Küba, by Kutlug Ataman, Waygood Gallery, Newcastle, July-August 2006. Art review

Küba’s multitude of screens give a fascinating but flawed portrayal of community.

Submitted by Tom Jennings on January 19, 2008

Ghetto Fabulous

Küba, by Kutlug Ataman, simultaneously telling the stories of forty residents of Istanbul’s most notorious shantytown, showed at the Waygood Gallery/Robert Stephenson Centre, Newcastle, in July-August 2006. Backed by blockbuster commissioners Artangel, the installation has toured galleries and alternative spaces in America, Australia, Europe and the UK, and visits Southampton in November/December before returning to Turkey. The London-based artist was born in Istanbul but left after imprisonment for filming outlawed left-wing militants in the 1980s, since experimenting with cinema (most famous for Lola and Billy the Kid, 1999) and video art portraits of the socially and politically excluded. Access to the ‘closed’ world of Küba, crammed between high-rise blocks near the airport, was gained via a respected former resident, and the trust to allow interviewing developed over two years – a rare level of involvement mirrored in the commitment required of viewers to do justice to so many hours of minimally-edited footage.

The subjects are a cross-section of the population willing to testify, of varying degrees of lucidity, and from children to elders. Asked what Küba means to them, some are humble, shy or reflective in talking to camera, others self-serving or effusive, even apparently obsessed; all matter-of-factly confiding the mundane routines of bare existence punctuated by extremes of abuse, suffering and tragedy; or, far less frequently, triumph. There is however an overriding sense of protectiveness of their own (such as it is) in the face of unremitting external hostility and an obstinate pride in collective survival when the converse seems perpetually imminent. On circulating around successive screens, the effect is a strange blend of heightened feeling: moved and then bored; enthralled and detached. The shabby furniture and battered second-hand television sets hiding the DVD gear help you feel at home, and the flickering images and soundtracks bleed into peripheral perception as in real social gatherings. But of course there’s no interaction, and a mere juxtaposition of individualised accounts loses the flesh-and-blood co-presence producing the interpersonal cement of this community – though more suitable, perhaps, for the atomised existences and simulated relationships of Western media-addicts.

If the installation’s innovative strategies conceal unresolvable contradictions under rhetorics of empowerment, bearing witness and transcending documentary limitations, the waffle of critics and curators goes further. Framed to befit the special status of art, Küba is characterised as uniquely distinct from any other place, diverting attention from parallels with lower-class neighbourhoods across the world and throughout history and favouring fetishistic fascination with personal pathologies, perversions of consciousness and ethnic abjection. Litanies of the exotic grotesque – “drug addicts, criminals, transvestites, prostitutes and the mentally ill, Kurds, former left-wing militants, Islamic fundamentalists and nationalists” – strive to increase distance between marginal lives and some assumed and unquestioned ‘normal’ mainstream, downplaying the shared burden of the impoverished recounted vividly on the DVDs. So, despite geographical and historical specificity and their relative diversity, embattled matriarchs, unrepentant adolescents and dignified losers make sense of their struggles via biographical narratives mobilising wish-fulfilment and fury, wit and pathos, poignant nobility and bluff and bluster – emotive rationales resonating in anyone with the relevant experience and empathy.
Having pre-empted class recognition with fragmentary identities, the exhibition blurb claims that the settlement is also “quite different from traditional anarchist squats” (whatever they are) “… in the sense that entire families reside in Küba and not just young intellectuals, students or bohemians”. Undoubtedly true for some, this does no justice to many such social experiments whose achievements under harsh pressures of necessity cannot be dismissed so cavalierly as ‘lifestylism’ – especially when feelings of collective sanctuary from state control and bureaucratic conformity are so prominent, and hard-won in being reproduced across generations. Even more specious is the argument that “Küba cannot be compared to the favelas of Latin America because rather than being an easily recognized zone of the city reserved for the poor, Küba is first and foremost a state of mind”. No, the favelas illegally occupy substandard real estate outside of government control – certainly not granted by benevolent authorities – tolerated as reserve armies of labour and for the ramifications and practical expense of eviction.

The Kübans’ anti-state sentiments, nurtured by extreme levels of arbitrary police harassment, detention and torture persisting since the 1980s military dictatorship, are also hardly exceptional – often evolving further. So in El Alto, La Paz, Bolivia, the shanty neighbourhood associations are among the most radical of new political groupings in a country already renowned for insurrectionary tradition. Or, in the Rio favelas – usually dismissed as sunk in the mire of criminal gangsterism – the Afro-Reggae movement hints at inspirational cultural-politics incubating there. A more meaningful contrast is scale, with millions rather than hundreds of people – so that bottom-up organisation would represent a convergence of many thousands of Kübas at once; a quantum-leap in terms of possibilities for resistance. Finally, the megaghettoes of the global south can be seen as a most enduring product of IMF/World Bank structural adjustment programmes, rather than historical anachronisms. This puts into context the insistence that the future of Küba be interpreted as a measure of how ‘modern’ (even ‘humane’) the state of Turkey – and, by implication, the broader fortress EC that country aspires to join – will be.

Ataman’s motivations included to respect and air his subjects’ reality – rather than any ‘truth’ – in their own words. That their unity seems based on a “generationally-transmitted instinct to defy the forces of law and power rather than through any more observable markers of identity” then contradicts the differentiating presumption in touring the installation around the world of “alien narratives coming into an alien city and mixing with it”. Ultimately, then, this complex and ambiguous artwork raises many intriguing questions which it cannot answer. The mantra of a ‘state of mind’, holding together an otherwise unlikely local society, has no more explanatory power than the ‘imagined community’ of nationhood or the self as performative personal mythology – though conveniently reinforcing the art consumer’s superior detachment from dirty realities of social and material immediacy, intensity and threat. A measure of Küba’s success might be how hard the accompanying public discourse has to work in simultaneously hyping up, narrowing down, and generally mystifying its relevance to make it palatable to those more comfortably off in the New World Order.

Art review published in Freedom, Vol. 67, No. 19, October 2006.

For more reviews and essays by Tom Jennings, see: