“Warning”, the sign on the tree declares in bold red lettering. “This area is under 23 hour video and audio surveillance”.
Do you really have that one-hour window to get up to mischief untracked? Or is it a blunder?
Many people assumed the latter, shaking their heads and chuckling at the oversight. They shared the photos they took, and it did not take long before this sign appeared on websites dedicated to the spectacular “epic fails” seen around the world.
But this was not one of those monumental slip-ups; no, this sign is by Turkish artist Ahmet Ogut, which was first displayed at the Laumeier Sculpture Park in Missouri in the US.
Born in Diyarbakir, Turkey, the 36-year-old is big on socially-engaged art, employing humour, irony and surrealism in his work.
“When you create such a space to discuss and negotiate rules, it is an open invitation for people to get involved with your art. Such rules are perhaps more flexible than you think, particularly in the context of experiencing art. I often use humour in my work, it is a shortcut to raising issues that might otherwise be considered taboo or controversial. The trick is to be ready to make fun of yourself first,” he says in an interview at the Wei-Ling Contemporary gallery in Kuala Lumpur.
The conceptual artist and socio-cultural practitioner dabbles in a wide range of media in addressing topics of interest, from cultural norms to social barriers, perception and identity.
Ahmet’s surveillance sign is now on display at Wei-Ling Contemporary in Kuala Lumpur, alongside his new video, The Missing T, a coded narrative revolving around corruption and neglect.
The 10-minute video includes interviews with recently dismissed police officers of Tulum in Mexico, following their protest against corruption, and utilises symbolism – such as the use of the Mayan language as a coded tool, and the hiding of a Mayan black obsidian stone in a monument – in his documentation.
Both works are part of Seen, a group exhibition at Wei-Ling that brings together 10 artists from Malaysia, Britain, Italy, Russia, Turkey and the US. This show zooms in on the surveillance culture we have embraced, whether unknowingly, resignedly or gleefully. It raises questions and concerns about private and public spaces, state suppression, censorship and ethical issues regarding implementation of intrusive mechanisms in the name of security.
Ahmet works out of Amsterdam and Berlin and has exhibited in numerous countries around the world. In 2009, he represented Turkey at the 53rd Venice Biennale, and in 2016 was part of the 11th Gwangju Biennale in Korea.
His art, often performative in nature, makes use of public spaces: an interactive, rotating carousel, called Waiting For A Bus (2011), was set up in Christchuch, New Zealand; a huge helium balloon in the shape of Belgian painter Rene Magritte’s levitating rock in The Castle Of The Pyrenees (1959) floated above the city of Ghent, Belgium, in 2012; and a self-portrait, Punch This Painting (2010), invites people to do exactly as its title says.
“The role of an audience is essential to make the work come alive and have meaning. If my work speaks only to me, then it is a bad idea to do it. Likewise, if you keep the work in storage, it is not performative. Some people could be more connected to my work than I am, and I can learn more from them than they can from me,” says Ahmet.
Even with art he creates for display in a specific place, like a museum or gallery, he always keeps in mind its potential to reach the masses, even if not immediately, but someday.
“I am inspired by stories that are already there. I may bring these stories back to the public, but it is not my invention. Maybe the audience knows of these familiar tales from anecdotes or traumatic events that have been forgotten. No one can claim ownership over creativity, it belongs to everyone,” he muses.
This everyman sentiment is reflected in Ahmet’s approach in creating an accessible and informal space for not just art appreciation, but to reflect on circumstances past and present. He relishes in engagement with the public, whether informed or otherwise.
“I try to find a way to communicate with people who might not necessarily consider themselves knowledgeable on art. Work that is open to interpretation is good, because there is a lot of power in misunderstanding. It is absolutely not something we have to avoid, because every misunderstanding brings about a deeper understanding,” he says.
Seen offers multiple vantage points in its discussion on modern-day state surveillance. Russian artist Viktoria Binschtok’s Suspicious Minds, a series of photographs, trains the lens on the watchers of public figures at events. Malaysian artist Ivan Lam asks who watches the watchers. British artist James Bridle documents London’s surveillance infrastructure in a photography compilation of CCTV cameras.
Another well-known work that is critical of technology and surveillance is American “information artist” Heather Dewey-Hagborg’s Stranger Visions (2014), a series of portrait sculptures informed by DNA she obtained from discarded items, such as used cigarettes and chewing gum found in public spaces. These samples were used to determine the race, sex and other bits of intimate information that make up the individual they came from. From these, life-size sculptures were created, giving us a glimpse into what these people might look like.
So what lurks in the background as we go about our day? Is there anything that is left untracked? Can you disappear – or exist – without a trace?