Köken Ergun, Young Turks, 2015, two-channel digital video, color, sound, 48 minutes 24 seconds. Installation view.

Köken Ergun, Young Turks, 2015, two-channel digital video, color, sound, 48 minutes 24 seconds. Installation view.

Köken Ergun

Köken Ergun, Young Turks, 2015, two-channel digital video, color, sound, 48 minutes 24 seconds. Installation view.

In a 2013 advertisement for the eleventh annual Turkish Language Olympics, students, styled like life-size versions of the fetishistically multicultural automatons from Disneyland’s “It’s a Small World” ride, gather around a picnic table in a grassy field. A Slavic-looking boy in an embroidered peasant blouse lifts a lid on a tureen, takes an approving sniff, and then announces in stilted Turkish, “Radishes, right?” An African girl in a purple hijab turns to her seatmate, who is sporting a Mongolian loovuz. “It is similar to your national dish,” she remarks, using the same formal Turkish.

Welcome to the utopian Turkish-speaking world imagined by the Turkish Language Olympics. Founded in 2003 (the same year current president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan came to power as prime minister), the international competition pits students from Turkish schools around the globe against one another in such categories as singing, folk dancing, and poetry recitation. The finals are held with much fanfare. Onstage activities are accompanied by a miniature world’s fair, to which participating countries bring such “exotic” delights as raw vanilla and taxidermied crocodiles, so that members of the Turkish middle class might take selfies with them. In 2013, the eleventh edition reportedly included participants from 140 countries, and then–prime minister Erdoğan spoke at the closing ceremonies.

It was the last year the competition would take place on Turkish soil. Shortly thereafter, the increasingly suspicious Erdoğan launched an attack on the Language Olympics and the international network of Turkish schools behind it. While not formally united by any one organizing body, these schools are loosely associated with the Gülen movement, a free-form humanitarian initiative following the teachings of Fethullah Gülen, an Islamic scholar and cleric now living in self-imposed exile in the United States. Also known as Hizmet (Service), the movement advocates a moderate Islam that embraces technology, interfaith dialogue, and education. In December 2013, Erdoğan publicly broke with the Gülen movement—which he had formerly allied with—denouncing its “dangerous” pretensions to running a “parallel state.” While Erdoğan could not legally force the closure of the Gülen schools, he has since applied pressure to foreign governments to act in his stead. The Turkish Language Olympics were banned from Turkish soil, and the competition now takes place in exile as the itinerant International Festival of Language and Culture.

With his latest project, Young Turks, 2015, artist Köken Ergun pairs footage of the 2013 finale with interviews with Olympic participants and organizers, leading his audience down the rabbit hole of the Olympics to the Gülen schools. If it’s a parallel state the schools are running, it’s one operating on the level of “It’s a Small World.” We learn that while most instruction is given in English, Turkish is promoted as the “language of love,” a tongue adopted voluntarily rather than forced on a colonized people. The forty-eight-minute-plus, two-channel video at the heart of Ergun’s exhibition opens with four minutes of young dervishes-in-training from Nairobi whirling before the watchful eye of their Turkish dance teacher. A separate viewing station features supplementary footage of one-on-one interviews, in which students reveal that they may spend nine months training for the Olympics without learning the cultural or religious context behind their gestures. One student, decked out in an elaborate shamanic costume, all face paint and feathers, coolly reports that he learned his routine from an instructional video. Other children are given MP3 players with songs to learn, with the primary objective being to memorize the syllables rather than to understand their meaning. While the students may praise Turkish culture, literature, and architecture, on camera they are hard-pressed to name any specific examples. What they do seem to understand is that they want to “be the best,” to “win,” and they expect to “go to Turkey.” While their grasp of the language may be weak, the students of these schools have been taught that “Turkey” means “success.”

Having laid bare the mechanisms of soft power on a personal level, Ergun’s film crescendos with the Eleventh Turkish Language Olympics in Izmir, Turkey, where the local crowds go wild as a girl from Madagascar trills out a pop ballad and a Ugandan troupe kicks through a dance from Denizli, Turkey. For the finale, a multinational ensemble takes the stage to sing “A New World.” The camera cuts to a middle-aged woman holding a sign that reads THIS HAS BEEN OUR DREAM. A dream, perhaps, but, as Ergun’s film reveals, no picnic.

Kate Sutton