30 Haziran 2006 Cuma

Erden Kosova & Vasif Kortun

From the reader published in the context of the Romanian Pavillion with Daniel Knorr and Marius Babias for the 51. Venice Biennale, 2005 .

Erden: Vasif, the expansion of the EU towards its eastern margin had a visible effect on the agenda of core European art institutions. The series of exhibitions, held in late 2002 and 2003, that set out to frame the art practice of the Balkan geography added to a previous chain of events, which had related to the eastern wing of the continent under geographic titles that slowly shifted towards the right-hand side of the map: Central East European, East European, South East European, and so on. A lot of suspicion- and arguments have been raised against the motivations behind and the structures and contents of these exhibitions. Yet, a viable critique in relation to these XL exhibitions could not be elaborated. The year 2004 produced the new geographic hype of Istanbul, following the attention directed at Turkey during the critical decision phase concerning a possible accession to the EU: first, the highly criticised exhibition at the ZKM in Karlsruhe, Call Me Istanbul is My Name, curated by the trio Peter Weibel, Eda Çufer, and Roger Conover, then your STADTanSICHTen: Istanbul exhibitions in the IFA Galleries in Stuttgart and Berlin, and finally a project in preparation, Focus Istanbul, to be realised at the Martin-Gropius-Bau in Berlin under the curatorial guidance of Christoph Tannert and Peter Lang. Although the latter project has caused some discomfort in Istanbul, many artists from Turkey have taken part in this series of exhibitions, and I am interested to consider your past criticism of those who uncritically accepted all invitations, regardless of the conceptual and political investments of these exhibitions. In your opinion, what could have been, or is now the correct stance?

Vasif: My criticism stems in part from the inevitability that these projects are not self-reflexive. Firstly, a considerable number of the artists participating in such exhibitions regard them as a kind of podium or catwalk, with a bit of travel, rest, relaxation and networking as perks. The latecomers may of course ask for their share of the limelight but the situation is somewhat clichéd. This is what I have named before as the “Yes generation” artists who cherish any opportunity that comes their way. These “Yes generation” exhibitions fit artistic practice all too well into competing political agendas such as the EU expansion process. A transgressive artistic practice that calls the whole enterprise into doubt is still far away. Secondly, the bracketing of artistic practice within the confines of a territory, region, country, or geography of belief is already a liability, unless it is articulated as a deficit taking into account what it excludes rather than what it purports to include. Regionality is a process about which we cannot be arriviste. Moreover regionality, as I understand it, is a discussion between equal partners contesting and cooperating on the same turf through various tools such as language, history, possible futures and such. It is a mode of building networks that are not city or border dependent; that are not modelled by participants external to the situation such as cultural managers; that are not aligned with policies of governments and nations; and that do not standardise and streamline the East of Europe. The standardisation of artistic positions is a problem, all the more so because this conglomerating effect produces an artistic subject who then makes work that appeals to this notion of categorisation - generating a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you frame this problem within the context of the neo-exotic, the situation gets more complicated. I have written in the past of a contiguousness of imagining desire, the periphery’s projection of what a centre may desire, and the centre’s projection (or pre-projection) of what the periphery should want to desire. If the desires are somewhat commensurate, as evidence seems to suggest, access to funds and circulation are disproportionate. But keep in mind that the use of the words “periphery” and “centre” here simply refer to context.

E: Well, this is a rather bleak picture. Don’t you find any constructive dimension within this series of Balkan exhibitions? A rather automatic criticism seemed to be shared by many intellectuals from various cities of the Balkans, declaring the Western perspective within these exhibitions as pre-conditioned and guilty. I would say, it is hard to ignore a positive consequence which is the acceleration of transversal energies among the participating geographies and the resulting conversations between them. All this hype will soon be over. What can now be constructed from this experience? I have a certain faith in future collaborations between geographies that have been synthetically re-connected by these core European initiatives.

V: I did not criticise the West of Europe. Of all things, a regional discussion should not be predicated on funding and should not have been post-bellum, rather it should have taken place during the trauma years. I feel that we have lost much valuable time when the discussion could have been carried out in tandem with the real political conflict of the 90s, after the dismantling of Yugoslavia. Alas, the truth of this situation had to be dictated from the great beyond. Otherwise, I hold the view that there is a positive dimension to these projects. My question is what is emphasized here: Fragmentation as in the horrific term of “Balkanization” or the togetherness of sharing destinies?

E: I suppose you are bit too hard on the artists. On the one hand, we know that such exhibitions are the sole occasions when artists from the whole region are given a support structure within which to produce new work, especially young artists who suffer terribly under the prevalent economic conditions. On the other hand, we also know that not everyone is a yes-artist. There are exemplary figures who insist on certain criteria and test the motivations behind the invitation. Do you see any recognisable examples of self- exoticisation? How do these XL exhibitions affect the content and form of the works?

V: Quite clearly, a main artery runs through the region, referencing national anthems, folkloric songs, flags, büreks, local musical instruments, the approach to the English language, the use of family, etc. One question is whether we overplay these issues in XL projects, thus effectively suppressing other proposals and contributing to a fetishisation by an excessive foregrounding of the exotica of objects and attitudes. We take if for granted that there is beautiful work there and yet there is a kind of anxiety, or a burden of anxiety, where visual production has a complex dependence on nation, region, and colonisation. I think that is why humour and masquerade have been used so often, to liberate the anxiety and share it. This is in some way related to Frederick Jameson’s proposal - that all third world texts are read as allegories of nation. We can substitute “nation” here with “place”. I think the issues are very interesting, I am not devaluing them in any way.

E: Is there no possibility for a correct stance for the Western gaze? Do you feel uncomfortable when the curatorial positions of this kind of events are being held by European curators? I think what made Rene Block’s exhibition most sympathetic among these projects was his genuine willingness to leave the platform to the interaction between related cities.

V: I never feel comfortable with making a totalizing project about a place that I know so little about, but I assume that is a personal position. However, the truth is that there is a lot to learn from a vision that comes from another place. Harald Szeemann’s research was extraordinary, and he went on to work with artists from here in different projects later on. Rene Block’s project was not simply an exhibition, it was not about diminishing returns for the invited. It enhanced a peripery to periphery discussion in an extremely positive way. It was more of an after-effect than an event per se. However, the relation of power and economy at the end of the game between the host and the guest are incommensurate.

E: We are both implicated with the recent wave of contemplating Istanbul. The two successive exhibitions I co-curated, Daydreaming in Quarantine (>rotor<, Graz, 2003) and Notes from the Quarantine (Israeli Digital Art Lab, Holon, 2003) were attempts to reflect on an urban and sub-cultural specificity that could escape or interrupt representational determination such as nation or religious topography. Identifying with a city seemed to me, at that time, potentially subversive with regard to nationalist and fundamentalist agendas. Later, in the exhibition Along the Gates of the Urban (Gallery K&S in Berlin and Oda Projesi in Istanbul, 2003), I tried to shift to a more generic sense of urban experience, to the issues around new social hierarchies that have emerged as a by-product of capital’s re-appropriation of the urban centres. In 2004, you curated the show STADTanSICHTen: Istanbul where you addressed issues of social space in the specificity of Istanbul, which we elaborated further in our book Szene Türkei, Abseits aber Tor! (Jahresring & Walther König, Cologne, 2004). The main argument of our text is that the classic definition of public space and private space, and the division between them, do not comfortably fit into the social space in Istanbul. By applying to perspectives on issues such as gender, domestic space and competing control apparatus of the state, the media and moral conservatism we tried to elaborate on the specificity of the city and the artistic discourse shaped within it. Did we succeed in our escape from self-exoticism – what do you think?

V: Let others assess that. Istanbul, being my home, is my favourite hobby-horse. These ideas have developed into a series of exhibitions, discussions, interviews, and texts. The project started with the exhibition Becoming a Place, in 2001, at Proje4L in Istanbul. That exhibition pivoted around issues of trying to negotiate the meanings of public and private space, the transformation of the city, and how the artists extrapolated from this transformation. This was extended with a different group of artists in the STADTanSICHTen: Istanbul project. The series of interviews I made with a group of artists and yourself, in the Istanbul journal in 2004,[1] focused on possibilities beyond the current position of art institutions in the city. One clear issue was the impossibility of a sustainable cultural production, if institutional and artistic practice and presentation were limited to the entertainment zone of the city, an area that spans a mere two miles.

E: Now, you are going ahead with a large event that is again dedicated to the Istanbul experience: the 9th Istanbul Biennial, which you are curating with Charles Esche. What were your motivations for these Istanbul-related practices? How would you differentiate your stance from the hype?

V: You mean which side are we on? Am I putting my “queer shoulder to the wheel”? Granted, the Istanbul Biennial has taken its cue from globalisation by using sites of privatisation, historical buildings, and positioning itself for “European” reception. Granted, that in the competition of mega-cities, the biennial plays a role as well and serves cultural tourism. What Charles Esche and I are attempting is to shift the attention elsewhere, to posit another option for Istanbul, a city that belies its imperial arrogance and serves as a hub of diffusion for the larger region, a place that does not invade or incorporate, but embraces you. This is one of the proposals to be rescued from the perils of globalisation, capital and the EU. It is a proposal stemming largely from a historical responsibility in bringing things together, a space to share without bowing to market society. We cannot ask if we are in a losing game if we have lost already, it is about what we can rescue and how can start anew.

E: Another project you have both been involved is related to the process of “normalisation”. As far as I can perceive, the term refers to the effort of bringing some traumatised territories back to the norms under EU supervision; but also to the claim of the Central European art machine, which seems to symbolically upgrade the status of contemporary art contexts within these territories. Is there a possible form of self-normalisation? Do you think that normalisation is unavoidable and something that is desired for? Or should we insist on crisis and criticality? \

V: I would like to return this question to you, because as a person who runs an institution and curates a biennial, as someone who has seen real-politic in action, too many factors of the ‘real’ soften my stance. I feel this is a danger I carry, my self-criticality is appealing to the like-minded. I am radical, but not a revolutionary. But, to answer your question, is art not the _expression of crisis, is it not a field of no returns, is it not the exercise of freedom and processes of truth? I suspect that what you are implying here is a loss of these privileges.

E: I guess so. Personally, I entered the contemporary art scene that was emerging in Istanbul at the end of 90s purely because of the promise of a radical stance. The momentum picked up for a while, but then it started to disperse. I feel like I’m in a phase of mourning. In the context of Istanbul, what we are witnessing now is a popularisation, an institutionalisation, and finally a banalisation of contemporary art practice; and this situation can easily be linked to the recent flirt of the ruling government (which is based on the conservative values of the previously excluded provincial middle class and the protest of the lower classes, but is now running sterile neo-liberal policies under the supervision of the IMF) with the traditional urban bourgeoisie and the mass media attached to it. The pro-EU boost seems to have brought about a neutralising and sterilising effect on urban life. Accordingly, new art institutions appear that prioritise the marketing of Istanbul to the global perception. Is this the end of the edgy, naughty art practice that managed to be a discursive organism and get a certain global acclaim?

V: At the Istanbul Modern (museum), we have already experienced the normalisation of artistic production and the conditioning of audience reception. The public response may be enthusiastic, but the museum is out to make a marriage between the local artists, galleries, collectors and the contemporary visual artists. In Istanbul, contemporary visual culture does not share much with the local economy and circulation of art. I find this to be a very unholy matrimony. This is a new scenario where the culture of contemporary art, lacking any support, is ushered into the museum for the sake of the museum’s international legitimisation. The museum uses doublespeak. It empowers a highly suspicious provincial scenography and misuses contemporary art as a make-up for international respectability. Everything, as you say, is directed towards the centre. Reality check: the prime minister who opened the new museum was the same person who, as mayor, closed a similar project ten years ago. This is normalisation alla turca. How can you ask for compensation and not accept perdition? The main question hovering above our heads is not specific to Istanbul, it is about the new economy in which tourism plays a critical part. Consequently, the city is cleared out along class lines, new ghettos of undesirables are made invisible because their means of representation are thwarted. The cultural sector services tourism, and the practice and distribution of contemporary art is instrumentalised towards it. At the same time, it is a sobering period for all of us, and new positions are bound to emerge.

E: The spatial limitation of the local art scene to the entertainment zone of the city centre is only one syndrome among a multitude of failures: the failure of delivering highly political content to the local audience, the scarce number of artist-run spaces and low-budget project spaces, the hesitation to intervene within the public space, etc. What could be a way out of this stiffening closure? Are you pessimistic about it?

V: The limitation to the entertainment zones, at a fundamental level, is about self-censure as much as it is about a desire for visibility. So, what you have now is a kind of institutional normalcy as in West Europe and an abnormalcy because speech is always already curtailed. We had a culture supported by private business only. You cannot run on one leg. Where do you see the stiffening primarily? In artistic production, or the institutions? Novel changes in artistic production would bring forth radical transformation in institutional practise from exhibition to architecture. Are we implying that in Turkey in particular, or the region in general, the artists and the curators, due to belatedness as well as other reasons, desire largely to be part of the already existing models? If so, what does that say about artistic practice today?

Interview with Secil Yersel [eng]
Interview with Secil Yersel [tr]
Interview with Cevdet Erek [tr]
Interview with Aydan Murtezaoğlu[tr]
Interview with Erden Kosova [tr]
Interview with Can Altay [tr]