Watching the film of Kurdish artist Ahmet Öğüt’s Happy Together: Collaborators Collaborating is like peeling the proverbial onion of performance art. The outer skin is the film itself, commissioned for the Chisenhale Gallery website, requiring the work of 8 volunteer camera operators, a lighting designer, a gaffer, an editor, and various other crew. The subject of the film is a staged “chatshow” with a live audience, hosted by Andrea Philips, who masterfully performs the interviewer/provocateur role in the creation of this multimodal artwork, this “revenge of the collaborators”. As Studio International contributor Harry Thorne writes in his review, “it becomes clear that Phillips’s line of questioning has been directed by the Öğüt himself “, although the answers of the collaborators are clearly personal and unscripted.
Phillips introduces and questions ten different Öğüt collaborators from various projects, with professions including stuntman, lip reader, firefighter, hairdresser, and auctioneer. The collaborators recount their experience working with Ahmet amicably, and all seem notably comfortable with their secondary role in the achievement of the artist’s vision. Each of the projects discussed reveal yet another layer to Öğüt’s work, highlighting innovative, reality-based performances by these skilled non-artists: lip reading the artist’s words through binoculars to an audience, cutting hair by motorcycle headlamp, riding a horse from town to town and reading aloud from a press release, and even auctioning off a punchable portrait of the artist himself. One is led to wonder whether all of these works are simply now being held in review, or if they were, in fact, staged with prescience for the purpose for this film.
What impresses and inspires me is the way that Öğüt has expertly positioned his collaborators in the space between artistic co-collaborator and commissioned artisan. His coworkers don’t generally share in the creative vision of his work, but they’re also not simply craftspeople following a designer’s blueprint. They are, in fact, performing, as themselves, in a reality play designed, but not scripted, by the artist. They are improv actors, unskilled as they may be in improvisation, but successful in their execution of their role because their role is an abstraction of their own profession. Öğüt, meanwhile, is like a master painter who doesn’t need to touch his brush, but rather just commands it to do what it was made to do.