A Conversation with Pelin Tan: Field as entanglement and transversal methodology

January 11th at 7:34pm

Ishita Sharma

This conversation takes place with Pelin Tan, via a google-doc, to better understand some of the ways in which she, along with the Arazi Assembly work with and in the village of Dara. Pelin is a sociologist, art historian, researcher on transversal methodology, alternative pedagogies, and conflict territories, based in Mardin, Turkey (i) . The Arazi Collective is a research platform, composing of urban planners, architects, sociologists and artists, affected by post-disasters conditions such as eviction, replacement and oppression in South East Anatolia (ii) . Their work in Dara village, is just one example that I came across, while on a week-long workshop with the Topological Atlas project on infrastructures, labour, life, non-life and their entanglements.

At the doorway of a house in Dara

We drove to Dara village from the city of Mardin. It was early November and the sun was strong. The village arose out of the surroundings. Stone buildings, some young, and many old, nestled into the landscape of gray-ochre sand and stone. Sparse olive trees spread out across the village. At the entrance to the village, a government hoarding spelt out a history of Dara. It hinted that the village might be a tourist destination. The Syrian border is only a few kilometres away and the army was on high alert. The Turkish army had entered Syria a week before, after the withdrawal of the American forces. An armoured tank peeked out from between the ruins of a necropolis at the entrance to Dara.

Ishita: What struck me most about our trip was the food we had, and Hala’s lovely home, made of solid stone and delicate curtains. We shared food, olives, cheese, curd made by her from a giant platter. It is a meal that I will always remember. One of the things that stayed with me was your relationship with her and the easy camaraderie you both shared.... and I was wondering, to start from a more personal moment, if you would tell me a bit about how you situate yourself in Dara and how you found yourself there?

Pelin Tan: I visited Dara village in 2003 and later again in 2006, when I was invited by the Diyarbakir art center to give a talk. However, I focused on the village more and met Hala when I began to live in Mardin from 2013. But I have a strange story which I consider as related to my fate. When I was working as a young academic at the Art & Architecture History and Theory department in the Architecture Faculty of Istanbul Technical University in the beginning of 2000s, Prof. Metin Ahunbay who first excavated the village Dara/Anastasiopolis for almost 30 years was in my department. He asked me to come to Dara to help in the excavation. I didn't understand because I was neither an archaeologist nor an architect; but he thought I knew how to use the computer and speak German, so I could somehow be helpful! Now, Prof. Ahunbay knew Hala and was staying in her house with her students. Hala’s house was almost an excavation house – hosting the professor and his architecture students every summer. She had even built Prof. Ahunbay a stone hut on the roof of her house.

When we first met ...I was wandering the village in 2013. She asked me with her half Kurdish and Turkish if I was a teacher and I said yes. I told her I had moved from Istanbul to Mardin to work at the architecture faculty of the new Mardin university. She immediately asked me if I knew Prof. Ahunbay who was a very important “teacher” for her. I said yes, and I told her I was his course assistant for some years. From that moment, Prof. Ahunbay created a bridge between us. If I had accepted his invitation, I would have met Hala in 2002. After 10 years we met by coincidence; or maybe we were waiting to meet since the 2002 so we might know each other well. Hala is a strong, single Kurdish woman, who refused to marry when she was young and has lived alone since then, surrounded by her relatives who live in Izmir (in the west of Turkey). As typical village women, she collects olives, milk from her cows, makes yoghurt, cheese and sends to her relatives in Izmir or sells it in Mardin.

Onions and jars of harvested olives at Hala's house

I: Can you tell us a bit more about the village?

PT: Dara itself is a village with topographical layers of civilizations from the Ancient to the Hellenistic, a Roman border garrison, a Byzantine town, a Christian Suryani village and a current Kurdish village. Spatially, the current housing and productive land sit on these artefacts and are embedded within the ruins. Dara is not only near the Syria- Turkey border, but also historically and topographically is at the border of the geological slope of Northern Mesopotamia. A dry riverbed crosses the village, which held running water until the last century. I have learned its history from articles by my friend Dr. Elif Keser (1).

(1) Elif Keser-Kayaalp &Nihat Erdoğan, “Recent Research on Dara/Anastasiopolis”, New Cities in Late Antiquity (late 3rd-7th c. AD), 2017.

Riverbed running through the village

I: One of the other things I wanted to ask you about is on the question of methodologies. Writers of infrastructure have pointed out that new infrastructural systems overlay and trace older patterns, this is quite literally embodied at Dara, where a network of houses exist on and in relation to the ruins of the Roman city from the 6th century. Like with an excavation, you can see the different horizontal layers of living across time, and it continues till the present day. The ruins, the houses in which people live, the network of water systems that are underground, the question of labour here - that show through in the pattern of olive trees that are harvested, embody both multiple different temporalities, as well as systems of knowledge? What does this multiplicity of things mean for your practice? Is the collective and multi-layered form of work you do…also arise from these conditions?

PT: Since 2013, with my research collective Arazi, we have been working on both common and individual interests around the question of how the extractive project of neoliberalism, capitalism and militarism is functioning through spatial infrastructures, how artistic and architectural methodologies bring to the surface different narratives and empirical patchworks. We have several scales of research such as for example, housing, the village, the town, the border, the waterdam, stone companies, military zones, the river, a seed...

A meeting with the Muhtar of Dara in 2015, picture courtesy Pelin

Dara as a spatial entity is more than a village; it is a territory that holds many histories, and where ontologies of humans and non-humans are entangled. From the start, with my students from the architecture master design studio and other spatial workshops, I tried to search for a methodology with which to approach Dara - which cannot be solely understood as a nature-pastoral entity, nor an urban contra village, nor as an archaeological excavation, and neither as a borderline settlement. So, we started with a transversal methodology that crosses the epistemological layers of the more-than-human world.

Mapping of Dara | Legend: Zeytinkl: Olive groves, Su Kaynagi: Water resources, Tarla: Cultivation areas

Every village and town in the Southeast of Anatolia is entangled with other cities and towns as pieces of a constellation. Many reasons such as forced evictions, structural violence, urbanization process, agrarian unproductivity and migration policy continuously shape and form these places, not only the villages and towns themselves but also their relations.

As an archaeological site, the authorities are considering replacing the village (there is even lobbying taking place with UNESCO to line up the site as a preservation area all the way until Midyat) and many villagers who have houses on the archaeological heritage might have to leave in the future. The houses of villagers are layered with many artefacts from the archaeological site and have an eclectic pattern usage. For me this is already preservation.

I: How do you describe Transversal Methodology?

PT: Transversal method for me has meaning as a research practices that aims at actively engaging and thinks through a lens of social justice. I borrow “transversal” from Felix Guattari: “Transversal practice — “neither institutional therapy, nor institutional pedagogy,”. As Guattari puts it, but rather an analytic method that cuts across multiple fields—is often affiliated with models of knowledge and pedagogy such as “assemblage methods” or “affective pedagogy”. Thinking transversally allows for trans-local, borderless knowledge production that rhizomatically extends beyond the familiar terrains of architecture and design to encompass questions like citizenship, militant pedagogy, institutionalism, borders, war, being a refugee, documents and documenting, urban segregation, the commons, and others.

A map of Dara in Pelin’s notebook from 2013

The research in Dara includes several layers of the village. We use spatial mapping, examining visually the layers of the building, oral narrative of the places in Dara, water paths and the networks of agrarian production, their relation to cities, the water infrastructure (the old and contemporary pathways), olive harvesting, the relation of Dara with other towns and villages in the region – Nusaybin, Kiziltepe, Izmir and Mardin, a spatial mapping of how and where women come together. For example, following the everyday reproductive labor of Hala, along with the network and exchange of goods through ethnicity-based kin networks, reveals the other infrastructures of Dara. Most of the villagers from Dara kept their homes, but moved to Izmir, on the west coast of Turkey, where many Kurds have settled to escape violence and eviction between the 1980s-1990s. Still food products such as cheese, flour, bulgur, olives are sent to the relatives in Izmir from Dara.

A Kurdish woman farmer standing in front of a probably Byzantine ruin in her land, photo courtesy Pelin

Directly speaking about methodology, I somehow combine artistic & architectural research and sociological methods in order to analyze various cases from olives to water and border infrastructures and how they are relating together as a patchwork. Maybe a grounding methodology that would be what Anna Tsing is referring to as a “patchy Anthropocene” which we can transform into art, architectural, and spatial research. Patchy/patch means “sites for knowing intersectional inequalities among humans”; so, in the frame of a more-than-human world it is vital in this research to know how a water irrigation system is controlled, powered by whom and how calamities are affecting survival. As Tsing claims: “The Anthropocene may be planetary, but our grip on collaborative survival is always situated—and thus patchy. Throughout history, humanitarian calamities and global inequalities have been enacted through nonhuman agency that reacts to human design. Patchy Anthropocene brings the legacies and tools of social justice–based analysis into Anthropocene studies.” And is almost a spatial phenomenology that I follow; as Tsing describes for landscape structures: “A phenomenological attunement to landscape forms as well as to beings-in-landscapes allows multispecies histories to come into view.”

Harvesting the olives

I: This is something that you indicated before as well, I was wondering how you understand the boundaries of Dara…It is hard to engage in some of these conversations without falling into dichotomies of the rural and urban, for example. On the Arazi website..it says New Ruralism… is that how you frame the work? I was also thinking about how we usually think in analytic categories… for example, the idea of a village implies a certain unit, which has both an inside and outside…this could be composed of multiple sets of relations or networks… ecological, economic, discursive… how do you work with some of these categories…how would you frame the idea of boundaries while working in Dara?

Mixed constructions, picture courtesy Pelin

PT: I think it is difficult to look at Dara or other places through an urban or village dichotomy. As I described above, this village is linked with different towns through relatives and exchanges. As a concept and a place, the “Rural” is often defined in the frame of a pastoral landscape within a dualistic structure (as opposed to urban). The definition was based on the distinction of the agrarian economy in capitalist development as well on a modernistic definition of culture (it was assumed that the creative energy of culture exists only in urban space). However, the rural area has a cosmography of assembled geological non-human time that is often missed in the discourse.

Furthermore, structural violence and inter-colonial memory are also deeply integrated in the beautiful pastoral landscape. Rural is a territory of layered fragments of geontologies. The effects of war and the active renegotiation of borders demands a transformation in the way infrastructure is approached and worked with, not just at the functional and scalar threshold of architecture, but also as mechanisms that form part of what Elizabeth Povinelli calls geontologies of landscape. According to Povinelli, both “geos” (non-life) and “being” (ontology) are “currently in play in the late liberal governance of difference and markets,” in response to which she outlines new figures, tactics and discourses of power by proposing a definition of biopolitics with no separation between elements of Life and Non-life. How then can we approach infrastructural landscapes that have been shaped by structural violence? Within such a framework, villages and landscapes at the borderline in Southeast Turkey are shaped with geontological layers. We see the effect of Ilisu waterdam on the Tigris river along Hasankeyf, where it transforms the whole region into a spatial surveillance network. There are many such examples with new housing projects that justify this necropolitical process by playing with property, class relation and eviction. On the other hand, militarized landscapes keep the state of exception as a permanent condition, while erasing memories of local communities in the region.

Reconstruction image of a village house by Ashraf Nassab (MA, in MAU Architecture, 2019)

Working in Dara, which is in the borderline of Syria; I prefer to use a transversal approach to methodology. How are Dara’s rural conditions entangled among the geontologies of the borderline of Southeast Turkey with other towns and non-human elements? How can we emancipate Dara from its linear historical discourse of ruins and archaeological layers? How can we redefine stones, goats, olive trees, water infrastructures, agricultural land, military zones and other “Things” of their fixed meanings and see how they function as entanglement?

During field research, I focus on the spatial environment of how the inhabitants are using and combining elements of historical artefacts. The question is of how this village can sustain without being marked only by its archaeological importance, but rather can be understood and sustained as a cosmology of the rural environment. I refer to Yusoff, as planetary sensibility is necessarily involved in scales between subjective life. The scale relation between the planetary and subjectivity in the site of the commons is, as she writes, “...both invoked and enacted as a commonality across forms of organic and inorganic life.” Thus, I try to create a method of how, for example, female labor informs the architectural structure of her housing, how this connects to animals and then layers of landscape in the village, for example the cemetery at the edge of the village, the huge deep 12 meter water cistern, and combined spaces of living of both animal, plants and humans. The scale of the commons is the effective one between the inorganic and organic.

Godernê/Lice 2015, photo by Prof. David Harvey


(i) Pelin Tan, sociologist, art historian, researcher on transversal methodology, alternative pedagogies, and conflict territories, based in Mardin, Turkey. 6th recipient of Keith Haring Art&Activism (NY), Senior Researcher of Center for Arts, Design and Social Research (Boston). She is a lead author of ‘Towards an Urban Society’, the International Panel on Social Progress (Cambridge Publ. 2018). Contributed to: Climates: Architecture and The Planetary Imaginary (Columbia Univ., 2017), The Silent University: Toward-Transversal Pedagogy (Sternberg Press, 2016), Urgencies in Architectural Theory (Columbia Univ.Press, 2016), Autonomous Archiving (Istanbul, 2017), The Social (Re)Production of Architecture (Routledge, 2017), “Surpassing Disaster: Territorial conflict, entanglements of things and transversal methods” in Mediating Conflict ( Delft Univ. Architecture, 2020), “Musa Alami Farm as an Experimental Pedagogy in Jericho 1948-1967” (Radical Pedagogies, MIT Press,2020)
(ii) Arazi Assembly (http://araziassembly.org/) is a research platform. My colleagues are urban planners, architects, sociologists and artists. Many members of this collective are affected by post-disasters conditions such as eviction, replacement and oppression. We collaborate with other institutions such as the Chamber of Architects or Misart artist initiative of Mardin. DaraCosmos is a sub-research that uses artistic methodologies. Since 2013, we naturally started to bring our case studies, political engagements and methodologies together in order to have a loose collective sharing, as well as solidarity. In our practice, we are interested in how research and alternative knowledge production are combined with artistic and architectural methodologies grounded in theories of social sciences that may create alternative assemblies of solidarity and resistance. In Arazi Assembly, besides running our urban, architectural and artistic researchers; we are also focusing on the problematics of case studies, related methodologies, the history of state of exception and forms of infrastructural extraction about this region. Political identity oppression, structural violence and extraction of the landscape shape exploitation in this region. We have so far researched Nusaybin as borderline town, Diyarbakir Sur Neighborhood and necropolitics, a post-disaster town Lice that contains earthquake container neighbourhood amongst other projects. Female labor, memory narratives of post-disaster places, mapping non-human elements and the effect of the Anthropocene era lead us to analyze the biopolitics and geontological layers.