December 18, 2020
There is a tension between the slow, steady study of knowledge, image, and object worlds of time past and the piling debris of the contemporary. The present pierces the archive—more or less immediately and materially—as it enters, explodes, and oftentimes destroys the traces of history we as scholars ask after. More insidiously (though at times productively), the present pierces by infiltrating our screens, fragmenting our attention in a spectacle of seemingly endless disaster. And then there is the present’s slower and perhaps more inevitable piercing: its accumulation, palimpsesting, and saturation of material, itself the very stuff of the archive.
These tensions inform my own work, which deals with artistic practices that urge a rethinking of the archive through a focus on missing/uncategorized objects; multilingual, minority, and queer narratives that are precluded by modern forms of classification; and documents that have been stealthily stolen, lost in unindexed masses, then rediscovered, recognized, re-categorized, or conjured. It is through these same artistic practices that I am continually reminded of what Walter Benjamin once said, that “nothing that has ever happened should be regarded as lost for history.”
I write of these tensions in the midst of COVID-19’s challenging of our access to the archive, as it is this notion of “inaccessibility” and hiddenness that I find myself most critically drawn to as 2020 comes to a close. Though the current pandemic certainly highlights the physical barriers between archives and publics, travel restrictions, language barriers, and the incompleteness of archives have long since demanded more imaginative approaches to reconstructing and accessing the past. The present pierces the archive, yes; but in an altogether different way—one that is neither equal nor comparable—the archive too weighs on the present. For while structures of violence might be inscribed materially, sociopolitically, and affectively by histories of bloodshed, they are also epistemically maintained through the repression and denial often embodied by the archive itself. The present moment therefore asks of us what it has long demanded of those less materially or institutionally grounded: to fabulate, to imagine, to conjure the past by both looking to the absences and listening to the silences of the archive.
The contemporary Turkish artist İz Öztat’s ongoing series Untimely Collaboration with Zişan rests on such a premise, focusing on imagined encounters with the specter of an Armenian woman, Zişan, who would have lived a century before her. Beginning in 2012, the successive iterations of this series have addressed a range of archival gaps: the absence of Armenian crafts traditions, writers, and artists from Turkey’s artistic and intellectual histories and that absence’s effect on Turkish modernism; the historical arc running from the denial of the 1915 Armenian Genocide (which the Republic of Turkey has yet to recognize) to the 2007 assassination of the Armenian journalist Hrant Dink; the histories of queer, ethnic, and religious minority communities whose presence in official archives is often limited or simply nonexistent. In the 2014 work Conducted in Depth and Projected at Length, for example, Öztat’s encounter with the ghost materializes through sketches and short stories that Zişan is said to have left behind. Among these is the map an island that has taken on the form of the Arabic letters cim, nun, and te, which together spell not one word but two—paradise and possessed—depending on the reader’s context and assumptions.
Map of Cennet / Cinnet (Paradise / Possessed) Island, Zişan, 1915 – 1917, ink on paper, 25.5 x 18 cm, Courtesy of the artist and in the care of Sibel Horada & İzel Levi Coşkun
Zişan’s short story “Island of Paradise Possessed [Cezîre-i Cennet/Cinnet],” which appears within the same installation, narrates a surrealist version of her own escape from the Ottoman Empire into Eastern Europe. Set within the equivocal landscape of Arabic script and cartographic representation from Map of Cennet / Cinnet (Paradise / Possessed) Island, she tells the parafictional tale of a gender-fluid community from an island on the Danube that we are told ceased to exist when in 1968 it was consumed by dam waters. In a related sculpture, Öztat sets about actualizing a particular relic—a so-called conductor—from this lost world, which Zişan herself describes as a time machine activated by breath:
“The device that s/he called the conductor, when placed in the midst of butcher’s brooms and activated with breathing, enables time travel to moments, in which time has been bent with common willpower. For a moment, I was under the impression that I ended up there through this ritual.”
Left: Conductor, Zişan, 1915 – 1917, ink on paper, 25.5 x 18 cm, Courtesy of the artist and in the care of Sibel Horada & İzel Levi Coşkun
Right: Conductor (Posthumous Production Series), İz Öztat, 2014, copper, felt, bamboo, dried intestine casing, 160 x 60 x 60 cm
This conductor serves as a geographically specific metaphor for oral communication, as breathing life into inscription through the addition of necessary vowels was a particularity of the Arabic script used in the Ottoman Empire and Turkey until 1928. Zişan’s parable of making sense and time travel also tells us that the device must be placed in the vicinity of a particular Eurasian shrub, the “Butcher’s Broom.” That time travel is enabled by this convergence of conditions, elements, and apparatus serves to highlight how archives themselves might only provide the means of retrospection under certain pretenses. Indeed, archives are material, paper, brick, and mortar, but they are also and more immediately life, flesh, and breath. It is almost impossible to look to or at an archive without breathing contemporaneity into it, and archives’ potentials are often revealed through the serendipitous presents that we bring to them. Similarly, as Turkey’s own sociopolitical landscape becomes ever-more chaotic, I find myself invested in the way that archives demand such presents, both in the sense of “presence” and of a “gift” of perspective, of imagination.
The way that Öztat weaves these narratives and objects from a beyond of spectral communication paradoxically makes visible the structural and affective losses that archives are built upon, thereby enabling her to attend to such loss with untimeliness. For those having grown up in Turkey, these works gesture towards what, following Achille Mbembe, we might call a more national “chronophagy,” a violent and selective obliteration of archives and pasts. Chronophagy cooks the books, covers debts, and reshapes the present: burning cities and villages, drowning life spaces under small-scale hydroelectric dams, changing street names, criminalizing languages and forcing a singular national tongue onto a multiethnic, multiconfessional society are just some of the erasures of recent history in Turkey. Rising from the ashes of such atrocities, official archives thus become complicit in the violence grounding seemingly past-less presents.
And with the past’s lack of presence, the debris continues to pile. I began this reflection following the explosion in Beirut in the summer of 2020, itself the result of material neglect and political decay. This macabre and horrifying event was a morbid reminder of my own experiences with sudden loss, other news of explosions, death, and destruction from Turkey. Living and working in the United States in recent years has meant waking up to dead bodies and destroyed buildings, incarcerated colleagues and murdered acquaintances that echo as a constant sensation, a low buzz in my ear, a cloud between my spectacles and my eyes, a magnetic problem with my watch. And with these events, the erasures continue: in the wake of 2015, for example, academics calling for the Turkish government to restart peace talks with the Kurdish political movement were criminalized, fired, or made into public pariahs. Artists, actors, journalists, elected officials, and civil society as a whole continue to suffer similar fates under opaque and constantly shifting auspices. For these disappearances, these lapses in memory, the archive must be made to answer, much as the ghostly whispers of Zişan call: we must continue to imagine, to make of forgotten or willfully damaged pasts and their peoples a presence, a flesh.
 Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” in Illuminations (New York: Schocken Books, 1968), 254.
 Achille Mbembe, Necropolitics, translated by Steve Corcoran (Durham: Duke University Press, 2019).
 Ali Bolcakan, “Language of Politics & Politics of Language” (PhD Diss. University of Michigan, 2021).