The Way We Live Now 1987-2020

Notes on art and HIV from Turkey

The Arts Media

 

Cocoon_2009_Leyla Gediz and Arif Suyabatmaz
Leyla Gediz, Cocoon, 2009. Courtesy of Leyla and Arif Suyabatmaz

 

The text had been a classic for years, although it was never enthusiastically reviewed because she didn’t publish it in any collection of essays. Susan Sontag’s short story "The Way We Live Now"  was published on the New Yorker in 1987, and is a stream of fragments of conversations between friends concerned about a friend with AIDS (in the middle of New York’s devastating AIDS crisis in the 1980s, Sontag wrote it in two days after hearing about the death of a friend); they talk on the phone and in hospital halls, discuss the patient and his illness and the illness.

 

In these conversations punctuated by anxiety and worry, the patient remains unknown and the illness is never named. It is a signature work on the pandemic’s discourse, and I encountered it first as a teenager in the early 2000s, or rather, devoured it, while grappling with homosexuality.

 

For my generation, born in the 1980s, somewhat inured to the AIDS ‘crisis’ through a mixture of self-repression and carelessness (crisis is a word we have recently re-learned), these weren’t exactly our conversations: "Oh, no, said Lewis, I can’t stand it, wait a minute, I can’t believe it, are you sure, I mean are they sure, have they done all the tests, it’s getting so when the phone rings I’m scared to answer because I think it will be someone telling me someone else is ill…"  (Sontag).

 

But even then, before I had left home in order to jump into a bigger world where both books and homosexuals freely existed, I knew those conversations existed somewhere, or would exist. They weren’t imaginary, yet they were drowned in the loud chatter and TV sounds of a middle class family, worried about graduations and parties. Gays and diseases; this doesn’t belong in our picture of happiness.

 

Other conversations became more familiar later: "This thing is totally unprecedented, said Frank. But don’t you think he ought to see a doctor, Stephen insisted. Listen, said Orson, you can’t force people to take care of themselves, and what makes you think the worst, he could be just run down, people still do get ordinary illnesses, awful ones, why are you assuming it has to be that"  (Sontag).

 

It’s not just the conversations I would have as an adult in the Turkey of the 2010s surrounding STDs, but also the ones I have now with relatives far away about the novel coronavirus. What struck me about Sontag’s text then was the fact that simple conversations between friends can create healing networks, and make friendship larger than the sum of the parts. Turkey of course, greets you often with silences; things are good. "Don’t worry, it will pass." Choose your topic: AIDS, Armenians, Kurds, war in here, war in there.

 

The Way We Live Now_Sontag
Turkish translation of Sontag’s “The Way We Live Now”, trans. Cem Akaş, Can Yayınları, 2020

 

The absence of a public conversation about HIV is the reason why I was almost shockingly moved when I saw that painting, "Cocoon" (2009) by Leyla Gediz, a celebrated local artist, in the exhibition "Positive Space" (December 2018), at the Operation Room, a project space inside the complex of the American Hospital in Istanbul. I immediately recognized her style, but the subject matter was a surprise: The exhibition dealt with the history of HIV/AIDS discourse in Turkey, and presented a conversation between contemporary artists from Turkey on the subject.

 

It was from Alper Turan, the young curator of the exhibition, whose work is centered around the queer experience of HIV, that I learned this was, up to that point, the only artwork then directly addressing the subject of HIV in Turkey, and one that had never before been exhibited in the country  (it is in a private collection).

 

In "Cocoon," there appears a man crouched in a corner, forehead resting on hands, a delicate white fabric overflowing from him, and insignias of the Greek god Asclepius floating in the background. According to Gediz, the night a friend disclosed to her his positive status, she found him in that position in a corner, took his photograph and then transformed it into an oil painting.

 

I had known Leyla’s work for a long time, had written about it and became a friend. But far from the clear lines of her highly analytical painting, here one could find something I will call grace, grace from the fall perhaps? When one has fallen out of the world, even if for just a moment, the painting, the act of painting, removes the violence of the photograph, the voyeurism, the aesthetic of despair (we have seen the dying victims of the disease, the emaciated bodies). Here something else is about to rise; a moment of reckoning.

 

On that same night I went with a friend (let’s call him M) to Leyla’s studio in the nearby Nişantaşı, for a party with friends from the local arts scene; those moments that animate Istanbul’s often precarious life. Yet I never forgot about the gesture of this painting. Being moved, being touched, being sentimental about art, all belong to the individual aesthetic experience, and pertain to larger ideas about beauty.

 

The experience of HIV is neither aesthetic nor individual, it is in fact very public (there’re appointments, certificates, institutions who decide whether someone is good/bad), and therefore, it was necessary to revisit the exhibition, in order to grasp better the larger view of this discourse: "I am wondering, however, whether HIV/AIDS ceases to be a traumatic experience. Are contemporary individual experiences of HIV/AIDS still connected to the belated, inter-subjective, intergenerational, historical experiences of trauma generated from a collective past and its ambiguous narrations?"  (AT*)

 

Gediz’s painting of course is not an end in itself, but a critical moment that suspends judgment. This ambiguity enables one to enter a space where facts are certainly not ambiguous. The history of HIV discourse in Turkey, as we learned from an archival section in the exhibition (collected by Serdar Soydan), containing pamphlets, books and news mostly from Turkish tabloids with scandalous headlines, is one predictably intertwined with the modern history of homosexuality, and the broader queer experience.

 

Looking at the archive gives you a glimpse into the prevailing inflammatory language but it is in Turan’s academic work (completed in the year following the exhibition), where one’s confronted with the high cost of this public silence: Not just the historically technocratic gaze of lawyers and epidemiologists, rather than social actors, but the particulars of erasure of LGBT visibility since the military coup in 1980 to present day.

 

Serdar Soydan_Murtaza Elgin
From Serdar Soydan’s archive: Murtaza Elgin leaving the hospital where he was segregated. Image manipulated by Umut Altıntaş. Image courtesy of Umut Altıntaş.

 

One particular story stands out (and is of critical value to the curator’s intentions). Murtaza Elgin was a figure in the entertainment business and the first person diagnosed with HIV in Turkey in 1985 when, according to Turan, after a period of official denials and speculations the Hürriyet newspaper displayed the unflinching headline: "Here is the Turk with AIDS." And what followed from that, was a shameful media spectacle that identified a public enemy by name and face, compiled a list of his acquaintances, and turned him into a target.

 

This meant of course that while his life was under media scrutiny — his sexuality remained shrouded in ambiguity— the problem of HIV/AIDS had been otherized and consequently sanitized. In the meantime, real-life silence continued to grow roots, the natural consequence of which, we know now, was the erasure of queer individuals from their world — I will circle back to this.

 

The fact that Elgin, the media character, was turned into "a queer for display" (AT), reminds us of the orientalist shows with live persons in the early European world expos, and this phenomenon remains a crucial but difficult to account for feature of Turkish modernization. Judith Butler writes: "Indeed, the sight of a transvestite onstage can compel pleasure and applause while the sight of the same transvestite on the seat next to us on the bus can compel fear, rage, even violence."  (Performative Acts and Gender Constitution, 1988).

 

They’re both performative acts. In spite of the relative openness that exists towards the outer performance of gender as entertainment, this entertainment exists outside the sphere of politics, and the discourse regarding individual expression remains poisonous: "What is infectious is not only AIDS, but also the discourse itself, which is always necessarily a zone of contagion."  (AT)

 

Another key institution of queer ambiguity in Turkey is the hammam, or Turkish bath, also traditionally misunderstood as identical with bath houses where men meet for sex (this can be vastly confirmed by reading tourist reviews on travel sites), whereas the history of the hammam as a gendering social institution, in the Byzantine and Ottoman-Islamic contexts, is long and labyrinthine, but now in steep decline.

 

Nihat Karataşlı’s installation work in the exhibition, "A Microbiota of Desire (A bacterial map for Istanbul’s hammams)" (2018), takes a look at these places of homoerotic and homosexual desire, through a perspective of infection that is not the HIV/AIDS virus, but bacteria in general. Bath towels and air samples were taken from the hammams to a microbiology laboratory. The bacteria in them were identified and planted in separate petri dishes filled with animal blood, where they continued having a life of their own.

 

These places of ‘desire’, a concept so entirely monopolized and aestheticized by the Western gaze, are also places of rejection; more specifically of abjection: "There is nothing like the abjection of self to show that all abjection is in fact recognition of the want on which any being, meaning, language, or desire, is founded"  (Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror, 1982).

 

Nihat Karatasli_A Microbiota of Desire
Nihat Karataşlı, A Microbiota of Desire (A bacterial map for Istanbul’s hammams), 2018. Courtesy of the artist.

 

On the fringes of respectable society, but overlapping with the cultural mores of masculinity, hammams are one of the traditional sites for queer men in Turkey to discover sex (sexuality and gender are constructed independently of this ‘abject’ experience). It is also a place for using Kristeva’s definition of abjection, ‘the state of being cast off.’ Possessing nowhere near the allure of modern baths in Europe, these have never been spaces of liberation, but rather places one flees to, where one hides. The naked bodies are often not sculpted, the walls might be dirty, the smells of sweat and filthy water covered by pungent soap, as if something could be masked here: It is a place for temporary redemption.

 

Karataşlı’s abjection presents a double-entendre that enables the viewer to see a larger picture of the politics of HIV/AIDS in Turkey: If you shift the focus from the virus, this public enemy with a professional name — someone we are in a war against, someone we battle, attack, and destroy — to the anonymous and ubiquitous presence of bacteria, does this metaphor tell us something?

 

The bacteria, one of the most common manifestations of our biological existence, could stand in lieu of our queer political bodies: Harmless and invisible, but always there, quickly disposable, growing in packs, threatening order. "HIV/AIDS as a violent threat to body integrity, a sign of a sickening, disfiguring, helpless body, a stigmatizing mark on the body which made bodies be seen to be contagious, marginal, asocial, dirty, perverse, shameful and so on, had and has enough reasons to be experienced as trauma"  (AT).

 

The exhibition is sometimes invasive, monstrous, politically incorrect and ever incomplete (how could anyone tell you the story of HIV/AIDS?), and it would fill dozens of pages to encompass all the conversations taking place in "Positive Space." However as healing networks, their role is not only reparative, it is also political. The only access we have to our history as modern subjects is through living and lived histories, meaning those stories that at least two people share and remember, that contain a portion of the future as well (Agnes Heller, A Philosophy of History in Fragments, 1993).

 

In the absolute present of memory, truth ‘happens’, and hence truth, truth-telling, and truthfulness are more related to politics than to reason; they become forms of public rationality. Truth-making is a power of its own: "The power of truth is a power of awareness." (Philip Goodchild, Truth and Utopia, 2006). Is this what art does? Is this what art can do? The answer, predictably, would have to wait for another year.

 

***

 

A change of scenery: On an ordinary day in March 2020, as the coronavirus made its way through the world, we, still unmolested in Istanbul, made our way with M to a queer art space in the center of Istanbul, for another exhibition (the Turkish translation of Sontag’s "The Way We Live Now" was published on the same week).

 

Alper Turan had invited us to the opening night of "HIVstories: Living Politics", in all ways a continuation of his earlier project. The exhibition, now curated by a large team in an international collaboration (EUROPACH) and that had already traveled to Berlin and Warsaw, comprised histories of HIV/AIDS from Turkey and a number of European countries; storytelling from prisons, activism, art and politics.

 

Memories of the evening are blurry, some conversations, something that seems now almost fictional, deeply buried in time, in those days only a few months ago when we had access to the immediacy of time — it was still possible to be among friends, hug, gossip and smoke cigarettes together. We moved on to the nearby Ziba pub, a classic of local queer intelligentsia, and like that night at Leyla’s studio, it was a party. I even took a photograph of the famous bar cat, one that I had already taken a hundred times before. So promising it was, that we made promises to see each other again soon.

 

Ziba_Beyoglu
Ziba, Beyoğlu, March 14, 2020. Photograph courtesy of the author.

 

I am thinking here of Hannah Arendt: "Promises are the uniquely human way of ordering the future, making it predictable and reliable to the extent that this is humanly possible"  (Crisis of the Republic, 1972). To the extent that this is humanly possible. Imagine that. Small acts with unprecedented consequences, a simple departure, a kiss, or not, but yes, it was like that.

 

At the time, no measures for the coronavirus had been implemented in the country, and though it is something we had discussed, it still seemed far away, especially for Turkey.

 

Amnesia is a way of life, and in the previous weeks between the war in Idlib that killed scores of soldiers and the refugee crisis at the Greek border, the imagination was tired and saturated. What else could possibly happen?

 

After the party, on the way back to catch a ferry, walking down Istiklal St, one of the longest and busiest pedestrian streets in the world, certainly on a Saturday night, it stood timidly empty. We said nervous goodbyes and the writing on the wall was clear: Pandemic. M and I made our way home and decided to self-isolate. Measures to close down all sites of possible contagion were implemented within 24 hours. We have not seen the city again, 67 days later.

 

"HIVstories: Living Politics," the exhibition, is still there, at Dramaqueer, the discreet space in the Tarlabaşı neighborhood, an enclave of contestational Kurdish politics overwritten on the dilapidated facades of houses that once belonged to the vanishing minorities of the country. But nobody else has seen it so far. The section about Turkey, however, remained significant in my mind.

 

Furkan Oztekin, Tab series
Furkan Öztekin, Tab series, 2018. Courtesy of the artist and Ali Betil.

 

On the bottom shelf of a wall, containing all manner of documents in Turkish about HIV (even a film poster) there appeared in near abeyance the delicate collages of Furkan Öztekin. I had seen them in the previous exhibition but I didn’t exactly register it at the time. In the "Tab series" (2018), Öztekin searched online for AIDS images in Turkish, yielding obviously sensationalist results, later recomposed by the artist.

 

Öztekin’s work seems to me a modification of the photological — a term I’m borrowing from archaeologist Dan Hicks referring to "any kind of knowledge made possible through the visualism co-produced by archaeology and photography." That is, I am using archaeology here to mean any kind of ‘excavation’ (including the digital) that uses violence and tools of power articulated as neutral representations.

 

In his photological intervention, Öztekin makes the viewer aware, albeit discreetly, of the ‘state of being cast off’ in these images. Through recomposing them, and hiding the faces, he brings to light their invisibility.

 

Leman Sevda Daricioglu_Visit
Leman Sevda Darıcıoğlu, Visit, 2020. Video stills.

 

And invisibility returns in this exhibition in a heart-wrenching commission by performance artist Leman Sevda Darıcıoğlu, which brings us back to the person of Murtaza Elgin and the collective amnesia surrounding his death in 1992.

 

In the video "Visit" (2020), the artist is set on a pilgrimage to locate Elgin’s graveyard, in the Zincirlikuyu Cemetery of Istanbul. I would need to return here briefly to Turan’s research: "Out of fear of contamination, his body was washed, wrapped in nylon, put into a zinc coffin, and buried in a lime pit. There were three people at his funeral, and no one wanted to carry his casket; it took hours for journalists who were present at the funeral to feel pity and carry his body to a waiting hearse."

 

Darıcıoğlu tracked down the information on the graveyard from newspapers of the time, and with the help of the staff who cared for the graves, located the grave on the 28th island: "A tombstone with weeds wrapped and its tombstone broken and fallen. Kind of no-grave." And then, "The next step was to re-establish it and leave white lilies and a sound on its chest." In the video they appear at the cemetery writing a letter addressed to "Murti." I believe that this work will become, in due course of time, a classic of HIV and queer discourse in Turkey, but it’s not without its ethical limitations.

 

A lot of the works in the two exhibitions (for example Can Küçük’s "Temporary Tattoo," 2018, consisting of biohazard tattoos for the public, a symbol of self-identification for HIV+ men, which I find equally transgressive and distasteful) respond to "artistic strategies" that are sometimes questionable, but in my mind are a necessary dialogue.

 

Allowing viewers to step into a territory of deep, public reparative memory about illness, pandemic, trauma and renewal; these are not metaphors: "While you remember with others, you’re alive. [...] Lived history is a blood vessel of the telos of life. The loss of a shared history is the rupture of a vessel in the telos of life that leaves behind a painful wound, a sensible place."  (Heller, 1993).

 

Can Kucuk_Temporary Tattoo
Can Küçük, Temporary Tattoo, 2018. Courtesy of the artist.

 

Despair, hammams, tattoos, death, and oblivion. Is that the whole truth about HIV/AIDS in Turkey? By no means. There’s a wealth of organizations, LGBT-oriented and otherwise, in the country founded since the 1990s (with different approaches and degrees of social action).

 

I’ve been in touch with some of these organizations through the years, and as a lone immigrant (it would be ridiculous to call oneself an expat anymore), I’ve received useful advice on how to navigate the complexity of Turkish institutions (read: mercilessness).

 

But let us not obscure the facts. The invisibility of queer persons in this country is not a theoretical charade, but politics of the everyday. Since 2013, Turkey has massively scaled back LGBT rights, cancelling almost every possibility to appear in the public domain (such as the Pride Parade in 2016).

 

In an atmosphere of general neglect of civic rights, vulnerable persons are the first ones to take a blow. In the case of the LGBT community, this has manifested through a manifold increase in HIV infections, and a string of murders and suicides, to this day unresolved. Nazlan Ertan reported on the present struggles of Turkey’s LGBT community, fighting homophobia alongside the coronavirus, after the head of the state’s top religious body declared that homosexuals are spreading the pandemic; a statement that received backing of the president.

 

Recently, under pandemic conditions, fragments of our shared, lived histories have become increasingly important. In a conversation with a friend (let’s call him A), reminiscing about the Gezi Park protests in 2013, he wondered whether the violence inflicted then might not have changed us permanently, even as it pales in comparison with the years that followed.

 

Gezi Park Protests
Gezi Park protests, Istanbul, June 2, 2013. Courtesy of the author.

 

And through the architecture of violence, piled on top of our invisibility and the realities of HIV, it is entirely possible that the radical potential of queer politics, to remake sexuality and human relations (and this is not about tuxedo weddings on a beach), might have given way to a second wave of queer alienation.

 

When I explained to A my (somewhat hypocritical) commitment to celibacy, he remarked half-facetiously that, "We gays are nothing without the sex… This is all about neocon fears about HIV." And then it was funny. I laughed. I guess one always laughs in the end, when he can no longer be protected from the facts.

 

Have these chains of events de-queered us and de-politicized our queerness almost accidentally? "We are ashamed before the eye of the others, the regard of the others. And even if the regard is absent, we are confronted with the virtual regard, and can anticipate the terror of shame"  (Agnes Heller, The Shame of Trauma and the Trauma of Shame, 2007).

 

Here pandemic meets pandemic. But there are no answers; we sit at home, we write emails, texts, letters, essays, applications, tweets. We dream, get tired, call friends, have drinks over Zoom, Whatsapp until the morning. Unlike the characters in "The Way We Live Now" we are not meeting even in hospital halls. We hope for the best, even in those times when we know it won’t come. Or not fast enough.

 

The "soon" promise that we made at the end of that night then, has turned for millions and millions of people into a "when this is over" — the only form of temporality available to us right now, and indeed, a long-winding promise. Benjamin Weil has beautifully reflected on the meaning of this "when this is over" in a queer post-pandemic politics.

 

In this way, I see Sontag and the present in conversation: "...Because sexuality is a chain that links each of us to many others, unknown others, and now the greatest chain of being has become a chain of death as well."  Just replace sexuality with being in general and you’ll have arrived in 2020. But then also imagine people who have been made to wear their sexuality as their only possibility of being-in-the-world throughout their lives. The past and the present collide: "I will conceptualize the queer body as an archive, and knowing and remembering body across generations and nations."  (AT)

 

But let’s stop for a moment to consider what it means to erase queer individuals from their world. I want to think with Hannah Arendt again: The world is here not a reference to the earth, or to psychological intersubjectivity, but to the space in-between people, that place where we appear to others, and make ourselves heard.

 

When people are barred from the space of appearances, they withdraw from the world, not by their own choice, into the ‘land of humanity’: "This kind of humanity is the great privilege of pariah peoples; it is the advantage that pariahs of this world always and in all circumstances can have over others. The privilege is dearly bought; it is often accompanied by so radical a loss of the world, so fearful an atrophy of all the organs with which we respond to it — starting with the common sense with which we orient ourselves in a world common to ourselves and others [...]" (Men in Dark Times).

 

This bare humanity is a form of worldlessness, a zone of exclusion that although rich in sentimental value, replaces public appearance with shared intimacy and translates in politics into an inability to act in concert with others; truth and reality have parted ways in a pragmatic sense.

 

But the deployment of truth-telling as a political power that encompasses care for the world as an instrument of public reason, in spite of conflicting positions and paradoxes, is still a latent possibility: "It is no longer a question of discovering the true concept of truth; it is only a matter of discovering one with importance, credibility and purpose"  (Goodchild, 2016). For instance, the twitter account of lawyer and activist Levent Pişkin (his bio reads "We are not only perverted but also defiant"), with his frequent rants and twists of language, reminds me of that soft power of truth.

 

Would it be possible then for us to practice Amor Mundi  (love of the world, a key aspect of Arendt’s political theory) from the perspective of the powerless?

 

Is it possible that the largesse of conversations that took place here can operate as an in-between space of queerness in a plurality of manifestations that encompass all the other in-betweens, including those from which we have been uninvited? Amor Mundi is built not on passive acceptance of the facts of the world or irony, but on public care: Critical thinking, defiance, solidarity. Through the stories we tell, our shared history, we become both powerful and powerless.

 

Susan Sontag gravesite
Susan Sontag’s grave, Montparnasse cemetery, Paris, France. October 9, 2017. Courtesy of the author.

 

A story from Alper’s text on "Positive Space”"connected to Leyla’s 'Cocoon' painting, has never left me. The painting is a depiction of another artist who was not verbal about his status, that had visited the exhibition and took a picture of himself in front of his own portrait, again covering his face with a scarf. "He posted this photo on his Instagram account only to delete it some weeks later; he had conflicting ideas about disclosing his serostatus by publicly identifying himself with the figure in the portrait."  (AT)

 

I shivered, wrote, smoked, talked, and in the end wondered whether storytelling isn’t already a preemptive reconciliation with the facts and a protection against false hopes? Then the last paragraph in Sontag’s text immediately unveiled before me: "I was thinking, Ursula said to Quentin, that the difference between a story and a painting or photograph is that in a story you can write, He’s still alive. But in a painting or a photo you can’t show 'still.' You can just show him being alive. He’s still alive, Stephen said."

 

That’s that. The Way We (still) Live Now (again).

 

(AT): All entries marked thus are from Alper Turan’s unpublished MA dissertation, "Positive Space: A curatorial project on HIV/AIDS," 2020.

 

 

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LGBTQ, Turkey, Art, Culture, Homophobia, HIV, Human Rights, Coronavirus, Review, Istanbul