In its ninth edition, Kahve Dünyası's contemporary art project Yanköşe hosts the work of Cansu Cürgen and Avşar Gürpınar, When Pigs Fly. We talked with the artists about the project process and the dynamics of the game they created
Interview: Tuna Ortaylı Kazıcı
Cansu Cürgen and Avşar Gürpınar, When Pigs Fly project
In the project When Pigs Fly, designed by Cansu Cürgen and Avşar Gürpınar for Yanköşe, the Ambiguous Standards of Time appear on LED signs with which we are familiar from daily life.
Time may be measured, expressed, and fragmented, precisely with tools such as chronometers and alarm clocks or more coarsely with hourglasses and egg timers. The relativity of time is not solely within the purview of the sciences but is contingent on cultural context; time can also be manifested through relational perception and cultural connotations. As Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar writes in The Time Regulation Institute, The clock itself is space; its ticking is time; its setting is human. This shows that time and space coexist with humans.
Located in Kabataş, one of the busiest spots in Istanbul, the installation challenges the viewers to question their perception of time. In this bustling crossroad where different modes of transportation intersect and people and vehicles are constantly in a hurry, the daily fragments of time, whose mathematical translation is almost impossible, flicker, drift, flow, intersect, and flash. We talked with the artists Cansu Cürgen and Avşar Gürpınar about the project process and the dynamics of the game they created.
Dear Cansu and Avşar, the ninth work to be exhibited at Kahve Dünyası's contemporary art project Yanköşe belongs to you. Since the project titled When Pigs Fly is a part of your long-term project, the Ambiguous Standards Institute (ASI), I would like us to talk about the institute first. What would you say about Ambiguous Standards Institute, its origins, and its activities so far?
Avşar Gürpınar: ASI was established in 2014 to investigate expressions indicating a measure in everyday life with ambiguous definitions and quantitative equivalents. Ambiguous standards determine almost everything, from nutrition to music, from health to transportation, and from our perception of time to our modes of communication. The Institute is a semi-fictional institution that investigates the standards in various parts of life and the world, sometimes in obvious and sometimes in hidden forms.
Cansu Cürgen: The cryptic, fluid and fragmented structure of everyday life requires particular ambiguous descriptions, instructions and standards. Definitions and categories of ambiguous standards are made using concepts, expressions, recipes, spatial and temporal data, or anatomical references. Ambiguous Standards Institute traces the contextual roots and situated pieces of knowledge of ambiguous standards. It aims to accumulate, archive and disseminate information across local, national, and global contexts. The institute pursues a delicate investigation of textual and visual representations of various exo-standard measurements and takes them into the record. Although our research processes and methods may vary in each case, we have two approaches: to arrive at a discussion by employing various objects or to identify and collate the objects relating to the discussion. The first one entails a more implicit working process extending over time. The investigation starts by taking seriously the mundane, everyday objects emanating to mass media in various stores, or bazaars such as in Tahtakale, Eminönü, making their way into the markets and leaving a mark in our audiovisual memory. In a sense, we start by building an archive through objects and looking for emerging issues. In the latter approach, we tackle objects by problematising or creating an issue or discourse. No matter which one we begin with, we are simultaneously interested in the non-discursive field: Institutions, standards, legal regulations, production environments, and technologies that create and circulate all these objects. Ambiguity sometimes appears in the absence of standards and sometimes in their abundance or contradictions. Both approaches remind us how political the mundane and the everyday are. We don’t stick to one particular theoretical approach other than believing everything is interconnected. Methodologically, our focus and the point of departure is the practice itself.
AG: So many works and artists have inspired the Institute’s foundation, its very name, its working methods and activities, including this project, at various levels and in different ways. Probably the first and most important of these works is The Time Regulation Institute by Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar. Serialised in a newspaper as early as 1954, this book’s impact on the ASI is far more significant than it could be summed up in just one word. The book depicts the office of the "Time Regulation Institute", consisting of merely a few desks and a telephone, at the time of its inception. This fictional institute initially determines its primary purpose merely by taking on work, assuming specific tasks as its mission. Only after a while does it acquire its true identity. In a strikingly similar fashion, the ASI took shape when two people started to draw a list of ambiguous standards nested in everyday language, the likes of "as much as possible", "congested yet flowing", or "when time is ripe".
Up to this point, we have worked with different content and media. To name a few, following a series of studies focusing on the descriptions and representations of ambiguous standards, we have published Everyday Life Studies Publication No.1 (Gürpınar, Cürgen and Öztunç, 2017, Istanbul Bilgi University Press). Our Institute held its first comprehensive exhibition, including crates of various ambiguous standards related to several subjects, within the scope of the 4th Istanbul Design Biennial, organised by the Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts and curated by Jan Boelen. In 2019, it was later exhibited with selected works from the biennial, first in Arles, France, as a part of the Luma Days, under the theme of “School of Schools”, and then at the C-Mine cultural complex in Genk, Belgium. That summer, we took part individually in Jerusalem Design Week, with the crate titled The Ambiguous Standards of Electricity.
This journey brought us to a critical turning point when Zoë Ryan, then Director of the Architecture and Design Collection of the Art Institute of Chicago and curator of the 3rd Istanbul Design Biennial, invited ASI to the Art Institute of Chicago to have the third exhibition in the Franke/Herro Design Series. It has been a great honour to contribute to the third leg of this series, in which Max Lamb and Christien Meindertsma are invited to the first and second editions. Our production and preparation process extended to two years due to the pandemic. For this exhibition, we both revisited and further developed our previous works and produced new crates, as well as graphic and video works. In this exhibition titled “An Institute within an Institute”, we also scanned the Art Institute of Chicago archives. We drew parallels with the collection of the institution, one of the world’s largest museums. Following the exhibition, the crate titled The Ambiguous Standards of Nutrition, twenty-four posters accompanying it, and a video work were acquired and included in the permanent collection of the Art Institute of Chicago.
CC: Following our move to England as ASI co-founders, the Institute's headquarters also moved from Turkey to the UK. Owing to the Institute’s principles of transportability, flexibility, and lightness, in the first months of 2022, we held an exhibition straightaway at Loughborough University’s art gallery, where we are currently working. In the summer of the same year, we participated in the Jerusalem Design Week. In response to the theme For Now, addressing the ephemerality and volatility of design, we foregrounded the notion of time. Our investigation of time and its ambiguous standards brought us to Yanköşe, a public art project of a unique scale and format.
What about When Pigs Fly? How did it take shape, and how did you start to design this project for such a massive wall?
AG: The notion of time, perhaps one of the most ambiguous concepts among all forms of ambiguity, has been consistently one of the issues that the ASI engages with. Individuals and humanity in general, have a strange, peculiar relationship with time. During the last two centuries, in particular, considerable time and energy have been spent on the exact measurement, precise fragmentation, and perfect harmonisation of time. The relativity of time is not only a scientific notion but also closely attached to social and cultural contexts. Time may be measured, expressed, and fragmented precisely with tools such as clocks, stopwatches, and alarm clocks, or more coarsely with hourglasses and egg timers. Such ambiguity manifests itself in language as well as in material culture.
It is one thing to notice this ambiguity. However, it is more important to be able to express, materialise and explain it. For that purpose, we needed to create a project that the public could understand, that would speak to the collective memory and cultural codes, and encompass sufficient depth and complexity.
Based on this, Ambiguous Standards of Time appear on LED signs in one of Istanbul’s busiest spots, where tramways, ferryboats, and buses intersect, and people and vehicles race against time. On these panels, that we are accustomed to seeing all around the city, the daily fragments and ambiguous expressions of time, whose mathematical correspondences are almost impossible, flicker, drift, flow, intersect, and flash.
The guiding idea was to highlight how time, besides what can be precisely and sharply measured and fragmented, can also be expressed through relative perceptions and cultural associations. LED screens represent the fleeting fragments of time, which are difficult to illustrate physically. These include such time concepts as those designated by the phrases “in the blink of an eye”, “injury time”, “time immemorial”, or those that are frequently used in fortune telling, “when the time is ripe”, which may refer to hours, days, weeks, or months alike.
It is quite meaningful that this project focusing on time is exhibited in Kabataş, a district at the centre of the daily hustle and bustle, where both Istanbulites and tourists regularly pass by, either by public transport or personal vehicles, sometimes on foot, and often lose time in the traffic jam while trying to get somewhere. Did this particular area that the wall is located at, have any influence on the process that led you to decide on the content?
CC: Indeed! As Avşar pointed out, Tanpınar and his The Time Regulation Institute have undoubtedly been the two of our main references throughout this process. As a matter of fact, the best way for us to express the very connections we try to establish could be through a quote from the book: “The clock itself is space; its ticking is time; its setting is human… This shows that time and space coexist with humans”. In other words, people are not an element in time and space but the very constituent of both.
The fact that the project is located midway on the Beşiktaş-Karaköy axis also determines the connections we wanted to underscore, both the idea for and the medium of the installation. For instance, it is very close to the Muvakkithane (timekeeper houses) and the clock tower of Dolmabahçe Palace. On the other side of this axis, we find the Tophane (Nusretiye) Clock Tower, another Ottoman-era landmark and a harbinger of the modern city. Yanköşe’s location further strengthens the connections that we aim to draw with the Time Regulation Institute, both in a historical and geographical context. Karaköy, at the end of this axis, is one of the places in Istanbul where LED signage technology is the most accessible and visible. Since the early days of the Institute, we have spent a lot of time in the numerous shops and ateliers around the commercial areas, such as the Selanik Passage, Menevşe Han, Ömer Abed Han, and Perşembe Pazarı, where we not only bought equipment but also learned about the various possibilities granted by these technologies as well as their methods of production. All in all, while one end of the abovementioned axis [Beşiktaş] provides content and aesthetics-related references, those brought forward by the other end [Karaköy] relate to technique, technology, and form.
It is important to understand the position of a site - its location within the city’s transport networks and its connections to other parts of the city-. Because our comprehension of time, duration, and the urban context are as multidimensional and relative as everything else. In this respect, public transportation by land and sea in the immediate vicinity, their intersection, and intensity of use clearly and directly influenced our decisions regarding the project’s content and exhibition method.
In previous works by the Ambiguous Standards Institute, LED displays were also used, albeit in different formats. The coastline area stretching from Perşembe Pazarı to Kabataş is full of LED displays, and their abundance is pivotal for hardware stores, craftsmen's workshops, and various small tradespeople’s offices. I think covering a 240-m2 wall here with metres upon metres of LED panels is a graceful homage to the neighbourhood. While designing such an open-air work, which requires taking into account a wide range of potential weather conditions and planning the electronic details accordingly, what kind of difficulties did you face when it came to hanging these large panels? Could you tell us a little more about the production phase of the project?
AG: In ASI’s previous works, our priority and primary concern about design decisions had always been to present knowledge and the objects that inform the discourses in compact and portable forms. Based on such principles, each art or design work and exhibition would possibly be removed and reinstalled within a very short time frame, transported to other parts of the world, and exhibited there. This compelled us to plan carefully and economically what could be placed within the volume of the wooden crates kept in specific dimensions. This has always been a tough, albeit enjoyable challenge for us. Of course, it is highly ironic that the very crates that address ambiguous standards are manufactured with such strict standards.
On the other hand, this project turned almost all the standards, such as transportability, compact design decisions, and familiar scales, upside-down. Since day one, the walls of Yanköşe, over 20 metres high and up to 8 metres wide, have given us both tremendous excitement and anxiety due to their sheer size on the one hand and outright publicness on the other. Eventually, we decided to treat the wall(s) as the corner of a building located at the intersection of two streets. Let us imagine one of the corners of the countless buildings and business centres in Istanbul, with various shops and offices on each floor. LED panels of all shapes and sizes pop up out of the windows. And all of them strive to catch the attention of passersby by referring to a specific product, service, or resource. Now, let’s take both facades of this building and fold them from the edge where they intersect. A negative volume will appear. This is how we imagined this space.
In large-scale projects like this one, significant differences often exist between what is initially imagined and what is realised. Such differences are usually not preferable, as they require compromise on the artist's side. This project, however, matched exactly with the initial sketches we made in the very first stages. In this respect, we wish to extend our deepest thanks to the Fiksatif team, consisting of Habib Bolat, Erdoğan Morgül and Dmitriy Arslan for their extraordinarily diligent and disciplined work ethics, Reyhan Kaya from Leon LED, Kahve Dünyası management team, Elif Güven and Elif Evşen, Kahve Dünyası technical team, and the valuable members of the Selection Committee for their precious support and guidance, and of course to you, Tuna, as our Project Coordinator, and finally to all of our the institutians for their invaluable contribution to the process.
I know that Avşar is particularly fond of toys, but I’m also familiar with both of your interests in playful works and word games, as well as the stories you tell about the little details of everyday life and I follow them with enjoyment. You created a play within a play while designing the words of time displayed on LED panels running at different paces and from different directions. Why does the concept of play matter a lot to you?
AG: Few things keep our minds alive as much as plays and toys do. Play behaviour is an instinct - not only for humans but for almost all living beings. It is also a form of communication. That’s why we both want to play games often and feel better when we do. That way, even though we sometimes lose, we never get too upset about it because it is only a game, after all; we try again and fail better.
The Institute itself is a sort of play, as well. What started as an ambiguous expressions exchange game one summer morning, turned into the Ambiguous Standards Institute. Not only the Institute’s history and establishment, but also its works are playful and full of games.
When Pigs Fly contains a little game for the audience. The 330 phrases that flicker on these 17 LED panels were not accidentally or randomly distributed. In fact, each panel is assigned a particular context. For instance, the ambiguous time phrases of modern life are placed on the second LED panel. Those phrases that contain the word time are placed on the fifth panel, while those that convey the idea of emergency or speed are placed on the eighth panel. We leave it to the audience to figure out how the other fourteen themes are distributed across the remaining panels.
As a team who has always exhibited in closed spaces so far, how was your working experience in a public space? Did having an entirely public installation process make any changes? Did you have any comments from the passersby during the installation?
AG: Working in a public space felt very refreshing, even breezy as a matter of fact, and, especially as it occurred in April, slightly humid as well! The joke aside, it is exhilarating on the one hand, but it might cause a slight amount of anxiety and fear on the other. Would we be granted permission for the crane? Would it rain? Would things be finished tonight? Would the structure hold? Or, were passersby looking? What was the expression on their faces? Did they seem to like the work, or rather, find it odd?
How do you think the audience will react to this project that you designed for a building located on a highly populated route used by pedestrians, private and public transport vehicles throughout the day?
CC: While the project’s LED panels were still being hung, as the first one was illuminated, we managed to attract the attention of passersby; phones started to be pulled out of pockets, and pictures were taken. As the number of illuminated signs increased, they attracted more and more curious and enquiring gazes. Likewise, the commuters on the tram started to examine the signs attentively as soon as they noticed them. We were told that the phrases could be partially seen and deciphered even from the ferries passing through from Galataport or Sarayburnu. We were also enthused by the sheer number of people who took photos and shared videos once the work was installed and operated. We hope this work will quickly strike a root in our collective memory and be remembered, maybe not forever, but for many years to come—or at least, it will not be forgotten until the time is ripe.