Vasif Kortun: Istanbul qua Istanbul
Vasif Kortun and Matthew Schum
As Director of Platform Garanti, curator Vasif Kortun is a leading force behind art in Istanbul. Over the last fifteen years, Kortun has helped to define contemporary art in Turkey and abroad by curating exhibitions such as the 1993 and 2005 Istanbul Biennials. His experience corresponds to that of other seminal curators who began working on an international scale during the 1990s. Here, Kortun describes what working as a new curator meant in the early 1990s, as art became more global due to biennials like Istanbul’s, how his city has changed since then, and how he and co-curator Charles Esche developed their 2005 biennial project entitled Istanbul.
Matthew Schum: Can you talk about the Third Istanbul Biennial (1993)? How you were selected as its curator and what you were doing before the exhibition?
Vasif Kortun: I was not selected, exactly. I was initially selected as a sort of organizer, just as in the previous two editions. But from the outset I did not want to work as an organizer. I wanted to have a strong hold on the exhibition. The first two biennials suffered from having a local, uninformed advisory group. I told the advisory group that I was not interested in making the exhibition with them, that I would do it and they should give me the chance to do it. I did not want to be working on a project where five people take different parts of the exhibition. I also knew that the advisory group did not have much idea about contemporary art. Grudgingly or not, they accepted my proposal. Basically, I told them that I did not need their ideas. At that time, the Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts [IFCA] was going through some drastic changes and so my proposal made it through the cracks. I was able to do what I wanted. The other reason was due to the budget. It was under $400,000.
Schum: What is it today do you suppose?
Kortun: Today it would be something like $600,000. With these kinds of figures, you simply cannot do any exhibition. This is obvious. On top of this, there was almost no funding from Turkey. The total of local support came up to maybe $80,000. There was no overarching funding body, unlike the first two. That meant a heavy reliance on other countries as guests. It was clear from the outset that I had to work with other countries. It could not have been curated or organized otherwise because we absolutely did not have the money, and this was all against the background of the Iraq War in 1991.
Approaching other countries would involve two strategies. One would be to go through official state representatives. But this would have been undesirable for reasons that were obvious. The second would be to approach the countries—but pursue it in a way to produce a cohesive project that is not the result of monologues that go nowhere. During those times, more than now, the official representations of most countries were handled through bureaucratic processes and through political powers. And that was another problem. Moreover, some of the countries that I wanted to work with did not have a secularized system of appointments or transparency or contemporary art professionals. No such institutions. So, instead of going to the countries directly, I went to certain curators in certain countries. Who would they be? Victor Misiano from Russia, Luchezar Boyadjiev, an artist and curator from Bulgaria, Sub Real and Ana Rottenberg from Poland, and so on. I also invited the curators from the New Museum, Laura Trippi and Gary Sangster, to bring a smaller version of the Decade show. And, I put a kind of perimeter on the show, which was to include artists mostly under thirty-five years of age, and to work with the theme of the “production of cultural difference.” So I worked with these curators and, in most cases, it worked. In two cases, it did not. I also had to turn down a few countries.
Schum: Which ones?
Kortun: Germany and Switzerland. They thought that their proposals were pertinent to the exhibititon, and I did not believe so. So I turned their proposal down. This was at a time when Turkey was still considered a kind of backwater place, and that their proposals would not be up for negotiation.
Schum: Is it possible to compare that experience to the Ninth Istanbul Biennial?
Kortun: No, not at all. The Third Biennial was coming right after 1989. The Berlin Wall had come down and everything was still up in the air. For the Third Biennial, I had to plan all aspects of the show by myself, with a law student as a part-time assistant.
Schum: So the “meta-curator” replaces the advisory board?
Kortun: Well, yes. I invited an exhibition designer, Mehmet Dogu, who had done some work at MoMA—a Turkish American guy. We worked for four months on the layout of the exhibition, which was very precise. The whole project was based on two premises. One was Orhan Pamuk’s Black Book (1990). The text describes Istanbul as a subterranean and layered city. It also describes Istanbul as a place of loss of orientation. The other aspect was to make the boundaries between the national sections porous, so that you would not quite know when you were leaving one section and entering into another. I wanted to keep them together—because they were articulate in themselves—and also open them up.
Schum: The exhibition took place primarily in one location, right?
Kortun: Yes. The idea in the second case was Turkey moving toward a post-Fordist context. Here, the reference point was no longer the historical monument; it was the industrial past. The building we selected was located outside the city walls and the tourist zone. It was the first factory in the country. It was built in 1848 and transported from Belgium. It is a single level glass and iron building. We used about 45,000 square feet of it.
Schum: This idea of moving past the historical site, it seems, was even with you during the Third Biennial?
Kortun: Of course.
Schum: And that was an important part again in the Ninth Biennial?
Kortun: Yeah. There’s a particular kind of mix between Three and Nine.
Schum: If we can’t compare the two biennials directly since they’re quite a few years apart, how had the city changed between the Third and the Ninth Istanbul Biennials?
Kortun: The Third was really based around Istanbul’s 1985 master plan. The area within which the Third was situated was in the midst of a huge cluster of factories, workshops, and sweatshops that were all on the Golden Horn. You could not see this building in 1986. It was not visible because both sides of the Golden Horn were filled with factories. Then the city government began “cleaning up” that whole area. Everything was just razed as they went along. Few buildings were spared. The factory that we used was one of those buildings. Even the powerhouse next to it was razed.
There was no tourism in the city at that time. Globalization hadn’t yet taken effect. What had taken effect was the other kind of globalization: the post-1989 situation, with the break-up of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc, the end of Bureau-Communism, and the traffic of many desperate people. The exhibition had a lot to do with this, especially in the Romanian, Bulgarian, and Russian sections.
Schum: So the Balkans, to some degree, were connected to Turkey again.
Kortun: My whole obsession at the time was to connect the Balkans to Turkey. I wanted to include Bosnia, but that was impossible since the war had just begun. I also wanted to involve Egypt, but that was impossible because I didn’t have any contacts there. Moreover, I couldn’t find any secular independent professionals to work with in other places. It was a different world then.
Schum: For the Ninth Istanbul Biennial, half of the artists came from various places within Turkey and half came from without, and many artists had longer residencies than is normal for a biennial. The other half of the artists came from places outside that have a historical connection to Turkey. Can you talk more about that scheme?
Kortun: There are a couple schemes within that. One is “Istanbul” and the other is the “Istanbul/Not Istanbul” connection. For example, you have [Alex John] Wieder and [Jesko] Fezer working with Berlin. Then you have Flying City working with Seoul. In each site, we had other major cities—some with informal economies—that would allow you to reflect on Istanbul.
Schum: Based on economy?
Kortun: The informal economy with Seoul and the informal economy presented in Flying City’s project was critical. You also had Mexico City coming in the guise of New York with Daniel Guzmán’s video, Back in the New York Groove. It shows three guys singing in a schlocky way, “Back, back in the New York groove,” and they look like they’re coming out of the NYC subway. If you’re not aware of it, you’d think it’s New York, but it’s Mexico City. That’s through Mexico City and then you go back to Istanbul. So there are all of these particular connections. The parallel to that would be Halil Altindere’s video of the streets of Istanbul that calls up Situationist moments. This section also included work that was produced here through the longer residencies.
Schum: Is it possible to make a connection to various parts of Turkey’s history—whether it’s the connection to the Balkans through the Ottomans, or the connection to Egypt being a regional power, or the connection to Germany—with various political issues affecting Turkey today?
Kortun: Yes, certainly. Charles [Esche] and I always wanted to do an exhibition that encompassed the larger geography. But not of Turkey’s geography, because I don’t think that’s relevant.
Schum: Why not?
Kortun: Because, what is eighty years in the history of a place, versus the hundred or so years when it was a port city—a network city with different kinds of regions?
Second, the idea was to see how we could spin the exhibition out. If we think this is the site, if we think this is the centre from which we pursue the project, how do we spin it out? If we spin it out, obviously the Balkans and the Middle East exist within that territory. And these are the places that the exhibition would have to look at in the first place. My obsession is a kind of lateral, horizontal network. Hence, Israel and Palestine and Egypt, Bulgaria, Romania—and all that—seen both in the exhibition and in the text. And in the way we thought about it—it may have even been done without even having any artists from these geographies. But, ultimately, the exhibition was thinking of these geographies as the larger geography of Istanbul.
Schum: Can you say more about how you settled on the title?
Kortun: Istanbul? [Laughs] We couldn’t come up with a good title.
Schum: Doesn’t the exhibition to some degree purport to be Istanbul?
Schum: How is that embodied? Or how did it come to be embodied? I know it was a working process.
Kortun: We couldn’t come up with a title that would reduce the idea of the exhibition in an intelligent way, and I am weary of catchy titles that double up as labels. So we wanted a title that was a bit redundant, and a bit boring: “Istanbul: Ninth International Istanbul Biennial taking place in Istanbul...for Istanbulites...for the Istanbul look...” The strategy was to downplay certain things: like the arrogance of Istanbul and the physical sites of the exhibition, downplay the Istanbul which is in a kind of global city race, downsize the physical sites of the exhibition—not using huge, white walls was a way to create a sense of provisionality. The intention was to do “just enough,” but not more in terms of refurbishing the spaces. The size and scale of the actual exhibition areas were also downplayed.
We did not work much with artists with galleries. So galleries, museum boards, and collectors were not involved. It was more egalitarian and democratic and this showed in the exhibition. It showed at the opening and those coming in because they were not members of the museum boards, the collectors, or the private parties. It was kind of like a get-together without the big bang. There was no big bang. There was no great event. I think that was in a way consistent throughout the project.
Schum: What I’m interested in is the position that can grow out of provisionality, not the economics of it. You said something about this in your 2005 talk about the biennial at InSite in San Diego, California, that spurred my interest in it. You kept stressing this idea of making do and of provisional circumstances actually being a strength.
Kortun: What do you think?
Schum: I think that the catalogue, for example, was something that you didn’t overdo. Instead of a convention style building, the city itself was the exhibition’s context and so it was decentralized. And I think that some of the gestures that the artists made matched this provisional attitude. But I also think that it ties into other theories that you can go into in terms of praxis that I’m interested in, where it’s more about the tactics than the strategies.
Kortun: Okay, maybe that was the wrong word.
Schum: What do you mean?
Kortun: It’s not about strategy. Maybe it’s tactical. There are singular tactics that are part of a larger strategy to organize the whole exhibition in a way that emphasized a humbleness. The exhibition refused event culture. The exhibition may still belong to someone else, but you always have to ask the following questions: Who should the exhibition belong to? What is the exhibition for? Why are we doing this? Does it produce a discussion? What kind of discussion does it produce? Can the project be an interesting tool for people to think about?
I have more to do with the outside of the exhibition as well. My main concern with the exhibition is more about the outside of that project—about how to work with the city, about urbanism, new city tourism, and globalization.
Schum: Even though it’s not about event culture, it is based in Beyoglu. It’s something where, if you were to go between the sites, you would have to cross Istiklal, and Istiklal is going to be that centralizing place because the rest of the area is so disorienting.
Kortun: Actually, in terms of density, maybe five percent of the artists are on Istiklal. Out of fifty-five artists, only three are on Istiklal. The smallest venues are on Istiklal. Of course, it’s not only about Istiklal, it’s about the general area. If today it’s Istiklal, tomorrow it’s going to be the places where the exhibition was before. They are subject to the same kind of real estate pressure and similar modes of gentrification. We did not have the courage to go beyond that.
Schum: Was there a critique of the biennial as an exhibition type built into the Ninth Istanbul Biennial?
Kortun: Yes, certainly.
Schum: I’m very interested in that.
Kortun: I keep on saying that it was not a biennial, but rather a model for us. It’s one possible model to approach the city, or to work with the city. That was certainly a concern.
Schum: “The city” in general, or Istanbul?
Kortun: For us, Istanbul. We wanted to have a break with the previous ones as well.
Schum: How did you approach that?
Kortun: With a model of creating a model as a succession of sites. A model for publication. A model of working with artists in this process-oriented way of checking, editing, going through, and discussing what all the resident artists where doing. Also a model of working with the public.
Schum: How was that handled?
Kortun: I think okay, no? The public acquired the exhibition in a way that exceeded our expectation both in terms of numbers and in the way they tooled the exhibition.
Schum: How did they use it? How do you mean?
Kortun: I am referring to the way that it was used by educational institutions and people interested in urbanism. That is a most interesting part in a way.
Schum: Is it possible to say more about the model it presented in relation to dealing with the public? Or how you massaged that aspect of it?
Kortun: The public—the professional or semi-professional public—was ready because of the classical programming to have conferences take place on the first day of the opening or the day after, which we always did in Istanbul. I started this in 1992 when I invited a whole group—Tom McEvilley, Bruce Ferguson, Bart de Baere—to give a series of talks after the exhibition. This became the standard. Every curator would have this one or two day conference after the exhibition. People tend to fly in, see the show, attend the conference, and then go home.
Instead of that, we organized a lecture program that spread out over a year. We had no conferences of our own after the exhibition as well. The opening was a time for people to get together and celebrate rather than get thrown into a room to hear talking heads. So people knew what we were doing all along. Our failures (like our failure to secure spaces) were made public. Artists gave talks. Charles and I did as well.
Schum: So it is nothing more than shifting the level of availability?
Kortun: It has to do with spreading the exhibition out. The biennial is not the exhibition. The biennial is the year-long process that led to it. Also, it is the series of publications that ideally target different kinds of readers and publics. And there was the “Hospitality Zone” where we gave space—half of our biggest space—to guests and other programs. Spreading the exhibition out: the Van Abbemuseum covered the history of the biennials in Istanbul, or November [Paynter’s] program at the Ikon Gallery that took place after the exhibition with screenings and other projects that we called positionings.
Schum: So that there were many surfaces to it.
Kortun: Yes, and the exhibition was the major part of that, but it wasn’t the exhibition.
Schum: Can we take a broader view and consider what biennials mean in the larger context of contemporary art?
Kortun: I think that the biennial is still necessary in Istanbul. You’ve been here for three months. You know what goes on in a way, which is the best we’ve had in years actually. It is quite slender.
Schum: In terms of activity?
Kortun: Yes. A year ago, there were no initiatives. Two years ago, there was no Istanbul Modern. There was no dream of Santral Campus, or any of that. And four years, ago there were just small institutions. The biennial still creates this moment of density that is quite valuable—if not for everyone, for the artists.
Schum: So it remains the central contemporary art vehicle?
Schum: What about broader implications in terms of international contemporary art and biennials. There is so much talk about biennials.
Kortun: I don’t feel that biennials constitute the engine of the contemporary art world at the moment.
Schum: You have said that art fairs do, is that right?
Kortun: Yes. But that is a longer discussion.
Schum: Simply because the market is leading it?
Kortun: Well, the market has appropriated the energy of biennials. The market does not need the biennials anymore.
Schum: And it did five or ten years ago?
Kortun: It is a question of economy, which we disregard when we are doing these projects anyway, to a degree. Previously, there was not such liquidity in the market—the hedge funds were not as powerful six or even ten years ago. The market of the art world in general had not expanded at this scale. So the biennials were actually used for this purpose. They’re no longer needed because the market has superceded them. The market and the biennial are not two different things. They are in the same horizon but with somewhat different intentions. Yet, they are still a consequence of the new economy.
Schum: I see art fairs and biennials going hand in hand more than anything.
Kortun: They do go hand in hand, but the way they go hand in hand is different because the traditional art fair up until three or four years ago did not purport to have the same kind of intellectual content. Now, all the fairs come with intellectual content. And this intellectual content is not merely to bring some kind of legitimacy to the project. It is way beyond that stage, I think. It is part of the art fair system.
It used to bring some kind of legitimacy. For instance, ARCO in Madrid always had a kind of lecture series. They would invite all kinds of professionals so people could familiarize themselves with Spanish institutions. Now you can find as good programming in Frieze Art Fair or at Basel and many other fairs.
Schum: Speaking of intellectual content, what is this supposed rise of the curator that occurred in the 1990s? And is there a moment that you think marks this turning point?
Kortun: It is related to neoliberalism and 1989. It doesn’t refer back to Harald Szeemann. We take our cues from him, obviously, and these historic or watershed moments. You see, the rise of this kind of curatorial discourse is also very closely linked to the biennial systems. They are parallel if not very strongly interrelated. I think it was after the 1980s. Just look at the whole market crash with Black Friday.
There are a few things to consider. One is the end of the dictatorships in Latin America and other places. Another is the neoliberal economy. And then in the very early 1980s you have your Reagan-Thatcher call to implement this whole new system. This resulted in the forced privatization of public institutions. You have the first instance of the new economy affecting relationships with so-called former public institutions. Instead of public funding, you get things like lottery money coming in and fuelling things like the museum building boom in the UK. What we saw, in fact, was the building of museums, art centres, and other institutions coinciding with the end of the welfare state. In all of this you have the rise of the independent, non-institutional, on-the-go, independent curator. This was the new subject. The independent curator of the 1990s is also a consequence of this system.
Schum: Why, exactly?
Kortun: Because these are not figures in the service of what we should say are classically defined public institutions. Their mode of living is based on projects. They have to be project junkies and entrepreneurs. They have to know about fundraising, warm up to collectors whose visions are just as maverick, and all that is entailed in this system. They have to possess an international network of support from peers. They existed between the private and public sectors, occupying a middle ground between institutions, museums, and the other space, which was not quite yet defined at that point.
Schum: Do you mean in terms of finance?
Kortun: No, structurally. Up until the end of the 1990s, there was not a single curatorial pioneer from that decade working in any institutions.
Schum: But how does this fit into the idea of the auteur curator or the encroachment on the space of the artist by the curator?
Kortun: Clearly because these positions are no longer defined; you are no longer working for a museum in which the processes are well defined.
What is liberating about the new curator is that his only collaboration partner is the artist. You do not produce exhibitions towards museums but you produce exhibitions towards a middle space. Such a space could include a hotel room, a boat, a temporary public space, or a shopping centre. When Cities on the Move: Urban Chaos and Global Change was curated and produced with Hou Hanru and Hans Ulrich Obrist, for example, the only place it did not travel to was the United States because there was no institution that was brave enough to take it. They had a very pared down version of it at PS1 in New York. Look, Hou Hanru got his first institutional position in 2006.
Schum: In San Francisco.
Kortun: In San Francisco. And Hans Ulrich got his first institutional position of scale in 2006 at the Serpentine. Francesco Bonami’s first position was in 2001. You can go on and on...”
Schum: This is, then, a structural manifestation. It’s not something that has much to do with the dynamics of authorship that are so often cited.
Kortun: It has to do with a lot of things, I am just relaying one angle of a complex transformation. Yes, it has to do with authorship, but that’s just the justification process which you receive through people like Szeemann. But you also receive it through extremely inventive architects in the 1950s. And you receive from artists/curators like Duchamp and his whole legacy.
We have to think about how the artist’s practice has changed from the late 1980s onwards. We also have to think about geographic expansion and different kinds of practice that had nothing to do with producing materials or objects.
Schum: But it is not necessarily a loss of aura in the face of video and new media. It’s more a global issue.
Kortun: When money came back into the art market at the end of the 1970s after the oil crisis, we saw the emergence of Neo-expressionism and Neue Wilden in Germany, the Italians (Chia, Clemente, and Cucci), and the bad California painting schools, all that stuff was an expression of those times.
Schum: There’s a strange connection between conservative governments and expressionist movements.
Kortun: We are seeing this now with the return to painting. But when the geography of art expands in a way that does not refer to a culture of painting or a culture of the classical auteur artist, you realize that there’s an amazing legacy out there that can also inform your practice today.
Schum: Can you say something about failure? That was something you mentioned in a recent talk here in Istanbul.
Kortun: It wasn’t so deep. I was grumpy that day.
Schum: But you’ve even brought it up a couple of times today as far as that being a part of the process.
Kortun: I guess I was just more interested in the fact that investment does not want to recognize failure. It has to be such that it preempts it. So does collecting, for example, whereas failure announces to production that failure is actually a part of its game.
Schum: Especially since Duchamp.
Kortun: That’s right. Maybe this is one way to approach it. How can you work with the notion of exception and not recognize failure? Maybe you should not think of it as failure. What I mean by this is that you do something, you produce a context, and then the market comes and runs away with it.
Schum: Absorbs it.
Kortun: Yes, because the market doesn’t know how to fail, and so it is you who fails. How can you be both inside and outside of that equation at the same time? It requires that you try to produce such a context along with all these stop-gap measures to protect that context from being appropriated. You just move on. It’s important to just move on.
Schum: What about love and caretaking that you’ve mentioned before?
Kortun: I am not an example. Right now I am busy trying to maintain a pocket of survival within this whole shift. I need to have this pocket of survival to be strong and stable enough to make an impact. In a very small way, this is about what we are supposed to do. Platform will expand in the same space with a sister institution. How can we reinvent Platform as a meaningful institution? That’s the pocket. For me, this place is a pocket. This is kind of like breathing room.
Schum: And that’s where the love comes in.
Kortun: Yes, and then we’ll be okay; we’ll do it, I know. That’s why we are doing this library project.
Schum: It’s a great project.
Kortun: It’s so incredible. You know, a problem is that we don’t publish.
Schum: Well, you don’t want to do those things do you? Do you want to collect or publish, or get tangled up in that stuff?
Kortun: Well, if you don’t publish you’re just not so loud about it. You’re just faced with the fact that you’re going to be pushed out of even your history.
About the Authors
Vasif Kortun is the curator and director of Platform Garanti Contemporary Art Center in Istanbul. His texts have appeared in many different books, magazines, and exhibition catalogues. Jahresring 51: Szene Turkei: Abseits aber Tor, a book on Turkey, co-authored with Erden Kosova, was published in 2004. Kortun is a collections advisor at the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, and serves on the Collections Advisory Council at the New Museum of Modern Art, Warsaw. Kortun received the 9th annual Award for Curatorial Excellence given by the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College in 2006.
Matthew Schum is a graduate student at the University of California, San Diego, Department of Visual Arts. His recent research has explored the experience of contemporary art in urban exhibitions such as the Istanbul Biennial. As a researcher, he has worked for the Vancouver Art Gallery and the Walker Art Center.