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Manchester lifestyle reviews

Life in the UK at Castlefield Gallery

Life in the UK / Balance of Probabilities

by Didem Ozbek and Osman Bozkurt of PiST, at Castlefield Gallery

Reviewed by Sara Porter and Emma Short October 2011


Sara Porter's view...

On first approaching the Castlefield Gallery for the press preview of Life in the UK/ Balance of Probabilities the first thing that struck me was how I hadn’t noticed in my previous visit the blinds in the windows of the gallery, but then it was an atypically sunny day and in a more usually overcast Manchester, they probably hadn’t been needed them last time I was there. As I got closer I realised that this was in fact the first part of Ozbek and Bozkurt’s multi-media exhibition.


Life in the UK/ Balance of Probabilities is a debut UK commission of the two Istanbul based artists exhibited at Castlefield Gallery as part of Asia Triennial Manchester 2011. The work is based upon experiences of visa applications and for this purpose the gallery has been converted into a replication of a temporary VISA application centre.


The installation starts with the exterior of the gallery and the aforementioned “blinds” which on closer inspection in fact contains a variety of failed VISA application stories which makes up the 'Moaning Wall'. When for many of us the closest we will get to a visa application is the ten minutes you are required to spend on the internet in order to get a visa to travel to the USA, it is easy to forget that the freedom to travel is often taken for granted. Ozbek has collected a variety of rejected application stories and spread them across the white strips across the gallery windows. The rejected applications cover applications for different destinations and failure for different reasons and it makes fascinating reading before entering the gallery.


Moaning Wall at Castlefield GalleryThe gallery entrance in keeping with the theme of the VISA application centre has been converted, with a new sign and you have to pass through a metal detector to enter (something I certainly did not have to do to access my laptop for my USA visa). On entering the upper gallery you are greeted by 'The Counters' - 5 counters which represent the counters you are required to approach when making your application. Here though, the journey is reversed as instead of being required to provide your reasons and justification for travel you are faced with five stories from officials that deal with VISA applications.


This video installation by Bozkurt is video footage of the actual officials and not actors and it gives an interesting insight into the approach from the other side of the desk, how they deal with the applications, the variety of assessment criteria for different countries and also the fact that running a VISA application centre is considered for profit making and not necessarily a service to facilitate the ease of travel from Turkey to other countries. Each of the counters has a different official discussing their responsibilities in the work that they do. Whilst headphones are available for audio, four of the five counters are subtitled if the headphones are already in use. It is worth taking the time to view/listen to each official as each provides a different insight into the processing of applications


Counters at Castlefield GalleryThe upper gallery housing this section of the exhibit has been kept very neutral and feels almost impersonal, lending itself perfectly to the actual feeling coming from dealing with the the huge numbers of visa applicants that must pass through the doors. As Bozkurt states it should be at its core - a service industry, yet those who seek custom from it are not guarenteed the privilege of customer satisfaction.


Unfortunately this was all I was able to view on my visit as the gallery was busy working to complete the installation for previews that evening. The following details of the remaining four exhibits have been taken from the gallery press release with further details provided by interviewing Lora Sariaslan.


On moving downstairs to the lower gallery you are met by “Dream Trip” which starts with the four different passport types issued in Turkey, meticulously created to represent Normal, Special, Diplomatic and Service passports. This section provides the gateway to the lower gallery and provides the impression of being given the permission to travel. On the lower gallery floor there is a selection of luggage and a map of the world that has been reduced to the areas to show the countries where populations can cross borders freely.


“Collection #2/11” is a series of collected passport photographs where the faces have been removed for use in passports. Based on the remains of the pictures the images have been categorised  on a typological analysis. “Life in the UK:Ian” is a short animated introduction to the British Citizenship test required by the Home Office. At this point visitors are encouraged to sit the exam to test their own knowledge and defragment their understanding of national identity. “Spaces of Uncertainty” is a series of photographs depicting interior shots of VISA consulate sections and VISA application centres. Shot as if for an interior design magazine they provide a minimalist view of what are essentially areas of life changing decisions.


The exhibition has obviously been strongly influenced by Ozbek’s and Bozkurt’s experiences of the difficulties of travel to and from their country. From the influence in the exterior design being based on the VISA application office near their PiST/// base in Istanbul to the difficulties faced by Ozbek in having to fly back to Istanbul to change her visa status during the 1990’s. It has an underlying awareness of how the decision making process has an economic basis.


For me personally what I saw of the exhibition and what I heard of the areas that I was unable to view, it works as more than a piece of art, it is an education, an insight into what so many of us take for granted, the freedom to travel at short notice. The exhibit will resonate with those of us who have required visas or work permits for abroad, often dealing with what can seem irrational bureaucracy, long waits, expense and frustration. Whilst as with so many pieces of art, it is a personal project, the interactive nature of the exhibition intaking you through a journey of VISA processing, it almost cries out a need to make people aware of the journeys that they have to make before even being allowed the privilege of foreign travel. A fascinating insight into how the freedom of travel is certainly not accessible to all and certainly an exhibit I look forward to seeing in it’s completed form. Many thanks goes to Lora Sariaslan to taking the time to talk me through the exhibit.


Emma Short's view...

Visa application rejectionsDidem Ozbek’s Moaning Diary greets me on arrival at Castlefield Gallery. The grey ribboned strips of words decorate the entirety of the windows. They are factual accounts of VISA application rejections and they come from far and wide. It allows one to step directly into the shoes of the narrators.


This is the first of the mixed media installation borne of Osman Bozkurt and Didem Ozbek’s collaboration alongside Lora Sariaslan (Curator), which has transformed Castlefield Gallery into a temporary VISA application centre. Using the same colours & technologies as those existing in various VISA application centres in Istanbul they provide an authentic experience for the public. Recreating the process for those who have never been through it. The installation looks at different restrictions and controls around the world in relation to movement across borders, migration and immigration. In the interactive section at the end people are invited to take a British Citizenship Test, if they wish.


After I enter through the security gate and collect a numbered ticket from the ticket point a set of stairs lead to up The Counters. This video instillation by Osman Bozkurt shows real life footage of 5 visa application workers on HD screens with headphones and subtitles. It turns around the role of what a VISA applicant would ordinarily experience - they would enter a building with documentation and speak to officials about personal information, circumstances and reasons for travel. Here lined in a row inside individual cubicles travel agents who work as mediators, civil servants and consulate workers answer questions to the camera instead. It brings a fascination insight not only into the levels of bureaucracy within the process but to the personal interpretation, implementation and opinion of the processors themselves.


After The Counter we leave the upper floor which concentrates on the human part of the bureaucratic process. On the stairs down to the next level a glass display cabinet holds four coloured passports. Didem has assigned to her passports distribution criteria mirroring that of the Turkish system which allows varying degrees of liberty regarding travel according to each passport. Each of Didem's passports inside is graded with incremental colour. The most restrictive one contains only black and white pages and the most privileged one is fully saturated in colour. The maroon one symbolises a 'Regular' Turkish passport which means any travel would require an additional VISA, it is in black and white. Didem creates her blue passport, the 'Service' passport, as a gift for places such as the galleries that have exhibited her works. The green one is a 'Special' passport, her art book, and representative of passports that allow travel visa-free to some countries, this one is for public sale. Finally the one with a black cover is the 'Diplomatic' passport which will be issued as a reference book by Didem to politicians and journalists.


Ticketed immigration exhibitionThis is one part of a mixed media Dream Trip installation that documents restrictions of borders. A large map in the form of a transparent sheet with milky white landmasses lies in view on the floor. It consists of developed countries where restrictions on border crossings do not exist; those countries that do have restrictions are omitted. This alongside the scattered suitcases that sit below posters of brightly alluring city and country landscapes complete the installation. Didem explains that this piece as a whole, including the contents of her passports, is based on an article by a PhD candidate concerning the problems of boarder control and the issuing of VISA's. It is also influenced by research she undertook whilst completing her Masters and the concept of Stephen Hawkins mirror image of planets, where a parallel universe would have Turkey in the West and Europe in the East and where the travel restrictions and liberty of travel would apply to each differently.


The Collection #2-11 by Osman is a piece done in 2008 for Manchester. It is a series of butterfly display cases containing the frames left from Turkish passport photos once the centre face has been cut out. These are the bits usually thrown away. The faceless borders of clothes and appendages; necklaces, shirts, ties and headscarves are sorted typologically to give small groupings of similarly coloured pink blouses with necklace / blue shirts / multicoloured jumpers in each case. Although one may ask the question 'What is the use of photo with no face?', in a counterintuitive manner I realise that more can be drawn from these faceless images than could be drawn from any picture of a face alone. Religious denomination, economic standing even political affiliation may be deduced, whereas a picture of just a face would give non of this.


On the wall next to the pictures is a small metal printing template. It is a mock up of a rejection letter received by those who are unsuccessful VISA applicants. I have been told by Lora that it doesn't matter what your bank account is nor how many properties you happen to have in a country. A no is a no when it comes to VISA applications, its like here she says, its a balance of probabilities. Didem's rejection letter template is titled Cliché \ 894363.


Different coloured passportsOsman's Spaces of Uncertainty is next along the wall, and it reveals places inside consulate buildings and application centres where decisions about applicants are made. Here borders are crossed through the lens that may never be crossed in person, allowing us to see spaces we wouldn't ordinarily see, evoking a sense of voyeurism into emptiness. The lower level of the gallery focuses on the space in which processes take place. After decisions and rejections are made in these spaces the walls are still standing and the security cameras are still watching as before. The structures are the same but lives may not be. For better or for worse the spaces remain indifferent.


Life in the UK: Ian is the final instalment by Didem. A large animation of a talking head runs through the fine detail involved in a Citizenship Test implemented by the British Home Office. It is an interactive classroom space of sorts where participation is voluntary for those in the exhibition but not for those who come here to settle for real. The inclusion of this piece shows the artists and curators attempt to keep the installation a democratic one without focussing too much on just one country. I'm reminded that Turkey implements VISA's on different countries, so it is a two sided game in that sense.


This installation challenges conventional ways of thinking and choices people take for granted. For some the thought of taking a year travelling may be as viable as choosing what shoes to wear tomorrow, whereas for others it may be a gruelling process of application with persistent challenges to movement across borders. It raises many questions not only about perception but of the economic and political reasons behind border controls. The balance of probabilities that affect people's applications is a vague concept. The Swiss consulate worker in Istanbul explains at The Counter that if it is economically favourable for business people to travel to Russia where they may invest and help the local economy, certain restrictions may be more lenient. We are also told that for some Turkish applicants inordinate amounts of money are requested during the process which makes the process itself a money making device.


The most poignant moment of my viewing which captures the essence of this installation was when Didem opened the green artists book passport and pointed to a multicoloured butterfly from Thailand. Thailand has been left off her map on the floor, yet in her book she includes the butterfly, begging the question; if this butterfly can fly to other countries without being restricted by borders, what is to be made of the process that restricts people, and upon what criteria is it justified?


Co-curated: Castlefield Gallery / Lora Sariaslan, from 1st October to 27th November 2011 at Castlefield Gallery, 2 Hewitt St, Manchester, M15 4GB. Opening Hours: Wed to Sun 1pm-6pm. Websites: Castlefield Gallery, PiST///, Manchester triennial 2011.

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