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Turkey

Gunduz: 'First the people need to be free'

Independent artists in Turkey have come under renewed pressure from Prime Minister Erdogan. DW talks with dancer Erdem Gunduz - the "standing man" from Taksim Square - and actor Baris Atay about the current situation.

Despite a corruption scandal and a weakening economy, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) emerged as the clear winner of the local elections at the end of March 2014. His victory has implications for independent artists in Turkey. They're coming under increasing pressure, and the country's contemporary culture scene is being stifled by further restrictions. DW met with internationally acclaimed dancer Erdem Gunduz and actor Baris Atay in Istanbul.

Erdem Gunduz, dancer and choreographer

DW: You became known worldwide as the "standing man" during the protests against the Gezi Park development in Istanbul in June 2013. You stood motionless for hours in Taksim Square. What gave you the idea to use this form of protest?

Erdem Gunduz: I actually didn't think about it too much. It was very spur of the moment. It wasn't intended to be a new form of protest, it was about finding a new meaning.

Dancers usually use movement and their body for expression. So when a dancer doesn't move it's quite a striking gesture. What were you trying to express?

Dancers express themselves with dance and movement. But what is the definition of dance? If we think about it, standing still can also be considered an extremely slow kind of movement. It's almost invisible. So what is dance really? Do you define dance as something done with beautiful long legs? Who can say what art is? Dance, or art, is something that emerges from the people.

Erdem Gunduz standing in Taksim Square

Erdem Gunduz, dubbed the "standing man," made headlines around the world in June 2013

What is the situation for dancers in Turkey at the moment? How has the situation changed in the past couple of years?

The government has adopted a very negative stance in its general policy on art and culture. Theaters have been shut down, cinemas have been closed. But we'll still try and carry on with our art.

What kind of art is now being promoted?

The only thing this government is interested in is Seljuk architecture and the Ottoman culture. You only get support if you want to make religious Ottoman art.

How important is artistic freedom to you?

First the people need to be free. They must be able to express themselves freely. Only then can you really talk about independent art. In Turkey it's almost forbidden to speak about freedom. It's seen as taboo. But if we don't look after our trees, water, earth, natural resources - if we don't pay attention to any of these things because of a neoliberal system, then how can we talk about freedom?

Baris Atay, actor

DW: You are a well known performer and television actor in Turkey, and you've also been active in the protest movement there. In the summer of 2013 you protested against the Gezi Park development. Then in December you were arrested and detained for three days. Why?

Baris Atay: They accused me of being the spokesman for the hacking group, "Red Hack." I shared a picture about it on Twitter and they just assumed I was involved. Of course it had nothing to do with reality, and they didn't have any evidence. Perhaps it was just because I shared my opinion publically, or maybe they wanted to test public opinion. There was a very strong response after my arrest, they didn't expect that. So they were forced to back off.

What experiences have you had with censorship?

I've been an actor for 11 years, and there has always been pressure. But ever since the Gezi protests, that pressure has been increasing. It's become much worse in the last three years. It began with the demolition of the Emek Cinema, and it's only gotten worse since then. The Ataturk Cultural Center was closed some time ago, and various other places where one can perform have also been shut down. Subsidies for private theaters were cut. So these are the kinds of obstacles we are up against.

Baris Atay

Atay: 'We can only be truly free when everyone is free'

What restrictions could you expect to face if you ran an independent theater?

It's getting more and more difficult to do theater pieces in Turkey. Now the scripts have to be checked against the government's moral criteria. That makes our work very hard.

How important are artists for democratic movements?

Art is a driving force. But television plays a bigger role in Turkey. If TV actors, who are usually inaccessible, suddenly start protesting with citizens on the street, that gives the people a lot of strength. They see that both sides really aren't that different from each other. If I protest in the streets, I do it not just as an actor, but as a fellow citizen. When you talk about a social movement, it's like that, you motivate each other and share energy.

If you wanted to create a vision of a future Turkey, what would it look like?

You have to look at it from a broader perspective than just Turkey. I don't define my dreams by the country in which I live in. I don't dream of individual freedom, but of global freedom. This idea of individual freedom has become the greatest obstacle to social freedom, especially since the industrial age. Of course personal freedoms are important, but deep cracks emerge in societies that aren't free, and where only certain individuals are allowed to be free. If individual freedom is so important in this world, people need to realize that we can only be truly free when everyone is free. They shouldn't lose sight of that.

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