In Conversation: Ali Kazma

Ali Kazma on the seeds waiting for the end of the world and the protective role of art.

Safe (Resistance Series), 2015, single channel video
Safe (Resistance Series), 2015, single channel video

The history of the world has borne witness to environmental conditions that shaped the structure of the earth and had an impact on all living creatures, marking the beginnings and ends of geological cycles. While experts present us with data on the impending consequences of climate change such as droughts and mass migrations, the world continues to drift towards an uncertain future at full speed. Our production and consumption habits are taking us to a point of no return and are pushing the boundaries of a sustainable cycle. They increase our need and demand for solutions on a global scale, which will ensure the survival of life in disaster scenarios. One of the best examples of this is the world’s largest seed vault, which is built deep into a mountain in a remote part of the Arctic Ocean on the Norwegian Island of Svalbard (near the North Pole) and contains nearly two million varieties of seeds. Part of the “Resistance” series, in Safe (2005), Ali Kazma invites the audience into this space, which he describes as “humanity’s plan B”. While revealing the potential starting point of new life after a mass catastrophe in our near future, Kazma also opens a door for us to reconsider our approach today.

We talked to the Nam June Paik Award-winning artist about his single channel video Safe (2005) and art production as the “Noah’s Ark” for the times.

This conversation is available in the podcast form in Turkish.

In your practice, you deal with various human activities and labor in the context of production, and their relationship with social structure and time construction. Your work, Safe from the “Resistance” series on view at the “At the End of the Day” exhibition, takes a different path of documentation and, in a way, establishes an indirect connection even though it is based on human activity. What was your motivation for producing this work, what were the factors that led you to the subject?

Emre Baykal told me about this place initially. In 2012, while we were preparing for the Venice Biennale, I started to produce the "Resistance" series, and we discussed this exhibition in three main axes; the human body, the surface and interior of the human body, and the architectural structures that protect the human body. Among them were many works that related both to the body and architecture. There were some places that disciplined the human body, taught to or punished it, among these places we can count the school and prison. I thought that, adding this building to the series, which was designed to nourish the human body, that is, to protect the seeds used in agriculture in case of a disaster scenario, would not only make the subject more layered, but also create a more poetic relationship between body, architecture, geography and, of course, history, beyond these one-to-one relationships we have established. I was also very excited when I saw the place, when we embarked on this path.

Does one need permission by the Norwegian Government to gain access to the Vault, this international initiative? Can anyone apply for a permit? I would also think that it’s very difficult to shoot there.

It was very difficult back then, we're talking about 2012, so it wasn't easy. You had to go through many different bureaucratic steps and you had to get the permit from the Norwegian Ministry of Agriculture; but such complex conditions can ignite the imaginations of people. Many conspiracy theories have emerged about this place, including some absurd articles saying Bill Gates was building this place, and was planning to take over the world. After 2015-16, they made the process much easier. Actually, the initial reason for not letting people in was to maintain the internal temperature, kept at -17 degrees at all times. It's not easy to get into the vault of a bank, either! Now it is open even for Youtubers, I think they have switched to a transparent policy; in order to thwart these theories a little.

The way the internet has been used since 2012, you mentioned Youtubers for example, has changed, and that's why providing access is perhaps a way for places like this to manage their reputation.

Yes, they wanted to do it to avoid misrepresentation. I guess they thought, since people are already producing stories, let's have a say in them and tell our own.

Ali Kazma
Ali Kazma

Our second question relates to the first. The first question was about what led you to this idea, this one is about how the process unfolded. Which path did the work follow in regards to the initial story, how did it evolve from the original idea? While the work was being exhibited in different countries and venues, did it evoke new understandings, and take on new meanings?

I thought of this work as one of the fifteen works I would show at the Venice Biennale, but that didn't work out. I was able to produce it two years after the Biennale. So I would have liked to show it in that context, but since 2015 this work has actually been around a lot.

This place is called the "Svalbard Seed Vault" on an island of the same name...It stands in a higher place on the island to avoid the risk of flood damage in case waters rise in the future. At the end of a tunnel in the mountain, there are three large warehouses—their sizes are, I would say, about 40 meters by 25-30 meters. There, the temperature never rises above -4 degrees, both in winter and the summer. As of now, the temperature of the vault is -17 degrees and some additional machinery is cooling it down further. But if we consider that these machines might stop working during some worst case scenarios, the temperature would still be at -4 degrees, which will prevent the seeds from drying out. When I first got to the island, there were only 900 people living there, and polar bears were around, you weren’t allowed to leave the city borders without a rifle. It was interesting how one is not allowed to go out of town without a rifle because the polar bear population outnumbers that of humans.

It sounds nice, actually.

Yes, it’s really nice. It was the most northern place I’ve ever been to. It’s actually a way station for those trying to get to the North Pole, quite an interesting place. I’ve always had an interest in cold places, for some reason they appeal to me. So when I got there, I also experienced the thrill of being in a glacial setting physically. It was a great experience. It was incredibly cold, colder than I could have ever imagined and I ran into some technical problems because of this. I knew I would at some point but actually facing them was something else. One of these issues was that the batteries kept running out really fast. That’s why I brought extra ones anyway but they truly ran out very fast. iPhones don’t work in that kind of cold. Luckily the camera didn’t freeze but I always wrapped it in something when I wasn’t using it. You can’t keep your hands bare; as soon as you make an adjustment to the camera, you have to put your gloves back on to warm them. It was a learning process for me since this was my first time shooting in such a cold place but in the end it became a work that I love very much.

For the second part of your question; yes, this work has indeed been around a lot, it has become one of my most shown works. It was showcased a lot in Turkey too; in İzmir, a couple of times in Istanbul and now in Eskişehir. It was also shown in Paris, as you mentioned in Buenos Aires in Argentina, in a biennale in Moscow, so it’s been around a lot. It was showcased in Italy. Of course, wherever it is shown it can take on different meanings in its own context. Also the way I showcase it in an exhibition varies: For instance, my exhibitions in Argentina and Paris were solo exhibitions and I showed them next to some of my works that can be considered within the context of “conservation”, for example with Taxidermist. One work is about preserving seeds, and the other is about maintaining the physical features of animals. On top of that, when you add an old mining town in Russia in the glaciers, it all becomes a complete series of preserving what’s being destroyed in the world. It reaches a unity within itself but just like in “At the End of the Day” exhibition, it takes on a slightly different meaning when works by other artists are positioned around a central axis.

I have a question with regards to your general practice and its intersection with “At the End of the Day”. The theme of your works raise fundamental questions about modern human beings, and the meaning and importance of their activities. Your works develop certain aesthetic and ethical discourses due to their strong bond with one another. As a result of this connection, they create mental and physical spaces. How do you position modern human beings in the context of “At the End of the Day”? How much do you think the ontological role of human beings in the world, the meaning of their existence has changed since the second half of the 20th century compared to the past, and where is it heading towards?

Martin Heidegger wrote a 800-page book examining these issues in the beginning of the 20th century, so it’s really difficult to give a quick answer to this, but, without diving too deep, I’ll try to briefly explain my thoughts. Especially after the second half of the 20th century as you mentioned, we can say that the point we have reached as a result of the relationship human beings established with nature, with themselves, and with the world through technology, doesn’t lead us to feelings of optimism, but pessimism. That is to say, something that has entered the discourse of the world as of now may have entered the discourse of some artists and philosophers 10-20 years ago. For the past 15 years, I have been working on preservation because—I'm going to borrow German filmmaker Alexander Kluge's idea for this: Art is almost like Noah’s Ark that can move through different eras and rescue what can be rescued from these times. In this sense, art is about making a contribution during these exciting times, or helping to build a future that looks brighter.

For instance in the early years of the Soviet Union, Eisenstein had thought he had made a contribution to the establishment of a new world. He made use of his art and cinema as a tool of propaganda, willingly and believingly, thinking that it served to the establishment of a new world. 20-30 years later he faced the harsh reality of the Soviet Union, where his own works were censored. Yet he still believed in the future, so did Vertov. Our time is not like that. Instead of building something as a foundation for a fantasy future, we are at a time when we have to protect the things that will contribute to it. I believe that within a small portion of this terribly rapid and profoundly unfair economic, ethical and philosophical world, we’re working to save things that can be saved for a more hopeful future, like in “Noah’s Ark”: maybe in this sense Safe is also ultimately metaphorical. This doesn’t lead me into a sense of pessimism, absence or inaction in my life or practice; instead it pushes me to work harder. I believe it is our duty to create preserved areas, save everything that can be saved and keep their relationships with each other alive and meaningful.

We must, of course, carry hope for the future, not just hope, but we must do something even on a personal level in order to maintain our existence in the world. What worries you the most about climate change? Is there anything interesting you have read, learned and were surprised to find out about, that you would like to share?

Whether it be climate change or our broken connection to nature; these are essentially interconnected to our deteriorating relationship with each other and with the world, with philosophy, thought, literature and cinema, and are impossible to disentangle. Everything has become corrupted, even the morality of thinking. The so-called truth has been entirely eroded. Our challenges stem as a result of it. At the core of all these issues, our question is “can climate change be fixed?” while there’s such a large sinkhole underneath it, which creates these misfortunes and deficiencies. As our relationship with thought, philosophy and the arts has become entirely institutionalized due to politics and power struggles, nature also became institutionalized, causing everything to deteriorate.

Whether it be climate change or our broken connection to nature; these are essentially interconnected to our deteriorating relationship with each other and with the world, with philosophy, thought, literature and cinema, and are impossible to disentangle.

In the documentary Kiss the Ground, it’s explained that by adopting different agricultural technologies and methods and using the soil in a different way, it’s still possible to prevent climate change and perhaps reverse its course.

I’ll try to respond briefly; there are over 1.5 billion people in China, over 1 billion people in India, in countries like Turkey and Brazil there are 500 million people and they are hungry. When I say “hungry”, I don’t mean hungry for food, but for things like a new BMW, flying somewhere, spending their honeymoon in Maldives… All these countries are heading towards this direction. Capitalism is a system that is able to produce more and more; we’ll build even more planes... In several cities including ours, there are some initiatives in the central areas, for example agricultural work is being done on the rooftops of Paris. These can be helpful after that main catastrophe, because up to 2 - 3 billion people want to do what people have been doing in the West and Europe for over 50 years—and they will. As of now, there are 1.5 - 2 billion middle class people, can you imagine how adopting the European lifestyle will increase the overall consumption? No solution has been offered to these problems, even in Europe and North America where such thoughts have existed for a long period of time and critical thinking has taken place. They can’t save their own ecology because their economy is dependent on consumption. Do you think Volkswagen will produce less cars? Can you imagine that? Or do you think it will be better if electrically powered cars become more common? Batteries, plastics and carbon used in electrically charged cars will cause more damage. It’s good to have such initiatives but it’s quite naive to believe that they will save the world. Still, they should be implemented, because after the world has gone through such great catastrophes, maybe a new civilization can be established.

I wonder if we’ll be able to see that.

No, we won’t. We might see some of the bad days. On second thought, perhaps your generation might.

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