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Berat Işık: state of emergency, sound, and noise

Berat Işık, Are You Still Alive? Filografi, Renkli bakır tel ve çivi, 2016, Tek Edisyon, 40x60x2 cm

Let’s immediately put it out there that Berat Işık is an artist of the “state of emergency”: He lives and works in a city in which the state of emergency is ordinary, Diyarbakır. The foundations of his work are rooted in a distant and symptomatic gaze, scrutinizing the meanings of language, culture, identity, and freedom—or their absence—in a region of emergency. His is a gaze that exposes the structure that makes the state of emergency possible, interpreting the tools and symptoms of the state of emergency by taking back a step. As such, he also often seems like an anatomy artist (anatomy of culture and politics) to me. The works that he produces with this anatomic gaze that often feels endoscopic (often in video), evokes the state of “emergency” (as well as exception) constantly felt in the country because of those in power through images and sounds that create this exceptionality. These images and in particular the sounds produce an aesthetic of discontent, if I were to manipulate Ranciere’s terminology of aesthetics and its discontents. This is an aesthetic that makes the device of capture, which seizes the daily life of the state of emergency (see Deleuze and Guattari) visible and audible. But the landscape is not so dark and suffocating: the crises of culture can also create a breathing space or a void by using irony or dark humor. A piece of irony, when added to the modernist gravity, bring the artist’s attitude closer to an aestheticized modernism rather than an apolitical and a historical post-modern game of collage. Political seriousness and engagement, which are deemed anachronistic notions, are still valid here, with conviction and elegance.

It is crucial to add another element here: Berat Işık is able to dilute the geographic pressure of politics using references to contemporary art, music, and cinema (including John Cage, David Lynch, On Kawara, Malevich, Felix Gonzales Torres). It is not even dilution, actually: instead of the famous and sinister fatalism of “geography is destiny”, he creates an international community of meaning that transcends geography to create a sound-image network, approaching a position of world citizenship. Through these tactics, he takes a step back from the form with which contemporary art deals with “heavy” matters including culture, language, identity, violence, and law, creating a strange distant and inter-narrative angle. Here, I’m going to try to interpret Işık’s works through the sounds (not as harmonious, but as sounds that create dissonance).

1. Sound of language or dissonance

"Language" holds an important place in Berat Işık's aesthetic-political struggle. Language policies in Turkey, as it is well-established, are one of the most prominent and violent political devices. There is no need to explain at length, but let's remember this: The construction of the country called Turkey was built on the wreckage or absence of languages ​​other than Turkish, with the slogan of "one language, one flag." A series of prohibitive and assimilating language policies, ranging from the “citizens, speak Turkish" campaigns in the 30s to the Turkishization of the names of many geographical regions and members of minorities, have driven some people away from their own language either physically or symbolically. But, like many other "cultural things", the "thing" called language continues to exist despite all the violence: even though it is buried under the concrete of the "single language" paradigm, it continues to seep through the cracks or continue to exist like a ghost. Since language is one of the main attack points of the politics of power, a significant part of the field defense of artists, writers and filmmakers who are in the move of developing a counter-discourse advances in the field of language and gives a restitution to "language." A response to linguistic violence or assimilation.

Berat Işık builds his 2003 video Dancer in the Dark, which is engraved in the memory of contemporary art in Turkey (and I think still Işık's most striking work), on such a field of language. In the video we hear a voice speaking on a dark background (black screen). In Kurdish, the voice says "Hey, do you see me, I'm standing right in front of you, can't you see me?". He exists, but the perpetrator does not. This voice, vibrating between nothing and something, demands recognition. A demand that is getting more and more intense and turns into an almost helpless cry with its violence. The breaking point of the video lies in the temporal jump. A text appears on the dark screen: 3000 years later. And the voice demanding that presence turns into a mechanical-robotic voice at this time. The sentences are the same, the voice has become mechanized. Here is, of course, one of the cinematic references frequently seen in Berat Işık's works: this temporal leap and the mechanized sound is an homage to Kubrick's 2001. Remember: in the first scene of 2001, a bone is thrown into the air, and then we find ourselves thousands of years later: the space age. Rather than an obvious interpretation of the work like "The same language policies will continue after 3000 years", I explain what Berat Işık feels with this temporal leap through an alienation effect (auditory effect) that is added to the voice speaking. The representation of violence here requires an effect of alienation, which perhaps only three thousand years later will find its counterpart in the "death of language as we know it." You can actually find this effect in writers like Beckett and Kafka, apart from science fiction like Blade Runner, 2001, THX-138, which talk about bad days to come. I think the language crisis that Işık makes in his video is closer to Beckett, Kafka or Ionecsco. In these writers, the language bends and twists under strange pressure, but does not shout "I am bending and twisting”; the characters also lack a language that can say "I have lost my tongue". The crisis of language becomes the expression of language. In Berat Işık's case, there is language, but language does not have a subject. A language without a subject can only exist as an image on a dark screen. The sound of the tongue, itself a crisis, is articulated as a ‘dissonance’???, I would claim.

Işık has another recent video that describes political violence through linguistic violence. The video titled We Have Almost Arrived from 2016 brings up language by "disrupting" it again. This video is part of a trilogy that Işık shot with reference to John Cage's famous 4:33 (the other two works are, Press and Dream): Cage’s work was an invitation to silence or a voluntary silence, an effort to transform other sounds within the 4 minutes and 33 seconds that may emerge in an "experimental" silence into "the piece itself". In a sense, it's an effort to record "ghost voices" that haven't yet been deemed as sound. Işık's works in this trilogy do not carry the inclusive and experimental winds of voluntary silence, but the claustrophobia of obligatory silence. It's not the wind, it's the blockage. We Have Almost Arrived repeats the journey of Mehmed Uzun, who had to leave Turkey and immigrate to Sweden, over the Baltic Sea, and the images of the Baltic Sea are accompanied by the voice of Uzun's poem Estana Egîdekî by Ciwan Haco. The fact that this vocalization is reversed with the ‘reverb' effect, turning into an incomprehensible, muffled 'noise', again creating an effect that makes the language vibrate with dissonance: while listening to this sad and hypnotic 'reverse' audio recording, it is possible to hear the resonance of a history, a history of violence. Not to mention the dual possibilities of the title of the video: we were almost there (we arrived at our destination) [neredeyse vardık] and we were almost there (ontologically we were both there and we were actually not there) [neredeyse var-dık]. The second is the expression of a "precarious" state, a political-ontologically shifty, in-between "almost" state. The video duration is also 4:33, but it has a cyclicality that evokes a feeling of evil-infinity that evokes Nietzsche's 'infinite spin'. The evil eternity of language un-recognition.

2. The voice of the law or the capture device

In the other two sections of Berat Işık's 4:33 trilogy, "voice" has a very strong presence. Press’s sound is reminiscent of the sound of a machine or a capture device: a mechanical sound. The eerie and frightening sound of an obscure, obsessive, repetitive device is reminiscent of an automatic typewriter. A mechanism in which the so-called subject is erased and replaced by the machine insistently repeats its movements for 4 minutes and 33 seconds. The effect here is obviously not Cagearian, but Kafkaesque. In Cage’s 4:33, he framed the erasure of the performer or composer as an occasion for emancipation for 'automatic' music. Here, however, the "non-subject" is replaced by a Kafkaesque oppression device, an effect reminiscent of Kafka's "law machine." Consider the impersonal, automatic operation of the 'law machine' in the Penal Colony. That penal apparatus inscribes the crime on the criminal's body. A violent act of law takes place on the body, which is the domain of the criminal's existence, and as the crime is engraved on the body, the punishment is realized. Kafka's terrifying and violent parable of modern-bureaucracy is actually a classic expression of how "law" (or power or hegemony, you can change the terms) is a machine or, as Deleuze & Guattari puts it, a 'capture device'. In Işık's video Press, the "clicking" sounds that do not tell us anything but make us feel the violent presence of power can also be considered the sound of a typewriter or law-machine that produces unfreedom.

In Dream, the last work in this trilogy, there is also a policy of violent sound: under a piece of meat - the rib - we see a faintly beating pulse (the thing that is dead is not dead), but instead of the pulsing sounds, we hear the hum of a surrounding machine. The mechanical sound of a machine running and possibly cutting something overpowers the organic sound of the pulsing under the flesh. Here, too, a Cagelike open-ended silence is replaced by a claustrophobic hum with a sense of 'urgency'. A hum close to the noise. The roar of violent devices. The sound of the machine that Sevim Burak, who thought a lot about the issue of language, "silence" and "another language", recorded, for example, in African Dance. Let's make the key point here clear: a machine-like voice of power structures that replaces an organic voice.

This voice manifests itself even more strongly and clearly in times of state of emergency, of course. Coup or state of emergency periods are actually based on a silence/noise dichotomy. On the one hand, the silence created by the silent voice of life, which can be called 'state silence’ and on the other hand, a state noise made by sirens, tank sounds, gunshots, announcements, megaphones and warnings. I would like to talk about a novel with this title, which describes this dual sound phenomenon wonderfully: Silence and Noise, in which Syrian writer Nihad Siris describes an “experienced” Middle Eastern dystopia. This political dystopia takes place in an unnamed country that is governed by the state of emergency: the entire country is governed by a 'one-man' system under state pressure, and Siris describes all this oppression through the silence-noise dichotomy. Dissident writer Fethi Şiym is questioned for not participating in state-sponsored demonstrations on the street and, at one point in the interrogation, makes the following vital statement: "So you are forcing me to choose between the silence of prison and the noise of power."

Berat Işık has made a sound-installation work in which this noise of power is recorded "physically": This work, titled 103, is the violence experienced in Diyarbakır during the curfew declared in Sur for 103 days, the sounds of bombs and the trembling of these voices through a trembling, vibrating doorknob. Life 'trembles' under the noise of power. Violence, the noise of violence manifests itself physically, and life is made to "vibrate". Resonance gains a completely different meaning here.

Berat Işık, Neredeyse Vardık, Video, 4’ 33”, 2016

3. The sound of catastrophe or its silence

It should be mentioned that Berat Işık's works also include a move opposite of the vein that focuses on noise (in a way, "noise-music"): he also has some installations and works in which there is no sound nor language. But in this move, I would say that sound is charged with even more meaning through its "absence." We can actually explain this "absence-of-sound" rather than "silence" with what Blanchot calls "impossible witnessing": Thinking about how catastrophes too disastrous to be expressed in language could be represented through "writing", Blanchot sees two options: either the fragmentation of language or a surrender silence. In a sense, the language "darkens" or radiates beyond recognition, like a white darkness.

This white darkness appears in Işık's installation Dazzling, which he presented together with Sarkis's work In the Beginning Night. A sense of 'urgency' or a moment of catastrophe dominates this installation, in which a flashing, 'blinding' light fills the space. This white light differs from the whiteness of Malevich's "White on White" to which it refers: while Malevich's white contains an endless serenity and slowness, Dazzling creates a feeling of complete uneasiness and restless urgency. Whereas Malevich's space might be clouds or a smooth blanket of snow, Dazzling evokes an indoor space, a hospital room, or a prison cell. A state of emergency. A place that could also be a site for Saramago's Blindness.

Berat Işık has another work that references Malevich: Lost Highway. In an article, I had said the following about this work: “Berat Işık's 'land mass' called Lost Highway leaves you face to face with a cube of compacted asphalt. This mass, reminiscent of 'black zen', which is one of the main issues of David Lynch to which it refers, has a meditative intensity. This is a metaphor-mass that can make people think deeply about both the end of power and the state and the beginning of a new world, making an "intense" reference to both Malevich and the power of black. It also carries the power of looking at the world not from a light, but from a dark place. It is precisely the power of 'negativity' that is often forgotten these days.”

I would like to add to this that the silent uneasiness in this asphalt mass contains a gesture that blackens and rejects the existing cultural and political system with its intensifying effect. If you ask me, a radical political movement in such a world of catastrophe, may arise not from a colorful demand for reform, but from such a black gesture of refusal. It's similar to how Beckett is actually very political with his writing that reduces all language to zero. While Badiou examines the 'ultra-black' paintings of Soulages in his book Black, he calls Beckett’s texts the 'ultra black of writing'. I think it is time to remember this black, to look at 'major' issues such as law, violence, identity, culture from such a dark place and to respond to the persistent state of 'unfreedom' through this black.

4. The human voice: ghosts and explosions

It is also worth mentioning a work in which Berat Işık turns his view of the so-called catastrophe back into the past: In his video titled Hole dated 2012, Işık uses his camera as an endoscopy device to enter a well. When you look at the video from the outside, you might think that it is not a well, but an endoscopy recording, for example, of a human throat.

This well is linked to a historical catastrophe: it is said to have been where the Armenian bodies were dumped into during the exile of Armenians. Capturing the traces and ghosts of the past in that well, this video does one thing that contemporary art in Turkey does well: saving history. Making the ghosts of history talk. Recording the not-existing-but-actually-existing voices is one of the most important functions of what is called political art, to give a restitution to lost cultures and peoples, as well as to lost languages. To be a hearing ear and a recording eye for those condemned to silence in the narrative of history. The well here is a well, both literally and metaphorically, and the history of Turkey is full of such wells. This video actually makes you feel that there is a continuity between what happened today and what happened in the past. History is like this: everything that is not settled repeats endlessly.

In Berat Işık's works, I have thus far focused on the negative aspects of sound: most of the time, his works keep the record of the machine or structures of power cutting off language, registering a lack of freedom, but I would like to mention a work that gives a space of freedom to sound: The video called Butterfly Effect creates a space of freedom for sound. but it achieves this by "dehumanizing" people and putting them in an intermediate state. The idea is very simple: a series of people seen in the video take a deep breath, then hold their breath in that position for as long as they can with their cheeks puffed up, sort of 'out of breath' with their own breath, and their faces are 'distorted' as they go along. A parade of somewhat funny, somewhat uncanny expressions, then leave their place to the release of the breath held in those mouths. A moment of explosion. A series of breath-faces exploding on top of each other, I would say. And small explosions. And then maybe the butterfly effect that could arise. You remember this effect, I think it was Bakunin's saying: "I want to hear the butterfly flapping its wings in Africa, the hurricane in North America. I want Chaos!" It used to be like the slogan of the 'anarchists'. Kaos publications, which published on anarchism, used to put this phrase at the beginning of every book they published. The winds of 'anarchism' I mentioned last blew in Turkey in the 90s. Anarchism was then stigmatized as an anachronism, like many other 'isms'. But here a crucial function of political art comes into play: "appropriating" and incorporating what is considered anachronistic. To bring the concrete blocks covering what is called the spirit of the time, thoughts and possibilities that are considered anachronistic, that is, “put away on the shelves of history" to today, and to open a space for these thoughts and possibilities. Not being 'okay' when the concrete, which is called the spirit of time, covers everything. The butterfly effect creates a 'refreshing' moment for the suppressed breath or sounds, and creates the possibility of a collective 'movement' from within it.

5. The asking voice: Are you still alive?

This was the title of Berat Işık’s first solo exhibition: Are you still alive? This question that again pointed to a state of emergency (or an exclamation, depending on the intonation), was referring to Japanese conceptual artist On Kawara’s “I am still alive.” On Kawara had sent this simple yet existential question to hundreds of people by telegraph. Cengiz Çekil had made a similar work in the 1970s: he had stamped, “I am still alive” in his diary for two decades. This was a simple sentence that had intense political meaning within the political atmosphere of the time. In Berat Işık’s work, the “I” disappears and the question is directed towards possible “victims”: everyone who hears this question. This asking voice underscores the severity of the political situation through this question that rings like a warning, while also pointing to everyone who could be victims of this violence, creating a “community of emotions.”

The history of Turkey is filled with eras when the law and the state deprive people of their fundamental rights. If there were a rough outline, it would be impossible to find a single historical moment when a state of emergency did not reign over a region of Turkey or all of it. When this history of violence is considered, Berat Işık’s question could cover the whole surface and history: Are you still alive? Or the question could be changed into: How are you still alive?

In her article on this exhibition, Wenda Koyuncu had communicated this question to Berat Işık, questioning the impact of the artist’s action among all these crisis: What is artistic activity good for? If the artist or the writer is not able to end the different kinds of violence and continues to ask this question as a documenter of violence, what’s the use? If art or other such things like film or literature and even political activity is not able to transform life, not able to create a change on the threshold between life and death, what’s the use? Maybe this is the use: making viewers feel that life is not limited to this. Asking for other possibilities, creating paths by looking into the darkness.

I had mentioned at the beginning that Berat Işık was an artist of the state of emergency. Let me conclude by returning to that point: The main “state” of an artist who lives under a state of emergency (or an activist, a writer, a thinker, a filmmaker etc.) is not to end that state of emergency; it is to make sure that the state of emergency is not forgotten, that things are not ordinary, and to point to another path (if I am to use Sami Baydar’s terminology, “paths of exiting this world.”) Concept, action, or aesthetics driven paths of exit. They are all paths and they are all legitimate. Berat Işık presents images and sounds often in crisis, making more palpable the existing states of crisis and expects us to be activated by this very state of crisis.

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