Counter-Hegemonic Cartography

Burak Arikan, Erden Kosova

Installation view of Burak Arikan, Networks of Dispossession, 2013, at the 13th Istanbul Biennial. Photo courtesy of Burak Arıkan.

Erden Kosova [E.K.]: Burak, it’s been more than a year since the uprising that evolved around the Gezi Park in Istanbul. You were quite active both in coordinating and reinforcing the informational network of the protesting bloc and in contributing to the festive energy at the park—I remember the workshops you organized there. Can you tell us what we have inherited from these days? What has remained in terms of ideas for change and self-organization, especially after all the distractions of real politics and the maneuvers of the Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi (Justice and Development Party) machine, better known as AKP, that followed the events?

Burak Arikan [B.A.]: First of all, I must say that I was just another participant of the collective intelligence that flourished in the Gezi resistance. We’ve all experienced the condensation of variable opposing voices, which I think the famous slogan “EITHER TOGETHER OR NONE OF US. NO SALVATION ALONE” manages to capture. If I were to reflect on it with a few words, I think the word “solidarity”, and more particularly “solidarity of the oppositions”, would be the most persistent idea since June 2013. In fact, as we all know, people call their groups “solidarity groups”: from park forums to mahalle1 organizers to universities; we not only have Taksim Solidarity, but groups from all over Turkey, such as Yeldeğirmeni Solidarity, Tatavla Solidarity, Ankara Solidarity, Eskişehir Solidarity, Mersin Solidarity, ODTÜ Solidarity, Soma Solidarity.
What we have had in Turkey might be similar to the Indignados movement in Spain, or to some branches of the Arab Spring, or to the Brazilian struggles around urban issues. Each movement has its own characteristics, sets its own political agenda, and for some moments dictates the temporality of political developments. On the other hand, as we all know, the solidarity of certain groups has prevented them from expanding on their own social class. Hence, what has remained, at least from Gezi, is the fact that we have to keep inventing ways of building and interconnecting our solidarity groups to be able to scale beyond our own social classes.

E.K.: You are a member of the website project Networks of Dispossession (Mülksüzleştirme in Turkish),2 which has posted detailed maps that display intricate relationships and alliances between the governing party, existing and emerging corporations and their CEOs who have been taking part in the so-called process of  “urban transformation”. The ruthless policies of displacement of lower classes and minorities from the metropolitan centers, the hysteric privatization of all state building and sites, the deregulation of protection laws concerning forested territories, and the madness for construction… all of these issues have fuelled popular anger during the Gezi events and the corruption scandals that broke out last December. Networks of Dispossession managed to attract popular interest in the social media by gathering particular data and presenting a macro-scale picture. Methodologically, the project had an unmistakable connection to your previous mapping works. How would you evaluate the differences and the links between your previous (and ongoing) work and your collaboration with Networks of Dispossession? How did they operate and how were they received?

B.A.: Networks of Dispossession (Mülksüzleştirme Ağları) started at a workshop in the Gezi Park on June 6th 2013, with an open call for participation to map the partnerships between private corporations and the state in Turkey. The focal point was to track, visualize, and raise questions on particular power relationships, and map what is known as “Crony Capitalism”, which increases the crisis of income inequality.3 The mapping of such a large number of relationships had to be done collectively, because there is no way we would have been able to find complete data about the Turkish government and its private partners. We decided to start building it one step at a time, and expand the research as more people put effort into it. Our working group began with a few dedicated people in the Gezi Park, and it has been expanding as more people feel its urgency and volunteer. When we first released the maps, I think they were shocking for many. Then as they started circulating, they were given quite a lot of attention in the social media and in the independent media channels; all the while they were being censored or overlooked by the mainstream media. Over time, we have seen that the maps have been used as a reference, especially in the times of shock and awe of the AKP government’s corruption cases, which were brought to public attention on December 17th 2013.
Earlier in my work, I created maps and custom software on variety of topics, but this was the first time I’d been involved in a large collective work. Besides myself, our working group involved journalists, sociologists, architects, urban planners, lawyers and an expanded community of concerned individuals. It was challenging to decide on things collectively or to even motivate people to do their part on time. Scaling volunteer work is quite hard, but it is great to see everybody putting their expertise on the table and connecting their particular maps to reveal a complete picture. I must admit that my efforts on developing and running the Graph Commons ( collaborative “network mapping” platform technically eased the realization of the Networks of Dispossession maps in such a short period.
The work went beyond the usual art audience and involved various networks of communities. People started iterating the idea of counter-mapping to other areas, and proposed maps such as “Mülksüzleştirme for Healthcare”, “Mülksüzleştirme for Education”, “Mülksüzleştirme for the Internet” and so on, which in a way confirmed the vision of the Graph Commons platform.

Detail of Burak Arikan, Networks of Dispossession, 2013, with maps of the project that details media baron’s links to public contracts at the 13th Istanbul Biennial. Photo courtesy of Burak Arıkan.

E.K.: For some time now, you have been actively following theoretical and political discussions on digital media and lecturing on the subject. What would you say, was there something strikingly specific to the use of social media during the Gezi uprising? Furthermore, how have previous experiences in Tehran, Athens, New York and other places influenced digital activism in Turkey?

B.A.: Regarding the practice of activism, there is a strong feedback loop between the Internet and the street, which drives the protests to their peaks. This physical-digital hybridity will survive despite the blunt Internet laws put in place by certain governments that allow deep censorship and mass surveillance, because there is an increased political consciousness in the ability of the internet and software to play a central role in political struggles.
There are statistical differences in the use of social media among resistance movements, but I don’t see significant variations in the actual tactics. Although the transformative power of social media is apparent, we rarely see resistance movements innovate the medium itself, that is to say, invent new media formats, experiences, or media infrastructures. In other words, it is treated as a container of knowledge transportation. You share it, you blog it, and you help disseminate a given message to others in front of their screens. Tehran learns from Athens, Turkey learns from Spain and vice versa; all through what is transmitted in the containers. Although the content always changes, its container remains the same.
I prefer to imagine activists in Tehran inventing new media infrastructure, and then Athens uses it; activists in Istanbul inventing a media tool, and then Madrid and New York use it. Nothing new about this idea, of course; it is being done at some levels, but not much is happening in the media realm. In fact, I have this proposal of a “machine-readable communication protocol” from 2004 called ActiviXML,4 which intends to abstract the information flow between large-scale social activist communities and individuals in order to reinforce the impact of events.

E.K.: The language of the Gezi Park uprising was strikingly different from the serious, sober and disciplined tone of the decades-long leftist tradition in the country. It was festive, amusing, witty, and rude. The tradition of local humor-cartoon magazines, and the football culture (brought in mostly by the supporters groups of the clubs like Beşiktaş and Fenerbahçe), had a strong impact on this. On the other hand, the newness within the uprising has been linked to the youth generation which had been previously portrayed as completely de-politicized, distanced from the public space and sucked into the virtual depths of digital media. Did the young rebels of the Gezi uprising surprise you in any way? Do you see a generational character in this?

B.A.: Indeed, this generation was born digital. People who were born in 1990 have had the Internet since they were five years old. Today, if you see babies around scratching tablets, it’s not surprising. We have just seen the tip of the iceberg from the current Internet generation. People have expanded their learning capacity with the Internet, this has changed incomparably. Of course now everyone has become a broadcasting commentator. The instant sharing of information has increased the transparency of events. All of these changes threaten established power structures, including dictatorships such as Turkey. As it is said in Gezi, “This is just the beginning…”
Governments and their partners worldwide are in panic. They want to control the Internet, conduct mass surveillance endeavors and achieve deep censorship, and furthermore violate the ethics of net neutrality to generate new monopolies. This is a constant battle where new barricades are being set up every day. Think of how a large population adopted to virtual private networks (VPNs) and domain redirections in a week in order to bypass censorship by the Turkish government. The establishment wants to govern something that is by nature ungovernable. This is something I’ve been really interested in; it is the subject of my latest work.

E.K.: What do you think about the counter-campaign of the pro-government forces in the digital media? They have established professional teams to mobilize the youth organization of their own party and their sympathizers (“troll” was the term that they had themselves used for these people); they have managed to manipulate hashtags in Twitter and to produce black propaganda about any sort of opponent. In many aspects, they have managed to consolidate the support of their voters by polarization tactics. Yet, when they fell apart with their close associate, the Gülen Brotherhood, who dared to post illegally taped telephone calls by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his close associates, the top team of AKP changed the strategy and banned Twitter and Facebook for a couple of weeks. Do you think that this choice has backfired? Can we expect more suppressive policies in times of further crisis?

Protest of the Turkish government’s restrictions on the Internet, May 2011. Photo courtesy of Serdar Kuzuoğlu.

B.A.: First, a “troll” is there to pull attention away from its current focus into an arbitrary direction. “Trolling” does not matter as much as people would think. It is like email spam; it reaches to large populations but fails to transmit anything. Spam is easy to ignore with the right filters, and so are trolls. Someone should measure the time-to-live (TTL) value of trolls on social media. Needless to say, many-to-many communication is one of the tools of democracy that should be defended.
Despite the tightening Internet laws in Turkey, a strong culture of online activism and everyday digital resistance has emerged. People are increasingly using open platforms, ensuring encryption in their communication, with VPNs and the capacity to act as a distributed flock of whistle-blowers in order to find effective ways of disseminating leaks to masses.
What is critical on social media is the ability to make viral information more substantive. Providing ways in which people can explore and traverse relationality at a scale that includes the issues that matter to individuals and communities is one demonstration of it. This is an inherent part of Networks of Dispossession and of some of the maps on the Graph Commons platform.

E.K.: There has been a painful friction between the existing establishment of contemporary art and leftist criticism in Istanbul in the last decade. The rapid commercialization of the scene seriously damaged the credibility of any political stance with the frames of contemporary art. When the Gezi uprising exploded in the beginning of the summer of last year, people started to wonder what position the Istanbul Biennial would take the following September. Do you think that the Gezi experience left a mark on the art scene? Did new potentials open up? At least—I should ask this: did it have an effect on your views about your artistic practice?

B.A.: There are a few isolated points here:
First, if art institutions want to connect to activism, they should leave their tradition of representation, which fails badly by putting the protest at a theater stage. I remember one of our discussions with you, during which we talked about “contemporary art” as something that will be treated as pop-culture or pop-music, when we look back on it from the future. I feel this tension especially when art institutions try to contain activism.
Second, there is a “use of art” aside from our classical understanding of its roles in the society. Subjectivities at the borders of art and activism discover this potential. I will be discussing this issue at the upcoming Sao Paolo Biennial.5
Third, I started preferring the aesthetic of “counter-” to the aesthetic of “alternative”. Not to be confused with binary opposition or the dialectical; “counter-” has to invent entire new ways to survive, because making alternative lines or variations can easily be adopted by the sovereign.
Fourth, how is large scale collective authorship in art possible? Would accelerationism help?6
Fifth, art can play a role in connecting seemingly distant communities, be they activists of urban struggles to hackers of internet freedom, transplanting issues into each community, aligning a variety of subjectivities by navigating the antagonistic qualities; the coexistence of opposing forces in each community.