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13th Istanbul Biennial: A Retreat to the Institution

Christoph Schäfer, Bostanorama - A Marmaray Tunnel Excavation of the Collective Productions of Space Through Istanbul's Stadiums, Parks and Gardens (Present and Recently Destroyed), 2013, series of drawings, Aquarellpen, charcoal, pastel, gouache, acrylic on paper, dimensions variable. Photograph: Servet Dilber. Courtesy the artist
Tom Snow reflects on the aesthetics of protest that have emerged in Istanbul since May, and questions why the stakes in the formation of a ‘public domain’ were not made more explicit in the 2013 Istanbul Biennial.
Christoph Schäfer, Bostanorama – A Marmaray Tunnel Excavation of the Collective Productions of Space Through Istanbul’s Stadiums, Parks and Gardens (Present and Recently Destroyed), 2013, series of drawings, Aquarellpen, charcoal, pastel, gouache, acrylic on paper, dimensions variable. Photograph: Servet Dilber. Courtesy the artist

In January 2013 curator Fulya Erdemci announced the title and conceptual framework for the 13th Istanbul Biennial. ‘Mom, Am I Barbarian?’ is a quote taken from Istanbul-based poet Lale Müldür, cited in order to draw comparison between ‘barbarity in its negative sense’ (subjunctive to the injustices of post-colonialism and social inequality), and historical advocating of the ‘primordial, primitive and irrational’ associated with creative movements such as Dada and Surrealism in the West. 01 More specifically, the curatorial premise aimed to question the politics of urban space and the public domain through exhibition in vacant buildings, and the commissioning of several public installations. At the end of this outline Erdemci notes the tentativeness of her proposal: ‘Due to the uncertainties related to the highly speculative nature of urban transformations in Istanbul, the allocation of these spaces is quite precarious. In this sense, the Biennial will share the common experience of precarity that the city’s dwellers experience everyday’. 02 Though the contested sites of Gezi Park and Taksim Square are noted, it is probably fair to say that nothing could have prepared the curator for the scale and size of the Diren Gezi Parkı (Resist Gezi Park), otherwise known as the Occupy Gezi Park demonstrations, to erupt at the end of May 2013. However, given the civil hierarchy suggested through the term ‘barbarian’, one might have expected the stakes in the formation of a ‘public domain’ – made explicit during Gezi – to be at the centre of a critical inquiry focusing on ‘the role of contemporary art as an agent that both makes and unmakes what is considered public’.

Given the civil hierarchy suggested through the term “barbarian”, one might have expected the stakes in the formation of a “public domain” – made explicit during Gezi – to be at the centre of a critical inquiry focusing on “the role of contemporary art as an agent that both makes and unmakes what is considered public”.Occupy Gezi started with around fifty environmentalists camping out in the park to prevent demolition of one of the few remaining green spaces in the centre of the city. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s proposal was to build a shopping mall and reconstruct a mosque and Ottoman-era military barracks on the site. 03 By the end of May the size of the protests had grown dramatically, only to be met with excessive use of tear gas and tent burning by the municipal police force. 04 Rather than deter the encampment, however, growing numbers of civilians, activists, artists and celebrities joined the creative resistance initiatives, spreading to several cities across Turkey. Despite it being a largely peaceful protest, police brutality escalated with the introduction of water cannons, early morning raids and tear gas canisters fired directly at civilians in Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir amongst other cities. 05 Erdoğan’s confused and repeated denial of the civilian support garnered by the demonstrations was to be emphasised across domestic media platforms, including a provocative statement from the Prime Minister suggesting the strength of his support across the nation: ‘If this is about holding meetings, if this is a social movement, where they gather 20, I will get up and gather 200,000 people. Where they gather 100,000, I will bring together one million from my party’. 06 By 1 June videos showing the extent of police violence were quickly spreading across the internet; global interest was only provoked by news of CNN Türk’s now infamous airing of a penguin documentary whilst international news networks broadcast the clashes.

Ayşe Erkmen, bangbangbang, 2013, a crane and a buoy. Photograph: Servet Dilber. Courtesy the artist; Galerie Barbara Weiss, Berlin; and Galeri Manâ, Istanbul

Of course making use of social media and other mobile technologies was an important part in the organisation of protestors in much of Turkey. This was made all the more explicit on 5 June when ‘cyber crimes’ raids were carried out in Izmir targeting individuals accused of fostering antipathy towards police response to nationwide protests. 07 But the use of social media shouldn’t overshadow the extent to which visibility was gained by the protesters by occupying urban space. From an aesthetic viewpoint, this relates to what Judith Butler has recently termed ‘bodies in alliance’ with regards to both the Arab Spring and Occupy movements of 2010–11. The very accumulation of bodies in public space can, for Butler, be an action that lays claim to the ‘public’ itself, reconfiguring the physical and psychological environment as a space for direct politics. 08It is the sheer number of bodies, scale and duration of the protests across Turkey, extending into various media, that presented the biggest obstacle for the state. Though occupation began with disputation over Gezi Park specifically, the issue inevitably catalysed the increasing discontent felt towards the authoritarianism of the current Turkish government (from the Adalet ve Kalınma Partisi, AKP). The occupational aspect of the demonstrations further worked to instrumentalise the networks of social and official news media, rallying support through a show of collective resistance and therefore clearly distorting the line between politics and aesthetics. 09 For Butler, many of the mass demonstrations seen during the last few years have not only designated a space to appear, but used the means of visibility itself to temporarily establish a civil right: ‘In wresting that power, a new space is created, a new “between” bodies, as it were, that lays claim to existing space through the action of new alliance’. 10 Bodies are thus animated in existing space through an act of reclamation that resignifies the meaning of a public domain.

The utility of succinct media images or indeed any form of visual representation for political purposes has been by now well established. In this instance, the occupation might be read as an attempt to counter the shortcomings of existing forms of political and aesthetic representation. Individuals also went to varying lengths to counter misportrayal at the accusation of violence stemming from the protesters themselves, and to demonstrate the non-violent ethos largely agreed upon by the occupation. A good example of this was when performance artist Erdem Gündüz began staring at the Atatürk Cultural Centre in Taksim Square on 17 June, also due for demolition. Quickly dubbed ‘the standing man’, his form of protest went ‘viral’ and was quickly replicated all across Istanbul and Turkey. The real strength of this performance was to highlight how passive resistance stood in stark contrast to the violence the police and Gendarmarie used to repress members of the public who dared to demonstrate. 11

There were also a number of occasions in which the actions of the Turkish authorities further complicated a politics of aesthetics. For example, on 16 June municipal workers were deployed to replant flowerbeds in Gezi during the early hours of the morning, immediately following clearance of the park. This can be read as an effort to instantly erase any sign of dissent and thus maintain an aesthetic of state order, contrary to the highly visible anti-government campaign established over the previous weeks. Another instance relates to the tragedy of Ethem Sarısülük; shot by police with a gas cannister in Ankara on 1 June, tragically losing his life a couple of weeks later as a result of the injuries suffered. 12 Aside from the responsible officers receiving police protection and escaping prosecution (the police actions were deemed ‘self-defence’), reports suggested that the authorities thereafter took precautions to prevent individual police being identifiable by removing ID numbers from helmets. 13 Such an incident inverts a common understanding of surveillance, concealing identities rather than exposing them (either at ground-level or via media broadcastings) and diminishes the possibilities of individuals having to account for their actions whilst in uniform. This in turn works to sanction collective police actions as representing and representative of the state apparatus. Whereupon activists that do not comply with the autocratic police orders are reduced to receptors of governmental power; detained as criminals and eventually rendered unpatriotic. 14 Examples of this include the detainment of volunteer doctors and medical staff providing protesters with medical assistance during clashes, as well as the warning that anyone entering Gezi Park or Taksim Square would be arrested and considered a terrorist. 15

Diego Bianchi, Market or Die, 2013, installation with performance, dimensions variable. Photograph: Servet Dilber. Courtesy the artist and Alberto Sendrós Gallery, Buenos Aires

Erdemci’s text in the exhibition catalogue attempts to account for the adaptations made to her original proposal as a result of Occupy Gezi. Several statements are made that suggest the events unfolding around Gezi Park actually ‘showed us that as opposed to antagonistic politics, agonistic public domain based in negotiation, where marginalised voices are not suppressed by the majority, is possible’. 16 My understanding of agonism (much discussed by political theorist Chantal Mouffe) relates to the task of creating a political forum, aiming to harmonise antagonistic relations in political localities, shifting violent oppositionality of political enemies towards an adversary model based on debate and compromise. It is an attempt to reach a kind of ‘conflictual-consensus’ in which the benefit of the majority is debated at a legitimated political level. In short, a vision for the possibility of an equivocal democracy. 17 One might then ask where the possibility of meaningful agonistic negotiation was achieved during the Gezi unrest. Certainly there was the formation of temporary forums all across Istanbul and other cities reminiscent of the general assemblies held during the Occupy movements of 2011. And of course an agonistic terrain was an aim, and must remain an aim. But what was ultimately demonstrated was the extraordinary level of violence that political dissent would be met with in Turkey today, under the authority of the AKP. The plans to demolish Gezi Park are on hold under a court order at the time of writing, however remain the continual focus of dispute. 18Authorities also plan to prosecute a high number of protesters with charges relating to their attempt to subvert state ideology. 19

Erdemci goes on to explain that it was a curatorial decision to withdraw from the urban space, and instead collaborate with existing institutions. The Antrepo no.3 venue in Tophane (a warehouse used previously for the biennial, due to become a luxury hotel), and the Greek Primary School in Galata remained part of the biennial as planned. Recruited art spaces included ARTER and Salt Beyoğlu on Istiklal Avenue, and 5533 located in a shopping complex on the other side of the Golden Horn. This may be understandable, given that violence has carried on throughout Turkey, erupting in Taksim over the week leading up to the opening. Clashes also shifted to Kadıköy on Istanbul’s Asian side during the opening week in response to death of Ahmet Atakan on 10 September, the sixth victim of police brutality this summer. 20 The viewer therefore should not be too quick to dismiss the compromises forced upon the exhibition. However, it does seem curious to suggest that withdrawing from public installation ‘is a more powerful political statement than having them materialise under such conditions’. Erdemci continues: ‘I believe that by withdrawing from urban public spaces, thus marking the presence through the absence, we can contribute to the space of freedom, to the creative and participatory demonstrations and forums instigated by the Gezi resistance’.21 This, it seems to me, is too easily compatible with the repressive agenda of state authorities, who clearly made it their task to remove the long-term possibility of agonistic politics from the space of the city. It might be true that the agonistic approach requires rethinking engagement with existing institutions, but must artworks only be exhibited according to the protocols of established art spaces?

Installations such as Market or Die (2013) by Argentinean artist Diego Bianchi at Salt certainly didn’t support Erdemci’s absentee politics. Wildly composed of various everyday commodity products on sale around the city – from domestic cleaning agents to bottled water – the work intended to consider the products involved in a domestic economy. Ubiquitous commercial activity apparently represented by the construction of a chaotic bric-a-brac-cum-marketplace filling the entrance space to Salt. However, in the context of Occupy, this fantastical assembly of everyday products ended up reading as a replication of the makeshift carnival aesthetic established by the Gezi protesters. In ARTER, photographs and a video documented Ataskoa (Traffic Jam, 2005) by Maider López. Reflecting on the use of cars in the Basque countryside, López organised a traffic jam on the Aralar Range, in the Basque Country, publicising the event via radio announcements, newspaper adverts, flyers and posters. This work might have been understood as a meditation on art as a tool to choreograph social assembly – encouraging participants to work together to dissipate the gridlock. However, the video documenting the action revealed a team of people in matching green t-shirts dissembling the jam. Spontaneity seemed to turn quickly to deference in this work; and one began to wonder how it addressed the context of the exhibition, except for a rather loose association with the countryside as a particular category of space. This was one of many works that seemed to negate the conceptual intentions of the biennial, meaning that the viewer was distracted from an urgent politics of the public domain rather than invited to consider its formation.

A more relevant work exhibited in the biennial was Maxime Hourani’s residency at 5533, which was organised around a series of site visits and workshops discussing intersections of rural and urban developments on the outskirts of Istanbul. Hourani invited members of various creative communities to conduct their own research into the infrastructural and socio-cultural conditions largely ignored by corporate developers including government-backed domestic and commercial regeneration projects. 5533, itself peripheral to the otherwise Beyoğlu-concentrated biennial venues, became a base from which to attend poetry readings, musical performances and creative brainstorming activities. Hournani’s work appeared truly collaborative, demonstrating how an artist can facilitate infrastructural analyses through an open engagement with members of multiple publics. Works exhibited on the terrace of the Greek Primary School also seemed more appropriate to the Biennial’s purported aims, focusing on various sociological, environmental and ecological issues, mostly in Istanbul. Serkan Taycan’s project Iki deniz arasi (Between Two Seas, 2013) traced the psychogeography of ‘Kanal Istanbul’ a major and ongoing construction project currently being planned in Istanbul, which aims to connect the Black Sea and the Marmara to establish an alternative shipping route to the Bosphorus. Mapping and photographing his own 69-kilometre route through effected areas, Taycan’s project works to highlight the ecological, social and historic impact of the project, including the disregard for important archaeological sites which will be destroyed.

Hito Steyerl, Is a Museum a Battlefield?, 2013, video of performance, 36min. Photograph: Servet Dilber. Courtesy the artist and the Public Program of the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam

A highlight of Antrepo no.3, the largest venue, was Hito Steyerl’s Is a Museum a Battlefield?(2013). The half-hour video lecture elaborated on a series of connections between biennial funding (particularly Siemens and Koç Holding) and the arms trade, making a conceptual parallel between the shot of a firearm and the shooting of film. The success of this piece was the manner in which it brought the politics of both subject and medium to the fore, allowing the operation of an artwork to account for itself during its exhibition. It was to the biennial’s credit that these works were included. But their presence amongst a majority of disparate works meant that their impact on the show was limited. Also on display were a number of works from the 1970s by artists including Gordon Matta-Clark, Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Akademia Ruchu, Jirí Kovanda, Nil Yalter and Judy Blum Reddy, which attempted to draw comparison with various modes of Institutional Critique and artistic activism. For example, documentation of Matta-Clark’s Conical Intersect (1975) show his performative architectural intervention into two seventeenth-century buildings scheduled for demolition during the construction of the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris. Matta-Clark’s work explicitly engaged with important urban archaeological issues, complicated by the destruction of historically significant buildings to make way for the gentrification of the Beauborg area and the establishment of a major art institution; the Pompidou opened just two years later in 1977. The counterpart commission at the Istanbul biennial was Ayşe Erkmen’s bangbangbang (2013), a giant green ball hung outside Antrepo no.3, meant to simulate a wrecking ball and thus hinting at the building’s imminent repurposing as a hotel. However, Erkmen’s statement made for a rather weak comparison to Matta-Clark’s actual intervention. And whilst some other parallels were interesting, I did wonder why the works of other 1970s practitioners (such as Hans Haacke) were missing if an institutionally critical narrative was to be elaborated – especially for an intended general public of Istanbul. 22

Schäfer’s drawings depict intriguingly bizarre, parallel social situations gleaned from interviews and other encounters, and aim to reimage an aesthetic of community, markedly different to corporatised artists’ impressions in content and execution. This venue also contained a small number of unrealised maquettes and proposals for installations around Istanbul. A scale model and text by design agency Rietveld Landscape, for example, described a proposal to fill Taksim Square with pulsating floodlights, beaming out from the Atatürk Cultural Centre. Christoph Schäfer had contributed to the renaming of Park Fiction in Hamburg to ‘Gezi Park Fiction St. Pauli’ in solidarity with events over the summer, and was represented in Antrepo no.3 by a series of speculative drawings focused on alternative social development in Istanbul. Schäfer’s drawings depict intriguingly bizarre, parallel social situations gleaned from interviews and other encounters, and aim to reimage an aesthetic of community, markedly different to corporatised artists’ impressions in content and execution. This work was one of very few with a direct approach to the current situation in the city. The emphasis throughout the biennial was largely on international works and the vague theme of fragmented rural topographies and social issues. Edi Hirose’s documentary photography, for example, focuses on poverty stricken communities in his hometown of Lima in Peru. Whilst Hirose’s photography is interesting in its own right, its presence in the biennial only bore arbitrary comparison with the specificity of Istanbul. Although there might have been some links to be made between the ecology of global capital and the ecology of the city running throughout the works included, this went largely unexplained and remained tenuous for the most part. Overall the biennial’s withdrawal from the space and specificity of the city left venues filled with work that felt out of sync with the biennial’s conceptual framework, inevitably failing to acknowledge the stakes of its own realisation.

Christoph Schäfer, Bostanorama – A Marmaray Tunnel Excavation of the Collective Productions of Space Through Istanbul’s Stadiums, Parks and Gardens (Present and Recently Destroyed), 2013, series of drawings, Aquarellpen, charcoal, pastel, gouache, acrylic on paper, dimensions variable. Photograph: Servet Dilber. Courtesy the artist

In a recent issue of October dedicated to Occupy Wall Street (OWS), David Joselit pointed out that art already occupies a lot of cultural space; physically, financially and philosophically, reminding us that it is perfectly possible for the institution to act as a critical forum through questioning the role of ‘institutional critique’ and ‘uneven internal developments’. ‘The museum is not critiqued but repurposed: occupied by something else. This is the lesson I take from OWS: don’t just critique, occupy!’. 23It’s not so much that ‘Mom, Am I Barbarian’ didn’t touch upon such issues at all, but that there were far too few examples. The Istanbul Biennial has been running for 26 years, playing an important role in the development of a thriving contemporary art scene in the city (something that has not always been entirely welcomed), which was also left largely unaddressed. During the 2009 edition, the curators and participants of the Istanbul Biennial faced criticism by the movement Direnal-Istanbul (Resistanbul) with regards to its corporate sponsor Koç Holdings, and their complicity within the increasingly neoliberal orientation of Turkey and Istanbul – claiming that within this context their political art was meaningless. 24 2009 was the year during which Istanbul would welcome the IMF and World Bank to the city, which is in many ways emblematic of Turkey’s economic reforms since the early 1980s. It also seemed strange that this biennial didn’t address other points of contention such as the 2010 Tophane Art Walk attacks, when a group of around thirty locals violently targeted galleries and the art community possibly to protest against the gentrification processes and alcohol consumption on the street. 25 Given that a large part of the biennial is often located in Tophane it might be asked why the question of gentrification was not taken up on this occasion, especially considering that the 2011 biennial omitted any political reference to the city almost entirely, withdrawing completely to the Antrepo venues. 2010 was also the year Istanbul was appointed European Capital of Culture, despite only achieving EU candidacy, surely two crucial factors to reflect upon with regards to the formation of a contemporary public domain.

Why was the relationship between activism and art not a specific concern of this biennial, given that the proliferation of a new activist visual culture was directly related to the conceptual framework and its eventual retreat?The Istanbul Biennial is not the first large-scale perennial exhibition to deal with Occupy movements. In 2012 both the Berlin Biennial and Documenta collaborated to different degrees with activists – admittedly in quite different circumstances – to different reception. dOCUMENTA(13) allowed the uninvited activists to remain on the lawn of the Fridericianum, whilst the Berlin Biennial invited occupants to stage their protest in the ground floor of Kunst-Werke, eventually suffering criticisms of instrumentalisation and objectification. 26 Why was the relationship between activism and art not a specific concern of this biennial, given that the proliferation of a new activist visual culture was directly related to the conceptual framework and its eventual retreat? It is not just the withdrawal from public space that is at issue here, but the manner in which the ‘public domain’ itself is contested. The public domain, after all, describes a space of interaction amongst people. A democratic (or agonistic) public domain therefore is a space in which the articulation of protest, debate and political demonstration may be realised; and such democratic vision was directly threatened in Turkey over the summer of 2013. Any art exhibition aspiring to critique or participate in the public domain must also realise the politics of its own setting, including its establishment within an institutional sphere. Perhaps the 2013 Istanbul Biennial fell victim to its own standing by clinging to a conventional international format. However, if biennials are to resist being dissolved entirely into the economy of globalism, it is surely time for a little self-reflection. If a retreat to established art spaces was to be a ‘more powerful political statement’ in relation to Gezi and the city of Istanbul, then the scale and international ambitions of the show only worked to marginalise such politics. Despite the sympathy one feels for the organisers in the context of Occupy Gezi, the overwhelming feeling is that the opportunity to really challenge ‘the common experience of precarity’ during the 2013 edition was ultimately an opportunity missed.