The Explorations of Orkan Telhan
Curiosity and collaboration have been driving forces in the life of interdisciplinary artist and designer Orkan Telhan.
Orkan Telhan is a boundary-defying artist, designer, and researcher whose art integrates scientific practice, multimedia design, and cultural critique.
Born in 1976 in Oberhausen, Germany, Telhan earned a BFA at Bilkent University in Ankara, Turkey, an MFA in media studies at the State University of New York in Buffalo, and a PhD in design and computation from MIT’s department of agriculture. A true interdisciplinary artist, he has filed three patents, written several scientific papers, and made solo and collaborative art for exhibitions around the world, including at Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, the New Museum of Contemporary Art, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Telhan is the cofounder of Biorealize, a biotech firm using biology to redesign and scale sustainable everyday products. The company has collaborated with Puma and MIT Design Lab to create biodegradable sneakers and self-adapting footwear.
He is a professor of fine arts at the University of Pennsylvania’s Weitzman School of Design and the writer of Designature: The Nature of Signatures in Art and Design (2016).
Orkan Telhan knows that he didn’t need to grow steaks from human cells.
Orkan Telhan: I could’ve made a picture of them. I could have used papier-mâché and plaster to fake it, but I’m showing you how they really look like if you grow these cells in six months. I spend the money. I collaborate with scientists. It’s a team of people working on it. After all this effort, they are not just drawings, or film, or documentation. They are the real thing.
Telhan grew the coin-size steaks as part of “Breakfast Before Extinction”, an installation reflecting on the future of the human diet, but as word spread, so did outrage. He received threatening emails and accusations that the project was promoting cannibalism. Faking human cell steak would have been a less provocative approach, but provocation was his aim.
Telhan: And some people overreact. Some people feel, you know, threatened about it. Some people think that, you know, it’s the worst idea in the world, but there’s a conversation about this. So sometimes the conversation happens in the galleries, but most of the time, the bigger conversation happens outside the gallery space. So I care about the bigger space. How can we create these artifacts so that they really reach to broader audiences, not necessarily to become popular, but to provoke new conversations around these big, tough issues?
Whether growing human cell steaks, constructing a chapel that plays recordings of opinions on political and religious issues over electronic music, or designing a sculpture that tells the history of the Istanbul Community Gardens from the perspective of microorganisms, Telhan is an artist and designer more interested in sparking curiosity than finding answers.
Telhan: The most important thing for me is to come up with the good questions. And sometimes I’m capable of answering the questions myself, or I initiate conversations where we ask those questions together with other people. Because sometimes we don’t realize that we live in a world that’s constructed by others, other people’s imaginations, other people’s values, and so on, so how can we push this a little bit so that we ask ourselves the tough questions, and then we can really push our boundaries of imagination?
Born in West Germany in the 1970s to Turkish parents, Telhan’s childhood was shaped by two opposing forces: immense curiosity, and a feeling that he wasn’t very interesting.
Telhan: I was a very boring kid from my own standards, like, no amazing drawing skills, no amazing like, prodigy, you know, things that parents will say, “Oh, he was a great guy.” But I would say books were fascinating, right? I mean, the earliest memories that I still have, even before I probably was capable of reading books were spending time in bookstores, looking at the covers and things, and I think that sense of like, looking this book relates to this book, and this book, that overview of how you can connect the things is the most important thing for me. Like, now I don’t think that I have a great imagination, but I know the importance of connecting things that are not necessarily easy to connect with each other. Things, when you’re an adult, you can, you know, filter out, and say that, “Okay, well, this makes sense.” But when you’re a kid, nothing makes sense, and the important thing is that nobody said no.
Language was another force that shaped Telhan. For the first seven years of his life, he spoke German. Then he was enrolled in a Turkish-speaking school. It took several years for him to feel comfortable with his parents’ native language, but the process pushed him to see the world from fresh perspectives.
Telhan: I think it caused something in the brain that had like, these two different, you know, worlds that had to translate things with each other. And during every translation, you create a new worldview, a new reality. So that weird thing about like, using a, translate one thing, to another thing, and another thing was probably still a method that I’m using today.
Decades later, Telhan’s interest in language and questions collided in “United Colors of Dissent”. The piece, which Telhan describes as data-driven performance, invited passers by on the streets of various cities to answer questions on their phones. The interface allowed them to answer in any language of their choice, and then display the answers in real time, as well as the languages represented for everyone to see. It allowed people to answer, anonymously, questions they might have otherwise felt uncomfortable with, such as, can you travel freely around the world? Have you ever felt suppressed? And do you have faith?
Telhan: It’s a different kind of politics than asking the question, because now we are enabling people who are silenced to contribute to the project. It’s a different thing than saying that, “Are you, you know, oppressed by this regime?” You know, if you ask the question like this, people say yes, no, but then what? But if you see your friend who is answering the question next to you saying something, then, and you, after answering the question, then you can have a private conversation about what was your experience? What was going on? That I think is the most powerful part of the project, not what we accumulated or presented in public, but how it, it created a new conversation among people, because they are publicly participating at the same time, so the kind of dialogues that emerge.
Cultivating conversation and exploring differences isn’t just a message Telhan weaves into his work. It’s also something he practices as an Associate Professor of Fine Arts at the University of Pennsylvania.
Telhan: I have students coming from all kinds of different value systems, religious systems, and financial commitments, or investments to different types of values, let’s put it this way. And I try to listen their concerns, and think about how they can be more diversified, because that’s what we can do. Like, if you have a different opinion, I have a different opinion, to be able to understand each other’s values to be, we need to really empathize with each other. We can still keep your opinions-
AJC: And still disagree.
Telhan: And disagree, but now you’ll be in a more powerful position if you know my, if you know the extent and the details of my values. So I’m trying to make sure that we can see the complexity and operate in that complexity, even though we don’t have a solution to deal with individual differences. We are probably more dependent on each other, not only because we are depending on this human level of connection, but the food that we eat, the air that we breathe, the soil that we step on has a big connectivity across this microbial realm that makes us all dependent on each other. So individually we are maybe siloing ourselves, using that you’re yourself like, you know, the confines of your body, you go around. But I think that that’s an illusion. That’s a reality that we’ve constructed ourselves, and deep inside, it’s all very much connected.
But Telhan isn’t just interested in relationships between people, or even between people and the environment. He questions why people should be the focus of our concerns in the first place. One of his recent projects, “Microbial Fruits of Istanbul”, is an installation that tells the history of that city’s community gardens from the perspective of microorganisms collected across the city.
Telhan: What is happening, when humans were claiming all these territories, having all kinds of conflict with each other, never getting along or, and also lots of peaceful things as well.
Telhan: So I have to acknowledge that too. What was happening to the non-humans in the backgrounds, like, whether it’s organisms, whether it’s animals, whether it’s plants? So I’m interested in, again, challenging the human-centric thinking about history, and archeology, and so on, because these places have hosted many, many gene pools of species for thousands, or maybe millions of years, right? I mean, people are talking about like, you know, people moving from Africa to the Middle East. It was one of the gateways to where the homo sapiens spread around. So in a space like this, like, focusing on the last 2000 years, to me is a little bit like, maybe it’s arrogant, right? I mean, I’m not interested in preserving gardens so that humans go and grow more vegetables in them, because again, that will be human exceptionalism, leaving them alone so that they can be themselves.
Telhan wants to decentralize humans from our world views, but his position isn’t a cold, calloused disregard. He’s neither pessimistic nor optimistic about the future of humanity. Instead, he’s tried to tap into a broader interpretation of our world, an understanding fueled by humility.
Telhan: I believe in the species, I don’t think that it needs to go extinct. I don’t, it doesn’t have to be so radical, or it will never learn, and it will just be like, bumped out, like, because it will conflict with another species, and it will lose the priority. So we will not know, and that not knowing part is, I think, a good, humble place to be as a human. I believe in science, we need to learn, but we won’t be able to know what’s going to happen 10,000 years down the road. So let’s make sure that we really calibrate our own knowledge, based on the, what we can think about right now.
Orkan Telhan’s interests and work don’t fit neatly into a box or category, because he won’t allow them to. He remains open to new questions, and new curiosities, never content to take any part of our complicated, interconnected world for granted.