In Conversation: Sergen Şehitoğlu

Sergen Şehitoğlu on the new privacy of the digital age and the final destination of planes.

Humans continue to reshape Earth’s morphology in parallel with their objectives and search for order in the Anthropocene age, which has a unique mathematical language of its own. New technologies under the auspices of private companies actively reduce humans and nature to data, serving as crucial instruments in humankind’s expansionist policies. Google Earth, which offers its users a detailed online map of the world, makes it possible to see and access all geographical locations around the world through a combination of satellite images. So when we pay close attention to vast natural topographies containing endless possibilities, like America’s Mojave Desert, from an altitude of about three kilometers, what traces of human activity do we encounter? When examining geological structures, is it possible to imagine a mechanism in which we can distinguish between man-made and natural, mechanical and organic, animate and inanimate? In his installation Chance and Necessity - Mojave Desert (2018), Sergen Şehitoğlu seeks answers to these questions by projecting a map of the Mojave Desert on the wall of the museum.

In his practice, Sergen Şehitoğlu frequently includes found images obtained from the internet. The artist, whose works have been exhibited across influential hubs such as Berlin, Amsterdam, London, Basel, Paris and Vienna, published his photography books “0 dB (0 Decibel)” in 2013 and “Kill Memories” in 2016. Şehitoğlu is also one of the founding members of the Young Photographers Initiative. The artist’s last exhibition “Pebbles” was held in Sanatorium in 2020.

This conversation is available in the podcast form in Turkish.

Sergen Şehitoğlu, Chance and Necessity - Mojave Desert, 2018, installation, variable sizes
Sergen Şehitoğlu, Chance and Necessity - Mojave Desert, 2018, installation, variable sizes

In your latest productions, you commonly use images obtained from the internet or Google, which many artists also make use of. In your practice, we see works that redefine the boundaries of photography, and question the limits of privacy in a world dominated by systems of control. Is a private life possible in this digital age? Are we heading towards a kind of totalitarianism perhaps unimagined in the past centuries? Perhaps we are already there?

Actually I worked almost entirely on this topic in my three-part book series Kill Memories. In the first part of the series, I took photographs of a webcam model who was "unaware" of being recorded. In the second part, I showed street footage recorded by Google, which was taken without anyone's knowledge or approval. In the third part of the same book, I displayed topographic images taken from Google Earth. In fact, these three parts together formed an inquiry into the issue of privacy.

The very first reaction of those who encountered the series was "Oh, did the woman know she was being recorded?". The woman is a webcam model, and she’s aware of what she’s doing, yet I never received this sort of question from anyone in the context of the GSV (Google Street View) series. I have never had a question like “Did the person on the street know that they were being recorded and their image was shared by Google?”. It’s such a gray area that it is as if there is no privacy issue there whatsoever. In fact, that should be the main privacy concern, because we’re talking about a scene that is being recorded, and broadcasted online for the world to see. I mentioned this in my book that was published in 2016. It could have been much more relevant if it came out today. Right now we are all occupied with video applications like cameras, Zoom etc. But 2016 wasn’t exactly like this.

While I was working on the GSV series I realized something. When we’re traveling, we try to find the location of our hotel through searching for it on Google, right? There is something we should consider. When Google's devices enter a street, they break all the networks on that street, and send the data through the Internet connections of the people nearby. This means that all your data has already been filtered. I came across several bizarre situations like this. Take any precautions you want against them, it won't make a difference.

Considering the effort and the meticulous approach in your works, I can imagine how challenging their production processes are. As I was researching, I noticed that your practice is constantly fine-tuned. How did you embark on this path, can we talk about your own process as well as the general context of your works?

To begin with, as a digital artist I’m so glad to hear that. This statement is usually reserved for artists who have manual productions -

Works of craftsmanship.

For artists who produce artisanal works. Yes, I’ve got a fine-tuning process. For the GSV series, I roamed the streets of over 30 countries for days, since I had to find a match on the computer screen. Every day I chose a different country or city; I went there and wandered around for hours until I found the right images. The work currently on display at OMM is similar. The Mojave Desert is massive. First, I divided the desert into strips, then examined them for days, almost like a scanner. I scanned the entire desert from close proximity, from an altitude of about three kilometers. This process takes a really long time. In order to capture those specific images, you need to scan the desert much more closely. When you go on Google Earth, those are not the images that you find.

I’m trying to refine all my decisions as best as I can until they are all justified. As you said it’s essential to consider all the details. Questions like “Why is there a square, why is the work that size, why were the images taken from a three kilometer distance, why the Mojave Desert?” all have clear answers. During the production of the work in OMM, we mapped the desert on the wall of the museum. When the audience approaches that wall, what they actually see is the entirety of the Mojave Desert.

Sergen Şehitoğlu
Sergen Şehitoğlu

In Chance and Necessity - Mojave Desert, you examine the Anthropocene through the morphological structure of our planet. You focus on the signs of human activity in these images within the context of symmetry, repetition and variety, by scanning satellite images of the Mojave Desert in the US. Can you talk about the emergence of this work within the context of Norbert Wiener's phase that describes life as “temporary islands resisting entropy for a while” which is included in the text that accompanies your work.

Actually this is a process that goes back a long way. Ali Miharbi, Yağız Özgen, Kerem Ozan Bayraktar and myself had a period of intense reading. We read Jacques Monod’s book Chance and Necessity (1970) for about two years. Afterwards, Kerem and I continued to work on it. Later on we had a double exhibition called “Chance and Necessity” (2018). It was an exhibition that worked really well, it wasn’t like a group exhibition, there were works that we had produced together. Mojave Desert was mapped on Sanatorium’s wall, where it was first shown.

There were many analogies that I came up with while making this work. One was the mechanism that Jacques Monod tries to find to separate natural objects from artificial ones in his book. Let’s say you go to a planet and a vehicle has landed on it, how will the vehicle separate and categorize the things it finds there? Which of the objects are natural and which are artificial? Is there a way to categorize them? That's the first question. There is an analogy used in philosophy: if you find a clock while you’re walking through the desert, you’ll soon come to the realization that there’s a watchmaker there. That’s the second thing. Thirdly, since the desert is moving and constantly changing through the movement of sand grains, the photos you take in the morning will be very different from the photos you take in the evening. Hills will change, colors will change, there will be highs and lows because sand constantly moves. There is always movement due to the the climatic conditions and internal forces there. In fact, it’s open to all potentials. Almost like static noise on a TV screen, maybe the random dot pixel pattern of static will create a painting of Mona Lisa. While this may seem possible, it is actually not. This is because in order for the information to transform into something that is temporarily meaningful, there must be an external energy input. This forms the link between my work and the idea of entropy. So the sands in the desert don’t come together and form a helicopter, they just seem to. Because when you say an “image of a helicopter” that means you’ve defined it, which then turns into information. And for it to turn into information, an external energy input is required. In fact, Mojave Desert touches upon this issue.

When you scan the desert, you can immediately detect the places that bear the touch of humans. However, the desert already consists of many patterns; they have their own shadow and light, dotted patterns but none of them have any meaning. We can’t define it, but whenever we see a square and define it, we immediately say that there has been human intervention. Symmetry doesn’t occur spontaneously, so if you see symmetrical structures like squares in the desert, it is a sign of intervention. As I was scanning, I explored this idea as much as I could. When do we recognize intervention, and when do we not? Of course, my work couldn't break free from the Anthropocene, and the geographical and sociological situations associated with it. I didn’t want to break away from it, but I wasn’t necessarily aiming for it either. We are talking about a huge desert here, in fact we are talking about a void. Yet people have been building squares constantly, they have built houses inside these squares, they even designed the parking lots in the shape of squares. So it’s interesting that there is such a huge gap: these structures could be built in any other shape, or simply be amorphous. But the gardens of the houses are almost always square, probably because they have a more sheltered structure.

Something that we can identify perhaps, in order to make sense of it in our own language.

Exactly. The fields are squares, the parking lots are squares, which is so interesting. There are squares which are completely empty, so there isn’t even a need for it in the first place. Yet the piece is parceled that way.

We can call it a comfort zone.

Yes, that's right. This is why a sociological reading was necessary right away, even though it was something that I didn't really intend for. I was more interested in the mathematical identifiability of it. A really recent example is that a vehicle landed on Mars yesterday. We’re all going to be overwhelmed if that vehicle encounters a square on Mars.

There are also compulsory conditions in the Mojave Desert, for instance most of the fields are circular. It's not as random as the square shapes of the houses, because it's actually an irrigation technique - in other words, since there is very little water in the desert, they have to irrigate the land from a single point.

Different layers come into play while scanning the desert. I always work as if I’m doing research, so the learning process never ends. It's not like "I had an idea, I executed it, and now I'm applying it" - I actually learn during implementation, and the work ultimately evolves. When I started to examine the Mojave Desert, I never thought that I would map it onto a wall. I just wanted to see what I would encounter while scanning it. The desert is actually a US territory and there are a lot of strange things in it. I haven't used these in the work, as they have very literal meanings. For instance, Boeing has an airplane boneyard there. It's such a beautiful image, but I didn't use it.

You have a project called “06.2020-14-magazine”. Can you tell us about that?

I would love to, because it's a project that I care about very much and it really excites me. I wasn't too shocked when the pandemic happened. It’s actually something that periodically repeats itself, over a period of time. For example, James Gleick's book Chaos: Making a New Science (1987) has long sections describing the next pandemic. Because bio-mathematicians and others have realized that this is actually something that happens periodically, once in 50 years. Even though we feel shocked after an earthquake, it’s not surprising at all for seismologists. It’s something that happens periodically, it’s neither the first nor the last. since we have a limited lifespan we spend a certain amount of our time adapting to the situation. Art is permanent, there’s been a lot of discussion and worrying around how art would go on after the pandemic. However, what was written about art was not actually about art. It was mostly about the art economy and the related institutions.


Because artists will continue to make art. I recently watched an interview on the digitalization of an artist’s works. The works are not digitized, they are still physical. The documentation of the work is just being shown digitally. If you see a painting, it’s still made with real paint, if it’s a sculpture it’s still a sculpture. We’re just seeing the documents of these works on Instagram. Therefore, it’s crucial to make more accurate definitions. So I asked, "What has changed then? What has happened?". Let's say this pandemic lasts a long time. Nothing about production will change. Of course, circumstances would change for us artists, but not more than others. Production will continue. So I thought, how can I make this more visible? That's when I got the idea to start a magazine. For this magazine, we do not choose artworks and add them in. Artists use the pages as a space for art. You can think of it like the space on a wall. Almost like an exhibition, the works come together and form the magazine. The name of the magazine changes, the date of a given issue determines the name: the first issue was called "06.2020" and the second was "12.2020". Fourteen artists participated in the first issue, and eight in the second. The name changes based on XYZ.

We created the first issue together with sixteen artists, fourteen of them contributed with new works. This is a periodic, print publication. It is also offered digitally, it can be viewed on arş and downloaded. But it’s very important that it’s a print publication because that’s what it’s made as. The selection of papers, their sizes, the artists’ use of space - it’s all about the print medium. The second issue was curated by Yağız Özgen, and the process was very fun. We released the second issue in December, with the participation of eight artists. Now, we’re preparing the third issue which will come out in June. It is a medium where different artists take part, in a different conceptual framework, in a printed magazine every six months. This has been going on for so many years, and with this magazine I’m making visible what is necessary in artistic structures, whether a space requires four walls or major financial support. In other words, I’m making my “political ideas” more apparent with this project, with this magazine.

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