Here As The Centre Of The World

Here As The Centre Of The World

Here As The Centre Of The World

Here as the Centre of the World is a trans national artistic research project for young artists from Beirut (Lebanon), Damascus (Syria), Diyarbakir (Turkey), Enschede (The Netherlands), Khartoum (Sudan) and Taipei (Taiwan). An initiative of the Dutch Art Institute and the COMMON PROJECT Foundation in Enschede facilitated by Zico House in Beirut, the NIASD in Damascus, Anadolu Kultur in Diyarbakir, the Rachid Diab Arts Center in Khartoum and the National Taipei University of Education.

Chris Meighan in Diyarbakir,Turkey, March 2007

How do engage with a place with which you cannot place yourself in? This was the first difficult question which I found myself having to deal with upon arriving in Diyarbakir, alongside my colleagues from the Dutch Art Institute and other artists participating in the Here As The Centre Of The World programme. This programme, which has been running now for two years, brings artists from a diverse range of places together in an equally varied set of locations throughout the world in a spirit of experiment and collaboration.I am, along with many participants, more used to working in a studio environment and autonomously. The scenario which presented itself in Diyarbakir, namely a deeply co-operative, discussion-focussed, and street-based practise was at first quite alien.

That said, there was a very strong desire amongst all the participants to deal with these difficulties. The first few days of our ten-day trip were spent exploring the locations within the city with which we had been asked to engage, along with discussion and debate in groups about the issues which had been raised by this and the sort of work which we were minded to produce.

The group to which I myself belonged consisted also of artists from Turkey, the Netherlands, Sudan, and Taiwan, all of whom were also from quite different artistic backgrounds and at different stages in their artistic development. This ensured a rich variety of input into the process of reflection and discussion, although it also became quickly apparent that the type of responses which we wished to make to our environment were in fact remarkably consistent; that is to say, we came quickly to an agreement about how we should approach our environment, as shall be explained.

The site which we chose for our work was a former prison on the edge of the city, adjacent to the famous city walls (themselves the second largest of their kind after the Great Wall of China). This building, now lying empty, had also been the site of a base of the Turkish Army. There were plans afoot to transform it into a cultural centre at some point in the future, but for now it remained a haunting and barren place, very close to a densely populated area of the city and yet at the same time strangely cut off and foreboding.

Our initial discussions did not deal with what (if any) final work we would wish to produce, but rather which how we could and should deal with such an environment. I personally found this initially very difficult, both because I felt I had nothing in common with and nothing to offer such a place, and also because as an outsider I was acutely aware of the danger of making judgements and assumptions about a place and situation about which I was more or less entirely ignorant, save for the first impressions of these earliest days.We resolved that the most potentially fruitful and appropriate way of engaging with the site was to do something which might catalyse involvement by the local community. This we began by borrowing some wheelbarrows and shovels and beginning to clear away some of the rubble and dirt which surrounded the complex. Immediately however that we began to do this, we attracted a crowd of youngsters who were naturally curious about what we were doing and who were eager to join in. This quickly developed into a spontaneous though chaotic engagement, which although not what we had perhaps expected became an important turning point in our work, as it demonstrated very convincingly that making a personal and social connection with local people would be the source of much inspiration and would have the most potential to lead towards successful work.

The next day we followed up this experiment by using some of these stones and rubble to construct a scale model of the city's walls within the centre of the prison courtyard. This action, again without a clearly defined endpoint, proved once again to be powerfully catalytic. There soon formed a steady series of curious visitors, especially children, who were quickly able to make themselves at home in the mini-Diyarbakir we had built. A few old men began to offer up tales of their experiences as both inmates of (seemingly a common phenomenon in this locale) and as workers at the former prison. These were given without prompting and were both forthright and earnest. I must say that from my own perspective, this action and its consequences made me feel for the first time less of a passively observing outsider and more that I was making a positive engagement with the site and with the people for whom it was important.

The remainder of our time was spent building upon and developing the potential demonstrated by these early interventions. The nature of the way we were working as a relatively large group with many different background and ideas meant that we felt it better to produce several complimentary pieces of work in place of one monolithic end piece, and so by the end of the ten days we had built up a rich and comprehensive documentation of our activities and experiences. These we were invited to show in a gallery presentation during our final evening in the city, itself a satisfying although also somewhat incongruous experience. In many respects this type of presentation was something I would normally associate with the formalised context of art production in Europe; this was quite a contrast to our very hands-on involvement during the making of the work. This is not to say that it was not a valuable exercise, most importantly as a chance to reflect upon and summarise what had been experienced, developed and produced.

Looking back now after several weeks I can view our ten days in Diyarbakir as an extremely intense, sometimes difficult, but also very enjoyable and awakening experience. I felt that we had, in the context of a genuine and fruitful collaboration between artists from many backgrounds and cultures, produced work about which we could feel very pleased. Further to this, we had managed to do so in a way which did not take the perhaps easier route of making an independent reaction to the environment in which we found ourselves, but instead made an honest and productive engagement with the people of that locality. For this opportunity I am extremely grateful.

Chris Meighan

Diyarbakir, Turkey , 13th - 23rd March 2007