Your current exhibition at the Jeu de Paume is almost a retrospective of works you have produced in the last ten years. Why did you choose the title “Subterranean”?
In recent years, I have tried to name my exhibitions after one of the works on show. I don’t name my works in very extravagant ways: the titles are always very short and related to the content of the video. However, sometimes I do play with double meanings. When we were preparing the exhibition, I felt that “Subterranean” was a good title. First of all, it’s the name of a recent video I made, and secondly, there are several works related to “underground” spaces, such as Mind, Subterranean, Safe, Past, Archeology. “Subterranean” refers not only to what is underground but also what is unseen, as well as to the relationship between the seen and the unseen. It also refers to the possibility of preserving things, keeping them safe and pure in a time where things are very chaotic and dangerous on the surface. In a way, it’s also a strategy of survival: it’s about the possibility of creating networks across everything that is preserved underground.
Production : Vehbi Koç Foundation, Istanbul. Collection Neuflize OBC. ©Ali Kazma
Is there a connection with the work what you presented at the Venice Biennale in this exhibition?
I would say there is maybe a crossover. Five or six works that were presented in Venice are also on show here. There were 13 other works in Venice that aren’t here, and the exhibition consists of 22 videos in total. The Venice works do not represent a significant part of the show, but they are still present. In Venice, I worked on a series called Resistance, which focused on the themes of the body, architecture, and of what we can do to our bodies through technology and science. It’s an ongoing series, that now has some 20 works in it, and we felt that it wouldn’t have made sense to not include some of them in the exhibition.
Could you tell us about how this exhibition at the Jeu de Paume came about?
Five years ago I had a show at the Printemps de Septembre festival in Toulouse. Every year, an artist showing as part of this biennial event is chosen to create a new work with the Jeu de Paume and, that year, they picked me. The Jeu de Paume asked me to create a work documenting my experience of working on the past, and as part of this collaboration, I shot the video Past. I also met Marta Gili and Natacha Nisic, who was having a show at the Jeu de Paume at that time, and little by little, they discovered my work. Two years ago, the museum sent me a proposal and I was very interested, and that’s how the exhibition came about.
Production : Jeu de Paume, Paris, with SAHA Association, Istanbul. Courtesy of the artist. ©Ali Kazma
Your videos are about very different things, from memories to dull jobs to abandoned spaces with sometimes painful histories. Are you driven by a desire to bear witness, and keep track of the stories you tell?
I have a very complicated concept of time: I don’t find it very linear at all or simple. Perhaps, I am becoming more sensitive to it because I am working with a time-based medium, which involves making a lot of decisions about the structure of time. In a way, it becomes a very physical thing. When I think about a film, or even an object, the concept of time appears in my mind in a very solid form. There’s something that pulls me in about the way time is preserved in all the places where I record. I always try to imagine the things that a place has lived through, with its economic and political — and sometimes oppressive — history, I try to imagine that walls, iron bars, machines have witnessed all of these things, and I think a lot about what time has done to them. It is a very physical manifestation of memory, of course. I am not so interested in losing memory and I’m not so interested in starting every day as if we don’t come from a long history. I don’t want to turn the past into something oppressive either, but I want to make my own decisions about what past I want to remember and what past I want to put to the foreground. The past is a very complex thing because of new technologies, social media and the prevailing capitalist, globalist economy. The way we talk about the past, and the way the future is projected from that, is something that I find very relevant. I try to create my own history by looking at events that have happened during my lifetime and what is happening right now and what people are projecting onto the future, but only in the things that matter to me, the things that I feel are important to me and are not being spoken about in a good way. I have to do that myself, and you can do this as an individual by reading good literature, reading good history, by being a film specialist focusing on these macro-narratives, or you can do it as an artist, you can try to add to the wealth of the past. For instance, when I work with with a craftsman, it is not because I am interested in a dying profession or in that specific job per se, I am interested in the ability to concentrate. I was reading Simone Weil and she says: “civilization is the education of attention”. Civilization is also the result of a very slow crystallization process. We had to explore it and it’s fragile; it can break. When I look at these works, I’m not so interested in a specific object but in the ability to concentrate, the ability to set a standard for good work, the ability to stay patient, the ability to transfer knowledge, the ability to build a place which is itself built around all these ideas. I am not very happy to see these things disappear. If they were being replaced by something else through new technologies, but we were still developing these types of values, I’d be ok with that, but I don’t see it. I see things disappearing that I found to be the good things about being human: it’s a shame to lose them. I want to keep them safe even if it’s through my images. I don’t want to forget about them.
These videos seem to have a few elements in common: the repetitiveness of gestures, and interest in artisanry or in forgotten places. For instance, the video Clock Master shows the same gesture, repeated for centuries. Is this a form of resistance against oversight?
Clock Master is a very interesting work for me, I put it near the entrance of my exhibition, because it’s almost a concrete materialization of everything that I’m talking about, a materialization of time and human beings’ effort to control it and to give it a shape, to give it a structure, and through that to control time. Clocks are a big part of modernity. But what happens to a instrument built with the best intentions? In time, it breaks. An instrument created to measure time breaks because of time. In the video, you have this man, with his knowledge, who turns this clock into what it was 100 years ago. Precision is something extremely important for me and you become precise by repeating things. You don’t become precise after you do something once, you need repetition: it’s the case in the video Clerk. It’s almost a Kafkaesque situation — sometimes reality is stranger than fiction.
Clock Master (2006) - Obstructions series.
Courtesy of the artist ©Ali Kazma
In your videos, sound has a major role. Paul Ardenne says it’s the “sound of the real, it’s closer to the real”. Could you talk about this?
As you know, I never use narration or voiceover. I never use music, unless it’s source music. I only use what already exists, and I don’t use language a lot either. Sound is the foundation of the image. If you’re looking at a silent image, your brain starts working and you feel almost as though you’re hearing something there. If you are looking at an image with sound — a sound that is not overpowering, but it is simply accompanying the image, you can feel movement and change. When sound isn’t too violent, it doesn’t stop you from being immersed in the work. Especially in the videos North, Safe, Atelier Sarkis, and Prison, the sound is very much accompanying the images. Sound gives you the feeling that time is moving. With my videos about work, there’s innate sounds, so that images are sometimes led by sound and vice versa. I don’t add things, I don’t want to intrude in or manipulate the experience of the audience by using sound, and I think that’s what Ardenne means by the “sound of the real”. Sound is the easiest thing to manipulate people with, especially if you’re using music.
Your series are entitled Obstructions (18 videos, 2005-2015) and Resistance (started in 2012), evoking a vocabulary of conflict. Are you trying to show man’s struggle with Manichaeism?
I started working on Obstructions about 12 years ago and the series is actually very much linked with the Second Law of thermodynamics and the idea of entropy. If I break a glass, I can never put it back together exactly in the same way. The minute we are born we start to develop, but this also means that we will die. During a survey I was doing in my neighborhood in Istanbul, I went to different types of shops and I noticed that a lot of the activities these people were involved with were linked with the maintenance and the repair of things, or with giving order to things, that will end up turning into disorder. As human beings, we always try to keep a balance, but it’s bound to deteriorate. This is why I called the series Obstructions to the second law of thermodynamics — but then I cut it down to Obstructions. Resistance is about the idea that our bodies are singular, our senses are singular, our psyches, memories and physical attributes are different and we are all actually quite unique, and we have the potential to develop our own narratives and our ideals. Not only we can but we have to. Twenty-first century society posits the simplification of our lifestyle, of understanding, of social life, of rules, education, punishment and all these apparatuses, which makes us less and less aware of what we have as individuals. Even in 2012, the world was not as bad as today, but for a long time, I felt something brewing in the air, especially in Turkey, where I live. I was trying to determine how an individual can find a way of having a singular experience, beyond the grand narratives of socialism, communism or revolution. With the simplification of society, this isn’t easy. I started looking into different possibilities to experience the world through our bodies. Of course, when you do this, you are confronted with things that stop you. The idea of resistance is about “resisting” simplification, how we can have our own singular narrative. It’s something personal, it’s about resisting the grand narrative of the global society and not buying into it, and making sure that we have an option to live and say something else.
Courtesy of the artist, SKOR, Amsterdam and CBKU, Utrecht. ©Ali Kazma
Ali Kazma, “Subterranean”, is at the Jeu de Paume until 21 January 2018.