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The Free Society of Fools and Crooks, general view, Pilot Gallery, İstanbul, 2016. Photo: Rıdvan Bayrakoğlu

Free Society of Fools and Crooks, 2016

Free Society of Fools and Crooks was founded between December 1, 2016 and January 7, 2017 in Pilot Art Gallery in Istanbul. The works in the exhibition consisted of the reexamination, reinterpretation and re-performance of swindling stories that fall outside History with a capital H—the stage of grand personalities, ideologies, narratives and also violence—and which could rather be attributed to the realm of popular culture and urban legends where unverifiable and fickle narratives roam the field. In the selection of the swindlers on the “wall of fame” titled Strange Confidant constituting the backdrop of the exhibit, two primary criteria were sought: 1) That the stories entail acting and performance, 2) That they are performed bottom up; that is to say the con is one where the person employs his or her own talents without relying on the privileged position afforded by an institution, company, the state or political party, which would be more along the lines of bribery or fraud. The performative quality of the exhibited works stem from the selection of this method; additionally, it could be said that the space set up for the exhibition was also “theatrical”/ performative.

Two closed roundtables titled Turning an Honest Penny: Swindling, Work, Culture, Economy were organized over the course of the exhibit in the exhibition space. People from various disciplines and different positions of the art world (editor, curator, writer, psychologist, academician, etc.) participated in the first meeting. The second roundtable was held only with the participation of the artists.

The Sign, Free Society of Fools and Crooks, acid etching brass plaque mounted on wood, 32x45cm.
Photo: Rıdvan Bayrakoğlu
Twisted, loop video and sound, golden tie, 2016. Photo: Rıdvan Bayrakoğlu
Bako The Daisy Broker, brass stamp, head letter, 2016.
Photo: Rıdvan Bayrakoğlu

Vow of the Free Society of Fools and Crooks


As a member of the Free Society of Fools and Crooks;

I swear by Eyüplü Halit, George Manolescu, Princess Caraboo, Selçuk Parsadan, 'Sülün' Osman, Waldo Demara, 'Count' Viktor Lustig, official and unofficial fools, swindlers, idiots whose stories are told by History with a capital H or history with a small h, that I will carry out, this covenant: 


I will lie all the times to the best of my talent, ability and resources.


Under no circumstances I will not go off the path I know.


I will believe in all that is fake and keep away from all that is real.


I will not separate the poor from the rich, I will take from the rich to give the poor, take from the poor to give the rich and if possible take from both to give to both.


Under no circumstances I will show no mercy on people without distinction as to religion, race and sex.


I will trust nobody and everybody.


I will not discriminate between the cheater and the cheated, the scammer and the scammed, the defrauder and the defrauded. 


I will respect the thoughts, theories, desires and fears of all the fools and crooks, I will not impose any ideas on them.


Forever I will listen to what they say, be a slave for their phantasms and desires.


I will manipulate fools and crooks' minds, desires and fears to reach the truth.


I will stay away from the known and not fear the unknown.

“The Last True Artists Were The Priests Who Sold Indulgences.”

Tuğba Esen 24.12.2016 Agos, Culture & Arts Interview with Burak Delier

Translated by Liz Erçevik Amado & Irazca Geray

T.E.: What kind of research process preceded the exhibition?

B.D.: I’ve been researching tales of con-artists and swindlers for a long time. Among the many stories I’ve found, I focused on those that entail a performative aspect; those where the individuals used their own talents, without relying on any organizations, companies or political parties, and those that did not involve corruption or bribery. I brought together the stories of con artists who did not hold a privileged position. We have here con artists who approach social life from below, from a naked, defenseless place, and who almost use the codes of that life as an alphabet.

T.E.: The con artists we meet here seem like they could be subjects of sociological research as well. Does the project have such an aspect for you?

B.D.: Though a stretch, it’s possible to categorize these stories under certain headings, but my perspective is different. We have the sense of a loss of awareness when Sülün (Pheasant) Osman sells the Galata Bridge. “How could someone think that they could own that bridge, that they could buy it, or that it was something that could be bought?” I think at that point we abjectly see the desires to “make it”, to “be someone” or “to move up the social ladder”. We tend to regard these as stories of fools and crooks but in fact it’s also our own story. It exposes our desires and fears.

T.E.: What do you mean when you say “it’s our own story”?

B.D.: All through our lives we fall for empty promises, and many of our expectations are not realized. Not just in a political sense, but also in our one on one relationships or our economic enterprises. There is a constant case of believing, convincing, or falling for something even though you should know better. We go for absurd promises because they seem attractive or because we have the feeling that we might miss out on something big if we don’t take the opportunity. Rather than acting with logic and sense, we are driven by an emotional dynamic. And the reason for that is our desires and our fears.

T.E.: In some of the works displayed at the exhibition we see that you are acting the part of the con artist in question. What kind of relationship does that create?

B.D.: Some people enjoy these narratives, they think, “Wow he sure fooled all those people”. It’s like pointing and laughing at someone who trips and falls… And yet, you yourself had tripped up a moment ago! We need to give up this outside gaze. My intention was to experience the situation from the inside.

In all of these examples, before a third person gets involved, the swindler and the swindled, the mark and the con artist construct a world together. I mean, when Sülün Osman sells the Galata Bridge the bridge belongs to the person he sold it to for a little while—until the police come and say, “You do not own this bridge.” That’s when that constructed world disappears. For instance, a man named Frédéric Bourdin passed himself off to an American family as their son who had been missing for years. Even though there was no physical resemblance between Bourdin and the child, the family accepted him. Later, the FBI got involved through a family acquaintance and it came out that Bourdin was not the missing child. And yet, until the FBI came along a world had been constructed there, the family’s son had returned. While the person on the outside says, “this bridge is not yours” or “that boy is not your son”, I replaced the con artist in order to emphasize the world within. I wanted to recreate the performance, and that world constructed by both parties.

Investigative reporter Rıfat Bali writes that, according to a police chief in Beyoğlu, Sülün Osman would actually appropriate the cons of Eyüplü Halit (Halit of Eyüp). In fact, that resembles my approach in the exhibition: I appropriate these cons and perform them again in order to think about them, to multiply the discursive cloud around them and to open a new space of thought.

T.:E.: Could we also say a shared world is constructed to explain the relationship between the artist, the artwork she or he creates and the audience?

B.D.: Of course. The sentence I used as a slogan in the exhibition “The last great artists were priests who sold indulgences” brings to mind the confidence/persuasion relationship in art. Because the dynamics between the provider and the receiver of news, the creator and the consumer of knowledge, the one who trusts and the one who abuses that trust are all pertinent in art as well. We’re talking here about situations where the con artist succeeds. The Indian con man Natwarlal tried to sell the Indian Parliament a hundred times and he only succeeded once. We don’t know about his unsuccessful ventures. Artists are a bit like that as well. Believability is not something that is always achieved, but rather it’s something attempted. Museums, galleries, collections, newspapers and magazines are, in fact, institutionalized mechanisms of persuasion and approval. If a work is exhibited at the MoMA, your potential, as a viewer, to reject it is diminished. Thus, that one on one relationship of constructing a world together through art is somewhat undermined. Because you, as a viewer, lose your subjectivity, your own opinion, your condition of participation and your potential sense of espousal. On the institutional stage everything happens with gentle imposition. Another reason for this is the idea of “I can do this myself” which has become the motto for the presently dominant right-wing populism, or the notion that the art world is full of impostors. A group of rich people go to an art show and buy some works. At that moment everyone is affirming each other. To someone looking in from the outside this looks like a con. Even though this aspect of art is problematic it still carries the potential to unlock different worlds and to expand thought.

Turning an Honest Penny: Swindling, Work, Culture, Economy, round table discussion, 17.12.2016,
participants: Cem Erciyes, İsmail Ertürk, Süreyyya Evren, Pınar Padar, Başak Doğa Temür,
Free Society of Fools and Crooks.

T.E.: Upon entering the exhibition the viewer feels like they have really stepped into the chambers of The Free Society of Fools and Crooks rather than into a gallery. Why was it important to transform the space?

B.D.: I’m quarreling with art, I suppose that’s why. To me, art is not something you put in a gallery, a self-proclaimed pretty object. What really interests me is the story behind the object. I believe that that object has no meaning whatsoever outside of theoretical discussions. What makes a museum a museum or art art is the fact that we can talk about these stories, perform them again and again and appropriate them for ourselves. When I was setting up the space I tried to make sure the objects we exhibited had a backdrop. Unfortunately, the gallery offers a very challenging backdrop. However much I might have transformed it this place is still a gallery space. My intention was to foreground the intellectual or even educational aspect of the gallery and to push coded gesture of buying and selling as much as possible to the background. This is the main concern of most of my work. I’ve never held up a photograph and said, “This photograph is the whole of my work.” There has always been a story, a theory, or a statement that applied to the work. I tried to instigate thought-provoking discussions based on these. Beyond that, I’m not really interested in art as a pose, as protest or as the production of aesthetic objects.

T.E.: Some of your works have lots of words, others are silent, performative acts…

B.D.: In the stories that I chose the con artists have two particular qualities: Acting skills and mastery of language. Some of them know four or five languages, some of them know ten. They have a bizarre knack for picking up foreign languages. The work called Twisted, which is one of the least understood works in the exhibition and which consists of a video of a tongue twister and a large tie, is directly related to the matter of language. The tie hangs down, the words go both up and down. While the word wants to climb up it is bested by gravity and death and falls down. The meaning gets lost in the tongue twister, due to the repetition of sounds. In the tongue twister we hear in video (A con man where a con man here a con man there. The con man who cons the con man who cons the con man who cons the con man…), three imaginary con artists discuss the finesses of swindling amongst themselves. As for the tie, it alludes to the tongue that rolls on and on, to the crisis of meaning, and to the death which awaits at the end.

Con artists are subjects who play with social codes. The utilization of the codes is only possible in the world of symbols offered by language. In Thomas Mann’s novel Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man, which was inspired by Georges Manolescu’s life story, the protagonist spontaneously starts speaking French, which he does not know. Even though he doesn’t know how to play tennis he picks up the racket and performs some moves. Even though people find his behavior bizarre at first then they come to believe that he has his own style. Felix Krull abandons social anxiety and rules, and plays with his own inspiration, thus creating a new style. Just like Ezra Pound translating from the Japanese without knowing any Japanese.


Also, con artists have the freedom of moving between different worlds, of reconciling different poles with one another, of using both sides and being excepted from the need to furnish proof. I believe that this is an artistic way of producing thought. It holds a model for the intellectual movement of art, which weaves across and within various disciplines and forms of knowledge.

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