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Discussion with Burak Arikan about “Networks of Dispossession”

Berin Gölönü »

The collectively produced project Networks of Dispossession (“Mülksüzleştirme Ağları”) formed during the initial days of the Gezi Park resistance in June 2013. New media artist Burak Arıkan who had joined the sit-in within Gezi Park, organized a “mapping dispossession workshop.” The workshop endeavored to map the relations between the Turkish state and the owners and bankrollers of the mega construction projects transforming the urban makeup of Istanbul. A collective grew out of the workshop, including Yaşar Adanalı, Ayça Aldatmaz, Esra Gürakar, Özgül Şen, Zeyno Üstün and Özlem Zıngıl. They work in a grass roots manner with other anonymous collaborators to collect research pertaining to the power relations driving flows of capital in Turkey. They then place the pertinent information into an interactive, online Graph Commons “network mapping” platform.

The maps show corporate entities, government organizations and media channels as nodes linked with one another through their investments and contracts in the most highly contested construction projects in Turkey. They also include information on non-Muslim minorities and foundations dispossessed of their lands since the formation of the Turkish Republic. The first three maps comprising “Networks of Dispossession” were on display in the Istanbul Biennial in September 2013. Concurrently unveiled online, 50,000 visitors accessed the maps the day that they went live. Open Systems met with Burak Arıkan to discuss the growth and future of the project, including a major update of their research database, and new interface features.

Open Systems(OS): The original structure of the project was organized around three maps. Now it includes nine maps. How has it grown?

Burak Arıkan (BA): The first version of the project, unveiled in September 2013, includes three original overarching maps. We recently unveiled Version II, which contains information on 393 construction projects, 433 corporations and 45 governmental institutions, along with thousands of connections between actors of dispossession. The large maps contain a lot of information about government and private sector partnerships. We thought this might be too much information for a visitor to process in one glance. So we pulled out smaller, tighter narratives from each of the overarching maps. These selected sub-maps narrate specific relationships, between say, TOKI buildings (government sponsored, mixed income housing high-rises) and their contracts with private building companies. Using this sub-map selection mechanism, anyone who visits these maps can capture their own narratives about these relationships and publish their own stories about these excerpts.

OS: Can you give an example of someone who has gone into the data and posted their own map?

BA: Yes, these narratives echo contemporary events. For example, right after the Soma coal mining disaster in May 2014, when 301 coal miners died due to unsafe working conditions within the mine, someone made a map of the board members of the mining company, and their connections. A more recent case was Kolin Holding’s illegal occupation of the land owned by Manisa’s Yirca Village and destruction of 6,000 olive trees in order to build yet another power plant. Right after the event, people stormed to the online maps, found Kolin Holding and its other contracts with the government, selected and shared them everywhere. It went viral on social media. When users hear of a new catastrophe such as the death of a construction worker, they immediately use these maps to highlight the perpetrators of the crime—such as the owners of construction companies responsible for the unsafe working conditions of those laborers.

OS: So a repetitive pattern might emerge, where the user can see that the same companies (or their partners) responsible for these labor murders in the past are responsible for the continual reoccurrence of these crimes?

BA: Yes, with the recent update it became more useful for people to spot and point to any of those perpetrators quickly. Our goal is to generate a resource that people can tap into when they need it, one that can contribute to public knowledge about contemporary issues. In another example, when the corruption case against the AKP leadership erupted in December 2013, there was a lot of traffic on the website. All of the names mentioned in the corruption case, such as the Cengiz Holding Company, are included in these maps.

OS: What are these companies’ relationships with the government?

BA: The corporations who get big construction and energy contracts from the government are also the holders of mainstream media companies. In exchange for these contracts, they publish what the government wants them to write. The partnerships that are established through legal concessions between media oligarchs and the governmental institutions render mainstream media a mere marketing tool and keep the public uninformed about processes that dispossess us of our air, our water, our soil and our public spaces.

OS: There are a lot of reporters who have been put out of work in the past year and half for writing articles sympathizing with the Gezi resistance. Have you collaborated with any journalists to collect some of your data?

BA: Our collective work group includes journalists, lawyers, sociologists, artists, and technologists. Lawyers bring an understanding of the judicial system, journalists bring in the voice with which to communicate this data to the public, academics bring in a scientific clarity, technologists and artists such as myself develop and design the platform and bring the work together. From the very beginning we have made the project open to any and everyone who wanted to participate. We even had government agents who wanted to work with us so they could spy on what we were doing.

One very positive development is that independent media channels within Turkey have started using our maps as a resource for their reporting.

OS: Can you talk about your process of working? I know you hold public workshops to share your system of working and to invite collaboration.

BA: We have a hybrid work process. We meet physically when we can and regularly chat online, do video meetings, work on shared data sheets, and map the networks using the Graph Commons online collaborative mapping platform that I have been developing since 2010. We do workshops and occasionally come together over dinner parties, adding a social element to our collective work. People also participate by sending us data over email. In project-to-project collaborations, we exchange data with groups like Diren Çevre (“Environmental Resistance”), a political ecology group based out of Boğaziçi University; they make maps charting ecological corruption across Turkey. We’ve also collaborated and shared data with groups such as Bir Umut Derneği (“Hope Association”) and Işçi Güvenliği (“Worker Safety”) who monitor labor crimes in Turkey. Through these collaborations we’ve added information on workers who were killed over the course of big construction projects such as the new Marmaray high-speed metro line traversing the Bosphorus.

“Networks of Dispossession” is really a solidarity of different projects and public defense groups. This spirit of solidarity is also what sparked the Gezi resistance—individuals working on very specific goals came together with others who were busying themselves with likeminded projects to build a larger political resistance.

OS: It’s difficult to make decisions when you work in a collective manner. How do decisions get made? For example, how did you decide upon the narratives highlighted in the sub-maps?

BA: Clearly, making decisions together and motivating each other for voluntary work are the most challenging issues of any collective work. By agreeing on some core principles, we make decisions faster. Motivations come from each individual’s excitement and commitment to our cause.

We follow a spiral research methodology, which involves starting with knowledge gathered from your own surroundings and expanding from there. In the first workshop on June 6, 2013, we were at Gezi Park and we started mapping the construction companies contracted to illegally build upon that site, followed by the restoration of the neighboring Ataturk Cultural Center in Taksim Square, and the redesign of Taksim Square (dubbed the “Taksim Pedestrianization Project”). Then our research spread to the gentrification of the adjacent Tarlabaşı district. The Gap Construction Company, owned by Çalık Holding, is undertaking the urban renewal of the Tarlabaşı neighborhood. When we started to ask, “which other construction contracts has Çalık received from the government?” we realized that they run energy companies in other parts of Turkey too. Our methodology started expanding geographically, but when we tracked the relationships of the contracts, our research quickly spread across Turkey.

OS: You have mapped out an invasion of the country.

BA: Companies like Doğus Holding and Doğan Holding who own the mainstream media channels, are also partnering to construct and run Hydro-Electric Power Plants (HEPPs) all over Turkey. These plants are tapping into all of Turkey’s rivers and streams to extract energy, and denying local rural populations access to these water sources. People who are experts on these topics can easily make these connections, but it might be harder for the general public to draw these links. Farmers near the city of Trabzon, for example, might be protesting the building of a HEPP on their local stream, but it might not be apparent that the company building that HEPP also owns the newspaper that you read everyday. Needless to say, his protest doesn’t get reported in their media outlets.

OS: There is one section of the map that deals with dispossessed entities and they are mostly non-Muslim minorities in Turkey. The lands belonging to these minorities were expropriated by the Turkish State in the early 20th century. What is the significance of this history today?

BA: These dispossessed non-Muslim minorities include Armenians, Greeks, Bulgarians, and Jews. Although there is never enough information about their dispossession in the public sphere, the Hrant Dink Foundation in Istanbul conducted research on Armenian properties in Istanbul that were seized by the government. This expulsion and subsequent expropriation occurred several times in the Turkish Republic’s history, first after the formation of the Republic in 1923, then after a tax law penalizing non-Muslim Turks in 1942, and also during the anti-Greek pogroms of September 1955. We started with the Hrant Dink foundation research data, showing properties previously owned by Armenian foundations that were expropriated by the Turkish government. Then, we expanded the research to properties of other non-Muslim minorities that were confiscated and indicated which government organizations own these properties now.

OS: Is the government using or selling these properties for its own profit?

BA: Much of the properties are being rented out for profit by the municipality of Istanbul or by other municipalities. For example, they operate a parking lot on a former Armenian cemetery, or have turned the building of a former school into a shopping mall. The treasury of the central government pockets the rental money from those properties. Take the big new shopping malls in Beyoğlu that are constructed inside historic Greek buildings dating from the 19th century—their construction is always contracted out to companies who support the AKP. We wanted to make these links between the land grab that is happening today and the land grab that occurred in the Turkish Republic’s history, and we wanted to reference every single person, organization, and address implicated in this relationship, to allow users to make these connections.

OS: Tell me about the aesthetic choices you make in designing the maps.

BA: The action itself is an aesthetic choice. The data we choose to map, and the questions we raise are decisions that determine the aesthetic outcome. The mapping methodology is quite interesting because it allows us to interconnect separate fragments of information to visualize the larger picture. The network map is a self-organizing software simulation, where the names naturally find their position on the canvas through connecting forces, revealing the central actors, indirect links, organic clusters, structural holes, and outliers.

We hope the Graph Commons platform would enable people to trace the transfer of power in other fields that matter to them and to their community—relationships in the education sector for example, or the healthcare industry. We’ve already started seeing this happening in Brazil, where activist communities are mapping the relations between extraction companies in the Amazon and their support of political parties.

We don’t think that any one entity is responsible for the consolidation of power; it’s a network of relationships between government institutions and private companies. These maps could help us better strategize, so we can start to undo this concentration of power.

Short bio:

Burak Arıkan is an artist based in New York and Istanbul. He explores complex networks through maps and algorithmic interfaces. His software, prints, installations, and performances have been featured in numerous exhibitions internationally. Arikan is the founder of the Graph Commons collaborative “network mapping” platform.

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