On censorship and damaged bonds
Censorship always leaves traces. It reconfigures whatever it operates on, even if it is ‘unsuccessful’ in suppressing artistic expressions in their entirety. Rather than destroying artworks, images or otherwise, censorship seems to break the bonds among people, among communities.
I have been asked to contribute a piece about how artists navigate instances of censorship through creativity for this issue of Dumpling Post. I have gladly accepted the invitation as it takes its cues from the Hrant Dink Foundation, an organisation that plays a pivotal role in facing past and present injustice rooted in state violence, racism, and discrimination. Founded after the assassination of Hrant Dink, the organisation keeps his memory alive and mobilises it to further human rights in Turkey. I feel indebted to their work, as I do to so many who have paved the way, who came before, and on whose shoulders those who struggle for freedom stand.
Solidarity against and in the face of censorship
Art history abounds with examples of artists addressing censorship in their work. Here, I want to highlight a specific area of creativity, that of solidarity as an attempt to stand together against and in the face of censorship. When thinking of exercises in solidarity in the recent past, the 19 Ocak Kollektifi [Collective January 19] is one of the first that comes to mind. Deriving its name from the day Hrant Dink was assassinated, the group aimed to show solidarity with the Armenian community of Turkey in particular and with persecuted and oppressed segments of society in general. Its formation allowed for artistic interventions that protected the anonymity of participants to overcome state-induced discouragement of free speech and incentives for self-censorship. Their 2009 installation Münferit (meaning ‘individual,’ ‘lonely,’ and ‘singular’) displayed the names of victims of state violence, of assassinations, enforced disappearances, and torture.
In 2011, artists from the exhibition Dream and Reality-Modern and Contemporary Women Artists from Turkey at the Istanbul Modern rose in protest when an artwork by Bubi, in the shape of a commode, was deemed inappropriate and removed from an auction to benefit the museum’s educational program. Identifying its exclusion as censorship, and hence as unacceptable, they organised a public forum and interventions in the museum. Some of the participating women decided to withdraw their artworks in a show of solidarity.
When Bakur, a documentary on the lives of PKK guerrillas during the ceasefire, was removed from the Istanbul Film Festival program in April 2015, the platform Özgür Sinema [Free Cinema] was formed in response, organising forums, protests, and solidarity screenings. When the filmmakers were indicted for the documentary on charges of ‘disseminating propaganda in favour of a terrorist organisation,’ Özgür Sinema followed the trial and campaigned on behalf of freedom of expression in filmmaking by positioning the genre of documentary squarely within the arts of cinema and thus as constitutionally protected from state intervention. The four-year and six months prison sentences that Çayan Demirel and Ertuğrul Mavioğlu incurred have been recently overturned. Rather than recognising arts freedom, it was the severity of the sentence that led the upper court to its decision. While the risk of a new prison sentence remains, the fragile success of the appeal is nonetheless a testament to the wide circles of local and international solidarity they were able – and worked hard – to weave.
In April 2016, artist Işıl Eğrikavuk’s video work Yeni Bir Şarkı Söylemek Lazım [It’s Time to Sing a New Song], part of the public art project YAMA, was shut down by the Istanbul municipal police. The video had been displayed on a screen located on the rooftop the Marmara Pera Hotel in the Beyoğlu district. First, it seemed that the officers had acted on an anonymous complaint, claiming that the slogan ‘Havva, Elmanı Bitir Kızım!’ [Finish up your apple, Eve!] that was featured in video animation insulted religious sensibilities. When further pressed, however, the municipality cited ‘visual pollution’ as the reason for discontinuing the screening. Following the censoring of the work, YAMA’s curator Övül Durmuşoğlu convened a meeting to discuss the case along with Eğrikavuk, lawyers, and people from the art world. Eğrikavuk also did a performance at the independent, non-profit arts space Depo that drew both on her video work and her experience of censorship.
Over the years, Depo has frequently served as a space to meet, discuss, and process instances of censorship, to lay the groundwork for advocacy, and to practice being in solidarity. This was also the case when Depo hosted a get-together for curator Katia Krupennikova and the artists of the exhibition Post-Peace in February 2016. Scheduled to open at Aksanat, the exhibition was called off just five days before the planned opening. At the time, the director of Aksanat claimed that rising societal tensions and a string of bombings were the reason. Given that other events went on as scheduled, many thought that a video work by belit sağ that focused on Ayhan Çarkın, who was part of JITEM, an unofficial paramilitary wing of the Turkish Security Forces responsible for forced disappearance and assassinations of Kurdish rights activists in the 1990s, had motivated the institution to call off the event wholesale rather than being subjected to the critique of enacting censorship.
‘I didn’t do anything. You did.’
These are but a few examples in which various forms of solidarity, of standing together provided important landmarks in the struggle for free expression of the arts. When I think of such struggles more broadly, I am also reminded of the refusal to accept censorship and of the ingenuity, creativity and humour of individual artists and the ways in audiences embraced their interventions. In 2009, Aydın Orak’s documentary Bêrîvan – Bir Başkaldırı Destanı (Bêrîvan – The Legend of Rebellion) on the 1992 Newroz uprising in the Kurdish town of Cizre was invited to the Batman Film Festival. The screening of the film was cancelled at the last minute on orders of the governor, who – without having seen the film – declared that it ‘disturbed the unity of the Turkish nation’ and featured ‘PKK propaganda.’ Orak took to the stage and recounted the film scene by scene to the assembled audience.
In 2016, filmmaker Kazım Öz was asked to take out scenes referencing state violence from his movie Zer or otherwise pay back funds received by the Cinema Directorate of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism for the project. Öz complied, even if differently than intended by the ministry: He blacked out the visuals of said scenes and showed a note instead that read: ‘You are unable to see this scene upon the request of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism.’ Making censorship visible, these scenes were greeted with thunderous applause by the audience as a show of support with the filmmaker. When phoned by officials the next day asking what he had done, Öz answered inspired by a quote from Picasso: ‘I didn’t do anything. You did.’
Some of these struggles against censorship and acts of solidarity are better documented than others, some very public, others less so. As part of Siyah Bant [Black Ribbon], a research platform documenting censorship in the arts, I have accompanied and reported on a fair amount of them. Among the possible actions, solidarity is vital not only to ensure that, despite all obstacles, artworks can meet audiences but also to counteract the feeling of loneliness, even isolation, that experiences of censorship often bring about. This does not mean that solidarity, or other acts of resistance have ever been easy or free of conflict. Still, as attempts of being in community all of them have been and remain important. To remember these attempts also means to remember the capacities and competencies they have cultivated as well as where they have fallen short and why. They serve as a horizon of possibility even in these dark times. Recounting them here, I find myself in somewhat of a bind as Dumpling Post, and this piece, are part of the 17th Istanbul Biennial organised by İKSV – long one of the biggest and most important cultural players in Turkey. As such, İKSV is part of the privately funded institutional landscape that often presents itself as alternative to state-led, public outlets. This claim deserves continued scrutiny under the conditions of capitalism: the division of labour between state and private institutions in the day-to-day operations of the art world rarely comes to mean that the latter openly oppose hegemonic discourses, nor that they sever their organic bonds. There is thus a certain unease in hailing individual or collective acts of ingenuity and creativity and solidarity amongst artists in an institutional publication that might be ultimately read as relieving institutions from their responsibility to protect artists and artworks.
It is difficult not to feel a great sense of loss when it comes to the struggle for arts freedom, in Turkey and beyond. The violence unleashed on Kurdish cities in the fall of 2015 served as a bitter reminder that there is no freedom of expression in times of war, and to call for such freedom without calling for equal rights and a dignified life for everybody is futile at best and politically disingenuous at worst. The state of emergency that was declared after the failed coup attempt in 2016 brought with it the extension of the discretionary powers of authorities and security forces to ban cultural events and to close down arts spaces. These extensions were basically codified into law with the end of the state of emergency two years later. But there also factors beyond the context of Turkey to consider. Here, as elsewhere, the struggle for free speech has been long vacated by the left, by all sorts of progressive movements, vacated in ways that allowed the political right to move in and occupy that space and this in turn weaponised the discourse of freedom of expression against women, trans people and LGBTI+ communities overall, turning it into an avenue for hate speech against any group organising for equality, justice, and emancipation, turn them into targets, incite violence against them, on- and offline.
Censorship always leaves traces
Art historian David Freedberg has proposed that ‘every act of censorship is also an act of iconoclasm.’ Given that numerically speaking most acts of censorship today are less about the complete suppression or destruction of artworks (although both surely continue to exist) but function to delegitimise certain artistic expressions, I remain unsure of this proposition. Yet censorship always leaves traces. It reconfigures whatever it operates on, even if it is ‘unsuccessful’ in suppressing artistic expressions in their entirety. But perhaps, the damaging force that Freedberg accords to censorship can be found elsewhere. Rather than destroying artworks, images or otherwise, censorship seems to break the bonds among people, among communities. It not only isolates those subjected to censorship, making them feel singled out, but erodes structures of trust in one’s owns own judgement and that of others; in the ability to assess political risk, which includes the risk of being legally prosecuted, perhaps even incarcerated, or to be able to continue make a living – and a life – as an artist.
Even when solidarities emerge, the fault lines of such solidarities, their ‘successes’ and ‘failures’ too remain long after the actual event of censorship. The much-highlighted chilling effect that censorship engenders can and often does morph into self-censorship of individuals and institutions, and this happens although the latter so often proclaim to be safe spaces against attack on arts freedom, places for free expression and artistic experimentation. It is in this manner that the corrosiveness of an act of censorship might play out on much larger scales than any single case leads on.
The struggle for artistic freedom like so many struggles for justice is necessarily open-ended. It cannot exist without imagining and working towards larger transformations in society and politics. It remains part of the beautiful struggle – in every sense – that insists that other ways to live and indeed another world is possible, one in which there is the potential to acknowledge, transform, and build anew what censorship has broken.
- For an overview of the interventions, see ‘İstanbul Modern’de Sansüre Cevaben “Kuşlama”’ [‘Kuşlama’ in Response to Censorship in Istanbul Modern], [Editor’s note: Kuşlama refers to an old form of leftist pamphlet propaganda through tossing pamphlets up in the air, recalling airborne leaflet propaganda], e-skop (12 December 2011), https://www.e-skop.com/skopbulten/istanbul-modernde-sansure-cevaben-kuslama/462 (accessed 28 July 2022). One of the unanticipated effects of these protests was that artists began to scrutinise the contractual conditions of invitations to exhibitions, including the right to withdraw works in cases of censorship.
- Fırat Yücel, ‘İstinaf Mahkemesi “Bakur” Davasında Hükmü Bozdu’ [The Court of Appeals Reversed the Judgement in the ‘Bakur’ Case], Altyazı Fasikül, 2 February, 2022, https://fasikul.altyazi.net/pano/istinaf-mahkemesi-bakur-davasinda-hukmu-bozdu/ (accessed 13 June 2022).
- For a more detailed account by the artist herself, see ‘Işıl Eğrikavuk'un videosuna belediyeden sansür’ [A Municipal Censorship of Işıl Eprikavuk’s Video], Sanatatak, 4 May 2016, http://www.sanatatak.com/view/sil-egrikavukun-videosuna-belediyeden-sansur (accessed 13 June 2022).
- The artist penned an open letter in the wake of the exhibition cancellation: belit sağ, ‘Refusing to accept Turkey's silencing of artistic expression,’ Index on Censorship, 11 May 2016, https://www.indexoncensorship.org/2016/05/75504/ (accessed 13 June 2022).
- The arbitrariness of the ban was especially striking, since Bêrîvan was among the films represented at the ministry’s fair stand during the Cannes Film Festival earlier that year.
- According to a much-cited anecdote, a Gestapo officer in occupied Paris pointed at a photo of his painting ‘Guernica’ asking: ‘Did you do that?’ To which Picasso is said to have replied: ‘No, you did.’
- Siyah Bant’s research reports can be accessed at www.siyahbant.org.
- David Freedberg, ‘The Fear of Art: How Censorship Becomes Iconoclasm,’ Social Research 83, no. 1 (2016): 67-99.
- Banu Karaca, ‘The Politics of Art and Censorship,’ in The National Frame: Art and State Violence in Turkey and Germany (New York: Fordham University Press, 2021), 153-181.
- Judith Butler, ‘Ruled Out: Vocabularies of the Censor,’ in Censorship and Silencing: Practices of Cultural Regulation, ed. Richard C. Post (Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute for the History of Art and the Humanities, 1998), 255, and William Mazzarella, Censorium: Cinema and the Open Edge of Mass Publicity (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2013).