Aslı Çavuşoğlu and Özer Yalçınkaya, ANNEX (detail), 2020, neon, dimensions variable.

Aslı Çavuşoğlu and Özer Yalçınkaya, ANNEX (detail), 2020, neon, dimensions variable.

Aslı Çavuşoğlu

One of Aslı Çavuşoğlu’s earliest works, Dominance of Shadow, 2004, engaged with Istanbul’s increasingly privatized public spaces via eighteen billboards advertising an imaginary Hollywood film that the artist installed throughout the city. Her poster featured a collage of Renée Zellweger, a made-up blurb from the Washington Post, and other elements used in promoting blockbusters. Some of the billboards remained on public view for years.

Çavuşoğlu’s latest work pondered political graffiti, specifically that which promotes a similarly elusive objective: a Communist revolution. The show’s title, “Everything Interesting Takes Place in the Dark”—a quotation from Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s 1932 novel, Voyage au bout de la nuit (Journey to the End of the Night)hails graffiti artists who operate at night. Comprising a neon installation and a downloadable font, the installation ANNEX (all works 2020) reappropriated a censorship tactic as a communication tool. In Turkey, reactionaries redact Istanbul’s revolutionary graffiti—slogans like ANOTHER WORLD IS POSSIBLE and THE ONLY WAY IS REVOLUTION—by transforming the individual letters into geometric shapes, making the phrases illegible. Commissioned by MASS MoCA in North Adams, Massachusetts, and created in collaboration with the graphic designer Özer Yalçınkaya, ANNEX similarly transforms the twenty-nine letters of the Turkish alphabet into abstract linear glyphs. (A twenty-six-letter English version is also available.) Each of its letters articulates a meaning at once revolutionary and reactionary, together distilling an ideological conflict that both creates and erases writing. The jumbles of circles, triangles, squares, and crosses remind us how oppression can unknowingly open new avenues of creative thought, with cryptic language serving as a medium to communicate revolutionary ideas.

Deciphering these letters requires prior knowledge of the ways in which reactionaries redact revolutionary messages; only this historical information about writing can provide the perspective necessary to comprehend the full alphabet. In this way, ANNEX echoes the politicized history of Turkish writing. Until 1928, Turkish texts were written from right to left using the Ottoman script; then Mustafa Kemal Atatürk mandated the use of an alphabet based on Latin letters. Older texts are now mostly illegible to Turks, although we continue to speak the same language.

ANNEX’s roots also lie in another of Çavuşoğlu’s earlier works, A Few Hours After Revolution, a neon installation presenting a modified depiction of graffiti she spotted on a wall in Istanbul. That work, created in 2011, comprises six letters—DEVRIM (revolution)—that have been rendered illegible yet powerful in their censored new shape; the piece captures a period of politicization that climaxed two years later with the 2013 Gezi Park protests in Istanbul. Amid public clashes between activists and nationalists, Istanbul’s walls were at that time the site of an escalating battle between writing and erasure. Defaced slogans became a common feature of cultural life. When anti-government activists wrote PERSECUTION BEGAN IN 1453 on a wall at Gezi, singling out the year Ottoman Turks captured Constantinople and ended the Byzantine Empire, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan described the writers as “sons of Byzantium, not our own,” employing the dog-whistle term to energize his followers and demonize his opponents as traitors.

Çavuşoğlu also used Istanbul’s walls to publicize ANNEX, announcing the show with posters composed with the ANNEX font and proposing to Istanbul art institutions that they adopt it to create a shared cipher language for exchanging ideas. In doing so, she evoked both the dangers and the possibilities of public art—the tension between the fear of arrest and the joy of self-expression.