What Moves Artists? Mapping Vienna through the Moving Images of Nilbar Güreş
This is part of our special feature on European Culture and the Moving Image.
The first section of Nilbar Güreş’s video Stranger (Yabancı, 2004-2006), titled “Person of Cloth” (fig. 1), documents a woman on the Vienna subway covered in blue and red floral cloth that wraps her body completely with a traditional Turkish black scarf (yazma) on her head. The camera shows Güreş, the protagonist, in the subway wagon sitting cross-legged on the seat. The only one who pays attention to her is a boy, who cannot stop watching her and at times also looks at the camera in action. Some passengers stare but most ignore her, and as the announcement for the next stop is made in German, this “person of cloth” remains unperturbed and undaunted. Even the couple sitting across from Güreş does not “see,” face, or engage with her. In other words, they are choosing not to look thus opting to not recognize the stranger.
Nilbar Güreş lives and works in Vienna and Istanbul. With a background in painting, she moved in 2000 from Istanbul to Vienna at twenty-three years old to further study art and textile pedagogy at the University of Applied Arts Vienna, where she made her first video Stranger. In Austria, her work increasingly became informed by the treatment of otherness and discrimination, through experiences of coming from Turkey. She recently noted in an interview that “it was ‘very hard’ at the beginning…Vienna was different back then: less open, less diverse than it is today.” Based on cultural observations her body of work deals with social injustices along with (imposed) cultural identity codes and strangeness.
The location of the video amplifies the strangeness of Stranger. The spatial trajectory of the subway is a mundane site of social encounters across class and ethnicity, where individuals remain unknown to each other while the potential for chance meetings exists. John Urry builds on what Erving Goffman terms the “civil inattention” in discussing the possibility of “micro-spaces” and the tactics of social distance used to avoid them. In the video, we notice the general interactional issues of public encounters: bodily navigation, contact avoidance, and pretending preoccupation through which bodies in the same space avoid interaction. Stefan Hirschauer focuses on the elevator as a site that these take place, however, this can also be applied to public transport, and specifically, in our case, to the subway. Hirschauer writes:
Strangeness is not only something passively experienced, it is also practically accomplished by people treating each other as strangers or like strangers… strangeness is revealed to be an accomplishment of enacting indifference.
It is the neglected materiality of communication and indifference that Güreş encapsulates sitting in the subway covered in textiles.
In another instance, Güreş is perched in the seat next to a black man who—unlike her—is facing the camera from time to time. This random-seeming scene is due to the artist inventively seizing an opportunity related to a topic close to her heart. In the interview conducted with the artist by the author of this text, she disclosed previously unpublished information, in which she explained that racism (of what she mentions as Austrian racism and discrimination) was at the heart of this scene. The interview unveiled the fact that her graduation project from the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna was an installation focusing on the then recently murdered Marcus Omofuma (1973-1999), the Nigerian asylum seeker in Austria, who had died due to police brutality while being deported on a flight. His death became a symbol of anti-racist movements in Austria.
Güreş’s work, in this regard, encompasses multiple strangers within—the refugee, the migrant, the other, the Turk. The mobility that is on view, no matter how mundane it might be, makes us think of “other” identities in Europe. Strangeraddresses ongoing discrimination, the self-image of the excluded, and how this distorted perception of the self contributes to a deepened sense of not belonging, of estrangement, and of being a stranger. Sara Ahmed discusses the phenomenon of the stranger as, “not simply the one whom we have not yet encountered, but the one whom we have already encountered, or already faced,” adding that, “we recognize somebody as a stranger, rather than simply failing to recognize them.”Güreş knows that we do recognize the stranger. Her work is both autobiographical and corporeal, for it involves not only personal encounters but also her body. She creates a covered “face-less other” in willful passage or transit while becoming a seated presence on public transport pervaded by an everyday culture that is shaped by anxious politics of encounters with the Other. Jill Bennett writes that in the train/subway compartment “there is an unavoidable encounter with the strangeness and difference of others, however temporary this encounter may be” and Güreş’s video magnifies this tactically.
Her video presents further entanglements with sociopolitical contexts such as how identities are positioned and mapped in a tactical and also resistant manner recalling the work of Michel de Certeau. One of the most important reflections on the subject of urban movement and walking comes from his seminal book The Practice of Everyday Life. Mobility is important for de Certeau, who distinguishes between the “strategies” of the powerful, who have their own place from which they can classify and territorialize, and “tactics” of ordinary people, who move playfully in and around places, using and transgressing them. According to him, “the place of a tactic belongs to the other.” Those outside institutionalized power exercise tactics to perhaps “poke” the established authorities. Hence, the art in focus becomes a critical activity, primarily in that it is made up of spatial performances but also in terms of the specific ideas and emotions that it expresses.
Working through visual metaphors, Güreş deals in her work with certain socio-political issues stemming from current identity politics that “touch” her skin. Her work has the authority of experience. The artist-as-ethnographer translates the experience of the Other or the stranger to us, the viewer. The video thus can be seen not only as a critical activity but also a critical voice that expresses current cultural and social developments as well as the artist’s role in society by taking the subway as a microcosm of Europe making us think of an alternative European identity.
Stranger creates an embodied and gendered map of Vienna, in opposition to the traditional map, which is a disembodied visual representation. Through the moving images, the work underlines the personal and collective characteristics of Güreş’s social encounters in public space, namely the street and public transport. What we encounter through her video is a mapping of Europe and its others who are seen and made to see themselves as different on account of their culture (or “strange”) roots or looks. Güreş approaches Othering—in this specific case, of women—by using and linking the materiality of the (female) body and textile. By not exposing her skin, she exposes the central role of borders (both physical as well as psychological) in the geopolitical and cultural transformation of Europe. Her “strange” body becomes the facilitator to problematize the European corpus covered and wrapped in textile as well enclosed in the underground vessel. Each body unfolds a mapping in itself, producing or evincing a new subjectivity, an assemblage of intersections and encounters in relation to another body. Those corporeal encounters sketch a wider cartography, a bordered, fragmented, covered European corpus.
Güreş’s body is an exemplary counter-geography, a mapping against the dominant power structures. In her work, a double space—the city of Vienna, on the one hand, and the physical female body, on the other—is mapped by bodies. Güreş embodies feminist scholar Donna Haraway’s view of bodies “as maps of power and identity.” Through the sheer act of walking or using the subway, she is mapping with her body the social realities in urban space and stressing the potentiality of a quotidian moment while highlighting identities and the in/visible power structures that are complicit in “not” seeing or Othering.
Traversing the borders between cultures, identities, and languages, Güreş questions the eye of the beholder—whether a pedestrian on the street or the viewer encountering the work of art. The moving body on view in public space helps unfold topics such as migration, otherness, and identity politics in Europe. Güreş observes, captures, and documents the urban space of Vienna on the move through the overall association with the journey across borders—of a body, city, or nation.Movement in all its forms are present in this work: the movement depicted, the movement of bodies, the movement within cities, the movement of the moving image, the moving quality of the work, and lastly what moves the artist and us as viewers.
Combining direct insight from the artist through personal interviews along with a discussion of walking as a spatial practice helps to focus on the role of public transport and corporeal encounters that take place in urban environments, highlighting how spaces such as the street or the Viennese U-Bahn, where Güreş locates her work, are endlessly reenacted through social encounters and daily practices. Her video presents both a vertical and a horizontal city experienced through different mobilities: walking and riding through the city as a subway passenger. Drawing inspiration from urban spaces and experiences, her work unlocks new readings of artistic practices that speak to the politics of mobility and belonging bearing upon the politics of invisibility and how it is negotiated and rendered in quotidian urban interactions.
Documenting Nilbar Güreş in different guises in Vienna, Stranger is composed of four segments (Person of Cloth, Mirror, Turk-Head, Stairs). The focus here is on its three segments that map the city differently through the artist’s mobility. Güreş’s transversal praxis is of interest with her ways of partially inhabiting, moving across, performing, and ultimately mapping the city—the arena that connects otherwise unrelated bodies on the move.
“Turk-Head” (fig. 2) is the third segment of Stranger and derives its name from the German Türkenkopf. The title originates from a conversation Güreş overheard on the subway, where two men were discussing someone “with a large head, a Türkenkopf.” We see a woman (Güreş), covered in layers of textile with her eyes concealed in the video. She emerges from the underground station onto the bustling pedestrianized shopping area of Mariahilferstrasse, entering the texture and flow of Vienna.
Güreş is both a subject inviting the gaze and entitled to walking among the pedestrians on the sidewalk—a complex site of social exchange. The viewers follow her steps, who might suspect or even expect her to run into someone or something on the streets teeming with shoppers since the artist is practically blind, however, she successfully manages to walk through the crowd. The sounds of the street inhabit the video as they envelop her. The audience of the video becomes silent witnesses to what Güreş encounters. A female passer-by comments in the video, “Can this even see?” A man exclaims, “Oh, baby! Look at this.” Taking place in Vienna, these comments are surprisingly not in German but in Turkish. This audio-visuality contributes to the idea of (re)mapping Europe. Hearing Turkish rather than German on the streets of Vienna suggests the possibility of an alternative cartography within and of Europe. Güreş’s visual language is indirect, yet it deftly adopts humor and a dose of the absurd to make its point. The video not only documents Güreş walking on the streets of Vienna as a Turk-head but also enables a (humorous) closer reading of how encounters and interactions in urban public space take place or under which social circumstances one experiences inclusion or exclusion.
Figure 3. “Stairs” from Stranger (2004-2006), Video, sound, 13’20’’, Courtesy of the artist and Galerist
The final fragment of Stranger titled “Stairs” (fig. 3) shows the artist going down an escalator in the Vienna subway to enter the subway wagon, a typical example of “mundane mobility.” This everyday repetition of movement is what urban studies scholar Jekaterina Lavrinec describes as a “routine choreography.” However, Güreş raises the stakes of this mundane choreography and turns it into a performance by holding an egg on a spoon in her mouth as she goes down the escalator, patiently waits for the next subway to arrive, and then enters the wagon with other passengers. Her gesture is a re-enactment of a children’s game—the egg-and-spoon race—requiring concentration and balance; its public performance by a woman here underlines the disciplining of her body as she navigates the cityscape both horizontally and vertically. Transcending the perpetual everydayness, this familiarity with forms of transport also produces an embodied and embedded sense of place. Akin to the “Turk-Head,” the presence of this game and its use of space draws the viewer and other passengers in to (or not) notice a performance of self in space. In addition, it is a performance of defiance. Güreş can be seen as withstanding through her composure and discipline as she is holding an egg on a spoon. She is insisting that no matter what, as a “stranger” she is able to take part and be present in public life connecting the bodies as mapping and the earlier discussion of de Certeau’s theory of “tactics” of engagement with space.
An elementary and quotidian mode of experiencing the world, walking often escapes notice, in life as well as in art. What makes it ordinary yet endlessly fertile is that walking is simultaneously a means and an end. Whether explorer, flâneur, migrant, resident, or tourist, the urban walker observes in a tactile manner with all the senses involved.
Walking has received growing visibility in cultural, geographical, mobility, and social studies as well as in artistic practices of our times. When artists walk, they encourage the viewer to see the extraordinary in the mundane, allowing one to experience the city as they present it—enabling a potential mapping of it. Mapping builds on the connection between cartography and the imagination, understood as “an active engagement that seeks to give form and meaning to an elusive and largely imaginary space,” as cultural geographer Denis E. Cosgrove writes. This is precisely why mappings’ imaginative and projective potential has become so present. J. B. Harley argues for a reading of maps as texts that embody cultural meanings and metaphors. According to him, maps are more than simple spatial representations but performative practices that are always in becoming. Needless to say, the old-fashioned flat paper map has been transformed in the information age, as maps have become digital objects, updated with ever-increasing frequency adding more layers to their performativity.
Walking for Güreş, as for many artists, is a means of mobilizing art beyond specialized artistic containers and allows queries about art’s creation and reception. Finding inspiration in the everyday urban, Güreş follows in the steps of early twentieth century avant-gardes, notably the Dadaists and Surrealists, as well as conceptual, performance, and land artists including the Situationists since the 1960s. Although partly indebted to earlier Surrealist experiments in space, the Situationists were critical of the Surrealists’ reliance on chance and the pursuit of the strange and uncanny for its own sake. The group understood cities as key terrains of everyday practice, conflict, and political struggle. Güreş’s practice of using space and her body in the urban can be regarded as its twenty-first-century extension.
(In lieu of a) Conclusion: (Moving) Bodies as Maps
By using video, Nilbar Güreş articulates and frames its most significant characteristic as a moving medium, in the triple sense—the moving image, the movement or mobility of the people, and the emotionally moving quality of the interaction, or in this case, lack thereof. It also enables the viewer to move, to travel to the moment that is documented as she uses video, which is also the medium of (our) time—of time traveled, edited, offered, and layered. The layered effect renders this video symptomatic of the urban experience—simultaneously lived, negotiated, and documented. The textures of socio-spatial environments and urban life are on view where the audience is invited to become not only viewers but also travelers and cartographers, navigating the city. The boundary between the viewer and the work emerges as a space of negotiation where the audience is invited to think or walk alongside the artist and evaluate one’s own stereotypes and map it. The video thus becomes a portrait of the artist that “folds” or includes numerous aspects and subjects in it. Güreş is concerned with inserting stories into places and putting ideas into motion, without physically adding to them as present in the effervescent nature of her videos. The unsettled and unsettling nature of the videos, their resistance to being pinned down, can and does open spaces for different ways of seeing. Their avoidance of high-end production value, low resolution, and emphasis on the clandestine and random, and even, at times, illegality speaks volumes of the stranger—a presence that questions our present.
Lora Sariaslan is an art historian, curator, and lecturer at the University of Amsterdam. Her focus is on modern and contemporary art, maps and mapping, cities, migration, and their intersection.
 Katharina Rustler, “Künstlerin Nilbar Güreş: Wiener Stoff und Airbags in Perchtoldsdorf,” Der Standard, June 15, 2021, https://www.derstandard.at/story/2000127433132/kuenstlerin-nilbar-gueres-wiener-stoff-und-airbags-in-perchtoldsdorf
 Erving Goffman, Relations in Public: Microstudies of the Public Order (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1971), 322; John Urry, Mobilities (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2007), 75.
 Stefan Hirschauer, “On Doing Being a Stranger: The Practical Constitution of Civil Inattention,” Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour 35, no.1 (2005), 58.
 Hirschauer, “On Doing Being a Stranger,” 59.
 Author interview with the artist, 27 July 2020.
 Sara Ahmed, Strange Encounters: Embodied Others in Post-Coloniality (London: Routledge, 2000), 21.
 Jill Bennett, “Migratory Aesthetics: Art and politics beyond identity,” in Art and Visibility in Migratory Culture: Conflict, Resistance, and Agency, ed. Mieke Bal and Miguel Á Hernández-Navarro (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2011), 469.
 Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven Rendall (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984).
 Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven Rendall (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), 34-39.
 De Certeau 1984, xix.
 Donna Haraway, Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (New York: Routledge, 1991), 180.
 Author interview with the artist, 27 July 2020.
 Jon Binnie, Tim Edensor, Julian Holloway, Steve Millington and Craig Young (2007) “Mundane mobilities, banal travels,” Social & Cultural Geography 8 (2), 165.
 Jekaterina Lavrinec (2013) “Urban Scenography: Emotional and Bodily Experience,” LIMES: Borderland Studies 6 (1), 25.
 Denis E. Cosgrove, Geography and Vision: Seeing, imagining and representing the world (New York: I.B. Tauris, 2008), 68.
 J. B. Harley, “Deconstructing the Map,” Cartographica 26, no. 2 (1989), 1.