Interview with Deniz Üster

‘Citadel’ at Art Exchange

An interview with artist Deniz Üster, who is exhibiting ‘Citadel’ in Art Exchange’s main gallery space. She talks to Jo Morton about the ideas behind this imaginative and insightful show.

Üster transforms Art Exchange into a sci-fi inflected landscape. Reinventing Ron Herron’s idea of ‘walking cities’, ‘Citadel’ is a model of a slowly-evolving anarchist utopia: a ‘walking’ settlement looms over the ruins of former dwellings. Mechanical legs mobilise the city while the community are housed in rows of regulated concrete pods which cover the city’s body. Üster’s utopian vision challenges prevailing notions of land ownership and the linear progression of occidental societies. By listening to the needs of its residents, egalitarian conditions develop, with new approaches to work/leisure, work/play binaries and privilege are wiped out. Accompanying the ‘walking city’, is a sound piece which describes how this new mechanised model of urban living would function. For this exhibition, Üster has collaborated with writer and researcher Gürçim Yilmaz, who authored and narrates the audio piece. A third element in ‘Citadel’, is a series of drawings which touch on real stories of urban renewal projects and displacement from around the world. 

‘Citadel’ is a multi-sensory installation (a sound piece, sculptural works of your ‘walking city’ and drawings). Would you be able to tell us about the relation these mediums have which each other?

Usually I work with film to deliberate on a complex narrative such as ‘Citadel’s. However, this time I wanted to experiment with the coalescence of objects, sound and drawings to create a filmic enactment: In a fabricated stage, a citadel almost walks, but not quite. The drawings are directly inspired by real life (some surreal!) displacement projects, yet my interventions tie (or untie) them to the fictional world of the walking cities.

In the reading material for your exhibition ‘Citadel’, it is described as a ‘post-settlement landscape’, a new form of urban living which has taken a utopian shift towards nomadic forms of co-existence. This term, ‘nomadic forms of co-existence’ might, at first glance, sound like a contradictory statement. Do you mind elaborating on these terms and this vision of utopia? 

‘Citadel’ proposes an alternative living where there are no longer privileges offered to a specific group of people. Dwellings are equal in size and appearance, so it is futile to accumulate these spaces with endless furniture, and possessions. Work and leisure have changed meaning, losing their binary. ‘Citadels’ residents exist in egalitarian conditions, without possession of any landmass rooted on the landscape. A new form of ‘existing together’ is created, eliminating all privileges.

Could you elaborate on this ‘cyclical’ aspect in Citadel?

In ‘Time and Other,’ anthropologist, Johannes Fabien uncovers the linear character of time conception in Judeo-Christian tradition, as opposed to the paganistic cyclical comprehension of time. This may suggest a belief that progression must be understood as a one-way system on the horizontal axis in the occidental world. This assumption – first through the Enlightenment, then Modernity – encouraged a hierarchical positioning of communities, while ascribing chronological time differences to them. So Western civilisation has described itself with linear progression through centuries, while assuming that tribal societies are atemporal. This disregarded the progression of indigenous communities, describing them as backwards, on the grounds of not being compatible with Western understanding of contemporaneity. Both Gürçim Yilmaz and I pursued ways to break this Western-centric linearity in our collaborative academic writing and projects, hence the cyclical temporality and spatiality depicted in ‘Citadel’.

In your drawings, you have touched on real stories of urban displacement and gentrification from an imagined route through Turkey, Romania, Italy, Germany and finally ending in Scotland. How have real life displacement projects/urban politics informed your practice? 

My practice-based research engages with speculative fiction as a way to analyse the implicit dispositions of authority in architecture and city planning projects, with an aim to open up space for counter narratives. I tend to utilise architecture and urban landscapes to deconstruct its own mediation as a disciplinary agent upon the physical and social environment. I am interested in this ‘subduing’ agency in architecture; this often results in the displacement of communities in order to adhere to authority’s control of land. Through my practice, I intend to create gaps – breathing spaces – between the lines to initiate optimistic counter-narratives within oppressive urban environments.

You have mentioned that the concept behind ‘Citadel’ is heavily influenced by Ron Herron’s ‘walking cities’. Do you mind speaking about why you are drawn to science fiction, and perhaps why you’ve chosen to base your utopian vision of the future on a nostalgic sci-fi vision? 

For me science fiction is the only genre that truly depicts how societies could function differently. It allows us to imagine the futures we want, and consider ways to work towards it. It also makes us aware of futures we wish to avoid and helps us prevent them. Science fiction makes us think, wonder and ask “what if” and “why”. Social science fiction – where I believe my research resides – speculates about human society, human behaviour and interactions. In other words, it absorbs and discusses anthropology. Exploration of fictional societies is a significant aspect of science fiction, allowing it to portray alternative societies and to examine the implications of ethical principles.

And yes, as you have observed, I am particularly drawn to nostalgic science fiction. I use iconography and materials from the visions of future in the past in conjunction with contemporary issues in urban politics, as a mediation to disrupt the linearity of history. Science fiction is a wonderful tool to create alternative temporalities and spatialities.

You’re a Glasgow-based artist; Glasgow is famously (or perhaps infamously) known for urban development and its post-war vision of modernist utilitarianism. I was wondering what you think of the architecture and urban renewal in Glasgow, and if it has influenced your own utopian urban vision?

I am very fond of concrete brutalist architecture, such as the work of Gillespie Kidd and Coia, which is often demonised due to its cold, harsh appearance and its associations with socialism and urban decay. This is felt all the more in Glasgow, where under our climate conditions concrete is never seen at its best. Brutalist architecture has mostly been criticised for not respecting the social, historical and architectural environment of its surroundings, appearing to put it bluntly, alien and out of place. Following the Second World War, displaced communities failed to bond in the Brutalist high-rises and a sense of urban degeneration set in. This provoked a combined unpopularity for both the architecture and its ideology. To this end, tenements with their ‘elegant sophistication’ regained their status after years of decline, contrary to the uncompromisingly anti-bourgeois Brutalist architecture. The legacy of Le Corbusier’s in Scotland has mostly been accepted as a blot in urban landscape, now gradually disappearing from 21st century maps of Scotland.

However, for me, it is still an important emblem of utopian ideal which signals a new power coming out of war-torn countries and the birth of the Welfare State; as architecture moved from the church, to the wealthy aristocracy, and then to the people.

Do you mind expanding on your making process? 

The model of Citadel is the result of a very laborious process. I really do not believe the end result shows the effort that went into it. Each dwelling of the walking city is individually casted into cement in five rubber moulds in total, and we have fabricated 522 cement casts from these moulds. It was a messy process which took over two studio spaces, one bathroom and the kitchen of our flat.  Working 13 hours a day was our average work load.

Within your own art practice, could you fill us in on the historical context of this show – why now? 

A more powerful inspiration for this specific project stems from Turkey’s current urban politics. Turkey, where I originate, has been undergoing perpetual civil engineering works for over a decade, overseen by the ruling party. Buildings and structures have been persistently demolished and rebuilt, with authentic structures replaced with replicas. Provoked by the current spate of gentrification and the particular new aesthetic taking place especially in the fabric of historic Istanbul, I am looking into the relation between the current futuristic architectural and urban structure in Turkey and the ruling party’s ideology. Through my research and art practice I aim to scrutinise the extent of the enclave’s methods to modify the collective memory through the instrument of architecture.

When architecture and urban landscape is used purely as a powerful instrument for a political ideology, what happens when you altogether remove the occupation of urban landscape? What happens to the omnipresent power of infrastructure when there are actually no permanent “settlements”? What about borders and territories, or what happens to ‘the State’ simply? So these are only a few of the questions I would like to raise through ‘Citadel’.

Jo Morton

November 2018

New Geographies Arts Assistant

Art Exchange