Sitdown is an Alchemy Film & Arts series of artist interviews, published to complement its exhibitions, residencies, and other events. You can find all other Sitdown entries here.
belit sağ is a videomaker and visual artist living in Amsterdam. She studied mathematics in Turkey and visual arts in the Netherlands. Her background in moving images is rooted in her work within video-activist groups in Turkey. Her ongoing artistic and moving-image practice largely focuses on the role of visual representations of violence in the experience and perception of political conflicts in Turkey, Germany, and the Netherlands. Her video works are distributed by LIMA.
A programme of belit‘s films is part of the eleventh edition of Alchemy Film and Moving Image Festival, available on demand, 29 April – 3 May.
Listen to a conversation between artist in focus belit sağ and the programme’s curator Almudena Escobar López.
Almudena Escobar López (AEL): Hi, Hello everybody. Thank you for listening. My name is Almudena Escobar and I am a curator and researcher based in Rochester, New York. I have been told that I am on the ancestral home of the Seneca people known as the Great Hill people, and keepers of the Western Door of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy. I also read that what happens to people and what happens to the land is the same thing. Please take a moment to consider the many legacies of violence, displacement, genocide and migration that bring us together here.
belit sağ (bs): Hi, everyone. Thanks for being here. I’m belit sağ. Thanks, Almudena, for being here with me in this conversation.
AEL: Thank you, belit. It’s been a while that we known each other. So I’m very pleased to be here today, presenting this programme Im/perceptible images that we put together for the Alchemy Film & Video Festival. I thought it would be good to start from the beginning, and maybe talk a little bit about your early work as a video activist and as a member of VideA, Kara Haber and bak.ma. Can you talk a little, a little bit about those days because there is at least one film in the programme that is from those days. So I thought it would be a good way to start thinking about your practice as a continuum, like where you come from, where you are now, and maybe where you’re going into the future. And also, because there’s perhaps some of the work that is less known and it’s also collaborative work. It’s not just you. So maybe it’s interesting to start, uh start there.
bs: Yeah, it’s good to revisit the early work, especially now that my work is taking a new new phase – going into a new phase. Through our conversations I’m also realising the continuity of it more and more. We have one work from the times of video activist collectives I was part of – the work is called, 27-28-29 June 2004 NATO Istanbul. These are debates of NATO Summit in Istanbul. And it’s a collaborative work, which is quite important because it also shows the nature of the types of works. And the work process a little bit. And also the collaboration was not like – my name is not there. It was made by several people. It was filmed by several people, and edited by several people. And I was involved in filming and editing.
These practices date back to 2000, early 2000, late ’90s – 1990s. It’s it’s basically a group of people coming together, learning to do filming and editing, without any kind of formal education, but learning from each other and learning by practice, and also making this – making a point out of teaching these skills, so that they do pass on. And it’s a lot about collectivity and collective production. And, and what does this collectivity mean, and later on these practices also developed into archiving practices, like bak.ma, which several people from different collectives have been involved.
And also several collectors have their own archives in bak.ma – which is b-a-k dot m-a – online digital archive of social movements in Turkey. So it basically brings together video activists’ work and different footages, from different social movements in Turkey. And it’s the initial starting point, with Gezi uprising, it started with a call for people to bring their own material from Gezi uprising while it was happening in the early days. The whole practice is quite a lot about being on the street, being in the demonstrations, being not only demonstrations, but also following up issues that kind of making things more visible, making people more visible and also making struggles that are not so visible, to make them more visible. So it was a… it was a lot coming from activist backgrounds, and being in the action, in the spaces physically, and you’re an activist foremost, and you have a video camera. And the video camera is kind of part of your body. It kind of comes – it’s an extension of your body almost. So I guess these are kind of the main points of that practice, but we might go back to it later on.
AEL: I’m glad that you brought two things that I’m interested on, on that I think we can follow up with. The first one is the question of the archives, right because bak.ma, technically it is an archive, correct? And you seem to have an ongoing relationship with archives, not just archives in the traditional sense of the word, but also sensible archives. Also, newspapers, also news and, and you, you have a research process to put together these, these materials. So I’m curious to see how how this, this tension between these personal recollections, your own personal experience, or whoever is involved in the work that you’re you’re trading or looking at. And this idea of the collective memory that is more, you know, government tailored, or it has a particular ideology in mind.
So it seems that you are blending all these different archives and an almost generating – putting them on at the same level, which I think it is interesting, also thinking about your activist practice, where it’s people who are learning the process of filming and editing, and then they become, you know, those, those images become the information, right. So it’s like creating this, this different information from the information that is being shown in the news, right? So it’s levelling up all those different things – personal experiences with what it really is happening, that is being, you know, separated, and recontextualised within the national news, for instance. So this, this, this kind of plain hierarchy level that you kind of put down in the same level. So I’m curious if you can talk a little bit more about this question of the research, this question of the archive, in the personnel and the collective.
bs: Yeah, this is really a, really a good question for me to really expand on the archive, but also how I work. Thank you. For me, what I’m doing is really trying to make sense of context, different contexts, and the role of images. And I think, for me, what was really important – important point is that I moved from Turkey to the Netherlands. And then my practice completely changed. It became from a practice which we just talked about. Because I came to a context that video activism doesn’t, cannot be practised in the way that I practiced it – we practiced it. Then what I do, started shifting. And then in that shift, there’s both – the making process changes, and also, my issue started changing. And they’re extremely informed by the video activist practice. I’m still dealing with images. But this time, I’m trying to make sense of what images do we get exposed to, in what order do we get exposed to those images, how do images create, and also relate to information that like that, that an audience receives.
And I’m also interested in archives as – I mean, archives could take so many different forms. I do engage a lot with institutional archives. And I, at the same time, always bring the institutional archive that could include the archive of the institution, but as well as personal stories, and personal archives. And I always try to bring the personal and institutional – the larger narrative, and the most like, the more personal and, and major and minor, I guess we could say for now. So to grasp and engage with the larger political narratives, on a personal level, so I would like my works to be accessible in that sense. They’re really unpacking, but not only unpacking the, the larger political, social narratives.
Not only – I’m thinking it’s engaging with those narratives. I am someone who also is – my position is also someone who’s exposed to these images. For me, it’s really important to approach them as a, from a personal level. And that kind of opens the way for the person who watches the videos that I make, to be able to have that opening to engage. For me, that’s really important. And for that to happen, I really try to put all these information and archives – everything that comes from these archives. The images that I collect online, that they’re on the table next to each other, and how do they relate. And then also, what I mentioned before, the, the engagement of the person who’s watching the video or looking at the archive. The video’s role is to open those ways and open those spaces by kind of creating those spaces for, for engagement. Opening ways of thinking and giving the tools to think about possibilities of engagement. Active participation is needed. At least the works asked for it.
AEL: That’s a great, a great way of putting it. In fact, that was my next question – is to think about the kind of spaces that you, you propose with your films, right, and the tools that you use to create those space, those spaces, right. And also thinking about this, this distinction between vision, which is the capacity, the physical capacity of seeing, and visuality, which it is the social fact and the way we watch and how – and this is something that Farocki, this is the reason why we we referenced him in the, in the texts that are compa – like, that we wrote for the programme. Farocki addresses this in Images of the World and the Inscription of War.
And kind of like, making this back and forth between yes, the act of seeing, but you only see things if you’re trained to see them in a certain way. And that’s kind of what he is – this film is, is putting into practice these questions and looking at ideology and how it is embedded on images, right? So I’m not saying that you’re doing exactly the same, but it’s definitely part of this continuum that are looking at this how to create those spaces of political imaginary, or political, even dreaming, right, or just the possibility of thinking about the images differently and retraining the eye and, and really looking at that, that visuality as a social fact, right? So I’m interested in this intimate relationship that you create with the images. You earlier said, when you were talking – it’s interesting to hear you talk, for instance, about your practice when you were part of VideA – and you were talking about the camera as an extension of the body, right. So I think, I think, for instance, what you’ve been doing with other films, such as Time to Love, where you’re actually physically touching the screen, of this projection, right, of this film. And then for instance, in Ayhan and me, you’re squishing the image of Ayhan, right, and really feeling it, like that’s, the image is actually – it kind of becomes an autonomous entity, that it has a living condition, right.
In other occasions the image – you or your voice breathe on the image, right, the image comes and goes, and we can really see it come, come to life. So these are tools that I think, these are tools in your practice that really make the image become part of the viewing experience, and bring the viewer there to that space. Even if they didn’t participate in this, in this moment, or in these actions or in these stories that you’re sharing, right. So I’m interested in this intimate relationship with the images and the shared view in a space of possibility that they generate. So I think this creates a space of political possibility where viewers have their own space for reflection. And I really would like to talk more about that, because from what I heard, beside this context, you’re even moving more forward on this, and thinking really about embodiment. So I wonder if you can talk a little bit about the tools that you use to create the spaces of cohabitation or shared viewing. And also, maybe the politics of it, right. So if you can talk about those things.
bs: The works that you mentioned are all in the programme, Sevmek Zamani (Time to Love) and Ayhan and me, they’re both in the programme. Also, what remains, which the breathing, which comes out in several works. Like the engagement that I have talked about in the previous question comes back here again, your question of Ayhan and me, your example of Ayhan and me, the holding of items, image, touching it, crumbling it. This image engages with me and I’m engaging back. I take almost materiality of the image in a literal literal sense in these works. There is the breathing. My body is constantly involved and, and constantly doing things and constantly either breathing, those works go through my body. And also the breathing is also part of the work in what remains and also in if you say it forty times, which is the last work in the programme.
And also in Sevmek Zamani, as you said like, Time to Love, the images are projected on my body. Also, there are two people on that, on those images. And there’s the mimicking, there is the kind of re-enactment of what’s going on in these images. What do people in those images do to kind of almost be part of the image, but also the recognition of the image as being part of that engagement. If we bring bring back the work. And the creation of this possibility. I think that it starts with the earlier works of being in the active space, being in actions, demonstrations, physically with my body. And then through that, moving to the second phase. And we have talked about this Almudena, like moving to the second phase, and the phase of more contemplative works that they do deal with image politics, how images are made, the politics of making images, but also how we’re exposed to those images. And in this second phase, then this creation of space, political space, happens through these physical interventions almost. So in that sense, it’s a continuation through these physical interventions, as you said, this political space I’m trying to open – the works are trying to open the political space and possibility to be able to talk about images and collective memory, the role of the archives and the hierarchy of knowledge by putting that, putting them all on the same level, and not even referencing you know?
I mean, you can find the references in the credits, but you’re not going to find the references inside the work itself. What do these words say, without their references? What happens if this code is used in this context, with these relationships? So there’s that kind of consideration. Yeah, since Corona, I guess, so many people’s works have been changing. And my works are also changing. I’ve been thinking about what I’ve been doing in this phase of more contemplative and physical interaction with the image itself. And now I’m, I’m preparing workshops, which includes somatic exercises, on the topics that I have been already working on, but also using collective knowledge production techniques and tools that workshop format uses. And um, these are in development, and I’m interested in how to be present in the space and deal with these issues, through these prisms, and through these relationships that we create in that space in that workshop. At that moment. And in that sense, it like, kind of makes sense and connects to each other, what the different works do. In this new phase, it’s more creation of spaces. And then, and then we will see how like, the moving image and how the, like, the videos will be produced through those experiences.
AEL: It is interesting, too, that you’re talking about workshops. And I have several thoughts in here, right. Like there is, on the one hand, how they are a space for political, political, imaginary and thinking. But also the workshop allows for failure and allows for trial and error, and allows for a much more collaborative process with the viewer or the participant. So to me it’s almost like a circle, you’re, you’re starting with these collaborative practices of more activists, you can be called, quote unquote, ‘activist’ for making, and then moving towards a reflection period where you’re actually putting yourself in the work and letting that image – because there’s also a lot of, there will be, this is conversations to have another time because I’m just, we’re just kind of putting some suggestions in here.
But you did mention this before earlier, about the displacement, right? The fact that you are not in Turkey, and you are dealing with the situation in Turkey. So in the way you’re dealing with it is through images. Correct? But also, there’s, there’s another element here, which is the the actual cinema tools, right? You have, we have in the programme as well, my camera seems to recognize people, which is the camera – so it’s also questioning even the tools, the tools of the image-making, which you are using in a way in your films, to see how are these cameras, how is this camera looking at people. And then also it happens even with digital artefacts that you… include in the film, right, like talking about the deterioration of the image and what happens with time. So it’s engaging with, with all these institutional tools of the archive, of the image-making and just really going to back to the, you know, the architecture of cinema and the architecture of the image because you are not present on these spaces anymore.
So of course, you’re going to look at like, things that you’re questioning, the way – the things that you are receiving and the way you are receiving this information in the first place. So it has to do also with your personal displacement to me. So I think there is – you are starting to question the tools that make those particular stories that are arriving to you, right? And how – and then it comes to larger questions. You are not only focusing on Turkey, you’re you’re – in disruption, for instance, which is you’re really, your personal dealing with – how you’re dealing with that particular situation when you are not there. But you’re also dealing with other questions, other social questions like the NSU situation and looking at Turkey, Turkish immigrants, and there’s really these crimes that weren’t recognised by the government in the way that should be recognised. So you’re really looking at the tools of the making.
And now it seems that you’re, you’re, you’re going back to this question of like, ‘Hold on a second here, I can actually involve even more the people and just make them part of the discussion with me.’ And, and also allow for people to grow and learn on this process. And like really, not only learn, learn about the tools, of the of the image-making, but also the different… the different institutional constructions around it, like how ideologies embedded on them. And not, not only that, but also allowing them to, you know, you break again the hierarchy, but in this case, the hierarchy between the filmmaker and the viewer. You know, it’s not even – not any more, there is a screen and you, it’s just you’re in the same space, literally, and the images are going to be made in the same space, literally. So I think it’s very, it’s a very – especially with corona – it’s a very important thing, to start to think more about it. Like our mediation of images and how everything is mediated, especially now that we can’t even be physically on the places. So I wonder if you have any, any – it’s just a thought, I don’t know if this is a question per se. But, um, but I couldn’t agree more with you. So I wonder if you have any, any comments specifically about this question of, you know, the, the making and the, and the cameras and the, and the – and how you’re reflecting on this?
bs: Yeah, I think there’s, there’s like different reflections that happen in the, in the videos that I made. They are thinking processes, we can say. And they are actually my thinking processes. That I start from somewhere and I kind of think through making these images and then add new things and think through those additions. So that literal leap. I’m thinking through images through making these videos. As you say, in my camera seems to recognize people, but also in other videos as well. Like the tools are questions. The – I mean, you can even say in Sevmek Zamani (Time to Love) the, like, positioning of the spectator is questioned. Like, spectator is not sitting and watching the projected image anymore. In quite critical moments, and the image gazes back, for example, uses its, its sound in a different way. That the sound travels. Saying these are the tools that we’re using. And yeah, I do, I do totally agree with with those, those comments.
AEL: Yeah, I think you’re certainly on a path, right. I am really excited to see where you’re going to be doing with these workshops. I just wanted to finish by, by especially thanking Michael Pattison for the invitation. It’s been wonderful to have this opportunity to work with belit once more, even more deeper. And I’m totally honoured to be part of Alchemy and be able to present this programme. Especially because this problem was from last year. And we had to rework it and rethink it for this and it was a great opportunity to come back to the material and, and think through it in the times that we are in. So thank you so much, so much to the festival and to Michael, especially, for this invitation.
bs: Yeah, thank you for the festival and to Michael and it’s always, it’s always such a great pleasure to talk with you Almudena.