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April 23, 2017

The Museum As Battlefield – The Case Of Hito Steyerl, Part 1 (Wigbertson Julian Isenia)

 The following is the first of a two-part series.

If we lose public and semipublic space, we lose everything. Artists give up their authorship when necessary, and it is the same for institutions. We need to find ways to get out of the art context, especially during historical moments like this. I do not just  mean  anonymous,  guerrilla-­‐style  projects.  Artists  often  take  those  risks,  step out of safe zones, and play around with permissions, regulations, and legal limitations. It is time for the institutions to do the same, and to get more creative. – Ahmet Öğüt, 2013


A City At War

Four days after the death of Ahmet Atakan, a 22-year-old protester allegedly killed by a gas canister fired by the police, the 13th Istanbul Biennial entitled ‘Anne, ben barbar miyim?’ (Mom, am I Barbarian?) was inaugurated. This exhibition opened its doors in a precarious moment, to say the least, when the people on the streets of Istanbul, Antakya and Eskişehir among others, were still protesting. The tragic death of a young man and the Taksim Gezi Park protest was still fresh on their minds.

The biennial took up this issue and revolved around the question: “how can we rethink the concept of multiple publics and public domain as a political forum in the light of [the] current condition?” The original aim of the organizers was to depart from the notion of ‘public sphere’ as a political forum proposed by Jürgen Habermas and to actualize a series of projects that would “intervene in urban public spaces.”

However, the curator, Fulya Erdemci, the director Bige Örer, and the board of advisors of the Biennial were convinced that not realizing these projects was a more powerful political statement than having them materialize under such conditions. These art projects would have been realized with the collaboration of the same government that did not allow the freedom of speech during the Taksim Gezi Park protests, and hence this collaboration “would sideline the raison d’être of realizing these projects.”

Erdemci concluded that “by withdrawing from urban public spaces… thus marking the presence through the absence, [the Biennial] can contribute to the space of freedom, to the creative and participatory demonstrations and forums instigated by the [Taksim] Gezi resistance.”

Instead of being at the center of critical interrogation, for example at the Taksim Gezi Park, the organizers of the Biennial opted to be in five remote art galleries in the city. These venues were Antrepo no.3—a former warehouse—Galata Greek Primary School—a former primary and nursery schoolArter—a private art gallery—SALT Beyoğlu—a non-profit organization—and 5533—an art museum.This choice made by the curator, the director, and the board of advisors seems peculiar. One might ask which role, then, should art play in a conflicted community when its very aims are to address this state of affairs? Should artists grab the pitchforks and join the mob outside or should they keep their distance and partake in the discourse on a different level, for instance through art projects within a prestigious and influential, and simultaneously isolated biennial?

Also, should the reasons for these projects be motivated by their effectiveness or can these projects be successful, precisely because of their ineffectiveness? Moreover, what should one understand under the term effectiveness? Should this notion be interpreted in a business or pharmaceutical sense, where the capacity to generate the desired result is empirically measured?

Alternatively, should we interpret effectiveness within the art and assume every artwork is successful, as, Claire Bishop claims in her book, Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and The Politics of Spectatorship, that we must take into consideration “a complex work and its location within a particular time, place, and situation?” (8). Or, when speaking about artworks, should this term be associated with the ability to arouse emotions or reactions, and therefore linking it more accurately to the adjective ‘affectiveness,’ and if so, can artists through their practices affect or for that matter effect a difference?

To affect or to effect?

 This urge to make a difference was a significant, but not a necessary endeavor, during the 13th Istanbul Biennial. This raises another uncomfortable issue considering the Istanbul Biennial, namely can the idea of the public domain be discussed within the context of the Istanbul Biennial? Can the withdrawal of the Biennial from the urban spaces, through these artworks, be condoned?

At first glance, the answer would be no. Not in any case can these projects make allowance for the withdrawal of the biennial from the urban spaces, and this is due to various reasons. First, by pulling out of these problem areas, the Biennial constructed a separate entity within the safe areas of the city of Istanbul, thus denigrating the protests into something incongruous, which disrupted the logical system of capitalism and the gentrification program.

Whilst the government of Erdoğan was destroying parks, cultural and historic buildings to build malls and exorbitant hotels in what it seems to be a gentrification program, the biennial’s aims was to address this issue. However, when the biennial decided to exclude the actual problems in the streets and problem areas it actually contributed to Erdoğan’s plans.

Art in general, especially when configured within successful biennials, as the Istanbul biennial is, plays a major element in the gentrification program, as these sites become the beautiful and safe alternative. In addition, art festivals such as the Istanbul biennial functions to brand the city for more tourists in the future. An obvious example of this occurrence is the fact that it was prohibited to protest within the areas of the Biennial.

This dilemma becomes evident at a side program ‘Public Capital,’ where Flemish artists Katleen Vermeir (1973) and Ronny Heiremans (1962), gave a performance lecture ‘Art House Index’ (2013) on the dynamics of arts, architecture and economy, a couple of months prior to the biennial, on May 10th.  On the website, the following description of the event was available:

The aim of Public Capital is to examine the relationship between private capital, contemporary artistic production and the making of publics in the context of Istanbul’s burgeoning art scene. How does the art market shape the ways in which contemporary art is made public? How does money impact “autonomous” artistic production? How do the structures of the art market relate to broader questions of contemporary financialization (sic)? (…) Can we imagine “public money,” an alchemical transformation of the basis of high finance?

Andrea Phillips, in her lecture on the 13th Istanbul Biennial, reflected on “the ways in which publicness can be reclaimed as an artistic and political tool in the context of global financial imperialism and local social fracture”. Vermeir & Heiremans departed in their lecture from the conceptualization of their loft apartment in Brussels as a piece of art, which they wanted to convert into a liquid financial product by speaking to several investment bankers.

This event was sponsored by the Istanbul Kültür Sanat Vakfı (IKSV), an authoritative foundation within the Turkish art community, which in turn is funded by Eczacıbaşı Holding, a prominent corporate pharmaceutical business that owns 41 companies and has estimated revenue of 2.6 billion euros. Activists, who came to the event to protest Koç Holding and the IKSV, by laying quietly in front of the speaker’s stage every five minutes, were brutally escorted out of the building (picture 1 and 2).

The conceptual framework of the biennial is not supportive towards critical voices of the public, while it claims falsely to have a ‘public’ discourse. As a group of 100 Turkish art practitioners stated in a letter on Artleaks:

Whilst pretending to have a ‘public’ discourse, this applied intolerance towards critical and different voices, the violence towards protesters (…) cannot be an acceptable attitude. The authoritative, judgmental and uncommunicative attitude of the 13th Istanbul Biennial towards different voices of the public is highly in contradiction with its claims to “activate social engagement and public fora (sic) to generate [the] possibility for rethinking the concept of publicness.” We would kindly and urgently invite you to change this authoritarian reflex and rethink the proposed process (structure) of the 13th Istanbul Biennial.

Secondly, the curating of the whole biennial seems odd considering the state of affairs at that time. Of the 88 artists who participated in this festival, only fifteen were actually Turkish, and only a handful of artists took the opportunity to address the current situation.

The Dutch duo Wouter Osterholt (Leiden, 1979) and Elke Uitentuis (Sneek, 1977), for example, tried to address in their project ‘Monument to Humanity – Helping Hands’ (2013), the public debate that emerged after President Erdoğan ordered to demolish the Statue of Humanity in 2011. The ‘Monument to Humanity,’ which is 35 meters high, is situated on the border of Turkey and Armenia, and was built by sculptor Mehmet Aksov to symbolize a peace treaty for the Armenian and Turkish conflict.

This peace treaty was controversial, since Turkey till this day rejects the Armenian allegations of an Ottoman Turks genocide of millions of Armenians. President Erdoğan, however, after a visit to Kars in 2011, ordered to remove the statue while describing the statue as a “freak and an affront to a nearby 11th Century shrine.”

At the time of its demolition, the statue of the two men was not yet finished; the missing part was one figure’s hand to extend to the other in peace. In their project, Osterholt and Uitentuis produced a life-size replica of the missing hand (picture 4), together with 120 casted hands of the people of Kars (picture 5), to form an alternative monument as an installation on the hills of Kars. The documentation of this process was shown within the white museum walls of the Biennale. 

Another artist and activist Tadashi Kawamata (Hokkaido, 1953) wanted to do an urban public intervention in contested neighborhoods and streets of Istanbul, by making a Gecekondu bölgesi (a slum village) in Taksim on Tarlabasi Boulevard, a densely populated slum in Istanbul. However, after the uprising in Turkey, this project seemed impossible. Therefore, the artist proposed to exhibit sketches entitled ‘Plan for ‘Gecekondu’ (2013) for what would have been his addition to the public program of the 13th Istanbul Biennial. 

 The couple of artists that did address the current situation in Turkey did this in a similar fashion. They engaged with the spectator via pictures, drawings, videos and installations, to discuss and to rethink the current political situation in Turkey. By doing this, it was stated on a website discussing the biennial that these artists generated ideas and developed “practices that question contemporary forms of democracy, challenge current models of spatial-economic politics, problematize the given concepts of civilization and barbarity as standardized positions and languages and, above all, unfold the role of contemporary art as an agent that both makes and unmakes what is considered public.”

This bombastic and extremely theoretical advertorial framework seems to promise a lot. Which brings up the question, can the museum act as a space of interrogation, and in what ways? Can the museum effectively create a public discourse, and at the same time oblige to the liabilities agreed with their sponsors? Should the museum allow protests that are critical towards the program or the museum itself? Should the museum be the frontline where the idea of the public is contested?

The museum as a public space

What is the public in a contemporary context? How is this idea of the public constructed historically and how can we analyze it from its perspective of its geopolitics? Also, how can the public defined in the light of the current events in Turkey? How do these events affect the way we think about being public ourselves, and the public these events want to address?

A public is a prerequisite to the work of art, an art space or festival, if it wishes to function fully aesthetically or politically and have a substantial dialogue between maker and viewer, and between curator and the curated. As Andrea Phillips notes in her lecture, since the curatorial program circles around public and public domain, the curated is the viewer or the inhabitants or user of the space.

Further, in Boris Groys’ book On the New, he discusses a public’s relationship between a museum as a constructor and life. According to the website, Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts, art in that sense makes public, a group of “bodies acting together to claim space.” This idea becomes interesting when it is reshaped and rethought “in order to make the relationship, between the cultural producers and the people that are called the public, more equitable.”

However, the relationship between creator and viewer had always been skewed, which is also the case here. The creator acts as a representative of a certain group that seems to have no voice, and speaks on behalf of the denoted group. As co-curator of the 13th Istanbul Biennial, Andrea Philips, Reader in Fine Art in the Department of Art, Goldsmiths, the University of London, and Director of the Doctoral Research Programs in Fine Art and Curating, points out in her lecture: “the unwitting well-meaning ethos of the programmer dictates a benign hierarchy of subjective and social power over the programmed.”

What if the public rejects the present it gets, in this case, a public debate—as was the case at the 13th Istanbul Biennial? How can an art space react to this antagonism? This present dilemma is thoroughly addressed in the work ‘Is the museum a battlefield?’ (2012) by the German artist Hito Steyerl (Munich, 1966), that was also presented at the exhibition of the 13th Istanbul Biennial. In the following part of this essay, I will develop the notion of public—a body of people—and the public realm—a physical or virtual space, which is used or inhabited by the public—to address the issues raised in this particular artwork and the context that it is embedded.

Wigbertson Julian Isenia originates from the Island of Curacao and has an MA degree in Arts and Culture (University of Amsterdam), and two bachelor’s, in interdisciplinary social sciences (University of Utrecht) and Theatre Studies (University of Amsterdam). During his MA, he received a scholarship from Bekker-la Bastide fund and the University of Amsterdam nominated him for the ECHO awards.  Currently he is collecting source materials on theatre plays, literature and film, as well as archival research, that seeks to gain an in-depth knowledge of  Dutch Caribbean queer lives on the island of Curaçao. This preliminary research in preparation for his PhD is funded by the Sylvia W. de Groot Fund.

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