5. Independent Spaces in Istanbul: Sarp Özer on Operating AVTO
By Insun Woo
Published on March 15, 2022
On a chilly afternoon in late January, I was walking down the steep Kazancı Yokuşu street in search of AVTO. Founded in 2017, AVTO is a utility-oriented, malleable operating system that develops experimental methods and subjective thinking in art, design, architecture, and social sciences. Several people had pointed to AVTO when asked about independent art spaces in the city, and I was curious and determined to visit the space myself. Yet, Google Maps wasn’t really helping, and after about ten minutes of walking up and down the street scrutinizing each building, I decided that I needed help.
“Hi, is this AVTO? I think I’m nearby but struggling to find the entrance. Could I get some directions?”
“Hi, yes. Could you describe where you are?”
“I’m standing right in front of Emek Apartment.”
“Oh, I think I see you. Turn around?”
It turned out that Sarp Özer, the system operator of AVTO, was standing across the street. He guided me to the space, which was tucked away in the basement of the building right next to Emek Apartment. As I stood before the door, I could hear an undulating electric hum, which grew louder upon entering the space. The walls were bathed in green, blue, and violet lights, which emanated from behind the screens that were scattered across the space. Each screen flashed a dashboard, the interior and exterior of a car engaged in circular motion, and a tow truck carrying away a car. Artist Burak Kabadayı's exhibition, Static Shifts, Dynamic Rifts, was on view. After introducing the exhibition and answering some questions about it, Sarp kindly agreed to speak about AVTO with me at a later time.
In mid-February, Sarp and I sat down for a Zoom chat. Though initially intended to hear more about AVTO, the conversation branched out to touch on his research and curatorial practice; SALT, a cultural institution located in Beyoğlu, and its significance; and the dis/functioning of institutions and cultural organizations, in addition to AVTO’s principles, history, and wide-ranging projects.
Insun Woo: Could you describe your practice and interests today as a curator and researcher?
Sarp Özer: My current research interests are bifurcated. On the one hand, I’m interested in how contemporary art institutions operate at the present moment while taking into account the future. On the other hand, I’m interested in researching how digital affordances are weaponized to engineer public consent. This includes viral memes and other digital means that are employed for propagandistic purposes. As a cultural producer, I aspire to image new publics, devise unexampled methods, and coin new terms to think, operate, learn, and unlearn with publics-to-become.
I.W.: Could you talk more about your research on memes?
S.Ö.: I’m putting together an archive of viral internet memes that are specific to the political context in Turkey. Memes play a critical role to penetrate censorship and de-engineer public opinion. It's no surprise that political figures often hold substantial media power. Therefore, critiques don't really hit the spot. That’s why viral internet memes have the utmost potential to be used for subversive purposes. They are powerful because humor functions in such a way that could change opinions given they are factual, sincere, and somehow authentic. Also, virality is often a consequence that derives from the meme’s relevance. If the share-per-view ratio is high, there is usually a good reason behind its popularity.
Memes are powerful because humor functions in such a way that could change opinions given they are factual, sincere, and somehow authentic. If the share-per-view ratio is high, there is usually a good reason behind its popularity.
1. Meme referring to the booming sunflower price, an itinerant situation currently resurfacing in Turkey. Courtesy of Sarp Özer.
I.W.: You wrote an essay, Doom-surfing as a Parasocial Exercise for the New Surfers’ Body (2022), published on so-far recently. There are quite a few interesting terms, some of which I came across before but others I haven’t, like “courtexting” and “dreaditation.” Did you coin these terms? What does your process of coming up with new terms look like?
S.Ö.: These portmanteaus are generated using the method I borrowed from a book titled The Age of Earthquakes, which reflects on technology’s impact in our daily lives [editor’s note: read more about Shumon Basar here]. The words stem from common conditions we encounter in daily life, which is constantly updated by electronic devices and the networks they are connected to as they claim agency over our lives. These are consequences of the immediate present that we are subject to. My writings source from my own experiences and observations. I’ve been surfing on the web since early childhood years witnessing negative consequences or “accidents”—as Virilio would have put it—particular to the World Wide Web, as well as peculiarities stemming from the connected modes of individualism.
I.W.: Where would you say your interest in art and internet culture come from?
S.Ö.: I’d say that the environment that I grew up in had a huge impact. My mother is an artist and a teacher. Her first atelier was also our home. So, I grew up in a workspace surrounded by artists, designers, and a lot of young individuals from all walks of life. My uncle, who is an architect, was also living with us. He had adopted modeling softwares like 3D max as early as 1996, so I used to pester him with preposterous questions as I stared at his screen. He helped me learn a lot of things about computers. Only now I realize that my practice is pretty much informed by family interests.
I also come from the arcade video gamer generation, so I was inclined to try new tech. I had my first “VR headset” in the late 90’s. On the other hand, my generation often killed time with computers even in the internetless era by doodling on Microsoft Paint and making pixel art on Excel. I remember Clippy, an interactive paperclip assistant that jumped to catch user attention on the PowerPoint interface. I enjoyed his presence as it made me feel less lonely while I had no company. Thinking retrospectively, that might be the first moment that I became aware that I could form parasocial relationships with machines. So, my interest in internet culture grew from having an early introduction to electronic devices and video games at a time when personal computers were not very common. High speed Internet access arrived to domestic spaces only in the 2000s, so having an ADSL connection for gaming purposes in these years was quite a commodity. Thanks to this privilege, I became a professional gamer, which is kind of similar to being an artist, curator, or practitioner in the sense that a gamer is also a self-proclaimed identity. I’d say that this allowed for a smooth transition to develop a profession which is referred to by ambiguous terms such as cultural production or practice.
I remember Clippy, an interactive paperclip assistant that jumped to catch user attention on the PowerPoint interface. I enjoyed his presence as it made me feel less lonely while I had no company. Thinking retrospectively, that might be the first moment that I became aware that I could form parasocial relationships with machines.
I.W.: Right. You studied at Nuova Accademia di Belle Arti (NABA) in Milan, Italy. Were there any key events or figures from this time that influenced your practice?
S.Ö.: I graduated from the curatorial studies department of NABA led by Marco Scotini, who runs an archive called the Disobedience Archive. It began right after the Gezi Park protests (2013) took place in Turkey, and Marco at that time was doing a survey about documentations of the protest as well as other forms of production that occurred in the wake of the protests. This work was displayed at SALT Beyoğlu later in 2014. So, studying with Marco and his collaborator Andris Brinkmanis was an influence to make inquiries on archives’ potential impacts on public memory as well as making subjective insertions to recent history. Other influential figures include Celine Condorelli, Paolo Caffoni, Chiara Figone and Francesco Jodice.
I became a professional gamer, which is kind of similar to being an artist, curator, or practitioner in the sense that a gamer is also a self-proclaimed identity.
My practice is especially indebted to Bert Theis, a seminal figure for everyone who was lucky to know him. Having developed a socially-oriented practice since the early 90s, he had a deep affinity to build communities and a commitment to employ his work to contribute to common causes. He had an unexampled point of view about how cultural institutions were to operate in the 21st century to be in public service. Before I moved to Milan, there was a public conflict in the Isola neighborhood. Bert, alongside many other friends, collaborators, and neighbors, conceived an art institution called Isola Art Center. They marshaled all community efforts to resist the gentrification of that zone. Bert taught his students to act selflessly, how to organize by their own means, and to give back to the communities they belong to. He also encouraged everyone to learn how to fly.
I.W.: After returning to Istanbul from Milan, you worked a while at SALT. Could you touch on this institution’s particular significance?
S.Ö.: SALT is a research institution founded in 2011 through the amalgamation of three small-scale institutions: Ottoman Bank Museum, Platform Garanti, and Garanti Galeri.
It differs in several ways from institutions of the past century and from local contemporaries. Firstly, SALT describes itself as timely and critical, which I consider the formula of contemporaneity. Secondly, it does not care about being popular, spectacular, or present but about operating in the present. Its paramount achievement is not exhibitions, research projects, or other sorts of programs but the maintenance, building, and activating of an archive to produce knowledge on 20th century Turkey through histories of art, design, architecture, and studies on the economy. SALT does not produce knowledge for the sake of production through this archive but to extrapolate viable instructions towards a better world. To quote Vasıf Kortun, one of its former directors: the task is “negotiating, fermenting, testing out, in the best case, possible futures.” Lastly, SALT does not use the so-called “contemporary art English.” For instance, words like visitors and audience are dropped; instead, “users” and “constituents” are employed to acknowledge their agency. I suggest that you take a look at Stephen Wright’s Toward a Lexicon of Usership—truly inspirational to think and act otherwise as a cultural producer. Artist Can Altay had a thought provoking conversation with Stephen on the first episode of Ahali Conversations that touches on the future of cultural production.
SALT does not produce knowledge for the sake of production through this archive but to extrapolate viable instructions towards a better world.
I.W.: What did you learn from the experience of working at SALT?
S.Ö.: I think the most important lesson that I’ve taken was to claim agency to propose or cause change. It’s easy to think that institutions or states at large are inherently rigid and thus cannot change. But this is the case only when the people who run these entities take what is fixed as granted. There should always be room for negotiation and challenge. Otherwise, there are more meaningful and inspiring acts than enduring subordination. Sara Ahmed’s resignation as a feminist act was highly influential to me. She noted, “you can change policy without changing practice; changing policy can even be a way of not changing practice.” It’s meaningful to carry on working as cultural producers against economic, cultural, and social odds to insist on a change in both policies and practice without any compromise. However cliche, it is nevertheless valid to assert that one can either be part of the solution or problem. This especially applies to organizational entities that claim to be in the service of the public.
I.W.: What motivated you to not work at an established institution and found AVTO? How is it different from an institution? Which models does it learn from? How would you describe your experience of running AVTO?
S.Ö.: Well, first of all, AVTO is not an institution. It does not want to and cannot become one for many reasons. Even if we had enough means, there are legal hardships and other practical and bureaucratic particularities of the country. So, it’s an organization and, legally, just a company—a simple LLC. AVTO is run by a team of seven operators that are actively undertaking day-to-day responsibilities but also by a central processing unit with members that contribute to the cause casually. The self description of being an “operating system” is borrowed from software terminology. I should note that AVTO was inspired by SALT to some extent: the strive towards being “timely” and “critical,”; building a fluid identity; and, most importantly, its language. But AVTO is in a completely different reality. It is deliberately situated on a one-on-one scale, meaning that it embraces the human scale as described by Stephen Wright. These makeshift conditions have many challenges but also advantages of their own such as being more agile, resourceful, and enduring. Changing address, legal status, regrouping, and even dissolving the organization—should that be necessary—are decisions made not by the board but by operators. Also, there is always space for newcomers if any would like to take on the system as an operator. Since we are only operators, not authors, the users of AVTO can contribute or insert their own subjectivities into its system. It’s like downloading an application; one can always revert its operating system to previous settings or make its own changes. That’s how AVTO seeks to function in the future.
AVTO doesn’t claim to be functioning perfectly and properly at all times. It aspires to be useful consistently, but it doesn’t work “perfectly.”
AVTO is also different from an institution in the sense that it doesn’t claim to be functioning perfectly and properly at all times. It aspires to be useful consistently, but it doesn’t work “perfectly.” On 1/1 scale, operators might get sick and might not be able to back each other up. Sometimes, the most unforeseen like COVID happens. There are motivation bumps, mood swings or days of grief that come with the loss of a relative. Sometimes, things don’t go the way we expect them to go. So AVTO temporarily shuts down rather than relentlessly trying to be present. I think the notion of defectless-ness is at odds with the concept of both self-organizations and bigger institutions. Issues arise all the time in life, and these are also part of the practice of running such entities. If we post-produce to the extent that our errors and mistakes become completely invisible, then we alienate newcomers, prospective cultural producers, and the public from the processes of production. AVTO is run by people for the people.
AVTO is run by people for the people.
We don’t call AVTO an “initiative,” but I’m not against the word because it means that, as a subject, you take the matter into your own hands and start doing things. Maybe in makeshift manners, but you do these things, and the more that you do, the less alienated you become. There are no schools in the world that would equip you for what waits ahead of you as a cultural producer to work under precarious conditions. In real life, there are real complications because you are not dealing with fellow students or with tutors. You are not treated as an intern. So you get your hands dirty by doing the work, and often in the case of one-on-one scale, things that would be considered drudgery become personal matters. Maybe sometimes rather intimate concerns as life and work gets mixed up. Your friends can turn into colleagues, and then maybe your friendship becomes completely professional at some point because all the informal chats would lead to discussions about pressing matters. Then there are late-coming questions and second guesses like, Do I welcome this reality in my life? Do I have enough personal space and time for myself? Or do I want a change? Because running these is always a matter of choice. Nobody forces you to do it. We as operators of AVTO are deliberately not making a living out of it, acknowledging our conditions. Though we are honoring all of our contributors for their labor. Making a living for ourselves is not the goal but to make it living. So, quitting is always a choice for any individual or for the group. Being on that scale with all personal defects makes the organizational intentions, which we claim as good, more explicit. The production of content is just “setting a setting,” as artist Can Altay would put it, to build trust and practice with sincerity.
Being on that scale with all personal defects makes the organizational intentions, which we claim as good, more explicit. The production of content is just “setting a setting,” as artist Can Altay would put it, to build trust and practice with sincerity.
I.W.: Speaking about addressing the public—on the one hand, there are people who come to cultural organizations and institutions and find what’s there relevant. On the other hand, there are people who do not find the content meaningful or interesting. What are your thoughts on engaging the latter? Who would you say AVTO is for?
S.Ö.: As I mentioned earlier, AVTO is inclined to learn from others—riff off relevant ideas as if it was a jazz band. Ezra Collective is a jazz band from the UK whose name is after Ezra, who studied all the books that came before him. In a similar spirit, the collective studied preceding jazz musicians and standards before forming their band. AVTO embraces a similar approach and looks up to exemplary practices and subjectivities to situate itself not to be present but to be in the present. Thus, AVTO takes for granted that whom AVTO serves (and imaginary) as more intelligent than the organization. I find it repelling when I encounter content rendered accessible to an extent that the public is infantilized. In short, negative comments serve as the compass because AVTO is committed to change upon feedback and critique. On the other hand, addressing certain communities or target groups is not for AVTO. That’s kind of marketing. AVTO is trying to prove a point by operating otherwise. Anybody that would like to learn, unlearn, and research together is welcome. In short, AVTO is for anyone who is concerned by our timely common conditions. AVTO deals with all three temporalities at once as the past and future affect each other and by doing so form the present. AVTO also does not dismiss the possibility of multiverses' existence thus welcoming the input of dreamers and speculators.
AVTO embraces a similar approach and looks up to exemplary practices and subjectivities to situate itself not to be present but to be in the present.
It’s also fine to not grasp every single detail in a work. I don't understand all the works. It would be overwhelming. I don’t think anybody does and should. It’s about being open and comfortable to say so to strike up conversations, question an organization’s decisions, or even at times to make propositions. It is a strangulating thought to understand every single work. That might only happen with the help of high-tech glasses out of a John Carpenter film.
Anybody that would like to learn, unlearn, and research together is welcome.
After all, works are more akin to music from a listener’s point of view. When we listen to a track, we don’t try to figure out the harmonics and intervals between chords and forcefully fit these into a context. No author or music producer tries to make every decision made in the production process accessible. When I engage with a work, hopefully it grants me access to the authors' subjectivity and helps me to try to look at things from a different perspective. I don't approach works to understand everything perfectly but to contemplate. I find being confused very useful as it helps me to challenge my own opinion or even worldview.
I.W.: Could you share how AVTO started, changed, or adapted, over the years?
S.Ö.: At the beginning, AVTO didn't have much at hand but good intentions. As part of the job, many hardships occurred. Thankfully time moves faster during practice, so things were not so bad during a voluntary period of trial and error. Over the course of five years, the most formative moments were the ones that made the organization question its decisions and plans for the future. There were opening and closure of facilities, economic downturns, and the pandemic but, most importantly, the reorganization period. During this time, AVTO went through a definitive revamp which resulted in devising the term “operating system,” which does not describe the current state of the organization but what it would like to become.
I.W.: How does AVTO decide its programming?
S.Ö.: It’s simple and complicated at the same time. AVTO develops programs from a contextual perspective rather than a provincial one. On the other hand, it is located in Turkey so its subjectivity is affected by common and pressing issues under current circumstances in the country. AVTO seeks to become and then learn to remain relevant to current and future publics that might make use of it. All decisions are made in light of this aim.
I.W.: Could you also get into detail about how AVTO operates online?
S.Ö: Well, AVTO Online is a standalone publishing platform that has its own programming. It is not an extension of the physical space. It rather functions the other way around because whether the project is a podcast, publication project, exhibition or another format, or periodical, it does not conclude on the closing date. It remains on the web as open inquiries through self-archiving features of AVTO Online. The hashtag system makes insertions of new content possible and easily accessible without being bound to specific dates that events take place.
Whether the project is a podcast, publication project, exhibition or another format, or periodical, it does not conclude on the closing date. It remains on the web as open inquiries through self-archiving features of AVTO Online.
I.W.: Going back to Static Shifts, Dynamic Rifts—how would you articulate its relevance to November 2021?
S.Ö.: On the date of the closure of AVTO’s physical space, I was walking to AVTO and on the street, I was intentionally run over by a male driver. The car struck me and then the driver opened his window, swore, and even threatened me because I was walking on the street rather than the pedestrian lane. But as you know, you are not always able to walk on the pedestrian lane in Istanbul. This moment crystallized how hegemonic masculinity manifests itself, an inherent feature of patriarchal culture. Burak Kabadayı’s work focuses on the concepts of movement and energy. However, the work brought to our attention how power causes shifts in personalities. A machine, in this case, the car, temporarily grants power to the individual to act differently than one does in daily life. The exhibition touches on these differences—both negative and positive—alongside their impact on material and immaterial spaces.
I.W.: While AVTO’s physical space was closed, you published Pythian School of Futures, a podcast series by Avenir Institute. How would you describe it in your own words, and why did you select this specific project?
S.Ö.: Denis Maksimov, the author and presenter of the podcast is one of the most articulate researchers in his field. His idea was to delve into the discontents of the present moment; track their origins in the past; and point out their impact on the canceled, better futures we might have had. He takes listeners on a ride between different temporalities, coming across politicians, artists, speculators, swindlers, think tanks, states, or non-governmental organizations that claim agency over our futures. He proposes ways to reclaim these back as subjects that have control over their will. To come back to your question—“decision” or “selection” would not be the right word. It was just so relevant with our time. It was then the pandemic. Now it is the war. The world is going through a huge economic downturn. People of my generation are losing their financial prospects. The Pythian School of Futures disagrees that there is not much to do as individuals. Through modest but resourceful ways it encourages listeners to break the everlasting present sustained by immediacy to bring about our own better futures.
I.W.: Going further back in time, let’s talk about the Xenofeminist Manifesto translation project (2018) [editor’s note: the manifesto was drafted by Laboria Cuboniks, which is an international feminist collective spread across five countries and three continents]. I find its communal aspect very interesting; instead of one person taking authority, there were multiple translators. People did not even have to gather in AVTO’s space but could contribute from their own locations. How did you manage this process and regulate the “quality” of the translation? What were the reactions of the contributors?
S.Ö.: You described it very accurately. It was a counter-authorial attempt to translate the manifesto. It was a challenging attempt to make it work with so many contributors, some of whom were committed and others more on-and-off. We set out to translate one part of the manifesto every week for seven weeks. After those seven weeks, we had an early draft. So, afterward, we collaborated with curator and editor Ipek Ulusoy to go over the translation. One of our aims for the project was to include the myriad subjectivities that contributed to the translation of the manifesto, but our primary aim, after all, was to make that knowledge accessible in Turkish. So, Ipek and I worked on the final draft. It’s in the works and will be published on paper and online upon submission to Laboria Cuboniks.
I.W.: Returning to the present and looking forward, could you share some upcoming projects at AVTO?
S.Ö.: I will briefly hint at it. It is a docu-series by Doğa Yirik titled Rumor Has It, Rivayete Göre in Turkish, which investigates social, political, or cultural events from different periods in the 20th century with little or no evidence regarding their occurrence. It will bring together whatever documentation is at hand and combine them with oral history recordings to make a historical account without dismissing the witness’ subjective reflections. The docuseries will always start off by saying, “so rumor has it that this has taken place when…” Through this series, the aim is to generate new documents and may even be able to make subjective insertions into history.
I.W.: That sounds fascinating! I look forward to watching the series. Last but not least: who are some artists in Istanbul that are on your mind?
S.Ö.: I will stick to artists from my generation and from Turkey to avoid Istanbul-centrism. I would also like to refer to particular works that are in line with my interests rather than unpacking practices. Yelta Köm’s State of Territory comprises drawings of conflict zones generating images about spaces of security and resistance. Eda Aslan & Dilşad Aladağ’s work Garden of (not) forgetting counters the state’s yet another attempt at the erasure of memory through preserving a botanical gardens legacy in İstanbul. Hasan Özgür Top’s relentless archive and working methods informed by investigative journalism put radical groups of the past and present under scrutiny. Marina Papazyan’s On the Way to Freedom subverts a propagandistic book justifying the 1960 coup in Turkey making subtle yet revisionist insertions to official history enforced by the state. Burak Dikilitaş’s affinity to vernacular culture. I suggest checking his Instagram page Yeni Normal / The New Normal where he shares his findings. Serra Tansel’s work, Placed in Daylights examines the current state of architecture in the new Turkey.
Sarp Özer is a curator and writer working in the field of contemporary art. He is the system operator at AVTO, a cultural organization located in Istanbul. His research trajectory bifurcates between uses of archives and digital means in engineering public opinion. Özer has been a contributor to publications of L’Internazionale, SALT, Arter, and Institute of Network Cultures. He also co-produces the Ahali Conversations, a podcast series inquiring on the future of cultural production hosted by artist Can Altay.
Insun Woo is a student at New York University Abu Dhabi (NYUAD) where she is pursuing a BA in Art & Art History and a minor in Arabic. Her interest lies in contemporary art curation, arts education, and youth empowerment. Her current and past experience includes writing for Global Art Daily and Canvas Magazine, participating in the Summer College Workshop 2021 at the Guggenheim Museum, and interning at for- and non-profit organizations for the empowerment of youth.