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Alper Turan

in conversation with Tannon Reckling

Alper Turan is a curator and writer currently based in Berlin and İstanbul. His curatorial research and practice draw from and respond to queer strategies, genealogies, and languages which include but are not limited to abstraction, speculation, and appropriation. Turan is a 2023-24 curatorial fellow at the Whitney Museum Independent Study Program, and was awarded a 2023-24 General Idea fellowship from the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa.

Tannon Reckling is an HIV-positive writer, curator, teacher, and arts worker. Tannon engages messy queer ontologies, hacked technologies, nuanced shadow labor. Reckling has been at Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions, Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Whitney Museum of American Art, and more. Reckling has education from University of Oregon, University of California Los Angeles, New York University, and more. Reckling has written for Frieze, e-flux, Gay & Lesbian Review, Manhattan Art Review, Visual AIDS, among others. Reckling is always looking to collaborate in interesting and critical labor especially into our precarious 2020s.

In the following conversation, Tannon Reckling and Alper Turan, both living with HIV and undetectable, discuss the productive potential of undetectability, its poetics, and the material moments within institutional reconciliations that are emerging into the 2020s. Below, Reckling interviews Turan about his experiences curating around HIV/AIDS as well as intersecting queer struggles, exploring undetectability, and how these processes resonate in broader world practices. This conversation took place over email and in-person in May 2024.

TR

Hello, fellow poz diva!

AT

I am not a diva! Tannon, first of all, thank you for bringing to my attention that I have actually been quite invested in undetectability, conceptually and practically, for some time now, without naming it as such. Together, I am happy to explore different modes of undetectability in my curatorial practice. These modes have emerged sometimes in defense of undetectability in the form of withholding, opacity, willful self-censorship as a survival strategy to escape the gaze of an intrinsically anti-queer state, or as a critique of undetectability in its co-option with systematic, epistemological, and realpolitik forces that render certain subjects invisible.

TR

You are working on the exhibition “Not Everything Is Given” with Ella den Elzen, Gervais Marsh, and Carlota Ortiz Monasterio, as part of the Curatorial Whitney ISP Program. Can you take me through the values and sensibilities of this show? For me, various concepts in the show touch notions of visibility, representations, and more. These sparkles make me think about other ideas like undetectability in your own practice. Do you encounter similar cadences? Or am I seeing things differently?

AT

The exhibition “Not Everything Is Given” creates an alternative to increasingly trendy terms of illegibility, opacity, and refusal. These terms have become loaded, often within scholarly discussions, which practically manifest in relation to surveillance and optical detection—let's think about Guggenheim’s “Going Dark” show—but the withholding gives us the conceptual expansion to look at other forms of self-reduction, other strategies to not communicate everything. Withholding is not about opacity or refusal, it is about participating on one's own terms.

There is a pervasive epistemological demand within global cultural discourses to comprehend, to capture and to capitalize on certain histories, especially from the artists who are deemed to be “marginal” by virtue of ethnicity, race, sexuality or geography. What do we expect from an Afghan artist, an artist from Palestine, a Black artist, or a Trans artist, and an artist with AIDS? The works often make sense when we know where they come from and what they are about. This expectation underpins and preconditions our approach to viewing art—we seek to comprehend, extract meaning, and find satisfaction in fake and flat moments of understanding.

The artists in this exhibition do not elucidate or bear witness in the traditional sense—they do not share straightforward moments of compassion. Instead, they fragment, fictionalize, and reframe their experiences. They eschew clear documentation, offering only gestures and languages that resonate with specific communities rather than a general audience. This reflects a certain distrust in the public sphere—the alleged safe space between artist, artwork, and audience is fundamentally questioned. BAÇOY KOOP’s Birding, named after a clandestine guerilla printing and dissemination method, reflects a distrust of the public sphere by bringing the act of public dissemination into an interior space. What we see is scattered papers in the space.This contrasts with the participatory nature of, for example, Felix Gonzalez-Torres's cookie-cut paper stacks that you are always welcomed to take one, as the scattered papers in Birding disrupt audience expectations.

For instance, Joyce Joumaa’s works, Hallab Bldg (2024) and Mafra' Baladiye (2024) repurpose breaker boxes as lightboxes for photographs taken in homes of Lebanese people, where the hours-long power cuts paralyze the whole country. These images, synchronized with the power schedules in Lebanon, go illuminated or go dark through time. The images are making themselves visible when they are able to—they are creating fleeting moments of compassion that acknowledge the limits of art in conveying lived experiences of struggle, pain, or violence. You might see them when you are in the space, or you might not!

TR

I loved Joumaa’s work in the show! I also loved peeking at you giving tours and telling people about the work itself which most people would walk right past. In the past, it has been noted that the AIDS crisis was a crisis of representation. This might mean differences in locality, trust, and conditions. For institutionally-attached labor, how might HIV/AIDS cultural work take into account its own conditions of production and distribution today? How can we especially break away from American-centric HIV/AIDS narratives?

AT

Institutions are not our friends—they never are. These colossal, antiquated machines often turn everything into a Kafkaesque charade. I struggle to reconcile with institutions when they finally canonize figures like David Wojnarowicz or Darrel Ellis, offering them solo shows... This belated "recognition" feels hollow, as it comes long after the critical moments when their voices were desperately needed. Take the Tear Gas Biennial, for example—they fumbled their response during the crisis, only to later attempt to cleanse their past by featuring artworks addressing it. Similarly, Demian DinéYazhi´’s ‘‘Free Palestine’’ message hidden in their work at the 2024 Biennial was a provocation, highlighting their inability to confront uncomfortable truths head-on. You can abstractly demand the right to exist and self-determination, but you can't straightforwardly condemn Israel as a genocide machine within these spaces?

I also question the necessity of globalizing the HIV/AIDS narrative, particularly in attempting to export these discourses back to their so-called epicenter. It is a tedious task, and frankly, I am weary of narrating the global suffering while perpetuating a Western-centric discourse—even though I guess within this interview, it is what I will be doing.

What truly interests me is forging alliances in other places with which I know that we are on similar if not equal footing—like Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. I want to understand their histories and modes of resistance. While the strategies developed here in the US have been invaluable and I am grateful for them, I am no longer interested in feeding the insatiable Western discourse and institutional monster.

I still believe in infiltration as a viable tactic for engaging with institutions—being a spy, following the footsteps of Felix Gonzalez-Torres and others. However, I also find myself increasingly disillusioned. I see the ugliness of these institutions and refuse to let them taint me further. I aim to engage without compromising my integrity or allowing their corrupting influence to make me complicit. Yes, I need their money, their recognition, their entitlements—I want to get fucked and get their loads, but I don’t want to carry their babies nor their viruses. Instead of me infiltrating into their system, I’d rather let them penetrate me—being a slut instead of being a spy.

TR

In 2018, you curated “Positive Space” which was shown at the American Hospital in Istanbul, Turkey. Could you take me through this exhibition?

AT

The exhibition "Positive Space" was made with an urge to carve a discourse, a space within the intersection of artistic, academic, and activist circles in Turkey. I have been poz since I was 20, and Turkey has had a huge increase in infection rates over the past decade in unexpected ways—the crisis is happening right now, more critical than in the '80s or '90s in the region.

However, it is important to approach this with nuance, as HIV has been rendered completely invisible and intimate, making direct comparisons with the past difficult. Our understanding of the epidemic in the '80s is often shaped by sensational media, unreliable medical records, and denialist public discourse.

When I was first diagnosed, I didn’t know anyone who openly discussed their status. HIV was a hush-hush topic, even within the queer community—a not-yet-actively-politicized experience, driven more by the fear of stigma than by stigma itself. Misinformation and myths about HIV transmission persist, and there is a lack of comprehensive sex education, let alone HIV prevention education. Let's not forget, in Turkey, queer individuals are pathologized in different ways than in America, and HIV compounds this marginalization, branding it as the "disease of the sick." If you cannot safely be openly queer, you often live and experience your sexuality and HIV in isolation, outside of any immediate community, if you even have one.

HIV organizations in Turkey, while providing valuable doula support, have historically distanced themselves from queer movements. Their focus has been on de-stigmatizing HIV as a “gay disease,” often at the expense of engaging with queer discourse. These organizations also operate under the constant threat of despotic anti-queer rhetoric and escalating violence from the Turkish government.

"Positive Space" aimed to confront these issues head-on. It sought to create a visible, queer, sex-positive space within a hospital that has a gallery space and production budget. It was made to claim a space in public, but it was also made to educate the seronegative others. I was very intentional about not turning that space into disseminating medical knowledge but to collectively unpack the meanings of HIV in Turkey, in 2018, through different positions.

I went to do my Master's in Cultural Studies to research HIV/AIDS, and that was my first exposure to anthropological methods. First, I wanted to do something auto-ethnographic, and then I wanted to be out of my head and I realized the limitations of ethnography, both ethically and in its ability to fully explore such an intimate, taboo subject. Even though there are networks for people living with HIV/AIDS, the pool of participants for interview-based research who are open about their status or sexuality is very limited. Additionally, their narratives often feel flat, reciting certain aspects that fall short of grasping deeper realities. As a researcher living with HIV, I grapple with the traditionally extractivist positionality between precarious research subjects and professionally distant researchers. Despite sharing the condition, our experiences differ based on sex, race, class, etc. I don't trust researchers myself, so how can I expect them to trust me and engage in an emotional process that probes their vulnerable conditions? I decided to approach my research through art, aligning it with my curatorial practice. Instead of focusing on Western contexts, I sought to address the lack of cultural production around HIV/AIDS in Turkey. Consequently, I commissioned artists—some living with HIV, some not, mostly from the queer community but not exclusively—to explore the meanings of HIV/AIDS in Turkey. The whole process was about using the exhibition as a social research laboratory. I take the whole exhibition process as my fieldwork, starting with artists' invitation to the conception of the artworks and to audience responses.

That was my test of a methodology. I collectivized the research and made it led by the artists' positions. This was also the moment I figured out the potential of curating as a means to collectivize social research and political action, blending public engagement with intimate exploration—a tool to create discursive spaces on hard-to-articulate subjects, generating reflections on questions that cannot be answered from a monolithic perspective but require multiplicity and the permeability of artistic research. This was also my first attempt to undo traditional curatorial professionalism: instead of merely accommodating the artists' research or putting their experiences in the spotlight, I was equally putting myself, my experience, and my research out there.

In his Dear Mom (2018), Ardıl Yalınkılıç exhibited his correspondence with his mother from when he was 20, during a period when he received a false HIV test result, leading him to believe he was terminally ill. This confessional work foregrounds the discussion of HIV panic and the willful hermeneutical ignorance of medical knowledge that accompanies the traumatic affect of AIDS. Furkan Öztekin's Tab Series (2018), and documents from Serdar Soydan's archive, brings to light the story of Turkey's “patient zero,” Murteza Elgin. When Elgin died in 1992, no one wanted to carry his casket—his body was washed with acid, wrapped in plastics, and buried in a lime pit. The undetectability of HIV was poignant in Can Küçük’s work with temporary tattoos bearing bio-hazard symbols. These tattoos, placed at the entrance of the gallery, were applied by visitors, knowing that they would soon wash off. This act sought to create a transient viral network with audiences a la Torres, sharing the stigma while ironically emphasizing HIV's permanence in the body. When cleansed, the tattoos became undetectable, yet they symbolized the virus's permanent presence.

I was equally interested in works that came out of the experience of living with HIV in Turkey, to the intergenerational trauma around HIV/AIDS that have been shaping the sexual subjectivities of generations coming after the 1980s, as much as the panic and fear of HIV/AIDS that can be appropriated as political tools.

I am thinking of one act I have found in HIV media archaeology I did in Turkey from 2003. A minor trans woman who was detained after setting her mother’s house on fire. She was taken to the police station and cut herself with broken pieces of glass there. She also wounded eight police officers and sprayed her own blood onto the wounded officers. Freaked out by the idea of contracting AIDS, they tested B.T.’s blood for antibodies, which turned out positive. She was not satisfied with the panic she had created—she wanted more revenge for the countless times she had been detained by the police for doing sex work: “Officers are my enemy. I will bite each and every police officer from now on,” she said. With uninhibited violence, B.T. chose to use her body as a weapon: before knowing whether or not she had HIV, she chose to attack her oppressors with her blood, which was always already considered threatening, dirty, and dangerous. Of course, this is a grotesque example. But it has always been important for me to run against de-metaphorizing AIDS—instead, I am interested in reclaiming the metaphors. I am dirty, a whore, sick, dangerous, punished, maybe a victim and I am HIV positive.

We had a lot of “dangerous” moments in the show—there was a work made by blood taken from HIV-positive participants of the exhibition by Ünal Bostancı, or a work that collected and emanated bacteria taken from underground gay hammams in Istanbul by Nihat Karataşlı, or work made out of a razor-sharp knife in the shape of a reversed triangle by İz Öztat . It was important to create an unsafe space in the hospital we were in. A curatorial intervention was to eliminate any separators or “protections” between the artworks and the audience—there were no frames, glass, or pedestals to interfere with bare penetration.

TR

I having been thinking about this “danger” a lot today; I want to be an angry faggot with AIDS as it matches my lived quotidian. However, this means becoming uncordial or enacting a perceived betrayal in most neoliberal spaces where I thought I belonged, even sought, with my own leftist values as a mixed trailer trash kid. To have “dignity” and show “perseverance” or something in illness: it is an institutional declawing. I want my own practice to detach from this: life is often weird for me and I believe creative practices should match the material conditions they arrive within. We shouldn’t have to bend to gate-kept, decades-old formalisms that exist to fluff egos, stir finance investments, or occupy literal tokenizing contexts. Your curatorial text for “Positive Space” states that: “The unrepressed HIV does not destroy the cell, it attacks and emaciates it, just like hegemonic domination or biopolitics do.” What do you think of “Positive Space” today? Has it changed since its completion for you? How have you encountered its sensibilities out in the world?

AT

This metaphor captures the insidious nature of biopolitical governance, which extends beyond HIV/AIDS to encompass queer existence itself. In the context of Turkey, queer lives are subject to intense biopolitical control, where legal, social, and cultural mechanisms work to pathologize and regulate queer bodies, identities, and ways of living. The state and societal institutions impose a regime of (hyper)visibility and invisibility, rendering queer lives precarious through systemic neglect and active persecution, including the denial of legal protections, social support, and basic human rights. This connects to larger system eyes—undetectability is already practiced or enforced in obvious ways.

For example, as someone living with HIV, you have free-of-charge access to antiretroviral medicine, but PrEP is not an option—you can still get it very expensively, or through the black market, or on gay dating apps, but it is not a public health policy. It makes sense, on the side of the ultra-conversationalist state adopting political Islam, as giving PrEP would mean legitimizing extramarital sex. So the government would only take care of you when you become a threat to society, but not when you are under threat.

A significant legacy of the "Positive Space" exhibition is the formation of a sex-positive, queer HIV organization named after the exhibition. This outcome highlights the potential for artistic interventions to catalyze community action and resilience against biopolitical pressures. However, the recent loss of a young queer friend to AIDS has prompted me to reflect critically on the exhibition's approach. They had never been tested and were unaware they had HIV until they were very sick and diagnosed with AIDS at the hospital. This revealed the persistent gaps in awareness and education, emphasizing that biopolitical control also operates through neglect and lack of information. While “Positive Space” successfully created a critical discourse, it also underscored the need for accessible health education and awareness to combat the neglect that endangers already precarious lives.

TR

What other projects, artists, or work would you like to bring into this discussion?

AT

“A Finger for an Eye,” an exhibition I curated in 2021, exemplifies how undetectability can be appropriated as abstract queer aesthetics, or a survival mechanism under repressive regimes. The exhibition was born out of an urgent need to respond aesthetically to the escalating repression against queer existence in Turkey. Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the government has increasingly targeted the LGBT+ movement, ramping up public hate speech and everyday violence. High officials and opinion leaders have labeled LGBTI+ individuals as immoral, unnatural, and dangerous, fueling a systematic campaign against queer visibility. This campaign has largely operated through the visual regime, where rainbow colors and other symbols of queer identity have become prime targets for state-sanctioned censorship and violence. There seems to be a normalization of the “far-right” strain of politics emerging globally in local ways?

A particularly stark example of this was the reaction to an anonymous artwork submitted by a student collective during the Boğaziçi University protests in 2021. The piece, which featured rainbow flags and a mythical creature atop the Kaaba, was deemed an “ugly attack” on public values. The authorities used this as a pretext to arrest students, seize rainbow flags, and intensify the crackdown on queer visibility. This event exemplified how the state perceives any public display of queer symbols as a threat to its heteropatriarchal order, prompting an iconoclastic purge of queer imagery. From then on, the LGBT+ acronym was dubbed as a literal terrorist organization. The rainbow flag has become a literal terrorist symbol in Turkey. If AIDS was “a crisis of representation” in the Western front, this moment in Turkey can be a micro moment as these visibilities change.

In response to these aggressive measures, “A Finger for an Eye” adopted a strategy of abstraction and tactical invisibility. My curatorial approach involved giving artists strict instructions to avoid using any colors or body figures. I simply invited them to willfully censor themselves. This meant no rainbow colors, which had become the most visible and targetable symbols of queer resistance. Instead, the artists were encouraged to work with black, white, and muddy colors—those formed by blending all the colors of the rainbow together. The figure ban was coming from not providing a detectable queer body representation.

Undetectability as a concept in this context involves creating a bold but evasive aesthetic that evades straightforward identification and targeting by oppressive forces. This strategic invisibility operates within the theoretical framework of possible queer abstractions, which David Getsy articulates as a “resistance model to surveillance and scrutiny.” By abstracting identifiable symbols and forms, the artworks in “A Finger for an Eye” engage in a form of camouflage, rendering themselves undetectable to the state's censorious gaze. This abstraction does not diminish the presence or significance of queer bodies but transforms their representation into something that resists easy consumption and categorization. The exhibition “was an emergency call to feel and investigate the area beyond the visible and before the invisible.”

The directive to avoid figures was equally significant. By abstracting the body, the artworks could evade direct visual identification and targeting. This abstraction did not erase the presence of the body but transformed it into a form that resisted straightforward interpretation and attack. The goal was to create art that exists in a space between visibility and invisibility, thereby subverting the state’s attempts to sanitize public spaces of queer presence.

One intriguing aspect of this process was the artists’ negotiation with these constraints. For instance, Baha Görkem Yalım and the Istanbul Queer Art Collective (IQAC) proposed incorporating plants and flowers into their works. This challenged the color ban. We discussed options like using almost-dying flowers or painting them black or white, but ultimately retained their natural colors, acknowledging that changing the color of a flower would be a very violent act somehow. So the exhibition as a whole was artists’ responses to my grotesquely performed dictums mimicking the authorian state’s repressive demands. That was another curatorial experiment for me—by grotesquely over-performing curatorial authority and dictating certain aesthetic decisions, I aimed to overemphasize and ultimately undermine the traditional curatorial role.

TR

How else have you encountered undetectability? How would you engage it in an increasingly international context while also negotiating with globalism and flattenings? From Berlin, Istanbul, and beyond?

AT

Undetectability challenges the traditional dichotomy of HIV positivity and negativity by introducing a state where the virus is present but not detectable or transmittable. It is not anymore a terminal condition but a managed life, although it should be reiterated that this managed life is only possible in geographies where antiretroviral medicine is fully available. This perspective, while empowering, highlights the dependence on pharmaceutical technologies and the socio-economic disparities in access to these life-saving treatments. But, seemingly we are all being managed more and more regardless thanks to extractive global capitalism.

Contrary to the assumption that only wealthy countries provide ART, many underprivileged regions offer free ART to those living with HIV. This challenges the globalization rhetoric that conflates healthcare quality solely with wealth and underscores the complex geopolitical landscape of HIV treatment. Countries like the United Arab Emirates exemplify the exclusionary practices against HIV-positive migrants, barring them from residency and employment, and highlighting the persistent stigma and discrimination faced by those living with HIV. Many other countries also impose strict barriers for HIV-positive immigrants seeking citizenship and residency due to the perceived financial burden of their lifelong, daily treatment.

Regardless of the undetectable nature of this new managed health condition, you as an undetectable subject are still subjected to outdated HIV policies. This biomedical surveillance extends to social and military exclusion, as seen in Turkey, where HIV-positive individuals are exempt from compulsory military service, reflecting a broader stigmatization and misinformed perception of HIV as a threat. But this is also a great way to avoid compulsory military service! I like taking undetectability as an anti-militarist, anti-national wealth, anti-establishment phenomenon. This makes it easier to shatter HIV’s negative affect by shifting the perspective with the transvaluation of the virus from a “bad object to a good object” as Tim Dean puts it. But of course, being both infected and not ill necessitates resistance to normalizing technologies of being healthy while also accepting these technologies to maintain health.

On a philosophical level, the concept of undetectability can be linked to Jacques Derrida's idea of hospitality for me. Derrida distinguishes between conditional hospitality, which is contingent upon certain rules and norms, and unconditional hospitality, which demands absolute openness to the Other. In the context of HIV, undetectability represents a state where the virus is a permanent guest within the body—managed, but never fully eradicated. This relationship between host (the body) and guest (the virus) challenges traditional understandings of purity, and intrusion. The body, as host, must accommodate the virus, integrating it into its systems while maintaining equilibrium and accepting its permanent residency—embracing the Other, despite its perceived threat, in a coexistence where the virus is acknowledged and managed but not demonized or completely eradicated. I do remember how I described my feelings when I first found out that I had HIV: “As if things were gliding over me beforehand, but now I feel like for the first time I realized things could be stuck in me.”

The notion of a virus as a permanent, undestroyable guest that needs to be controlled daily also resonates with Martin Heidegger's concept of “being-toward-death.” Heidegger posits that the awareness of our mortality fundamentally shapes our existence. Similarly, the undetectable virus represents a constant reminder of mortality and vulnerability—and not only that, it connects one to a generational lineage. During a conversation I had on HIV’s effect in today’s world with a stranger living with HIV, he told me how he is “actually feeling queerer with HIV” which, as I could interpret, connects him somehow to the speculative legacy, to the nostalgia of the first generation of AIDS activism, to the days when being gay was not yet officially assimilated with homonormativity, and when there were joined forces against one enemy, especially in today’s neoliberal queer discourses. I shared his thoughts. I am sure I am too naive to think that way, but I cannot think of someone undetectable who lives a completely integrated, assimilated homonational life today either.

TR

There are wonderful remixes of necropolitics and more in there that feel important to living today. Alper, to conclude, what comes to mind when you think about your own personal undetectability as a person living with HIV? Are you thinking about any thought-strains of undetectability today?

AT

One more thing I feel the urge to mention could be the feeling of liberation the HIV brought in the first place. I want to end with a quote from Guy de Maupassant, when he was diagnosed with syphilis which would bring him frenzies and untimely death:

“You will never guess the wonderful discovery my doctor just made [...] The pox [...] I have the pox, well the real one, not the miserable hot-piss, [...] I’m proud of it, woe [... ], I have pox, so I’m no longer afraid of catching it.”

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