The 11th Istanbul Biennial, “What Keeps Mankind Alive?”, opens September 12, curated by Zagreb-based curatorial collective What, How & for Whom (WHW). Ovul Durmusoglu spoke to the WHW about what to expect from this edition.
Ovul Durmusoglu: WHW has had an intense working period for the Biennial under the conditions of recession. Can you talk about the paths and methodologies you followed during this period?
WHW: The most valuable part of the process has been the opportunity to communicate, discuss and think together with cultural workers in many places — from Zagreb and Istanbul, to many cities we have traveled to in the Middle East, Central Asia, Caucasus and Eastern Europe — all faced with the joint question: what is to be done?
OD: Brecht’s question “What Keeps Mankind Alive?” makes a lot of sense with the changes in the world system over the last year; the compounds of the international contemporary art system such as biennials, art fairs are questioned even more. Will your curatorial model reflect on these issues by employing or suggesting alternative representational schemes?
WHW: In developing the Biennial’s concept from Brecht’s position, the question of how to mediate the predictable relationships between the work of art, the artist and the audience is the main challenge. In attempting to relocate Brecht’s methods in the realm of contemporary art, the proposal aims to deconstruct and slice open the framework of the biennial format, to tackle its performative role as social spectacle and to talk about “the truth of our situation” within it. We are trying to test the potential of Brecht’s belief in political engagement of art within this system.
OD: How will Zagreb and Istanbul be connected?
WHW: We are interested in showing how the critical art practice in both places, in the “marginal” or “ghost” geographies of European modernism, such as the Balkans or the Middle East, often finds itself today as if “between a rock and a hard place”, which is a claustrophobic and problematic place to be in sense that new openings have to be formulated around the fringes of the system. Over this year, and next year too, the program of Gallery Nova, which we run in Zagreb, will present topics and participants of the 11th Istanbul biennial.
OD: For the last two editions, the curators of Istanbul Biennial engaged with the symbolically loaded spaces of the city and took the biennial to different locations. What will be your approach?
WHW: While many biennials in recent years have actively engaged with their ‘home cities,’ offering new viewpoints of their urban identity, “What Keeps Mankind Alive?” will use the parameters of the biennial format to question the potential of a mainstream cultural institution to both impose and contest dominant social frameworks. What questions can still be opened up through an exhibition of such a visibility, and what is the knowledge that can be generated?