13th Istanbul Biennial: Mom, Am I Barbarian?
The thirteenth instalment of the Istanbul Biennial, curated by Fulya Erdemci, entitled: Mom, Am I Barbarian? is taken from the Turkish poet Lale Müldür’s book of the same title. The announced theme in winter 2013 almost seems like a portent of the civil protest in Turkey during the summer. For the twelve Istanbul Biennial, the curators took a back-to-basics approach to deliver a mostly apolitical exhibition by showing mainly high-end artworks. This time, Erdemci proposed that the plan was for artists to work in some of the city's most contested including area Gezi Park and Taksim Square. The main focal point of the biennial was the public domain as a political forum in the form of an exhibition in dialogue with the city. However, the biennial decided to retreat to some of Istanbul’s most established galleries after the brutal clearance of Taksim Square in June. Following the second interruption by artists-activists protesting the Istanbul Biennial and its public programme on 10th May at Vermeir & Heiremans' lecture-performance Art House Index, the biennial’s public programme: Public Alchemy was also cancelled.
The biennial phenomenon has made the art scene globally recognised that most are designed to draw an international audience. Since its initiation in 1987, supported by a private foundation - “The Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts (IKSV)” - Istanbul has delivered a number of cutting-edge biennials over the years. It is one of the prominent biennials which aim to create a reflexive dialogue between the local and global, so-called ‘glocalisation'. Turkish industrialist Koç Holding is the “Biennial Sponsor” of all five Istanbul Biennials between 2007 and 2016. The city of Istanbul itself and Turkey’s chequered history was taken as all too tangible examples of the project of modernisation in the non-Western world. The Istanbul Biennial is also a part of Turkey's modernisation project. In Turkey, criticism towards the private sector support of art has increased over the last decade and this is partly due to the upsurge of privately-funded art institutions. The private sector almost defines the “private” at large in the art world. On the other hand, public support is near absent in Turkey. Hence, it is difficult to define how public the Turkish contemporary art scene is. At any rate, the Istanbul Biennial, without its fixed locations, is one of the most flexible institutional models.
Bring the public into the private
By the end of May 2013, the size of the civil protests in Turkey had grown dramatically. Despite it being a largely peaceful protest, police brutality escalated through excessive use of tear gas canisters being fired directly at civilians. For this reason, Erdemci decided to abandon the plan to organise art in the public domain and brought the public into the private. “What does it mean to take permission from the same people who are suppressing us? This way, we are pointing out presence through absence,” is how she defended it to the press. Yet the result is that the artists were “squared” into the privately funded, non-profit spaces of ARTER and Salt Beyoğlu, which are owned by the Koç family and the banking dynasty Garanti respectively. It was decided that the entire biennial would be free of charge and open to the public. The biennial tried to create a public sphere inside the private space. But anyone that is not fluent in the idioms of contemporary art would feel excluded by the thick volume of the visitor's guide.
Hito Steyerl’s newly commissioned lecture video, Is the Museum a Battlefield? has a particularly pertinent title given the circumstances under which this year’s biennial has been organised. Steyerl noted that at least two revolutions were fought in museums: In 1917, the Bolsheviks stormed the Winter Palace and Hermitage Museum during the October Revolution. As well as the Louvre was stormed in 1792 (and again in 1830, 1832, 1848, and 1871). Steyerl notes, “each time it was a massive battlefield, where a battle for public space - for public art, actually was fought”. Bringing this notion to contemporary times, she investigated the death of her friend Andrea Wolf in Turkey. Wolf had joined the women’s army of the PKK, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, and was executed as a terrorist by government troops. Steyel travelled to that battleground to trace the detritus of battle, found the bullet shells, of which the armament manufacturers are the Biennial sponsors. Steyel pointed out the museum sponsorships, alluding the phenomenon of the public art museum as storming private property. Historically, a Philippine’s art museum was made possible with dozens of loans from American museums, it is fair to assume that the museum building itself, an unused army building, was virtually an American donation. As Carol Duncan proposed, art museums can reassure the West that one is a safe bet for economic or military aid. Therefore, museums have always been a battlefield. This time, compared to the real battlefield in the city, the biennial’s battlefield does not seem to be as intensified as it was shadowed under the shade of the private sector.
Mom, Am I Barbarian?
Barbarian refers to those who cannot speak the language properly. It is an antonym of “politis” which means citizen. The title can be understood as Mom, Am I not a citizen? The ancient and modern meanings of the public and private spheres were carefully analysed by Hannah Arendt in The Human Condition. The private sphere means internment in the house, the sphere of slaves, foreigners, domestic workers, even today’s interns. The title then can be read as Mom, Am I In The Private Sphere? (with no rights of action and speech.) The biennial’s intention was to reintroduce barbarian, to go beyond the already existing formulas, towards the unknown.
Arendt argues that the public sphere designates the common. There are two aspects of the “common”, each of them constituting in its turn a new dimension of the public sphere. Firstly, the common is seen, perceived by everybody. Secondly, it means the world which is common to all of us, a unitary whole, which assembles all of us together. Therefore, the artists work in Istanbul’s public domain is for the artworks and their audience to experience the reality of Gezi together. The fourteen originally planned projects in urban public space were all cancelled. Including Maider López’s Making Ways (2013), which was specifically produced for the Biennial. The white cube version of the work was a video projected the coexistence of traffic and pedestrians in Karaköy, a particularly complicated point of the city. On the other screen, the random pathways of those who are trying to cross the streets are described. It is accompanied by an "instruction manual", in which the second point says, "when a system doesn’t fit, create new ways”. Not knowing how the work was meant to look like in the public space, Making Ways lost its autonomy by being cornered in the white cube space with two screens projection on each wall. The private sphere does not oppose the political, but mainly the social. In Gezi Park, clashing world-views came together, debated and acted together. “Public” works in the private sphere was a missed opportunity to join Gezi, and to demonstrate. The biennial was an uncertain, shadowy kind of existence. The decrease of the biennial’s activity in the originally proposed public domain kind of deprived of the political agency for the artworks.
The Turkish artist Halil Altindere’s hip-hop video Wonderland (2013), features the Roma youth from the Sulukule district. Video shows the youth’s frustration about the gentrification of the neighbourhood. It gradually gets more and more violent, until suddenly it was no longer fun. In the end, the youths poured gasoline over a police officer and ignited it. The video is a rousing commentary on the barbarism of the other and a warning: Where no agreement seems possible, any form of empathy is gone. The unknown of barbarian here is a state of fragility, with potential for radical change, and/or destruction.
Andrea Phillips’s much-anticipated public programme Public Alchemy was also cancelled for reasons that were not stated. The public programme was to rethink publicness in Istanbul, in which “publicness can be reclaimed as an artistic and political tool in the context of global financial imperialism and local social fracture.” The third instalment of the public programme, titled “Public Capital” features the Brussels-based duo Vermeir & Heiremans’ performance-lecture Art Index House. By using codes of fiction and reality, Art House Index merges art and real estate into a single lucrative financial instrument. As a speculative construct, the work critically asserts art itself as a producer of value. Vermeir & Heiremans generated the artistic and economic context that is necessary to integrate Art House Index within and beyond the art market. The performance offered a critique of the multifaceted and complex relationship between art and capital. It aimed to question the relationship between private capital, contemporary artistic production and the making of publics; and to envisage if and how private capital could be used for public profit. Throughout the performance, members from the artist-activist group The Conceptual Art Laboratory turned up and “performed” as Vermeir & Heiremans’ performance unfolded. The activists were angered by the Koç connection, disrupted the performance and filmed Erdemci’s reaction. Erdemci had the activists escorted out of the room and threatened to sue the filmmaker. Erdemci later apologised and welcomed the protesters’ repeated use of the biennial as a public platform but cautioned them about the vandalism of other artists’ work. Should the biennial take on this “opportunity” to develop a series of workshops on art and activism, vandalism and opportunism? Instead of shutting down the platform?
Gezi park occupation happened so soon, that it was not easy to respond to the situation through an exhibition with a biennial-scale. Could it be reflected through the public programme? If the retreat to the white cube space was politically forced by the situation of the city - an actual physical public platform is dismissed. Why dismiss another potentially visible public platform that is the Public Alchemy? The curators seemed to switch their position completely just like the police force. They may not attack the activists with tear gas, instead, they shut down the public platform which generates the public forum entirely.
The geographical location of Istanbul, as the portal between Europe and Asia, has historically given it a privileged role, conferring a unique situation upon the city, halfway between sustained traditions and constant change. The conversion of public space into private space and the lack of public support towards contemporary art have blurred the distinction between public and private sphere in Istanbul’s art world. Failed to address the public and private, this edition is definitely a missed opportunity for the Biennial to learn from the Gezi protesters, to designate a new space by using the means of visibility itself to temporarily establish a platform for freedom.
Judith Butler writes, 'Politics is no longer defined as the exclusive business of public sphere distinct from a private one, but it crosses that line, bringing attention to the way that politics is already in the home, or on the street, or in the neighbourhood.[…] What it means to move through public space in a way that contests the distinction between public and private, we see some way that bodies in their plurality lay claim to the public, find and produce the public through seizing and reconfiguring the matter of material environments; at the same time, those material environments are part of the action, and they themselves act when they become the support for action.'
Relational art did not occur in the thirteenth Istanbul Biennial. What the biennial had hoped for, with the help of art institutions to re-establish a public that was threatened by political forces, was a kind of utopian optimism. After all, the very notion of public space in the 21st century is already weak. As much as one might critique an investigation into public space, one must also come to terms with the fact that no one has yet to provide alternative proposals, answers and indeed, solutions. The first artwork in Antrepo no. 3 was a long, brick wall - The Castle (2007) by Jorge Mendez Blake. At the very centre of the bricks lies Franz Kafka’s novel, The Castle. Since Kafka’s novel ends with no conclusion, this work presents both the point and the premise of the biennial.