Küba, Si!

Bill Horrigan 

Küba is absent from the guide-books to Istanbul, but Kutluğ Ataman has journeyed there and back, constructing a portrait of the people and a place as would render a written study pallid. Ataman came upon Küba - a pocket-size neighborhood within the Istanbul urban megalopolis prideful of its pedigree of near-universal authoritarian resistance yet visible only to its own residents and to police forces making warily unwelcome incursions - as a guest informant, and has spent the months into years there to make the investment an artist whose material involves the human subject is required to perform. Ataman is an artist whose medium is people's lives that, for him and for us, take form in the words they pro­duce. As that artist, he accords them respect by submitting to the time it takes to listen to them speak. The contract he extends to his viewers requests that they do no less. His Küba is forty voices, dispersed across forty channels, forty lives; he brings one world to another.

As a filmmaker working concurrently within the institutions of galleries and museums since his first installation, semiha b. unplugged, debuted at the 5th International Istanbul Biennial in 1997, Ataman has created an inimitable series of portraits which defies the durational conventions of theatrical cinema as it is everywhere practiced. Ataman was trained in those conventions when studying film at the University of California in Los Angeles, and they are largely adhered to in his own two feature films,The Serpent's Tale (Karanhk Sular; 1994) and the global success Lola and Billy the Kid (Lola + Bilidikid; 1998); the latter, a deeply inhabited and sympathetic look at the lives of young gay and transsexual Turks in working-class Berlin, is of a piece with his gallery-based portraits in its frank declaration of affinity for those considered (by others if not occasionally by themselves) to be outsiders.

Ataman's first installation set out most of the signature terms by which his gallery portraits would come quickly to be identified. semiha b. unplugged, is a 465-minute, single-screen projection of a monologue he filmed of the octogenarian Turkish opera diva Semiha Berksoy, recounting the triumphs and scandals of her own life, re-enacting its dramatic moments, changing in and out of theatrical finery, holding the camera's, and Ataman's, and the viewer's, fascination through sheer force of will. Unwilling to reduce the monologue to any length more agreeable to the interests of conventional cinema, Ataman honored his relationship to Berksoy by insisting its manifestation be seen intact, an eight-hour aria reflecting the epic grandeur of her own self as she defines it.

A similar commitment to lived reality as itself already excessive moves throughWomen Who Wear Wigs (1999), which construes the gallery-based spectacle through four simultaneous projections, arranged in a row, each offering an interview with one of the four eponymous speakers. While none of these monologues alone is over an hour in length, Ataman's strategic decision to have them running alongside each other, overlapping each other, is an insistence on the 'open' nature of his portraiture project, in which the viewer is implicitly posited as a thinking, choosing, judging individual in ways fundamentally different from the ways in which conventional cinema makes its demands (and exerts its flatteries) on those in the audience. Ataman's portrait installations sustain the inherent dignity of those depicted by placing those portraits in sculptural, spatial, and temporal constructs strongly frustrating any viewer disposed to making judgments based on the doleful modern communication trope of the sound-bite.¹ 

It is an insistence Ataman returns to repeatedly when discussing his work and the ethical standard he sets for himself. As he told an interviewer in 2003, "Using talking heads is something you're not supposed to do when you're making 'proper' documentaries, but I allow my subjects to talk because only in actual speech can we witness this amazing rewriting of one's history and reality. What else is there? Talking is the only meaningful activity we're capable of."²

Ataman was born in Istanbul in 1961 but left after a harrowing 38-day imprisonment settled on him by the military junta that seized power over Turkey in 1980; Ataman was guilty of having filmed outlawed leftist activities. Although civil society was restored three years later, Ataman's residences have been largely abroad since then, but his work in its instincts continues to find its way home. Küba is the most ambitious engagement Ataman has made with part of what he left behind.

Küba emerged - evolved, was established, was decreed? - in the late 1960s, an unpromising patch of land about the size of two football fields, southwest of central Istanbul, near its airport. Its origins are couched in the myths sustaining the place ever since: a shantytown where leftist militants and sympathetic criminals concealed themselves and their weapons from security forces reluctant to penetrate too far or too often into its alley-ways. Over time its residents referred to this zone as "Küba," soon a shorthand term for referring to one of Istanbul's most awe-inspiring ghettoes, an enclave of flimsy sheet­metal and plaster dwellings encircled by low-income high-rise suburban housing blocks. In proclaiming themselves as denizens of Küba, its population were less avowing the militantly socialist aspirations of Fidel Castro's Cuba (much less invoking the same-named ethnic group native to the Congo), as they were embracing Castro's vow of defiance to any power external to Cuba presuming to interfere in its internal order. Hence Küba's ruling ethical mandate has to do with community solidarity, with faith fundamental to the extended clan.

What makes Küba more remarkable is that its resident population is unified most profoundly by means of a generationally-transmitted instinct to defy the forces of law and power rather than through any more observable markers of identity. As Ataman puts it, "Living in Küba - above all else - defines their sense of identity, unique in the sense that it has no political, ethnic, gender, religious or national determination. If you're from Küba, then that is enough... Küba is first and foremost a state of mind. This consciousness etched in childhood and constructed throughout adult life is more important than religion, ideology, or origin."³ 

Although Ataman is quick to disassociate himself from the dominant conventions of documentary filmmaking, in his practice he exhibits an exceedingly refined attentiveness to the ethical obligations and constraints involved in maintaining a relationship with those who agree to speak before his camera. As a 'closed' society, Küba would have been resistant to Ataman's inquiries had it not been for the intercession of a respected former resident able to speak on Ataman's behalf and subsequently sponsor Ataman's temporary habitation there, intermittently for more than two years. Just as Ataman's previous gallery-based portrait projects had been premised on his transforming fascination with the individuals depicted and with how, in speech, each person struggles to articulate her or his own drama or life-narrative, so, too, could he conclude that for the amplitude of spirit coursing through Küba to be externalized, a correlative amplitude of native testimony would need to be marshaled - Küba coalescing from the collision of gravity and lightness according to forty participant-witnesses, each the axis of her or his own world.

Ataman's presence off-screen is occasionally indicated by his conversational participation with the subject, but for the most part, he's produced a chorus of monologues, each main­tained in its singularity on its own monitor but collectively interwoven to produce a group portrait, a portrait of a place as able to be extracted from the memories and hopes of its inhabitants. Impossible to fairly summarize or reduce, the accumulated sentiments expressed by Ataman's Kübans nonetheless are grounded in a recognition of their home as a "rescued neighborhood," a free zone resistant to state control and the rule of law generations of their own experience has convinced them to be corrupt in its core. That leaves family and clan as the highest guarantor of stability: far and away, the dominant conversational motifs expressed by Ataman's Kübans have to do with marriage and children, parents and siblings, blood alliances and blood feuds, all embedded in narrative commentaries in which triumph is always matched by despair and in which outright falsehood - conning the interviewer and the camera and the ultimate auditors - inevitably abounds.

Ataman has seen Küba from the start as a shape-shifting organism, both transient and transitory, with each presentation along its itinerary fundamentally reconstituting itself as though for the first time. In its museum context, Küba's forty television sets are arrayed five across in eight rows in a rectangular grid, but given a theatrical overlay by Ataman thanks to the monitors, stands and chairs conforming to a variety of each's household equivalent, rather than to the elegantly recessive forms of such usually found in museum presentations of moving-image media. Ataman's importation of domestic decor and device as might be found behind Küba's walls - real TV sets, non-matching chairs and tables - circulates back within the spectator to evoke the nature of the place, but its subsequent appearances will more dramatically pierce the social fabric of the cities upon which it will descend - Küba's London visitation, for example, could find the forty Küban guests dispersed throughout the city, while other venues might include their discovery on a train car in a central station, while still other variations might find the totality of the forty televisions dispersed into smaller constellations of varying duration. What matters to Ataman are "alien narratives coming into an alien city and mixing with it."⁴ Village by village, legally and illegally, Turkey is absorbed into the European Union...

As Ataman elaborates, "The moment art moves outside of the museum space, then it starts a conversation or even a fight with its surroundings because everything around it, but mostly space and architecture, has an existing language. Therefore, this language, and Küba's language, will inevitably converse or clash in order to make a new discourse. Conversation or clash, I am interested in public art only in this way... It is theater, in the end."⁵

Theater; or cinema? At once empathetic and distanced, Ataman positions himself between two worlds, filming one to act as a mirror to the other, and in that he bracingly advances the legacy of no one so much as the late Jean Rouch. Co-directed by Edgar Morin, Rouch's 1960 Chronique d'un été is a documentary "portrait" of Paris as rendered through a small group of its residents' real lives, using then-revolutionary portable camera and sound technology "with the lightness of the pen...to realize...that lucid conscious­ness of brotherhood where the viewer finds himself to be less alien to his fellow man, less icy and inhuman...," as Morin later wrote.⁶ By no means an ethnographer and hardly a documentarian by any literal standard, Ataman nonetheless has produced, in Küba, an astonishingly articulated realization of what Rouch considered his own life's work: "I have tried to share my dreams with people, and they theirs with me."⁷

Bill Horrigan is Curator of Media Arts at the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio

¹I discuss at further length the relationship between Ataman's gallery-based portraits and some of their cinematic correspondences, with specific reference to his The Four Seasons of Veronica Read (2002), in "All Talk," in Helen Molesworth, Image Stream (Wexner Center for the Arts, 2003), pp. 22-29.

²Saul Anton, "A Thousand Words: Kutluğ Ataman Talks about 1+1=1," Artforum, February, 2003.

³Kutluğ Ataman, Küba project proposal (Artangel, 2003).

⁴Kutluğ Ataman, correspondence with author, July, 2004.

⁵Kutluğ Ataman, correspondence with author, July, 2004.

⁶Edgar Morin, "Chronicle of a Film," in Steven Feld, ed. and trans., Ciné-Ethnography: Jean Rouch (Univ. of Minnesota Press, 2003), p.232.   

⁷Jean Rouch, Interview with Lucien Taylor, "A Life on the Edge of Film and Anthropology," in Ciné-Ethnography: Jean Rouch, p. 145.