Ali Kazma: “Creating a Poetic Archive of the World” (interview)

en français

на русском языке

Born in 1971, in Istanbul, Ali Kazma is a video artist who received his MA degree from the New School in New York City (1998). He works on the way people transform and are transformed by the world they inhabit.

He has exhibited his work at the Istanbul Biennal (2001, 2007, 2011), the Tokyo Opera City (2001), Istanbul Modern (2004), 9th Havana Biennal (2006), Lyon Biennal (2007), Sao Paulo Biennal (2012), the Turkish Pavilion at the Venice Biennal (2013) and has presented a solo exhibition “Subterranean” in Paris at the Jeu de Paume (2017-2018). His work will be exhibited in Buenos Aires (20/05 until 20/06 2018).


Just a few days before the end of his first solo exhibition entitled «Subterranean» at the Jeu de Paume in Paris, video artist Ali Kazma expands on his work and creative energy during a conversation in a café.

1.Where does your curiosity and creative energy come from?


Ali Kazma: I have always been a very curious person, an engaged person. When I was a child, my favorite thing was to read encyclopedias. I would read books, normal books, but I would also read encyclopedias. I would love to start from A and read everything there is. Some things were of course more interesting than others. And I also like to learn, to develop new skills, to have new experiences, to acquire more and for that, I have kind of combined that with my training in visual language and it has now allowed me to go to basically any place I want, to learn, to witness, to try to record, to give shape to my experience and to incorporate it into who I am. So it has been slowly developing, but now it has become a way of being a way of living and creating.



 « The important question, the first one, is how to live. »


2. So, your work is like a transformative process, you are like your own material in some ways?

AK: Yes, of course, the question of course for me, the important question, the first one is how to live. And through these experiences, these projects, I am learning all the different possibilities of being and existing and taking what I want, and sometimes losing what I do not want, it is always a process, a process of interacting with the world, learning from it, giving and taking.

3. Are you often mesmerised?

AK: I am often and especially when I start to work on a specific theme or a subject, something, I am starting to think deeper and look deeper. And when you start to look deeper and educate your attention to keep your attention for a long time, things start to show their essences to you or you start to see it and then, it all becomes quite mesmerising and quite transformative. Almost any subjects. I have never seen a dull subject in the world, if you start to think about it. If you try to understand the context and try to understand how it links to everything else in the world, it all becomes potentially very transformative.


« I have never seen a dull subject in the world. »


4. Sometimes those transformations seem a little a bit extreme, for example the surgical operation (Brain Surgeon, 2006). What do limits and borders represent to you?

AK: Limits is ethics or the image is the limit. Especially when you are dealing with quite intimate things. Operations are intimate, work is intimate, crafts are intimate. I think it’s very important to gauge the distance correctly, it should not be pornographic of course, if you are going to show something quite graphic and strong. I think it is your ethical responsibility to create the context around which that act is performed, not for sensationalism, not for effect, not for a shock but, to show it, because you have to show it.

So the way to do it is by respecting your subject, respecting the image that you are creating and creating the context around these acts, so it’s very important for me to treat these sensitive subjects in a very correct way.

This is the limit. Other than that, I would be willing to seek out experience, all there is in the world.

But to make something of it, you have to have the right approach.

5. You said that you work a lot, you can shoot up to 30 hours, and beyond a certain point, you do need some energy. Are you aware of your limits?

AK: Of course, each work is a little bit different when you are working in a brain surgery for instance. It’s very intense, you can’t miss a second, so you are always under stress to find the right angle. If you’re missing something, you have to be aware of not only what you are shooting but what is coming, what is going to happen, so you have to be ready for that, you have to move out of the way. You can’t be too close, you can’t touch anything, you know it’s a different one. Then, you have other things like landscapes, spaces where you have more time and you work slower, in a more peaceful way, but both are nice. And I always like to push myself a lot, because at some point when you are a little bit tired, you are very invested in a subject, your inhibitions, your brain guards, let’s say, defences of the way you think, you drop your guard. And then strange or new things start to enter your brain, you start to see other things. Your defences are lower, so I think one of the reasons I work very hard in my shooting is to reach that level, where I do not have any defences anymore. And I can see the thing for itself, it happens also, this exhaustion helps you see new things.

Not always, but sometimes.

6. To you, observing, contemplating something requires time and after a long observation, you feel that you somehow deserve what is happening to you. What does being attentive mean to you?


Recto Verso (2012)

AK: You have to be attentive, I mean. First, you have to commit to your subject. It can be a human being, it can be a space, you have to be there, you have to respect it, you cannot just treat it like a subject matter, very harshly, even in your movements, you have to go slow. You do not disrupt things around. You have to spend time there, you have to spend more time, with patience. Your attention should be focused, you cannot be playing with your phone and that’s why I don’t also shoot with people. You need to concentrate and I believe maybe this is a very personal, psychological thing, but I believe that if you put enough time and energy and concentration and thought into a space or your work, that space or that person or that object, that thing starts to give something back to you. It becomes an exchange, and it starts to penetrate into you, and you start to understand that space. Not in a very analytical way, but you feel the space also and then that also translates into the image. I don’t know how to really explain that better than this, but there are moments when I know that I’m getting good images. There are other moments when I know that I am not. But even the moments when you are not getting the good images prepare you for that moment when you are to get good images. Everything, everyone do not always show you what they are about, and when they do, it is a short period. With the right light, with the right rhythm, the right psychology for a person or something else, with the right ambient sound for another space, it tells you something. You have to be there, you have to pay attention and you have to be concentrated to receive it. This is what I mean, it sounds more spiritual than what I want to say, but you have to be there when that object decides to show what it is to you. You cannot be goofing around, you have to be there, otherwise you miss it.

7. One of your works is entitled How to Film a Poet? (2011) Are you still working on filming artists?

AK: I have done quite a bit of work with artists. Some writers for instance the work House of Letters is about the writer Alberto Manguel’s house and through that work I tried to follow what kind of a life what kind of a space is created. When one lives with books, reads, writes, collects and arranges the space and his life around the form of a book. And this was an important work for me and I also worked with a painter and some dancers. Two artist studios, one of them is Sarkis (l’Atelier Sarkis, 2015) and Fusun Onur. I went into their studios to try to record the traces of their creative activities, the final products as well as the process they have run through in those spaces.

So it’s something I am still working on.

8. Do you think you will try to film an architect?

AK: Yes, it’s one of the projects I have, for sure. But, it has to be a project I love, an architect I respect and love, because I think architecture unless you go and shoot the finished places of the architect, which is also one possibility, it will be one of the longer-term projects, if I’m going to shoot the construction, the making, so it has to be the right one and I can’t shoot two, three times, I usually do one work on each topic.

So, it has to be the right one.

9. Have you ever thought of becoming an architect before? Was it a dream?

AK: I started studying architecture for a while, for one year, but I was not very good, so I understood it was not natural for me. I am not the best in navigating in space, as opposed to navigating in time. I am better. When I started to work with film, I knew immediately, it was very real for me, I felt it as a space more than the space itself. So, I knew I could work with that, but with space navigating in space, imagining the space I didn’t feel I was very good. And if you’re not very good, no matter how long you put into it, if it’s not natural, I don’t think that you will get to the point where you will start to learn from your work. And I think that’s why I stopped I understood I would always have a kind of resentment, something bitter with my relationship to architecture.

10. You have been traveling on a map of territories you were interested in and you mentioned the fact that you wanted maybe to go to the sky or dig and go back to the central fire …  Are you still working on creating a poetic archive of the world?

AK: Yes, I am.

Now, I’m starting a new project on the sea, the ocean and I have done no works on that so far and it will be this year, I will only be working on the topic, this is why I am going to Brittany to start that.

So, yes.

11. In one of your interviews you mentioned going from Baku to Istanbul through a pipeline. Are borders central to your work?

AK: A network, even a network underground.


Subterranean (2016)

I’m not so interested in the borders of the countries because they are changing, I mean from a historical point of view, yes it’s interesting. But I, I am more interested in the borders of psychology, of emotions, of territories and geographies. These things I’m very interested in : limits of experiences, pushing those limits. And when people push themselves to those limits, what happens at that level because in most of the work I do, I work with people who are very good at what they do. And they are always pushing the boundaries of what is possible within their activity and this is interesting because you’re pushing to stomp unchartered territories, unchartered maps and you you’re finding out things about the material, about yourself about the possibilities, that’s interesting for me.

12. As you have explored new territories, are you now interested in a topography? With Teatime (2017) you revisited Rolling Mills (2007), are you going in spiral?

AK: There are certain works I have done, which I will revisit for sure, because in most of the works I have done, when I was marking this territory, creating this map, let’s say, I wanted to show as much as I could about this activity. Most of the time, I wanted to give a form to a general understanding of the activity, but now, I can take one single aspect of the activity, and that’s what I mean when I want to dig. I want to go deeper onto that one aspect of a point on the map, so instead of a flat map, now we have mountains, we have vales, we have the sky, so this is what I try to mean. In some of the places I revisited already and there are things I would like to explore deeper, Teatime is one like that.

13. You have a notebook, that you have not published yet. Will that ever be published?Do you often write notebooks before shooting? We can see a picture of a page from your notebook in your book entitled Subterranean (2017, Jeu de Paume-Filigranes Éditions)


Rainer Maria Rilke, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge (trans. by Robert Vilain Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), p 67

AK: This picture you have here … I have notebooks where I write down the things I read, to remember when I read books. I mark certain passages and I rewrite them down some passages, but what you see there is a passage from a book by Rilke. And the writer, who is a friend, who wrote the text, she refers to that text because we have talked about that moment in Rilke’s book with her and she was really interested in that, she had read this text and she had forgotten about it. And she starts with that, she uses that text in the book, so she wanted to print it and I said ok.


« It also comforts me to remember that I remember so many things. »


14. Do you often write?

AK: Well, I write little notes for myself about the making, editing, preparation. Technical things and I read them again before shooting because it keeps me fit, like an athlete, it helps me concentrate on the project and also comforts me to remember that I remember so many things.

15. How do you work with sounds?

AK: As you know, I am always using existing sounds, I am never adding sounds. I only use the sounds that exist in the space or in the work itself. To me, sound and image are like skin and flesh, you know and to tear them apart I don’t feel very good, so I use them as they are. But in my work, it seems to me that they belong together, so I always use the sound that exists and in the exhibitions. As you noticed probably, they are not loud, I like them to whisper to one another, to remind you of what you saw in the last room.


« I’m experimenting with those sounds, trying to create an exhibition, which is also a piece in itself. »


16. You mentioned a “glue”. When you watch House of Letters (2015), you can hear a bell and it’s very subtle.

AK: Yes, there are certain sounds, which are sounds-anchors in the exhibition. One of them is the bell that comes back every 5 minutes, another one is the Clock Master’s bell that comes about every 15 minutes. There are certain things that when you are in the exhibition, I was hoping you would, even when you’re watching something else, remember the other work and you would remember a sensation, a feeling you had maybe about time, so it also creates another layer to you experience. I’m experimenting with those sounds, trying to create an exhibition, which is also a piece in itself.

17. And as viewers, we feel that each room is very different and the black frames are very powerful. What is the function of these black frames around your works?


Calligraphy (2013)

AK: I have been developing these for a long time before, many years ago. I would paint all the rooms in black and then when everything is black, space is undefined, it feels very undefined, you don’t know how to move, you don’t know where the wall ends. It’s kind of a murky feeling, so I decided slowly to cut the black at certain points, so you could anchor your body, position your body, know the possibilities of movement within the space and see the limits of the space. And then, slowly and slowly, sometimes I am using even lights, I am sending a light to the corner of the room, so that you have the volume, so you understand where your body is, perspectives that exist for you within the room because I want people to experience the exhibition with their bodies, with their own movements, their own rhythms, their own changing visual perspectives so I’m trying to use less and less black, but I want the quality of the image to come, so I need to use it but also to use those black frames to define the space to define relationship between works.

18. It is very powerful, each visit to your exhibition is completely different for many reasons.

AK: I think I want to give the bodies a chance to make their own narrative in the space with their own rhythm, their own pace, their own movements. So it’s important that they see what the room is, that they can see where they can move.

19.Your exhibition at the Jeu de Paume makes the viewers particularly active, how do you trigger that?

AK: I am very happy with this exhibition. I am learning more about how to present the works. In these fractured spaces you know, how to use the rooms, how to create a narrative, what kind of rhythms are possible. It’s not so easy to do that with videos because they all have their own rhythms. It is not necessarily about the themes of the videos, it’s something completely different, how one rhythm works and the others don’t.

It’s very strange and you learn.

20. You tackle subjects that could be seen as very graphic or violent and at the same time you have a very soft approach. How do you manage to be both crude and gentle at the same time?


Taxidermist (2010)

AK: I think some of the gentlest motions in the exhibition are when the students are touching the dead body. It is very fragile and they want to learn. It is the work they have chosen for themselves. It is a difficult job trying to learn it and the way they treat that cadaver. It is a graphic moment, but it is extremely soft and sensual too.

And another person I think, who is both, is the taxidermist. I know that he loves animals, he feeds animals, he learns from animals, but yet he is doing this kind of work so I think the two exist together, one without the other is lying. And it creates a missing, incomplete understanding of the world we live in. I think that they are together. And to concentrate on one, it can be graphic or violent or the other, I think, would be to misrepresent the world

As I see it, it has to be the right balance

21. Can contradictions fight against simplification?

AK: Yes, contradictions make simplification very difficult. We have to understand that there are certain positions, there are questions in life and there is not one answer. If you decide to act in one way, you lose another. When you act another way, you do lose another, and no matter what you do, on reflection, you will find out that you could have done it differently. But it does not mean that if you would have done it differently, it would have been better. And in a lot of the big problems in life, and even in the small problems, we face in life, there is no solution, but we have to exist with un-solutions. And we have to make our peace with that, this should not terrorise us or freeze us. We should still move, but knowing that there is not one, for sure, perfect solution, action, decision we can make.

We continue…

That’s the way of the world.


January 2018, Paris.

© Sabrina de Velder

en français

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