Unmarked Categories, K2 in Izmir, Turkey

Elmas Deniz, a curator and artist out of K2, More…invited me to participate in a show, Unmarked Categories, which opened on September 11, 2007. On show is The Listening Post and the TV program, Medea and the Bosporus. The Listening Post is an audience interactive sculpture, which invites the audience to mount it, sit, and listen to the Turkish people. There is no sound equipment and it can be argued that the post is dysfunctional. The post encourages the viewer to question nationalism, national identity construction and political use and abuse of same. Please look up this work elsewhere on this site.

K2 2

The Listening Post will be placed in a street next to K2, for public use during the month of the show.

K2 1

Also on display at K2, was the TV program, Medea and the Bosporus (58 minutes, Turkish subtitles). This is a TV-program, produced for tv-tv with 3 invited guests, who are all well known Danish politicians. Poul Nielson is a Social Democrat and a former High Commissioner to the EU. Morten Messerschmidt is MP of The Danish Peoples’ Party, which promotes an extreme right wing nationalist agenda. Yildiz Akdogan is a candidate to the parliament and head of the network www.trieu.dk, working to promote Turkeys candidacy to the EU. An invited audience consisting of mainly Danes of Turkish decendance is in the studio.
During the program the politicians and the audience performs a heated debate on the subject of Turkey’s possible entrance into the EU. Simultaneously, they take part in the Greek tragedy Medea. Medea is played by Yildiz Akdogan, Jason by Morten Messerschmidt, King Kreon by Poul Nielson. The audience act as the tragedy’s chorus.

Please watch the full lenght of a Danish version of this program elsewhere on this site.
Medea and the Bosphor is a production of Joachim Hamou and Morten Goll.

Medea in background, discussion at opening in foreground

Medea TV program in background, artist talk conducted on the day of the opening of the show in foreground.

Below is a transcript of the talk:

Artist talk by Morten Goll – September 11, 2007 / K2-CAC Izmir

Morten: When tv-tv came into being in May 2005, a group of artists took over a
TV station and thus became players on a cultural scene which normally does not allow for artistic experiments. At least not to the extent that the artists actually control both the technology, the station politics, and the broadcast content. The involved artists all have individual careers. tv-tv is thus a network of artists who collaborate, argue and fight to keep the station alive. I mostly collaborate with my colleague, Swedish artist Joachim Hamou. When I use “we” in the following, it means him and I.

As you are all aware, art is by tradition expressed in certain media, like painting, drawing, or video… you are familiar with all these categories…
The TV program as an artistic category shouldn’t be conflated with video art. I consider it to be a completely different category in its own right.

To begin with, TV was a challenge because of the change of context. As long as you stay within the boundaries of the gallery, you can rest assured that the audience is an educated one, familiar with the aesthetic language and the local context. Not so when your viewers are located in their own living rooms, armed with a remote control. In that case, potentially you have a lot more viewers, although you have no way of knowing how you work is received, or if they stay in the room with you?

Audience: Did the viewers recognize tv-tv’s programs as art projects?

Morten: I don’t know, probably not…-and it really doesn’t matter to me, since what we are aiming for is to become TV – to change TV. We regard TV as a stage for communication. A stage dominated by a certain general discourse and some severe limitations concerning the format, the aesthetic choices and the subject matter. What happens if artists decide to squat this territory, take over the means of production, and experiment with the existing formats, the aesthetics and subject matter? That is what we try to do in tv-tv, and the TV program, which we present at this exhibition is an example of the strategy. In it, we adapt the format of the political debate, but challenge the program structure as well as the participants by adding layers of discourse which forces the program in an entirely new direction.

I am sorry for the missing Turkish subtitles. We didn’t manage to finish the Turkish version in time, but it is due to arrive tomorrow… ( the program with Turkish subtitles arrived K2 at 12 sept 2007)

The participants are three quite famous Danish politicians. The young blond guy is Morten Messerschmidt, a member of the parliament for The Danish People’s Party, which is an ultra right wing party with xenophobic tendencies. They are promoting a strict definition on Danishness. They take pride in staying within the rules of democracy, although they constantly challenge consensus about what constitutes a viable democratic argument in a pluralist society like Denmark, which they in fact define as mono-cultural.
The older male is Poul Nielson, Social Democrat and former high commissioner to the EU. Also former minister of several governments since the late 70’s.

The last panelist is Yildiz Akdo?an, a young upcoming, energetic politician of Turkish descent. She is the head of a network which promote Turkey’s entrance into the EU. She is also running for the parliament as a social democrat in the next election. (After this lecture she was elected a Member of Parliament in the election of November 13, 2007)

The audience to the debate is a group of Danes mostly of Turkish descent.

Anyway, these three people have been summoned to discuss whether Turkey should be accepted into the EU family. So far, this debate is absolutely predictable. It happens all the time on TV: politicians are invited to take part in public discussions. But this debate is quite different after all, because we have convinced the politicians that the debate must be countered by their simultaneous participation in the Greek tragedy of Medea.

Let me give you a brief account of Medea. To the Greeks Medea was a beautiful stranger, in fact a witch from the country of Kolchis, beyond the Bosphor…. today the territory of Georgia…

Audience: Well, from beyond the Black Sea, The Sea is not the same as the Bosphor…

Morten: …Well, you’re right for sure, I apologize my limited geographical skills. But she is a woman who falls in love with the Greek hero, Jason, when he travels to her country in search for the Golden Fleece. He succeeds capturing the prize due to her assistance, and consequently they have to flee her country. But they are in love, so they go back to Jason’s home town, Korinth, get two sons, and live happily for a number of years. Until one day, King Creon offers Jason his throne on condition that he rejects Medea and marries his daughter instead. Jason takes one look at his once beautiful exotic wife and decides that her beauty no longer can compete with the young and powerful princess. Medea, upon receiving the news, becomes furious, and the play continues as the  communication between wife and husband disintegrates, leading to Medea’s ultimate and catastrophic revenge: the killing of their own children.

In this context, we see Medea as a study of a communication break down, leading to mortal revenge and self destruction. Much like todays global politics, leading to terrorism.

In the program, the former High Commissioner Poul Nielson plays the old King Creon, while Yildiz Akdogan act as Medea, and Morten Messerschmidt plays the part of Jason. The three politicians alternate between acting the Greek Tragedy and the current one. The audience of the TV show likewise play two parts. During the Greek tragedy sessions they pose as the chorus. The Chorus, by the way, has a quite interesting role in the Greek tragedy. It can lament, rejoice and comment on the course of events. From their remote position they have a crucial overview of events, endowing  them with analytic power. However, they cannot interfere with the course of the tragedy. Much like a TV audience, except that they are inserted in between the audience and the the play.

Audience: When did you realize the piece?

Morten: in 2006.

Audience: How long is the piece?

Morten: It’s 58 minutes. It is a long piece for an art video, but OK, if you can watch it in your living room.

Audience: How was the reaction in the community after you screened the piece?

Morten: My experience is that you don’t often get reactions on TV programs. It’s somewhat problematic, because I really appreciate feed back. Most of the feed back we receive was from professional TV people. We do have quite a few viewers who are professional TV people at the big stations, who seem to be curious about what we come up with. I think however, that traditional art media have the same problem. Painters rarely get qualified feed back from their audience. Some of the reactions were from people who were quite astonished: “what the hell was that?”, and some have been quite positive, although also mystified.

Audience: Probably, there is a reaction, but you may not come to know about it.

Morten: Yeah, Maybe they think it sucks, but they won’t tell you…

Audience: What was your personal experience of the performance when you did this? – Because the piece is also important as politics.

Morten: Well, – Yes… my personal experience… Let me say first, that I believe it is crucial to do a different type of research as a TV host, than as an artist. It is a role that requires ability to perform and the knowledge and skill to keep producing interesting questions in order to control the discussion. It’s a job for a professional journalist, which I am obviously not. Anyone can tell from watching the program, that the host has a slightly awkward behavior. A professional host would have a more precise and condensed language. On the other hand, it is one of our strategic choices to let an amateur play this part. The staged reality which politicians act in, is already alienating the viewer, and by obstructing the seamless flow of information through the insertion of  “a regular guy” as the program’s anchor, we lessen the distance between politicians and viewers.
The media is generally so professionalized that the aesthetics per se generates a barrier between viewer and program protagonists. The limited time slots they allow for a speaker to develop arguments are so short, that it is impossible to unpack an advanced discourse. Our remedy in this case is to allow for slow communication. The different pace of the debate is part of our attempt to use Bertoldt Brecths “estrangement” strategy. Maybe the untrained and slow questions are not so stupid after all. And we want to brake the spell of the modern TV debate, which dictates that any discourse longer than 5 minutes is off limits. Some arguments will not last the scrutiny past 5 minutes, but if the program structure promote only the short headline argument, and never takes time to a confrontation beyond that, then their account of “the real” is never challenged thoroughly. The consequence is a culture based on Warhol’s prediction of fifteen minutes of fame for anyone. Only it is rather 10 shallow seconds of attention, and then on to the next talking head.

We try to rethink the structure and the aesthetics of the political debate, and in that sense, our interest in a conclusion on the discussion on whether Turkey should become a member of the EU or not, is less than our interest in how they conduct their classic roles in the political debate. How does the structure of language, the classic presentation of opposing arguments, and the TV friendly format control and mediate the outcome?

Audience: So there is no conclusion?

Morten: In this case there is no conclusion. The predictable discussion, call it the current tragedy, is played to the end of its time line. Our concern is to focus on how they get there. I believe that if people, and politicians alike, are able to step out of their designated roles, and change the structure of interaction, then we can also change the possibilities for accomplishment.
Let me give you an example of a negative structure: At one point the Danish news constantly brought Somali women into the studio for interviews. Over the course of almost a year, these different women had to respond to the same type of questions, focusing on Somali culture and a certain alleged tradition involving mutilation of female genitals. The women had to apologize and reject their membership of this supposedly backward culture. My point isn’t that mutilation of female genitals is not backward, but that the interviewers are able to control the identity of their victims by way of posing certain question, while ignoring others. On the surface it appears to be democracy at work, since members of a minority group are offered airtime. But a true democracy allows all its citizens to negotiate and develop their own identities. It ought to be a human right to be able to represent yourself as more than the stereotype identity that your fellow citizens find fitting for you.
Most of our identity building happens as a side effect of communication. Thus,   the way we execute communication, how it is structured: flat or in some version of hierarchy is a key point in the development of democracy. Democracy is the only solution, but it requires constant scrutiny and critique in order to stay alive. it is our duty as citizens to demand improvement and development of the democratic process. Since we regard televised communication as a key point in the process, we do TV programs.

The Medea project is but one of our experiments. In another quite successful program, we Interviewed the Danish Minister of Culture on his administration of the arms length principle. Again, we attempted to change the structural setup in order to allow a different kind of communication, and again we operate with two levels of content. First, the actual conversation, next, a meta level in which the power relations and the stereotype identities of the participants are questioned.
The means to achieve such goals are countless. In this case, for example, we worked on psychological issues on how to ask questions, and how to create transparency of this rare moment where an ordinary citizen gains access to a representative of the highest power.

It turns out to be some rather long programs, but they can’t get much shorter if both discursive levels have to be properly presented.

Audience: How do you convince the politicians that they must take part in all this?

Morten: Well, we don’t tell them everything. We tell them that they are to take part in a Greek tragedy and a political debate. They already know the tragedy, and since it is part of the foundation of Western culture, a pillar of society, they feel safe with it. Also, it is my experience that people will do almost anything to become part of an art piece.
But in respect to this question, I find it really important that Medea is really an outstanding piece of literature. When you read it you really can’t decide who’s the bad guy. Medea and Jason are both heroes and villains. Throughout the play you alternate between identifying with one or the other. It is a rare quality to have a drama where you can’t decide who’s the villain. This means that any of the participating politicians can feel safe in the roles we assign them.

This quality underlines my understanding of the play, and how we use it in our program: Euripides is not interested the conventional blame game. His inclination is to study the malicious dialog in order to show how both parties loose control and collectively steers towards Armageddon.

Morten Messerschmidt may know that I am totally opposed to his political views, but he does understand that I want to give him a fair fight. It is the precondition for democracy. He actually asked me when I first approached him, if our intention was to make him look stupid?
I responded: “absolutely not”, which is true. I told him that we wanted to create a different context for the debate, and that it was an artistic experiment aiming at  innovating the format of the political debate.

Audience: Did you give them copies of the finished program?

No, I don’t think we gave them any DVD’s. They received e-mails announcing the first broadcast and they received a honorarium for their participation.

Audience: Did you let them check the program prior to broadcasting it?

Morten: No, we actually didn’t feel that we had to, because we did a really fair editing of the material. Again, I have to make clear, that although I hate some of the viewpoints put forward in the program, it is not our strategy to censor. Our strategy is to focus on the structure of how communication is performed and in order to do that you have to show everything.

It is a different matter, that in my personal opinion, the only way to positively change the mode of communication between Turkey and the EU, would be to immediately allow Turkey to enter EU. They are already more or less married and if we let the two parties further alienate each other, we might end up in a situation similar to that of Medea and Jason. The Western World already plays Jason’s part in its relation to the Middle East.

Audience: Did you as a host argue against the opinions you did not share?

Morten: I tried not to, and it wasn’t really necessary since the forrmer High Commissioner and Yildiz were able to create a balance. Not to mention Ömer, a really sharp guy in the audience. In fact I supported Messerscmidt on a few occasions. In these matters fairness is really the key. If you can’t be fair to your enemy, then you’re no better than the rest. The stakes are high: It is about the administration of democracy.

And it is not a problem at all, since our real goal is to enable people to analyze what happens in front of their eyes. To look underneath the language and draw their own conclusions. Of course I hope that these be different from those of Messerschmidt. (laughs)

OK, well, I think I might be talking too much?

Audience: But this is your talk. (laughs)

OK, then, let me draw your attention towards one of Yildiz’ arguments, which she brings up frequently. She says, that it is of utmost importance to keep negotiations on track, because it is a way to make the Turkish government stick to their promises of improvement of the Turkish democracy. As you know, the current  government has a somewhat shaky foundation based on both religion and democracy. When you think of the Turkish nationalist tendencies, which are expressed the troubled relations between the Kurds in the East and Ankara, or  the Cypriotic problem, which consists of an illegal Turkish occupation of one third of Cyprus, an occupation which have not been terminated for 30 years… then you have to agree with Yildiz, that it is important to pull Ankara in the direction of democracy.

Audience: Cyprus?

Audience: The Island of Cyprus! (laughs)

Morten: It is interesting, though, how Morten Messerschmidt uses the same facts to draw the opposite conclusions. And more so, since he, as a representative of the extreme right, is using left wing rhetorics to support his argument. Of course I must agree with him when he states that Turkey has no business what so ever in occupying Cypriotic territory for 30 years, although I doubt that his interest in the faith of Cyprus is  based on principles of justice. This is revealed when Ömer (the guy in the audience) asks him if the logic of his argument also counts in the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Here, Messerschmidt sees a totally different situation… In other words, he uses an argument based on democracy and human rights to support a Western colonialist agenda in which the West has a right to fight the Muslim world.

It is our hope, that our program gives its viewers the capacity and time to analyze the political debate in terms of tactics, and to analyze the way those tactics affect the the subject matter. In the case of Yildiz’ and Messerschmidt’s completely different conclusions on the same political reality: what is the difference between rejection and embrace, and what identity do you assign to your opponent when you choose one or the other? Medea’s tragedy is our comparative case story.

Audience: What are your plans for the future?

Morten: We don’t have any plans right now but the possibilities are numerous.
Let me tell you in short about a tv-program that we did in Paris, France this spring. It was during the election campaign for the presidential elections of 2007.
Our initial idea was to do interviews with the two main candidates, Segòlene Royal and Nicolas Sarkozy. Of course we couldn’t even get close to them.
Sarkozy had invited the cultural elite of Paris to a meeting, and we tried to cover it, but it was not possible to get close to him. Instead we decided to use existing footage of the candidates. First we sampled video clips from their websites, where they discuss with news anchors of different French TV stations. Then we hired two actors and did a re-enactment of the interviews. So far it is quite conventional: you could say that nothing is added. However, when you realize that Sarkozy is played by a female and Royal by a male, the narrative begins to stray from the predictable tracks. The mere fact that we historizise a current event by way of actors, creates a Brechtian “verframdung”, which enables the viewer to analyze the event in a new way. By changing the sexes of the politicians, we perform a gender critique, which becomes quite obvious when the news anchor asks a male Royal, if “she isn’t tired?”

In most of our projects we adapt an already existing media format and alter it slightly…. Little strange subversions which change the situation completely.
It is also obvious in the Interview with the Cultural Minister. Our point of departure is that I am not fit to interview a professional politician. To counter this problem we arrange a meeting with a media-coach, where I receive advise . Everything is taped, and when we edit the final program, we juxtapose the coaching with the actual interview. The effect is multi faceted. First it is very humorous. Second, it questions the authority of the interviewer, since he acts like a puppet on a string. Third, it questions the authority of the Minister, since it is obvious to see how  successful the strategy is (he can be manipulated as well). Fourth, since we actually manage to perform an extraordinary interview with the top politician, the traditional journalistic consensus about how-to-do-it, is challenged.

Needless to say, it is of utmost importance that these experiments take place on the screen in people’s own living rooms. Our aim is to raise viewer criticality of what TV broadcasting serves to them. We hope, that when viewers zap between stations, and mix our programs with whatever is on air tonight, there will be a spill-over effect. It is about raising criticality towards the media as a whole, and the singular program as well. Because we love TV

Thank You for listening, it has been really nice to come down here and to participate in a great show.