“It’s the Whole Earth Catalogue for politicos.”Wes “Scoop” Nisker, author of Crazy Wisdom
On May 28, 2013, a group of environmentalists gathered in Taksim Gezi Park, a beloved public space in the heart of Istanbul, to protest plans to uproot a stand of trees. Before long, the park was occupied, a wave of protest had spread across all of Turkey, and millions of Turkish citizens were marching in the streets.
The uprooting of a few trees was the spark, but it was about so much more: excessive police power, the silence of the mainstream Turkish media, and the rightward drift of the ruling AKP party away from the Turkish Republic’s founding principles of secularism and equal rights. The police response was brutal; by the time I arrived in Istanbul on June 17, four people had been killed, 6,000 injured and 65 blinded. The police cleared Taksim Square and sealed it off to protesters. I snuck in with tourists. After all that violence, all I could do was stand still.
My “Standing Man” action was not a planned protest. I wasn’t prepared beforehand and I hadn’t notified the media. I didn’t even know if I was going to get noticed. I turned to face the Atatürk Culture Center (AKM), the iconic arts building which dominates Taksim Square. Right in front of me, the Turkish flag was waving. I also knew that the the country’s primary news agency, Anadolu Agency, had an office overseeing the square. I started standing just like a statue.
I had been appalled at how false and manipulative the media coverage of the protests had been. By standing in passive defiance of Prime Minister Erdogan, there in the Square, right below the Anadolu Agency offices, they could no longer falsely claim that the protests were over. Also, as an artist, I was outraged that the order had been given to demolish the Culture Center, after all the other centers of arts and culture we’d lost in recent years. By keeping the Center — and the name Atatürk, who had done so much for the arts and for Turkey — directly in my gaze, I could not only honor him, but also hold vigil and draw attention to this cultural treasure I wanted to protect.
After about an hour, I was noticed. Curious bystanders began to surround me. They asked questions about my identity, occupation and intentions. Four police officers body-searched me. They asked me whether I was waiting for someone. Did I have a problem? I remained calm and mute. I didn’t have a problem, but in the following hours, as my picture and the mysterious alias “Standing Man” spread on Twitter, I became one. The action was all over social media. People were doing what the media failed to do by broadcasting the action all around Turkey via Livestream. Even a few news channels were talking about the action.
Eventually, more than 300 people joined me, all doing the same thing: standing still, facing the Cultural Center and refusing to leave. The action was taken up by other people across Turkey who also started standing still, each coming up with their own version. Citizens had discovered a whole new way to protest, that, because of its non-violent nature and its unusualness, the authorities didn’t know how to deal with. Our resistance was able to continue, and the protest movement was seen in a new, more sympathetic light by the general public.
I believe in the power of independent, individual actions. We should not always have to wait for a collective action. If you are against something, maybe you should just act out of the truth of who you are. Who knows what might happen. I happen to be a performance artist, so I stood silently for eight hours, and look what happened. Who are you? How will you stand up?
Standing Man only worked — in fact, only made sense — as part of a much larger protest. After many marches, occupations, and other confrontational and creative tactics, all of which were met with police repression, citizens were running out of options. The Standing Man provided a new way to continue the same struggle by different means. It turned out to be the right action at the right place at the right time. My silence and stillness — the actionlessness of the action — was not only what made it a work of art, but, after weeks of street violence, it undercut the government propaganda line (and resulting public perception) that “all the protesters were violent, out-of-control, anti-social people.”
As a choreographer, my concern is on what you can say with the body. Sometimes the body can be political. And sometimes the attitude of a body can be more meaningful than language. Standing Man was actually a political vigil done as performance art. I stood still like a statue for hours. I was standing up to gravity, but also to the regime. It was not a normal vigil, say, with candles and pictures of the fallen. It had a mystery to it. An ambiguity. It was clearly making a statement, telling a story, but people had to figure it out what it meant themselves, and like art, it offered many interpretations.
In general, the authorities didn’t know how to respond to Standing Man. They were disarmed by the silence, discipline, and decorum of my protest. Deputy prime Minister Arinc told reporters that the standing protests were peaceful and “pleasing to the eye.” “This is not an act of violence,” he said. “We cannot condemn it.” Similarly, a couple days after my action, pro-government counter-protesters showed up in the Square. They quickly realized that their double negation amounted to an affirmation, and left after half an hour.
Standing Man is not a man but an action and a reaction. It can be performed again and again at different places, by different people, in different ways. Some people sat in public squares with a loaf of bread in front of them in mourning for Berkin Elvan, the 14-year-old boy who was hit in the head by a tear gas canister as he was walking to the bakery; others stood still facing the Turkish flag, reading a book. Some were standing still against the destruction of art, some against police violence, others stood still for their freedom. The action became so widespread because it was a simple, nonviolent gesture that anyone could do, and invest with their own meanings.
According to the Turkish criminal code, when three or more people gather together, they can be deemed a terrorist group. This is ridiculous and wrong, and basically criminalizes everyday life. But it is the law. Although one person, standing alone, is not against the law, the police and the government were still suspicious of me, and responded as if I was some kind of threat. My protest didn’t break the law, but by doing something very normal, and everyday — standing in a public space — in an unusual and prolonged way, the Standing Man protests called the ridiculous law into question.