The Flag Factory
interview with me by Sara Benaglia

Sara Benaglia, La Balena Bianca
February 12, 2020
Italian

Hasan Özgür Top is a Turkish artist born in Ankara. We interviewed him on the occasion of the exhibition XYZ, which will take place at BACO-Base Arte Contemporanea Odierna from 8 to 16 February 2020, and in which Özgür will exhibit the video work The Atelier.

What is a fixer? Who works as a fixer? When did you have this job and who did you work for?
Broke artists, unemployed journalists, humanities students, people who can speak English, or people who have connections with various social and political networks, these are the people who work as a fixer in Turkey, as I see. A fixer accompanies foreign journalists who wants to go to specific places or meet specific people and serves translator. But a fixer could also say "Hey there is an interesting thing there, would you like to catch it?", to make money. This is a kind of story-selling to storytellers, I guess. Being a fixer was something related with to introduce "my realities" to "reality makers". And this makes me another reality creator. Journalists were encountering people and "facts", through me. It was always weird for me to feel that powerful role in the middle of the making of stories and "facts".

Is the overexposure of the Turkish flag an equally distributed phenomenon on Turkish territory?
I don't have enough information about it, but this is a very good question, makes me curious. I had been in many places in Turkey and I can say that the people don't have the same motivation to use the flag everywhere equally in Turkey. The state uses it everywhere as a symbol and reminder of its sovereignty, no doubt. But what I can say is that the 'civil using' of the flag is less in regions where the ties of affection to the state is less solid and powerful.

What is the space in The Atelier? In The Atelier giving context to the Turkish Flag is giving context to the symbol of a geographical and political power, but also to the minorities that are in relation to that power. When you think about Turkey, when you think about the symbol of the country you were born in, do you think about a geographical entity, do you feel the space described by it? What is the space for the flag?
Like most nationalism, also the Turkish nationalism is inextricably linked with space, with geography. I think it is important to understand that the Republic of Turkey was built on a trauma. All of the founding leaders of the republic, also Mustafa Kemal himself, were mid-career officers of the Ottoman Empire who had several ideological motifs. They witnessed the collapse of their huge empire without being able to stop it. North Africa, what is today's Syria, Iraq and the Saudi Arabia, as well as the Balkans, all these states and political regions formed when the Ottoman administration fell apart. The geography, the space, of today's Turkey was something like a last stronghold, a last bunker for that generation I think. It is not a coincidence that the one of the flag factory owners in The Atelier say that "the Syrian refugees can come to Turkey, but if the same thing happen to us, we don't have anywhere to go". This is the last stronghold according to this sensation and ideology. It is also visible in the National Pact which is released as the manifest of the Independence War in 1920. The pact claims some regions beyond today's borders, and we can still see a continuity of that claim by Erdoğan's policy of expansion into Syria and Iraq today.
I think the flag represents that expanded region as the saved last bunker and the union of the people who hold onto those feelings.

When is an image a fact? When can an image produce a reality? What is your relation to documentary movies? When you record with your camera, do you record facts? Do you create them?
When we think about image and fact, mostly we tend to ask the questions "is this real?" or "did this happen?". Answering these questions is just the first stage of my research and work. Initiating ways of getting deeply engaged with images is the next stage. Then, the things we call facts are created in the space between audience and image at the end.
Images always contain some facts. When a camera records something, it records the light that reflects to it, which is real. Beyond of it is a story that we invent, maybe understand, maybe believe. Even if an image manipulates some facts, it keeps other facts as they are. Lies tell a lot about the people who utter them and a lot about the facts remaining within, because images cannot be formed by chance. Images are the products of the visual universe of their creators. And that which we call 'politics' is closely associated with how we deal with images, associated with how we invent realities by images. It is an abstract universe that we make real through images, symbols, icons, monuments etc.
Politics was always about what we see in an image. As an example; in the 8. and 9. Century, in Byzantium, your answer about what you see in a church icon would immediately have identified your position between the emperor and the patriarch. For the majority of the world, the videos of the 9/11 attacks show a massacre of innocent people, a brutal event of killing. But a substantial amount of people in the world regard these videos as documents of "divine justice", "punishment of the invader/imperialist/heretic US by mujahids/guerillas" or whatever. Your answer about what you see on those videos could identify you as a citizen or a terrorist.
While I'm creating images, especially for a project that has documentary characteristics, I always want to make clear that it is made by me. These are the things that I witness. I introduce them in this way, it is my story, and this is my way of dealing with it. I hold the responsibility for the image, and I try to reflect this positioning to the aesthetical components of the work. For instance, I was the cameraman of The Atelier and as you can see the shooting style is shaky and fragile. I did not use a stabilizer or a tripod. I did not make any color grading and did not use any effect on the footage. It was just me and the camera with its standard factory settings. My body movement affects the image and my voice can be heard in the video. I don't relate at all to ways of narrating that make the producer invisible, or to those that assert that they are bringing just bare facts to the audience.

In the interview that Inez Piso did with you in 2018, you introduced to her your cataloguing of radical Islamic video material, and, specifically, Children in ISIS Videos. How do you organize the cataloguing? Are you continuing this recording of radical-Islamic organizations materials?
Yes, it continues. Also, I have been writing my second thesis related to the current state of these affairs. When I download a material, I first verify its originality because fake copies of the magazines of the Islamic State were, in the past, released anonymously. There are also "unofficial materials" released by supporters of salafi-jihadist organisations floating around on the internet. Checking originality of the material is the crucial first step of these kinds of studies (Of course, these "unofficial" materials could also be considered, but that is another research project). After that, I give a numeral code to it and add it to my archive. I have Excel sheets in which I assemble technical information of the material such as their formats, titles, durations, release dates. Also, I categorize them by their contents for my studies. Some of the categories are these for example: Airstrike, Casualty, Children, Combat, Conquest, Iconoclasm, Education, Establishment, Execution, Farewell, Heroism, Interview, Screening, Women. These categories are designed according to the questions that I try to answer in my studies.

In the program of After the Archive on the 17th of december 2016 you introduced the lecture “Video Games and War Images”. Can you tell me about that?
That lecture was based on the archive I maintain of the online propaganda materials of the radical-Islamic organizations. Basically, I introduced how I find, organize and work on the materials. In that period, I had been comparing the aesthetical elements of the Islamic State-videos with popular video games. I think these sub-topics are important. These analyses give a lot of hints about who they actually are. For example; if we find that these "fundamentalists" use aesthetics and narrations taken from popular culture, we are reaching a quite ironic point. The essentialist rhetoric of the Islamic State argues that their unique ethos comes from the pure spring of Kur'an and from the first, golden generation of Islam, but when we look at the aesthetic universe that they sketch in their propaganda, it looks like a modern narrative instead of fundamentalist. This recalls fascist narratives and masculinist fantasies, nourished from the themes of heroism from ancient and medieval times, as well as from famous mythologies. Sorry, but it is not unique, not pure, nor original. This topic is also, in other ways, discussed by well-known thinkers. My aim is to contribute something to this discussion by art historical methodologies and the compilation of an archive was was the first and crucial step of this research process for me.

In a previous interview you mentioned Ibn Khaldun’s phrase “geography is destiny”, saying that this sentence became popular on social media. When and where did it happen? In which kind of language was it used on the web?
I gave that interview for a Turkish magazine and those words were about those who use social media platforms in Turkish language. It is obvious that social unrest increases drastically in Turkey, particularly in the last decade. Turkey become an actor and field of the Syria and Iraq wars. We experienced the massacres by the Islamic State. The peace process between the state and the Kurdish movement has been broken a few years ago. An attempted military coup occurred in 2016. Many politicians, academicians and journalists are imprisoned. Many people are committing suicide as a result of poverty. And that phrase from Ibn-Khaldun, "geography is destiny", become an of expression of the hopelessness of the people that cannot or does not wish to leave their home, their space, even under these dire circumstances. It is very common to see Tweets, containing the Haldun's phrase. They say something like "this is the destiny of this geography and we cannot change it whatever we do." But as I mentioned in that interview you are asking about, we also see many counter examples to this condition in the near history. "For instance, now it is quite hard for us to imagine that the places on the earth where millions of people want to live in, hosted unprecedented exiles, concentration camps, holocaust, massacres only 70 years ago." Destinies of geographies could change for the better or worse, and they can change quickly. All of these wars, this poverty, these inequities are human-invented things, and I cannot see anything to do but to seek a way to live together in this geography, no matter how romantic and impossible it might sound nowadays.

What is the genesis of From Guantanamo to Ar-Raqqah (2015)?
We remember the color orange from the jumpsuits that are weared by the inmates of the Guantanamo Prison, a place that where many salafi-jihadist militants are held in capture. Orange was also the color of the jumpsuits used in the Abu Graib Prison, a place to detain “terror suspects” by the US troops in Baghdad after 2003. In 2004, the Jama'at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad (the predecessor of the Islamic State) released a video showing the killing of Nicholas Berg, a US-citizen mechanic. Berg was seen in orange clothes in the video. After the killing of Berg, the jidahist organization adopted this way to dress their victims while being executed. One of them was James Foley, a US-citizen journalist that was kidnapped in Syria and killed in front of cameras, wearing orange clothes. But all these oranges that are used, had different tones, of course, darkish, yellowish, faded... I took an orange tone from the Foley's video by the tool eyedropper in Photoshop and another one from the one of the famous photos taken in the Guantanamo and made a gradient between them. I printed it on wallpaper and covered a whole wall with it. Orange become an aesthetical element where two wings which identify themselves as exact political opposites of each other, join together.