Alp, how are you? I always like to ask people how they feel. In Europe, we don’t ask this question, in America we ask… so Alp, how do you feel today?
Today I am feeling alright. The day after closing the show I felt really great. Ready to move on, process the feedback and make new work. But I have another deadline coming up, so I am in a similar situation as just before the show. But who cares. What matters is the show and how people experienced it.
Last week you were having a MFA thesis show, can you tell us a little bit more about what were you showing? I saw the sofa…
Basically I was decorating the gallery space like a studio apartment. I wanted to feel comfortable there, so that I can actually spend time in the space and process the work. I really enjoyed spending time in that room during last summer, watching movies, eating, fooling around. So I wanted to share that experience and make people feel welcome as if they are coming to my home to have a look at my work. So I brought my coffee machine along, and some cookies and stuff to nibble on. I guess this is a rather turkish thing to do. And I wanted to break down the gallery feel which is pretty cold generally. It’s a populist gesture, possibly.
I always wanted to ask about Elmo – Muppet from the Sesame Street that I noticed from the first day of the school on your desk. Is there any relation to your work?
Elmo, I didn’t know anything about him before I came to America. He was not present in the Sesame Street I watched as a child. Ernie and Bert, or Edi ve Budu as they were called in turkish – they were the most memorable muppets for me. There used to be a meme circulating on the web a couple years ago where Ernie was fisting Bert (or was it the other way round?)…I think there is a similar thing going on in my interest with Elmo. There was this popular documentary made about the puppeteer playing Elmo, Kevin Clash. I found his story very touching and I earnestly believe that as a figure Elmo can be a very important force of good for little kids who might depend on TV to compensate for a lack they are having in their daily lives. Elmo basically stands for pure love and affection. At the same time there is something creepy about that kind of purity. In an ironic twist Clash had to resign his position at Sesame Street a couple of months ago due to a sex scandal in which the puppeteer was accused to have had sex with teenage boys, who were underage at the time of their involvement. He. A fascinating development, right? I wonder what Kevin Clash does these days after having been publicly disgraced by the boys he used to date.
Most of the time you photograph people. How do you establish your connection with them? It feels that they are very comfortable with you.
Well, I am shy and soft spoken, so I think people don’t feel threatened by my presence. I used to take pictures of acquaintances and friends most of the time but that wasn’t sufficient for me at some point. I really want to engage strangers that I find interesting. So I started doing that last summer, walking around certain neighborhoods in Downtown and then approach people I felt a certain rapport with. Sometimes it was them who came to me, asking questions about the large format camera I was carrying on my shoulder. I was surprised at how approachable many people are in New York. I can’t really generalize though because I have talked to people who either showed interest in me or appeared friendly. Making portraits on the street is basically a way to educate myself to talk to strangers, and to start going towards those that I find further removed from my own identity and background. Because I like making portraits there is something at stake pushing me to do what I have dreaded most in my life so far.
Do you have any special secret that you could share with us how to approach strangers?
I found out that it helps to state that you want to take their portrait rather then to ask if you could take a picture of them. Don’t ask but state your wish and the response is more likely to be positive. It’s easier to say no to a question then to a statement of intent apparently.
I totally agree with you on this. I also feel that your work seems very staged. Are you watching a lot of movies? What was the last one that you enjoyed?
I had phases where I used to watch movies more systematically. As an undergraduate back in Geneva, I used to go to the Universities Mediatheque in the afternoons, often after class and watch several movies by the same director over a week or so. And the cinematheque in that town was pretty decent as well. So I got some idea about the french Nouvelle Vague, and classics form Japan as well as Hollywood during it’s Golden Age. Then I got interested in the Taiwanese Nouvelle Vague and some Chinese filmmakers while I was in Berlin, but I started doing other stuff in my free time as well and became less systematic or cinephile concerning Films. The sad thing is that I find it difficult to watch movies on a small screen such as my computers. I am too ADD to stick to one thing for 90 minutes or more without being distracted after 5 minutes. So I need a projection in a dark room to enjoy the experience. Then I am committed and open to be bored, challenged, engaged, entertained. Using our studio has been helpful in that respect, especially during last Summer when no one used the gallery and a comfy couch was available. Otherwise I did not find the time to go to the movies in New York lately. There is so much on offer actually. From Lincoln Film Society, to MoMA, Anthology Film Archives and the Arthouse Movie Theaters Downtown. I have to admit, when I was around 20 years old I wanted to be a film director but did not see myself pursuing that wish. Now, with some delay I realize that I have just begun responding to that urge – first through photography and now through video as well.
I wonder how your cultural background influences your work?
A lot. It is something I should elaborate on, but it is not something I think about deeply lately. Culture, religion, nationality, hybridity and all that. Coming from a perceived periphery to the center was a great motivator for me, to move away from where I grew up. But then also to get away from Turkey as well as Western Europe. My fascination with the US is not necessarily rational but a bundle of projections and actual experiences I expect to have and think I can only fully have here, in New York. I like to make comparisons, as a tool of evaluation and comprehension. So I tend to compare the cities I have lived in, its people, its architecture, the way people behave, interact with each other, dress and look. More then the commonalities it is the differences that I find stimulating. Since I moved from West Harlem to East Harlem I tend to compare my experience of the subway lines. Riding the 1/2/3 is very different form riding the 4/5/6. The neighborhoods they go through are quite different, so the configuration of the commuters is quite distinct. Making ever finer distinctions, getting ever more micro is a worthy goal, no? Apart from acquiring friends, just another way to make a place your own.
And coming from the Political Science major how it changed your vision of the art world?
I brings with it a certain unfamiliarity with the art world. And being attuned to certain questions of power. And not being able to have small talk about foreign policy without getting nerdy about it. I am beginning to explore ways to mesh that nerdiness into my art practice.
Is there any particular reason you wanted to study in NY? Why ICP-Bard Program?
The second day I was in New York as a tourist I knew I wanted to live here. Being a tourist was painful actually, having to leave with a ridiculous amount of clothes bought at Century 21. It took me a couple of years to figure out the right thing to do here, it turned out alright so far. Of all the schools I have applied to ICP was the one I wanted to enter the most. The constellation Nayland Blake has created around the boutique universe of the MfA Program draw me in forcefully once I got there to be interviewed. ICP is my home base now.
What is your experience living in NY? Can you tell us a little bit more about your everyday life?
Two years of Graduate School didn’t allow for much ‘living’ in New York yet. I plan on changing that once I finish school. Just yesterday my roommate told me that the supermarket a couple blocks away is open 24/7. I needed to buy some cat food but I was so unprepared and hapless as a consumer at midnight that I forgot to buy half of the other stuff I wanted to get. The luxury in Berlin was to have some supermarkets stay open until 8 and the ones at major train stations to be open on a Sunday. So I am still adapting.
What are your plans after graduation? Where do you see yourself in the future?
I don’t know where I will be next year, so the future is something inconceivable to me. Be able to pay my bills and be able to produce work would be great. I kind of expect the unexpected, remnants of a mediterranean fatalism possibly. I want to explore certain corners of California at some point though. Maybe there are still some strange heterotopias to explore, in the vein of Lyotard’s “Pacific Wall”, or some weird Lynchian Purgatory linking Lodz to Inland Empire.
It was nice talking to you, Alp.
Wish you all the best!
Interviewed by Kasia Gumpert