Çağlar Kimyoncu is a digital artist based in London, UK. He is also a curator, artist’s mentor, producer, and director of filmpro, a digital arts agency supporting artists who experience exclusion and other barriers in their practice. In 1999, he co-founded (with Julie McNamara) the London Disability Film Festival, for which he was Artistic Director until 2006, during which time the festival became a model of good practice, recognised internationally for advancing and promoting the work of Deaf and disabled filmmakers and creating a template of festival accessibility.
In his own practice, Çağlar has focused on issues of militarisation, power dynamics in conflict situations, and conscientious objection. In 2013, with the support of Arts Council England, he created a multi-channel video installation, COnscription, which focused on the stories of refusers to military conscription in Turkey. He followed this with an R&D project exploring conscription and conscientious objection in Israel. Çağlar’s method involves extensive research and interviewing relevant to the subject. He then takes that research into the rehearsal room, developing scenarios through improvisations with actors that draw on their own experiences. His approach is intensely collaborative – incorporating the ideas of every member of his team, from administrators, to actors, to technical crew – and it remains fluid so that there is never a “finished” product. Throughout his projects, he uses new media (blogs, social media platforms) to keep the work alive, interactive, and evolving.
His current work, Conscience, focuses on the militarisation of youth in the UK, looking at the army as a career option, the Armed Forces’ recruitment strategies and involvement in education, and the choices on offer to young people in Britain today. As the 2015 recipient of the Shape Arts Adam Reynolds Memorial Bursary, he was Artist in Residence at the New Art Gallery, Walsall, where he completed the first stage of research on this project.
In the conversation below with filmmaker and artistic colleague Michael Achtman, Çağlar discusses Conscience, his recent residency, and his future plans for the work.
MA: Tell me about this project Conscience that you’re working on?
ÇK: In my previous work, I’ve concentrated more on military service in other countries where it was compulsory and I was more interested in conflict zones. So I did a work about Turkey, I did the research bit of a project focusing on Israel and I was looking at the experiences in other countries. But when you think about it, the country we live in – Britain – it has a finger in quite a lot of different conflicts. Also, now that the WWI centenary is on the agenda, I felt it was over glorified, it was referred to with a nice nostalgia attached to it and it focused more on the bravery and those kinds of things. And that bugged me quite a lot.
One of the questions I was asking – so it’s called “World War I” – was it a world war? I mean, how many countries were involved? And where did it come from, how did it start? And also I was curious about if there were any conscientious objectors at the time. So following all these links, I came to a place that actually Britain is taking a very important role in many of those conflict areas, and I just wanted to ask the questions, so what does it mean for young people in Britain to be in the army, why they were choosing such a pathway, what were the attractions and what would happen to them once they were in the army?
So I thought that’s an interesting angle to look at. One, we look at the recent past, but also we look at the experiences within the region. Because at the back of my mind, the subject of economic conscription always occupies me. My father was in the army and his explanation of why he joined the army was there was no other way. If he wanted to make something out of himself, he had to join. And economic conscription is – it’s quite current and quite relevant in this country as well.
Once we started, there are several things we found out. One is that the Armed Forces puts money into educational establishments like colleges. And there’s an Armed Forces presence in high schools, colleges, more than we ever think. Because there is a big investment from the Armed Forces as well as the government to push for recruitment.
MA: How did you find all this out?
ÇK: We do research online and we talk with people. I’ve connected with organisations that are monitoring these relationships like Forces Watch, and War Resisters International who are running a project called Anti-militarisation of Youth. So these are different organisations or entities that look at the same experience from different angles. For example, Forces Watch does not claim you shouldn’t join the army. It claims that if you are choosing this path, you need to understand what you are choosing, what you are getting into, and the consequences. But organisations like WRI reject the idea of Armed Forces existence in any educational environment. Other people suggest there should be a counter argument from the peace movement given equal weight, the same balance, which is not the case.
MA: What kind of work do you envision making from this?
ÇK: I’m trying to – the way I work is I need direct contact with people, so I need to communicate with young people to understand where they’re coming from, what does it mean for them, and what kind of choices, what kind of life experiences they have. Why do they resist it or why do they choose it, and what happens to them once they make that choice? Because, contrary to belief, there are conscientious objectors in this country who have been imprisoned. But that’s another story. It’s a contractual agreement, once you are in the Armed Forces – it doesn’t matter which part – you cannot break the contract. So technically you cannot become a conscientious objector, but once you are in, you have to finish your contract of service.
And the other thing, which was very surprising at the time, is that Britain is the only country in Europe that recruits and accepts soldiers under 18. So when you are 16 or 17, you can join the Army, which is a huge dilemma for me, because at 16 or 17 you cannot vote, you cannot drink, you cannot have sex, and you can’t get a driving license. But you can join the Army. And once you are in the Army, you can do all that, and also you can learn how to use guns and tanks.
Through the experiences of young people, I’m trying to understand what it means for them, instead of pushing or looking for evidence to prove my case.
MA: You started working on this as part of the Adam Reynolds Bursary at the New Art Gallery Walsall, as a workshop or as an R&D?
ÇK: When the Adam Reynolds bursary came around I was looking for opportunities to start the research process. I have several challenges; one is that the way I work is not easily funded, and also I get distracted or I have to do quite a lot of other work, so I don’t – unless I have a very good reason and structure – I don’t spend time on my projects. So I thought a bursary would be a good way for me to actually focus on me and this project. The idea was to start the research in the region; it’s in Walsall in the West Midlands. On the map it looks very White but in reality it is very mixed. There are lots of immigrants in the area, it’s very working class and there are lots of Army bases around. And there is this huge Army recruitment push in the area and I thought that’s perfect.
Also on the date of the interview for the Adam Reynolds, I was chatting with the gallery assistants and they told that Epstein – why they built the New Art Gallery Walsall –
MA: It’s built around Kathleen Garman’s collection of her lover, the British sculptor Jacob Epstein’s work –
ÇK: Right, Epstein was actually a conscientious objector. He served in the Army briefly during WWI and while he was there he had a breakdown that changed his life and his art dramatically. So later he refused to serve in WWII. And his son was also a conscientious objector.
MA: As part of your residency, you did research and also worked with young actors creating improvisations. First of all, can you tell me a bit about the research?
ÇK: The first stage I do involves extensive research on the internet and in libraries, and sometimes in archives. I look at people’s own accounts quite a lot. For example, I watched endless hours of footage from young people who are actually in the Armed Forces sharing their own experiences.
MA: On YouTube?
ÇK: YouTube and similar platforms. I looked at propaganda materials and marketing materials, publicity material from the Armed Forces and from the peace movement and anything in between. And every time you watch something you have another question, so you need to dig deeper to find out what that means, and what you find out is never an absolute answer, it’s the answer from that particular region or that particular time and it shifts. It depends what happens on an international level as well. For example, one of the biggest pushes for recruitment happened after 9-11 and 7-7. So those kinds of events are quite important.
When you look at all these news articles, people’s own accounts, the organisations or companies or the Armed Forces and peace movement, the experiences with the cadets, you start to understand what parties are involved. So in our case, for example, young people within the education system and also young people out of the education system. Because if you refer to economic conscription, lots of young people choose to join the Armed Forces because there is no space for them within the educational system and there is no other option. And parents, organisations working with parents, organisations working to support the Armed Forces’ efforts to recruit.
MA: So all along the way you find people you might want to talk to and then you ask to interview them?
ÇK: We have a few different approaches depending on who we approach. On an individual level, I try to find people who are sharing their experience openly, I try to communicate with them, but also I use social media to reach individuals. And for groups like organisations or campaigning bodies or the Armed Forces, we write them or connect through social media and say this is what we are doing. One of the concerns we have is that we want to keep an open mind rather than pushing an agenda so we let them know that their voice is important otherwise it will have only one version of events.
And then I try to find a person that I could – for example, in Turkey and in Israel I couldn’t reach anybody until I found the right people with whom I could develop the trust and the openness and the communication – they opened the doors. Because as an outsider – in my case there are lots of double whammies. One is, in this country, I’m seen an outsider, I’m not British in that sense. Immediately people ask, so what’s that to you, why do you want to know? And the second one is, as a disabled person, that is another question, why do you want to do this, why do you want to know this, etc.
And there is always room for misunderstanding, as though I have this unrealised dream that I’m running after, to join the Army myself. So once I develop more relationships on a personal level, that opens certain doors or communication channels for me.
MA: What was your experience like working with the young actors at Walsall?
ÇK: I had a similar experience like with my two previous works. It is a touchy subject, it is still a subject that people are not too comfortable with, and my call looking for young actors to work with was not that popular. But I found three actors. One believed that you need the Army because we live in the real world. A second one was like – it’s not for me, some people need to do it, or some people need that but it’s not for me. But the youngest one, who was 16, he was not a pacifist but he was a peace promoter. During the auditions he talked about his experience with his grandfather. His grandfather served in WWII and after he came back he refused to talk about it. And he refused to go to any of the ceremonies or commemorations, he refused any of that. I think from that generation a big group of people believed that the war was a legal way of mass killings. Anyway he grew up with that in the background and he never, the actor himself, he never believed in violence in that sense. And he was a brilliant actor, so he brought several different characters with several different options and perspectives, and he had a huge maturity with insight for all these characters and why they were making these choices, so I enjoyed working with him quite a lot.
MA: Do you envision doing what you’ve done previously, taking the research material and making a video installation work?
ÇK: This time, we’re going to do it a little bit differently. Once we get the funding, we are going to go and meet with young people in their own environment, whether it’s a community environment or educational environment. We’ll explore issues around the subject together and we are going to have creative responses together. So the idea is to explore and get a wider understanding of the implications and complications of what the Armed Forces stand for and what it means to join or not to join.
After that, I will collect that material and I will choose a group of actors with relevant or direct experience about the subject and we are going to go into the studio to explore and improvise together to see what characters we are going to work with and what’s their story and what’s their background, how relevant it is. What does it mean, what does it mean today for everybody?
At this stage I don’t know the end product, because the way I’m thinking is that this time it will not be, “Okay, here is the work, here is the audience, you consume this as much as you want, do what you want with it.” This time around I’m hoping to use this as another starting point of the conversations in an artistic platform, but take that to spaces that are not used to having art in their space, like non-conventional art galleries, non purpose-built art galleries, as well as art galleries.
Because although my focus is on young people since their decisions affect what will happen tomorrow a lot, I’m also trying to create an environment so that everybody – almost everybody – who would come to that space would discover something new or think about something new or have a new question in their mind.
Quite a few things happened since I’ve started this project. One is that conflict around the world has increased. And on one level Britain keeps trying to withdraw itself from all these conflicts, but the consequences of their actions in the past don’t allow them to just withdraw and pretend to be peaceful. And that creates a war machine that needs young people constantly.
MA: I thought you said you don’t take a position in the work, but you’re expressing very strong positions.
ÇK: I’m not saying I don’t have any views. I have strong views and strong questions about the subject, but the work we are going to create is not to prove my point of view. The work itself is not going to have certain conclusions. It will keep everything open because my job is to ask questions, not answer them.
MA: And have people discuss with each other?
ÇK: Or by themselves. Whatever the thinking mechanisms they have for themselves, it should feed that. People should ask questions.
MA: How do you balance these very strong opinions and keeping them out of the working process? For instance, if you interview an Army recruiter, why would someone like that give you an interview?
ÇK: They did. I don’t know why it was, but they did. They talked to me, not on record so I couldn’t record it, but when you think about it, if I can manage to communicate my sincerity about the subject, I find they will open up. But to get to that point it takes quite a lot of time and effort and lots of convincing.
The other part is, I think my background helps a little bit. One is, my father was in the (Turkish) Army so I’m an Army brat. So there are some relevant experiences. Some of the stuff, when they talk about it I understand and I can join in those conversations. And the other thing is, me being disabled creates a kind of safety, because it makes me not as dangerous as it might be for other people. But I do know that also my background plays against me. So me being from Turkey, especially now, probably, will create more problems. For reasons that we know.
Everybody knows that in the Armed Forces there is a chain of command, as a soldier you cannot question, you have to obey the orders, right? What happened in Turkey recently with the attempted coup, the first casualties were the soldiers on the street. And their job is not to question.
MA: Some of them didn’t even know it was a coup attempt, they thought it was an exercise. So those were the first ones to be killed and now they’re in prison being tortured. Soldiers who were following orders.
ÇK: Their job is to follow orders. So for me, as any person, if you are joining something, this could be the Armed Forces or it could be a political or religious set up. If there is a hierarchy, there are always things that you need to question. And the first one is, why is there a hierarchy and what does it mean?
MA: In practical terms, how do you make your work? You must find it a real challenge to create work that requires such a long development period. How do you keep the ball rolling to make the work, to apply for residencies and funding and all that?
ÇK: It’s like a snowball. It needs to start somewhere. And for that, it needs a bit of money to start that momentum.
MA: But you can get a bit of funding like you did with the bursary, and then it runs out and how do you continue?
ÇK: Adam Reynolds or similar bursaries are not set up for that. Those bursaries are investing in the artist for a very short time in a limited capacity. So even within the bursary when you find something, there is no structure or no way of supporting that process or that artist to take it further.
My dilemma is always, in order to keep going, I need to earn money. And it is getting more and more difficult and more expensive to keep going with my choices right now. The more I need to do other work, for money, the less time I have to do what I do want to do. And that is the conflict. From outside you look at it like, okay, you just apply for funding. But even to apply for funding, I’ve been working on it with my team for six months and we are nowhere close to actually applying.
Also, my work falls into lots of different cracks. Because on paper I can’t say “this is what it is”. I’m saying I need to have the money to see what it is; I need to do the work to show you what it is. Secondly, the subject matter is too close to certain controversial areas. Educational bodies are quite apoliticised on paper, but they are very much pushing a certain agenda. There are historical relationships between British people and the Armed Forces and the Forces are heavily supported by the current government. So anything that questions that is not going to be taken lightly. And thirdly, it’s not a conventional art project, and I’m not a conventional artist. So it can be very challenging.
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