“I don’t like your manner” Kingsley said in a voice you could have cracked a Brazil nut on. “That’s all right” I said. “I’m not selling it.”
Raymond Chandler, The Lady in the Lake
I’ve never been a great believer in articles that start with a quotation before the body of the essay. This pre-text, positioned in the manner of a heading, is to my mind like a kind of house
arrest that critical theory is placed under. The author does not seem to have the courage to set out on his own on the great adventure of attempting a critical reading of a body of work but
instead hides behind the supposed legitimacy of a third voice. This other voice, depending on its authority, may even hijack the text and by extension the work of the artist that the writer is
attempting to support. Even so, there is an entirely different set of quotations: those that point to voices that culturally do not seem to be sufficiently entitled to wield such power. Viewed
thus, the quotation can be seen not so much as a way of capitalising on what has not yet been said but as an element of ephemeral architecture intended to make up a shortfall. The words of the
other help to redefine the echo of our own, to clear the way towards envisioning a different manner of telling, recounting or editing reality.
Spectators confronted by works of the kind produced by the artist Esra Ersen often wonder about the difference between the documentary format outside the context of art and works which, like Ersen’s, constantly turn to the other as a means to mobilise our own capacity for archiving and interpreting the things around us. The logic of the document is that it is a stable form in the physical, historical and even ontological sense so it is able to engage in the interpretation of itself. The documentary is a format that at least aspires to securing for itself a vantage spot or topography from which to penetrate the truth from some angle or other. In this sense, the document and the monument seem to be clearly related. Both resonate with the desire to establish a place where meaning can reside, with the yearning to unify criteria, to synchronise the past and the future at a blow.
In the light of this, the seductive power of what we might term the ‘principle of documentation’ cannot be denied. The reason why many artists make works that could be confused with an urge to create a document lies precisely in the potential of this desire and in artists’ need to position themselves at the intersection of all the attributes that a document worthy of the name is deemed to have, be it a document for a community or for an audience. Thinking that the increased resort to the principle of documentation is due to a lack of resources would be to believe fervently in destiny without considering the logic of present time and the need to draw a distinction between real time and delayed time. The origins of video are related to the ability of the portable camera to quit the studio and record out on the streets and for these images to be shown sooner rather than later. The urge was to get as close to real time as possible and to do away with the ‘delayed’ nature of this recording. As we know, television today reaches its goal day in day out in very diverse ways, from its apparent gift of ubiquity to reality shows such as Big Brother. We watch the same programmes; your television time is the same as mine; and we manage to live encapsulated in that 1:1 scale which it is assumed is ‘real’.
Esra Ersen’s work reveals her notable sensibility for exploring this rhetoric and establishing in each of her pieces a space and a time that are very different in nature to those I have just described. In this respect, the artist distances herself from the document-monument because she is not looking to find a privileged viewpoint from which she will be able to unravel the mystery and begin to interpret what we see. Neither, however, does she pursue an identification with the here and now of what the camera captures. As a result, it is the present itself that is monumentalised. One of the conditions of modernity is precisely the change in the way that a perceptual experience increasingly marked by the lack of a clear distinction between information as such and visual information is structured. The viewer’s experience is characterised by constant adjustments to the mechanisms that give us the ability to ‘consume’ the sensorial world. In Ersen’s case, the choice of a format is a response to her need to find a direct, open language that will make it possible for the viewer to approach the images and the people that appear in them. What we have here is the illusion of proximity as a starting point for communication.
The artist takes a situation - a case to be studied - as her point of view. This allows her to play with the idea of a hypothesis, or to put it another way, an expectation that may or may not be dashed by what is going to happen in the image. The image is not, therefore, the ideal supplement to a story intended to be told to the viewer, but it is a means to incite him to all kinds of visual and textual lucubrations. The potential story takes place in the image, not the other way around. The characters, conversations, sequences, various shots, and the presence or absence of the artist in the work provide an opportunity for us to explore our ability to include or exclude ourselves from each of the situations that occur. This is part of the logic, of the working method, employed by this artist. What do we know about reality? We will never arrive at a scientific theory of culture, but it is possible to set in motion a fusion of the systems concerned with understanding the various ways we approach a given circumstance. The common denominator in all Esra Ersen’s video works is their effort to evince the fact that each individual, even if they belong to a group that the viewer can easily recognise, structures his experience and testimony in accordance with the logic of common sense. The nature of each situation is determined by the way in which each individual taking part in it perceives it. Everything that lies beyond our field of action and imagination is alien to us and runs the constant risk of being defined as illogical, irrational and hence essentially dangerous. In contrast, everything that we can incorporate without difficulty into our lives is culturally comprehensible and thus familiar. The concept of culture and the notion of essentialism pervade these works. Approaching these questions is no easy matter and so one possible tactic is to elect to be an observer and thus watch others who in turn, thanks to the camera, can observe you. Cultural essentialism assumes that the ways that certain cultures and each of the individuals in them relate to reality are constant. In other words, that the cultural or individual response is almost identical in a given situation and, moreover, that standards of cultural behaviour have altered little over the course of history. One possible way to refute this thesis—a theory that is absurd yet very useful when it comes to creating the illusion that we can easily understand everything that is taking place, as in the case of fundamentalism—is to highlight the possible variations that may be found in a given situation, to create a healthy sense of uncertainty and to explore the countless differences that may co-exist under the vast umbrella of tradition. In one of Ersen’s works, for example, we see two young Turkish women in a hammam (public baths). Given that this is an establishment with a particular history, tradition and customs in certain cultures, including Turkish culture, one might assume that each of the individuals in the hammam is in the habit of visiting the baths. From the conversation of these two women, however, we can deduce that this is not the case. This is the first time that they have set foot in a hammam and the fact that they are in a place that rightfully belongs to them in the eyes of visiting tourists allows them to observe and to observe how they are themselves observed. That they have never been in one of these establishments before proves nothing sociologically speaking, as there may be lots of people in their community who go regularly to the hammam, but it helps to vary the received idea. Similarly, each variation forces us to come up with a different explanation. If this operation is multiplied, as the artist would seem to want, the cliché will tend to become less important and the old metaphor of two opposing cultures will be nothing more than a slogan in the mouths of over-hasty populists. The meaning of an event, even a trivial one, such as the situation in a Turkish bath, or one capable of affecting decision-making at a high level, depends on a large number of very complex variables that range from the determinations themselves of a context, the situation and the place occupied by each of the people involved in it, as well as the viewpoint of the camera. There are many observers capable of making numerous observations regarding the observed while at the same time presenting the selfsame problem in very different ways. There are no genuine problems. Problems, by definition, arise from the contact between individuals and groups and at specific times and in specific places. Contemporary artistic practice can set itself up as one of these numerous observers, with the particular trait that it can take on more than one role and so foster a transverse rather than a frontal view of each story. Each of the works joins the one that went before yet does not contribute to fixing an image of Ersen’s entire oeuvre. The German philosopher Niklas Luhmann, a contemporary of Jürgen Habermas, stated that given the large number of roles we each play in our everyday lives, the number of settings in which we perform our various tasks and the cacophony of voices inviting us to exploit every circumstance to the full, we are always “partially displaced” as individuals. We can never situate ourselves fully in one place, which prevents us from seeing clearly who we really are and from identifying which of all the roles we play is the one that best matches our idea of personal realisation. Many contemporary works of art move perfectly in this constant multiplication of worlds, situations and characters, while at the same time transforming the terror that may be distilled from Luhmann’s words into something positive. Our inability to penetrate totality may not be the most terrible thing possible so long as we are aware of the small arena in which we act and from which we issue judgements. Historically speaking, images help to regulate our vision of reality, our concept of the world, an abstract notion if ever there was one. The image always combines with the effort to give form to this abstraction and hence to have an impact on its meaning. This assertion should not be confused—in particular in the case we are concerned with here—with a desire to represent something or someone. Intervening by supplying us with images and situations is somewhat like giving us the opportunity to enter more than one site from which we can look at other estates and properties, at our neighbours and—why not?—our potential antagonists.
Far from denouncing or illustrating reality, each piece attempts to reorganise the public space—the exhibition space—in such a way that at least as a utopia we are able to share a single realm and to discover our role in the strange here and now of the exhibition. If there is anything that defines the modern project, it is the appearance of a completely new model of sociability, a model from which art and artists are not excluded but which they are keen to be a part of from the outset. This is what lies at the root of the indivisibility of art and politics, since art’s greatest aspiration is to be a part of reality. Freedom of action is the crux of the notion of revolution. Self-knowledge, in other words the state of full awareness that enables us to understand not only who we are at an individual level but also our role in the group, is only possible if our individual freedom is guaranteed.
The projects presented here seek to re-establish the connection between art, freedom of action and the social imaginary. In this bond lies the possibility of artistic practice being meaningful, not only at a theoretical level but emotionally, given that it connects emotion and knowledge. The social imaginary is nothing other than the way we each imagine the social space we are a part of, our world: an imaginary defined by a political project which at street level has no theoretical profile but is instead defined by countless images of diverse origin, urban legends and anecdotes that in fact make everyday communication possible.
The sum of all the works and the multiplicity of approaches and interpretations that the spectator may undertake support this hypothesis. Unlike an office or shopping centre, an exhibition room can become a declaration of the need to ponder on the nature of the social space and the way each proposal contributes to reflection on it. Lefebre said that the social space is not one ‘thing’ among other things, nor one ‘product’ among other products but an entity that subsumes what has already been produced, thereby synchronising the mesh of interpersonal relations. It ought, therefore, to be the result of a series of operations and not the product or illustration of an ideology. Any gesture or theory that points to the existence of a protected ‘interior’, alien to an ‘exterior’, is a metaphysical fiction. This we learned from Derrida, who formulated this during an epoch that suspected it to be the case and acted accordingly. Be it the ‘interior’ of a work of art or that which is opposed to its context, be it understood as a highpoint of experience or that which is opposed to its repetition in the memory or in signs, it is in either sense a fallacy. The notion of possession, of something that is genuinely ours, should not arise.