This conversation was conducted by e-mail in April and May 2023. It took place during preparations for the exhibition Beyond Home at Kunstraum Kreuzberg/Bethanien (10.06-20.08 2023). It is an edited, shortened version for the journal context. At the beginning of the exchange, Seçil chose three works which were then used as doors, providing the direction and helping her and Mika to come deeper into dialogue. It was agreed that both sides reply at least once each day, resulting in a fast-moving conversation in three individual parts, which moves from the particular and specific into the common and the shared.
Mika Hannula: This is it; this is the beginning of the beginning. We start with the easy one: what do you do when you do what you do?
Or to give it another twist, another turn. You are on a long flight, and the person in the next seat asks you what you do. You answer: I am an artist. Then this person asks: Yes, sure, but, well, what kind of an artist? And your answer is?
Seçil Yersel: I smile. I look out from the plane window, thinking why they make these windows so small and then try to get back to the person or to the question, so close this person sits, no space really, no distance, anyhow I smile again. Then I continue: “This is always a difficult question for me to reply. I use the act of taking photographs, writing and sounding to reflect on present moments, present moments that give me a potential other to what they are.” The person looks confused, smiles back hmmm… I try to continue but I keep looking at the light that comes behind him, thinking we are in the air somewhere I don’t know, passing through borders, I can’t associate myself with any of the places we pass by, so weird that we are all up in the air without thinking and realizing we are, and what a question to come now, in between spaces.
I continue “Let me put it this way; I am an artist that relates herself in the middle of time and space; and looks for what is there really where we don’t see, finds moments to expand or moments to dive in or moments to be absorbed by. And then with all these collections of moments in different forms, I create narratives-togetherness. I am an artist that gathers and collects for making other narratives that deal with potentials. I think I am not generally convinced with what I see and experience, I want to go beyond it.” He looks more confused, smiles again. “Sounds interesting but I can’t say I got it fully” he says. I smile back and say “I did not also…”
MH: The first photo, first out of three. What do we see, what’s going on?
SY: A piece. A piece of a whole, left, I think after the war, the time when the destruction is making the pieces more important than the whole. A power holding a …. A word making a meaning from a …. So, what we have now is what needs to be imagined, and this triggers the memory, the memory of pieces maybe.
MH: Ok, lets continue. There is an empty slot, something to fill – with emotions in motions. How is that you fill it, right here, right now – what is it that you see when you see this image? What are its connections to your past-as-now, to present-as-now and, finally, to future-as-now?
SY: Something to fill or I would better say something to inhabit. When I see this image, I see a permanent struggle, which ends up with a fragment or a glimpse of its aim. The connection to my past as a remembrance can be a response to the big H History (can be my Dad if we work from the Freudian couch, or the destruction of the archetype of the Ruler if we take the Jungian approach.) I see also the power, the hand that does not let go of what he is holding; full of desire and passion.
MH: You mention that this photo has a function, saying that you “use this photo as a binding piece or a beginning piece in my visual narratives.” What do you mean – what is a visual narrative in context?
SY: This photo can repeat itself. Looks like a book, pages have photos and texts, this photo appears from time to time. Sometimes with a word even.
MH: What would that word, in this case be?
SY: Corpus Callosum.1
MH: But to continue with the idea of visual narrative. Is this type of photo an example of a visual diary, or a way to take notes? If yes, what is that you do with them?
SY: Let’s say ‘a way to take notes’ or create sentences. It’s not really about the type of the photo, but I can say my way of taking notes is taking photographs. To say ‘diary’ would limit the act of taking photographs, because photographs are related or engaged with the time or place where they are taken. (Collecting hypomnemata; material memories of things read, heard or thought). The content of the image is just to do with how I see, but not with what is seen. I use these images to formulate a narrative, through what I choose to bring together. Zum Beispiel, with these three images I sent to you, there occurs a sequence. It’s like I am after some traces, some leftovers; and continuously looking for and gathering the pieces, claiming to see a bigger picture.
MH: Ok, let’s move to the practice of collecting – material, anecdotes, whatever. In a scale from 1 to 111, how much of a collector of images are you?
MH: Here’s an obvious follow-up, why do you collect?
Cause I think I need proof.
I don’t know.
Hmmm… maybe I am lost.
When I was a small being, I did not get the explanation of the world, I grew up in my mother’s oil paintings, looking at Caravaggio and the others, thinking that Jesus and the rest are flesh and blood and suffering always, looking straight in the eye of Medusa, my mother’s back and all the women in her paintings. Sooo… I need to create meaning with how I see. Oh, and also my father with his strict explanations of the world, knowledge was unbearable… I am collecting the pieces; because the whole, the system, the mass is not satisfying, the linear and the horizontal is not enough. I have the urgency to create meaning, as if it is all meaningless, Bedeutungslos (there is always a loss or less) hmm... It can also be like, the remains of the day might be for me more important than the day, and the other day. So, I believe that there are layers of meaning on the things that we see, this is some kind of an archeological approach I have. (Thinking how fascinated I am with Aby Warburg).
MH: Would you use this photo in an exhibition?
SY: Yes. Now that you ask, I could see this photo not so small not so big and placed to the side of an entrance. Not eye level, more up. If with a sound (some of my photos have their sounds I believe) this time at the end of a corridor.
MH: Did you use this photo in an exhibition of yours and when did you last do a show with photos?
SY: I did not use this photo in an exhibition. (These photos that I have sent you were not exhibited. But the second one with a text was used in a magazine)
The last time that I exhibited photos as photos was in the 100 Jahre Stadt/Zeit/Kunst Schoeler exhibition, Schoeler, Berlin (2020). Framed photos came together. A bit lost in a crowded exhibition, not placed in a good site. Framed photographs always disturb me, especially mine, uncomfortable with frames. And some of my photographs were shown in the Akis exhibition, Apartment Project, Berlin (2021); but they were used in a video work with a text. A very slow-motion camera scanning the photographs one after the other, one after the other.
MH: First to frames as in framed photographs. What’s wrong with frames?
SY: Frame frames.
Frame limits, subtracts, puts at a distance, it does not exist, I mean normally a frame does not exist. We frame. Why, why, why… To focus, to create the other. Frame is a bit fake. A frame imitates, exaggerates. (There are good frames but rare, well thought of, color shape, how it is placed) what is the help of a frame? To sell? To hang, to carry.
Frame stops the meaning or prevents the meaning to evolve (generally).
MH: Let’s get conceptual – the idea of a non-event, and an image that has a not-yet-defined index, a lack of direct point of reference, a deliberate ambiguity. Is this somehow interesting to you – and why so? As in: if you want to say something, why not say it straight with no chaser?
SY: What I want to say is this ‘deliberate ambiguity’, it is not ‘interesting’ to me, it is what I see, or what I witness.
So, for me meaning / reference comes later, not before.
WHEN it comes before, then we get it or we think we get it (see it).
So, the world outside of me is (not always but sometimes) giving me the clues to seeing things as they are. This ‘lackness’ allows us to reconsider what we see again, turn back to it, and connect it with other means. These photographs can be considered as ‘conjunctions’ in a sentence.
MH: We’ll move on – second photo, second part of the ongoing conversation, its push and pull, give and take.
Thus, the basics. With this photo: what’s going on, what’s the context, what’s the specific fascination with an image like this?
SY: I don’t know what is going on, what might have happened, not an earthquake, so much disorder, feels insecure, can one walk on this, can one sleep on this, is this a house, there is a Saturn sign, seen through one of the windows, the floor broken into pieces but still has a rhythm, if I try to walk on it, I need to be careful, it sounds also when one walks, cracks, a bit like the scattered memory, a space that is in the middle of a transformation, changing function, what was before, and what will come after, we do not know yet. The ground is not settled, not solid, not steady, not reliable.
MH: Yes, that’s one version of basics, for sure, for real, but please give me the basics of the basics. What is that we see here, when it is taken etc.?
SY: So, so, what did I see there? This is the headquarters (built in 1968) of the GDR's national statistics office that functioned until reunification in 1990; the surveillance state archive was there. Oh my, amazing weird memory, this decaying space is a part of the big building site that after 2017, with initiatives and the city of Berlin owning the place, was used for artistic acts; performances, events, activities and fairs. So, one side of the building was so alive and one side was still so dead and of course with this massive, incomprehensible, empty space; there were always signs of ‘not fitting in’; the current time and the past time tension one can feel. So, with my residency I was around these spaces experiencing them, collecting and reflecting on them.
MH: You mentioned that you “use this photo in my ‘home’ works”. What do you mean – with ‘home’ works?
SY: There is a folder called ‘home’, and some photos go in that bunch. And from time to time I reflect on these photos, get them together and write or exhibit.
MH: How many photos does the folder ‘home’ hold? And, just out of curiosity, do you also have a folder called ‘homeless’? Or perhaps ‘half-way home’?
SY: Around eighty photos, more to come. ‘Homeless’ and ‘halfway home’ are in the same folder. So, all are in Home (of course I can’t stop to playing with this)
MH: Any chance or trace of a deep-seated nostalgia for the ruins?
SY: Hmmm… Nostalgia. Not nostalgia for the ruins, but nostalgia as one of my strong perspectives. I am not nostalgic. Deep-seated nostalgia, yes, yes, very deeply rooted I would say. But to reflect on nostalgia in the sense of not longing, not yearning, but seeing what I look at through layers, so giving it the chance to be not just what it is, but what it is made of. It is not so much a past-oriented emotion for me, more something that everything has within it; that has somehow the notion of an end in it. So, it is very now-based seeing. And the future kind of does not exist… Suffering and pain and sadness and a bit of a loss is the core but around it is the miracle of existing powerfully. In 2019, when I was considering moving to Berlin I wrote: “The disintegration is in the essence of memory but we tend to avoid the potential of disintegration, for our well-being that thinks it needs past and future and a bit of present.”
MH: Let’s expand a bit, and move sideways. Let’s jump to early June, the upcoming June. There and then, in near future, you are in your allocated room in Künstlerhaus Bethanien. Will this photo – potentially – be part of the exhibition? Anyways, there and then, how do you proceed in a site and situation like that?
SY: Where am I, what is this building made for, where are the ghosts, where is the memory that is not past but current. So, traces on traces. I will be in a room in which so many other artists did so many other realizations before, so many layers created in between layers and connections to create new meaning (if we are the ones that create “meaning” we also need to accept that there is no meaning, anyhow). What could have happened in this room, looking from the window, what do I see. (A community garden, so many lives in this garden just next to the window that I am looking from, endless gathering of perspectives, once we get lost, and then…) What is the current time of the room? This photo will come with, but I do not know how it will be placed and where. I feel sometimes I walk into spaces with kind of a stick in my hand to detect, not gold, but other values. Like a dowsing rod, in the layers of time and space, detecting and detecting. (then you need to ask; then what happens, once you detect something? Hmmm… I connect to it.) (other meanings of meanings by possible coming togetherness, like in a dice game.) The title of the work for Künstlerhaus Bethanien is: Die Wand im Studio, die viele Häuser in sich hat, ist jetzt auf der Wand, die in das Bethanien ist. Maybe I am making an exhibition in an exhibition.
MH: That’s a good, very good title – a solid gold direction, or what the Germans call Ahnung, even if not, well, that exactly, hah. But it does beg the next question: in that space, there and then, you have 4-5 days to work. How do you start? What will you have there and then on day one? And, what is that you do when you get stuck, frustrated and perhaps even a bit homeless?
SY: For the first day I thought of putting a temporary curtain at the door. (I gave up on the idea, I want to be seen and to see while working, the eye needs the eye. I will walk a bit in the room. 14.15 sqm is the space to walk in. Back and forth. As I walk, I fill up the space. I can walk realizing that I am walking). I will at first spread my nails around the wall then make the border with a paper tape. Then the two small screens will come and then two small speakers on the wall, let the wall speak, in the border. The big photograph will be hung on the left wall. (2.40cm x 98 cm, it was exhibited in Berlin 2004, since then it is in the living room (breathing room, room for all, room for relaxing ) of an artist friend Asako İwama, changing its color with the sunlight) (my first arrival in Berlin happened with this photo) and I will lay down the things that I have on the floor. Things, objects, frames, roots, pencil, magnets, sounds, photographs… and look at them. I will start listening to the recording I made while clearing the wall of my studio two years ago, my voice talking about each piece that was on the wall. So, sounds of words around which I will choose the pieces of the things to come together.
… What do I do when I feel stuck, homeless? I go for a walk, start witnessing and connecting. This morning was such a day; I placed myself in the park, closed eyes listening. If I can’t walk, I write or I draw.
MH: Ok, we continue – interesting that you’ll use that photo, taking us back almost twenty years. Why? What is that you see in that work now?
SY: Photographs of my grandmother, where I followed her in her house a lot, were traces of my search for a home and also a way of experiencing how one woman lives alone in a place called home. What were the traces she was leaving behind her? What happens and what do I see when I follow these traces; for me traces, for her just daily life. I was photographing and talking with her; at one point she has said: “why do you ask me these questions?” It sounded to me like; “what are you after?” When this photograph is placed in that room in Bethanien, which is too small to exhibit such a big photo, I will be doing the gesture of squeezing. So ‘the room’ will be facing a rough ‘home traces collection’. Room versus Home. And let the wind blow and watch the trees bend in the meantime. In 1996 I was photographing train station waiting rooms in Sirkeci Istanbul (built by German architects in the 1890’s), I was photographing the waiting people and the empty waiting rooms. Raum zum warten.
MH: And finally – the room with some kind of a view: how do you know when it’s ready?
SY: I will see the signs that say ‘you better stop or you will be telling too much. Leave space for the viewer to collect and re define their own traces… hmmm… I think you are finished for now.’
MH: Writing – what role or weight does it play and mean in your practice? Have you published your writings outside your own projects?
SY: I write. I write since a long time. I started with diaries from like the age 14, but not like I did this or that, more emotions and questions, more Whys. And collecting at the same time these texts in notebooks, findings from daily life, watching them decay or change color, making the notebooks thicker in memory, writing is associated, for me, with being present. Then time passed by, I started to write about ideas and concepts, then about some exhibitions that made me write. I sounded my writings, used them in my performances, I gave them away for magazines, books… I have small notebooks that I carry, bigger notebooks that lay on the table, noting, drawing continues. I write. All the pieces connect with each other once written, and that is somehow fascinating. So, writing and writing. And the role is major, the weight is generally my weight, but sometimes heavier.
MH: Performances. What is that you mean with the concept or what are you after with them? Please give an example of one of your performances, do you still do them?
SY: I still do them.
When I feel the need I organize my presence as a performance, in Istanbul in a bar I was showing my photographs with a ‘dia maschine.’ I was walking in the room, and the slide projector was showing photographs, in my hand a microphone, reading from some books, and from my writings. Previously my sound pieces were worked on by a musician, but altogether this was a spontaneous act. My sound from the recordings, my current sound that I read slow, with a lot of pauses. My photographs. And I walk.
MH: We move on – third photo, I would say, the most directly personal one. Why did you choose this one?
SY: Somehow I don’t see it as personal, although she is the closest one in my circle; grandmother; one of the newly born Turkish Republic’s teachers, strong, principled, tough, that tried to teach me so many things, not just mathematics but ethics and behavior; talked to me more than my mother maybe; do this, don’t do that, do it like this, not like this; taught me to count with chickpeas; so many chickpeas from the jar, the sound of them falling on the white cloth, on the carpet, 1,3,4,9, grouping the chickpeas; the carpet with so many colors on it, the smell of the yoghurt she was making coming from her drawer. Ok, ok, I am coming back - I followed her – Is this personal? I think I will know the answer once I make her book, maybe I don’t want to know.
I chose this photo because I chose the other two photos; I thought she was the connecting piece. All are somehow to do with memory. For me, as she grew old, she had left the present moment and was in the constant rhythm of remembering; one after the other; all of a sudden, this or that (oh, I did a project in an ‘old people’s home’ in Istanbul in 1996; every weekend spending time with the elderly people, talking with them, taking their photographs, and the next week giving them back their photographs, maybe one of their last photos. I did this all on my own, none of the photos were exhibited – at the same time I was taking photographs of the waiting rooms at the train stations.) So, transition moments and points have been a concern of mine for a long time. So, as you say, a ‘personal photo.’ Yet, I see this as a woman in transition, facing this mass of buildings called a city, as if they are coming close to her, in every moment she remembers, maybe the buildings are hunting the one that remembers.
MH: You mention your plans for a book on or with or for her? What kind of book – only images or also text?
SY: Photographs I took, text, her notes to my mother, old photographs from her family album that I had taken (maybe I stole them, at least she did not give me, I took them, couldn’t help myself, some of them say so much)… there is even an x-ray film from her, maybe of her hand. Her glasses I have, there is a calendar from her, where she has marked the dates when she needs to dye her hair, I have her watch… Weird collection. Maybe it is better to do an exhibition.
MH: Walk us through the site and situation of the moment of taking the photo. Did she pose? Were there many variations – alternatives?
SY: She did not pose. There may be variations; I need to check the slides; not all of them were scanned. How did this photo happen to be as we see it now? She was looking outside, I saw her gaze, my panoramic camera, that was looking not like a camera was in my hand, maybe, but with this camera I rarely took it to eye level, more chest level; keep the fingers aside and let the camera lens roll from left to right very slowly with a strange sound, an analogue sound. zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz (don’t know how but I can’t find my camera, somewhere I have hidden it, I forget where)
MH: Did you show this photo to her, your grandmother? And did she comment – either to this photo or your ‘following her around’ taking pictures?
SY: I did not show her the photos I took. She wouldn’t want to look at them; she did not want to be photographed. She always covered her face when the camera was visible, when she knew a photo was going to be taken. Always covering her face. “No, no photos please, I look old” she was saying… But she knew that I was taking these photos, she would ask me: “why are you taking them?” I did not have a reply. “I don’t know” I would say. I even took photos, details of her lying in bed, when she was in the hospital, just before she died; I don’t know where these photos are. I accompanied her in her last years with my camera, constantly noting. I need to take these out of me. I need to take these out of me. I was also collecting the notes on paper she was writing to my mother; ‘my dear daughter you go to the studio, come home late, I do the cooking, please take care of your kids.’ Signed as ‘your mother Melahat.’ ‘My dear daughter I cooked for you. I love you’ signed. ‘I give you back what I borrowed, here is the money’… many, many, many of them. My mother would find these notes in her wardrobe, on the kitchen table, after coming home from her studio, and she would get angry, wanting to tear them apart. I collected them, sometimes even taking them out of the waste. Hmmm…
MH: So, the photo is also not only about your grandmother, but also about your mother – or at least the process?
SY: My photographs are not ‘about’ something, but ‘through’ something; or at least this is my intention. I don’t title, give a title or a name to my photographs, sometimes even the date of the photo can be wrong, sometimes I write the city where they are taken, sometimes.
MH: Ok, this is interesting. Not about but through. But well, not wanting be too much of a pain, what does that then mean? Is this act, the practice or process of photographing, immaterial? Or does it leave a trace? You know, the good old metaphors of photos: a mirror, or a hammer …?
SY: It is both immaterial and material; neither a mirror nor a hammer; a pause and a wonder. When I look at this photograph, I see an old woman facing a city and from her gaze (not look) I can say that she is totally in another place (we don’t know where). When I look at this photo, I see three spaces; private space, public space and the other space. These three spaces are in tension with each other which makes the present moment. Although there is no tension at first sight, there is when we concentrate on her gaze. She stands at the border of public and private space, at the window that was always her favorite spot; always looking outside. She even had a dinner table near the window, which she also used like a bed, pillows on the table, lying down, pillows under her cheek, watching the school garden, when kids come out to play. (As she was a former, long-time teacher, being neighbor to a school was such luck for her I think)
MH: Returning here to the question of the project with you grandmother being or becoming a book or exhibition or both. In my view, I tend to go basically always for the both, because both ways of dealing with material feed each other. What’s holding you back – from moving along and actualizing the ideas?
SY: That is the question that I try to find an answer to. What’s holding me back? Is it the fear of losing the aura that is shaped in my desire; the fear of the power of the realization. What is holding me back?
MH: Ok, space. Please try to dig deeper, not sideways, but get into the, well, groove. Public space is one thing, is this then about that private one? Or is it actually about shaping out of a general and generic space a particular and singular place – with its sensualities and sensibilities?
SY: (“Not sideways” haha… sideways are my ways, that’s how it happened to be; but maybe after fifty years I will choose not to follow them, sometime) I have an intuitive sense, trying to find a rhythm, it already exists in my knowledge or experience; and when I come across a space that clicks with this sense, I can’t resist noticing it, either I take a photo, or make a note. This sense is for an embodiment of the space, that gives the hint to place. This sense reacts to what lies naked in public space pretending to be hidden, and responds in private space, to what is called home. All realizations of spaces in themselves have passages and openings for potential other usages and links to one another; like a web of spaces. (Now my love of Gaston Bachelard’s book ‘Poetics of Space’ appears in my mind, then Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Giorgio de Chirico)
MH: Yes, I can easily relate to Maurice – who was said to be the only left bank Parisian intellectual who actually did dance with the ladies … Meaning: being-with, being-in-the-world is an embedded presence that takes place in and through our bodies – bodies in motion. We come, in fact, back to the good old idea of knowledge, this time sensuous knowledge, and the origins of the content of aesthetics.
SY: (… We come, in fact, back to the good old idea of knowledge, this time sensuous knowledge, and the origins of the content of aesthetics) that becomes once you dance with it, once you act embodied, putting aside the fear you have of what will happen at the end; to dance just for the sake of the dance. There we have the ‘knowledge,’ by experiencing if fully at that moment, allowing one self to get into relation with what is not assumed or categorized or pre-known; that which occurs with the act of dancing and diving in.
MH: Here’s another connotation of both the process of searching, and of the direction of moving sideways. It reminded me of this saying, at the heart of the issue of qualitative research, that although the process of searching and experimenting is crucial, it is also very important every now and then to ‘find’ something. What do you say? And what is it that you could potentially ‘find,’ in Bethanien, for example?
SY: … (it is also very important every now and then to) not forget that I always ‘find’ something; not that I aim to find it, but that I am aware that in all the processes I engage in, I am in the moment of finding something. This easily goes unacknowledged, because we, as humans, so busy surviving which often pass this moment without realizing that we have found what we are searching for. With some tools and strategies, MAYBE we can slow down a bit, and bring our presence into the act of researching in such a way, that we realize the findings we already have. Then we can highlight and take care of them.
* * *
MH: At the very final part of the long journey, we return to the beginning, the so called original, not sin, no, no, no, but original set-up, the question.
Your hypothetical flight has now landed. It has been a long trip, full of twists and turns, a real adventure, so to say, and luckily, you have made it – and it’s now time to gather up all your belongings and leave the plane. But, funnily enough, before you can move, the person next to you has also woken up, and well, as the story goes, you can’t get past the person, you have to wait. And while waiting, this person all of a sudden remembers your short but in fact meaningful conversation. And yes, indeed, this person, as it happens, remembers the question but has forgotten the answer. Now this person looks at you, with keen eyes and full of intent, and asks you this: “forgive me, I have forgotten, how was it again: what do you do when you do what you?”
And you answer is?
SY: The plane is full, it was a long flight and we are sitting in the last row, I was thinking that we would be the last to exit, but the crew has decided to start with the last row; I smile back at him, packing up; he is the first to exit the plane, I tell him while walking to the stairs, “this could be a good start of a song, the question sounds jazzy.” I tried to change the subject, somehow succeeded in doing it. All the way back home; the question stays in my mind; then I decided to roll it around a bit, when I do what I do, what do I do?
I think I just try to be.
Mika Hannula; writer, curator and lecturer, see www.mikahannula.com
Mika Hannula has a Ph.D in Political Science, he was director of the Academy of Fine Arts in Helsinki 2000-2005, and the professor for artistic research at the University of Gothenburg 2007-2014. His latest publications are: Missing in Action – Ethics, Narrative and Memory, University of Osijek, Croatia, 2024 (upcoming), Leikin filosofia (Philosophy of Play), Parus Verus, Helsinki 2021.
Seçil Yersel; artist, see https://tuhaf-iyeci.blogspot.com
Yersel works with and within photography, walks, writes and collects. She is the co-founder of the artist collective Oda Projesi (İstanbul, 2000) with Özge Açıkkol and Güneş Savaş. Her works have been exhibited around the world including in Istanbul, Tokyo, Tirana, Berlin, London, Munich and Venice.
- 1The corpus callosum is a large white matter tract that connects the two hemispheres of the brain. It is an incredibly important structural and functional part of the brain. It allows us to perceive depth and enables the two sides of our brain to communicate.