Reality Video: Whose Reality?

By Catherine Elwes

its-a-vicious-circle-kutlug-atlaman.jpgIt’s a Vicious Circle, Kutlug Ataman

Kutlug Ataman at the Serpentine gallery


In the last few years, we have witnessed a convergence of documentary formats across television and the gallery. One claims to reflect the demotic impulses of mass media, opening up the monolith of television to the lives of ‘ordinary’ people, the other gathers interviews that collectively aspire to the status of art. Through their subjects, both claim to have a privileged access to the truth, offering insights into the vicissitudes of lived experience.

Where reality TV clearly selects its subjects from the ranks of the lower to middle classes, who will present an anodyne version of reality that presenters, TV agony aunts and ‘experts’ can tweak from their positions of life-skill authority, artists’ motives in selecting subjects might, at first, look very different. Kutlug Ataman, showing at London’s Serpentine gallery in February, chose to interview an ageing Turkish diva and a supposed terrorist as well as prostitutes and transvestites, none of whom would be likely to get an airing on Trisha.

If we put aside the suspicion that Ataman likes to capitalise on the shock value of his subjects, we can conclude that the major difference between television confessionals and Ataman’s work lies in the political context in which his monologues exist. The individual narratives projected throughout the gallery were shot through with the religious and political conflicts that have raged in Ataman’s country since he was a child. Oppression, sexism and religious intolerance touch each of these lives and it is only in the case of the plants woman Veronica Read, the lone English voice in the exhibition that the individual is cut off from the social world outside her basement flat.

It would be reasonable to conclude that, unlike Trisha, Ataman has a socio-political motive in his work, a need to bring the suffering of marginalized groups in Turkey to greater international attention. Through his art, he gives these people voices, voices that he wants us to believe in and, as a result, empathise with in their plight. His choice of videotape, the medium of truth so liberally exploited by television news-gathering and documentary-making would seem to confirm this view. Ataman shares with the best investigative TV journalism the urge to go where others dare not tread and report the iniquities of the modern world.

ever-my-soul-kutlug-atlaman.jpgEver My Soul, Kutlug Ataman

I would have held to this view had I not heard Ataman in public discussion vehemently deny that he is making documentaries. Documentaries, he says, seek to change our minds and compel us to accept what we see on our television screens as the immutable truth. Ataman, like many others before him, questions conventional notions of truth and denies that he is proposing semiotic or political closure around any one version of lived experience.

Rather than produce documentaries with a didactic aim, Ataman claims he is raising questions about reality and identity, artifice and persona. These individuals, he says, are performing a version of their lives for the camera, a fictionalised construct, not a definitive truth of what or who they are. As the critic Michael Cohen puts it, “I am who I say I am although that may not be who I actually am.” According to Ataman, his Protean characters also have no desire to create convincing portraits of the political situations in which they found themselves in Turkey. Their testaments are ‘ironised’ as Irit Rogoff has suggested. If these were documentaries, there would be a political agenda directing the responses of the viewer, what Ataman calls a ‘message’.

Many artists working with extended interview material take a similar position, the most obvious example being Ann-Sofi Siden, who’s made videos with cross-border sex workers in the wake of the velvet revolution. The view is that the media determine experience and we are left performing artificial versions of ourselves, none of which bear much resemblance to the truth (if it could ever be ascertained). This is another version of the old structural linguistics argument that I was brought up with in the 1970s. Language speaks us, we used to say. Nowadays the contention is that reality has been subsumed into spectacle, and has progressively vanished under layers of more or less entertaining representation.

This is of course very convenient for both the sensationalist artist and the voyeuristic audience. If what these people are saying is at least in part their own fabrication, then none of us needs take any responsibility for what they are communicating or what we are doing. For us, these works may be just another spectacle in the procession of pain suffered elsewhere by people who don’t speak English. But Ataman’s subjects do not have what Susan Sontag has recently called ‘the luxury of patronising reality.’ For them the experiences they describe are all too real and it is my contention that in spite of what he says, Ataman intends us to believe them.

He may hide behind post-modern arguments about masquerade and performativity, but Ataman is given away by his choice of subject matter. He himself admits that he only selects subjects that reflect his own experience or proclivities – for example, he initially contacted Veronica Read, because, like her he is an expert in the propagation of the Hippeastrum plant. These works are therefore not only biographies but also autobiographies and of course, Ataman has a notion of the self-image and political colour he wishes to paint himself. He has an agenda, just like television.

semihab-unplugged-kutlug-atlaman.jpgSemihab Unplugged, Kutlug Ataman

In spite of their commonalities, Ataman and his subjects do not, in fact, occupy the same position. As the author of the piece, he is in control of the material and can present his subjects in any way he chooses. And as a long-term U.K. resident, he knows best how their speech is likely to be read through the prism of another, more westernised society. Veronica Read, the only one with local knowledge, expressed a concern that she would be laughed at, would be seen as an eccentric, as obsessive, as the exotic ‘other’.

It is in Ataman’s treatment of the feminine that the gap between subject and object is at its widest. Ataman describes his (mostly female) subjects’ speech as ‘plaintiff stories’, what I would think of as laments and what Irit Rogoff describes as ‘a river of complaint’; and as such emphatically distinguishes himself from them. It is one of the enduring stereotypes of femininity that women’s anger is characterised as whining, or hysteria and all female protest reduced to the neurotic outpourings of the nag or the scold.

This mode of speech is taken up by gay men as part of a process of feminisation, or female mimicry that presents difficulties for some feminists. Marilyn Frye sees female impersonation as “…a cynical mockery of women”. This may be an extreme point of view. It is clear that the transvestites and transsexuals that speak in this exhibition have suffered for their desire to share the objectification of women. As I understand it, in Turkey male prostitutes have to dress as women because homosexuality is outlawed and male prostitution vilified. I can see that under a repressive regime or religion, there is a certain power to be gained by having a sharp tongue. As Ataman himself says, these melodramatic monologues of complaint constitute a site of resistance. The Canadian video artist Nelson Henricks would agree with him when he writes of “the half truths and lies we conspire with to continue our existence.”

But these melodramas or narratives of complaint are also what Christine Gleghill calls “a dignified endurance of fate.” They are the narratives of the disenfranchised and in the context of western feminism and a modern day London, this needs to be sharply distinguished from the political impact of late 20th century feminist activism that legalised abortion and fought for equal pay / opportunity in the art world as in every other walk of life. The civil rights movement did not succeed in abolishing racial segregation in the Southern States through gossip and dressing up. With his delicate affection for the older woman and her chatter, Ataman is in danger of reinforcing regressive feminine stereotypes and symbolically eradicating the history of feminism and resistance to oppression in the western world.

four-seasons-of-veronica-read-kutlug-atlaman.jpgFour Seasons of Veronica Read, Kutlug Ataman

Whatever Ataman’s deeper motives for interviewing these people, they are clearly different from those who contributed their stories to his art. His subjects appear to consider the work to belong, not to the artist, but to each of them. In her video, the fading diva Semiha Berksoy proclaims, “I’m making a documentary about my life.” When I met the transvestite Ceyan Firat, she described the work as “my film”. For her part, Veronica Read sees her participation as a strategy in her ongoing struggle to escape her job as a product manager at the City & Guilds Institute, a job in which she has suffered discrimination and abuse. It becomes clear then that, just as Ataman has his own agenda, not least the pursuit of his own career, the subjects themselves have quite another and the gap between the two raises questions about who or what institution or medium holds the most powerful pawn in the game of fixing meaning, of establishing the truth.

The meaning of the work finally depends less on the subjects’ willingness to tell the truth or the subtexts that betray the artist’s ideological position, but on our willingness to listen and for long enough to grasp more than a superficial impression of what Ataman’s interviewees are attempting to communicate.

Since some of the testaments are over seven hours long, we were unlikely to take away more than a small fragment of the totality that constitutes the subject. To get the whole picture, we would have to commit as much time to listening as they did to telling their stories. Duration then is key to these works. Unlike television documentaries, Ataman allows his subjects to speak uninterrupted for hours. As Laura Hoptman observes in the exhibition catalogue, if we stay with the work long enough, ‘narrative triumphs over titillation’. But the question is, given the choice to move on, are we willing to allow the titillation to give way to a more complex and radical reading? Although these testaments were displayed in a prominent gallery, they had to compete with the media overload that suffuses our lives. They demanded a kind of commitment that we would not normally give, our narrative palates and attention spans being determined by over-consumption of bite sized information disseminated by the mass media. It is likely that large numbers of visitors did not get past the shock value of a man with breasts and a penis seducing his lover or an old woman dressed up in a hideous parody of what she once was.

Ataman has not succeeded in avoiding the pitfalls of documentary – the invocation of truth to promote the interests of author, subject or even the gallery as institution. But he offers the viewer the opportunity to immerse herself in an-other subjectivity, one that demonstrates the continuing inequalities and divisions in the world. He leads us to reflect on our responsibility in colluding with the political structures that maintain oppression. He has made some excellent documentaries.


Catherine Elwes is currently writing a history of video art for publishers I.B. Tauris