Ayşe Çavdar. Exercising Ethnographic Distance in Artistic Production

For the premiere of Köken Ergun's exhibition Young Turks, anthropologist Ayşe Çavdar illustrated the ways in which collective performance and colonialism are linked.

It is impossible to imagine a place in the world that has not experienced the gaze of research. In this regard, the age of exploration ended a long time ago. We are now living in an era of reconstruction, restoration, and re-imagination. Moreover, it is not much of a confession to say that any act of research, particularly in the social field, is, indeed, an announcement of (re)creating a (new) space for negotiating the conditions and components of this reconstruction, restoration, and re-imagination. Thus, I suggest that any social research, not by definition but by practice, is a collective and collaborative performance to rebuild the world as we know it. 

Like any collective performance, social research also has multiple actors. The first actor is the researcher, who designs the field by choosing the framework and asking questions. Meanwhile, the person or group, being subjected to social research, most probably takes that act of research as space for performance of his/her/their presence. Lastly, the audience of the research takes a role in all processes as the party being expected to consume and reproduce the research outcomes. Therefore, any research process is a multi-level performance for the mediation of the meaning of a social phenomenon subjected to the inquiry. 

Köken Ergun. Young Turks. 2 channel digital video with sound / Courtesy of the artist

Nevertheless, it is very hard to perceive the research as a collective performance for academic disciplines because the institutionalism of universities paradoxically obstructs the collaborative and performative potential of the research. Fortunately, as a re-invented act of research, artistic research provides an excellent guidance for those researchers who tend to try the limits of those academic/institutional environments. In this sense, Köken Ergun's Young Turks is an accomplished example of the genre of artistic research conducted as a collaborative and collective performance of mediation toward a social/political phenomenon. Since the beginning of his project, Ergun has negotiated each level of his research with not only scholars, journalists, or specialists, but also with those people who were interviewed or visualized in this project.

Journalism resembles those traditional dances, in which the partners revolve around each other instead of dancing together.

Dealing with a religious group, for a secular researcher like Ergun, produces several dilemmas in the research process 1. First and foremost, conducting research on religion or religiosity means being ready to examine the existential and historic clash between the religious and secular perceptions of the world in your mind and body. Thus, anyone who attempts to conduct such research develops—consciously or unconsciously—a set of defense mechanisms to immunize himself/herself against the side effects of this examination.

In journalism, for example, the primary defense mechanism is the rule of "contact and distance." With this rule, journalism resembles those traditional dances, in which the partners revolve around each other instead of dancing together. Together with the traditional “law” of objectivity, this principle authorizes the reporter to say, "This is what I learned from the documents, conversations and observations." Although a journalist has to ask the who, what, why, when, where and how questions, "what" and "why" dominate the investigation. Despite the fact that the speed of journalistic production creates further dangers in research and reporting processes, the temporality and the truism of journalistic reporting—in most cases—generate another shelter for both the reporter and the subject of research. 

Köken Ergun. Young Turks. 2 channel digital video with sound / Courtesy of the artist

In ethnographic research, however, this journalist's shelter can sabotage the research. Revolving around the subject is never enough because ethnography deals with the questions starting with "how," which reporters ordinarily prefer to dismiss, due to the long answers given. There is never enough time and space in a newspaper for such lengthy explanations. In that sense, ethnographic research resembles those ancient dances tribes perform jumping above a fire. However, the ethnographer, as not being an experienced member of the tribe, would be burnt in the fire. The outcome of such a research emerges not before the injuries heal. The ethnographic knowledge is what the researcher reads on those stains on skin after they heal from the burn. That is what I call ethnographic distance 2. This distance cannot occur before and during the field research but is constructed afterward by the theoretical framing of the field outcomes. 

Köken spent weeks in Turkish schools in Indonesia and Kenya, and he worked with the footage for months. Meanwhile, he read books and articles on the background of those schools. Instinctively, he merged this story with the Western colonial memory and showed us how those schools recast that colonizers' mind by "softly" imitating the imperial strategies to absorb the wealth of the world. The most painful—yes, painful—side of this story emerges when one remembers that a particular and renovated political agenda—Islamism, arisen in the last century and the last territory of the Ottoman Empire, another colonial power that failed to reproduce itself—promotes those schools. 

The cheerful tone of the song and the coherence settled in the choreography of the dance performed in the stage of Young Turks constitute a fathomless pain.

As a witness to his editing process, I could see how his approach to his field and findings transformed on his way to artistic production. While his skin healed from jumping over a fire in a tribal dance, the meaning of the material, and the outcome of his research cleared. The individual stories of those people interviewed and shot consolidated into a collective performance. However, they don’t lose their visibility, being a substantial part of the overall narrative. Because they are the ones carrying that collective and imperial "dream" all over the world. Although they come from different backgrounds and search for different futures, they act in the same scene that has entirely different meanings for all the performing parties. Köken becomes a part of this performance by decoding those differences using the visual references of that precisely (neo)colonial lingua franca reproduced in the scene. He constructs an aesthetic criticism toward this language and this criticism not only derives from but is also a unit in his personal story. 

After all, Köken did not have to examine the historical clash between secular and religious understandings of the world on his mind and body. The ethnographic distance enabled him to recognize and explain to us that it is not a spiritual ambition forcing all those people to sing and dance together. The response of the "field" to the question "How?" designates that there is not a spiritual contest over the world. It is just a banal settlement among different-sized actors of a profane imperialism reconstituting the world as a synthetic space, a makeshift scene, for that colonial performance. The cheerful tone of the song and the coherence settled in the choreography of the dance performed in the stage of Young Turks constitute a fathomless pain. Yes, I insist, it is painful. Besides, who can say there was something different before? Don't you think that what we call colonialism is nothing but our collective and collaborative performance?

Istanbul, November 2015


Ayşe Çavdar

Ayşe Çavdar is an independent anthropologist and journalist specializing in the questions of religion, secularism, urbanism, and social justice. She received a degree in communications from Ankara University, followed by an MA degree from Bosphorus University and a PhD from the European University Viadrina Frankfurt (Oder). She is a frequent contributor to several periodicals.

[1] The community/people who initiated the Turkish schools around the world is essentially a religious community that appeared in the 1980s as the followers of a religious leader who resisted against all the modernization and secularization project of the young Turkish Republic until he died in 1960. Ironically and paradoxically, this contemporary and young religious community has affected all other traditional communities on their way to modernization since the 1990s.

[2] For the different usages and definitions of the term look at Loring M. Danforth, Firewalking and Religious Healing: The Anastenaria of Greece and American Firewalking Movement, Princeton University Press, 1989 and Ju Hui Judy Han, "Neither friends nor foes: Thoughts on ethnographic distance." Geoforum 41: 11-14. 2010.

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