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Interview with
Banu Cennetoğlu
Might Be Good, Issue 91, July 26, 2007

Since 2006, photographer Banu Cennetoglu has operated a non-profit space, BAS, dedicated to collecting and producing artists’ books in Istanbul. In addition to this enterprise, Banu Cennetoglu’s work has been included in exhibitions such as Wherever We Go in Milan (2006), the 3rd Tirana Biennial (2005), Information/Transformation at Extra City Center for Contemporary Art in Antwerp (2005) and the 3rd Berlin Biennial (2004).  

Pelin Uran: Let’s start by talking about your background. Not only do I find it interesting but think it will help us understand your art practice. From what I know, you studied psychology in Istanbul, then took a photography course at the School of Visual Arts in NY and became a commercial photographer. How did this course lead you to your career as an artist?

Banu Cennetoglu: Actually, I attended SVA while I was still studying psychology in Istanbul… Later on I studied photography in Paris. I went to Paris in 1994 for a summer course at Speos, Paris’ photography institute. By the end of the session they offered me a scholarship for the whole year, so I stayed. I had left Istanbul abruptly and had no financial support except my scholarship, so my family made an issue of being able to make a living from what you study. They had already had a problem with me studying psychology, so the idea of me being a photographer made them very uneasy.

After finishing school in Paris I stayed on another year and then moved to New York. There I got an offer from a very good photographer’s agency. For a few years I worked as a professional photographer and got to know the medium better. Eventually, I lost interest in commercial photography and started to feel uncomfortable with being commissions and assignments. My main problem with commercial photography is how the information is produced and distributed: it is based totally on exploitation. I also have no interest in being part of the promotion process for a product, especially if don’t give a damn about it. I was never interested in working professionally either. Some people are able to make money from commissions and use that money for their “artistic practice”; I am not one of them. Of course, I am highly aware of the market conditions of the art world as well, but there is another world beyond the market, which still has some other possibilities, at least for the moment. I am interested in those possibilities.

PU: After practicing commercial photography in NY, you spent the two years, 2001-2003, at the Rijksakademie in Amsterdam, an artist residency program, where you thought about the possibilities and limitations of the photographic medium. Can you talk about this transition?

BC: Before the Rijksakademie I was already thinking about those questions. My time in Amsterdam, as a contrast to New York in terms of time and space, was a luxury, a chance to concentrate and mirror those questions in my work. Also I had the opportunity talk with other artists and advisors, which, although hard at times, was very valuable and productive for my work. It was a real research period…

PU: You still work in the contested field of photography and question the boundary between fiction and documentary. What potentialities do you think photography can offer?

BC: This might sound very vague and broad, but I am interested in uncertainties.

I photograph spaces that are relatively transitory and unstable. Through this process, I am willing to question the potential of these spaces/places and the power of their uncertain conditions.

How do I approach a space and its history, and later the photograph and its original context? As you know, once an image is presented, multiple interpretations are possible. I start from a landscape and, by photographing it, construct its story. I use landscape to mean an area, a field. The field or particular place that I am talking about is located within that country, and layers of information start to come together depending on the economic, social and political situation of that country. I am interested in looking at a place both in isolation and within its larger context.

Paradoxically, once the evidence has been recorded, I search for ways to hide it. I question what to offer the viewer. I interfere a lot with myself through the distribution of this information. The work’s conceptual aspects are as important as its factual content. I don’t see any problem with instrumentalizing art, using it as a tool to problematize the issues with which I am concerned. But I still care about the ambiguity of the image. The challenge is how to make a work that addresses “difficult issues” without being illustrative or pedagogical.  The exhibition space and the audience are an essential part of the work. I am interested in the performative aspect of photographs where the audience might confront the content of the work via its formal aspects. I don’t have a very direct attitude. Sometimes that can be a disadvantage but that’s okay.

PU: The discomfort that you create in your work, the ambiguity and uncertain situation is amplified by the way you install your work. Especially in False Witness and Corridor. Here you placed the photographs in such a way that the viewer could not grasp the installation in its totality. You present your work in a way that makes the viewer more conscious of their viewing experience. Is presentation an important aspect of your other works?

BC: Yes indeed, it is a very important aspect of my work. By installing the work in a certain way, I try to increase the audience’s awareness; sometimes I risk being too didactic, even fascistic… The content of the work becomes more open, and implicit through its installation. For example, in Determined Barbara, I wanted to transfer the exhaustion in the content through the installation. The first time I showed this work there was a 17-meter wall in front of the photographs. The viewer had to walk through this corridor to see the photographs installed in one straight line. The second time, it was a five-meter wall and the photographs were printed in such a size that I could keep the line. So although the wall was gone, still the viewers could not see all the images in one gaze. They had to approach them individually since they were pretty small and installed on the back wall in a very big concrete space.

PU: You mentioned that you try to hide the evidence in the photograph and decide what to offer. How do you negotiate how much information you give your audience? For example, Determined Barbara (2004) is a work about a temporary military zone in Glamoc, Bosnia-Herzegovina. Are there any palm trees in Grozny? (2005) is a work set in a location that includes a beach club, the Turkish State Railways Recreation Camp and an army house.

BC: Determined Barbara portrays an exhausting Catch-22. Determined Barbara is a military training ground constructed in Glamoc, a small town in Bosnia, for SFOR (Stabilization Force) units. In 1998, their land was expropriated for its construction, displacing hundreds who lived there before the war. I started researching in 2002 in Banja Luka, a Serbian town that borders Bosnia. There, I came across a kindergarten where Serbian refugees from Glamoc were staying. I conceived the series as a road trip between four cities in FY, which have a relationship with Determined Barbara. It starts in Belgrade from Banja Luka, it goes to Sarajevo and ends at Glamoc with Barbara. I wanted the photographs to keep the feeling of a road-trip, but one that is a tired and tiring… The photographs are quiet but obscure. They look authorless and mimic found photographs since they are printed on cheap, newspaper stock. A text, that is factual without being too illustrative, accompanies the installation. Since I don’t use captions for photographs, it is up to the viewer to make the connections.

The work Are there any palm trees in Grozny is a series of photographs in video format.
Located on the same short coast-line are a beach club with imported palm trees and a Chechen refugee camp located within a Turkish State Railways Recreation Camp.

The last door visible in the photograph belongs to an Army House, which is another recreation place only available for army members and their family. The extraordinary normality was the starting point of the work. I grew up in this neighborhood and have childhood memories associated with this camp. I went to see it while visiting Turkey in the winter of 2001. When I entered I saw that 160 Chechen refugees were living in one part of it. When I came back in 2005, I went to the site again and I started to observe this very peculiar juxtaposition. Most of the photographs are taken from a point on the other side of the coast-line, so the effect of surveillance is dominant. There is a latent restlessness since all look pretty normal. I wanted to translate this subtle but deep tension into the video without prioritizing any of the sites. The challenge was recording this co-existence and was essential to keep considering it through the process of collecting and editing the material.

The first time I showed this work in Antwerp I made a subjective map, which I placed on the opposite side of the projection wall. My constructed map included other photos and documents as well the original map of Istanbul, where whole neighborhoods surrounding the Army House are removed for security reasons. Lately, I’ve been showing a version of the map which layers the city map with another from Google maps, in which you can see very clearly the portions missing from the city map. I also added another layer to the work by creating a Google search room for Are there any palm trees in Grozny?
This pre-room before the projection was covered with printed (A0 and B&W) Google results for the title of the work. I am interested in the co-existence of those 2 structures which do not have an explicit need for each other.

PU: How much time do you dedicate to researching your work?

BC:  It depends... the content itself demands what is needed…I try to listen …

PU: Besides being an artist, you initiated the non-profit space, BAS, in 2006 where you both publish and exhibit artists’ books. What made you to decide to get involved with artists’ books? Was your interest in the book medium born after finishing your own book project False Witness?

BC: I started to work with books in late 1990s. Working with photography, I have always found the book space very inspiring and challenging of the stasis of the photographic image, especially since I am not interested in making monographs or photo albums.

False Witness was my fist published artist’s book, before that I made several hand-made books.  I lived outside of Turkey for 11 years. Artists’ books as artwork do not have a long history in Turkey. When I left Amsterdam in 2003, I wanted to start a project like BAS where I could develop an archive of artists’ books as well I could produce books with other artists. While I continue with my practice I wanted to use my knowledge and energy to inspire other people to use book as an alternative space.

Although I run BAS alone, I collaborate with others on project. For example, Bent, our artist book series, is produced in collaboration with Philippine Hoegen, an artist dividing her time between Istanbul and Amsterdam.

Bent’s aim is to generate a new platform for young artists—especially those not already working in Istanbul’s art scene—to explore printed matter as an alternative space. The book becomes a site of presentation and the artist is invited to challenge that site. Since May 2006, eight books from three artists have been produced and launched. Our next one is due out in November.

PU: Do you collaborate with other people in your art practice or do you limit the collaboration to BAS?

BC: I am not a frequent collaborator but I do if the project requires. I recently collaborated with Huib van der Werf, an art historian and curator from Amsterdam. From 2004-2007 we worked on a project called The List, a document, which contains the names of more than 8,000 (known) refugees who died within, or on the borders of Europe. For this project, The List was displayed as a poster campaign in 110 outdoor advertising signs throughout the city of Amsterdam for two weeks. Those interested can find more information at

PU: Recently, you have shown your work at two locations in the States. Could you talk briefly about those exhibitions?

BC: Actually, I am showing Determined Barbara in both locations. The work is currently on view at the San Francisco Art Institute in the exhibition Wherever We Go, curated by Hou Hanru and Gabi Scardi. The show first premiered in October 2006 at the Spazio Oberdan and is deals with questions about identity and cultures in transit.

The second exhibition takes place at the Walker Art Center and is curated by Doryun Chong and Yasmil Raymond. Brave New World, which borrows its title from the Aldous Huxley novel, aims to assess the current state of international art and its political consciousness.
It opens on October 4th.

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