We are thinking about the ever-evolving social media and art world, painting as a medium and the issue of precarity that so profoundly determines our daily rhythms
Text: Ahmet Öğüt
Photo: Rebecca Eskilsson
Keeping up with the ever-changing algorithms of social media can feel like chasing an illusion. I always prioritised establishing and maintaining my own platforms, allowing me to directly share information about my projects with an audience curious about my work. Beyond my website, publications, exhibitions, and engagement with the local public in places where I undertake projects, social media has been instrumental in reaching audiences. At first, it offered a different kind of distribution, transcending the traditional focus on art centres and pivotal artistic moments. Over the years, that has changed massively because of echo chambers and bias, which made content either over-promoted or buried in the feed with inconsistent algorithm metrics. At this moment I don’t see it as very productive or even useful. There are free and open-source alternatives, servers like Mastodon or Warpcast (based on Farcaster protocol), for sufficiently decentralised federated social networks. But those kinds of platforms will take time to be discovered.
A few years back I wrote about how the more you confuse the algorithm, the better. The algorithm quickly became part of our everyday life – we all remember how, early on, search engines began using machine learning algorithms to identify patterns in user behaviour and started to recommend books that we may like to read, movies we may want to see while recording our conversations without consent. Initially, this was kind of surprising, confusing for many of us. However, the focus should not be on the algorithm confusing us but rather on how we, in turn, confuse the algorithm. Lately, I've been actively implementing this perspective by experimenting with different methods and approaches to navigate and engage with it.
Photo: Rebecca Eskilsson
It's been 20 years since I graduated from the painting department at Hacettepe University in Ankara. For twenty years, I consciously avoided making painting my default or primary medium. I thought it would be too predictable. The fact that I’m now creating a painting series might come as a surprise for many of those who aren’t familiar with my past prior to that. I probably needed that long break in between. While studying painting in Ankara, I secretly practised photography and video since there was no room for it within the academic environment. In an atmosphere void of any contemporary art institutions, that was the most exciting and radical thing to pursue. Photographic and video works were easy to reproduce and distribute beyond borders, which captured my interest swiftly. I evolved into a nomadic conceptual artist. I grasped the potential peril of not having a concrete plan and having to part ways with unique artworks such as paintings. When creating unique pieces, one must contemplate the moment they change hands. Will the next person handle them ethically? During my student years, lacking a plan, I had to leave my student works behind; some were gifted, and regrettably, a few were even destroyed. As time passed, unexpected events unfolded surrounding my earliest works. Without my consent or knowledge, some of those early paintings were stolen, some sold in flea markets, and others appeared in local auction houses a decade later. Consequently, as part of my conceptual practice, I began crafting contract-based artworks, collaborating with legal experts, and contemplating the legacy of the artworks. For my own benefit, I forged an artistic persona capable of operating unrestricted – anytime, anywhere, and with any medium – ensuring I'm never forced to slow down in my creative journey.
For me, art is a form of freedom; it set me free and made me a nomad, to be in many places all at the same time. Because of art, I learned much more than I could ever learn with my limited or non-existent resources. For years, I showcased my works online. On my website, people could explore all those pieces I created specifically for locations they might never visit, and projects exhibited in countries too far for them to reach. And for a considerable period, it felt rewarding: conversing with people as if they had witnessed my works in person. But lately, I've realised the importance of one-on-one experiences, not rushed through the accelerated digital realm, but crafted in person, allowing the necessary time for a genuine personal encounter. This is what I aim to achieve with my current ongoing painting series neither artificial nor intelligent. I decided to honour this long-term project in a different way. I aspire for these paintings to be truly experienced – in person, offline, not through a digital screen.
Photo: Rebecca Eskilsson
This series features depictions of artists, specialising in various mediums, each situated in a different city worldwide. including a performance artist based in Accra; an internet artist based in Tokyo; a Sound artist based in Diyarbakır; an installation artist based in Luanda; a video artist based in Yerevan; a multimedia Artist based in Cairo; a fresco Artist based in Bogota; a meme Artist based in Mexico City; an AR artist based in Havana; a VR artist based in Gaza; a Kinshasa based post-internet artist; an Istanbul based fanzine Artist; a ceramic artist based in Baltimore; a fluxus artist based in Doha; a street artist based in Samarkand; a painter based in Berlin; a conceptual artist based in Detroit; etc. I make oil paintings of each character employing manual modifications, with each canvas measuring 70 x 70 cm. The title is gifted by Kate Crawford, author of “Atlas of AI” (Yale University Press, 2021). I see them as a community. Thus, the greater their number, the more robust the community becomes.
neither artificial nor intelligent (2023–ongoing) aims to challenge the Coded Gaze and cognitive bias. But also, the challenge extends beyond the errors of AI to encompass our own stereotypical views and pre-made judgments. As I don't singularly specify the identity of each character I paint, this series challenges us while we try to read it; it questions why we associate a particular painting with certain places or certain types of art. Regardless of the immense number of images analysed by machine learning algorithms within seconds, all this data is still funnelled through a centralised classification filter done by humans, using Western perspective as a basis. Regardless of how much AI advances, this inherent bias remains. These historical colonial errors go all the way back to the 18th century when Western anthropologists and geologists drew climatic charts of the world (such as the Human Race Atlas), falsely categorising the distribution of the human race based on outdated and problematic racial standards.
Until recently, I believed that skill was not crucial and shouldn't be my primary focus. But something has shifted for this painting series; I am now engaging with my skill in a new way. Beyond what AI generates, I incorporate intuitive and abstract elements, infusing the artwork with potent emotions. These portraits, though fictional, resonate with everyone, evoking genuine emotions and exhaustion. To me, they embody a strong community when all of them are together.
How do we measure the impact an artistic practice has on cultural heritage or its surplus value? It shouldn't merely be dictated by metric numbers or algorithms. We should look at it from a different perspective than the attention economy. The achievements are forgotten as soon as they are accomplished. We must preserve long-term thinking. If look at it from the view of all the social media platforms from the past, like Second Life (growth eventually stabilized by the end of 2017) or Myspace (which was the largest social networking site in the world between 2005 to 2009) – using them today would not be relevant! Platforms are changing and transforming. They buy each other, merge, and soon after lose their relevance. Today many artists start and base their entire careers on social media, especially Gen Z. They begin selling their works without needing any kind of institutional approval or involvement.But the moment an artist is not active, no matter how established they look, they can also fade into obscurity. How do artists consistently stay productive and relevant? There are countless artists worldwide, but many of them may never gain institutional recognition due to their geographical location and ethnic backgrounds. Hopefully, we can work towards a future where their presence is acknowledged on equal footing. I understand that this idea is idealistic, a romantic perspective on the art ecosystem. There's no easy path. However, I aspire for my painting series to spark discussions, ultimately bringing more genuine artists from seemingly inaccessible regions, working with seemingly impossible mediums within their local contexts, into the international discourse. The notion of ‘international artists’ has always been a fictional idea. Personally, I believe in it, even if it's a fictional notion; I began embodying this idea even before I had the freedom to travel, when it was necessary to acquire a visa for each trip. I carried it forward until I possessed a passport, a token of privilege. The struggle with mobility is the current reality for many artists. The concept of a globally connected, nomadic contemporary art world is a romantic, fictional notion. Sadly, genuine inclusion – true inclusion – did not really take precedence in the art world's agenda.
We need to fight against precarity. We are all in it because the whole system is based on the precarity of others, if not us. But that has nothing to do with insecurity. Insecurity is a rather personal matter. Individual insecurity makes us collectively more precarious. Many people hide their insecurities in order to not look precarious; many institutions do that, too. Look at galleries, for example – a gallery cannot look poor. It needs to look wealthy until it can’t, until there comes a sudden announcement of bankruptcy. From very early on in my practice, fear was never the primary factor guiding my decisions. I can be aware of precarity and vulnerability while remaining fearless at the same time. The question is not about what we are asked to compromise but what we choose to compromise.
Photo: Rebecca Eskilsson
My artistic practice has a lot to do with my personality and my opinions about the world and politics; particularly in relation to socio-cultural shifts within our society. I think it’s the same for everybody else. All these crises – whether they are ecological, biotic, or political – create ruptures, affecting how we work. We all should maintain a degree of autonomy; it doesn't have to be 100% autonomy. But this will help us challenge the institutions we work for or work with to maintain a level of integrity towards their public. I don't see artists only as the victims. I witnessed many artists enabling the hierarchies of the system by accepting absurd compromises. The concept of competition or individual success is not necessarily the only way to success. When I face an unfair situation, it's not solely unjust to me but also to everyone who came before me and will come after me in the future. It's essential that the moment when injustice happens, you take action – it doesn't have to be that you are a fearless cultural worker with a specific interest in the practices of security and precarity; you may be only looking for conditions that are healthy and trustworthy for everyone. Whenever we enter any formal or informal agreement with an institution, we must perform an integrity check. This way, we can ensure that the institutions will treat future generations better.
I have never disconnected from where I come from, although I often changed cities for various reasons. For me, it is important that the source of resilience comes from my hometown. I now have a reason to return more often, too. Following the recent catastrophic earthquake, which profoundly affected my hometown, Diyarbakır, and several cities in the region, I have maintained communication with colleagues in the area who are dedicated pedagogues working with traumatised children. Unfortunately, the region lacks the necessary support systems to facilitate enduring recovery. Diyarbakır has never had the privilege of hosting a contemporary art museum, aside from a handful of independently organised artist-run spaces. In collaboration with the Çocuklar İçin Sanat Derneği (Art for Children Association), I embarked on a journey starting last April to initiate peer-to-peer workshops led by the children of art practitioners. These workshops are specially crafted for local children of the same age group who have been deeply affected by the scars of war and disaster. This endeavour holds the promise of paving the way towards creating the very first Contemporary Art Museum in my hometown, with an exclusive focus on enriching children's lives. Not only would this museum be the first of its kind in the region, but it would aim to become a model for an international museum that prioritises working with children of the artists and cultural workers. It would be open to all parents working in the art world, mothers, fathers and others, setting up an exemplary institution toward a more inclusive art world, not only with its programming but also by budgeting and administering with radical inclusive hospitality.