visual arts

Turkish media artist finds new home at Mason Gross

When he was growing up in Ankara, Turkey, Ahmet Atif Akin dreamed of becoming a photographer. By the time he was 16, he had a darkroom and had submitted his photographs to group shows. Yet he ended up earning degrees in chemical engineering and industrial design because that was the best education he thought Turkey could offer him.

After completing a master's degree from the Middle East Technical University in Ankara in 2005, Akin parlayed his technical training into a career in electronic art. He exhibited his digital designs in online galleries around the world, collaborating with artists in Europe and the United States. His work quickly attracted recognition, and in 2009, he was listed as one of the 500 best artists under 33 years of age from around world in the Younger Than Jesus: Artist Directory, published by the New Museum in New York.

In September 2011, Akin joined the faculty at the Mason Gross School as an assistant professor in the Visual Arts Department. A former instructor of new media and design at Bilgi University and Kadir Has University in Istanbul, Akin was selected for the position after an international search for an artist specializing in digital design.

"He's an example of someone who can come from Istanbul and bring a different perspective, and yet there's an irony to that," says Gerry Beegan, an associate professor of design and undergraduate director of the visual arts department. "Everyone is using the same tools and the same software and the same hardware in what he does. So he's international, yet he brings something fresh."

In his studio class on interactive design, Akin has found that teaching offers him a different way of expressing himself that is even more rewarding than creating art. "Trying to make a concrete statement to a group of people and trying to justify your statement with specific examples–sometimes I find that more interesting than doing my own artwork," he says.

Just as engineering introduced Akin to abstract thinking and how to define–and not just solve–a problem, the Internet introduced him to new forms of media art. While a graduate student in Ankara, he followed online galleries and their artists, and became more interested in new media than in photography.

He began producing videos, multimedia installations and photography projects. In 2009, he founded and organized the PixellST festival in Istanbul, dedicated to the electronic arts and its subcultures. He also started working with xurban.net, an international art collective that examines contemporary politics.

As an artist in Turkey, Akin says he never experienced repression of his work, yet because he felt that "freedom is quite questionable," he chose not to show his art frequently in his native country. "The media of expression is controlled," he says. "There is always the issue of censorship. You never really feel free to do what you want."

One video installation he created in Istanbul directly questioned the Turkish government in its role in reacting to the recurring earthquakes that have killed thousands of people and destroyed hundreds of buildings across the country. In 2008, a high-rise hotel in the center of Istanbul commissioned Akin to produce an installation on the video screen that sits atop its roof. Calling the work Evacuate Istanbul! (above), Akin used current data from a Turkish earthquake observatory center to announce, in a constantly running, multicolored video stream, tremors being recorded in towns throughout the country.

"That was a political statement," Akin says. "I got multiple reactions from different types of people. They felt it was a project urging the government to take precautions."

Much of his artwork bridges cultures and time periods. At an exhibit at Rutgers in fall 2011, Akin displayed some photographs of a market in Odessa, Ukraine, known for selling fabrics from Turkey. Akin took the photographs, depicting the market stalls in shades of gray, gold, pink, and blue, while visiting Chernobyl, where he is working on a project taking pictures of the region's abandoned villages.

Now living in Jersey City, Akin finds the artistic life in the New York area to be vibrant and full of possibilities for collaboration with other digital artists. "The first thing I can do is find a subculture that I feel that I belong in," he says. "There is space for me in the subculture and for people like me so we can share our views and discuss these issues."

Editor's note: This interview is courtesy of Rutgers Today and author Sherrie Negrea.

Posted August 2012