İstanbul hosted the Identity Lab Sessions in May 20-21 at the Swedish Consulate, DEPO and Galata Greek School. Co-curated by Naz Cuguoğlu and Susanne Ewerlöf, it featured workshops, video screenings and panel discussions featuring te artists Joana Kohen, Katarina Pirak Sikku, Liv Strand and Lisa Torell from Sweden and Nancy Atakan, Fikret Atay, Elmas Deniz, Işıl Eğrikavuk, Ferhat Özgür, Ceren Saner, Can Sungu and Hasan Özgür Top from Turkey. We interviewed the artist Liv Strand on Identity Lab’i and her featured workshop.
How did you become part of this Identity Lab Project?
I met Susanne Ewerlöf a bit more than a year ago and then we decided that I should make an exhibition at her venue in Norrköping in Sweden. There I worked with the notion of nation-state as a structural problematic, and then there is this word that is newly in use that was invented in the 70s. It became popular again in 2013. It is like a third-person pronoun; not a he, not a she, it is ungendered but still a person. It is used in the queer community but it also began to be used in dealing with equality. Someone wrote a children’s book using this, because you don’t always want to say if the protagonist is a boy or a girl. Then it became highly debated; even some newspapers began to write in this format, and it is also discussed that you can write laws with it, because they are often formulated with “he”, you often have the male example within all these languages. In almost all languages you attribute gender to the person you have as an example. It is not that we have to do away with the “he” or the “she” but sometimes you can do that. For example, when talking about someone who committed a crime and you don’t want to give away the identity, it works. So this word being to debated put some extra light on how the nation-state is also a construction that we go along with. If we understood it in another way, it could be something else; now it is so much based on borders, one people, one ethnicity, and all these issues cause a lot of problems. Even in Sweden we have this problem of indigenous populations. So I was coming out of this exhibition when the Identity Lab project started to form. Then I also met Naz Cuguoğlu at that point. She and Susanne encouraged me to submit a proposal for the project.
What was your workshop about?
It was called “Subject to Erring”; “erring” means wondering around and not really knowing where you are going. You’re not lost but you don’t need to be found either. So I asked the participants to write a text about when they felt that their own identity became very obvious for them. Identity Lab examines identity in relation to place, so I thought it was interesting to try and become aware of when we become unfamiliar to a place because of our identities. I asked the participants to write either about a memory of when this happened or also an imaginary scenario of it. I like organizing these workshops where the participant gives something quite personal before the structure of the workshop sets itself. Out of everybody being a bit vulnerable in the beginning, it becomes a very allowing setting and you feel more empathy for each other. And also people will come with very different understandings of it and it widens the space of discussions. This was how it began but some people came without preparation and started to make excuses. And I said I didn’t want to hear their excuses but I asked them to listen to the other people there and improvise.
Did you have an output from this workshop in the form of a publication or an exhibition? What was the main purpose?
No. The nice thing about Identity Lab is that it does not look for an outcome; it looks for having a discussion and meeting with people, like in the two journeys we did to Jokkmokk in Sweden and Batman in Turkey. Identity is such a wide door; it is also nice to allow for it to be diverse and ambiguous. I don’t think we will have one outcome; my workshop was more part of that setting of reading together, discussing together. The workshop discussion also consisted of trying and naming all the identities the participants could come up with and that they felt were part of them. Because you are of course not just one of them; I’m a woman, an artist, becoming middle-aged, etc. You are a lot of things at the same time so we tried to list many things together and discuss them.
Do you plan to conduct this workshop in other parts of the world?
Why not? But if I did it independently from Identity Lab I would pose the question more tightly around the nation-state; it is a very strong sense of belonging that we have or that we don’t think that we have, that we feel uncomfortable within. You may also choose to be a stateless citizen; but it is not a functional option. I will continue to work on this topic and I think the workshops are a very interesting artistic practice.
Have you been to Istanbul before? If yes, do you observe any transformations in the city?
Twenty years ago I came here to attend one of the biennials. I was still an art student. It is a tough question, because it is a very long time span and I myself have changed as well. I was very young and had a different mindset. The setting is very different. But now I feel that people establish less contact with me, but it might also be due to the fact that I am much older now and it perhaps feels more offensive to do it. I sense some kind of difference but I also sense that the city’s more modern, more like a typical European city where you have more accessibility via public transport, via subway, tram, etc. During my first visit it was more difficult to navigate in the city without having to ask people about the instructions. This also happened in other countries of Europe. Still, here I feel like a stranger and going to Batman was also the same. I cannot sense the artists’ and writers’ concerns visually, in the city. On the streets, life continues.
What do you think about the Swedish mainstream media’s position regarding migration and migrant communities and all that is happening currently in the Middle East including Turkey?
This last year’s change has been very interesting. This issue of people from Africa, Syria, Afghanistan and Pakistan crossing the Mediterranean in boats, risking death, has been reported for several years. This has been discussed a lot and empathy has been very high in the media for a long time. But then early this autumn, suddenly the Swedish government began to say that they welcomed every refugee, with strong support from the civil society as well. This was reported a lot in the media and Sweden took around 150,000 refugees last year. But then in late autumn, suddenly, the racist party in the parliament began to affect the vocabulary in the media although they are not the governing party. Some channels began to report that too many immigrants were coming and that Sweden could not give them a roof without the system breaking down. It became a threat the racist party jumped on. Then Sweden began to selectively close the border, checking everybody’s ID and not taking the ones without papers. The number decreased from 2,000 a day to around 1,000 a week. So the Swedish attitude has been fluctuating. Now the government policy is more pro-EU.
Do you think art can change the world?
For me art is a very good place to have a platform of discussion, much better than mainstream media, because the latter is very highly politicized. I hope art can bring more complex discussions in society. As an artist you can focus on one specific case and deepen your understanding within that subject; it can be very subjective and it is ok. I also think that art cannot change the system that we live in. The systems are political, so politics have to be made. Artists are individual subjects; they don’t have mass force. Art can empower people; more people are ware about things that will affect the political systems at the end. So art has a role in the change but it can’t be a massive, overgeneralized force; it better remains subjective and independent. My utopian wish would be that more people become genuinely interested in art.