T.J. Demos, Kutluğ Ataman: The Art of Storytelling

(Taken from the catalogue of Kutluğ Ataman’s ‘The Enemy Inside Me’ exhibition at İstanbul Modern between 10 November, 2010 and 6 March, 2011)

Available on Ataman’s website here, this article is a true analysis of the filmmaker’s work and not obfuscated with high-brow terminology and hyperbole. The author first of all points out that Ataman’s films are part of a vogue that has been ongoing since the mid 90s, where artists have been engaged in challenging accepted parameters of documentary (objectivity, truthfulness) while simultaneously “…refusing to surrender film’s capacity to represent and construct meaningful social reality“; however, instead of simply using the medium to reinforce stereotypes or to lend support to political/economic hegemonies through their adherence to grand narratives, the authors have focused on stories of “exceptional subjects“, by which the author is referring to those marginalised groups or disenfranchised individuals that make up the typical subject matter of ‘identity politics’ that is either seen as partisan or left unaddressed by mainstream media (e.g. post-colonial, subaltern, sexually eccentric). What started out for me as a simple exercise in empowering disabled people has led me to a complete analysis of the disability issue, how it is addressed and in what ways contemporary discourse is engaging with disability as an issue. What I have found is that disability is a huge area, and as such decided to limit the scope of my project and concentrate on a single area – that of cerebral palsy. Not only is the condition misunderstood in society in general, but it is also a very visual disability since mobility is often impaired and facilitated with a wheelchair or other equipment. Taking the idea of looking beyond the wheelchair, I wanted to get close to my subjects and encourage them to tell their stories as they’d like to tell them – as a narrative of struggle or a positive story of championing against the odds.

…it is [Ataman’s] dedication to storytelling (more specifically, his practice of placing people in front of the camera and encouraging them to talk about their remarkable personal experiences) that distinguishes his artistic engagement.” (Demos, p 1)

Since as I have already determined, he draws his subject matter from a diverse variety of backgrounds, Ataman cannot be accused of focusing on one subject area. The films are usually devoid of interlocutor or soundtrack, and are focused on a single figure. This is in a similar vein to the work I have already been producing.

“I allow my subjects to talk because only in actual speech can we witness this amazing rewriting of one’s history and reality. What else is there? Talking is the only meaningful activity we’re capable of.” (Kutlug Ataman, “A Thousand Words,” Artforum (February 2003), p 116–17)

This sense of allowing the subjects to talk is one that I’m drawn to. I tend to ask my subjects open-ended questions that allow them to express their own ideas, or introduce their own mini-narratives or background information. This sense of freedom means that I have a lot more material to work with (which has both positive and negative consequences), while the participants are telling their stories and not just answering a bunch of rote questions from a hack journalist. In this sense they are more engaged in the project and their speech is more natural.

“Ataman’s films foreground speech, the speech of personal subjective experience” (Demos, p 2)

This is a similar approach to my own, where the speech is what happens first of all, the images come later, an epiphany that came to me while working on the previous films – the subject’s narratives determine my photographic input, and not the other way round. Since Ataman is working purely with film, his editing must be much easier process, since I need to edit first the sound files, and then put the extracts together in a meaningful way, afterwards add images and only at that point consider the timings of slides, transitions and intervals. On the one hand, I have a lot more freedom, as I have more control over which image couples with which phrase; but on the other hand, since I have many more variables, the amount of post-production work can be quite daunting.

“The viewer consequently has the sense that this type of speech concerns self-revelation, rather than dialogic communication–this is no ordinary television interview or ethnographic documentary exposé. Ataman’s portrayal of speech, in other words, foregrounds the act of self-construction, of subjects’ making sense of themselves before the camera, rather than emphasizing language’s more prosaic functions of pragmatic conversation or illustrating an anthropological insight.”

The idea then is that the subjects are asserting their own identities rather than simply describing what they do or what their opinions are. Since my first films were more about the subjects’ activities rather than the subjects themselves, perhaps I can use this approach in one of my next films – the idea that identity is being conceived through the act of having it performed for the camera/microphone. I’m not sure how the subjects themselves will relate to this approach, since Kazakhstan is still very conservative in its approach to visual media, and these subjects in particular are used to a more didactic approach (this after all is part of the key to my being invited into their homes, since they have essentially agreed to an informative project that will challenge societal stereotypes; of course there is a certain amount of performativity involved, but it is being done more in the vein of Flaherty than of Rouche). Of course, the self-construction is more in keeping with post-structuralist method.

“Speech thereby becomes an inventive, generative medium, not a transparent approximation of a pre-existing reality. It is shown to be performative and constitutive, rather than passive and reflective.”

The impassioned speaker, becoming the object of what it is they are speaking about. Not really sure how successful this could be because of subject matter and translation issues, but it is worth taking on board as an approach. The basic key here is freedom, as well as the participants’ sustained engagement and the director’s ability to bring the most out of the subjects and encourage them to open up and be honest and frank in their speech (a problem that I have come across, for reasons related to history, politics as well as the fact that I am a rank outsider since I am neither disabled nor Kazakh). I really appreciate Ataman’s method, but I’m not sure to what extent I can apply it here.

Are these stories thoroughly engaging? Well, this is something that I’ve been asking myself. Keeping the stories shorter, there is less scope for drawing a viewer in to absorption as the subjects “describe their activities with inexhaustible detail and considerable passion“. Coming a cropper with photo films that were considered too lengthy at the last assessment, I aim to keep these films short and to the point, avoiding their being “poorly presented, repetitive, too long and not engaging” (which begs the question – had the assessors sat through any of Ataman’s films? An apparently impossible feat that the artist himself admits).

Ataman constructs reality rather than recording it, since he ultimately chooses how the films will be edited, what to include and what not, and this Demos says incorporates both dialectical and symbolic forms of montage as outlined by Ranciere:

…the dialectical method “invests chaotic power in the creation of little machineries of the heterogeneous,” the symbolic way takes “elements that are foreign to one another [and] works to establish a familiarity, an occasional analogy, attesting to a more fundamental relationship of co-belonging, a shared world.”” (p 4)

What this means is that the dialectical method works by focusing on the micro (narrative), which when separated and brought to the fore become disparate, isolated entities that exist on their own terms; while the symbolic way functions on the principle of synergy – the bringing together of discrete elements to form a whole. Ataman uses both techniques, “at times, accentuating the contradictory, at others, harmonizing the similar” and as such the individual narrative can be read as representative of an entire community, whilst also underlining the subjects’ marginality within broader society (as in the sexually deviant characters, or the eccentrically obsessive recluse).

We don’t need to turn spectators into actors. We do need to acknowledge that every spectator is already an actor in his own story and that every actor is in turn the spectator of the same kind of story.” (Jacques Rancière, “The Emancipated Spectator,” Artforum (March 2007), p 279) In this sense we are all the central hero of our own narratives, and we all see ourselves in much the same way (broadly speaking).

Demos proposes that Ataman’s filmic form defines a third approach to montage – that of metamorphosis; by splicing different moments of the same person’s narrative, Ataman effectively engenders a process of that character’s continual development, as well as the individuals’ apparent disparity melding into a whole:

“Ataman’s practice of what we might term a “metamorphic montage” tends to break down the relation between self and other, showing the one transforming into the other, just as it proposes a combinative arrangement of shared qualities that enacts a process of differentiation.” (p 5)

Perhaps this is seen best in his multiple screen installations, where taken in its entirety, the chaos of babble is overwhelming, but if one addresses a single narrative we are able to focus and effectively blank out the rest of the interfering voices vying with each other to be heard.

In fact, this is what we do every day of our lives, and Ataman’s micro communities underline this fundamental fact. Which narrative is most important? How do we choose which one to listen to, since quite obviously we cannot listen to them all? By arranging different television screens with different items of furniture, Ataman manages to create difference that is simultaneously external to but somehow also intrinsically linked to the characters on screen. To my mind, Ataman is questioning on what basis we make our choices about which narratives to listen to and which to pass over (are we attracted to or intrigued by the person speaking, or do we find elements of comfort or familiar domesticity in the furniture – or is the monitor itself simply larger and therefore easier to see, or smaller and thus easier to concentrate fully on?).

Demos argues that Ataman’s films move beyond identity politics, which tended to oversimplify and constrain minority positions – in effect institutionalizing them as stereotype and ‘marketable social category’ – allowing the subject to develop and transform without being hemmed in by the limits of categorization dictated by society: “[Ataman’s] films give free reign to subjective complexity that grants a sense of liberty to the self’s category-defying transformations.”

Rather than simply questioning the notion of truth (which, as Demos points out, has already been discredited through postmodernist discourse), Ataman is concerned with how individual truths are constructed: “the production of multiple truths, the truth of construction and contradiction, the truth of fiction“, which is apparent in his very method of weaving narratives from real and imaginary, where the viewer is invited to make up his own mind, in effect becoming the storyteller himself. This “dismantling of social hierarchies“, as well as blurring of the distinction between truth and fiction, is what Demos sees as “political potential” of Ataman’s work.

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