Category Archives: migrants

Cutting through the ‘smart’ walls and fences of Fortress Europe

Recent European immigration policies seem to be mostly dedicated to making external borders as impenetrable as possible, through the hardening of the conditions of entry and, most notably since the 2015 refugee panic, through naval operations in the Mediterranean and the erection of fences and walls. The numbers of migrants reaching European shores in search of asylum have dropped sharply over the past couple of years but the desire to deny them a chance to seek asylum is still fueling the xenophobic rants of far-right politicians like Viktor Orban and Matteo Salvini.

Dani Ploeger, SMART FENCE at Bruthaus Gallery, 2019

Dani Ploeger, Still from Border Operation, 2018-19, HD video, 3′. Documentation of action at Hungarian border fence

Artist Dani Ploeger has been looking at the fences recently built to toughen “Fortress Europe.” In particular the ones that use heat and movement sensors, sophisticated cameras and other so-called ‘smart’ technologies to shut off “illegal immigrants.” The hi-tech terminology used to describe theses fences obscure their inherent violence. Moreover, Ploeger writes, “their framing as supposedly clean and precise technologies is symptomatic of a broader cultural practice that uses narratives of technologization to justify means of violence” (think of the military drones and their supposedly surgical precision).

Last December, the artist traveled to the fortified border fence that Hungary had raised along its southern border with Serbia to keep out migrants and asylum seekers. The barbed-wire is capable of delivering electric shocks and is equipped with heat sensors, cameras and loudspeakers that shout inhospitable messages in several languages.

Once at the border fence, Ploeger cut off and ran away with a piece of razor wire from the border fence. This was a daring action: damaging the border fence is a criminal offence under Hungarian law.

Dani Ploeger, European Studies #1 (sensors). Exhibition view at Bruthaus Gallery

Dani Ploeger, European Studies #1 (sensors). Exhibition view at Bruthaus Gallery

Ploeger recently exhibited that piece of fence as well as a series of related works at Bruthaus Gallery in Belgium. His SMART FENCE project uses old and new media, from celluloid film to augmented reality, to explore the way we delegate our responsibility towards asylum-seekers to these tech-enhanced structures. Along the way, the artist also attempts to deconstruct the techno-ideologies that are often inscribed in these technologies of control and exclusion.

Dani Ploeger, SMART FENCE. Exhibition view at Bruthaus Gallery

The exhibition at Bruthaus Gallery is sadly over but i got in touch with the artist a couple of weeks ago to know more about SMART FENCE:

Hi Dani! I often have the feeling that we are a bit hypocritical in Europe, at least in the areas that are not in close proximity to these new borders. We point the finger at the US-Mexico wall and turn a bind eye at our own manifestations of intolerance and inhospitality. Do you have any idea about how much the European public is concerned by these European border fences?

I was struck by how many visitors of the exhibition seemed to know very little to nothing about the border fences that have been erected around the EU in recent years, especially considering how much attention the Hungarian border project has received in the media. I wonder whether this is because many just don’t engage much with international news reports or if they forget news events quickly due to the constant bombardment with spectacular and shocking information in networked culture (Paul Virilio discusses this latter phenomenon in his book The Administration of Fear, 2012). Either way, I didn’t get the impression that many people assess the current discussions around the US-Mexico wall in relation to recent border reinforcement projects in the EU. This impression is just based on anecdotal experiences in my direct surroundings though. I don’t really know about ‘the European public’ in general, if such thing exists.
Possibly more disturbing than the finger pointing towards the US, I find the recurring suggestion that the Hungarian border fence would merely be a manifestation of the backwards politics of Victor Orban’s nationalist-conservative government and hence in essence actually be a very ‘un-European’ project. This perspective ignores that Frontex, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, is also active at the Hungarian border fence and that Greece, Spain and Latvia, among others, have built or are building similar fences, although these have not received as much media attention. In the end, these fences are quite convenient to many governments across the EU that want to restrict immigration.

Dani Ploeger, Border Operation, 2018-19. Exhibition view at Bruthaus Gallery

What is amusing in the video Border Operation is that you’re stealing a piece of razor wire and you’re doing in broad day light and don’t seem to be in great hurry, even when the car with the security officers arrives. Did you know what you were risking? And do you think that it would have been ok because you’re an artist so you have some licence? 

Interesting you see it like that. What I found somewhat funny is the indecisive and confused behaviour of the border patrol officers after I have left and they are just standing around, unable to do anything substantial because they are stuck behind their own fence. While I was at the fence, I was actually scared shitless, especially when the alarm loudspeakers switched on and the patrol car arrived, all within one minute from when I first touched the fence. My glove was stuck in the bit of razor wire I was trying to cut off though, and I was really quite determined not to go home empty handed, so that kept me a few seconds longer after they arrived. One of the guards was only about a metre and a half away on the other side of the fence though, and yelling at me, so I was close to leaving my glove behind and running off.

I had deliberately approached the fence slowly and casually before starting to cut in order not to make my intentions obvious right away. I figured that if I would run towards the fence through the 300 meters of open field next to it the video surveillance observers would be alarmed right away. I had planned and timed the action carefully the day before, based on an examination of the area around the fence, the frequency of the patrols and a little practice with my bolt cutter. My camera was attached upside down in a tree and my packaging material for the wire, first aid kit and various other materials were hidden behind the ruin of a house across the field. I did my best to stay cool during the action and to cut slowly and precisely without panicking. Nevertheless, I was so excited that I messed up and cut through a wrong bit at first (cutting concertina razor wire somehow isn’t as simple as it appears), struggled to get through the steel wire with my tiny cutter, and then I was surprised by how quickly the guards arrived. They seemed to come from nowhere.

A tricky thing was that the fence stands a short distance inside Hungarian territory, which means that border patrol officers may use pepper spray or fire rubber bullets at people who are messing with the fence from the outside. They can also operate on the outside if they go out through a gate about 100 meters from where I was. Therefore, I went away from the fence as quickly as possible once I got my bit of wire, and ran back to Serbian soil. In Serbia, I still had to walk for about half an hour to reach the main road though, partly through open fields. I hadn’t been able to find out through my contacts at the Serbian Commissariat for Refugees and Migration if the Hungarian border force is in contact with Serbian police, so this walk wasn’t very relaxing either. I had identified a few hide-outs along the way in case police would show up.

Damaging the border fence has been criminalized in Hungary in 2015, so I guess that in Hungary I would now be a fugitive criminal. Getting caught would probably have gotten me into some serious trouble and I don’t think saying that I’m an artist would have convinced them to just let me go.

In the end, I don’t believe they would push for a serious prison sentence or something like that though, both because I can’t imagine they’d find a single person action relevant enough and because it would lead to tensions with other EU countries. So rather than me being an artist I think my EU passport would have given me some leeway.

I actually think I was mainly scared to get a serious beating, or just in general to get caught by an unknown authority for doing something illegal. This is also where one of the most relevant aspects of doing this action lies for me.

When I watched video reportages about migrants cutting holes in the fence and running across, sometimes with entire families including small children, it hadn’t looked that scary to me. Thinking about what extreme challenges and dangers these people would have encountered on their journeys towards this border, getting rid of a bit of barbed wire and running across a few meters of border strip, with apparently the only serious risk being sent back, somehow seemed to be among the lesser challenges.

Considering how scared I was myself while merely stealing a bit of wire from this fence – not even trying to cross – makes apparent the extreme contrast between the relatively fear- and threat-free life many (Western) Europeans like myself are used to in comparison with the environments many migrants navigate. In this context, the lighthearted way in which some people and media speak of the supposedly gratuitous motivations of migrants traveling to Europe appears ridiculous: this is not a journey one would choose to undertake if the living conditions in the home country would be bearable.

Dani Ploeger, Sensitive Barrier (razor wire from Hungarian border, movement detector, electro-motor), 2019

Dani Ploeger, Sensitive Barrier (razor wire from Hungarian border, movement detector, electro-motor), 2019

Dani Ploeger, Sensitive Barrier (razor wire from Hungarian border, movement detector, electro-motor), 2019

I was very interested in the extract in the press material that mentions the violence that is enacted on humans and non-human animals. Could you explain how non-human animals suffer from the erection of these ‘smart fences’? 

Many animals, such as red deer, bears and wolves, used to have their grazing, hunting and migration routes through parts of EU borders that have now become impenetrable. The issue is not only that animals are no longer able to cross, but also that razor wire, which is the main component of the border fences throughout, is designed to deter humans. It is explicitly not intended for use against animals, because, unlike traditional barbed wire, they easily get stuck in it and die.

Dani Ploeger, European Studies #2 (wire). Exhibition view at Bruthaus Gallery

Dani Ploeger, European Studies #2 (wire). Exhibition view at Bruthaus Gallery

The AR technology used in European Studies #2 (wire) “was developed in collaboration with the AURORA project at the University of Applied Sciences Berlin with support from the European Union.” Isn’t it a bit ironic that the EU would contribute to a project that openly questions the management of its borders? Was everyone comfortable with the idea that you used EU money to criticise border control? 

This irony is important to me. The EU has an extensive and complex bureaucracy that regulates and manages funding for research, arts and other things. I see this as an important reason why there usually isn’t too much worrying among researchers or art producers about policy-critical work as part of funded research or art projects, as long as the work adheres to the immediate rules and regulations for the management of the grant. I.e. if there isn’t a written rule that says ‘your research may not criticize EU policies’ all is fine, because grant holders will be monitored and assessed by peers and bureaucrats, rather than politicians or other people with significant policy making power. This leaves some space to use funding for things that might go against the immediate interests of the Union.

At the same time, we shouldn’t overstate this critical or subversive potential though. In the end, actions like mine are usually only possible a long way down in the ‘funding-hierarchy’. My AR app was a tiny sub-project in the context of a large EU-funded research project. This larger project, the design and management of which I am not involved in, was the outcome of a successful bid under the “Strengthening the innovation potential in culture” scheme of the European Fund for Regional Development. As the title of the scheme already suggests, research projects will only be funded if their design demonstrates detailed and far-going endorsement of the economic-growth-driven interests that form an important aspect of the European Union’s raison d’être.

So I’d actually say that, in the end, the true irony of the seemingly subversive use of EU funding for my project primarily concerns the way in which a lot of critical artwork, including my own, is intertwined with government support structures for research and art that are increasingly driven by clearly defined economic objectives. These objectives are also reflected in restrictive migration policies, which are oftentimes based on prioritizing cutting costs over humanitarian considerations.

To what extent does the ‘successful artist’ of a neo-liberal cultural landscape (i.e. the one who gets access to funding and is exposed at funded events and venues) become complicit in the economy-cultural complex that ultimately shares responsibility for the excesses of violence and neo-colonial policies on and beyond the borders of the EU or, more generally, the Global North?

Dani Ploeger, Sensitive Barrier, detail (razor wire from Hungarian border, movement detector, electro-motor), 2019

These ‘smart’ technologies of ‘defense’ and the way they function elude visual representation. They make migration almost abstract. Your works, on the other hand, make their violence almost palpable. Have you not been tempted at any point to make the connection between the human and non-human animals who suffer from the deployment of these technologies more obvious and maybe also more (easily) emotional by adding the presence of migrants trying to go through them?

Many journalists and artists have done work that focuses directly on the human suffering in the context of these structures (suffering of non-human animals not so much). This work is very important, among others to counter the tendency to imagine migration as some kind of abstract phenomenon as you point out. But I think there are also aspects of the current problematics around migration that cannot be addressed adequately by this work, and which require different approaches.

Firstly, when the attention is focused on representations of migrants trying to cross the fence, architectural and technological aspects tend to move to the background. This is understandable and desirable – thank god engagement with human experience prevails over barbed wire and motion detectors – but it also means that the significant role of narratives and applications of technology in the ‘management’ of migration and territorial control remain under-examined.

Secondly, as I already mentioned above, I often find that when watching video and photo representations of migrants trying to break through these border fences the places and situations paradoxically seem a lot less threatening and violent than they actually are experienced in a material encounter. The material presence and digital close-up views of razor wire and the quasi-nostalgic analogue photographs of sensor installations in my work do by no means give access to the experience of encountering the border fence as a migrant. But I do hope that they offer an additional way to engage with the violent implications of the desire for closed borders, an engagement that operates more through a sense of haptic visuality, rather than emotional narratives.

Any upcoming project or field of research you’d like to share with us?

I see the work I presented at Bruthaus Gallery as the beginning of a longer project that looks into borders, technologies and their narratives, so I will probably make more work around this theme over the next year or so. In addition to the video I exhibited now, I made a 3D video recording of the action at the Hungarian border from first-person perspective with two action cams that were attached to my forehead. I will use this footage to make a work for VR headset which will engage more with the experience of stress and fear that I mentioned in response to your earlier question. Another thing I am working on at the moment is an AR app for public space. When you point your device at a replica of a sign from the border fence that reads “CAUTION: Electric fence” the app will construct a life-size 3D model of the border fence around this, so you are standing right next to it.

Later in the year, I will make a new work for a group exhibition at Kunstraum Kreuzberg/Bethanien in Berlin, titled Weapons of Art. For this, I am planning to travel to another part of the EU to look for fencing, but I don’t want to say anything more about that yet.

Thanks Dani!

Previous works by Dani Ploeger: e-waste, porn, ecology & warfare. An interview with Dani Ploeger and Global control, macho technology and the Krampus. Notes from the RIXC Open Fields conference.
See also: The System of Systems: technology and bureaucracy in the asylum seeking process in Europe, Watching You Watching Me. A Photographic Response to Surveillance and Transnationalisms – Bodies, Borders, and Technology. Part 2. The conference.

How to milk a camel and craft an embroidered computer. An interview with Ebru Kurbak

A School of School, the 4th Istanbul Design Biennial, closed two weeks ago and i’m still struggling to type down the final notes from my visit to the event. The past few weeks have been exhausting and exciting but the end of the tunnel is near! I’m really happy to sit down today and write about the work of Ebru Kurbak, a (super talented) Turkish artist and designer based in Vienna. She was showing three very strong projects in Istanbul. Each of them reflects her interest in the often invisible political nature of spaces and technologies, and in the way the design of the ordinary can help shape values, practices and ideologies.

Ebru Kurbak, Lonely Planet

Lonely Planet was the work that moved me the most. This version of the touristic guide of Syria was revised and annotated not by savvy globetrotters but by the people who had lived there and had just fled the country. The result is a poignant overlay of landmarks that have been reduced to rubble, routes that can no longer be taken safely but also everyday realities that survive in some form or another despite the hardship. The work, under its unassuming aesthetics, brings nuances to a country that has, in the eyes of most foreigners, transformed from being “one of the most peaceful exotic travel destinations” to “one of the most dangerous places on the planet”.

The artist and designer has also worked with migrants to create Infrequently Asked Questions, a series of workshops in which she asked just one question to people who had recently arrived in Austria, could barely speak German and had lost some self-confidence in front of all the new knowledge and skills they had to learn in order to get by in the new country: What are you good at? The work reveals the best way to milk a camel but also the fact that the values of things are social constructs, not absolute facts.

So Kanno and Ebru Kurbak, Yarn Recorder (Stitching Worlds), 2018. Photograph by Elodie Grethen ©Stitching Worlds

Finally, the biennial also presented Stitching Worlds, an investigation into how different technology would be if textile craftspeople were the catalyst to its industry. The collaborative project produced devices as diverse as a magnificent embroidered computer, an instrument that utilizes spools of yarns and threads to record and play sound, a board game that reflects on cryptocurrencies by requiring players to knit the money they need or a sweater that gives its wearer the ability to occupy electronic space by sending invisible radio transmission waves.

Ebru Kurbak, Lonely Planet

Ebru Kurbak, Lonely Planet, exhibition view at the Istanbul Design Biennial. Photo: Kayhan Kaygusuz

I talked with the artist shortly after my return from Turkey:

Hi Ebru! Your work Lonely Planet attempts to understand the present reality in Syria by editing a travel guide through interviews with people who recently fled from the country. How did you get the idea for this work? Did the initial idea emerge from discussions with people who have moved from Syria to Austria?

The initial idea actually emerged before I met the people. Back in 2016, the University of Applied Arts Vienna had dedicated one of their vacated buildings as temporary a shelter for people who just arrived from Syria. I was working there at the time when over a thousand people started residing in the building neighboring my workspace. When the University decided to put together an exhibition on this subject, the curator Işın Önol asked me whether I would contribute with a new participatory work. The idea for Lonely Planet was one of the few ideas I came up with early in the process and discussed with Işın before I set foot at the shelter.

I think the questions this work asks have a lot to do with my own experiences growing up. I grew up in Turkey receiving constant news about the Iran-Iraq war in the 80s and the Gulf war in the 90s. These were the “officially declared wars,” so to say. But, although not always recognized as such, there have always been conflicts in Turkey as well, and fragments of what one can easily call war.

“War” or “no war” is not always something that changes from one day to another, as the tourist guides depict. There is some daily life that continues, even if the amount might fluctuate over time. But, apart from the official declarations, when exactly do individuals acknowledge that they are in war? The research I did for the work was an attempt to understand how people in Syria experienced this merged reality of ordinary life and war. People that fled from the country must have identified critical moments, which made them take that difficult decision.

The tourist gaze implied with the travel guide also relates to the shame and sorrow I felt about not having been to Syria before and about how surprisingly little I had known about the country. The process taught me a lot of things that I wish I had known and seen before.

But then again, as said, editing a travel guide was only one of the few vague ideas I had in mind. As soon as I started talking to people at the shelter, they made it clear for me that this was going to be it. The people had just arrived to Austria and were eager to talk about where they used to live, how they used to live, what happened and what changed, as much as I was eager to listen. The guidebook gave us an objective framework to start from and our conversations flew smoothly and naturally from there. This made working on this particular idea more interesting for all of us.

Ebru Kurbak, Lonely Planet, exhibition view at the Istanbul Design Biennial. Photo: Kayhan Kaygusuz

Ebru Kurbak, Lonely Planet, exhibition view at the Istanbul Design Biennial. Photo: Kayhan Kaygusuz

How was the whole re-writing process of the guide like? I suspect it must have been a very emotional experience. Is what we can see/read at the biennial in Istanbul and on your website the result of long debates and discussions? Or did the participants all agree on what had changed and how in Syria?

It was emotional. Especially editing the first pages in May 2016. And, it was not only because we talked about painful things. It was a time when everything was very recent and all of us were in some sort of shock or even disbelief. I remember Mohammed, one of the people who helped me the most, pointing at the map in the guide and showing me where he had last parked his car some days ago. And I remember unthinkingly asking him what was going to happen with the car, and waking up with the fact that he did not seem to care. It was hard to grasp that people had truly left things behind—both physically and mentally. Seemingly casual things like that proved the immediacy and reality of everything.

The edits in the pages are results of long talks. But, there was no agreement sought among participants. I spoke with everyone in private, at separate times and places, as people were still quite worried about their opinions to be openly known by others in the shelter. All came from different places and had fought for different political views. Their experiences were different from each other and they relied on different sources for news. So, the work captures rather a collection of multiple realities than one objective truth.

The project relies more on text than on shock images, its immediate visual appeal is thus not obvious. Yet the ability of your Lonely Planet work to convey the shock of what Syria was before and what it is now is very powerful. More perhaps than the newspaper photos we got so used to. Was it something you realised right from the start? Did you know that this subtle and visually unspectacular strategy would be so impactful? Or have you, at any point, been tempted to add photos and colourful graphics to the work?

Thanks so much for this comment. I found it a very difficult task to work with such an emotional topic. A tragedy that involves millions of people in first person… I got terrified of unintentionally creating an inappropriate spectacle. No, I did not ever consider using imagery or graphics. But, I had not planned the calm aesthetics to add an extra impact either. It was my intuitions that brought the work to this point, which, luckily, I still feel comfortable with.

Ebru Kurbak, Infrequently Asked Questions, 2015-2016. How to cook Ashak, by Zarifa

Ebru Kurbak, Infrequently Asked Questions, 2015-2016. How to build an Aqal, by Amina

The project Infrequently Asked Questions (iFAQ) reflects your own experience as an immigrant. When you arrived in Austria from Turkey, you had the feeling that the skills you had gathered while growing up in Turkey had no value in your new country. What were these skills exactly? And conversely, are there skills you learnt in Austria that are useless to you when you go to Turkey?

There are many practical examples that come to my mind, such as coping with snow in winter, or, riding a bike in the city. But, frankly, the most difficult skills I had to learn were about human relations. “Wiener Schmäh,” the local and slightly insulting sense of humor referred to as the “Viennese Charm” was exceptionally difficult to get for me, for instance. Before I moved to Austria, I had not realized how much I was influenced by the Anatolian culture. And there is indeed a huge difference between the two cultures in terms of how people generally relate to and communicate with each other. It took me a while until I could recognize how hard-coded my own assumptions and expectations were, particularly about personal relationships. This was an eye-opening experience. But, it was and still is a challenge to tune those assumptions down. I guess this is a pretty common feeling among people who migrate to cultures that are unlike their own. It takes many unnecessary disappointments until one is able to read some of the intentions behind unfamiliar gestures. The skills I learnt here are not as useless when I go back to Turkey though. They might not be useful literally, but they help me identify our unquestioned habits in Turkey and look at them critically.

Ebru Kurbak, Infrequently Asked Questions, 2015-2016

Ebru Kurbak, Infrequently Asked Questions, 2015-2016. Exhibition view at the Istanbul Design Biennial. Photo: Kayhan Kaygusuz

Some of these skills and knowledge shared in iFAQ are indeed not very useful in Europe. How to milk a camel for example. Others are. How to recognise a good watermelon for example. I also like the turmeric face mask. What did the experience of working on this project with you brought to the participants? Did they emerge with more self-esteem? A better idea of who they are? A greater understanding of how different cultures can be from one another?

I wanted to highlight that having to learn new skills at a new home does not necessarily mean one is unskilled or undereducated in general. It just means that they had to spend their lives acquiring a totally different set of skills. So, actually, I tried to excavate and display the least useful skills to make my point clear. Later on, when I exhibited the work, I did notice many visitors taking a picture of the watermelon one in particular, saying how useful that information was!

Yet, for me, the work is neither about learning from newcomers, nor about repurposing skills and finding new ways for them to provide for their families.

I intended the work to address the local audience and decision makers more than the participants. I wanted to intervene in the widespread perceptions about the situation. But, the process did also bring us all to a greater understanding of how different cultures can be. The participants were very surprised and entertained by what knowledge and skills I found exciting. Also, in scope of the Vienna Design Week, I organized workshops taught by the migrant women. Local people from Vienna could register for the workshops and learn new skills.

The immigrant women told me they really enjoyed those workshops. It was a totally different social experience for them in which they interacted with local people on a different basis than they are able to do in their ordinary lives.

Ebru Kurbak, Infrequently Asked Questions, 2015-2016. Exhibition view at the Istanbul Design Biennial. Photo: Kayhan Kaygusuz

Did you work only with women? And if yes, why?

Yes, but not exclusively. The Vienna Design Week had commissioned this project and linked me to the Caritas Lernsprung adult education program as partner. I ended up working mostly with women because it was mostly immigrant women who went through a long and exhaustive voluntary education process at the Caritas Lernsprung. The courses were in fact open for men as well. But when I asked why there were no men around, I was told that men were not as open as women to visiting classes at older ages. At the time of my visits, there were two classes of women, one class from Somalia and one class from Afghanistan, who first were going to learn how to read and write in their own languages. Then, they were going to continue the courses by learning German. After that there comes information about basic necessities of daily life such as way-finding in the subway or being able to use a cash machine. The biggest motivation for the women I met was them wanting to support their children at school. There are a few skills in the exhibition that were collected from men, whom I interviewed during the project but at other places than the classes.

Ebru Kurbak, Infrequently Asked Questions, exhibition view at the Istanbul Design Biennial. Photo: Kayhan Kaygusuz

If I understood correctly, the opening question for the workshops was “what are you good at?” I find it incredibly difficult to answer that one myself. Was it obvious for the participants to pinpoint what they were good at?

No, not at all! It took us quite some time before the process really started rolling. The first time I visited the class I was welcomed with amazing local food the women had prepared and brought with them. They also had brought a few beautifully handcrafted objects and laid them on their desks. I was extremely surprised and humbled by this gesture. Apparently, their teacher had told them that they would get a visitor and explained roughly what I was up to. The next time I visited, I cooked a pot of stuffed vine leaves based on a recipe from my hometown and brought it to them. Instead of bringing handcrafted objects, I shared examples about the most mundane knowledge and skills I could think of. For example, I gave them a recipe for home made hair removal wax, which was common knowledge among Turkish women during my childhood. Such mundane examples helped us move our focus off food and handcrafts onto more daily knowledge and skills. I asked them what daily skills I would have to learn if I moved to their village. They started coming up with the most amazing ideas on what to teach me.

Ebru Kurbak, Infrequently Asked Questions, 2015-2016. Exhibition view at the Istanbul Design Biennial. Photo: Kayhan Kaygusuz

Ebru Kurbak, Infrequently Asked Questions, 2015-2016. Exhibition view at the Istanbul Design Biennial. Photo: Kayhan Kaygusuz

Ebru Kurbak, Infrequently Asked Questions, 2015-2016. Exhibition view at the Istanbul Design Biennial. Photo: Kayhan Kaygusuz

I liked the way you present the participants’ contributions. They are delicately framed like valuable artefacts. What is the motivation behind the particular way in which you present these skills?

Most of the visualizations and objects in those frames had been created in the process of collecting the skills. The participants and I did not really have a common language to speak. Their teachers helped us translate things but we mostly had to speak in broken German. I made models and drawings to help us communicate more precisely about the skills. I kept all those materials that were created during the interviews and later on integrated them in the instructional frames I designed. The instructions include plenty of visual information besides German texts because I wanted the participants to be able to follow and understand them as much as the local visitors of the exhibition were. When the participants saw the frames, they were able to identify which frame depicted the skill they personally taught me and check the accuracy of what I had gathered from our conversations.

I’d also love an iFAQ book in which you’d gather some of the skills and knowledge collected during these workshops. Have you thought about it?

Yes. With this work I received the Erste Bank MoreValue Design Prize, which came with a project budget for the designers to continue the work in the way they want. An iFAQs book was one of the ideas I had when I was pondering on how I would like to continue. In the end, I decided to rather expand the scale of the project first with more skills and exhibit it a year later. The exhibition took place at the Austrian Museum of Folk Life and Folk Art, which has a quite local visitor profile that was amazing to reach. We also created a small catalogue on the whole project, together with Vienna Design Week, Erste Bank and Caritas. The booklet includes some of the collected skills, but also articles on the topic and process, and interviews with the participants. The idea about an iFAQs skill-book is somehow stuck in my mind. I am still collecting skills as I come across them and might pick up on that book idea in the future.

Ebru Kurbak and Irene Posch, The Embroidered Computer (Stitching Worlds), 2018. Exhibition view at the Istanbul Design Biennial. Photo: Kayhan Kaygusuz

Ebru Kurbak and Irene Posch, The Embroidered Computer (Stitching Worlds), 2018. Exhibition view at the Istanbul Design Biennial. Photo: Kayhan Kaygusuz

Ebru Kurbak, Stitching Worlds, 2018. Exhibition view at the Istanbul Design Biennial. Photo: Kayhan Kaygusuz

Ebru Kurbak, The Knitcoin Edition (Stitching Worlds), 2018. Exhibition view at the Istanbul Design Biennial. Photo: Kayhan Kaygusuz

What’s next for you? Any upcoming projects, events, fields of research you’d like to share with us?

Well, there are a few commissioned exhibition projects I am running in parallel. But, I have been mostly busy with wrapping up another long-term and large-scale artistic research project titled Stitching Worlds. The project questions the politics of invention in terms of how it influenced societal evaluation of skills. We looked at textile crafting techniques as alternative ways to create electronic technologies and spent about four years on making technological research in the marginalized space of often-undervalued women’s work. The project recently ended with an exhibition and a book, but also opened up a few new exciting research topics that I’m currently looking into. I’m very curious to see where those ideas will lead me to!

Thanks Ebru!

Ebru Kurbak’s projects Lonely Planet, Infrequently Asked Questions and Stitching Worlds were part of A School of School, the 4th Istanbul Design Biennial, curated by Jan Boelen and organised by the Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts (IKSV). The exhibitions closed on 4 November 2018.

Also part of the biennial: Staying Alive. A “wunderkammer” of disaster solutions, Halletmek. The Turkish art of speeding up design processes and Genetically Modified Generation (Designer Babies).