2012 Text by Felix Ruhöfer

Communication Systems in the Interplay of Design Processes in Society

In considering the heterogeneous artistic practice of Özlem Günyol and Mustafa Kunt, it seems helpful to look at the social and cultural contexts that their art encompasses, rather than to orient oneself based on formal models for the production of a work. A central theme in their joint work seems to be the examination of media communicated images and systems of signs, as well as links between linguistic and visual experience. How these affect the collective and individual differentiation of identities, which are shaped and mediated by cultural and social conditions, is a theme that is inherent in their art. It also touches on questions regarding the representation of power within subject formation in the media, and illustrates this in a lucid and extremely multifaceted formal working method. In their works of recent years, the power theoretical connection between the production and reception of images in our everyday culture plays a prominent role. The examination of linguistic forms of communication in the media also becomes visible as a central element in their art, despite the fact that Gü̈nyol and Kunt’s innovative practice makes it difficult to clearly separate specific thematic areas from one another. As a result, their works reveal the pervasion and interdependence of aspects of media and power, and their connection to the cultural, social, and political understanding of identity in our society today.

In addition to the conceptual approach, what also becomes visible again and again in Günyol and Kunt’s work is how a unique characteristic of art—the aesthetic experience— is revealed as a central point of concentration. The works, which are linked to complex social questions, also function in their conceptual orientation as a challenging aesthetic experience. They thus refer to the potential of contemporary art to generate meaning beyond our media shaped everyday experience as a system of signs without having to refer back to written, or purely textual intermediaries. In Günyol and Kunt’s work, art shows itself to be a discipline that makes reference to a broadly based sensual field, and thus facilitates a separate form of access to our environment. What becomes evident in their works is how formal aesthetic aspects take on significance within their working method while at the same time critically examining social themes.

The works of the artist duo can be structured into loose groups of works that invoke linguistic, gestural, symbolic, and purely visually characterized intermediaries. Nonetheless, these systems of communication repeatedly overlap within their artistic practice and frequently produce intersections or form associative connections within the particular works. The significance and function of linguistic mediation has already played a central role in the works of Günyol und Kunt for a number of years.

The work with the Turkish title, Avrupalılaştırabildiklerimizdenmisiniz? (2006), for example, is based on a play with words that is able to generate a complex, grammatically correct and multifaceted statement from one word through appending prefixes, suffixes, or appendixes. School children in Turkey use this game as a language exercise. The root of the word Avrupa—in English “Europe”— is used here as an initial form from which new meanings and questions are formulated by adding additional word fragments. By appending the syllable “lı” to Avrupa, meaning “Europe,” one gets the English word “European,” Avrupalı, while adding a further suffix, in turn, means “to become European,” Avrupalılaş. By means of further additions, the root Avrupa can thus become a construction that would be formulated in English as a sentence, and in translation have the meaning: “Are you one of those who we were able to make become European?” Avrupalılaştırabildiklerimizdenmisiniz?

Avrupalılaştırabildiklerimizdenmisiniz? was first placed on the outside wall of a building in the multi-cultural area surrounding Frankfurt am Main’s train station—in an effort to reach the Turkish-speaking population—as a twenty- six-meter-long lettering. The highly controversial debate taking place in Germany and Turkey about whether Turkey belongs to Europe thus—as a semantic game—becomes an open call to question cultural, political, and social localization in Turkey, in Germany, and in particular in that part of the city characterized by migrants in which the work was presented.

The work, moreover, also raises the question of historical, political, and cultural belonging on a fundamental level and inspires consideration of how the ideas of participation, affiliation, and difference have to be renegotiated again and again in Germany and Turkey, as well as in diverse social fields.

In the work Fresh Like the First Day, developed in 2011, the significance of linguistic mediation for the constitution of communities and the genesis of value systems also becomes visible. The installation work consists of fifty-three books bound in black and displayed for visitors to look at and read, in an area that is part of the work. Each of the books has a letter from the Turkish alphabet, a punctuation mark, or a number that is used in the Turkish Constitution of 1982 embossed in gold on the front side on a black ground. Each of the characters used in the constitution is isolated in one of the fifty-three books from all the others and presented in exactly the same position on the page on which it is located in the text as a whole. What is thus created is a convolution that is shaped by omissions and empty spaces forming strangely abstract structures.

Fresh Like the First Day was developed during a stay in Istanbul and is typical of how Günyol and Kunt work. The motivation for developing this work is based on the debate about the extensive changes to the Turkish Constitution that were adopted by the military government in 1982, a debate that came to a provisional end as the result of a referendum in 2010 in which the majority of the Turkish population voted in favor of the proposals of the ruling party. In Fresh Like the First Day, in a simple process of deconstruction, the consecutive text of the Constitution becomes a differentiated index of signs in fifty-three volumes, which in their entirety have a value that is constitutive for Turkish society. Through this act of dissection, what opens up in the work is a space of thought and association that questions the significance of signs and their function as an element that is constitutive for society. The isolated letter loses its semantic meaning when it is not integrated within a context of a differing system of signs. The obvious use of metaphorical aspects in thework of Günyol and Kunt, who frustrate all naive comparisons through such usage, is shown, or so it seems, in the empty spaces and gaps that the alleged text in the individual volumes of Fresh Like the First Day exhibits. The installation encourages graphic consideration of the factors that constitute society. Is it rigid systems, like a text, that makes this possible, or is it the interplay of the individual and the collective that gives momentum to the open spaces to be defined in order to facilitate participation and community?

The work When the justice properly works, then there is no room for compassion (2010) brings together a linguistic form of communication with a historically rigidified gestural one concealed behind it. Formally rigorous in its arrangement, the work consists of a vitrine standing on a base with the same basic dimensions. The black vitrine with its glazed upper side, sits on the lacquered white base and contains fifty-nine accurately sharpened pencils laid out next to one another. A letter or punctuation mark is imprinted in gold paint on each of the pencils so that it is possible to read the title of the work. The sentence When the justice properly works, then there is no room for compassion, which serves as the title, refers to a common practice of judges in Turkey, as well as other countries, of publicly breaking the pen with which a death sentence judgment was signed. Those who do not find such judgments ethically acceptable, despite being required by the legal situation, follow this practice. The symbolic act is expressed in the field of tension that arises between the state function of the judge and subjective assessment of the judgments he or she issues. In this sculptural work, what becomes particularly visible is the strategy that the artist duo often employs of staging the inherent quality of aesthetic experience through evocatively and metaphorically charging it. The formal rigor of the work, as well as the hermeticism, with which the pencils— precisely positioned and distanced from the viewer by means of a massive pane of glass—are presented is associated with the negation of scope for action, although the symbolic reaction of breaking the pencil is still allowed as a minimal, subjective form of articulation
vis-a-vis the government. The experience of the work and the social background to which the work refers, as well as the associative relationships that are established between these two parameters, form a lucidly choreographed setting.

The work …AND JUSTICE FOR ALL! (2010) consists of a twenty-two-meter-long rope with a diameter of approximately five centimeters, which is uniformly illuminated and accurately rolled up into a loose circle on a base. The precision with which the rope was worked is also obvious to laypeople as a result of the tight twists and the precisely knotted and fixed ends. There is a certain relationship of tension between this clearly expert production technique and the relatively low-quality material, which calls to mind simple linen or woven fabric. Although a rope is allegedly presented here as art in the sense of a readymade, doubt nonetheless remains with respect to whether this rope is actually alienated from a functional purpose—the material seems too soft to have been visibly taken to the limits of its resilience through stretching and twisting. Moreover, within the twisted material, intense green, yellow, orange, and blue fields of color stand out and impart a rhythm that punctuates the beige and ocher shades of the rest of the material.

Closer examination of the object intensifies the doubt about an existence of the rope that is exclusively oriented towards functionality since a brief comment on it explains that the rope was originally a protest banner bearing the lettering that serves as the title, …AND JUSTICE FOR ALL! What becomes apparent here is the goal of staging confusion beyond the production of a rope, confusion based in the change of material properties, and thus the processing of a cloth banner into a rope. The transformation of a banner into a rope initially makes reference to a process that can be understood as an alienation of the original functional context and, therefore, devalues it. At the same time, the object is now positioned in a new semantic field: art.

If the banner served to communicate a political message or social demand that was supposed to be addressed in public, the rope now shows itself to be an object that is in the position to initiate a holistic pattern of thought. It seems as if the work’s ability to provide a link to social issues is carried out and leaves the pure-object character of the work behind. And on this reading, an associative possibility for reading the rope, which can now also be interpreted as a tether, in turn evokes questions regarding the mechanisms of justice and the power relationships that stand behind them. Can the rope be understood as a functional symbol of the cohesion of social groups? Can the rope be understood as an image of interconnectedness and thus communication, which is able to generate connections, social exchange, and belonging? And as a result of the process of transforming a banner into a rope, is the thought pattern of a textual approach to social questions not pushed forward to become a metaphorical, and thus universal, non-linguistic level of expression?

The function and presence of gestural systems of communication, as they are generally experienced by being mediated through the media, forms the thematic starting point for the two works On the Stage (2010) and Persuasion Exercises (2011). Conceived during the election campaign in Ankara in 2011 as a public space site-specific work, Persuasion Exercises illustrates the varied gestures of a male individual acting in isolation in front of a white background in seventeen posters, executed in black and white on a billboard. The basis for the posters was an actor engaged by Günyol and Kunt who rehearsed the gestures in front of the camera and finally acted out one final pose for each gesture from campaign posters and from politicians from the local election campaign. Using their gestures and the presence before the camera, politicians attempt to convey a specific image in order to embody conviction, strength of purpose, seriousness, and other attributes that seem to be of importance in campaigning for political office. Through deliberately isolating the protagonist in front of a white background and the subsequent reintegration in the public space shaped by the propaganda images of the political parties, the billboard first has the effect of an abstract, sketch-like image of the scarcely scrutinized gestures of candidates for political offices. In combination with the campaign posters, however, the wall located on one of the main transport axes in Ankara developed a subversive potential since the gestures themselves—but not their design executed in black and white rows—made a formal closeness to the political image compositions visible. The mechanism of convincing through using purely gestural means of expression and the presence of these gestures mediated by the media, as well as the interchangeability of the individuals who are active and the contents that are presumably behind them, reveal the multiply fractured relationship between our superficial attention economy and the dominance of media staged gestures in the public space—the physical as well as the virtual.

These gestures and poses staged in the public space within the context of government responsibility stand opposite a non-government oppositional form of mediating physical movement, patterns, and gestures in the video work On the Stage. In the short film a dancer invited by the artists rehearses poses borrowed from photographs of actual demonstrations with concentrated intensity before a black background. The academic, professional, and intense way in which the dancer rehearses the mostly spontaneous gestures presents a clearly perceptible contrast to the movement patterns of masses of individuals as they become visible in the case of demonstrations.

In On the Stage, the field of tension between spontaneous and deliberately rehearsed gestures provides an alternative visual accessibility to the problematic transformation of the physical presence of the protagonist, who performs a reenactment of the gestures of demonstrators, and breaks them down into an isolated symbolic character. In the reduced representation, the pose is no longer visible as a reaction to the contents of statements, but is instead presented as a purely visual and physical symbol beyond any thematic significance. Compared with the staged media presence of political images as questioned in Persuasion Exercises, in On the Stage gesture
appears as an expressive sign that radiates activity and dynamism from within itself. Paradoxically, outside of content-related fields of meaning, both types of gestures function as a reference to the difficulty of classifying form and content within instances of mediation. At the same time, the two works address the complex compression of media perceived signs as a trigger for our attention.

Specifically within the context of current discussions about the utility of art, the works of Günyol and Kunt are clearly located in an intermediate position between engaged and explicitly socio-critical art, and efforts to facilitate creative articulations of an autonomous sphere of responsibility beyond functional or social questions. With regard to a hasty classification of their art within a political orientation, the works favor of a regime of visibility, which Jacques Rancière would position as a basis for political as well as artistic spheres of activity. Rancière attempts to attribute a position of resistance to art, a position that is not based on a transcendence of our modes of experience, but rather sets down the distinctive features of aesthetic visual experience with respect to the political and social spheres of our actions. For him, politics is always fundamentally an order that divides our world and subordinates particular aspects. Assumed in this theory is the resistance of the individual in order to define this order anew again, and again as a speaking being. Art fulfills the role of keeping the resistance potential open without embodying it itself. Rancière identifies art here not as a bearer of resistance and reclassification, but rather as an open space for reflecting on the fundamental possibilities of resistance and reflexive access to existing systems.1The sensitive question of how art—without making a political statement through clearly taking a pro or contra position and thus, according to Rancière, becoming politics itself— can still continue to maintain an independent status vis-a-vis the political is fundamentally anchored in Özlem Günyol and Mustafa Kunt’s working method.

As becomes apparent in the interpretations of the works, within the context of their critical and artistic references, the artist duo looks directly at experienced differences between various models of individual and collective understanding of identity, and how they are mediated through the media. Contemplation of which construction mechanisms for culturally and historically shaped disciplining authorities in various cultures, and how value systems influence the individual again and again, forms the starting point for their lucid, artistic activities. Those artistic activities understand how to articulate statements about our present world for society as a whole without negating the intrinsic value of aesthetic experience as a productive empirical model.

1 Jacques Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible, ed. and trans. by Gabriel Rockhill (New York, 2004).


ars viva 12/13. Systeme
Simon Denny. Özlem Günyol & Mustafa Kunt. Melvin Moti

Hrsg. Kulturkreis der deutschen Wirtschaft, Texte von Magali Arriola, Mathieu Malouf, Felix Ruhöfer, Nicolaus Schafhausen, Gestaltung von Joachim Bartsch, Timo Grimberg

Reihe: Ars Viva

Deutsch, Englisch

2012. 144 Seiten, 132 Abb.

21,50 x 28,50 cm

ISBN 978-3-7757-3514-8