Speaking Through Silence – Eylem Delikanli
in Art,oral history,silence
I collaborated with artist/activist Aylin Tekiner in an effort to deconstruct “silence” and her art through oral history. (…) Aylin shattered her silence by taking a historic journey to her past and searching for missing pieces about herself and her father.
- Eylem Delikanli -
My particular interest in silence and denial within the larger realm of memory studies is driven by the sheer ambition of answering one question: “what breaks silence?” As oral historians, we co-create narratives of various traumatic events and histories in an endless effort to locate these in some particular time in history that would otherwise melt into air. These narratives or testimonies are then curated in various forms to be publicly accessible. Depending on how we define oral history within the larger context, each one of us gears towards community engagement projects, art exhibitions, academia or archival work to achieve our specific goals, be it for social change, co-creating collective memory or even for commercial purposes.
In May 2016, I collaborated with artist/activist Aylin Tekiner in an effort to deconstruct “silence” and her art through oral history. Our collaboration was then exhibited at the Columbia University OHMA Exhibition in April and was part of a workshop at Oral History Conference in Long Beach, California in October 2016. The intimate space co-created during the interview helped us elaborate Aylin’s life starting from the assassination of her father, Zeki Tekiner in 1980 in Turkey. Silence as a theme emerges in her life story and defines her current artistic work. Aylin shattered her silence by taking a historic journey to her past and searching for missing pieces about herself and her father. Here, I present 4 audio pieces of the longer interview by highlighting the themes of post memory and silence in each episode.
Part 1: ‘Father in Past Tense’
Marianne Hirsch, in her grandiose work, The Generation of Post Memory, captures how memory is transferred to those who are not actually there to live an event and how the act of trans-generational transfer takes place. In this audio piece, Aylin Tekiner details, as a 1,5 generation, how she gathered all the details about her father’s assassination through reading court files and talking to the first hand witnesses. It is important to note that the language she utilizes, which in this case is Turkish, reveals a second layer of understanding about how she verbalizes this constructed memory. Turkish language has two past tenses:
- “di” past tense is used when we witness an event in the past and tell about it in the present.
- “miş” (sounds mish) past tense is used when we hear about an event from someone else and talk about it in the present.
Through the first audio piece Aylin starts talking in the “miş” past tense when talking about her father.
Only the following information, that is about 10”of a 5’45” audio, is based on her own knowledge:
“I was born on January 18th, 1978 in Nevsehir. I am the last of three kids.”
The rest of the story is expressed in “miş” past tense that is utilized by a non-witness but told in a detailed fashion and fluidity that a witness would have had. She also switches from “miş” to “di” past tense and vice versa.
Part 2: “Piecing Together”
Theory of post memory includes components of visuality, be it pictures or other forms of objects. During this audio piece Aylin explains how she first came across newspaper headlines and pictures about her father’s funeral at the age of 5 and how she kept silent about what she discovered.
In their paper Toward a Science of Silence, Charles B. Stone et al. argue that certain silences, at times, lead to facilitation and silenced memory could potentially be remembered and expressed if appropriate potential cues and situational demands or motives are present. Aylin, in this case, pulled a photographic cue to try to remember how her silence took shape at an early age in her life.
Stone et al. treat silence not just as the absence of sound but as “the refusal or failure to speak out, refusal and failure to remember.” Their following classification of silence is instrumental in understanding how oral historians can detect mnemonic silences during interviews:
Four types of silences:
- Refusing to remember overtly while remembering covertly
- Refusing to remember overtly and covertly
- Failing to remember overtly while remembering covertly
- Failing to remember overtly and covertly
A critical moment in Aylin’s narrative is when she talks about the moment of discovering her own silence. She explains this moment as a turning point when a journalist asked about her father’s court case, she then realizes that she does not even know the names of the murderers. She emphasizes that not even the word “murder” was clearly utilized by her family to define what happened to her father. The silence of her family includes mentioning the father only as a “good guy” without mentioning the political nature of this assassination as well as her mother’s deliberate efforts to mask the sad story to provide a happier life for her three children. However, all these efforts of masking and mnemonic silences did not necessarily force Aylin to forget, in contrary, they served as a facilitation for her to strive to discover more about her silent past.
In his book, The Elephant in The Room, Eviatar Zerubavel describes conspiracy of silence as a phenomenon whereby a group of people tacitly agree to outwardly ignore something of which they are personally aware. Once Aylin’s silence was broken triggered by a question posed by a journalist, she rushed into several forms of acts to complete the story by talking to her family, talking to witnesses, searching for the sound of her father through archives as well as searching for the photographs. She describes this urgency as a feeling of sadness and as a fact that all those years nobody made an effort to commemorate him.
Part 3: “Breaking all Silences”
Politics of denial play an integral part in creating collective silence. How authority controls access to information and media feeds into creating not only silence but also silence of silence, which Zerubavel successfully defines as meta silence. He continues to describe the citizen, who makes the authoritarian regime possible, as someone not speaking, not looking, not asking afterward or not once curious.
In this third episode, Aylin talks about the meta silence about disappearances and assassinations in Turkey. She shares her experiences at Collective Memory Platform as a member and how that experience affected her in her activism and art. She targeted collective silence around these deaths that were in a way compared to each other in terms of who was worthy of speaking. We hear, in her stories, how social structure of denial prolong the silence and how silence is indeed a collective endeavor.
Part 4: “My Own Voice”
In the final piece, Aylin talks about her latest art performance “Do all daddies have gray suit?”, a shadow theatre that exemplifies individual and collective silences around her father’s assassination from the perspective of a two-year-old girl.
When dealing with a traumatic past, do we recognize our own silences? Do we name them as silences? By acknowledging the presence of the elephant in the room, Aylin deliberately focused on various silences in her life to be able to either remember parts of her history or to build what does not exist in her memory. Her next move was to make all these silences “audible and visual” in the public domain. She also undertook collaborative and organized efforts to complete the cycle of “breaking the silence”.
Before we started our interview, Aylin largely spoke about silence without necessarily defining it in specific terms. Intersubjectivity defines the nature of our work. When our own silences clash with the interviewee’s, a particularly difficult path opens up which, in turn, complicates the flow of the interview. By deconstructing silences and meta silences, we aim to reach the story behind what is presented as the story. In this specific collaboration, it helped both Aylin and me to conceptualize her experience and artistic work under the overarching subject: “silence”.
 Marianne Hirsch, The Generation of Post Memory, Writing & Visual Culture After the Holocaust, Columbia University Press, New York.
 Charles B. Stone et al, Toward a Science of Silence: The Consequences of Leaving a Memory Unsaid, Perspectives on Psychological Science, Sage Publications, DOI:10.1177/1745691611427303
 Eviatar Zerubavel, The Elephant in the Room: Silence & Denial in Everyday Life, Oxford University Press, 2006 (electronic version @Columbia)