Defne Ayas: What were your preliminary impressions of Hrant Dink? Did you ever meet him?
Ahmet Öğüt: Unfortunately, I didn’t have chance to meet him. I was mostly impressed by his way of storytelling, especially of Anatolian stories, and the way he learned from those stories. He was one of the most sincere, genuine and brave people who lived in that territory. He was the one who gave voice to the unsayable. I highly respected his gentlemanly behavior, politeness and honesty. And above all, he was one of the most important human rights defenders in Turkey.
DA: Can you describe the loss you experienced when he was murdered? What were your feelings as an artist as well as a human, and as a citizen?
AÖ: As an artist I felt desperate, as a citizen I was ashamed and as a human I felt sad, as if I lost someone from my family. My feeling of affliction rapidly became a feeling of unease. In fact, what happed was a terrible thing and we were all responsible for it. We didn’t look after Hrant Dink well enough. I had just moved from Istanbul to Amsterdam three weeks before the incident. I felt like nothing would be the same in Turkey after that. I heard that some young boys were going to streets and wearing the same white hat that the 17-year-old assassin was wearing. After the murder, I was worried that chauvinist, fanatical, nationalist mentality would spread out dangerously into the streets. Then I heard about the enormous crowd that gathered and walked at Dink’s funeral with respectful silence. Because I was in Amsterdam, I was not able to join the thousands of people who attended his funeral. But even from distance I could feel that this was a new era. Many people came together to express their repressed voice for Dink. That was a sign of a new honorable and collective movement. It meant to me that the public would not hesitate anymore to expose their reaction.
DA: What were your feelings towards your home base and its inner workings?
AÖ: To learn how to live together and to end discrimination, which Armenians, Kurds as well as other minorities have been subjected to, are urgent collective needs in Turkey. It is not any more the times of over night coup and organized assimilation. Today the biggest witness is the public. But there are still some steamrollers that want the elimination of differences in Turkey, which would create a violent society. We should prevent that with our awareness.
DA: Have you ever discussed this openly? Could you? Would you?
AÖ: To face history is important. But I think the most important thing is to face today’s reality. Today, our spirit, our word, our courage, our brother Dink was killed in the middle of the street in front of our eyes. Today we know that there are many Armenians living in Turkey who hide their identity because of social domination. I believe discussion should start from today’s reality.
DA: How is the artistic community in Istanbul embracing him? How easy or difficult has it been to claim him and his ideas?
AÖ: Right after the assassination artistic and intellectual communities came together. Everybody wanted to express their reaction through not only individual maneuvers, but also through collective acts. Civil society initiatives such as Hrant ve Biz (Hrant and Us) and 19 Ocak (19 January) were the results of coming together at that time. From a distance (Amsterdam) I got involved with those groups. Hrant ve Biz collected more than 10,000 signatures of support during the first three months. One of the most important civil disobedience actions in Istanbul was by a group of artists and writers from 19 Ocak. They reported themselves to the office of the public prosecutor, saying that they agree with Hrant Dink’s words that caused him to be tried. Ten days after the assassination, Çıplak Ayaklar Kumpanyası / Bare Feet Company did a protest action with 80 participants lying on the ground covered with newspapers in front of Agos Newspaper office, where Dink was assassinated. Nowadays, a formation named Hrant icin adalet icin / for justice for Hrant has been gathering outside of the courthouse to follow up the Hrant Dink case. However, at the moment the public is not attending as much as they did right after the assassination. They also did a documentary called 19 Ocak'tan 19 Ocak'a and they continue their other actions such as Conscience Chain.
DA: How do you think your position as a visual artist will spread his ideas? Which ideas specifically are you concerned about? Lets talk specifically about your performance at Performa. How did you begin working on this work?
AÖ: Especially in the case of Dink, constantly "reminding" is important. But it is not just to illustrate and create a memorial you visit and feel sad and be passive. I would rather create an action, which everybody can take part in, and create various encounters. As I said in the beginning, I felt desperate as an artist in the case of Dink. I didn’t know what I could do really. Now, after more than two years, I found a way to do something with my performance project for Performa 09. I wanted to work with a blind painter to use his/her imagination so we could pay a tribute to Hrant Dink. Then I located Devorah Greenspan, a blind NY-based painter. Inspired by Dink’s last article, entitled The Pigeon-like Unease of My Inner Spirit, I shared with Devorah Dink’s philosophy, insights, apprehensions, dreams and genuine love for his country, and she portrayed him the way she imagined him. The result was a surprise. The first step was meeting with Devorah Greenspan. We spent three days to get to know each other and talk about Hrant Dink, listening to his voice and reading some of his articles together. In such a short time, I believe that I managed to create an emotional and mental connection in-between Devorah and Dink.
DA: During the performance Devorah started painted a portrait of Hrant Dink in this completely dark room.
AÖ: Yes, for the performance I wanted to create a completely dark room where visitors can only see the performance with small torches. It was a narrow and long room and Devorah’s easel, paints and brushes were located at the end of the room that looked like a theatrical stage with black curtain in the background. She wanted me to sit next to her and continue the conversation. We were whispering each other. We were not talking only about Hrant Dink, but also our daily life and our past. All the visitors entered the room holding small torches and encountered Devorah Greenspan. She kept painting in the dark.
DA: What was your perception of the audience?
AÖ: It was a tremendous experience to witness people coming in and out in a completely quiet manner, respecting the act and the moment. I also wrote a text on behalf of Hrant Dink as if he wrote it after he was shot. I tried to imagine something impossible and put together in words what he would have wrote. Instead of making an ordinary and brief introduction for the audience, I decided to use this fictional text as a poem for the performance.
DA: And you started actively engaging with memory-creation…
AÖ: My position was more like that of a navigator, a tool or a moderator, in order to create this meeting between Devorah Greenspan and Hrant Dink. I created an alternative encounter that would refresh our memory and lead us to discussions around his ideas. What are those ideas? His biggest concern was "learning how to live together" no matter what. He hated words like "revenge" or "ignorance." He was completely against any kind of racism. He was willing to turn the place he lives from hell into a heaven. He wanted to have complete freedom of speech in his country.
DA: What was the painting process for Devorah like?
AÖ: Devorah had her own system for the paints and brushes. She knew exactly where she put each color and other things. She had an incredible sense to feel the colors and the surface of the canvas. Obviously she already finished the painting in her mind before she touched the canvas. So everything went very smooth. She started from the face and completed the background last. It took more or less 2 hours.
DA: How come you wanted to work with a blind painter? The act of working with a blind painter in a completely dark space was quite a courageous one.
AÖ: For sighted people it is almost impossible to imagine that a blind person can paint. Many would think it is a surreal or impossible attempt. When I heard about a blind painter for the first time, I thought it is very poetic and they must have incredible skill. Of course it was a very sensitive situation to decide to work with a blind painter. I was very lucky that I found Devorah, who was really interested in being involved from the very first moment. The second step was the idea of doing it in a completely dark room. The dark room wouldn’t be a test for the blind painter, on the contrary it was a test for the audience. Light was something that the audience, sighted people, would need. I took that need away from the audience; instead I gave them their own light sources to choose when and how long to see. I tried to point out that seeing the entire painting was not the reason to be there. Sharing a very deep and unrepeatable moment in the dark and seeing only a part of the painting for a moment gave all of us chance to use our imagination, just like Devorah used her imagination at that very moment.
DA: You had never met Devorah. How much time did you actually spend with Devorah?
AÖ: Right, I didn’t meet with Devorah in person until few days before the performance. Before I arrived to New York, we were communication via phone. I was really curious to meet her. Then finally we met 3 days before the performance. We had to be in action very soon, although we also took our time to introduce ourselves to each other.
DA: How much did you share with her from your personal background and from Hrant Dink's background? How much of a bond of empathy could you form with a New Yorker painter? Were you as aware of your own emotions about Hrant and your upbringing?
AÖ: Our dialog developed very spontaneously. We were taking about our personal background and Hrant Dink’s background at the same time. Everything interfered with each other in a very random way. We talked about our daily life in the past and today. For Devorah, listening to Dink’s life from me who was standing next to her was a way to get closer and have insider information, rather than hearing about him in the news. She also listened Hrant Dink’s own voice, as well as his wife’s voice, recorded for interviews. During the whole process of thinking about the best possible way to describe him, I become much more aware of my own emotions.
DA: Those who came seemed a bit mystified by the murmurs in the darkened space of Bidoun. They could almost not hear you two. At the same time, they were transported by the darkened space and seemed to forget about listening in precisely. An audience member resembled the darkness to a deep well from a Haruki Murakami book Norwegian Wood as well as the Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. What were your thoughts? What went through your mind when you turned off the room and started conversing with her? We were all somewhere between awake and dreaming, between history, memory, and nowhere.
AÖ: I am glad that the visitors’ encounter and the atmosphere of the space were exactly how I was imagining them before. I was thinking a lot about how we behave in a darkened space. I was reading The Strange Case of Mademoiselle P. by Brain O’Doherty. It is a mysterious novel taking place in eighteenth-century about a doctor and his patient, who’s an eighteen-year-old blind pianist. That book taught me how to understand the psychology of seeing in the darkness in a very touching way.
DA: Your earlier work comes to mind as a possible influence with the darkness. How did she react to your call?
AÖ: In fact, I did two other works in the past using darkness and light as a main element. One of them was a performance named Another Perfect Day from 2006-2008, where a hairdresser cuts someone’s hair in a basement with a motorcycle standing outside of the window as a light source. The other work was a video called Short Circuit where a group of kids plays football in a very dark street and a car is passing by back and forth through their game.
DA: Did you enjoy being part of your work live?
AÖ: Sure, I enjoyed being part of my work live, although I was there to only assist Devorah with a nice conversation.
DA: How does it feel to go from video, which you know so well, to doing live performances?
AÖ: Actually one of my early works was a performance where I was performing myself. Yes, performance is not a medium that I use often, however I really like the feeling of experiencing it only in that moment. That makes it very special.
DA: Do you watch a lot of performances? Are you constantly critiquing what you see and applying it to your performances?
AÖ: I do watch staged performances, but I like more to observe things as part of everyday life when it is something between performance and real life. Something becomes a performance just because you are passing by and witnessing it by coincidence.
Director of Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art, Rotterdam, Netherlands.
The Pigeon-like Unease of My Inner Spirit, 2009
Ahmet Öğüt's performance / homage to Hrant Dink, together with New York artist Devorah Greenspan, took place on 15 November 2009, as part of Performa09, the third edition of the biennial of visual art performance in New York, curated by Defne Ayas.