Istanbul Biennial


14 Sep - 10 Nov 2013

“Mom, Am I Barbarian?”
14 September -10 November
Curator: Fulya Erdemci

The notion of the public domain as a political forum will be the focal point of the 13th Istanbul Biennial. This highly contested concept will serve as a matrix to generate ideas and develop practices that question contemporary forms of democracy, challenge current models of spatio-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.i

The idea of the public domain has diverse historic,philosophical, theoretical and geo-political roots and definitions. No matter how many interpretations exist, they are fueled by questions of democracy,related to equality, civic rights and political debate. From the existence of an artwork to the freedom of social media and the designation of urban spaces as public, the notion of public domain can cover a vast area where social engagement and political public debate are possible. It is this potentiality of public domain discourse that the exhibition aims to articulate.

Fragility: Am I Not A Citizen?
The title of the Istanbul Biennial “Mom, am I barbarian?” is a quote from the Turkish poet Lale Müldür’s book of the same title.ii

As a critique of the highest form of civilization and rationality, which has produced a world of barbarity in its negative sense (through colonial injustice, inequality, repression and violence), many artists of the Western tradition have advocated historically for what was primordial, primitive and irrational (Romanticism, Primitivism, Fauve, Dada and Surrealism for example). This is also true of today. In the face of excessive production, connectivity and complexity in the world, the simple and direct (and their opposites, the over-complicated and convoluted) are espoused as an expression of the desire to start anew. Against the alarming incompetence of cities, governances and regimes, there is an increase in retreats to the countryside to start anew, develop new communities (new collective living experiments) and alternative economic systems.iii

The term “barbarian” originates from the ancient Greek word “barbaros”, which referred to non-Greek people and meant “foreigner/stranger”; those who cannot speak the language properly. In the Middle Ages, it also denoted non-Christians, later on non-Westerners. Today it mostly refers to unorthodox behaviors in a specific culture. Certainly,the etymological origin and historical and contemporary meanings of the word are loaded with strong connotations of exclusion. Strikingly in this context, in ancient Greek, barbarian was the antonym of “politis”, the “citizen”, coming from the polis, the Greek city-state. It is a term that relates inversely to the city and the rights of those within it. What does it mean to be a good citizen today, in Istanbul for example? In the midst of the ongoing urban transformations – the “battleground” – does it mean to conform to the existing status quo or take part in the acts of civil disobedience? Neo-liberal urban policies advocate the implementation of free market parameters that lead to socio-economic Darwinism, which in turn, creates a wilderness, where the powerful beat the weak. Can’t we imagine another social contract in which citizens assume responsibility for each other, even for the weakest ones, those most excluded?

In the current context, what does it mean to be a barbarian? After all, galvanizing the limits of the civilized, the “barbarian” reflects the “absolute other” in society, circumnavigating the frames of identity politics and multicultural discourses. But, what does the reintroduction of barbarity as a concept reveal today? Is it a response to an urge to go beyond already existing formulas, towards the unknown? It may refer to a state of fragility, with potential for radical change (and/or destruction), thus, to the responsibility to take new positions.Through the unique interventions of artists, the biennial exhibition aims to explore further such pressing questions and will ask if art can foster the construction of new subjectivities to rethink the possibility of “publicness” today.

Spatio-Economic Justice: "How Is It Possible To Be 'Rich' In A World That Is Steadily Growing Poorer?"iv
The financial crisis that started in 2008 has increased the pressure on the majority of the world’s population, which in turn, mobilized many people and propelled political uprisings and new social movements. Alongside the growing discontent with existing regimes, and frustrations about their governance and ideologies, urban public spaces –streets, squares and parks – have become the stage for the expression of conflict and unrest as seen in ongoing protests all over the world, especially concentrated in the Arab world. In the Western world, the radical anti-corporate social movement Occupy epitomizes such reactions. Although it is not clear for now if these are rehearsals, reformist movements, parallel systems or revolutionary attempts, it is clearly understood that they reclaim the squares and streets for social and spatio-economic justice and equality.

Struggles over rights to public spaces are central for any social movement to challenge the status quo.However, the question remains: what is the specific role of spatial dynamics vis-à-vis the progress of socialmovements? Do urban public spaces function as a spatial component of the democratic apparatus by aiding or abating critical masses that fuel debate; collective public action; or provide a platform to
exercise civic rights? Or are these events very singular experiences? In the current climate, is it possible to imagine social change through open resistance demonstrated on the streets?

These tensions resonate with the growing reactions and protests in Istanbul against its ongoing urban transformation, especially against the modus operandi through which urban transformation is taking place.

Agoraphobia: “Istanbul Is Ready, Target 2023"v
“(In ancient Greek) freedom was understood as being manifest in certain, by no means all, human activities, and that these activities could appear and be real only when others saw them, judged them, remembered them. The life of a free man needed the presence of others. Freedom itself needed therefore a place where people could come together—the agora, the market-place, or the polis, the political space proper.”vi

The dream, expressed through the “Istanbul Is Ready, Target 2023” slogan, which began in the1980s to assume a global corporate style, was tinged with the spirit of an Ottoman revival starting from 2000s and projects Istanbul’s future as the center of the Islamic world, to be achieved by the 2020s. This foresees Istanbul as a conflation of styles resulting in a visual and urban culture in between Dubai and Singapore.

Urban transformation in Istanbul began as a drive to carve out a place in the new globally shaped commercial and financial geography.vii It corresponds to the adaptation of a neo-liberal economic model following the 1980 military coup d’état. Promoting ‘survival of the fittest’, the vision and model for Istanbul has been fashioned in line with free market ideology and global trends.viii

Creating economic vitality and extra employment,the regeneration of the cities and transformation of the housing sector has been an antidote globally for ongoing financial crises. However, in each crisis,Istanbul has become not only physically bigger, but also more densely populated through increased immigration

This period saw the legalization and transformation of gecekondus (the ad hoc settlements of the immigrants/non-citizens or “barbarians”) into multi-storey blocks (repeating the same construction qualities of the ‘gecekondu’ houses) and their
incorporation into the formal real estate market. These neighborhoods have become the epicenter of neo-liberal urbanism.x

Currently, there are approximately 48 mega urban transformation projects in development including a “crazy” canal project next to the Bosphorus (two new cities, each to inhabit one million people are planned), a third bridge across the Bosphorus and further opening up the forest, agriculture and water basin areas in the north of the city for new settlements.xi Two of the projects are emblematic of the spatial politics underlying the whole transformation process, and have been the direct focus
of political demonstrations: the transformation of Taksim Square and the construction of a new assembly ground for political rallies at Yenikapı,xii the designs of which suggest a fear of the assembly of people, an agoraphobic policy.xiii Does this translate to a fear of public speech, freedom of expression and fear of alternative political public forum?xiv

Taking Istanbul, and especially certain neighborhoods,such as Tarlabaşı, Sulukule, Fener-Balat or Başakşehir as a case study, commissioned projects in the biennial will explore such transformation processes, which provided very little room, if any,for grass roots, or ground-up negotiations.xv

Public Domain As A Battle-Ground: Conflict Or Consensus?
The conception of a unified and consensualized public domain facilitated by a homogenized single public united under a common will, which was articulated by Jürgen Habermas, has been revisited, revised and criticized for several decades. New concepts such as “multiple publics”, “counter-publics”,“proletarian public sphere” or “civic space” have been coined since to redefine the term “public” and “public space” in a contemporary context. Despite the differences, most of the models highlight the
importance of consensus between diverse minorities, communities, networks and societies. Contrarily, Chantal Mouffe unfolds the role of “dominant consensus” in the conception of public domain by instead proposing an “agonistic” model: “public space is the battleground where different hegemonic projects are confronted, without any possibility of final reconciliation.”xvi Consequently, art can play a role “by subverting the dominant hegemony and by contributing to the construction of new subjectivities.
(...) According to the agonistic approach, critical art is art that foments dissensus, which makes visible what the dominant consensus tends to obscure and obliterate. It is constituted by a manifold of artistic practices aiming at giving a voice to all those who are silenced within the framework of the existing hegemony.”xvii

In response to the perceived consensus, is the raison d’être of an art project in the public domain to add more conflict to a specific context in order to make this “battle” and the conflict visible? Taking democracy as an attitude questioning the “certainty
of the foundations of social life” rather than a governance model, we see the task of democracy as“not settling but sustaining the conflict”.xviii Thus, today, can we claim that any artwork in the public domain should be able to situate itself critically,
challenge the status quo, and specifically unfold the ideological structures we all are living in? Is it possible that art can provide another way of experiencing the world outside of what is presented as the norm, or the only possible alternative?

Between Agency And Action
In the face of urgency, many artists joined the Occupy movement and many others support the struggles and reactions especially (but not exclusively)against neoliberal urban transformation (i.e.Sulukule Studio, Taksim Platform in Istanbul or Right to the City movement in Hamburg). Simultaneously, the discussion around the autonomy and instrumentalization of art has gained a momentum. But how can art be a part of this process of rethinking freedom and equality spatially, in terms of spatio-economic justice? Does art-as-public-domain and activism share the same goal of changing society? In the face of urgency, can art and its institutions be mobilized as a useful political tool? Or will art lose its power in the collision?xix

Current artistic practices expand from hybrid trials to radical extremes, experimenting with unorthodox(even barbaric) languages, forms and processes,
sometimes acting as “oxygen bubbles” in reality or as inter-subjective agents acting in the symbolic realm. Many aim to create critical hubs in society.However, there are no ready-made formulations. In each case, a new formula or alchemy is needed. The Biennial will be the site for such experimentations.

From aesthetics (i.e. ‘creating a beautiful neighborhood’)to civility (i.e. ‘for a more civilized urban life’), the humanistic discourses of art and democracy have been appropriated, utilized and abused as the legitimization for all kinds of violent actions by the authorities (such as the removal of low-income citizens from the central locations of the city).xxThe exhibition aims to scrutinize the overarching ‘common’
interests, ‘win-win’ situations and politics of representation to create a public domain, autonomous to official slogans and discourses, in order to be able to discuss the way we are governed and forced to live. Furthermore, it will reflect on ways art can act as an autonomous field and yet interfere with the social, political and economic changes in society.

While artistic practices that claim public domain become more prevalent, simultaneously under the spell of privatization, art institutions have become
dependent on private funding and commercial support. As this increases, it has generated growing pains: in certain cases, the contemporary art world serves as the epicenter of the distribution of neoliberal culture and mechanisms. Our research for
the Biennial extends to an investigation of how the“booming” art world, specifically its market, functions in Istanbul and elsewhere, and what traces of this impact we might find.

Public Alchemy : Public Programme
“And yet, we are all in the same boat, or at least same flotilla. To use Neurath’s metaphor, the question is how to rebuild it while we are cruising on it. Or rather, how can we make it navigate when it is made of a fleet of diverging but already interwined
barges? In other words, can we overcome the multiplicity of ways of assembling and dissembling, and yet raise the question of the one common world?”xxi

Together with transformations in governance and ideology globally, the concept of “public”, and alongside, the role of art and its institutions has shifted drastically. The public programme of the Biennial will focus on this shift, especially on the notion of “making publics”, and will pose the question of “one common world” in a contemporary context, as raised by Bruno Latour.

Being an integral part of the exhibition, the public programme will bring artistic production and knowledge production together almost 7 months prior to the exhibition to create an open platform.Artists, architects, planners, theoreticians, activists,poets and musicians will come together to unfold these critical issues for discussion within the context of Istanbul. There will be an online platform and a workshop for emerging art critics on criticism and writing. (See the public programme for further information)

Additionally, there will be a special Biennial programme in the Istanbul Film Festival that will be held in April 2013, articulating the concepts of barbarity, civic awakening and the city (See the film programme).

Rendering Live:Venues
Focusing on urban public spaces in Istanbul, the Biennial will use public buildings left temporarily vacant by urban transformation. These may include courthouses, schools or military structures,post offices, former transportation hubs like train stations, ex-industrial sites such as warehouses,dockyards and the very contested Taksim Square
and Gezi Park. Furthermore, the hallmarks of current urbanism such as shopping malls, hotels and office-residential towers are considered as sites for artistic interventions. Due to the uncertainties related to the highly speculative nature of urban transformation 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. Whilst art functions in the symbolic realm, it can also
directly interfere with reality, the concurrent urban transformation of Istanbul.

Certainly, biennials have been criticized for being catalysts of these transformations in the name of city branding and marketing. Or they have drawn criticism for being sites of political struggles and representations. Yet the open format of biennial
exhibitions has the potential to produce new understandings and experiences of the public domain and forms of “publicness”. The 13th Istanbul Biennial will take this challenge to activate a public forum to open up new avenues of thought and imagination.

Tags: My Barbarian