If the attempted military coup on July 15, 2016 had succeeded
and the curfews and martial law were imposed the following morning, the
contemporary art field here would most likely have come to a halt for at least
a year. But even before the coup, Turkey’s contemporary artists had been using
tactics of invisibility in order to keep themselves safe. In the last decade
there has been a rise in the number of collectives who use pseudonyms while
producing their works. Oda Projesi, Extramücadele, Hafriyat art group, -__-,
iç-mihrak and Anti-pop are among the leading names who rose to fame in the
2000s. Members of art collectives put the names of their group before their own
names, using them as cloaks beneath which they can more daringly produce art.
Some known to be behind those names work in the advertising industry, others
are academics and filmmakers: anonymity saves them from choosing between
lucrative careers and radical experimentation that can get them into political
“Acting anonymously liberates you since it allows you to leave your identity behind,” Amira Arzık, a curator with Istanbul’s Pilot Gallery, said. “Watching the coup at-tempt on 15 July, I was reminded of the Turkish artist Burak Arıkan who reflected on how the artistic community would manage to stay in touch if all the communication channels were cut during a coup. Following the assassination of [the Turkish-Armenian journalist] Hrant Dink in 2007, a similarly traumatic event, an art collective was founded to allow the artistic community to be in touch. The anonymous 19 January Collective produced posters that combined activism and art, and that way connected people who were looking for answers regarding the assassination of Dink.”
A legendary example of Turkish artistic collectives is 2/5 BZ. Founded in Istanbul in 1986, the multimedia project is known for using a combination of old films, zines, tapes and computer games in its video installations. The resulting patchwork always features a strong critique of Turkish capitalism and nationalism. From the gentrification of the cities to the killing of the country’s minorities, 2/5 BZ had been on the front line of activism and art in Turkey and managed to move freely, thanks to its anonymity. In 2013 it became the leading collective at the environmental protests in Istanbul’s Gezi Park.
“I was one of the people in Gezi Park, the very first day the uprising went huge with millions of people around the country,” 2/5 BZ wrote on the collective’s Vimeo page. “During that police strike early in the morning, I was among a few people in that moment, who were being criminalised and terrorised because of their opponent positions. They wanted to bring me down, they targeted me, shot directly and consecutively towards me but could not succeed. However I fell and got injured. I have 22 titanium joints inside my shoulders. It has been two years now but the treatment and controls still goes on beside the court process.”
An artist who followed in the footsteps of 2/5 BZ is Extramücadele, known as Extrastruggle in English. Extrastruggle’s work is, according to international art brokers Sotheby’s who sell it for thousands of pounds, “a moniker for a fictional graphic design company” and “a voice for the minorities in contemporary Turkey; the revolutionary, the Islamist, the intellectual and the rest”. Two icons frequently used by Extrastruggle are burqa-wearing women (meant to symbolise Islam) and Mustafa Kemal Ataturk (the icon of the secularism of the Turkish Republic). Often these symbolic figures are juxtaposed in an effort to overcome cultural and political divides. Such works have become so popular, over the last decade, that Extrastruggle’s cover was blown: nowadays, on his website (extramucadele.com) he uses his real name alongside the pseudonym.
Anti-pop, another Turkish anonymous artist who uses tactics of invisibility to escape the wrath of authorities, made a name via the website Anti-pop.com. There, images taken from Turkey’s mainstream press are manipulated in order to show the discrimination of various groups in the country. Anti-pop’s 2010 work Alevis in Turkey manipulates a Wikipedia map of Alawi groups in Turkey. Marking their existence in the country with the ominous red colour, it places location pins on the cities of Malatya and Maras, two cities where Alawi people were massacred by racists in 1970 and 1977.
“Traumas and ruptures in the social sphere result in art collectives,” Arzık said. “Some use pseudonyms, thinking about the reactions to their works and using those names as precautions. At times anonymous art works produced on the streets, like those during the environmental protests at Gezi Park, can overshadow art works signed by the artists.”
he use of pseudonyms has a long tradition in the Turkish art world. In Orhan Pamuk’s 1999 novel My Name is Red, miniature artists Butterfly, Stork and Olive produce brilliant images and illustrate Islamic books while their real names are hidden from the reader. The convention is part of a tradition that accepts Ottoman artists and their freedom to work behind pen names. In Pamuk’s novel, those artists are also murder suspects. It is their stylistic peculiarities as artists which give them away. The detective characters in My Name is Red can see their signatures in their art as well as in the murder of a fellow miniaturist; anonymity is liberating and lethal in the same instance.
In the poetic tradition of Ottoman literature, too, pseudonyms have long been a common feature. Authors would publish their divan poems, a tradition influenced by Persian use of symbolism, under pen names meant to best represent them: a poet known for the elegance of his rhetoric would be known as Zarifi (elegant), for example, and a more fanciful poet used the name Hayali (imaginary). According to conventions of divan poetry, the made-up name had to be used once in the final stanza of every work the poet produced. Of course, the authorities in the Ottoman palace knew who those poets were. When poets using pseudonyms were seen to be insulting the sultan, the writers were swiftly caught and in one terrifying example Nesimi (a poet known for his unorthodox religious beliefs) was skinned alive.
According to Turkish critic and art historian Süreyyya Evren, who recently edited the User’s Manual 2.0, a book on the history of Turkish contemporary art, the increased use of pseudonyms among Turkish contemporary artists is linked to the phenomenon of the “precariat”, a term used to refer to people without job security, as well as under political pressure.
People who suffer from precariousness, Evren explained, were not members of the working class, nor were they real employees of companies. “They are always in between and are forced to embody a metaphor,” Evren said. “These people who use such pseudonyms point to a new subjectivity. People manage their own name and turn into CEOs of their own brands. Members of the precariat are allowed to establish their own order.” Like conscientious objectors who would burn their identity cards in a symbolic act to move out of the identity given to them by the state, contemporary artists use made-up names in order to produce new identities for themselves. “This way they create a new balance between work and life,” Evren said. This way an artist can fight against political power under a made-up name and work at a company in order to pay the bills. “It is about image management as well as a tactic of invisibility.”
The propaganda design collective iç-mihrak is another group that uses such tactics. The collective aims at “designing high-quality propaganda material for anarchist/an-tiauthoritarian groups/individuals, completely free of charge”, according to its website (ic-mihrak.blogspot.com.tr). In one poster iç-mihrak celebrates the new school year with a poster that features a hangman image, where the letters Q, W, X hang from a rope. The cryptic word below reads K_RT_E (Kurtce, or Kurdish), reflecting the battle Kurdish activists long fought to be taught in state schools. “Dada Inside” reads another logo that copies the “Intel Inside” stickers, with “Semiotic Terrorism” inscribed underneath where the name of the processor normally is.
“Our fuel is fragments of official and popular culture (icons, iconic persons, slogans, sentimental sayings, modern and traditional values, universes of faith),” the group announced. “And the product of our initiative is a loud, uncontrollable laughter accompanied by stomach cramps that come from a sense of guilt—a state of euphoria.”