Arabesque vs. Schweizerbesque

by Stefanie Alisch

2/5 BZ, DVJ MyTube YouSpace, BerBat Söksal – the Istanbul based multi-media artist Serhat Köksal has been evolving a slew of aliases over the past 28 years. Since 1983, he has been experimenting with note-book films and posters, stickers, fan-zines, music production and re-editing film snippets. He not only plays at renowned media festivals such as the festival transmediale in Berlin, but also produces events in squats, derelict buildings, and art spaces. He further djs radio shows and parties all over the world.

Serhat Köksal's friendship with Teheran based artist and curator Amirali Ghazemi spawned the Roaming Biennial of Teheran. The submitted artwork had to be small and light enough to be carried in carry-on luggage on low-cost airlines. Thus stickers, posters, projections, and music and performance art became the projects of choice. Stefanie Alisch conducted an interview with Serhat Köksal, just before his performance in Switzerland.

[Stefanie Alisch]: Serhat Köksal, who are you and what do you do?

[Serhat Köksal]: I am not. As for 2/5BZ, my main project since the 1980s, it started as something that I had scribbled on a school note-pad in the 1980s. Many years later, I noticed it as I was flipping through the pad and it has become the name of this project. I designed the logo in 1991. In 1982 I finished my first work titled «Men playing Ping Pong and Ajda Pekkan vs. Supertrashmen» which was a cartoon made on a notepad.

At the beginning, my aim was to create a project with a name to be recognized on stickers rather than to be pronounced. At that moment there was no other meaning of 2/5BZ, not more than a name given to this project. Within time, this name contained the meaning and purpose of my works. Sometimes, it gained different meanings, depending on how different people pronounced it.

As for the content of the project, with the establishment of private TV channels in the early 1990s, the whole society was exposed to massive bombardment of all elements of popular culture. In addition, political discussions on TV were broadcasted so often and were very significant during the same period. In the late 1980s I already had started to collect material of 1970s films and music which belonged to the age of my childhood and were real rarities in the flea market due to some political and social circumstances. I started to mix these media with contemporary material mentioned above and edited, crashed, converted and reproduced them with basic equipment and simple techniques available in that time. The late 1980s and early 1990s were also the period when I started to believe in and commit myself to my work.

I tried to create a relation between the speeches of politicians and dialogues taken from Turkish movies from the 1970s which had been oozing into the society’s subconscious. It was not just a funny collage, but was some kind of resistance, supported with visuals and material created by myself and told in a different language. I was also impressed by sound technicians and effect designers of the Turkish pop cinema of the 1960s–70s, who usually edited the musical scores for these films by drawing on material ranging from traditional Turkish music to Western avant-garde tunes using cut-up techniques. I still believe that these people, who affected my subconscious when I was a child, were highly creative. Tuncer Aydinoglu, Yorgo Ilidais, Suudi Yilmaz are some of these sound technicians and effect designers. I also published the interviews I made with these people in my photocopy zine «Gözel Mecmuasi» (Gözel Zine). Later, I started editing video and sound spontaneously and live on stage. What I found exciting was that, I was trying to do what these sound technicians and effect designers once did, but live on stage. If the relation between video and sound develops hypnotically on stage during the performance, the humorous and political statements that I use are passed to the audience. This is what I want to do. But, of course, sometimes undescript things out of my control happen.

[SA]: 2/5 BZ, DJ Serhatulla, DVJ MyTube YouSpace, Spamullah, Berbat Zöksal - all these are names that you created for your work during the past couple of years. Can you tell me about these different personas?

[SK]: Since 1980s, my main project is 2/5BZ, as already explained. Some of the names mentioned above are for DJ sets, and some are joint projects.

[SA]: You run a label, a club night, and a radio show, all under the name Gözel, güzel meaning nice or pretty in Turkish...

[SK]: «Gözel Mecmuasi» (Gözel Zine) contains lots of information, interviews with people who worked hard in the Turkish cinema industry (synchronization, effects, visuals etc.), compiled all by myself. I was the first who interviewed these persons whose names were not known in Turkey during the early 1990s. The two different «Peel Sessions» I made at the request of John Peel were later released on a 12 inch vinyl on «Gözel Records». The radio programmes I produce under the name «Gözel Radio» are broadcasted in Tijuana (Mexico), Berlin and Leipzig (Germany) and Istanbul (Turkey). So far, «Gözel Radio» also performed DJ-sets in Istanbul, Berlin, Vienna, Prague, and in Munich. Once a month I also organize the audio-visual performances «Gözel Geceler» (Gozel Nights) in Istanbul with the participation of other artists.

[SA]: «Gegen die Bridge», «NO Egzotik NO Touristik», «No Dialogue» - you use these slogans in your work. What are the thoughts behind them? How do you imagine they work on the people who read them?

[SK]: My early works were mostly related to the situation in Turkey in the 1970s, 80s and 90s. In the 1970s cultural production accelerated but after the coup in 1980, everything collapsed. After the blockage by the government, we had re-discovered different material, and converted it. We can consider that as a certain reply to the political situation, like a spitting or puking effect. During the 2000s I created some work, which pointed to the possibility that the games, which had been played in Turkey in the past, are repeated on a global scale. No need to mention, the consequences are also seen on a global scale.

«NO Touristik NO Egzotik» became one of my concepts in 2000. I wanted to humorously criticize people who evaluate you not according to the quality of your work but as an exotic object that comes from Istanbul or any other similiar place. In the visual / audio performances, I aimed to break, demolish these exotic images and discourses in a humorous way. I performed them during 2/5BZ’s first European tour in 2001, which included 6 countries and 19 cities. Later, I based my work on the relations between this exoticism issue and global economy. My motives for creating this work were similar statements and approaches of the ministries of economic affairs, global companies, big cultural events. All of them are using standard artificial phrases in their publications, web sites, interviews etc. such as «dialogue», «bridge». These standard expressions are supposed to be used for branding any city or product, to help to promote them and also to integrate them in to the global economic system. Nowadays, these phrases are are commonly used also in cultural environments, almost as a cliché.

Later on, I released my performance «No Cultural Pipeline No Energy Dialogue» which can be described as a study of the relation between energy pipelines and cultural events and the intent to establish a dialogue and bridge between them. Currently, I am working on neoliberalism in a «palaverel» and parallel universe as well as «toolerance imperialism». You can find more information in various articles («Palaverel Universe», «Buy a robber baron, get a fresh Ottoman free», «Urban Lousy»).

[SA]: You have organized the «Roaming Biennial » in Istanbul, Berlin, and Belgrade under the theme of «Urban Jalousy» since 2008. In 2010 we saw the new incarnation of this project as «Urban Lousy» in Berlin. Tell us about this project, why have you started it?

[SK]: I do not take the biennial and similar big cultural events seriously because I believe that these kinds of big cultural events are related to major global economical decisions and plans and are existing only as decoration or a shop window. With a Do It Yourself approach we established the free and independent «Roaming Biennial Tehran» in order to avoid being a part of this shop window. With the participation of more than 600 artists from all around the world, it was a big DIY-organisation. These organisations in Istanbul, Berlin and Belgrade have been supported by friends who made these biennials happen. I also did not accept any support offered by global companies and institutions.

«Urban Lousy» was a three-day performance programme with (performance) artists from Biennial Tehran. It was realized as a part of independent, self-sponsoring performances undertaken in an actual circus tent, under the name «Circus Charivari». The circus performances were questioning the relationship of freaks to the city; and with a text questioning who the new freaks are in today’s cities. We realized the «Urban Lousy» performance program, with the participation of artists from different countries in 2010 in Berlin as you can see via this link.

Arabesk Nacht.

[SA]: Amongst other things, you use samples of arabesk music from the 1960ies. What makes arabesk attractive to you? In which way do you incorporate it in your work?

[SK]: I should begin by saying that in understanding arabesk, focusing only on censorship, or creating a snapshot of identity over the drama of migration to the cities, or the struggle of people living a difficult life in, misses the bigger picture. Although these singular focal points have some truth to them, in such a piecemeal line of thinking, it becomes easier to eviscerate arabesk, and then fill it up with the ingredients the power elite sees fit, label it as exotic, and market it in the relevant cultural goods market.

In the 1950s and 1960s, when it first appeared, arabesk was an honest expression of people’s pain and rebellion. And it managed to reach the public, despite all limitations. Yet, the honest feelings of the people, then become a issue of marketing, especially pain has been commercialized.

The exploitation of pain and the honest feelings of the people in arabesk is very much related to the neo-liberal turn of the 1980ies. As soon as it was realized that this exploitation brings economic gain, they worked on it. Even the Prime Minister of the period, Turgut Ozal, was using arabesk in his political campaigns. Some arabesk stars were glorified as stories of upward mobility, as an example of spreading the hope that «you can do it too». The seeds, put in the 1980s, have grown into what we see more clearly today.

Today, the injustices of the economy, and the pain and suffering in the lives of people are even more aggravated; arabesk is less and less an expression of these difficult lives, and the voice of the urban poor. Arabesk today, has created its own elite audience, and is producing for them more and more. The arabesk music we see today is much of an upgraded class-arabesk. In this sense, it is hard to discuss arabesk, in a limited framework where it was banned (or looked down on) by the country’s power elite once, but now saved through some developments towards democracy. Most of the well-known figures of arabesk adapted well to the changing economic conditions of the post-1980s. And now, they are not really distant from the interests and the likes of the new power elite. They can also be integrated to the global market. Or, in the same line of thinking, their success stories are spread to create an «optimism», not only for the urban poor, but for the small enterprises as well.

One exception that I should quote here comes from an important living, and active figure of arabesk, Hakki Bulut. In the raw recording of the documentary Arabesk – Massenpop und Gossensound I have seen him speak. Addressing one of the most important labour protests against neo-liberalism in the recent years, the protests of the workers of the Tekle factories, Hakki Bulut says that «Arabesk is Tekel resistance». This exemplifies one of the ways how I relate to arabesk.

Extra Dialogue.

Published on January 18, 2011

Last updated on September 30, 2019


Stefanie Alisch is a musicologist and dj from Berlin, she currently works as research assistant at the music archive of Iwalewa-Haus.
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