Burak Arıkan is a busy guy. When we met in Istanbul two months ago to discuss his work, he had recently returned to the city from a net art conference in Sao Paulo, Brazil, was preparing to leave for a human rights conference in Senegal the next day, and already had upcoming trips to China and Mongolia scheduled. In addition to his own art practice, which explores the aesthetics of data and networks as a creative medium, Arıkan conducts workshops, teaching students both how to conceptualize their own visual networks and to use the complex programs that render those networks visible, and is also active with various human rights organizations in Turkey. Most recently, he has been busy preparing new work for the Hüseyin Alptekin retrospective that will serve as the inaugural exhibition at SALT, opening on April 9th, that uses his visual mapping technique to explore aspects of Alptekin’s work and biography.
Arıkan’s work takes many forms and extends all the way down from the final, exhibited objects–digital prints, videos–to the hand-crafted electronics and complex software programs that generate those objects. For nearly seven years, his primary project been capturing and making visible the social, political, and economic networks in which all people are embedded and which provide the basic infrastructure of human society. Sometimes the subject of these works are specific communities, such as 2010’s “Antakya Bienniel Artists Network,” which, by mapping the dynamics between individual artists participating in that exhibitions–who had exhibited in the past with whom, how many exhibitions they had participated in over the course of their careers–created a portrait of both that event and the Turkish contemporary art community generally.
Other times the subject is the behavior of a single individual, demonstrating the consequences of hundreds of every day actions and activities, such as 2008’s “MYPOCKET” project, which meticulously traced all of Arıkan’s expenditures over the course of many months and then used an algorithm to predict future spending habits. That Arıkan was able to turn a project that sounds more like a scheme hatched by a credit card executive than an artist into a series of installations and works included in exhibitions in New York, Berlin, Stuttgart, Valencia, and Istanbul testifies to his ability to think flexibly about art’s relationship to commercial activities and economic relationships.
Arıkan began working with computers at a young age. Disappointed that the first computer his father brought home didn’t have any games, he set about learning how to program his own. Eventually more computer games became available, but he soon grew bored with gaming and moved on to other pursuits. But in the mid-1990s, when the Internet became increasingly available in Turkey, Arıkan once again became captivated by computer technology. While at first he and his friends were primarily interested in using the Internet to download guitar tab (the visual guides guitarists use to learn songs’ chord progressions), he quickly became fascinated by the independence from the constraints of place and geographical location which that technology enabled. “The Internet was a very liberating thing for me,” he explains, “and I felt that [sense of liberation]. So I put almost all my efforts into learning about it.”
He learned HTML and started building his own websites. This period of discovery and exploration coincided with Arıkan’s undergraduate work in civil engineering, a topic for which he did not have much enthusiasm, feeling the field to be “archaic,” in large part due to its failure to embrace computerized technology. Increasingly interested in the intersection of technology, politics, and cultural production, he decided to pursue a master’s in visual communication at Bilgi University in Istanbul, which he describes as having “changed my life completely” by opening him up to the world of art history and theory. After completing his degree at Bilgi, he began a second master’s program, in Media Arts and Sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Laboratory. Working in MIT’s Physical Language Workshop, led by John Maeda, Arıkan began to explore the aesthetic and conceptual possibilities of networks and networking technology in depth. For example, in the 2005 project Micro Fashion Network: Color, Arıkan and a partner used a camera and custom-designed software program to record and process the colors worn by passersby over a period of time. The accumulated data was then represented using three different methods: as human figures, as abstract boxes, and as a complex network of colors.
When the American economy tanked in 2008 and hundreds of thousands of people lost their jobs, the rallying cry of hiring experts brought in by news programs and magazines to advise the panicking, unemployed masses was “harness the power of your network.” In today’s world of e-commerce and viral marketing, networks seem to be worth their weight in gold. But what is the power of a network? And what happens to that power when it’s made visible, its ethereal qualities pinned down like insect specimens and its routes mapped out for all to see?
These are the kinds of questions posed by works such as Ergenekon.tc (2009). For this project, Arıkan created a program that culled information about an alleged extra-military, ultranationalist terrorist group called Ergenekon from the 2,455 page bill of indictment claiming that the group colluded with government and military officials to discredit the Justice and Development (AKP) party and strengthen the political position of secular politicians and their allies in the Turkish military. Arıkan’s program did what no human could do: it read the entire document and filtered the information it contained, specifically pulling out nouns and then connecting them based on their distance from each other within the text. He then used a second program to draw on this data to generate visual networks of individuals named in the bill of indictment, which he exhibited at Delüks, an exhibition space in Istanbul. In addition to the maps, he also wallpapered the gallery walls with pages from the massive, impenetrable document itself. Viewers were then encouraged to draw on and embellish the pages at will, inserting their own interpretations of the issue at hand into the exhibition.
In addition to his contributions to the upcoming show at SALT, Arıkan is currently working on making the programs he uses to generate his visual networks online so that anyone can use them. Through his teaching and workshop activities, he is already actively engaged with making these tools available to a wider public, but once online he will be free to move on to other projects. Given Arıkan’s clear insight into the social dynamics of Turkish society and human relations generally, it will undoubtedly be exciting to see where his attention focuses next.