After Alexandria, the Flood - Interview with Naz Cuguoğlu
As part of a year-long series of exhibitions by emerging artists and curators, PROTO5533 is hosting the exhibition 'After Alexandria, the Flood' from 2-23 April 2016. I talked to the show's curator Naz Cuguoğlu about her passion for books, the future of libraries and the dangers of the increasing information monopoly of the internet.
You were chosen by Mari Spirito as one of the curators of the project Proto5533, can you tell us a bit about this project?
5533 is a non-profit art space run by artists Nancy Atakan and Volkan Aslan, who like to work collaboratively and assign different directors defining the programme of the space each year. When Mari became the director of 5533 for 2015/2016, she decided to take this collaboration one step further and invited young and emerging curators from Istanbul with different backgrounds such as writers, gallery and museum professionals and independent curators. She asked each of us to propose and organise an exhibition. Most of the curators chose mainly artists from Turkey. During the process we were all given feedback on our proposals from prominent mentor curators such as Çelenk Bafra, Anne Ellegood, Övül Durmusoğlu, Anthony Huberman, November Paynter, François Quintin, and Yasmil Raymond.
Can you tell us about your experience with Spirito’s project? How is it different from previous exhibitions you worked on?
The main goal of the project is to provide emerging artists and curators with a space to gain experience with exhibition-making. Its key approach is ‘learning by doing’, which I find very important because an exhibition never looks the same in real life as on a piece of paper. On top, we have the advantage to work together closely with Mari and the aforementioned mentor curators, getting their feedback on our proposals and thus benefitting from their experience. This gives us the opportunity to look at our approaches to exhibition-making from different perspectives; we have space to develop our curatorial skills. Mari has been organising meetings with us and invited different art professionals and artists to join, so this process created a feeling of community between us.
As a young and emerging curator from Istanbul, I truly believe in the power of collaborative projects. I always say “if we are going to succeed, we will together and if we fail, again together”. I believe that this is the only way to progress and develop. This is one of the reasons why Mine Kaplangı and I initiated the project ‘Creative Çukurcuma’ - to create a platform to bring people together, talk and create. This platform, especially the members of our reading group, were very much involved with the developing process of my show. Our conversations just kept on inspiring me. We exchanged many emails, critical input, thoughts, reading suggestions, etc. In a way, we all created and curated this show together.
Could you elaborate on the meaning of the title of your exhibition ‘After Alexandria, the Flood’ and tell us how you came up with it?
The title of the show stems from a quote of Louis XV, King of France “After me, the Flood.” For me, this statement has a two-sided meaning: ‘After my reign, the nation will be in chaos and destruction’ and ‘After me, let the flood come, it can come, and it makes no difference to me.’ In the same way, I believe that the title of this exhibition refers to the information chaos, which we are facing nowadays. The Library of Alexandria - one of the largest and most significant libraries of the ancient world - was built with the goal to hold one copy of each book on earth. Today, we have a similar approach building up digital libraries, we are facing the information flood and chaos after the Library of Alexandria was completely destroyed by fire. In this context I am asking myself and the viewer: How are we dealing with this situation? Do we even care or are we like Louis XV, will that make no difference to us?
Your exhibition references ‘The Library Of Babel’, a short story by Luis Borges. Could you tell us how this story inspired you to curate this show?
Next to my curatorial and art writing practice, I am personally very passionate about literature. I used to write short stories and attended the CeRRCa writing residence in Barcelona last spring. There, I mostly read magical-realists such as Borges and Cortazar. My residency was not long after the Gezi Park protests so my mind was still preoccupied and I was asking myself: What is real, what is not? How do we find our reality in this information chaos? When I read Borges’s ‘Library of Babel’, I was intrigued! His ‘library-universe’ with all the possible books that could ever be written, and the librarians wandering around this library looking for a meaning in all of this chaos - without success - were just fascinating for me. As Borges states, even if we have all the knowledge in the world, there is the truth, the lies, the truth about the lies and vice versa. The entirety of all knowledge cannot only contain meaningful and true information, there has to be some misleading content as well. Infinity creates confusion.
How does this relate to our contemporary culture and the new digital age?
The Tower of Babel is an etiological myth in the Old Testament, meant to explain the origin of different languages. According to the story, a united humanity speaking a single language agreed to build a tower to reach the skies. God confounded their language so they could no longer understand each other and succeed in this. Borges’s ‘Library of Babel’ can be compared to the internet and digital information containers with its infinity and dark architecture. We tend to think about the positive qualities of the internet but the question we need to ask ourselves is: How do we really navigate in this information chaos when we do not have a manual in hand, surrounded by all this meaningful and meaningless information?
When I read Alberto Manguel’s ‘The Library at Night’, I got excited about his ‘library’ reference. I can highly recommend this book to anyone interested in the relevance of libraries from different perspectives. It starts with the Library of Alexandria, continues with Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press and moves all the way to the establishment of the Google Print Initiative and Amazon’s launch of the Kindle. This book, illustrating the fast moving history of the progress of libraries and books, made me think about the fact that humanity has always been thinking about going beyond the limits when it comes to collecting, organising and preserving knowledge. The internet is another new way to achieve this aim as it can be seen as our single common language, that we communicate through today. So let’s hope that some kind of power does not confound this singular language again so that we can no longer understand each other. We need to question the increased level of power mechanisms over the internet.
Can you tell us about the works in your exhibition at 5533 and how they relate to your curatorial concept?
‘The Borges Library and Study for Borges Library’ by Jorge Mendez Blake consists of a mural with rectangles resembling spines of books and mirror modules positioned on the floor. Alluding to Borges’s infinite library, the mirrors also invite the audience to participate using their own reflection while questioning its possibilities as the architectural structure, knowledge container and public space.
Meriç Algün Ringborg’s video titled ‘A World of Blind Chance’, is a play where the script is composed by found sentences from the Oxford English Dictionary. Each act shows an actor, rehearsing a monologue on Borgesian topics. His movements are directed by the author’s voice, questioning the control mechanisms and hierarchies of knowledge.
‘Tweetrary of Babel’, an interactive work by Eşref Yıldırım, questions the difficulty in trusting the accuracy of data and the ownership of information control by inviting the audience to contribute to a Twitter feed with autocomplete feature. The work can be seen as a manifestation of infinite information flow, a library full of meaningful and meaningless statements by un-known sources.
Can you tell us why you included the Recai Mehmed Efendi Library as a venue for your exhibition and how the works you placed there fit in this context?
It was all by chance and a magical moment! One day, we just decided to walk around 5533 and got lost on the way, finding ourselves in front of Recai Mehmed Efendi Library, which is located in a building almost 250-years old and largely unknown to the public. I fell in love with the place. It is a small, Borgesian stone building, with small windows, letting in only very little light, which makes it even more mysterious. I felt as if I am in one of the hexagons of the Library of Babel. I spent a long time there reading. I was also surprised to see how much it was frequented and just wanted to share my magical experience.
Sultan Burcu Demir’s work ‘Index’ and Ekin Bernay’s performance create an interesting dialogue with the library space. Demir’s ‘Index’ installation consists of paper-cut globes, creating ‘text-forms’ that present content, which is physically impossible to read. She creates a visual library in reference to Borges’s ‘library-universe’ while also questioning the hierarchical presentation of libraries and the current boundaries of accessibility of information. Referencing the librarians of the ‘Library of Babel’, wandering around and looking for an answer in the infinite library, Bernay’s performance titled ‘You who read me are you sure of understanding my language?’ invites the audience on a journey, taking different routes through library books. The performance meditates on the possibility of interpreting stories using human inventions like language in a world where information is under control and writing exists for its own sake.
You decided to make 5533’s library part of your exhibition, can you tell us a bit about it and about the venue itself?
I have always been impressed by 5533’s library. When I decided to make an exhibition about libraries, I went for a little research trip to 5533’s library and found myself spending hours there. I like how it is not organized in any kind of hierarchy so you can just write your own art history out of all these documents. Most of the books in the library focus on the Istanbul art scene, it also contains artist books and memos from 5533’s history. I think that 5533 is a very important art space for Istanbul with its location within İMÇ, which used to be a very popular mall in the 1960’s. I believe this place bears important and interesting memories, which everyone should know about. The transformation of this place shows the dramatic change of Istanbul’s city structure and the effect of gentrification. How could it become outdated so quickly? 5533 is part of this story somehow, when you look into its library, you learn more about these changes.
What are your thoughts on the current role of libraries in today’s digital world, is it shifting and if so how?
I find this question very important as it was my second step for research. As a book addict who is in love with the smell and texture of the physical books, I personally find it very hard to imagine that books and libraries would become irrelevant today or will be in the future. But of course they are changing like everything else. Most of the international libraries are trying really hard to catch up and adapt with the new age of technology and many of them succeed to do so. Of course in Turkey, we are facing an even bigger challenge with incidents where big libraries even threw away their books! This just reminds me of the book ‘Fahrenheit 451’ by Ray Bradbury, describing a fictional future American society where books are outlawed and ‘firemen’ burn any found books. Maybe we should consider memorising our books before it is too late! I believe that books will always keep threatening the ones in power. They will never loose their relevance, be it digital or non-digital.
One of the central topics of your exhibition seems to be the question around the control of information in the age of the omnipresence of the internet in our lifes through social media. How does the exhibition address this question, does it offer a solution?
One of the key works in the show addressing this issue is Eşref Yıldırım’s ‘Tweetrary of Babel.’ The work aims at making the audience experience this feeling at first hand. They get the chance to contribute to the information flow of twitter with both meaningful and meaningless tweets. And when they plan to post a tweet, they face the surprise that they cannot just write whatever they want, even their tweets are under control by some kind of power mechanism. However, none of the works in the exhibition tries to come up with a solution, we are more interested in creating an awareness and opening a platform for discussion than finding answers.
With this exhibition, I am asking this question to you and everyone who visits. We also published a catalogue, edited by Gökcan Demirkazık, with texts by Sine Ergün, Mine Kaplangı, Serhat Cacekli, Simge Burhanoğlu and Lesli Jebahar sharing further thoughts addressing this dilemma. Please come to our talk on April 16th at 5533 and let’s have a conversation. Maybe we can find an answer if we think all together!
Naz Cuguoğlu lives and works in Istanbul. She received her BA at Koç University’s Psychology department and MA at Social Psychology department focusing on cultural studies. She writes art critics and conducts interviews for various magazines including Artful Living, Trendsetter and Istanbul Art News. Cuguoğlu is the co-founder of Creative Çukurcuma, co-curator of Identity Lab Project in collaboration with Verkstad Konsthall and works at Galeri Zilberman.