Blending old and new, a participatory documentary about a Turkish magnetic icon highlights the power of simple tools.
Outside of the Turkish community, few know about cultural sensation Zeki Müren. This beating heart of classical “Turkish art music” was also pop’s first and greatest national icon. He was adored for his unique voice and unparalleled eloquence. However, it was equally controversial. Her idiosyncratic costumes, sophisticated makeup and perfect pompadours made headlines long before Prince or Bowie. Still, the versatile and versatile star was a cross-generational icon in a traditional but transforming society. An unlikely hero, Müren has connected with people almost universally, from conservative housewives and grandparents to the military, while also being hailed as a queer icon.
Documenting this sublime revolution, Zeki Müren Hotline (2021), a co-created interactive web experience that collects and curates people’s posts for the icon. Directed by documentary filmmaker Beyza Boyacioğlu and media artist Jeff Soyk, the project cleverly engages an old-fashioned hotline, a throwback to the ubiquitous phenomenon of the 90s. Designed to be a telephone experience, the project has been declared NetArt Honored at the 2022 Webby Awards, the internet’s highest honor.
Although Zeki never openly admitted or denied being gay, he pushed the boundaries of gender norms within the confines of his time. But today, the LGBTQ community is virtually non-existent in mainstream Turkish media due to alarming censorship. This makes such a participatory project even more important.
As you enter the project on your phone, Müren’s powerful voice and piercing gaze resonate. As the mosaic scene unfolds, you see the artist’s life through the eyes of his fans. Each image is a prism opening up different facets of the icon while offering insight into Turkey’s socio-cultural and political history. Combined with insightful anecdotes and visuals, it’s an intimate archive of lived experiences with real voices, where secrets and stories, confessions and questions come together.
Helpline Zeki Müren was born out of a participatory experience for Boyacioğlu’s master’s thesis in 2015, nearly two decades after Müren’s death. Setting up the hotline was simple: strategically placed postcards in local locations across Istanbul inviting ordinary Turks to leave a message to/about Zeki Müren.
A testament to Müren and his magic, the hotline has become an unexpected sensation within months, receiving hundreds of anonymous voicemails. A year later, when Boyacioğlu and Soyk met at the MIT Open Documentary Lab (ODL), the project evolved even further, morphing into the interactive, mobile documentary experience we see today.
As ODL alumni, Boyacioğlu and Soyk are no strangers to the rapidly evolving immersive tools and techniques pushing non-traditional forms of documentary. Still Helpline Zeki Müren stands out for its powerful simplicity. In its retro and interactive format, the hotline appeals to individual and collective memories and nostalgia of the icon. Behind the scenes, I interviewed the directors to learn more about their vision.
(Re)Collection: Setting up the hotline
An ordinary telephone and a simple question: “Will Zeki Müren hear us?” » served as a basis for the participatory experimentation. Callers were even greeted with a “Hello, Zeki Müren speaking” from one of his films, adding his ubiquitous personal touch.
When I asked why a hotline, Boyacioğlu said, “A lot of people felt really comfortable telling intimate stories just because of this format.” She explained, “As there was no microphone in front of them or a camera, they were just in the comfort of their home, picking up the phone and telling a very intimate story. story, without knowing where it will go.
The posts reminded Soyk of previous “story booths,” noting that the lo-fi audio quality of the posts captured on the tool also sound very analog, giving the stories even more warmth.
To set up the hotline, Boyacioğlu used Vojo, an open-source tool that captures and communicates cellphone stories, developed by the MIT Center for Civic Media and previously used in other iconic audio projects such as Quipu (2015) .
Boyacioğlu recalled the unexpected flurry of messages at the start. “The whole system broke, we didn’t realize what was happening. It was because we didn’t have enough credits because so many people were calling. She added that some of the messages weren’t even directly related to Müren, perhaps calls made for “comfort” or “to mark this day and time in some format.”
Find form in the flood
The directors shared that it was difficult to find the balance between paying homage to Müren by creating an extensive repository of appeals and participatory stories. But audience participation was a driving force behind the project, creating a work that drew its power from storytelling and collective narratives rather than singular vision. “The idea has always been, what does he mean to people from all walks of life in Turkey? How can he be the common denominator of almost everyone? Being this queer icon, who is supposed to be marginalized, he’s someone everyone adores,” Boyacioğlu shared, citing that curiosity as a prompting question.
Soyk added that it was interesting to see what “unexpected results” might emerge from reaching out and listening to others. What is important is “who tells the story, [and] when can you tell more about the general public to be storytellers and get them to take the lead? Retention of messages still delineates the artist’s touch, but does not dominate the novelty and iteration in the collaboration.
Focusing on the format was not easy. Digging into its making, Soyk explored many different possibilities for the design of the project. But the strength of the content paved the way. “The messages themselves are so strong. We wanted to be mindful not to overshadow those, the content with the technology, or just try to over-engineer the piece. Also, because it can very easily interfere with all those meaningful phone calls that are really at the heart of it all,” Soyk said. “Even though much of the aesthetic and animation is quite simple, we tried to make it thoughtful to best complement the messaging given the limitations we were working with.”
Intimacy throughout the format plays an important role. As you scroll through the mosaic, Müren’s piercing gaze feels like a visual anchor that commands attention. During initial brainstorming, “fragmented storytelling” and “intimacy” emerged as the two main themes the creators wanted to explore. The focus was on creating an intimate, individualized interaction with the audience member from this deluge of crowd-sourced material. This resulted in the user experience design for the phone and the initial desktop version for the exhibits. Boyacioğlu shared, “Zeki played a lot with this personal interaction, trying to make the audience feel special. We wanted to create this, where you feel like Zeki is talking to you or the people who called the hotline talk to you.
The selection of messages took the form of several thematic sieves through which they filtered the possibilities. “We wanted to strike a balance in terms of themes and message styles. Some posts are more story-based. Some are just feelings. Some are analyzes about him that people had,” Boyacioğlu said. Given the interactive form, it was essential to carefully design the order of the messages and the emotional experience, either to attempt a linear journey or to allow a non-linear wandering in the database.
Blocks and bridges
Soyk, whose work leans toward nostalgia, memory, and media, was particularly fascinated by Zeki’s contradiction. He remembers how Boyacioğlu described Müren as the symbol of the LGBTQ community and the Republic’s young poster boy.
For Boyacioğlu, the project has the potential to attract people unaffiliated with LGBTQ communities to “go see it because it’s Müren, but in the mix, also be exposed to these messages related to injustice towards LGBTQ people. and their rights”. She hopes this project “can somehow create a bridge between these communities that usually don’t really touch each other.”
A documentary about Müren is not a first. Still, Helpline Zeki Müren goes beyond, becoming a lens of Turkey’s bygone days. Listening to the messages, it is clear that Müren meant a lot of things to a lot of people. Not just as their precious “Sun of Art”, but as a brother, friend and confidant. Effectively weaving in crowdsourced stories, the piece creates and preserves an intimate, individual and collective experience. It harbors a unique potential to foster a shared space in a digital context – a space for reflection and connection – hopefully as piercing as Müren’s gaze.