There Is Art Here, Lower Your Voices

On art and its urban entourage

Seçil Yersel, Untitled, 2003. C-print. Courtesy the artist

What follows is a discussion between Seçil Yersel, an exhibiting photography-based artist and member of the Istanbul based Oda Projesi collective, and Vasif Kortun, director of Platform Garanti Contemporary Art Center and co-curator of the upcoming 9th Istanbul Biennial. Kortun conducted a series of interviews in the spring of 2004 as a response to the cultural marketing and promotion of Istanbul and how it normalizes and streamlines both artistic production as well as audience cognition. Originally published in Istanbul magazine in Turkish, this discussion is one of these interviews.

Vasif Kortun: Seçil, I want to discuss how institutions are defined in the context of the “Istiklal Street syndrome.”1 Nearly all of Istanbul’s artistic and cultural institutions are located here, on a single stretch of two miles. Can we talk about opening new possibilities, and the need to establish different sets of relationships with the city that are sorely lacking?

Seçil Yersel: If an art scene or an institution functions only by securing itself, by primarily guaranteeing its position, what’s the point? Such a perspective seems to be more appropriate for a city like Ankara. But now even Istiklal Street is about to be domesticated. The fact that Istiklal Street has become a sort of obligation is distressing. It means that it loses its quality as an alternative. It’s now a glass dome enclosing elements that are considered different, but are in fact becoming increasingly similar. This situation restricts our movement in the city. We have everything, so why should we get out? Instead of isolating itself, perhaps the main concern for an institution should be developing relationships with its surroundings, and, above all, to grasp where it stands within the location where it exists, to know its neighbors. What is the range of art institutions in the city? How much of Istanbul can an art map cover? It seems the scope is too narrow.

I’m interested in making art accessible, comprehensible. Gültepe2 makes itself heard, and opens itself to discussion. How can you isolate yourself when there is an elementary school right next to you, and a place like Gültepe in the background? Who is the artwork’s neighbor — not its viewer, consumer or collector, but its neighbor? In other words, who is coincidentally nearby, and perhaps different, but has to coexist? Where can we build a common language, what if we need to build a third, common language and spread out? Those who come to Istiklal Caddesi must either surrender to those who already speak the predominant language, or just be content with the excitement of “different and interesting” personalities and situations that come up once in a while. Even if Istiklal Street has provided many possibilities, it began to consider itself the center and is now complacent with the situation. When are we going to be able to go to Pendik3 and see an exhibition? On Istiklal, the art becomes a mere display next to many other colorful displays. But when I see an art institution, I try to see its relationship with its surroundings, and when there’s a contradiction or a juxtaposition, the attraction the curiosity rises; it becomes more attractive. The neighbors are become curious, and even when they aren’t, the art gains an everyday quality, and perhaps it becomes harder to consume. It can no longer relax in its own space. Otherwise, art loses its capacity to diffuse, it doesn’t disagree with the system, but becomes an extension of it. It determines a point of view and says, “this is the way to look at it, from here, and only from here.”

VK: You’re looking at Istiklal from without, but let’s also try to look at it from within. It’s not simply a homogenous or static area.

SY: I did not say it was homogeneous or stable; I am wondering how a homogenous structure is produced. There are no open spaces, no gaps there. There are no transitions between venues, no individual territories. After a while, all the supposedly distinct voices become one bulk, because there is no breathing space to distinguish different people and venues from each other.

VK: It is true that the boundaries of the glass dome you mentioned are well-defined and tight. All you have to do is walk two blocks, towards Tarlabasi,4 or toward your right, walking from Galatasaray to Taksim. There’s an imposed proximity, an uncomfortable immediacy between radically different places such as Istiklal and Tarlabasi.

SY: Obviously this juxtaposition generates many hybrid structures, but it is becoming a painful situation, and I cannot figure out exactly what the position of the galleries is.

VK: Actually, proximity and coexistence doesn’t mean you’re in contact. As you may know, Istiklal Street was created in the 1860s, during a kind of semi-colonial period that lasted until 1909. During this time, there were more than sixty exhibitions on the street, some taking place in the smaller storefronts. Now, over the past six years, we’ve been witnessing how shops and restaurants are changing ownership with increasing speed. The shoemakers, tailors, barbershops and corner stores are being pushed out by bars, chains, cafées and flagship stores of international companies. Part of this process indicates that smaller, modest art centers will be pushed out and replaced by more glamorous commercial galleries and cultural centers. But today, it is still a place where Turkey’s experience economy is practiced in a more colorful way than in a shopping mall, and it is crucial that art centers are a part of it.

SY: I agree that it’s important to have art centers in such a district. However, if the main art institutions are coming here instead of diffusing into the city, I cannot support your point of view.

VK: Don’t you get sick of seeing nothing but shops in traffic-free zones? At least this street has not been completely cleaned up. Platform provides an experience for more than 100,000 people annually. This holds symbolic value for the city. You could say that, in reality, this freedom and anonymity caters to a consumer culture and an experience economy, and you’d be right, it does. But the abundance of cultural centers on Istiklal doesn’t necessarily wipe out the possibility of other institutions elsewhere. The two proposals are not even commensurate.

SY: It may sound strange, but in a place where galleries, shops and restaurants are so close to each other, I walk into Platform like I would into a shoe store or a bookstore. In such a suffocating area, there’s no time or mood for contemplation, interpretation or even criticism.

VK: When visitors come to Platform, despite it’s affiliation to a bank, they do not pass through metal doors, nor are they watched through surveillance cameras, or confronted with the suspicious gaze of an armed security guard, nor is there any trace of an environment that implies, “there is art here, lower your voices, behave, and you probably won’t understand anyway.” We’ve resigned ourselves to the space where we are, and are trying to use it with ease, and also to clarify the barriers between the inside and outside of the art space. Yet this is only one institution in one certain location. It can only set an example for itself.

There are many difficulties for an art institution in terms of choosing a location. There are no public funds, and the generations of artists who have not been exposed to a public funding policy can no longer even imagine alternatives. But the self-organizing model you mention is very different. The question is: How can a third language be created by an institution that has its foundations both in the international art discourse and in the city where it is situated? Especially if there is no art scene in that city that would support this kind of configuration? How are these models going to be funded? What are the possibilities of making them interact without a centralized focal point? These are the questions I’m interested in. We have to go beyond pouring content into an existing model — local “contenting”— in the same way we’ve already gone beyond reassembling existing models, or montage.

SY: I don’t think the restraints in choosing locations are merely due to the absence of public funding. You’re right about “local contenting,” but this condition has never been reflected on; it’s “montage” that has always been favored. First of all, to create a new infrastructure, we need to organize a series of long-term discussions embracing different contributors. A space for thinking out loud, a site where universities, galleries, curators, critics, artists, sociologists have a place; a meticulously formulated discussion platform that includes new actors. It seems to me that otherwise we’ll keep moving in a circle.

We can start from the idea that there is no art scene to support the institutions. The existence of groups like Oda Projesi, who delineate new possibilities, is crucial. The institution doesn’t have to build the third language itself, since groups who have already worked in this manner can channel their energy more effectively. Istanbul’s dynamic structure, which can organically self-organize, can itself become a model for institutions. Borrowed art venue models cannot survive in this city.

1. Istiklal Street, originally the Grande Rue de Pera was built in the mid-nineteenth century. As a zone of commerce and finance it was connected to the port area with the world’s second subway system. It was Istanbul’s first wide and straight street. Marked by consular buildings, churches, shopping centers, cafés and cultural spaces, it became by default the primary zone of an anonymous citizen experience in a city that was previously organized along community neighborhoods. The Istiklal area, a mercantile central node between the Balkans and the Middle East, remained a primarily European, Levantine and minority inhabited neighborhood. The violent riots of September 6-7, 1950 effectively “Turkified” the area. The street was detrafficked at the end of the 1980s. The original tramline was reinstalled. The area once again became palatable to business, tourism and entertainment as part of the zoning and globalization patterns of the city.

2. Gültepe is the working class neighborhood where Oda Projesi took residence for over a year with the establishment of Proje4L. The collective did not work in the museum but held a residence in the neighborhood. Their presence in the museum was a directional sign to their apartment. They only visited the museum when working with the primary school next door, and turned the institution to a playground.

3. Pendik is a neighborhood on the Asian shores away from the city centers.

4. Tarlabasi is a district that runs parallel to Istiklal. The two areas were separated from each other by an avenue, a main artery built during the pedestrianization of Istiklal. A barrier runs through the artery like a border. This barrier has contributed to the economic impoverishment of Tarlabasi. It is largely an immigrant neighborhood composed of illegal minorities from African communities to East Europeans. In addition it has a core Kurdish and Roma population. The living conditions are difficult and compromised, and many low paid service workers for Istiklal seek refuge there.