I grew up in a place where civil war was part of daily life, where safety in public space was divided into day and night, into wide roads and back streets, mountains with cages or fields with burned trees. It was normal to have military tanks patrolling in the heart of town with heavily armed Special Forces. Working as a journalist in a newspaper was dangerous enough to have one assassinated in the middle of the street during daytime. Listening to music in your native language was considered a crime. Imagine a place where primary school kids were investigated for taking part in a painting competition about the International Day of Peace. Growing up in circumstances of radically militarized everyday life with very limited resources, I am not coming from a place where worldviews of “Western moralism”or ethics as “conventional wisdom” were taken for granted. I am coming from a place where I learned the importance of consciousness—more importantly, collective consciousness—when one is isolated both culturally and politically.
Already during the early years of my artistic practice, I had to face a number of polarizing challenges. I remember participating in two significant meetings on April 2 and 9, 2005, in Istanbul with other artists, writers, critics, and students to discuss the notion of a national exhibition, with reference to several exhibitions that had been organized since 2000. Exhibitions about Istanbul, Turkey, and the Balkans, and more specifically the exhibition Urban Realities: Focus Istanbul that was planned to open at Martin-Gropius-Bau (2005) in Berlin, were discussed at these meetings. At the end of them, ten artists—myself, Can Altay, Hüseyin Alptekin, Halil Altındere, Memed Erdener, Gülsün Karamustafa, Neriman Polat, Canan Şenol, Hale Tenger, and Vahit Tuna—decided to withdraw from this exhibition. In addition, an interview by Erden Kosova and Vasıf Kortun, and an article by Fulya Erdemci, were withdrawn from the exhibition catalog by the authors. The show went on, but it became an exhibition about Istanbul without the participation of artists from Istanbul (with a few exceptions). Through this withdrawal we expressed our fatigue over exhibitions based on national identity, over the utilization of artists as illustrations of politics between nations, and the categorization of artists according to geographical, national, or regional specifications. Besides all this, another disappointing thing was the disparity in the distribution of funds among invited artists.
As the 19th Biennale of Sydney, 31st São Paulo Biennial, 10th Sharjah Biennial, 13th Istanbul Biennial, Manifesta 10, Gwangju Biennale, and many other cases attest to, we have entered a new phase: the existing institutional protocols and structures of large-scale exhibitions can’t handle the changing nature of spectatorship, sponsorship, usership, and government involvement in art exhibitions.
It is time to talk about what can be done before we hit a dead end, or simply a moment of crisis. What tools can be used? Who pays a greater price? I have a feeling that we lose a lot of time with satirical speculations, misconceptions, and a misguided focus on the wrong questions. We all often face contradictions. As artists, curators, social agents, cultural workers, writers, academics, organizers, students, and museum directors, we constantly need to ask ourselves how much we are willing to compromise while creating the conditions for art’s production.
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