belit sağ is a videomaker and visual artist from Turkey. She is currently living in Amsterdam. After studying mathematics at Middle East Technical University, she continued her studies in visual arts in the Netherlands. She co-initiated video-activist groups such as VideA, Karahaber, and bak.ma. She was an artist-in-residence at the International Studio & Curatorial Program (ISCP) in New York and at Rijksakademie van Beeldende Kunsten in Amsterdam among others. Her ongoing artistic and moving image practice largely focuses on the role of visual representations of violence in the experience and perception of political conflicts in Turkey, Germany, and the Netherlands.
This interview was conducted via Skype on March 7, 2020 between myself, in Santa Cruz, CA, and belit in Tallinn, Estonia. The interview started and ended us speaking in Turkish but the ‘official interview’ for FEMEX Archives was made in English.
E: I would like to start on your journey. You studied mathematics at METU ( Middle East Technical University, Ankara/Turkey) and you started as a video-activist in Ankara. How did you decide to become a video activist and then a video artist?
B: II was a cinephile in my teens. Then, I started studying mathematics but I also started to go to Audio-Visual Systems Research and Production Center (GISAM) at METU. There were really quite amazing classes there. I didn't take any classes of Ulus Baker—officially—but I went to his classes for years. I was not aware of who he was then, I mean not in the way he is recognized now. But he was important for us, his students. I wouldn't go to my own classes, but would go to his classes. There were also different modes of learning with him, from getting drunk to casual gatherings. Then, we—me and a group of people—started forming video groups. The first one was VideA, which is a video group that was not really defined. We started to collect short videos. We were thinking of applying to European Union funds, since there was this EU funds craze in Turkey in that period. At a certain point, we were like, why are we doing this? It didn’t make sense. Then, VideA died out by itself.
From that group, a group of us started Karahaber, which is a video activist group focused on documenting, recording what was going on mainly in Ankara, but also some other cities like Istanbul. We filmed demonstrations, court cases of for example conscientious objectors, interviews with for example trans people who were injured in protests by the police. All these were instinctive moves. This way we started compiling visual archives of different political groups. We were all self-taught, and we started to share our skills with people who are from different movements, who were active on the streets; and then they started their own visual archives.
I moved to Amsterdam in 2006. In the beginning, it was really difficult to find my own place. There was no video activism. The streets were not the streets that I'm used to. People do not really express themselves on the streets as I was used to—the streets were not a battleground. People lost the streets a long time ago in Amsterdam. There's also like a whole erasure of how that has been lost and what that loss means. For me—as someone who was like 26 at the time—I could not understand this. It did not make sense to me, I could not make sense of the situation. And then, what do you do? I felt really lost.
From the moment I moved to the Netherlands, I have squatted and been involved in squatting movements and different kinds of housing struggles. I was looking for something, but I didn't know what I was looking for. I was searching, and then I ended up in an art school. Not like, I wanted to be an artist. I even remember that I was saying, “I'm looking for an art school, but I don't want to be an artist.” I started making videos when I was in art school, but I didn't finish my studies. I started a residency, and then that was a turning point for me to become an artist, whatever that means. If I only studied art, maybe I wouldn't have ended up making what I'm making now. My question has always been, how do I make sense of these two different ways of making—being an artist, and having a background in video activism? I'm interested in how to bring these two together.
E: How can we bring video-activism and art, or how do we separate between video art and activism?
B: I think this is one of the things that I’m trying to do but there are also issues that come with this practice. For example, what happens when you bring a video activist content to an art space? One creates video activist content for its own subjects. I remember filming, recording people who were throwing stones in a demonstration and then bringing this footage to them, this creates a feedback loop for that political group, through making it also creates a feedback loop t the video activist. Or you film someone being violated by the police, there's a function to that footage, you can use it to bring more visibility to what is happening. There is a certain reason why one does video activism.
I think it's really important to question what happens to an image. Asking what happens with that footage is almost asking what happens to those people, to put it a little bluntly.
Things can get really problematic if you bring video activist content, as it is, to an art space. I'm trying to figure out what to bring and what not to bring and how to bring it. These are images of other people. And for me, it's really important to have ethics towards those images, as I would have ethics towards my own images or images that I find dear to me. The agency of the person, regardless of whether this person's alive or not, or regardless of whether I can get consent from the person or not, matters. Sometimes getting consent is tricky. The context where these images will be shown might not be properly translated to the context of the person giving the consent, it might even be impossible to translate between these worlds. I’m the translator in this case and translation is much more than a word to word one, I have a lot more responsibility since I am in between both worlds.
Also, there's an attention span of the art viewer, the visitor to an art space which one needs to consider when exposing works to such an audience. There's also a name under these videos. I personally have been thinking about and making videos around certain subjects. When I look back at what I’ve done, I see a continuity, unintended but it is there, and the works change form as my understanding or processes change—not like an ‘author's view’ but more of really a continuity. In my 20s, I made video activist work and in my 30s and now, I'm looking at and reflecting on the images that I come across with the experience of video activist practice. I believe my practice now is a continuation of my practice then. I’d not call my current practice an activist practice, since I hear the word ‘activist’ being used so commonly in the art world that I’m wary of it, but I do believe there is a different temporality in these works that connect to the earlier works.
E: In your work, you deal a lot with the violence of images, images of violence. As a video activist,you were documenting violence. Now the way you deal with this violence is describing them, wondering around the violent images, but not really showing "the pornography of violence." That is quite relevant to what you were just saying about the place.
B: It's really easy to manipulate an audience through sensationalism— by creating certain effects. I am specifically running away from such a practice, but at the same time I am asking the question of what certain images are doing, What are those affects, What do they do? What do they say? What do they imply, but also, how are they used? How am I, as a viewer, implicated in those images? How I respond to the images is implicated in those images as well, through their circulation and production. I'm really interested in what violence in images does and what does it mean that an image is manipulative? It is in itself a challenge to insist on dealing with something that one also insists on not showing. I’m interested in creating a language which does not carry this violence but insistently deals with it.
I want to reach audiences that are not only art audiences or film audiences. In my earlier practice, there were certain things that we were trying to accomplish as video activists— and in the center was to make something visible. Bringing the video activist content to an art context as it is, makes it pornographic. I'm trying to avoid that. In the earlier practice, it does not become pornography because it is trying to do something, reach a certain specific audience and say something. And in my practice now, there's no such direct message. There's no direct line, it is about complicating the work, or better put, showing how it is complicated to talk about these issues, and that’s what the work is about in a sense. The production as well as the final result is a lot about those complications.
E: In your works, you use a lot of images from media representations, of how some people or events are represented in certain ways. Some of the images you are using are really familiar for some audiences, but not really familiar for any other audience. It is the question of the audience again, who is your audience, or how do audience reactions change when you show these works in different contexts?
B: There's a work called disruption, and it deals with the experience of watching images online after the coup d'etat attempt. It starts with a collection of images from old movies and gifs that I found online while I was 24/7 watching the coup d’etat attempt unfold. It is a video that gets a lot of different reactions from different people. If people have experienced the coup d'etat attempt in Turkey, their reaction is a lot more heartfelt. Because they have experienced these attacks—the frightening night and then the days that followed afterward, which was an unknown scary period. And it's completely different for people who did not experience it in Turkey, whether they don't know about it or they haven't been there but followed from a distance. Some of them experience the video focusing more on how these images relate to the experience of our relation to images, and how images of the coup d'etat attempt were distributed. The others go back to that night and the feeling of that night. Both have a very distinct experience with the video.
I live in the Netherlands, and I show my works internationally. For example, the last work I made, what remains was in Turkish with English subtitles. However, the English subtitles are an integral part of the work—they are not just subtitles, not only translation of the spoken words. It's really important that my reality—where I live, what languages I speak—is part of the work. In that sense I stick to my own working conditions and life conditions and consider the broader circulation of the work. Many times, the works also need to be translated into other languages in order to be screened in different parts of the world, and we find solutions according to the video.
If people watch my camera seems to recognize people they know, these are the pictures of people who were killed. They know these types of images, they know similar stories—maybe they don't know the exact story but they can relate to through their own experiences. I don't want to make a work that is only understood by an audience from Turkey or from the region that the video is talking about. I want my videos to resonate with a larger audience.
E: In your works, we see you narrate both in English and Turkish. According to the language you speak, the subtitles change but they are always more than simple translation but more like a part of your videos.
B: I speak English in and the image gazes back. That's one of the first video essays I made, and it's in English. A year later, I looked back at it and it felt so bizarre that I'm speaking English. It was a really alienating experience to listen to it. It didn't feel right. And then, I started speaking Turkish in the videos. It was also something that I had to do and then realize what it does and make a decision about it later on. Now I only narrate in Turkish.
E: Also coming to the issue of language, one of the things I would like to discuss about your videos from Cizre and how language plays a different role there. At some point, Nurcan tells the camera that "Now, I'm telling you this in Turkish, because I want people to understand. You don't understand Kurdish and it is okay." And the whole relationship with language changes in that video, because now this is not you and the languages that you speak, but another encounter with language. It actually tells a lot about what was happening there and the oppression of a language.
B: The first time I sent an edited version to Nurcan, she showed it to her fiance, and he laughed and made fun of her Turkish. She then said, “whoever I showed, they said your Turkish is funny, or your Turkish is really good in a kind of a funny way.” There are many moments in those videos that I feel like—it is easy for me to forget that her native language is Kurdish, and through interaction, I realize because it is in between us in the conversation constantly, that it changes the whole relationship. It's really present there. It shows a lot about that geography. It defines the relationship quite a lot. It's very important to be continuously aware of what stays in between, and as a result one’s own position. It's really something I learned over and over again through that experience. It is something you can never learn at once and be over, it is a process, it is a presence, and it defines everything.
B: It's not like I decided. She wanted to film. I'm also feeling a little self-conscious about this, because it's not like I am giving my camera away. It just happened by itself organically. She wanted to use the camera, and she used it. It's so obvious there that the camera is mine and not hers. She takes it, or kind of borrows it. Everyone is aware of the fact that, even if you are very generous with the material, it was brought there by me, and it went back with me. These are the kinds of things that are really clear in that footage or became clear to me as I watched it later on. I'm very wary about this kind of footage, because of Western ways of making work; going there and making work, giving your camera away. The footage made by the ‘other’ in itself becomes precious, which is extremely problematic. It's something that I'm trying to be aware of, to avoid this kind of look, but to find a way to make work which deals with it and is aware of this gaze., being mindful of the situation, being self-reflexive, and understanding what I'm doing. What does that work do? What does that look like in an international context? And to the “white gaze”? We go back to your question of “who are you making work for”? These are the moments I don't want the “white gaze” to look at this footage, because it will be coded differently and read differently, classified differently. It is not made for them.
E: When I was watching that footage, I found that an encounter of feminist solidarity where the camera was more like a mediator. Not really ignoring the privilege behind the scene, but showing it very intimately. That's why I found that really powerful.
B: I first met Nurcan during a visit with Baris Icin Kadin Girisimi (Initiative of Women for Peace). We went to Cizre to show solidarity as feminists. So that was really feminist solidarity in the first place, and personally, I did feel that very strongly. I'm happy to hear that you saw it too without knowing. How this relation translates through images will always be a question mark. It will always be something that I need to deal with. I need to find ways to keep doing what I'm doing, figure out how it needs to be done. I need to think of different gazes. I need to be aware of how the white gaze looks at this footage. Especially living in the Netherlands, where the “white gaze” is so present, and I come across it each time I show my work. When I show ‘Ayhan and me’ for example and talk about censorship, it's really rare that I don’t need to mention that censorship is not something that only happens ‘there’ but it also happens ‘here’ in Europe. It has different forms and shapes than how it happens for example in Turkey that ‘Ayhan and me’ talks about. I have pushed back against the questions getting too comfortable in their savior complex. So, I need to think about this gaze all the time. I don't think the works always need to solve this issue by themselves within the work itself, otherwise it's a big burden. It needs to be part of either the making process, or the showing process or most probably both.
E: Since this is a feminist experimental filmmakers interview archive, I would like to ask whether you define yourself as feminist, and how do you find the relation of your work with feminism?
B: I definitely define myself as a feminist. There's no question about that. I don't see feminism as an old term that deals with women's rights. For me, it's important to practice it in daily life. I don't necessarily classify my works as feminist works, but I am a feminist maker, and what I make can not be non-feminist.
E: I would call your works feminist. Your practice is so much there as a feminist maker. The way you narrate, you position yourself and the audience through yourself. It is like the first-person plural.
B: There's definitely intimacy that defines the works. There's an intimacy with something that's distant, maybe that’s what you mean?
E: Maybe not only the intimacy, but also your worries about your works. I find that to be a feminist practice. You question your position in those images, how they're represented, how have you made your work.
B: I guess I define feminism like that. You constantly question, and you don't have a fixed ground. Things are not consolidated. They're not fixed in their place. They can be questioned.
E: Would you describe your work as experimental? Or how do you define your work in general? How do you find those categories?
B: I tick the box experimental when it is an option, because I can't find anything else that describes it. But I don't like the categorization. What is experimental? Experimental has its own consolidated names and conventions—all these white dudes!
I also don't find it very exciting as a description. I do experiment with different things in my works, and the works are definitely experimental in different ways. But I don't think of my work as experimental or political, as a category. But I do experiment, and my works engage with politics, definitely.
E: I would like to ask you about the distribution of your work. Your works are available online through Vimeo, but you also work with LIMA as your distribution company. How do these two work together?
B: My works need to be accessible. It comes from the culture of video activism as well as how I want to see culture to evolve. But I don't have the illusion that something gets accessible once you put it online, but it is an important gesture for me. If people search my works, they can find them, and that is a really important part of the work for me. They circulate in galleries and festivals—which means a limited audience, adding the online presence is widening the group.
The distribution platform LIMA is a non-commercial space. They do not push artists to a certain distribution format, they go with the format that fits the person who made the works. If they were not okay with me putting the works online, I wouldn't have a distribution company. They're not limiting me in any way. That's why it works. LIMA is very supportive and open minded and they have really brought my works to a wider audience through the way they work with me, I’m really grateful.
E: You experiment a lot with still images: you make them move, sometimes you move your camera and it’s as if they're moving. What would you like to say about moving still images? It becomes really present, especially in lost. It's a cinematic journey that we go on with the still images.
B: I’m interested in modes of viewing and also activation—trying to activate the image and, through that activation, getting clues about what that image could do. The ways of activation are different in different works, and moving is one way of activating an image; to give it a voice, a movement and try to see what that still image is saying to us. In what remains, it is not the camera moving, but you see the pixels are breathing. In lost I literally talk to them. I didn't write anything or I didn't plan anything in lost. I just turned the pages and said what came to my mind—giving myself certain limitations like turning pages, and making it work with these limitations. This creates a playground that brings up so many things that I would not be able to think about or plan in the beginning. It was an experiment, like a performance to the camera.
E: In your copyleft booklet “Can I Take Your Unconscious as My Audience?” you write that you take performance as an act of expression. In some of your video works, you perform on screen. In some of them you perform with your voiceover. How would you interpret performance in your works?
B: The ones where I perform onscreen are mostly my older works. I think lost was the last one. I don't think I made that kind of work afterward. There's one that I'm in where my voice is swapped (black-out, 2011). I use a friend's voice and lip-synch, but I'm doing it really badly. You kind of see that it's not matching, but you might think that it's actually just bad quality. From 2014 on, my works became so much more serious. It is related to what has been happening in Turkey and in that larger geography. I really think it affected me and my practice.
If we look at the older works.... There's one where I'm eating an apple, and you hear the scream from Hitchcock’s Pscyho ( aaaaa!, 2012), and the image of the woman there inside the apple, I’m eating it. I think they're good experiments. I was not able to make work about dark times with humor, though. I wish I had that in me. I wish I could go to a lighter place and come back. Some people are really able to do it. Because those kinds of experiments like the ones I did in my earlier works really show something out of logical thinking, out of linear narrative, which would be helpful now, and of course a good humor is always welcome.
E: Definitely, something I was feeling but you again just said it: You were more playful in your early works and experimenting with different stuff,including your performances. But then it changes. The last couple of years is not something that you can really get humorous about- it was tough and hard. In what remains, you talk about the body as a recorder or recording body. How do you think about these concepts as someone who's been recording for years? What do you think that your body has recorded? Does it have any effect on your relationship with those images?
B: My work after 2014 has been dealing with heavy topics, as I said, since things started changing drastically.
If we talk about how my practice affects me… At a certain point, I came to a place where I could not continue... I had a bit of burnout, not because of working too much, just because I did not find a way to unload stuff. I realized that I have to really protect myself to be able to make the work I am making at that moment. It was definitely something that I realized late, when it came to a point where it hit me hard.
I do think about trauma a lot. You may go through trauma without recognizing it. Your body records it, and that shapes you. The way your body takes these images is called secondary trauma, I had no idea about it before this. You're not directly affected by what has happened, you are exposed to those images or talk to people who are exposed to the violences. And I'm exposed to those images or talk to people through my own decision, since I'm trying to make something out of them. Your body reacts to that.
On the other hand, in the video I talk about the trauma of living in the geography that I've been dealing with. In what remains, these bodies are records of violence. How everyone in that geography are carrying records of those violences. I was also talking about that in relation to pixels. Pixelated dead bodies. When you see a pixelated image, you see there is a violent death. Pixels are documents of those bodies that were violently killed. How to leave records of these in an image, not pixelation but something else, because it wounds the image as well.
E: Your work Ayhan and Me, which was a part of group exhibition Post-Peace, was censored by Akbank Sanat. Then, you wrote an open letter about censorship. After watching the video and reading the text, I kept thinking about the video you would make about Ayhan, which was never produced due to censorship. How did censorship affect the work and you?
B: An artist friend of mine was saying that I couldn't make that video which was never made, and will never be able to make that video. That video is gone. That is tough, but so true. I can't make the video I wanted to make, because I'm a different person now, and all these things have happened. I cannot go back.
E: Did you screen any other work after in Turkey?
B: One work, but that has nothing to do with any current political situation anywhere. It was an older work of mine. Actually, Ayhan and me was shown in Documentarist. In the “Against Censorship” section. It's also very sad, since it can only be shown under a category that's about censorship.
E: As someone who was working for a festival and someone who was screening films, I have to say that there are not really a lot of places that can show your films in Turkey right now, and that actually says a lot about the level of censorship. Documentarist is already taking a lot of risks by showing these films.
B: You can't make a censorship section in many festivals, right! Documentarist is a very important festival in that sense. It's very valuable that it's been shown, but it's also very sad, because of what you just said.
We could say what’s happening in Turkey at the moment is not censorship anymore, it’s imprisonment and criminalization. Basically, it's not about “you can't make this work” or “you can’t show this part or that part of the work” ‚ but it is that you can just be imprisoned. Your archives can be taken from you, as in the case of Oktay İnce. We both know how it is harder for Kurdish artists, Kurdish filmmakers in Turkey, there is even greater pressure on them for a much longer time. I wanted to end nicely, but having difficulty finding something positive to say. Ah, Fatos Irwen is just released—that is the good news of today.
E: At least some good news! Thank you very much for the interview belit.
B: Thank you.
Esra Ozban is currently a PhD student in Film and Digital Media at UCSC. Esra also started their journey with images with documentary photography and video-activism in Istanbul. Esra worked for Pink Life QueerFest, the only queer film festival taking place in Turkey, for last five years and, is one of the co-founders of multicultural queer feminist collective Atina Kolektifi.