Film still, Aşît, Pınar Öğrenci, 2022 ⓒ Pinar Ögrenci

Playing Chess Against Yourself – an interview with artist Pınar Öğrenci

Issue no5
Oct - Nov 2023

Presented at documenta fifteen, the new work by artist Pınar Öğrenci called Aşît (Avalanche) focuses on the highly traumatic history of Eastern Anatolia of Turkey. Curator Anna Bitkina talks to the artist about the project and her research on the outcomes of the violent political domination in Turkey.

The mountainous Eastern Anatolia Region is home to different ethnic communities, driven for centuries by their shared land, collective survival strategies in challenging environments, exchanges of goods, knowledges and cultures. In a collective effort in which Öğrenci and Bitkina both touch upon different aspects of Aşît, the feelings of grief and guilt it centralizes and how these are connected to the local identity of the Van region and contemporary Turkish politics. Different parts of Europe currently face military invasion, cross-border unrest and ideological suppression, due to unresolved colonial pasts and imperialistic wrestling. Realising the sensitivity of this subject, they wonder if art helps us articulate unresolved historical past and traumas.

1. Positionality and self-determination

—Anna Bitkina In the centre of Aşît (meaning both ‘avalanche’ and ‘disaster’ in Kurdish) there is the town called Müküs, which is located in the Van Province in eastern Turkey. Throughout the film we learn about the complicated history that marks this area, and its harsh natural conditions (with avalanches occuring all the time during snowy winters). This part of Turkey is especially known for the tragic forms of ‘ethnical cleansing’ of Armenian and Kurdish people that took place during the Ottoman Empire and different periods of the Turkish Republic. Could you please enlighten us about some of the turning points in the sociopolitical history of the Van region? And what is your personal relation to Müküs, the city Van and its region?

—Pınar Öğrenci ‘I was born and grew up in Van, it's my hometown. It's not easy to talk about the long history of the city in this short interview but I can give you the most important details. Van was a capital city of Armenian Vaspuragan Kingdom in the 10th century. I guess since then it's been a very unique and symbolic city for Armenians. It was invaded by Arabs, Abbasies, Kurds, Persians, Ottomans, Russians, etc. in different periods of its history. For a long time Kurds were ruling the city and surrounding areas under the central controlisation of the Ottomans. The number of non-Muslim inhabitants, especially Armenians, was quite large till 1915. There were also Yezidi, Keldani, Jewish communities… Especially at the end of the 19th century Van became the most important city for Eastern Armenians with its rich intellectual life. I wish I were living at that time… At the end of the 19th century, it became the centre of Armenian riots and rebellions, which were harshly suppressed in 1896. In 1915 The Big Disaster of Armenian genocide happened. After 1923 in different periods of the Turkish Republic, Kurdish and Yezidi groups also faced systematic violence. For me, my city Van died at that time... It became a dry, conservative, silent and dead city with its new populations, brought in from the West of Turkey, the North and East.

When you grow up in a city where you can't talk about its past, its former people and culture, you feel like you are part of its guilt. Carrying this strange weight of guilt on my shoulders, I travelled high in the mountains and arrived to my father’s town Müküs. Under the Armenian Vaspuragan Kingdom, Müküs was an Armenian Principality, also known as ‘Moks’. Throughout history, the small settlement of Müküs was not conquered by large empires and was ruled by Kurds during most of its history, at least until the beginning of the 20th century. The reason I’m interested in Müküs is not only because it's my fathers hometown but also because it has been blessed with the knowledge of long years of self-imposed isolation; like a river that feeds itself, which stays unpolluted and clear... It is an environment of non-conflict fostered by its geographical isolation, an oasis where wild capitalism and state apparatuses entered too late. Or in other words: a time machine protected by the mountains as poet Fırat Demir wrote once… But this time machine can also be imagined as a kind of prison. So it's like a hotel room where Zweig's character, Doctor B. is isolated.’

'When you grow up in a city where you can't talk about its past, its former people and culture, you feel like you are part of its guilt'

Installation view, Aşît by Pınar Öğrenci, Hessisches Landesmuseum, Kassel, documenta 15, 2022. Photo: Nicolas Wefers

2. Analogy with the past

—Anna Bitkina Mentioning Doctor B. leads me to another question. Your work is inspired by “The Royal Game” or “Chess Story” (Schachnovelle in German) where Doctor B. is the main protagonist. It was the last and the most known novella by Austrian writer Stefan Zweig, which he wrote in 1941 before committing suicide. There are so many coded meanings in that novella that ought to be unpacked; in relation to contemporary wars, namely the war in Ukraine, violence, dictatorship and political hegemony as well as in relation to personal traumas caused by forced migration due to war disasters or political suppressions leading to imprisonment and in some countries to assassination. Could you please outline the connection between “The Royal Game” and your project? Do you associate the psychological portrait of Doctor B. with your personal relatively recent resettlement from Turkey to Germany forced by governmental pressure in the country?

—Pınar Öğrenci As Julia Kristeva says, violence first and foremost damages the bonds, not only the bonds that people and communities form with each other, but also the cultural bonds we have with the land, animals and plants - I mean the nonhumans and material world. The First World War brought genocide, killing, disappearing and forced displacement in the name of the idea of nation to many places like todays Turkey. Similarly, especially for the last thirty years, Kurds have been uprooted from their lands and villages and forced to migrate. We are faced with a state that is constantly at war with its own people. This is paranoid, this is sick. While Zweig's Doctor B's hospitalised state of fighting with himself in his mind overlaps with our story, we should on the other hand not forget that Ottomans fought alongside the Germans in the First World War, which was also a turning point for all Middle East geography. Germany did not make any effort to stop the genocide perpetrated by its ally. In 1939, when Hitler ordered his armies to conquer Poland, he said: "Who remembers Armenians today?" you know… I mean, the relationship between our political histories also motivated me to be inspired by German literature.

Apart from Zweig, I was very much inspired by the exile correspondences of Benjamin and Brecht during the Second World War. In his letter to Brecht, Benjamin compares their lives in exile, their attempts to move back and forth from one place to another, the tactics they developed in exile to a chess game... Similarly, the lives in exile of many Kurdish politicians and hundreds of dissidents today, the tactics they developed to obtain visas, their methods of clinging to life, the risks they took and the lives they sacrificed are just like chess moves... To return to your question, during the trial against me, which took place between 2016 and 2018 and demanded 18 years prisoning, I had to travel to Europe and spent months in Stockholm, Oslo, Brussels, Vienna and Athens. I found myself in Berlin at the end while trying to find answers to the questions of where I should stay, which country would accept me, what kind of visa I could get etc... I cannot compare myself to historical figures who sacrificed their lives for the struggle or to real exiles who cannot return to Turkey today, I can only be their admirer and comrade.

Film still, Aşît, Pınar Öğrenci, 2022 ⓒ Pinar Ögrenci

3. Archival work

—Anna Bitkina The film is full of historical references and archival documents that appear throughout the film and are noted in the long list of credits in the end of the film where you mention lots of institutions and individuals that were involved in the production of your project. What was the structure and duration of the research process? What is your methodology of approaching historical knowledge and archival materials as well as representatives of different communities living in Müküs?

—Pınar Öğrenci ‘I've been trying to search for representations of cities in cinema, literature, poetry, music etc. to be able to understand the social and political context of the cities in different periods. The first research part of the film took three months, from November 2021 till February 2022. Production and postproduction of the film took around four months in total. Research is very important, but you cannot understand any city or town without actually spending time there and meeting with its people. At the very beginning I collaborated with a Kurdish activist S.G who works for the Human Right Association in Van, and A.Y, a Kurdish teacher who was forced to leave Van in the 90's because of political reasons. A.Y lives in Istanbul and has never visited Van since he left. I asked him to travel to Van together and S.G joined us. We visited Çatak and Müküs together and talked with locals in November for around ten days. During my visit I also tried to meet with people who might work with me for the shooting process. I met with our drivers, set assistant, chef and guide during our first visit. I was planning to film in January but the road of Müküs was closed and dangerous. Since I couldn't travel I had to spend a lot of time by understanding Müküs from a distance, having online discussions with locals during January. So when we visited Müküs for the second time in mid February for two weeks, I already had some questions to ask and scenes to record in my mind.

At the same time I was totally open to all kinds of encounters and surprises. For example, the story of “Cyclops”, which is actually a Kurdish version of one of the stories of Iliad by Homer was totally surprising. When I heard it, I said to myself that the film must start with this story, which is a metaphor of the crime and guilt never accepted by the Turkish state. Back in Berlin, I contacted Asya Yaghmurian, a curator of Armenian descent, who did research about Moks in Armenian. Many stories, and archival images resulted from this. For example, we found a picture of Mutiullah Bey, Kurdish governor of Müküs at that time, in the History of Armenia Museum Archive. He protected Armenians in Müküs in 1915. I learned about him during my first visit from the locals and I found similar information about him in the Hrant Dink Foundation in İstanbul. Finally, we visited Müküs again at the end of April for spring shootings. I wanted to finish the film in springtime, which was the season of the Armenian riots in 1896 but also of the genocide in 1915.

Film still, Aşît, Pınar Öğrenci, 2022 ⓒ Pinar Ögrenci

4. Historical traumas and metaphorical language

—Anna Bitkina Almost everyone in Müküs knows how to play chess. The presence of the chess game appears in the film several times, when we see men playing chess in a cafe somewhere in the city. What is the meaning of the chess game in relation to your project?

—Pınar Öğrenci ‘Chess has a special niche in the collective imagination of Eastern or Western histories. During my research process, I read a lot about chess and many of the stories were related to Germany. Many didactic writers, especially in mediaeval German literature, used the imagery of chess to address fundamental concerns, values, morals, ethics, virtues and vices in society. However, the later artists and thinkers interested me most, such as Bergman, Zweig, Brecht and Benjamin. Many artists and thinkers used the motif of chess to explore fundamental dualisms such as life and death, success and failure, active and passive comportment, defensive and offensive posturing, etc. Moreover, chess was used as a metaphor of borders, strategies, properties, barter, diplomacy and so on. Aşît talks about the continuity of violence, which has manifested itself in different forms from the end of the 19th century to the present day. The violence inflicted on non-Muslim groups for the sake of nation-building a century ago by an empire whose imperial period was coming to an end is still being used against Kurds today, sometimes using similar military strategies. Chess is also a game of war, moves and strategies, and it is about knowing your partner's past moves and predicting their possible future moves. I used this feature of chess in the film to highlight the repetition of historical mistakes, denials and embarrassments. In the film I am not interested in the moves of the chess game, in who wins and who loses, or in “the ambition of the queen” or “the generosity of the pawn”. Instead, I see the chess table and the pieces as a metaphor for the political arena that is constantly being disrupted and reconstructed. The chess pieces can also be thought of as the embodiment of social groups that are physically close to each other, that enter into conversations with one another, and whose distances from each other are more or less certain. The film treats chess as a world of symbols, and instead of following the infinite possibilities of the directions in which the pieces can be moved, the camera visits cafés where chess is played as a recurring daily routine, and the rest of the film explores the different manifestations of violence and its infinite effects not only on humans but also on non-humans. Since it was played by both Armenian, Kurdish, Araps, Persians etc. in Müküs since the Middle Age, without having any identity itself, chess is a symbol of coexistence of all societies which used to live there.’

'Chess is about knowing your partner's past moves and predicting their possible future moves. I used this feature to highlight the repetition of historical mistakes, denials and embarrassments'

Film still, Aşît, Pınar Öğrenci, 2022 ⓒ Pinar Ögrenci

5. The gaze of an architect

—Anna Bitkina How does your architectural background help you to translate the complex identity of the region and restore its spatial memory?

—Pınar Öğrenci ‘I always try to understand space within its economic, social and historical contexts. When you understand these different layers of a space, you start to see that all of its details are important. A city, a single district, a room, flat, building, or even a table: all of these can inspire ideas about a specific region. In the case of Müküs, I immediately noticed that asphalt roads brought control and security structures to the town. In other words, the state has implemented its control and power through architecture, city infrastructures and public places. For example, in the middle of the city there is a huge Kalekol building (Army department) made entirely of concrete, which is covered by guns. It's a small town and the population is low but just after the construction of the asphalt roads a very big mosque was erected. In the middle of the town there is a small park called the “15th of July Park”, which is the date of the latest so-called ‘military coup’ in 2017. When I saw how Müküs’ architecture was shaped by the current politics of the state, I decided to record everything that I saw. Importantly, Müküs is also a city filled with small size churches, monasteries, bridges and gravestones reminiscent of the Armenian culture that once prevailed. From their abandoned conditions you could easily tell how Armenian culture has been erased from our shared history. Now beside the politics of the space I must also talk about the poetics of the space by remembering Gaston Bachelard and George Perec... As you know, one of the main metaphors of the film is snow. I tried to see all the different manifestations of snow in Müküs. I observed how snow covers the buildings and nature, softening sharp corners of roofs as well as high mountains, how it carries traces of the animals that passed the mountains in the midnights, and how efforts at clearing the roads and roofs from snow were carried out with a certain rhythm and tempo. All these details shape the visual language of the film.’

'A city, a single district, a room, flat, building, or even a table: all of these can inspire ideas about a specific region'

Film still, Aşît, Pınar Öğrenci, 2022 ⓒ Pinar Ögrenci

6. Role of nature in the film

—Anna Bitkina There is a lot of beautiful nature to be seen in the film. In contrast to the cruelty and injustices that your artistic research brings into the spotlight, nature is presented as a common ground for trans-local relationships between different communities. You give lots of agency to nature by showing how specific nature conditions and corresponding survival strategies unite people despite their ethnic belongings. One scene that I found particularly striking is the one in which all men that are physically capable to hold a shovel go and clean roads from the snow. At that moment, they are united through collective physical and sonic acts. I was also struck by how you managed to address the massacres that took place in the region. You approach this highly sensitive subject by touching upon lost agricultural dynamics, vocabularies and craft skills. You demonstrate the interdependencies that exist between communities, highlighting, for example, that ‘nobody plants walnut trees in Müküs anymore since the Armenians are gone’.

—Pınar Öğrenci ‘When we think about nature, the first thing that usually comes to mind is the soil beneath our feet. If you didn't grow up in a rural area, you don't have a direct relationship with the land and, therefore, with nature. But for me, nature is first and foremost the mountains that surround Van, maybe for many Kurdish too.... The city I grew up in is built on large rocks and is located around a big volcanic lake, on the side of a majestic mountain that is today called Mount Erek –Armenians called it Varak. The majestic Mount Süphan and Artos Mountains appear on the shore of the lake as well... When I was child there were no big hotels, high buildings or shopping malls yet; the cityscape was still characterised by the surrounding mountains. I spent my childhood gazing at these mountains and the sea-sized lake... Perhaps, this is why, since the beginning of my artistic career, I have been thinking and writing a lot about the politics of the landscape. I have tried to describe mountains not only as majestic rocks to be admired, but as an excuse that makes cities or towns inaccessible, a tent that hides and protects the guerrilla, an obstacle that the refugee must overcome to reach the city, a canvas that the occupier uses to carve a flag on. In Aşît, which as said means both avalanche and disaster in Kurdish, I continue this search to expand the meaning of the mountains for cultural and political histories of the region. If we think of an avalanche not just as a natural disaster that happened all at once, but as a disaster caused by the accumulation of snow over many days, the events of 1915 did not happen all at once either.

In the movie, I try to imagine the mountains, water sources and walnut trees that have been standing there for centuries as witnesses of the atrocities that took place there. I try to listen to them. I ask myself: if Mount Garabet had a tongue, what would it say? Would it cry? It would probably lament, and its voice would shake the heavens... It was while thinking about such questions that the voice of musician Hayrik Mouradian from Yerevan passed over the Ararat Mountain and reached my ears. It was impossible to remain indifferent. His voice affects not only ears but also your heart, your conscience and even your stomach. And we learned that Mouradian had made an album called “The Mountains of Müküs” (Mokats Sarer). It was about the mountains of Müküs, the bazaar, the mountain goats in Çatak, the houses that were destroyed along with the orchards, and the lake that was split in two. This album became an important part of the film because it matched the story and visual integrity of the film.’

Film still, Aşît, Pınar Öğrenci, 2022 ⓒ Pinar Ögrenci

7. The sonic experience

—Anna Bitkina The sonic experience of the work and the overall soundtrack is very moving. You have incorporated the life story of Hayrik Mouradian in the film, and his voice too. How does Muradian's experience echo in your film?

—Pınar Öğrenci ‘Hayrik Mouradian is from Çatak, a neighbouring district of Müküs. The neighbourliness immediately brought to my mind the short story of Kafka “The Next Village”, which Benjamin and Brecht discussed for a long time in exile. The protagonist of the story tells about how his grandfather used to say to him: “Life is too short to see the next village”... This really short story fits Mouradian’s life story, since in 1918 he was forced to leave his homeland without ever seeing Müküs, the next village. Later he would sing about this. I must also mention that when I started making the movie, I secretly was hoping to find out something special about my father, even though I didn't plan to trace his story in detail. When I heard Mouradian's voice, I knew that I had found what I was looking for. The stern and sweet expression on his face was very similar to my father's. When I heard that Hayrik means 'father' in Armenian, I said to myself: “Pınar you are on the right path, you have found a father, it doesn't matter whose father he is, and maybe he is the father you are looking for… Hayrik Mouradian was indeed a father for Armenians, a father who taught and reminded them of the music of their old homeland.’

Film still, Aşît, Pınar Öğrenci, 2022 ⓒ Pinar Ögrenci

8. Installation of the work.

—Anna Bitkina The installation of the work is very powerful; the film is projected on a big screen, which immerses the viewer in the Müküs environment. Accompanying the video is a big white canvas, made from hand-sewn paper tissues that have been sewn together by hand. This part of the installation looks very sensitive and delicate. Can you please tell more about the meaning of this canvas?

—Pınar Öğrenci ‘Death is simply part of daily life in my hometown. I mean, people are constantly dying, either due to state violence or because of natural disasters or lack of decent infrastructures in small towns like Müküs. The traditional handkerchief is a symbol of love in our culture. People used to give handkerchiefs to their loved ones. Since we no longer use fabric handkerchiefs, I decided to use sewn paper tissues for the installation, which was produced by four women living in Van, who were forced to leave their villages from surrounding Kurdish cities such as Hakkari and Ağrı and came to Van in the 1990's. They lost their husbands or children during armed conflicts. Since then, they lived in very cheap and low quality slum houses until the big earthquake in 2011 came and they lost their homes yet again. At the moment they are living in container houses in Van, under bad conditions. I met them many times and we decided to produce an installation made by sewn paper tissues collectively. The installation turned into a large canvas symbolising the collective mourning of lost loved ones. With its form and colour, it also relates to the film’s themes of snow and avalanche.’

'The traditional handkerchief is a symbol of love in our culture. People used to give handkerchiefs to their loved ones'

Installation view, Aşît by Pınar Öğrenci, Hessisches Landesmuseum, Kassel, documenta 15, 2022. Photo: Nicolas Wefers

9. Project venue.

—Anna Bitkina Your video is presented in Hessisches Landesmuseum in Kassel; a museum with a collection dedicated to the history of Hesse. This territory was re-divisioned many times during the last centuries by different powers before it was included into the political map of Germany. Was this choice of the venue strategic? Did you have a chance to study the museum collections and build up some site-specific ties with your work?

—Pınar Öğrenci ‘From the very beginning I knew I would need a space with a high ceiling for the tissue installation. Also, since the film was about high mountainous areas, I was looking for a space with a ceiling of around 5 meter high. Hessisches Landesmuseum was not on the list of d15 venues from the beginning. Curator Ayşe Güleç came up with the idea of using the Landesmuseum and we both liked the space and its medieval chess collection. You know the development of the idea of the museum and the nation coincides. Museums are historical places where objects belonging to the nation are collected. Since the film presents how the idea of the Turkish nation-state has destroyed so much of the ethnic groups of the Ottomans that consisted of Armenian, Kurdish, Turkish, Arabs, Greeks, and Levantines by the First World War, I thought it would create an interesting contrast, showing the film at a museum that accommodates objects of the German national culture. Even though we have long-time relations with Germany, I think we don't know much about each other’s cultures and histories. We both have genocide in our histories.’

Installation view, Aşît by Pınar Öğrenci, Hessisches Landesmuseum, Kassel, documenta 15, 2022. Photo: Pınar Öğrenci

10. Documenta

—Anna Bitkina How is the hostile response to d15 which has started to escalate after the opening affecting the d15’s artists and you personally?

—Pınar Öğrenci ‘I’m deeply saddened by it. I don't want to talk about it, it's just ridiculous, sorry. As I mentioned before at the beginning of our interview, violence has the capability to destroy bonds and relations. And since we are all connected with each other, violence against the other is violence against us. What I mean is that it's another form of violence and all accusations against ruangrupa, some artists and collectives caused great damage. Instead of celebrating our collective success after a long working period, we lost so much time and energy with the accusations, having many meetings, writing letters and statements etc... However, there is one thing they forgot: Germany's loss is greater and more dangerous. Germany lost its chance to discuss its historical taboo topics, welcoming amazing artists and collectives as they deserved, learning and sharing their stories through media coverage and making new connections for future collaborations. These possibilities were all destroyed from the very beginning.’

Aşît is commissioned by d15, supported by SAHA Foundation and sigma

d15 runs until the 25th of September, 2022

Anna Bitkina
is a curator of contemporary art, performative projects and educational programs, she is a co-founder of a nomadic curatorial collective TOK

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Metropolis M Magazine for contemporary art No 5 — 2023