Barış Doğrusöz

Barış Doğrusöz on ruin and representation in “The Locus of Power”

View of Barış Doğrusöz’s Cross-Pollination, 2020.

The Turkish video artist Barış Doğrusöz, who operates at the junction of architecture and history, is currently showing work from his cycle “The Locus of Power” in an exhibition of the same title running at Istanbul’s SALT Galata until March 28. Two videos explore the archaeological site of Dura-Europos, a former city located in modern-day Syria that was a center of linguistic and religious multiculturalism for half a millennium. A third considers “the observability of archaeological sites” using footage shot by the Corona spy satellite, employed by the United States between 1959 and 1972 to surveil opponents including the Soviet Union, the People’s Republic of China, and other territories in West Asia. From the remnants of that history, Doğrusöz exhumes a grammar of looking at the world.

A FEW DAYS AFTER I MOVED TO BEIRUT, I found myself drifting through the city when two bombs detonated outside the central railway station in Turkey’s capital, Ankara, killing one hundred and nine civilians. Social media was throttled nationwide by the county’s internet service providers. The complexity of the tools and protocols used by the Turkish government led me to consider their potential function in the service of psychological warfare. This was in September 2015, when I joined Ashkal Alwan’s Home Workspace Program. Around the same time, I came across reports of strange tunnels from South Lebanon. One of them, published in The New York Times, stated: “It is quiet most nights in this small, hilltop community in northern Israel on the border with Lebanon, and these days quite tense. So when residents began reporting strange sounds coming from underground recently, military engineers came running.” These events led me to deepen my research into the origins of mining warfare.

I then came across documents describing an ancient city situated on the western edge of Syria called Dura-Europos. I studied the walls enclosing its rich cosmopolitan environment, considered the city’s transformation into a Roman garrison, wondered at its abandonment after its fall in 256 AD, researched its rediscovery by American archaeologists in 1885, and meditated on its contemporary destruction by the Syrian civil war. Recent satellite images reveal that Syria’s archaeological sites were being looted on a massive scale. Aerial views of Dura-Europos resembled a moonscape; search engines were awash with requests for information concerning its plundering and annihilation. The archeological excavations and reports, combined with new remote sensing technology, unearthed traces of Dura-Europos’s devastation that allowed me to envisage its downfall on a different temporal scale. The images evoked the aesthetic of ruins—or rather, of ruined ruins—bringing issues of representation, Middle Eastern conflict, and coloniality to the fore.

I wanted the video installation Sandstorm and the Oblivion, 2017, the first work of the cycle, to have a presence inside the gallery so that its voice-overs address visitors directly. Because of the formal plurality of the data I was collecting, I started to think about an image placeholder. I eventually designed the installation as two screens, one in landscape orientation and the other in portrait, which became a canvas that fused the film’s composition.

View of Barış Doğrusöz’s Beneath Crowded Skies, 2019.

In Beneath Crowded Skies, 2019, I was interested in engaging with more specific data from the Dura-Europos site, the graffiti and human traces retrieved and destroyed during the excavations as well as on-the-ground reports produced during the war. My challenge was to formulate a narrative structure using the same strategy of repetition into a virtual wall: landscape and horizontally oriented screens showcasing various photographs, statistics, and reports. For its sequel, Cross-Pollinated, 2020, a three-channel installation, I approached the ruins via the lens of landscape archeology, adopting ways of looking from disciplines like geography and anthropology. When I started my research, long before the Covid crisis, the first dataset I amassed comprised satellite imagery used to assess the damage inflicted by the destruction and looting. I found myself exploring declassified Cold War–era images from the Corona satellite that serve as critical tools in the archaeological study of the Near East and elsewhere. They preserve landscapes that predate recent agricultural, industrial, and urban developments.

I had to deal with the new set of physical limitations in the SALT Galata galleries due to Covid restrictions. With curators Amira Akbıyıkoğlu and Farah Aksoy, I decided to abandon the closed spaces for each work. Instead, we articulated the presence of seven screens through an elaborate system of sonic and textual correspondences and dialogues between these three artworks: a computer-generated voice, a human voice, and its trace on a screen. Each of my films has a narrator that corresponds to one of these three voices.

Archeology and art have a lot in common in that they often explore, explicitly or not, the unfinished destruction of successive empires into the present day. Something about landscape, ruins, and what remains from the social and collective experience of their appropriation in the political discourse intrigues me. But how to connect memory with archeology? In artistic practices, memory has been a prominent topic in recent decades. We’re reconsidering our relation to forgetting and trying to generate a form of protest against amnesia. For this project, it was an urgent need to rethink this relationship with the past and to demand a perspective beyond the excavation trenches.