening in Istanbul, could exchange information, and could pitch proposals for events in Amsterdam. Deniz touched on two of them. Want to know more, see this page.
Before entering a panel discussion with all speakers, firstly Kirsten van den Hul interviewed Melih Gencboyaci and Huseyn Badili. Melih Gencboyaci’s performance on the “absurdness of protesting” started in 2010 during the ‘Schreeuw om Cultuur’ manifestations. Than he travelled the world seeking protests, so his performance grew from 18 minutes to 3 hours. “Is it a contribution to Gezi Park protest?” ”Yes and no. No, as I am an artist. Yes, as I use my art as a tool to open discussions.”
Kirsten’s questions whether one can be at a distance and be engaged anyway?
Both of them answer they were online for days in a row. But Melih Gencboyaci continues: “In my case the emotional and physical distance was a help. I performed at the ‘Buurtsafari’ during the Gezi Park Protests, and every day I could raise the subject with my audiences. I tried making the distinction between revolt and awakening.”
In the following group discussion hope became of main subject of the conversation.
Melih Gencboyaci argued that art is a tool to get people engaged. “Especially in Turkey with its’ censorship. See the Standing Man who outsmarted the violent police.” But Robin Celikates warned us: “We have to be aware we are politically privileged to talk about these events. So for us it is easy to say it is just ‘spielerei’, for the greater awakened masses this could be a beginning. I believe in Gramsci’s words ‘We need optimism of the will’.”
Whether hope was and is the main ingredient of the protest?, Kirsten van den Hul wanted to know. Ipek Sur answered “There is certain threat coming from the arts; it enables people to become critical, to start asking questions. And the half-democracy Turkey is, is feeling insecure about it. So it is not only a tool, it is more powerful; the chapullers haven’t thrown a molotov, they did not throw stones. And as this is not an elite revolt, but a middle class awakening it could be a beginning. Huseyn Badili continues from there “And the government expects us to use violence, not to create art. So it is a unexpected reaction. Also is it an empowering feeling for yourself. And as people told me: my song gave people new oxygen, so they could breathe again.”
The latter parts of the afternoon were spent discussing with the audience. On topic: the predictability of the protest, as some observers said the protest needed to happen with such tensions in Turkish society. Ipek Sur said she has seen this coming for 15 years. Deniz Dirm added there already was a lot of protest in Istanbul. “But that the coming together of students, political groups, regular citizens, football hooligans made these protests so special, a once in a lifetime experience.”
Of course, the afternoon ended with the question: “What can we do pro actively?”
All five speakers agreed upon the following:
What everybody can do is sharing concern, have public and private discussions. Those all count as starting points.
Let’s be a little less realistic. And perhaps everybody should dare to be human a little more, to step out of your comfort zone.
Protests are always location bound, although they face global phenomena. Find your local reason to do something.