Found in translation: Exhibition looks into power struggles, diverse realities

Tracing the reaction of Dada towards the horrors of war with a modest attempt to find correspondences in current issues, a project titled “The Translation,” put together by Turkish curator Basak Şenova, is currently on view in Zurich at Cabaret Voltaire, the birthplace of the Dada movement.

The project features an exhibition, a book and a screening program featuring the videos “Cabaret Crusades: The Horror Show File” by Egyptian artist Wael Shawky and “The Tower: A Songspiel” by Russian collective Chto Delat?

The focus of the project revolves around ideas of the responses to axiomatic suppressions of all kinds, rather than as a blunt adjunct to the similar aesthetic and political tendencies of Dada, Şenova explained during a recent online interview with Today's Zaman.

“In the sea of ever-changing conditions of multiple realities, there is no single or homogenous approach, but diversity of resisting mechanisms and artistic strategies. Therefore, translation as a term and as a tool generates plenty of potential fields for art production in disconnected trajectories,” she said, adding that these fields have the capability to cover, and/or fuse with, other fields of knowledge.

As to the link with religion and catastrophes, Şenova said the project evolved from an initial idea that oil is the meta-symbol for pervasive power struggles and domination, which take various forms of legitimization.

“Throughout history, oil has been the generator of wealth and political power intertwined with wars and catastrophes and will remain the decisive strategic commodity that dominates the global economy and politics. When this meta-symbol is even pronounced in any geography, the very act of abusing ‘poverty' and ‘belief' has always been pursued at the heart of the never changing strategy of legitimization,” she said. “Oil is a foreshadowing of future catastrophes in ‘Cabaret Crusades: The Horror Show File,' yet in ‘The Tower: A Songspiel [2010]' by Chto Delat?, it is the central symbol,” she added.

“Both ‘Cabaret Crusades: The Horror Show File' and ‘The Tower: A Songspiel' process the patterns of legitimization and horrors of war as the consequences of power struggles. While detecting these patterns, they obviously reveal diverse realities that are closely linked to the conditions of their geographies -- along with the perception modes of history, culture, religion and power. Nonetheless, both works also facilitate common visual strategies such as the accumulated usage of visual rhetoric, black humor and historic references.”

For the curator, the concept of "translation" indicates a detached and forward movement from the source: “It is also a freeing act, which paradoxically contains a burden of responsibility for the source. Therefore, this movement has limits and fine borderlines, yet it could designate ‘more' than the source. It could be deceptive; it could be faithful; it could be even neutral, but it can never be the same source.”

“Translation is a call for other realities. It is also a way to see other realities,” Şenova said. It blends “fact” with fiction by blurring the difference between them.

In the same line of thought, “The Translation” project is also aimed at discussing the different perceptions and reactions of time and history. “And one step beyond this discussion is how to comprehend these perceptions and reactions with different realities which exist in different settings -- if we consider the setting as an indicator for the measurements of change in space-time -- and conditions,” Şenova said.

The notion of translation operates in multiple layers in “Cabaret Crusades: The Horror Show File.” It is not only the story, but also the marionettes that were used for the piece that multiply the endeavor of the translation as an act. “For the casting of ‘Cabaret Crusades: The Horror Show File,' Shawky borrowed 200-year-old marionettes from the Lupi Family collection and then changed and detached them from their original costumes and scenery. The theatrical aspect of the work provides an immersive experience for these overlapping acts of translation,” Şenova said.

When Shawky translated Lebanese author Amin Maalouf's book “The Crusades Through Arab Eyes” (1983) for “Cabaret Crusades: The Horror Show File,” he was also questioning how history is being written in multiple ways and perceived through countless different viewpoints.

“The Tower: A Songspiel” on the other hand is based on a real debate and it can also remind viewers of several hot discussions in Turkey. “The film is a critique of contemporary Russian society and the power structures of the country. Despite the local resistance, Gazprom Corporation intends to house the headquarters of its locally based subsidiaries in a 403-meter-high skyscraper in St. Petersburg. Nevertheless, the Gazprom tower is promoted by the authorities as a symbol of a new, modernized Russia. As I see it, the consequences of the neo-liberal economy require drastic transitions in societies all over the world. So, maybe not only through skyscrapers but also through all kinds of gentrification and urban development projects are we experiencing similar situations in Turkey,” Şenova said.

In terms of the spatial design of the exhibition, the curator also made a link between the concept and the display area.

The word “cabaret” originates from the Middle French and the Middle Dutch dialects as alteration of cambret, cameret or camberete, meaning “a small room,” and also from late Latin as a synonym of the word “camera,” which meant “chamber.” The association between the origin of the word and the architectural qualities of the cellar of Cabaret Voltaire -- the gallery space of the building -- suggested a tangible connection for the starting point of the spatial design process. Zurich Dada's historic activities mainly had visual and performance-based output. “By following the nature of those outputs, the spatial design could be incorporated with the tidal positioning of spatial awareness with temporality. The design had to support the theatrical and poetic aspects of the ‘Cabaret Crusades: The Horror Show File' and ‘The Tower: A Songspiel'.”

The exhibition continues until April 30 at Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich. For more information, visit and