The biennial is the most contingent of exhibition forms. Each one is punctured by compromises. These are often familiar to the point of predictability: faulty lighting, a shoestring budget, the impossible-to-find venue, an inept PR team. Biennials can never be totalizing visions or final versions, even when they pretend to be, because there is just so much that cannot be controlled.
On rare occasions, though, real life can intervene in more significant ways. This was the case with the 13th Istanbul Biennial. At the beginning of the year, its curator, Fulya Erdemci, announced that her exhibition – titled ‘Mom, Am I Barbarian?’ – would explore the public domain as a political forum. Accordingly, it would weave its way into civic spaces around the historically loaded Taksim Square. This could have been an admirable corrective to the vacuum-like temporary museum of Jens Hoffmann and Adriano Pedrosa’s preceding edition. But Erdemci’s plans were overtaken, even eclipsed, by actual events. On 31 May, an unlovely patch of land adjacent to Taksim, named Gezi Park, was occupied by a small group protesting the planned removal of some trees, a move regarded by many as Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdog˘an’s first step towards re-designing the square. When the police tear-gassed and beat those few hundred demonstrators, the crowd swelled to a million. Large-scale protests swept across Turkey, fanned by fears of Erdog˘an’s increasing authoritarianism and his party’s planning policies. Reporting for the London Review of Books, the Turkish historian Çag˘lar Keyder noted: ‘Erdog˘an thinks of public land as his property to alienate, develop and sell […] This kind of thinking leaves no room for public discussion.’ By the middle of June, the Gezi encampment had been violently cleared. Harsh reprisals continued to flare.
Gezi proved to be transformative. In her catalogue essay for the biennial, Erdemci (for many years director of SKOR | Foundation for Art and Public Domain in Amsterdam) calls those two weeks in early June ‘intoxicating’. The formerly Utopian realm had been transfigured into the field of lived experience, an effect that the curator refers to as ‘alchemical’. (This fanciful image may be one of the few examples of magical thinking in a stolid, straight-faced biennial.) Plans to utilize public spaces were dropped, with organizers arguing that this would have required collaborating with the same authorities who were busy crushing other forms of expression across Turkey. Erdemci, for her part, became convinced that not realizing projects in public spaces was ‘a more powerful statement than having them materialize under such conditions’.
How willing you are to believe this claim will probably determine what you think she achieved with the 13th Istanbul Biennial. Me, I’m still not quite sure. The exact nature of Erdemci’s pre-Gezi planned interventions and commissions remain murky. What is clear, though, is that the biennial retreated. Rather than taking place in the public sphere, it withdrew, shrinking back to five venues: two privately financed art institutions (Arter and SALT Beyog˘lu); an artist-run space (5533); a 19th-century school; and Antrepo No. 3, a vast warehouse on the banks of the Bosphorus, which has been used in every Istanbul Biennial since 1995. It may well have seemed like there were no other options, though many were suggested. So, although conceived in the months prior to the Gezi resistance, and rapidly reformulated in that crucible, ‘Mom, Am I Barbarian?’ took a form similar to many biennials of the last two decades.
It was an exhibition of whimsical proposals and small-scale interventions, of urbanism by other means. Though no longer in the public realm, the biennial endeavoured to remain sensitive to the unfolding events outside of the galleries; Erdemci has said, ‘we are asking the audience to listen to the voices of the streets’. And, despite what its many detractors have said, it was remarkably coherent and sometimes compelling, producing some inspired counterpoints between certain 1970s-era practices (such as Akademia Ruchu, Jirí Kovanda and Stephen Willats) with new and recent works by younger artists. But, while the biennial had a conscience, there was little anger or fire. What Erdemci called the ‘less-privileged geographies’ were prioritized, with most of the 100-odd artists hailing from Latin America, North Africa, the Middle East and Turkey. Despite this international scope, a good number of art works and research projects focused on some of the city’s most contested sites: Gezi and Taksim, of course, but also Tarlabasi Boulevard, and the rapidly changing neighbourhoods of Sulukule and Karaköy. The biennial was also free to attend for the first time in its 26-year history, though I wonder how much impact this had on its perceived openness.
During the preview days, it became familiar to say that Erdemci was basically in an impossible situation. Aside from the post-Gezi reshuffle, she has also been embattled by vociferous protests from the artistic community. This conflict goes back to 2006, when the Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts signed a ten-year sponsorship deal with Koç Holding, Turkey’s largest industrial conglomerate, which has interests in everything from oil and construction to IT and defence. Protests from local groups have been concerted and often creative: during the 2011 edition, a group called the Conceptual Art Laboratory distributed an infamous letter, written in 1980 by Vehbi Koç, in which the corporation’s founder expressed support for the bloody military coup of that year. For this edition, protestors disrupted much of the ambitious public programme (which began in January), ‘Public Alchemy’, organized by Andrea Phillips. Many were incensed that Koç was behind the same gentrification processes that the biennial claimed to resist. During the opening days in mid-September, however, I saw few signs of anti-biennial protestors. They were probably elsewhere: the night before the preview saw the first major demonstration in a month on Taksim, in response to the death of a young protestor in the southern city of Antakya, who had been struck by a tear-gas canister. He was the sixth person to have been killed in protests in Turkey since May.
A corresponding sense of unease coursed through most venues. Poised in readiness outside Antrepo, the largest of the sites, a demolition ball was suspended from a crane: Ayse Erkmen’s bangbangbang (2013) was a not-so-subtle reminder that this will be the last time the biennial will use the warehouse. To nobody’s surprise, it is due to be demolished to make way for a mall or luxury hotel. At SALT, located on the busy shopping drag of Istiklal, the threshold was patrolled by a waxwork of a miniature security guard, a pathetic figure of authority (Halil Altındere’s Guard, 2012). Over the road at Arter, Jimmie Durham’s sculpture The Doorman (2009) stood vigil in the window, entangled with security cameras. Erdemci was keen to remind us that these private spaces – like the city’s public spaces – remain under threat, heavily policed and subject to surveillance.
Entering Antrepo, a precarious brick wall blocked much of the exhibition from view (Jorge Méndez Blake’s The Castle, 2007); at its base was inserted a copy of Franz Kafka’s eponymous novel of 1926 – literature as a structuring force, though one with the power to destabilize. It was a bookish biennial, full of ripped pages and decaying volumes, and one in which poetry was unusually present. Indeed, the enigmatic title itself came from a 2006 essay by the Turkish poet Lale Müldür, a suggestion of how language is entwined with the construction of civic spaces: in antiquity, the word ‘barbarian’ derived from the onomatopoeic ‘ba-ba-ba’, signifying someone who could not speak Greek; it is the antonym for ‘citizen’, designating voices that are marginalized or excluded. In her catalogue essay, Erdemci dedicated the biennial to the figure of the outsider, the anarchist, even the poet or artist. She was careful not to invoke çapulcu (or looters) – the term Erdog˘an infamously used for the protestors, and which the crowds gathering across Turkey immediately embraced. Though ‘Mom, Am I Barbarian?’ was quickly criticized for its timidity, Erdemci’s refusal to cling to the rhetoric of protest felt decent, somehow, especially after Artur Zmijewski’s railroading of the Occupy movement at the 7th Berlin Biennale last year.
‘What does it mean to be a good citizen today, in Istanbul, for instance?’ The question that Erdemci posed was a good one, though I’m not sure whether she was able to answer it. Presumably wary of simply eulogizing the Gezi experience, few of the selected works – with the exception of Christoph Schäfer’s exuberant ‘Park Fiction’ drawings (1994–ongoing) – dealt explicitly with the events of the summer. More modest interventions were favoured. In Cinthia Marcelle’s video Confronto (Confront, 2005), for example, fire-jugglers block traffic; in the late Amal Kenawy’s extraordinary Silence of Sheep (2009), 15 people crawl through the streets of Cairo. While these works are often striking, they construct an artist not as an organizer but as a performer of small acts. Likewise, there was little-to-no material evidence in the show of the often-inventive protests that have flourished across Turkey over the last few months. When forms of protest were included, they were historical, such as the posters and leaflets from the Fluxus-affiliated Provo movement, active in Amsterdam in the mid-1960s. As a whole, ‘Mom, Am I Barbarian?’ suggested that resistance might be located in retreat and research.
The public square was subtly imprinted onto the exhibition layout at Antrepo, which was installed around three square displays. Two of these contained works that concern urban transformation, while the other comprised a tightly organized section about monuments, with new works by Santiago Sierra and Thomas Hirschhorn alongside an impressive presentation of mid-1970s works by Mierle Laderman Ukeles. The noise throughout Antrepo was almost cacophonous, with sound spilling throughout the space; perhaps charitably, I took this as a deliberate evocation of the clogged streets outside. Loudest of all was Halil Altındere’s striking Wonderland (2013), a hiphop video in which young men rap about their neighbourhood of Sulukule, one of the oldest Roma settlements in the world, which was demolished in 2006 as part of an urban transformation project.
Erdemci is acutely aware of the biennial’s own complicity in these mechanisms. By way of historical context, the half-built Centre Pompidou loomed in the background of two works from the mid-1970s: in Nil Yalter and Judy Blum’s mordant Paris City of Light (1974), the museum’s building site is described as ‘le grand trou de la culture’ (the large hole of culture); while Gordon Matta-Clark’s Conical Intersect (1975), produced for the 9th Biennale de Paris, cuts through a condemned house next to the unfinished structure. As a counterpoint, today’s military-exhibitionary complex was traced in a swashbuckling new video-lecture by Hito Steyerl, titled Is the Museum a Battlefield? (2013). This specially commissioned work takes the form of a shaggy-dog story, ping-ponging between the biennial sponsors and bullet-casings, toxic data clouds and pirated AK-47s, the Louvre in Paris and the Hermitage in St Petersburg.
Sulukule was also the subject of an engaging research platform presented on a roof terrace at the Galata Greek Primary School, a venue in which many works related to forms of education and discipline. The lowest floor was taken up by the respected painter Inci Eviner’s Co-Action Device: A Study (2013), a collaboration on ‘performative research’ with her students from the nearby Yildiz University, which comprised various module-like learning environments. Upstairs were several poignant videos, including Bertille Bak’s Safeguard Emergency Light System (2010) – a performance with the residents of a condemned neighbourhood of Bangkok – and Annika Eriksson’s I am the dog that was always here (loop) (2013).
The contingency of the biennial form has, in the more Utopian moments, been thought to be its strength. Rather than a slow-moving museum, a biennial can be flexible and responsive – to time and to place. ‘Mom, Am I Barbarian?’ was shaped by both an awareness of the urgent obligation to respond and the knowledge that any response would be inadequate. It felt trapped. But this provided an interesting case for the biennial in the 21st century. When a cultural institution is so thoroughly enmeshed with private interests, the same interests that are transforming the fabric of the metropolis, how is it possible to stand outside?