originally appeared at Artleaks website on August 2013
Another World Is Possible – What about an Anonymous Istanbul Biennial?
by Ahmet Ögüt
I never performed for the media. I tried to reach people. It was not acting. It was not some media muppet show. That is a cynical interpration of history. *
* After his act at New York Stock Exchange, hurling/throwing one-dollar bill at the brokers.
On May 25, 2013, just before the beginning of the Gezi Park protests in Istanbul, I co-signed a letter by more than 100 arts and cultural practitioners that invited the Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts (IKSV) and 13th Istanbul Biennial curatorial team to change their authoritarian reflex and judgmental attitude to the protest staged on March 10th at a Biennial-sponsored event and to rethink the proposed structure of the 13th Istanbul Biennial.
Although I could argue in support of several concerns that were pointed out in the letter, one reason alone was enough to sign it: It was not the right attitude to forcibly remove protestors and then pretend to continue the interrupted event as it was originally meant to be staged by ignoring their existence in the room. A protest is a protest—no matter what is the intention. Whether a provocation or a democratic demand, once it is there, it is there, and we cannot ignore it.
When an action occurs in a moment like that, we are returned back to reality from a staged event—a situation where it is clearly defined who is the audience and who is the organizer—to a situation in which everyone in the room becomes part of the protest, if only by being there. What was disturbing to me at the event on March 10th was that everybody keep their positions (it was before the Gezi protests) and pretended that this uncomfortable moment—which one could read from everyone’s faces—would be over in a minute and everything would go back to normal once the protestors were pulled out of the room.
The issue is not the issue of lack of communication; the issue is one of creativity and improvisation. The last thing to do in response is to make a typical intervention in a typical form of protest. What was urgently needed was an “Open Forum,” instead of a staged event, where we are not divided as protestor, audience, and organizers following a staged and fixed agenda, but where we are a group of people sharing our concerns and equally reflecting on what is actually happening in public sphere at that very current moment. And that is what happened eventually after the experiences in Gezi Park. Some of the main achievements of that movement have been in getting rid of intolerance and fear in the public sphere.
I have worked with IKSV many times in the past, and I have taken part in the Istanbul Biennial twice. The Istanbul Biennial is one of the very few Biennials that is a sine qua non for the city, and many times generated a “public” discourse as an important component. Over the years, given the scale of the biennial team, office and resources, it has managed to bring our attention to real urban locations that are politically significant and subject to the urban transformation.
I see the “Gezi Park experience” as a unique opportunity to understand the role of arts and cultural practitioners, artworks, and art institutions, during a social movement like that. This edition of the Istanbul Biennial could be unique chance to challenge to existing positioning—not just in a rhetorical or a symbolical manner but also something that could have an effective impact on-site. During the Gezi Park protests what we witnessed has had a significant importance for us in order to take the next steps; artists were all around, anonymously. Instead of forming their own organization and gathering in one place, they were all actively involved and worked together with various organizational mechanisms both inside and outside of Gezi Park. Artists were not there as artists, but rather as citizens.
Since Gezi Park was evacuated with harsh Police intervention on June 15th, public forums (popular assemblies) are being held in over 30 parks around Istanbul in the evenings. The 13th Istanbul Biennial also has organized two “Open Forums” in at Cihangir Park during the month of July, and invited everyone to discuss the current political transformation and climate, the impact of Gezi Park protests, and what to be done. Now the 13th Istanbul Biennial has defined itself as a political forum that will be free of charge. Yet, organizers have decided to withdraw from public space, squares, streets, and to only use exhibition spaces, so that the Biennial does not compete with the transformative effect of Gezi Park protests on public space.
However I am not sure if this is the best thing to do. What should be done must be much more radical and challenging in order to contribute to the transformative nature of the current political climate. I would still say: Another World Is Possible!
What about this time having an Anonymous Istanbul Biennial? A Biennial in which—as was planned—invited artists would come, spend time in Istanbul, respond with works or non-works at anonymous locations, anonymously. No locations would be announced, no list of artists released, no exhibition space used, no guide or map printed, but still all the resources and facilities of IKSV could be used to make it happen. If what is done, produced and practiced has enough power to transform the public space, then it would be visible one way or another, and it would have an impact. If not, then it would still be there—but no one would ever even notice.
Why don’t we all stop for a moment, get away from the staged agendas and go back to reality.