3 Channel HD Video, Sound Track, 155 C-Prints, Floor Mat, White Lift Weights, Jumping Ropes
ROUNDTABLE: The 9th Gwangju Biennale, 2012, Curated by Wassan Al-Khudhairi
With Guven Incilioglu (xurban_collective)
“Let your plans be dark and impenetrable as night, and when you move, fall like a thunderbolt.”
Sun Tzu, The Art of War
xurban_collective’s Evacuation Series began in 2009 as a research project that aimed to scrutinize the formation of new local communities by analyzing the architectural features of religious centers, corporate offices, martial arts schools, gyms, shopping malls, and yoga centers; all of these spaces appear to have a common global presence in one form or another. During our research, we identified shared visual and spatial denominators across cultures and territories.
We argue that these new spaces pose important questions on the democratic nature of the new communities that form around them. In contrast to labor unions, student associations, and political parties, these new membership based so-called “centers for community” reflect a departure from democratic participatory framework. In other words, being a member of a community implies implicit power relations where status is defined by simple rules of social conduct. This renders an uneasy dilemma: on the one hand, these social spaces exist around the world providing a refuge for the youth left outside of the remnants of the welfare state, on the other hand, they imply a re-feudalization of the public sphere where communities are governed through archaic forms of authority and power.
With these initial questions in mind, for the first version of our project, The Sacred Evacuation, we analyzed mescids, — small mosques/prayer rooms in Turkish (masjids in Arabic)— and identified how generic modern spaces, such as rooms in apartment buildings, shopping malls, basements, and storefronts, are transformed into Islamic temples by utilizing simple mass-produced objects, carpets and furniture. Considering the fact that there is a growing Muslim population in the west and in the global south, these religious sites are fundamentally important in understanding how social groups are formed and sustained in a globalized world. In order to conduct our research we studied and compared various mescids in the US, Europe and Turkey, and realized a conceptual installation where we constructed a small mescid by extracting the non-religious elements in an effort to identify the common spatial denominators. We argued that the kitschy character of these temples contradict specifically designed traditional religious buildings.
As Arjun Appadurai points out, globalization operates through both from top-to-bottom and from bottom-to-top processes. In that respect, local sites of social engagement become an important facilitator of globalization and neo-conservative shifts in societies. In an interesting familiar manner, one can identify that religious temples, yoga centers, and martial arts schools all share similar properties of community-building and architectural features, and can be easily converted to one another.
For the Gwangju Biennial, 2012, we decided to continue our research with the second iteration, Evacuation #2: Under One Minute, which looks at martial arts and various forms of kickboxing spaces. We hope to scrutinize the idea of a reconfiguration of the male body but furthermore we extend our analysis to the state of politics and corporate business (dominated by alpha males) by presenting fighters, politicians and CEOs of fortune 500 companies as the familiar faces of top to bottom globalization.
INITIAL QUESTIONS AND A FRAMEWORK
What is the tactical mind? How is power relocated in the cult of personality? What is a bluff? What is deception? Is the global-political arena an exclusive club (a kind of gym, together with ‘bilateral talks’) where power relations are displayed, transmitted and reconstructed via photo-ops? (G8, G20, etc.) What are the manifestations of victory and defeat in the theater of politics? Is democracy related to a form of strategic consideration? If so, how do neoliberal policies (summarized as less social and public services, more security and violent policing) lead to a new type of a tough leader figure imbued with (political) power? Is it the corporate finance or the semblance of democracy (elections) that create these figures.
One look at the clothing (and ‘kaftans’) of the Ottoman sultans at the Topkapi Palace Museum in Istanbul makes the viewer gasp for air: Were these rulers huge? In the myth of the once imperial power, size does matter. The oriental fascination with the might of the warrior follows the viewer through the build up of the personal weapons in the same museum, each one of them being almost impossible to lift by today’s physical standards, let alone to wield, throw or hammer. Minus the weapons, the brute force and the image of the heavily built up body is mostly assigned retrospectively to the ruler, often without solid historical evidence. The political powers of rulers were always accompanied by their physical appearance in order to intimidate the enemy. The antics of the battlefield observed in engravings and paintings confirm this rule. That the orientals (and also the Turks) have excelled in diplomacy and other tactical policy has not been rendered thoroughly by history.
Unlike the far eastern martial arts tradition, the traditional Turkic and Middle Eastern rules of fighting rely heavily on brute force, leaving limited room for tactical fighting and elaborate bodily movements, and comes close to modern day wrestling. The pure muscle power to grab, lift and topple the opponent until submission is seen to be only fair, as folk wrestling tournaments outside official sporting circles are very popular events. Apparently, there are no knockouts and no bodily harm done. This righteous macho image is confirmed, sometimes, in settling disputes in daily life, not unlike the territorial and hierarchical engagements of dominant males among mammals. The interest in the bodily discipline and building up is extroverted, relying much on its image and its potentials for intimidation and deterrence, rather than being a self-disciplined meditation on the unity of body and soul.
On the global political scene, the visible (or the most exposed) political actors (the heads of state and others in rank) follow certain patterns, ideologically and in other aspects. First, regardless of the political power and leverage that they represent — the size of their economy, GDP, geopolitics, military power and the like, that is everything except the aspects of a ‘representative democracy’ — they are mostly affluent individuals supported by moguls. Given the current state of election campaigns and financing, not only in the US or some other western liberal democracies, but also increasingly in the rest of the world, the relation between personal wealth and political possibility has long been a subject of analysis. Inversely, using political power to attain even more personal wealth is also a common trend, specifically in the global south. Thus, before anything else, we assume these actors on the global neo-liberal horizon to be members of an exclusive club. In this sense, their media appearances are not unlike the corporate elite, the CEOs, financiers and others with immense wealth. Their designer suits are almost uniform; other physical and mental characteristics may set them slightly apart from each other. Their public presences, set into a number of different patterns and occasions (domestic, international, parliamentary and the like), are trained, prepared and fed for various circumstances. Together with an entourage of bodyguards, they form a predatory pack distinct from other social groups. Given the global all out war as the field of politics, these political actors are part of the regional franchise to keep demands for a democratic future under control and to perpetuate the state of emergency. Secondly, the recent politicians on the neo-liberal spectrum (namely Bush, Putin, Erdogan, Sarkozy, Berlusconi, Blair and others) prop up their image as tough negotiators on the table. Their hyped up and usually hyperactive postures help evade the fact that their reign over the political economy is at best compromised by multinational corporations. Every instance that a deal is signed for a pipeline, or a major energy deal, or for mining rights in the presence of the media is a pre-meditated event at the expense of dislocated, impoverished masses of people. Nevertheless, this apparent machismo is frequently supplemented with sentimental nationalism. To serve the primal instincts of their conservative public, male politicians need to show determination and ability to put up a good fight in international arena. For instance, not long ago, after a heated exchange with the Israeli president Shimon Perez, Tayyip Erdogan stormed out of the Davos panel floor (broadcast live) with anger. His undiplomatic outburst paid off: following his return to Istanbul, thousands gathered at the airport to cheer him as the Hero of Davos.
And third, the hyperactivity and fitness of these new political actors (regardless of their age) is maintained by a group of medical experts. They usually do not miss photo-ops in various outdoor settings and are seen riding horses, shooting, diving or playing soccer. And some, as in the case of Putin, are all-out athletes, bordering on the edge of Special Forces and commandos. Similarly, the CEO’s of corporations compete at CEO Ironman Challenges as if the business competition is not enough. The patriarchal disposition of the business or the political elite worldwide gives us an indication that the archaic show of power through bodily gestures is not over. In the decline of the welfare state facing the dominating global economic order, elected officials, however weakened their representative facilities are, cling to the image of a benevolent and dominant father figure.
Where does martial arts fit into all of this? Of course, our aim is not to discredit the years of dedicated training of professional sportsmen, or the intimate social bonds created by the shared interests of amateur enthusiasts. Participants of these martial arts centers indeed work hard, train long hours, and suffer the pain and anxiety of winning or losing. The constant exercise transforms their bodies, shapes their psychology and develops an attitude of a fighter. The repetition of moves and the rehearsal of combats perfects their moves and gestures, motivates and prepares them just like a warrior who is getting ready for a battle.
Mirrors and soft padding usually cover martial arts spaces. The reflection allows direct, constant comparison with others; the softness of the space protects the body. Space is designed for looking, checking, modifying movements. Constant noise of falling, tripping, jumping and pounding, yelling and shouting are mixed with body odors. In fact, intimacy between fighters starts in changing rooms; socks, shoes, and other gear immersed with sweat, smelly humidity grasps their soul.
Clubs operate with different levels of membership which define the degree of participation. Masters and coaches are the group leaders, they don’t simply teach the moves, but most importantly they prepare the whole group mentally, psychologically. Leaders expect full dedication and obedience, of course for the benefit of the trainee. Once one bypasses the apparent brutality and tough outlook, a form of solidarity among the participants appears clearly. Being part of a small, somewhat secret society define their association, the care for each other define their relationship in the group. In fact it is not the violence, but care that builds up a group, it is not fear but love that sustains their existence. In that regard, globalization is not something that is exercised by the few financial elite, but the logic is much widespread and penetrated to the grains of societies that aim to modify the very nature of the emotions and imagination.
THEATER OF POLITICS
A new breed of neoconservative politicians constantly attack the functioning participatory democratic mechanisms to discredit them as slow, inefficient, useless. A form of macho go-getter personality become the de facto model for business and political elite, which claim to find quick fixes for long lasting social issues, regional conflicts. Reform is the new keyword that every politician has to use, like an unexpected punch, usually thrown against society at large. The ultimate goal is to discredit the possibility of any democratic opposition. The show of power transformed into a pure spectacle aiming to dominate the whole audience, not just the democratic opponents.
And this domination is made possible by controlling the shrinking time, the split second response in the political arena, which is ‘live’, ‘real time’ and omnipresent. This state of war, in Virilio’s terms, is not a territorial battle in space, but instead it is a battle for the domination of the time of the reflex, as it has long been in the threat (and deterrence) of the total nuclear annihilation and its possible deferral in the split second. This is where the theater of politics (and war) come closer to the martial arts on stage, bound in the parcel of the given air time, of countering blows and developing strategies of counterattack, all in the diminished timeframe. And this is exactly what makes any democratic participation impossible, the domination of time excludes any feedback, negotiation or reconciliation. The political figure is out on the stage, supposedly representing millions and nations, but literally in accelerated motion as opposed to the inertia of the masses.