No Sound from the Sea No Scent of Salt in the Air [video still], Courtesy of KABA HAT, 2018.

Anastasia Shin
~ Stirring the Soup

In the garden of Wolfart Project Space we talked about ‘the 3.5%’ ﹘the percentage of people needed to effect change, definitions of: revolution, community, cohesion, (inspiration and abstraction). A collection of friends and strangers had gathered in the garden before an evening performance to close the two-week residency of KABA HAT. And it turned out our garden conversation was good speculative priming for our reception of the acts to come.

KABA HAT are an artist collective. Six participants, who met in Istanbul whilst studying at the Sabanci University and who (now that they’re mostly living in different places) meet for intensive periods, to discuss, research and perform together. For this residency period, Wolfart Project Space in Rotterdam has been a base, and a place to explore a new location for the group; the sand dunes on the nearby west coast of Holland.

Often KABA HAT’s work refers to a ‘man-made situation’. The group harness different aspects of their material practices (architecture/sculpture/print) to encourage a sense of criticality towards specific events and aspects of everyday life. The relatively recent termination of tenureship for many professors in Turkey and the protests against the development of Gezi Park give context to the group’s politically motivated approach. One participant, Onur Ceritoğlu - tells me their collective name is a pun in Turkish, he translates the components to explain that: Kaba means rough or rude, whilst Hat is a line, a route, a reference to Turkish calligraphy. Together, they form: a rough-line. But additionally: Kabahat (as one word) translates as mischief; telling us something of their tone.

The event at Wolfart, titled: No sound from the sea, no scent of salt in the air, is inspired by the groups’ reading of writer and playwright Bilge Karasu (1930-1995). Simple in format and divided into sections, their performance  demonstrated group activities referring to nights they spent in the sand dunes during the residency: gathering (around a pot), balancing (on broken branches), emptying (endless amounts of  sand), and reading and listening; with attention and patience.

The exhibition space was dimly lit and as they moved from one area to another, their performed gestures seemed to focus on subtle, concrete actions; the repetition representing a sense of learning or figuring out. A collective stirring-of-the-soup became a metaphor for collective participation, support-structures and shared-ingredients. Perhaps it was different performers individual demeanors, but  the enthusiasm waxed and waned, something I read as an exploration of how, under duress, the rigour and energy of imagined possibilities might change. Building a lexicon of resistance, repeatedly reacting to oppressive forces  seems a valiant and important task, yet this experience of self organising can still oscillate between being stimulating or exhausting.

The cyclical format of these actions/gestures was also inspired by Karasu, another of the collective, Merve Kılıçer, tells me. His writings feature the sometimes futile, sometimes aspirational search for a bus to ‘Sazandere’, a coastal city of the author’s dreams. A search which is repeated over different novella, libretto and plays the author has written. Kılıçer describes how this use of a recurring premise lets the story shift and morph through different formats; allowing you to approach something again and again with nuance. She tells me this is a characteristic KABA HAT wanted to emulate.  

Within the one hour performance, the group read an edited extract (their own translation) of Karasu’s libretto: ‘Not being able to go’. They read in rounds, overlapping each other’s phrases with an out-of-step echo, whilst a quiet, ambient soundtrack of spillages and layered scratchy surfaces played. In the exhibition space, the audible stirring-of-the-soup, with a metal spoon in a large steel pot, clangs and loops with these archived recordings. Fragments of their performed narrative trace a search for the mythic (or forgotten) Sazandere shore, drawing parallels with Karasu’s imagined-utopian-metropolis and their time in the dunes; the repeated premise being that this (non-) place can be created through collective speculation. In KABA HAT’s hands, Sazandere is a horizon, guiding the groups learning to the boundary of what is known and what is unknown. Again and again they reapproach how to work together with changing context and nuanced perspective.

‘Culture’ is a collective endeavour, it can be defined as things-people-do, sets of practices, created-behaviour, created infrastructure; from sewers to symphonies. In the Netherlands, the ‘culture’ of defending land from sea is a well honed technique, ofttimes land equals man-made space. But this is not the behaviour, or culture, the group are reflecting on, when they grab each others elbows; balancing erratically in a backwards/forwards oscillation upon broken branches. They are not asking, for example: ‘What might it mean, to defend the land from the sea?’ But something more social, like: ‘How does our collectivity support and exclude, build and undo?’. This is something rudimentary and essential to any human culture; exploring the tangibility-of-groupness. And while the repetition of their tasks and balancing-acts builds anticipation to begin with, the gestures don’t reach a crescendo, they inhabit the space with us, with ease and without spectacle. Sharing the tangibility of their groupness in this way, KABA HAT displayed the characteristics of their collective working method; temporary, exploratory, self-organised and inclusive. They created an intimate atmosphere at Wolfart but still, at times, it was laugh-out-loud absurd; before the rhythm of repetition is noted (and the lexicon of resistance learnt), individual gestures could stand in obscurity: emptied of meaning or consequence.

No sound from the Sea no  Scent of Salt in the Air, is the first live work I have experienced by KABAHAT. In previous works, the group responded to sites within Turkey.  For example, a site of construction; the location of the third bridge over the Bosphorus in Istanbul (towards which there was much resistance) provided specific actions for the group to respond to. There, they took photos, marking, noting, tracing where explosions of rocks and uprooting of trees had taken place and they produced print-based works with this collected evidence.  Within multiple postcard sized printed images, the asymmetrical silhouette of Anatolian grave markers provided an irregular outline, keyhole-like, for the documented activity to be shared, seen, remembered amidst the threat of imminent demolition.

There is something of the groups’ methodology: of marking, tracing and noting which is present in this newer work too, responding to the built-up coast line, in parallel to Bilge Karasu’s search for the mythic shore of Sazandere. But significantly here, the work takes a more speculative, fictional bent; with their collective attention anchored by the weight and texture of  sparse materials and their six bodies in space. The text readings, in rounds, and the rhythmic soundtrack become theatrical in parts. But this is held back by the un-acted casualness of their delivery and palpable sincerity. Their tasks took on a ritual like quality:  as if branches, sand, water and milk; once mixed with the intensity of their mutual desire for change and collaboration, will summon something supportive from the debris. Alongside these gestures and fragments of text, they changed the way they gathered their bodies, at times they were tightly knit: focused, and at others: dispersed. They successfully built tension around Karasu’s libretto, ‘Not being able to go’, and his recurring motif; the search for Sazandere, by blurring the fragments of his fiction with their presence in the exhibition space and their intentions to gather and act.

Inhabiting this spectrum-of-togetherness, they engaged the audience to pay attention to the task at hand: here, performance is a method for them to activate their bodies, reflect on the residue (and changing context) of collective experience and its telling (history). A symbolic retelling and sharing was iterated materially throughout, probably best exemplified by the action of emptying their sand-filled shoes over and over again.

In the stillness of the audience my attention was spread between the six of them, amongst the material debris, the sand, sticks and rocks. And I saw others thoughtfully gazing alongside into the pot,  imagined-possibilities simmering (?) as one-then-another, then another, and another stirred the soup.

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