Art and Politics

Reactions to reactions: censorship in the Turkish art scene

In her talk at the Kunstmuseum Gegenwart, Banu Karaca gave the audience a tour through censorship in Turkey, pointing out amongst other things, ways of reacting to censorship of one’s art under a government that seems to be cracking down on freedom of artistic expression.

It is this “reaction to the reaction” – that is, artists reacting to the state reacting (unfavourably) to their artwork – that merits a closer look: what options do artists have under oppressive state rules to continue showing, and even producing, art? What effect does censorship have on artists, and on the future of art? Is this something specific to Turkey, or can this type of censorship happen elsewhere?

The state of art

Banu Karaca laid her focus on bringing the Basel audience closer to the reality of art censorship in Turkey, a topic that she also focuses on in her writings and research. She began laying out a timeline of notable examples in the politics of censorship in Turkey, with the contested Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code at its center. Article 301, which in its first version came into effect in 2005, states that anyone denigrating “Turkishness” or the turkish military will be punished with between three to six years of imprisonment. Since its inception, it has been criticized widely, especially as in the beginning it was used as a free for all by the government to curtail art. Though the article has since been amended- notably after the assassination of Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink- it is still widely used by the state to delegitimize those that are critical of it. As Karaca stated, the 2000’s in Turkey were “marked by contingencies of delegitimization”. It is precisely these events of delegitimization and censorship, as well as notable reactions to this, that I wish to focus on in this post.

The earliest example mentioned by Karaca, and one she has extensively published on already, comes from the Istanbul Art Biennial of 2005. Here, in a small “Hospitality Zone” devoted to two smaller shows within the biennial, Halil Altındere curated an exhibition entitled Free Kick. Included in this exhibition are photographs by the Kurdish photographer Cengiz Tekin, with one photograph showing a Turkish man aiming a free kick at a lineup of Kurdish civilians. Another work shows a Turkish military official looming in the frame, titled “Hulk”. These photographs led to an anonymous complaint filed with the ministry, resulting in the prosecution of Altındere and the removal of the exhibition catalogue. Though both charges were ultimately dropped, the prosecution nevertheless led to the court overstepping and so established a precedence to further state encroachments upon artists. Photography is not the only art form that has been (partially or fully) censored in recent times: mixed media artworks such as Tenger’s 1992 I Know People Like This II, and (documentary) films such as Bakur (2015) or Zer (2017) have also been targeted and silenced.

“I love you 301”: art as (re)action

Though censorship in any form is “effective” in terms of silencing someone- whether this be through an outright active movement such as pulling an exhibition catalogue from an exhibition or through the artist self-censoring works, there are also artists that engage in a different way with the possibility of censorship. Though in Turkey there is a real and palpable danger of censorship by the state that can range from bans to imprisonment, nevertheless, there are artists that use the machinery of the state in their art, and thus make a statement. If Article 301–a textual legislative that is accessible to the public–is the backbone of the censorship apparatus used by the government, are there ways for artists to expose this backbone and the silencing that goes with it? Indeed, some artists have found ways to make the gaps left by censorship visible and make these gaps speak for themselves. “I love you 301” was an art installation by Ferhat Özgür that was set up like a karaoke gig; instead of singing along to contemporary pop songs, visitors were able to “sing” the lines of the Article itself. In my favourite example of defiance, after a short-notice ban of his film at a festival, the director of Bêrîvan took to the stage and stood in front of the black screen, recounting the film scene by scene to the audience. Another example of a film director refusing to be cowed by the censorship was Kazim Öz, who was told to cut certain scenes from his film Zer and complied, adding a subtitle to the blacked out scene stating that the content of the scene had been deemed unfit to be shown to audiences by the ministry.

Indeed, artists have a hard choice to make when faced with censorship: do they comply and let their artistic output be stifled, or do they refuse to be silenced and have to deal with the consequences of no funding or worse? The counter-reaction to Article 301 in these examples seems to go two ways: in the case of Özgür it is taking the literal text used to legitimize censorship and putting it on display as if itself was a piece of art that the audience can interact with, and in the case of filmmakers such as Öz it is speaking up about the ways that the Article has impacted the original piece of art.

301: confined to Turkey?

Though there has been much focus laid on the state of critical contemporary art and whether it is possible to still be produced in Turkey, this form of censorship imposed by the state is by no means limited to Turkey. This type of crackdown on critical art is a political tool, and is utilized by governments and officials in many countries across the globe. If it seems as though the furore around Article 301 has quieted down and art censorship is a thing of the past – as media outlets focus on different sorts of censorship, this is far from the case: a current example is the “loyalty in culture” bill in Israel, where the culture minister has continually been proposing to enforce this bill. Though it was not accepted the first time it was proposed, it will again be brought before the legislative committee. If approved, artists that denigrate Israel or attempt to show a Palestinian national narrative will have their funding cut by the government; it remains to be seen how contemporary artists will deal with this, and in what ways they react. Art is exciting precisely because it is a tool that can be used to portray the world around us in all its multi-faceted aspects both good and bad, and as Karaca showed in her talk, fighting for the art you make is crucial.

Text by Julia Brosi.

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