The need to find reality
Yesterday we had a discussion session with a group of curators at DEPO, which was organized by Basak Senova. Basak Senova followed the Curatorial Training Programme at De Appel, is founder of the New Media initiative NOMAD but might be more familiar as the curator of the Turkish Pavilion of the 2009 Venice Biennial. She invited several people from the Istanbul art scene, amongst others: the art critic Erden Kosova (affiliated to the e-journal ‘Red Thread’); researcher and writer Pelin Tan (founder of the magazine Muhtelife and programmer of DEPO); curator and art critic Nazli Gurlek (member of the publishing collective IM Projects); curator Marcus Graf (artist initiative MEKAN34); curator Ece Pazarbasi; curators Irmak and Ceren Arkman (set up Kurye Video Organization together), gallerist Derya Demir (Gallery NON) and Asena Gunal (project coordinator DEPO). DEPO is a new space run by Basak Senova, Pelin Tan and Asena Gunal. It can be found in Tütün Deposu, a building located in the Tophane District, an upcoming neighborhood in Istanbul were several new galleries have opened the last years. It was one of the exhibition venues of the last Istanbul Biennial, but now has been renovated to a building with a permanent cultural function. DEPO aims to host events from artists in Turkey, the South Caucasus, the Middle East and the Balkans. So also in that sense it is a continuation of the theme of the last Istanbul Biennial; the Turkish art scene wants to relate not only to Europe but also to its own cultural region. (most probably for really sincere reasons by the curators, as well as maybe political correct reasons by the funders of the Tutun Deposu Building)
During our stay in Istanbul one thing became immediately clear for us: there is no state funding of art in Istanbul whatsoever. The state only ‘facilitates’ art, which basically means that they tolerate the art scene because it is very good tool to create an image of Turkey as an open, free and liberal country, ready to join the EU. There is no support at all from the state, not in funds, neither in resources or research. How do independent curators and critics experience this situation in Istanbul? And how do they try to bridge the gap between the privately funded institutions, almost all exclusively located in a very small area in the center and the larger public of Istanbul, which is spread out over a very large area? And in more practical sense: how do they finance their projects? How do they collaborate? These were roughly our questions.
Basak Senova kicked of the discussion by questioning the independency of curators in Istanbul. Most institutions are either financed by banks (they benefit from a tax reduction when they donate money for sponsoring), or by wealthy families. We are all tied to institutions, how independent are we actually?, she uttered. For every new project that is started, money has to be found with al lot of creative joggling around. Trying to apply for European funds is a strategy (but then you have to be a legal cultural foundation and that can take years and years, most alternative spaces operate illegal), making barter deals with universities or plainly ask friends and family to donate and help, are others. Although not all agreed with each other in terms of how bad the circumstances actually are to work in, there was some overall pessimism to be found in the discussion. Marcus Graf was very fierce in his criticism. According to him there is huge lack of professionalism in Istanbul. The private museums show no consistency at all in their exhibition programs and often these programs are influenced by family who supports the institution and are in the board of the museum. There is no transparence of these questionable influences and mutual ties at all. Basak Senova gave an example of this: one of her works was rejected by the board of Istanbul Modern (apart from Platform Garanti the only museum in Istanbul focused on contemporary art), she was asked to adjust the work and of course consequently decided to withdraw it. But then again, Marcus Graf added, there is also the realization that the art scene in Istanbul in fact is still very young: it only started to develop at the beginning of the 1990’s and the institutional infrastructure only came about from 2000 onwards.
Another hot topic in the Istanbul art scene is the fact that the institutional infrastructure in only concentrated in very small, and therefore what some call, ‘elitist area’ of the city. It is deficit that almost all professionals find concerning. This is one of the reasons that as part of the ‘Istanbul Cultural Capital City of 2010’-organisation a project was launched called ‘Portable Art Museum’. Artists could do projects in a network of cultural buildings (usually only used for music or popular activities, no ‘high art’) in the outskirts of Istanbul. Marcus Graf participated in the project. He called it ‘a good chance for trying to reach another public’, but because of the lack of a good education program it was also in danger of becoming no more than a nice ‘festivity’. Irmak Arman gave another reason for the difficulty to spread cultural activities throughout the city: the public as well as sponsors only want to identify with the ‘Taksim art scene.’ If you try to locate for instance a new space in Kadiku (check spelling?), which is a very nice upcoming neighborhood, the public stays away and the initiative is cut out of funds. Nazli Gurlek stated that there are still possibilities for collaboration with the existing institutional framework in the city and the possible perspectives should not be sketched out too negative. Ece Pazarbasi gave an example of how to use new media creatively to reach a possible larger public: give an interesting twist to the use of new media but at the same time be very sincere in your communication. She described two art projects where flash mobs and audio tours curated by artists were used successfully as a means to reach another public.
Anna Pato (Video Brasil) responded to the discussion by stating that the public is not an abstract entity that will come out of itself, you have to trigger them and actively engage them. Hans Vroege from Paradox stated rightfully that the problems of how to reach the public have also become the main issue in societies which have a subsidy system for the arts, provided by the state. The money spend on the art scene has to be legitimized to the tax payer, who has to clearly benefit from it. (And if I may add, this has become a highly problematic and urgent situation within the current context of rising popular right wing parties.) It was an argument that not really convinced the Turkish curators who clearly felt that the situation in the Netherlands still is far more ideal from the Istanbul system lacking any interference or support by the state.
Erden Kosova tried to give the discussion a new perspective by making more in depth analyses of the developments in Istanbul of the last decade. ‘What I am more afraid of is conformism, not antagonism’, he stated. According to him artists have subjected themselves to a process of conformism form the 1990’s onwards. The European art scene created an atmosphere in which artist are seen as cultural ‘interlocuters’, facilitating the system and the growing position of art in a neoliberal economy, instead of bringing the political message to segments in society that need to be targeted. The potential new art public is ‘a young urban educated public, divided in different subcultural groups’. Glossy magazines create some kind of star system within the cultural scene. But this highly fashionable urban individual that is supposed to give Istanbul the open minded, liberal image of a world capital is a complete illusion. It doesn’t exist. And apart from that the left intelligentsia are loosing their interest in the art scene. Due to the combination of private funding and a lack of transparency, the art scene is regarded as the most polluted sector in society, by some critics. And if that is not already gloomy enough the next subject that stirred up the debate was the fact that according to the curators there is no system of art critic left at all in Istanbul. All critical forms of writing, be it in newspapers or magazines, have disappeared completely. ‘What we lack is reality!’, Irmak Arman almost shouted. I need critics that can write about my exhibition, both in terms of reflection as well as in terms of reaching the public through the media. There is an urgent need of developing a new discursive field. Since the blogging culture in Istanbul is very strong, almost every artist and artist initiative has a blog!, is seems strange that there is no alternative scene of art criticism on the internet, I commented, there seems to be a real potential to surpass the commercial magazines of the galleries or the numb newspaper press.
Are there also any positive aspects to the art scene!!? There are. Beyoglu is a thriving part of town with a lot of cheap spaces to rent and Istanbul has many artist initiatives that operate on an independent level and creatively find mazes in the system. Curators Julie Upmeyer and Anika, two curators originally from the V.S., tel us how they starting are starting a new residency and exhibition space called Caravanserai. The Istanbul Biennial is an important learning school and stepping stone to the artists in Istanbul, and most important of all – as Heidi Ballet (gallery Jan Mot and COMPLOT) stated at the end of the talk: what I miss in this discussion are the artists how do THEY respond? – artists do critically respond to the situation. The only new possible ethical stance is taking art to the outskirts of Istanbul, some curators stated as a conclusion. This ideal might still be far away, but there was a lot of energy and ‘resistance’ during the discussion, which I also experienced in conversations I had with artists. Artists and curators talk a lot about the turbulent history of the town, both in political and a societal sense. In that sense they are wide awake and more than well aware of and respond to the harsh ‘reality’ in all its aspects.
– Ingrid Commandeur