Curating Crisis
Fulya Erdemci on the 2013 Istanbul Biennial, 2013
Has the planning for the biennale been affected by the recent upheavals in Istanbul? If so, in what way?

What is happening in Istanbul at the moment is larger than life and, certainly, incomparable to any exhibition or art event. We are all very surprised, exalted and full of hope again. The so-called public sphere, which was merely a question of probability before, has been split open with such creative energy that the streets have begun to talk, sing, dance, walk and interact. The questions posed in the conceptual framework of the Istanbul Biennial – which is directly related to the public domain as a political forum, and urban space as an integral component of democracy – have alchemically unfolded, entering the domain of experience. This has transformed us all. It has opened up new horizons we could never have anticipated.

During and just after the Gezi occupation (it was halted violently on the 15th and 16th of June), we didn’t have much time to think and work on the biennial. As everything is very recent and still in the process, it is not easy to respond to the situation through an exhibition of biennial-scale. However, the conceptual framework of the biennial already articulated these issues, and art works and projects were selected in accordance with such considerations and criteria. I believe that the biennial exhibition can open up a space for thinking around the transformative experience that we have been going through. Following the Gezi occupation, the biennial is on the verge of radical changes: we are considering moving away from the public domain, giving the stage to what has happened and is still happening in the parks, streets and neighbourhoods without circumscribing their independence. Given everything that has happened, we have had to seriously question what it means to collaborate with the authorities to realize art projects on the streets – with their permission – while the same authorities try to suppress resistance violently, including innocent performances, actions and happenings such as Man Standing and the collective Ramadan dinners (Earth Tables). After staging meetings and forums to gauge the opinions of artists, curators, critics and activists, we have decided to move away from urban public spaces. As an integral part of the conceptual framework, we wanted to make the biennial entrance free of charge. Following our decision not to realize the planned projects in urban public spaces, as a statement highlighting the urgency of the current situation, we have finally been able to do this. By resourcing extra funds and shortening the duration of the biennial exhibition, we were able to make it free, which means that the biennial is now open to anyone – including those who would not have had the financial means to cover the ticket price.

You have spoken of the biennial addressing the "battleground" of urban transformations? In this context, how will this edition approach the notion of victory in this struggle?

The phrase battleground refers to Chantal Mouffe’s definition of the public domain as a battleground between hegemonic forces – where the weakest voices are always suppressed by the dominant consensus. For me, the agonistic space created by the Gezi occupation already signifies a victory. Although it only lasted a short period of time, I took the anonymous, self-organized and collective life in Gezi Park – by diverse groups and individuals whose world views are very different to one another, even contradictory – as a victory. We had the opportunity to experience a utopian moment, a joint living practice in reality. Even after the violent evacuation of Gezi, public forums are now organized every night in neighbourhood parks. I also count this as a big success.

Does Istanbul need a biennial? Does the project run the risk of exacerbating gentrification?

Legally, Istanbul’s population is almost 15 million, and a tiny part of it has the opportunity to visit art exhibitions abroad. Moreover, in proportion to the number of people there are only a small number of art institutions devoted to contemporary discourses and practices from diverse geographies. This means that the Istanbul Biennial represents something more than an international art exhibition – filling the gaps in the Turkish art world and functioning like a school, too.

  I have been working in the public domain for several years, and we all know the gentrification issues that are raised in connection with the movements of the artistic milieu. For that reason, the locations that I selected for the biennial were all contested areas already under transformation, so there was no risk of this biennial’s projects fostering new gentrification schemes. However, as I previously mentioned, in order to make a statement we have now decided not to realize any projects in urban public space.

How have Turkish artists responded to protests in Taksim and Gezi park? Is there a unified mood?

There are highly diverse visions and reactions, but almost all of them are unified under the demand for freedom and rights, asking for the possibility of another world.

How important is the international audience for your project?

Since this is an international art event that can create a dialogue between the foreign and local art worlds – not forgetting audiences! – then, certainly, they are very important. However, we must always bear in mind that biennials are for the cities and citizens from which they are born.

Which artists’ biennale projects are you particularly excited about?

There are very many exciting projects, some of which are produced directly for Istanbul – such as Alice Creishner and Andreas Siekman’s video work, Christoph Schaefer's visual narrations and Maider Lopez’s commentary on the ‘making of routes’. Projects that articulate the power of poetry and literature with visuality, such as one by Jorge Mendez Blake and Shahziah Sikander, are well worth waiting for. There are also pieces articulating issues around the public domain and urban transformation from the 1960s and 1970s, such as those by Nil Yalter, Gordon Matta Clark, Mierle Laderman Ukeles and more.