Bitter Medicine Conversations:
Performative Spectatorship, Oxymoron Aesthetic Of :MENTALKLINIK, Taking A Third Position

23 December 2020 Wed

The conversation below, available online on YouTube here in Turkish, was edited for clarity.

Dr. Necmi Sönmez: I’m the curator for the exhibition BITTER MEDICINE #02 at Borusan Contemporary. We planned to a Zoom group meeting for this exhibition. The most important reason for doing this was to bring up the interactive and multidisciplinary exhibition through different perspectives. We are having this conversation tonight from three different cities: I'm connecting from Düsseldorf, Naz is connecting from San Francisco, and Ayşe is in Istanbul. We connect from almost three different continents across three different time zones. This is one of the elements brought up by the Bitter Medicine—talking face to face would undoubtedly be more exciting. I would like to quote from the biographies of my two friends, to whom I am grateful for participating in this conversation. Ayşe Draz, co-founder of Theatre Hemhâl and exploring the field of performance with her research and artistic work, is an Istanbul-based performer, dramaturg, and director who produces theatrical and performative works independently as well as with Theatre Hemhâl. She is also the performing arts editor of the magazine, Art Unlimited. Naz Cuguoğlu is a curator, art writer, critic, based in San Francisco and Istanbul. She is the co-founder of Collective Çukurcuma. She held various positions at KADIST, The Wattis Institute, de Young Museum, SFMOMA Public Knowledge, Joan Mitchell Foundation, Zilberman Gallery, Maumau Art Residency, and Mixer. Tonight, we will continue to bring up the Bitter Medicine exhibition from different perspectives. I would like to thank dear Ayşe and Naz for this talk, which we designed as a question and answer, and leave the microphone to them.

Ayşe Draz: If you want, let me talk about how I first knew Yasemin and Birol, :mentalKLINIK. I will start from a very personal place. In the late 90s, early 2000s, while studying theater and comparative literature in America, I went to Istanbul every summer. A German friend of mine, who was studying at NYU, wanted to come to Istanbul and write an article by interviewing figures from the contemporary art world. One day he came to me and said, "Get up, I met a husband and wife I should introduce you to." Yasemin and Birol. I was working in the field of theater back then, I am not familiar with contemporary art issues. We first met as people; When I met this duo, which was founded in 98; in 2000, I encountered the projects realized by Yasemin and Birol. We also collaborated. When I looked at what I have about them in my archive, I realized that I followed many of their works like a big fan. I am not an art historian, not a curator, but dramaturgy and curating are similar in some ways. We will talk about a few concepts that they define themselves. One of those concepts first is to create the third position. Therefore, for me, it is a couple who wore two black, one mostly likened to Marx, the other was enchanting with her beauty like a sculpture. Yasemin always reads, Birol interrogates. They are interested in neither that, nor the other, in their work. They have been questioning the human-object relationship since the early period. When I looked from today, I realized how much they were aware of the technology that was coming towards us in their work at that time. We can see the uncanny in their work. We may have been aware of the uncanny about technology at that time, but it is possible to see them putting their work in an uncanny context from the very beginning. When we look at the human-object relationship in their practice, it is possible to see that the human was objectified and the object became human. Their setup seemed simple but not easy. In their first project exhibitions, they focused on a concept and invited the participants around it. After deciding where to position the concept with an editor, they entered a two-way production process through an exhibition and a book. I was able to follow all of them except the project they realized in 2000. It is a work they perform in their own spaces in Topağacı and was edited by Poet Birhan Keskin. I don't remember whether I saw the exhibition or not; I still use my bedspreads, pillowcases and objects from this exhibition. Another exhibition was Game. An exhibition made by Tül Akalp Sualp in 2002. Some of the participating names are Ela Cindoruk, Nermin Er, Dilek Vinchester, Ethem Özgüven. Copies are made in the same place. Under the editorship of Ali Akay, from Ayşe Erkmen to Yaz Bükey, when we look at all these, I was impressed by the fact that they produced together as a designer, craftsman, artist from many different fields around a concept in the early 2000s and that they produced objects that are also affordable and I started to follow their projects. They were hosting artists in their venues. I met Joel at her place in 2004. I got to know Joel, who made the Madagascar pavilion in 2019 at the Venice Biennial, at The Ephemeral Boutique. Again, this boutique was a third position, standing in between, neither a store nor a gallery. It was a print format featured in the Trendsetter magazine between 2002 and 2007, putting some concepts at its center, invading the magazine, documenting it and pointing to the future. When I look back on this talk, looking back at the ideas they put in the center, defect, memory, archive. They put the virus in the center in 2003. I regret that I didn't realize the foresight in time. I would like to talk about the Accident intervention in the magazine Colophon in Luxembourg. It was something like a fanzine with lots of mistakes, from accidents where everything burned out. Even the spelling of the accident was wrong, creating the third position that realizes the concept that it focuses on. Oxymoron, that is to use two conflicting concepts together. They also use it linguistically. When they look at their own work, they are more interested in constructing the present as the history of the future beyond predicting the future. Beyond criticizing today's capitalist order, post-party splendor, they propose to take a third position on how can we look at this splendor when the world comes to an end. In general, there are situations where two different positions they make visibly conflict with each other. That is why the names of most of his exhibitions contain this position. Like Obnoxiously Happy. Naz, I think you should also make an introduction through the concept of oxymoron.

Naz Cuguoğlu: First of all, many thanks, this personal history narrative is invaluable. I want to talk about the third position and co-production. I would like to thank both Borusan Contemporary and Necmi. The open laboratory approach is quite appropriate for this exhibition. It is thus possible to approach the work from different angles. I would like to consider this work in terms of collaboration: collaboration between people and collaboration between the human and the non-human. Authority and hierarchy brought about by collaboration. And how speculative fiction can envision different futures. I also want to talk about can we interpret this work as a criticism of the art world. While doing this, I want to talk near the work rather than talk about it. Let me explain briefly: I came across Trinh T. Minh-ha while working at the Wattis Institute, Vietnamese writer and film director. I learned a lot from her. We inevitably form a hierarchy when we talk about something, but when we talk near things, we are likely to break this hierarchy. I will also approach from a personal point of view. I have been working as part of a curatorial collective for five years. In our research, we do research on what it means to think together. Since :mentalKLINIK is a duo themselves, they talk about being a duo and even having a third in their work. This sounds interesting to me: how can it bring different perspectives to being a collective rather than an individual, being together, the state of crowding and the polyphony that this brings. This is also in queer theory. Another issue we are thinking about is establishing selected families and coming together despite our differences. There is an ethical issue subject to this. I want to talk about these. When a voice is heard in the work, another sound is suppressed. We think we can observe this through their dual studies. There is a relationship between human and non-human in the exhibition space. When we look at the exhibition space, one of the things we see is that the robots' dust bags have been removed. It is important that the performance of robots continues 24/7; we are talking about an endless workforce. Here, too, I want to give the mic back to you.

AD: The exhibition shown as Bitter Medicine at the institution was actually shown as Puff in Art Basel. A version was also featured in Galerist. The relationship established with the space, those robots that everyone wanted to buy in the corona days and the glitter; while one is sweeping, the other gushes out. There was a point that problematized the exhibition space beyond the relationship between the two. There was a job called Whiff where a 4-second confetti footage was shown in slow motion. There was a feeling as if the world had come to an end and this end was being celebrated. It was something located within the oxymoron universe. With the Lovers work, made by two robotic lights, choreography came into play and it has the potential to continue forever. It places you in a complementary position. First of all, the appearance of the Bitter Medicine in the museum in Belgrade actually questions how we relate to the exhibitions that we cannot watch as viewers. A choreography that will be completed with its audience turns into a relationship and suggestion when the place and the actress, human or robot are left alone. In this respect, the proposals of the exhibition at Borusan Contemporary are important.

NC: Perhaps we need to first look at the relationship we have with the weak as humanity. For example, our relationship with animals. The fact that we produce them for consumption in laboratory environments. It is necessary to talk about the anthropocene concept, anthropocentric perspective. I've been doing research on ecofeminism for a while, and there's the concept of chthulucene that Donna Haraway is talking about. A concept she proposes instead of the anthropocene. From the anthropocentric point of view, it focuses on the kinship that the human establishes with the nonhuman. The relationship we establish with invisible microorganisms is important. Perhaps it is necessary to ask the question of how we can behave more empathetically, whether it is a plant or a robot. For this, we must first accept the existence of the other person. We can also connect to speculative fiction from here. :mentalKLINIK also talks about the fictional power of art in an interview. How fictional speculation can open up different perceptions of the world to us. Ursula Le Guin mentions this in her books; In her books we see fluid genders, characters representing not just the majority but ethnic minorities. She explores the possibilities of speculative editing and I think we see this in :mentalKLINIK’s work as well. Another writer we can mention is Octavia Butler. I read Blood Child with the suggestion of Mine Kaplangı and was very impressed. I think it's a story that captures its time very well. I don't want to give spoilers, but we are talking about a story like this: Alien plants occupy the human world. They have to make themselves desirable for these alien plants. It overturns the relationship between man and nonhuman. There is the situation that Michael Pollan mentions in his book The Botany of Desire. Vegetables such as potatoes and hemp can survive as long as they can be interesting for humans. Otherwise they disappear. When people who are superior to the human race come into contact with aliens or robots, one has to make oneself useful and desirable. In the context of the exhibition, we see this, as if the artists broke this authority. It looks as if they have entrusted the exhibition space to robots, and it does not seem to have an authority position. However, we know that robots depend on humans every time they break down. They continue their production 24/7. We can see different hierarchies to meet people's goals. Finally, we can say this: How can we imagine a more ethical future when robots with their dust bags have been removed seem free to move as they wish?

AD: As you mentioned at the beginning, creating the third position, collaborations. There is an aesthetic issue, of course, but there is also an ethical issue. Rather than taking position, artificial intelligence has also stepped in. How many people, how many objects, all hybrid forms, depend on each other. Maybe that neediness points to another who is always involved with Yasemin and Birol's work. Being wildly happy is like being magnificently sad. So I think it is more important to not take a position - though their lack of position may be criticized by others - than to impose a position in the context of today's polarizations. They suggest us to consider the human-robot relationship instead.

NC: Every decision is very important and I feel like we could talk about each one for hours. Perhaps another concept we can talk about is the notion of 24/7. It is also very meaningful to have 24/7 broadcasts flowing and being traceable. We all experienced this in the corona time. We want online broadcasts that are always there to watch. This has become an obsession for all of us. We are experiencing this at an increasingly high level. Digital anxiety is on the rise. We were talking about fomo before corona (fear of missing out).

AD: They have a work called Fomo!

NC: Then we talked about jomo, joy of missing out. The joy of wasting time. As people who had the chance to work at home during the corona period, maybe we experienced this to some extent. We are also experiencing zoom fatigue.

AD: You experience fomo when you are not on Zoom.

NC: We are at the laptop all day, looking at our phones. At the end of the day, we head over to another screen to clear our minds. I feel like I can only watch nature on the screen. Last night I watched a movie called Cemetery in MUBI—I recommend it to everyone—which described a forest through the eyes of an elephant. We're all talking about a return to normal. We don't know very much what normal is. Normal was already serving a group of people. Whose normal were we talking about? The work also provides a platform to talk about them.

AD: The relationship between the interface and the digital has become very controversial in theater. While talking to someone younger than even you, I was saying that I experienced a work in which the intimate could be created this way, and the person I talked to said welcome to this realm! In these chat rooms, with our little cameras, people who didn't live in big cities, we had this intimacy, he said. Now you have come to discover the intimacy possibilities of this channel whereas before you would roll your eyes at it. Even though they recognize the place after a while and act in the same way, a new choreography is formed. We can go in and out and watch. We can look inside an institution, we look, we enter, we exit. I care about this work in terms of its problematization. They do not give us the comfort of finding answers. It makes you enjoy asking the right questions.

NC: As an oxymoron, we can return to the subject of survival. When we see the exhibition space, it is a celebration with glitter, what does this celebration mean, what does it mean that everything can be celebrated in the capitalist world? We see this in the name of the Bitter Medicine. What is presented as a prescription is not a solution. Something is being covered up. We continue to produce in digital rooms. The conditions of the system continue to spin. What changes can the passivity of the audience make in the position of the art? What doors can it open when using this fiction? We can also talk about his relationship with the senses. :mentalKLINIK always talks about being open to the five senses, they say they are willing to open up the sixth, seventh, eighth senses. We are currently communicating via Zoom, being in venues that are always online. During the pandemic period, we were holding an exhibition at the Wattis Institute and they wanted us to move it to digital environment all of a sudden. It is also important to look at it in terms of moving to the digital environment without question. Since there are cameras looking at the exhibition space from different angles, it also offers us angles that our body cannot perceive. Of course, the institution of art as a space that the human body has completely abandoned.

AD: It starts to make the body think as it pulls the body through it in some way. Other senses that come with the body, you can hear, you can see, we are now trapped in these senses. While they were exploring the sixth and seventh senses, they opened up a spectacle. Senses are evoked due to the body. It makes you wonder if it has a constantly clean smell. I always think about the question of what my other senses would hear while watching the Bitter Medicine, although I only see it.

NC: The desire to be there is certainly felt. It is necessary to talk about the material, namely the glitter. I think of the obsession of cleaning, which enters our lives even more with corona. When we put ourselves in these robots' shoes, they act for cleaning purposes; They think that they are cleaning for the reason assigned to their production. They don't realize that their dust bags have been removed. Glitter is very easily spreadable, it gets dirty as you clean it. This creates an oxymoron.

AD: A fun material.

NC: It is also very meaningful to clean this place as we are in an art institution. It is a place that has its own hierarchies, subjective decisions are made, it has the power to tell art history with its own collection. It houses its own hierarchies. Art institutions and museums are now in the process of reorganizing themselves. This is it, I couldn't help thinking about it. Roombas do this symbolically, too. It seems as if they are showing this by wandering.

AD: We, too, aim to examine the relationship between art, museum, audience and art, with the act of celebrating the moment when the art institution was emptied of artworks and erasing the footprints of that celebration.

NC: It is a very layered work, there is a lot to talk about. It was a very pleasant conversation, thank you very much.

AD: Now I want to thank you, Necmi and Borusan Contemporary. At another occasion, I hope we can talk longer about these issues.

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