Digital Innocence: A Talk Upon Senkron

7 May 2021 Fri

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

April 27, 2021
Speakers: Dr. Kumru Eren, Dr. Necmi Sönmez, Erdal İnci


Dr. Kumru Eren: Hello and welcome to the Zoom talk event we’ve organized to reflect mutually on the video art, as per the video program,Senkron. I’d like to speak briefly about how Borusan Contemporary got involved in the program before we begin listening to the conversation between two very notable names of the field. As is well known, the Borusan Contemporary Art Collection is structured around the New Media practices since 2000s, which constitutes virtually the half of our collection today and the video works represent a substantial volume within this extent. We have actually come to comprehend the structural advantages of this collection better with the pandemics. When innovative technologies focused on by the collection are taken into consideration, the art institutions’ tendency to gear towards digital presentations is not an unfamiliar concept for us. Our latest undertaking in this framework was the presentation of our collection exhibition, Water Reverie by means of various new technologies. Curated by Dr. Necmi Sönmez, Water Reverie initiates a dialogue between the central leitmotif of Edip Cansever’s poem published in 1970; namely the fluidity of the water, and the aesthetics of the New Media that is based on the moving image. In order to deliver this exhibition, which was set up in Perili Köşk last year, we have employed several different mediums. As such, we’ve installed the selection of ten, single-channel video works on the window displays of Borusan Music House situated on the Istiklal Avenue, and offered these works to everyone in the public sphere, which were also included in the Senkron program. I’d like to say that I find it utterly important that institutions, galleries and initiatives of different purposes and locations are united on the same path for a shared objective, particularly at a time when cultural institutions are forsaken and left alone for introspection. So I’d like to thank the whole team of Senkron before we get on with our talk.You all know them well but let me introduce our speakers briefly:

Dr. Necmi Sönmez studied Art History in Mainz, Paris, Newcastle and Frankfurt universities; worked in numerous museums and international collections among which are Wiesbaden Museum, Museum Moderne Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Vienna, Museum Folkwang, FRAC, TATE, Staatlische Museen Berlin and Borusan Contemporary. Sonmez, who published artist monographs with Skira Milano, continues to work as the curator of a monument project that will take place in Ruhr Museum/Zollverein Essen.

Represented in our collection, artist Erdal İnci works with digital photography, video, performance, computer animations and 3D imaging; the main subject of Inci’s works is the public space. Since 2010, Inci simultaneously overcrowds and uniforms his spaces in the Clones Project and continues to work with the oddviz collective he co-founded in 2016.

Now I give the word to our speakers and wish everyone a pleasant event.

Dr. Necmi Sönmez: Thank you for this lovely introduction. Today we will be having a conversation with Erdal Inci, regarding his artistic practice and by implication, the notion of “digital innocence” as well as these unusual times we’re experiencing. Before I begin, I’d like to thank Borusan Contemporary and the collective organization of Senkron for having allowed us this opportunity.

First and foremost, I suppose we should briefly explain what we mean or delineate by “digital innocence.” It has been about a year and a half now that we are witnessing how the normal course of our daily lives is very rapidly changing. A good deal of our activities has unavoidably shifted over to the digital sphere. In the beginning of this period, we all had a quite naïve thought, like “this sphere is indeed a very immaculate one and brings so many things all the way to our ‘doorstep’ without obliging us to make a move; we may as well carry on with our operations, dealings or activities pertaining to art without a hassle.” After a year and a half however, we understood that this sphere was not as naïve as we’ve assumed it to be, for this digitalization is exceedingly imposing on the visual perception of art and it brings along unprecedented challenges regarding its production, exploitation, and interpretation through writing, or its review with respect to art history or art sociology. Therefore we are witnessing a point in time where everything changes so swiftly and does so in a way that is not predictable. Of course, in times like these, we are very intrigued and curious about what the artists perceive in particular and how they reflect these things in their art.
Like dear Kumru Eren has mentioned, I have planned an exhibition based upon Edip Cansever’s poem, Water Reverie. Although we’ve installed the exhibition in its actual setting, we cannot make it physically accessible for the viewers, which is why we have relayed it over various digital platforms. During this phase, we thought of using the window display of Borusan Music House on Istiklal Avenue, since we had used it in a similar fashion in the previous exhibition,:mentalKLINIK’s BITTER MEDICINE #02, and received positive feedback. So I thought of presenting a selection of ten different, single-channel video works, which would be streamed non-stop and we have included one of Erdal İnci’s works that is featured in the Borusan Contemporary Art Collection. Today we will be talking with him about the “digital innocence” concept and how the pandemic period affects him. This very first conversation we’re having with him is taking place in the digital sphere, which is also very noteworthy. So I must say that I am a little excited, because getting in touch digitally while in different countries, like we do now, unravels very different experiences, too. Now, with no further ado, I’d like to ask dear Erdal my first question.

Erdal, I’ve shortly gone into the question whether the digital is innocent or not; or rather, if this digital sphere brings forth new problems. What are your thoughts on this?

Erdal İnci: Before I begin, I’d like to thank you and Borusan Contemporary for having me, and for having included me in this exhibition that is also featured in Senkron. My personal history began with the digital. Since 2010, I’ve been publishing my works daily, almost instantly after I created them on the blog I had back then. That is how I got started, that is the career path I’ve chosen. And frankly, I benefitted very much from the digital in terms of receiving feedback from the viewers. I was sharing my work without awaiting the opportunity of being invited to an exhibition, being included in a museum collection or a publication. 2010 was rather an early date; Instagram did not exist yet, YouTube was quite new. In spite of that, the digital sphere gave me a visibility, which moved me forward after 2010 into the gallery and museum programs. In other words, I got invited to exhibitions etc. after I gained this visibility. Therefore it is very difficult for me to deduce an ethical argument regarding the digital…  I mean, I think it has both innocent and not-so-innocent aspects like all other notions, which emerge in a democratic milieu. Currently we cannot experience or come into contact with an artwork physically; that’s a loss. The people who create these works and those who consume them are all aware of this. I cannot put it into words or make sense of it really. But overall, it did not have a significantly negative effect on my production practices. Only the connection I had with the viewers is interrupted, like it happened with everyone else. And I think, digital or conventional, regardless of which mediums they use, everyone understood the preciousness of this physical interaction. So I believe the approach of galleries, museums or other institutions to exhibit digital works became all the more valuable in this period… But like I said, I’m not entirely sure if we can associate a notion like innocence with the digital, because it’s an ethical notion. Is it even accurate to address the “digital”? Perhaps it is possible to associate it with the virtual realm because it is more enabling for unethical conduct or not being innocent, for that matter. And that is something we recently began experiencing or realizing.

N.S.: Actually I was not very interested in the ethical sense of the word. In fact, I don’t think that art has anything to do with ethics, manners or other taboos as a rule. What I meant to ask was this: As an artist, who’s already been working with digital technologies and methods, is your production affected positively or negatively, or disrupted by the outcomes of this period we’re living in?     

İ.E.: I don’t think so but it’s possible that I’ll see its negative effects later on. Because right now, things are being diffused around before they go through a filter. I personally think that the production processes should include an editorial phase. But there is also a setting that is unfolding in an organic way. And systems usually begin quite complex, then refine and regulate themselves; I believe we’re in that regulation period right now. I believe that the system would eventually “correct” itself. Coming back to your question, it did not affect my production in any way. After all, I’m working personally and try my best to keep my method personal and to stay mobile. This past four years I’ve been a part of a collective but we’re also a very small team. I believe that the more I stay mobile and the more I keep my distance from the production costs, the more artistic freedom I can achieve. This was already my approach and I continue to work like that. I mean, I can go out with a camera, a video camera and produce my work; that’s something I’ve always diligent about.

N.S.: When you present your works on the virtual platforms, have you had any distinct experiences in terms of their reception by the viewers, how they were included in the discourse or the narrative; whether they were acclaimed or drew reactions, as compared to before? 

E.İ.: When we look at Art History, we see that artists, for the most part, are figures who tend to conceal their works that are in the making. Of course there has always been studio visits; we know that certain people like dealers or collectors have been invited to those studios. Since I create digital works, I think such presentation makes no sense on my part; I share my work the same day I complete them and receive a feedback in response. Perhaps it isn’t something preferable for some artists; they may opt to keep their context and works away from the public eye until they’re exhibited, until they get to say that big, significant thing they want to say, but that’s not my way. Receiving the feedback of viewers instantly has always been motivational for me. I took its advantages, so to speak. Having said that, when I exhibit my works, of course I resort to certain technical, formal methods in order to make it a unique experience.

N.S.: Based on this thing you’re telling, can we also say that the meaning of exhibiting is changing?

E.İ.: There’s a huge difference between viewing a painting on a two-dimensional screen and seeing it physically. A painting after all, is a natural material, which has an indefinite resolution. I studied painting; that is my basis; I would never give up on that experience. To see a painting live – and we can say the same for a digital work – in its actual dimensions or site-specifically installed is always more valuable. Because the viewer enters that context with that particular expectation, what she/he experiences and takes away from it is also different, of course. This editorial, curatorial approach adds layers to works. But I see no harm in consuming these works digitally or from behind a screen.

N.S.: There’s undoubtedly a difference between the cases of a painter, a sculptor who attempts to transfer a three-dimensional work onto the digital, and an artist like yourself who has always been working with the digital, making a work available for public on the virtual platforms. Then again, there are certain differences between their aesthetical languages and the mediums these aesthetics necessitate. Unfortunately so many painters of sculptors thought they could digitize their works by filming them; some even believed that they could conceive New Media works this way. You on the other hand, have always worked through virtual or digital methods; I find your work is exclusive in that sense. There’s something else that distinguishes your work from artists who work with video or the video technics: I think your work brings forth the matter whether gallery and museum exhibitions or collections should follow a new path… There’s a collective called oddviz that you co-founded with two friends. I know its foundation goes back before the pandemic but has it caused an alteration or a structural modification in the way you three mutually work?

İ.E.: We founded oddviz in 2016-2017 as three friends. Çağrı Taşkın is an architect; Serkan Kaptan is an ecologist and an academician. So we’re basically a collective composed of an engineer, an architect and an artist. We seized on a technology called photogrammetry, which is a three-dimensional scanning technology; lexically it implies making a measurement with photography. oddviz was essentially a lab for conducting experiments to see how we can develop this technology. That is to say, we had no intentions of making art at the beginning; everyone was occupied with his own work. Then came the content. As we learned more about this technique, we began thinking that it could be as groundbreaking as the invention of photography. Just like the way the photography was used as a means of documenting things in the history, this was presenting a very similar opportunity. It’s a 3D scanning technique that architects use for building surveys; the cartographers use it to draw topographical maps; the forensics use it to survey crime/accident scenes; the forest engineers use it to see how much the vegetation sprawls, etc. Thinking it has a potential, we learned the technique quite well. Then we employed it as an artistic tool to show people the mundane things, the street furnitures or the buildings they take for granted with a different perspective and began producing. In the Contexture series, we scanned the exterior and the interior of a building and realized that showing it from the angles we cannot optically perceive creates a huge influence on how we perceive the buildings. After that, we pursued an idea about making a collection of street furnitures that we pass by but fail to detect. We live in Kadıköy; the street furnitures here are a little bit more exclusive and distinguished in comparison to those found in other districts of Istanbul. They’re painted in colors and covered with stickers and writings, which may be political or artistic. In a nutshell, we observed in this series, how an object that came from the factory production line does change and attain a unique character over time with the human intervention and made a record of them. By the way, photogrammetry is a method also used by the museums to document and archive their collections, since through this technique, you may make a photorealistic, digital and completely scientific replica of an object or an artwork. Unlike museums, we chose to document street furnitures, which are not under any protection but represent a cultural value, because they change day by day. An object you see on the street may have been altered the next day; they may be completely removed like the local administrations in Turkey typically do; and the patina, the plastic value or the cultural traces they bear may be destroyed in one day. So we started out by thinking about how we can make a collection of these street objects that we don’t usually see together, and how we can paint an alternative portrait of the respective neighborhoods and cities by presenting these objects as a whole in the virtual sphere.

N.S.: I cannot define them as viewers per se, but the residents of a city intuitively show their participation in a very direct way; I find this very important. And because they have no artistic objective it’s very appealing to me. There’s an act of bearing, unburdening one’s soul, which may be considered like an extension of graffiti. This certainly suggests the concept of participation. I saw that in most of those writings, there was a very strong attitude about criticizing the capitalist ways of living; some were very humorous, others were ironic, even tragic. Based on this, we can assume that these street furnitures become like a space of reflection, whereas the writings and other traces engender stratification over time. These reflect the strife caused by the gentrification, urbanization processes in that municipality, or in Istanbul, or in Turkey. There’s a very important German philosopher named Siegfried Kracauer. What you’re telling reminds me of his social analysis “Das Ornament der Masse” (The Mass Ornament), where he brilliantly accounts for the structuring in the German society prior to WWII. I think his philosophical framework reverberates in the practices of oddviz and that your works about these objects in the public space, present a very crucial analysis of the times we’re living in. It almost feels like there is a reference to a more humanistic framework in your works. Because when you put them together, I see that the focus of these research and production practices is pivotal not only for Fine Arts but also for sociology, psychology and social studies, which is why these works of multi-disciplinary context, signify a repetitive system. Oddly enough, this repetition is like a meditative, therapeutic thing. That makes me wonder whether humans are creates who can get used to anything; or whether we maintain whatever it is we perceive... On the other hand, these works fit in a context where we can scrutinize the production and consummation processes of Capitalism. As an artist, an engineer and an architect, have you had any objectives of making a statement or interpretation in that sense?  

E.İ.: I can’t really speak of an objective but we’re three people engaged in a collective production. This needs to stay at an arm’s length to personal statements and present a rather collective idea. In our opinion, the subject of street furnitures was a necessary but a neglected one, although it was pretty easy to document them. So we gave some thought to that. But we always make sure that we keep our personal distance from the subject matter.

N.S.: I’d like to emphasize that the public space in these works occupies an equally substantial place in your personal works. You’re drawn to various, iconic spaces like the Taksim Square, the Camondo Stairs, or the Schlesisches Tor in Berlin… Erdal, I wonder, is there perhaps another reason for your predisposition to public spaces, other than artistic purposes?

E.İ.: Why I am so interested in the public space, why I always do works about it; this is also something I ask myself. I have different answers at different times, of course. But to sum it up, the public space is my landscape. That is to say, as an artist, I first look at where I live and I take it up as a landscape. I think of the urban life of Istanbul, which I cannot shake off, which I love and can’t stay away from and miss if I’m ever away, as something that I’m addicted to. This applies to so many people. People who live in Istanbul or in another metropolis, is somewhat an addict of the streets because this urban life is so very consuming. But somehow we’re drawn to here; we desire being together. It’s that kind of a curiosity.

N.S.: This subject of public space is a difficult subject, but I know you take pleasure in it and you want to capture some of its ironies. There’s a very interesting series called Facade that you’ve been sharing on Instagram lately, for instance. With all due respect and sincerity; I really laugh when I see these photographs, I find them so amusing! Because I’m a person who likes to take really long walks and see some peculiar places when I’m in Istanbul and this Facade series is taking me virtually to Istanbul. When did you begin working on these works? Let’s talk a little bit about them.

E.İ.: Facade is a relatively new series; it’s only been 3-4 months. Like my other works, it is an experimental series, which began with the thought, “what would it look like if I made the windows of this building bigger? What would it tell me?” I chose the title Facade because it implies also “an factitious, deceptive outer appearance” in English. We can interpret this series like an attempt to sharpen the surfaces of buildings or like a caricature. Or from an architectural perspective, we can see it as something akin to “paper architecture” because I pay a lot of attention that the forms and proportions of the buildings are correct, so that it makes people question its reality. That way, it gets a more humorous character, I think. Actually I embrace this alienation, which is present in all my works created in the public space, as a motivation. I look for ways of reproducing the familiar image of a square, a space – or in the case of oddviz, a street furniture, in a way that we cannot perceive naturally. In the Clones Project, I did not interfere with the space; I was only “performing” a very ordinary, primitive gesture, like walking or running, for a moment when no one was paying attention; then I was constraining this gesture in a short time frame and showing its multiplied image simultaneously. You may think of it like the superimposed photography. With oddviz, we present a collection of street objects that we deem charming. In the very first composition we produced in Kadıköy, there are roughly 200 parking posts, plus about 150-200 other objects including sculptures, cars, etc. Their proportions are all correct, meaning we don’t interfere with the objects but only assert our choice for their layout and display.

N.S.: Erdal, while you’re telling us these, could you maybe share the works from your website so as to provide some insight to our viewers? 

İ.E.: Sure. What you’re seeing right now is the Clones Project series. I began working on it in 2010 and continued to produce new pieces until 2015, but I return to it every now and then. The works you see now are the ones that I’ve selected among about hundred others in the series.

N.S.: Alright, let’s move on to the Facade series, if you like. This is a series that addresses the matter of seeing as well as the other concepts we’ve just discussed, with quite surreal details to boot. As I said, I really enjoy looking at these and question whether they’re real or not. How will you continue working on these? Will you be adding new ones?

E.İ.: I’m not sure now but I’m actively working on it. Of course, I edit these works on my computer but I go out, walk the streets to discover these settings. I think I’d pursue this a while longer because I enjoy that practice of going out, shooting places, collecting materials, then processing and editing them on my computer. For the Inventory series of oddviz, after Kadıköy, we produced the same project in Manhattan and captured about 400 objects in a single week. We wanted to make a collection of the very original and unique fire hydrants of the SoHo neighborhood, which are closely identified with New York, because we actually thought they were objects that merit being recorded and compiled. We conducted this project with enthusiasm; we went up and down the streets, working with a motivation, just like the way a collector goes after the pieces she/he likes. That is a very pleasant process; so I guess it’d continue.

N.S.: I see… Erdal, how do you think can this Facade series be best exhibited?

E.İ.: It should trigger the question in the viewer whether they’re real or not, and they should be displayed with as little intervention as possible. Like I said, I never make significant alterations. Clones Project was about interfering with the time; oddviz has an approach of making compositions without transmuting the form or the proportions of objects. The Facade series has minor interventions, a subtle humor like you said, without going overboard. But exhibiting them singularly would be very misleading. So maybe I can turn them into a photo book or a catalogue. If we are speaking strictly in terms of an exhibition space, I’d try to find a way that allows me to display the majority of works together.

N.S.: Very well, we can move on to the questions of our viewers now. I think Kumru Eren has one; she raised her hand.

K.E.: I have a very quick question for Erdal. You said “public space is my landscape”; for me that was very interesting indeed. During this extraordinary period we’re living in, that landscape became devoid of people. Do you think what we, or at least what our generations understand from the notion of “public space” is semantically being eroded? Or, do you think this would eventually be the case? Because when we say “public space”, we essentially refer to something that includes people…

E.İ.: I don’t really know to what extent we can talk about erosion, of course. But this is the first time the streets are empty at daytime, during work hours. I believe that it was a breaking point in people’s perception about the public space.

K.E.: Yes, I think this would somehow come back to our collective imagery and that it would be commentated on in the near future. Thank you very much.

E.İ.: Thank you.

Osman Erden: I draw considerable analogies between the rhythm of Bauhaus photography and Erdal’s videos from the Clones Project. You know, that spectacular rhythm of the chiaroscuro contrasts in the photographs of Bauhaus… I just wanted to mention this.
E.İ.: Thank you very much, it’s really very valuable. Well, repetition of the image is a method widely used, it’s even found on hieroglyphs. I wanted to achieve that in motion and worked with the idea that the repetition and motion, which is perceived in a singular time in the static images that we’re familiar with, can also have a pattern. I was trying to see if I could represent this motion digitally.

N.S.: This talk was very quintessential; called so many questions to our minds. So I thank you very much, Erdal, for being with us and sharing all this information about your works. We will be looking forward to see your new exhibition, series or collective works.

E.İ.: Thank you very much as well.

N.S.: Dear viewers, I’d like to thank you all as well for participating in our event today. I also appreciate and thank the Borusan Contemporary team for organizing this talk. I hope to see you all very soon, best regards.

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