Wednesday, September 17, 2008

for Kulturaustausch Berlin Autumn'08 issue

Neither One Way nor the Other: A Quest for a New Language

The other day I came across a “trivial” piece of news on the Turkey’s biggest, most populist and –for many people- most problematic newspaper Hurriyet’s webpage: Army foundation in collaboration with a big private group were just about to inaugrate a 31 meter high Turkish soldier monument on the hills of Polatli, dominating the west road to Ankara. Army’s involvement with politics in Turkey is well-known. Especially after 1980 coup d’etat, this involvement also reflected itself into the public sphere, shaping it through symbolically loaded monuments. As followed by the world, the Supreme Constitutional Court has just given its decision on AK Party case; not to be closed down but warned with a cut from state subsidy. To me, this 31 meter big monument symbolizes a trapped language of reaction against the transforming balances of the country. In the meantime, another related discussion started: A huge investigation titled Ergenekon came to court against a sort of crime organization which is supposed to work on another coup d’etat that would bring AK Party government down. Many important names are involved, many invisible relations can be revealed if this investigation is not used as a stigmatization by the government for those who are not happy with the status quo.

The intense polarization between kemalist nationalists versus neo-liberal muslims -in the national assembly shaped as between CHP and AK Party- realizes itself in many forms of public forum. However, there is also a silent majority waiting for this tide to cool down. And many left thinking people try to re-formulate where they stand in general and in the case of Ergenekon case, how to react against AK Party policies which are not that innocent and how to transform Ergenekon case into a big opportunity to clear big questions in Turkish public’s mind about the misunderstood phenomenon of democracy in Turkey. The points that separate the leftist fractions have come to the foreground again in this discussion. Briefly, Turkey is suffering from the lack of a fresh, effective and strong standing left politics that can clear out the populist exagerations and polarizations pushed by the strong media outlets. An important discussion has just started.

In this state of affairs, the cultural scene’s potential to develop alternative, sideways thinking is much more expected to realize itself. The contemporary change, especially in the visual artist’s role as knowledge producer and activator can play a vital role, since immediate, to-the-point reactions and a fresh counter-language are needed. However, as far as observed, at the moment these kinds of reactions are coming from the cartoon comics tradition – weekly magazines such as Penguen and Uykusuz- rather than the visual arts scene and the cultural scene in general. Only some blogs started by active people in the visual arts field try to generate a different discussion environment to break the inertia. The answers to the question “Why?” is very much related with the scene and the irregularities in the making of cultural policies.

The lack of communcation between Ankara –the capital city symbolizing the state and Istanbul reveals an ingenuous characteristic of the cultural scene in Turkey. I may talk more about the visual arts scene for I work in that field. While Ankara – is out of touch with the contemporary art production and related discussions, Istanbul has an image of active and flourishing art scene with the Biennial becoming more well-known; with an international contemporary art center collaborating with many different art institutions abroad, some private art museums/complexes which started to operate in recent years such as Istanbul Modern, Santralistanbul, Pera Museum, Sabanci Museum and some artists’ initiatives such as Apartman, BAS, Masa, Hafriyat and Pist developed to stand as balance points against this “private” scene and the last but not the least the approaching European Cultural Capital 2010.

The main problematics is known by the followers of the scene in Istanbul which has become a favorable location for many art people with its unique city dynamics: Despite all that takes place, the arts and culture is invisible for the governmental authorities and all that has been realized is through private money –that is banks, big families and groups- and culture funds from abroad. Most importantly, there is no funds to support young artists’ production, that means it is very difficult for young artists to stand on their feet with their production and survive the post-graduation period. Private collections interested in contemporary production are very few and the state stopped collecting three decades ago. As one professor of mine, who is a well-known artist himself, says “The problem in Istanbul is not the lack of exhibition spaces but the lack of production spaces.”

How the newly founded private art complexes lack the infrastructure and resist the necessity of infrastructure and how they refrain from working with the young professionals –artists, writers and curators- of the scene is another big discussion. In this article, I’d like to formulate my stand point around two remarkable attitudes towards arts from the sides of the polarization between kemalist/nationalist elites and neo-liberal muslim bourgeoise to be able to point out to the traumatized gap I mentioned above.

Today contemporary art discusses the educational status quo in arts and intends to develop different potentialities through alternative models. Workshops, discussion groups become part of the international organizations, Young Curators’ Workshop organized under Berlin Biennial for the last two editions and Global Institute organized by Okwui Enwezor and his team for Gwangju Biennial this year are most recent examples. In Turkey, just as there are not production spaces created for young artists in the post-graduation period, established art teaching schools seem very closed and negative towards what is happening as contemporary art today. This attitude became public during the last edition of the Istanbul Biennial, when the dean of Marmara University Fine Arts Faculty gave a public declaration against some critical points made by Hou Hanru in his conceptual framework regarding modernity as understood and applied by, what is known today as, kemalism. She blamed Hanru for not being sensitive towards the ethnic conflicts of Turkey, trying to create further conflicts by calling some kemalist policies as anti-humanist. This unfortunate remark by the Dean created a big public discussion about the biennial not because of the biennial itself but because of what Hanru wrote. Actually, what he wrote was suggested and theorized by some other sociologists two decades ago, obviously not having been read by the Dean.

Statism has always been very strong in Turkey, and the above mentioned situtation exemplified how an important art educational instution cannot define its autonomy beyond the borders marked by statism. It is also a reflection of the tense polarization of kemalist and nationalist elite and neo-liberal muslim bourgeoise. Any critical statement made towards the foundational ideas of the state is seen as a threat, trying to separate the country by this elite. Furthermore, the incident was a clear remark of the “threat” –as understood by these circles- coming from the contemporary art, which tries to create a critical and political stance. Recent internationalism in the contemporary art scene with created a nationalistic group within the visual arts for they see the whole situation as injected by globalism. Naturally, some other alternative models are created around but it is still very likely to hear about some incidents in these established art academies where the students interested with what is happening in contemporary art are rejected when they want to write their final graduation thesis on it. Thus, not only art production but also art discussion and writing cannot yet have their own spaces in these schools. Art education is one of the problematic inner circles in the system today.

The case of European Culture Capital 2010 is where the governmental authorities are directly involved with the cultural scene -providing more facilities- for the activation of the whole project. However, the government hurrying the opening of Istanbul Modern and Santralistanbul, both privately funded, tend not to improve its role in creating public funds and leave the scene to private money in general. The Ministry of Culture is more interested in bigger museum projects rather than activating new models for the existing neglected ones. Up until now, the processes of 2010 have been pretty closed and bureaucratic. The only visible public action operated by the committee was a poster competition whose results echoed the self-orientalizing attitude appeared in the pamphlets produced during the last Istanbul Biennial, declaring the theme Istanbul: City of Four Elements. This kind of image glorification attempted shows how European Culture Capital is seen as a step towards Europe, a rather bureaucratic one not towards a better cultural scene. Of course, one doesn’t want to forebode the negative in the whole process since it is the first of its kind as a public fund open to different projects. On the other hand, European Cultural Capital as a project should be criticised for its preceding results used more for culture tourism, the independent voices not really getting support that seems to be given and the cities still paying their debt loads after becoming capitals such as Graz in Austria. And it has been also known in Istanbul that projects applying for the fund are encouraged towards applying for private money with a 2010 logo that would help, because the fund given from EU may not be enough for the designed prospect.

How the government understands the whole thing is another issue. Sulukule, the historical Roma neighbourhood in the old city, is being gentrified. Real inhabitants of the neighbourhood are forced to move outside city center and their houses are destroyed for “cleaning” the area to some “profiting” investments. Sulukule Platform is working to change the given decision and to make public aware of this crisis and save the neighbourhood. Upon this, the Prime Minister announced that people would be very content at the end of this process and thank them for realizing it. He continued that they are cleaning the city for approaching Culture Capital 2010 and NGOs working to save the neighbourhood don’t understand them. As expected, this statement was received with a huge criticism from the cultural scene. 2010 commitee didn’t react. Thus, this incident nourished the suspicions as rumours spread in the city that a project on Sulukule was not accepted by the Visual Arts Committee of 2010.

Neither one nor the other? It seems so. The independent voices of the contemporary arts scene that has a strong potential should be more active in producing the language that may activate the traumatized gap inbetween these two lines. In the recent times, there were attempts to create collectivities working against the populist nationalism trend. However, the disagreements about how to produce a substantial, critical voice over a long period of time were similiar to the disagreements among the different groups on the left in Turkey. Thus, it didn’t work. Alternative means of financial support should be discussed thoroughly in this framework to be able sustain the stance created. The anger –as a reactionary profile of everyday politics- coming together with hope is always a good recipe for change. Both for the left and the potential of contemporary art.

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