Art chat: Hakan Topal of xurban_collective

this is a continuation of an earlier interview

ArchivingtheCity: I’m talking to people about their practice; people who I think of loosely as having any kind of archival practice, and who are connected to or interested in the experience of living in cities. I want to find out about their “process.” So we can talk about some your projects that I saw on your website—

Hakan Topal: Do you want me to talk about the collective first, a little bit?

A: Sure!

H: We started this collective when I first moved to New York, from Ankara. I had a very close friend and we were doing these projects together, traveling to different sites in Turkey doing photography. And I collaborated with him on multiple projects prior to the collective. Actually, he was my kind of mentor, my professor, at one point. And so when I moved to New York, we were discussing and exchanging things online, and then we said why don’t we establish a kind of a platform to work together? You know, like very loosely? Then [at the same time] things in Turkey started to happen, like it always happens, but for us it was a kind of turning point. One of them was the 1999 earthquake. I feel lots of similarities between [the earthquake and] what happened in New Orleans with [Hurricane] Katrina. It betrayed the very condition of the state apparatus. Although the state collects all this money, and claims that it provides security for people, when the time comes that people really need help, the state is not there.

For Turkish society, it was kind of a revelation, because as opposed to the US maybe, [talking about the] state is a kind of taboo, and you could not directly criticize the core values of the state itself, such as military prowess, or whatever else. People didn’t really think about it much. Perhaps they thought the state apparatus is a given thing. Although we knew that it wasn’t working properly, we didn’t know that it was going to fail so drastically. You know, 20,000 people died… Why it happened? That was the question for us. Why, at a certain point in time, when the earthquake hits, does it become a catastrophe? When you have a human built environment, there is a catastrophe. If the earthquake happens in the middle of the forest, nothing happens, right? Like, it’s not a catastrophe. Catastrophe has something to do with the built environment: urban development, construction quality, and how people live in a space. And so we decided to look at those things, basically. That’s why we called [the collective] “x-urban:” it was relevant to what we were doing.

Urban, x-urban, was a very direct, very easy word to come out. But also “xurban” in Kurdish (you read it as “zurban,” or –I cannot pronounce it well—“hurban”) means sacrifice. We thought this afterwards [to be] an interesting association, because we kind of feel that doing an artistic practice is an intellectual adventure and you have to take certain risks. If you are living in a society, you have to think about what makes that society and you have to criticize the core values of that society, which involves a lot of risk.

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