ArtReview: You were born and raised in Turkey. For the last five years you have tried to become European – or should I say become legally accepted as an EU citizen? That process and your battle with the authorities has also been the subject of artworks. What has that process been like?
Meriç Algün Ringborg: I come from Istanbul – a quite particular place to grow up in. Its position, being divided by the Bosporus, having land both in Europe and Asia, makes the Istanbul people almost schizophrenic in a way. When you cross the bridge to go to work, it says: "Welcome to Europe" and then you go back home again: "Welcome to Asia". You can never make up your mind as to where you belong; you end up always being in an in-between state.
This relationship has become even more complex for me over the past five years with me moving to Sweden, which sometimes feels like the antipode of where I come from. The different socio-political structures and cultural differences became more visible and I became more ‘in-between’ than ever.
Using the battle with the authorities in my work became a way of exemplifying this complex relationship. For instance, my latest work, Becoming European (2012), shows the ways and days I have resided within the EU over the past five years. I exist when I am in its territories and when I am outside of its borders I disappear. And this work stopped when I became an EU citizen.
In Becoming European you stamped your European travel dates, your European history, on white paper. The dates are stamped in blue if you entered Europe as a tourist, in red if as temporary resident, purple as pending residency, black as permanent resident and finally green as pending citizenship. The work ended when you became a European citizen – a date you haven't stamped…
MAR: When I first decided to move to Sweden, I came here with a tourist visa. My partner and I were so excited to live together that when we found out that we needed to wait up to six months to get a residency permit, we thought we should just start with the immediate tourist visa. So as a tourist, I was allowed to stay in Sweden 90 days, then I had to go back to my ‘country of origin’ and wait for this permit to be authorised.
I know it takes even longer in other countries but still this was a very difficult situation for us. After five months I got this temporary permit and it allowed me to be in the EU for two years. After I used up this time, I was supposed to be eligible to apply for the permit. What we didn't know was every time I visited Istanbul, which I do quite regularly, these dates were subtracted from my total time. So after these two years ended, I had to literally stay put in Sweden two-to-three months longer to get this ‘permanent’ residency, otherwise I would have to have been a temporary resident a year longer.
This kind of bureaucratic parody doesn't reflect how real life works and this was the most frustrating part of this experience. Formally this manifested itself in the authorities stamping my passport every time we travelled to Istanbul. I’d get a date stamp but my partner didn't, so I decided to use that model to create this fictional document in an attempt to translate this bizarre experience.
You leave the spots blank, when you are away from Europe – almost as if you don't exist, or do not exist within the European system at least. In your book Location: Date: Time: (2012) you look at topics like disappearance and issues of locating someone or ourselves. On one hand, the book is factual, semi scientific, but on the other hand it is also fake, a mash-up of your words mixed with difference voices and sources. How did the book come about? What is it about disappearance and location that fascinates (or scares) you?
MAR: I am not scared of disappearing, at least not that I know of, but I am definitely interested in what comes out of a shifting of presence or time and when things fall into the cracks of history, bureaucracy or even everyday life. What would happen if the Bosporus disappeared as Orhan Pamuk describes in his Black Book? What would we find in that state of existence? What happens when the Swedish Tax Agency cannot register your name properly because it contains a diacritic letter and suddenly your name has changed?
What happens when one is erased from a photograph? What happens when the date line is modified according to [the island of] Kiribati's location? I don't know really, it's hard to say but I thought if I made this book with all those things that I don't understand, I might come closer to understanding them.
So you created this little ecosystem of a book – did you feel that your questions were answered or did more questions pop up?
MAR: I guess more questions popped up, but it is good to ask these questions even though you know there might not be clear answers. In a way, I could delve into these ideas from different angles or points of view and weave these fragments, histories or narratives together by publishing them in the same book without indicating where they come from exactly. That being said, the book is in two parts and there is also a prologue in which I try to examine the tools or the systems of recording and being recorded, and the vulnerable relationship entailed by interacting with these systems.
The rules, regulations and absurdities that authorities can project on citizens or visitors are often quite present in your works. It may seem obvious, but could you try and describe how this is reflected in works such as The Concise Book of Visa Application Forms (2009) and Destination: Mali / Peru / Kiribati (2009)?
MAR: The absurdities that come out of these regulated situations are present in many of my works but perhaps mostly in the two that you mention. The Concise Book of Visa Application Forms (2009) is a very quiet piece underlining a very powerful structure that is only visible to those who are deemed to cross paths with it. Seeing those forms together in a closed structure like a book has a certain effect. It corners you.
I find a lot of people laugh when they first see this book but then they get really serious once they start reading the questions because the piece suddenly acquires a voice, and not a pleasant one. The forms can ask you something like ‘Have you engaged in any other activities that might indicate that you may not be considered a person of good character?’ or ‘Are you and your partner living in a genuine and stable relationship?’ How do you answer that?
‘Are you and your partner living in a genuine and stable relationship?’ is a very intimate question. Relationships can of course be defined in many different ways, so can 'genuine' and 'stable'. I am wondering if they expect everybody to be married to a heterosexual partner and have two kids. Is that the idea of genuine and stable, I wonder.
MAR: That's exactly the nature of these questions. They want you to be ‘normal’ like everyone else, and if you are not, you don't necessarily fit. It's like the social networking websites - they also want you to define your relationship: are you interested in men or women? Are you married? Do you have a partner? What is the status of your relationship? And there you can select ‘it's complicated’ but perhaps you have to be much more clear on a visa application form.
I don’t use Facebook, but I really like ‘it's complicated’! Everybody should be at all times able to reply to anything: ‘it's complicated’.
MAR: On the other hand, with Destination: Mali/Peru/Kiribati (2009) I was really interested in how this subject matter could be further manifested via everyday objects, to underline that clash between the private and the public. When I was searching for the application forms, I found these customs regulation lists and I started collecting the objects listed. It is of course again a parody, but it also takes its point from the reality of rules and regulations. Furthermore, it has potential in terms of creating different narratives – like you can bring up to 1,000 cigarettes along with a typewriter and a shotgun. It implies certain personal characteristics and enters the private in a very sneaky way.
What these lists or questions asked in these forms also serve as crucial evidence of the different levels of power of different countries. For instance, with Destination… I would have liked to also select a ‘bigger’ country and collect the regulated items on their lists but they are too elaborate and I literally couldn't afford that.
Could you share one of the ‘bigger’ country's lists here?
MAR: They are usually very long with a lot of specifications, but I found this sentence on an Australian custom's restricted and prohibited items rules, which I thought was quite curious:'Imports not allowed under any circumstances: Devices designed or customized to be used by a person to commit suicide, or to be used by a person to assist another person to commit suicide.'
Basically you cannot bring a belt?
MAR: ...no Kool-Aid either.
Do you ever feel watched or followed, if so, how and when?
MAR: I know that no one is watching me as such, but I certainly got that feeling as a result of that ‘complicated’ relationship with the migration office. What disturbs me is the act of being registered or recorded, which is certainly connected to being watched. This is something that happens to everyone and not only through governmental agencies but also through society; we record and register each other all the time. That is why I started this experiment with writing down every time I thought I might have appeared in someone else's photograph in a public place.
I have done this for a year and I think I appeared in 136 photos and of course these are only the ones I noticed. Many people have asked me why I didn't ask for the photos, but I was more interested in transforming these moments into text in an attempt to explore the relationship between fact and evidence. I don't know if this makes sense but I really think it wouldn't be the same thing if I had the photos themselves. It becomes more invasive that way and I didn't want to do that.
I stopped the project because it became unpleasant and too repetitive after a while and I just wanted to break free from this obsessive behaviour of watching and registering people taking photos. I then found a website that offers a software to remove tourists from the backgrounds of photographs called The Tourist Remover.
You are talking about The Risk of Being in Public, (2011). Have you tried The Tourist Remover?
MAR: No, I haven't dared to use it but I don't think it would be so different to manipulating an image in Photoshop, although this software recommends taking four more images of the same scene, so you can manipulate the image more easily, which means four times as many meaningless snapshots. However, for me the name was more important than the process. In a website forum, I read someone asking: ‘Where do all the tourists go?’ Good question, where are all these erased tourists?
Do you ever watch or follow people?
MAR: Yes, I've obviously watched people especially in connection with The Risk of Being in Public, but never followed someone; at least not in the traditional sense.
The flaws, traps and difficulties that we sometimes experience with language (as Turkish and Danish we are both non native-English speakers) and the possible mistakes that this may involve often creates charming language/linguistic nuances. Could you describe the work Ö (The Mutual Letter) (2011)?
MAR: The language that dominated my life after I moved to Sweden was English. In the beginning, I was very enthusiastic about learning the Swedish language and adapting to life here, but after a while not learning the language almost became like a resistance and a way of maintaining that in-between position. However, Swedish isn't foreign to me; I understand many things even though I can't really speak it and after a while I could hear that there were a lot of words that were the same in Swedish and Turkish. So I did some very primitive research – I went through the entire Swedish dictionary whilst cross checking it with the Turkish dictionary, to find the words the two languages had in common. It took four months of daily labour and I found 1,270 words in total.
Not really useful words, mostly terms adapted from French or English, but the striking thing was that they not only meant the same thing but were also spelled the same. Many people think that I've found some computer program to do this, but really I haven't. So I had all this material when Adriano Pedrosa came to visit me in Stockholm in the summer of 2011. He thought it would be great to include this work in the Istanbul Biennial.
I knew that I wanted to make a sound piece, where my partner and I would read one word after another, so you could hear the nuances in pronunciation. And Adriano suggested including it also as a printed dictionary. Since the point of departure of the Biennial was Félix González-Torres, we thought it would be fantastic to make these dictionaries like his Passport, something that the visitors could pick up and bring home. So in one room, there was a stack of these dictionaries, in another there was the sound of us reading it.
Recently, you worked with the opposite, the less desired books – why were you interested in ‘unborrowed books’?
MAR: With The Library of Unborrowed Books (2012) I have tried to look more closely at the bureaucratic cataloguing of the world from another perspective than the governmental documents I have been so occupied with. The piece, quite simply, is all the books from a selected library that have never been borrowed which, when collected and put on display as a library of their own, come to connote the ambivalent relationship between absence, presence and knowledge which echoes and perseveres, or not. It is a certain take on the gaps and cracks of knowledge and history. I made the first section of this project in collaboration with the Stockholm Public Library and now we are doing a new collaboration with a library in New York and it will be on display in Art in General from January to March.
You have tried to measure and calculate the world in a number of very different ways. In Our home weighs 1.223.990 grams (2009–10) you weighed the contents of your one-room flat and in the on-going project Untitled (Tree Top Project) (2009–) you take a Polaroid photographs of the treetops you can touch and write down their GPS coordinates. The amount of milk in the fridge keeps changing, butter comes and goes, and trees grow all the time – in some sense both are impossible or endless projects. What made you begin on these projects and how do they relate to the other more political or fictional projects?
MAR: These works almost confirm the impossibility of measuring the world because everything is constantly changing and that is probably the beauty of life for as long as you can handle it. To be honest, I couldn't handle it for that first two years of moving to Sweden. Then finally I got fed up with the situation and began working on these projects to take control of my position in my new life. I love quoting Umberto Eco in relation to this. In an interview in Der Spiegel he says ‘We like lists because we don't want to die.’ By using the method of list making, I could get some sort of control over life by creating a constant, almost like freezing time. I think the more political projects relate in that they are coming from the same situation and period, but look at the other side of this spectrum. I am not sure how the fictional works relate exactly because I am still in that chapter now and it is hard to get a perspective when one is in the middle of something.
Could you describe the view from the Bosporus?
MAR: I don't think I can but I am flattered you ask. I have smuggled water from the Bosporus every time I have visited Istanbul over the years and I now have a few litres in my studio. My initial idea was to see what the process would be if I tried to bring a large amount of water from the Bosporus. Basically to find out what the rules and regulations would be on something like seawater, a seemingly unreasonable thing to transport.
Then I saw this Mandla Reuter piece Fountain (2010), in which he took 5,000 litres of water from the Fontana di Trevi in Rome. It was visually stunning to see that amount of water in an exhibition space. But I think with my piece what interests me more is the paperwork, the administration of this. I can't just decide ‘now I will bring 5,000 litres of water from the Bosporus’. I need to get permissions.
Kirsten Pieroth also had a really hard time smuggling water from the Red, the White, the Black and the Yellow Sea in 2002. I wanted to end the interview where we started at the bridge of the Bosporus. I never saw the signs, but I think the ‘Welcome to Europe’ and ‘Welcome to Asia’ signs that you described are somehow quite poetic and also central in the whole debate about Turkey being part of the EU. You should smuggle those sign out of the country! But I guess that’s complicated!
Meriç Algün Ringborg: The Library of Unborrowed Books was on view at Art in General, New York, from 26 January – 30 March 2013. This article was first published in the January & February 2013 issue.