by Vatsala SethiSep 08, 2022
We have exhausted the limited resources of our planet, we are struggling with a global economic crisis, pandemics, wars and we continue moving away from the idea of unity. We witness how discriminatory policies damage intercultural dialogue every day. The concept of the ‘Society of the Spectacle’, which was introduced by Guy Debord in the 60s, is still very alive.
The rapid transformation of our lands via global policies and the destruction of the foundations of collective memory alarm us to build new forms of social relations. Being part of the spectacle, in which censorship is generalized under the appearance of originality, aims to erase subjectivity with a kind of despair. At this point, the power of making art that is derived from being able to criticize anything constitutes hope itself.
As part of the global stage, I described above; Turkey, as the westernmost of the east and the easternmost of the west, is hosting the 17th edition of Istanbul Biennial, which was postponed last year because of COVID-19 restrictions. Istanbul, as the heart of the country, is still vibrant but also nervous more than ever as the forthcoming elections will be significative. The tension is tangible enough that you can smell, see and feel it… The ever-growing economic crisis and the interventions come forward as some of the devastating effects of the unbearable atmosphere the public is facing. The public is experiencing the toll of the strict policies in the wide spectrum of their daily life, such as cancelling demonstrations, closing down music events, banning LGBTQ+ gatherings and so on. Just like in the global arena, the mass media is mostly used for propaganda and manipulation. Under surveilled and controlled conditions, living together in peace without discrimination is becoming impossible.
A new biennial model that proposes far-reaching gatherings by thinking together, talking to each other with generous listening, reading and learning from the ancient narratives seems like a proper action under these depressive circumstances described above. Curators of the Biennial; Ute Meta Bauer, Amar Kanwar and David Teh created an unthematic biennial model based on research, archives, continuous conversation and building social impact. Instead of displaying a spectacular show, the 17th edition is trying to feel Turkey’s pulse and current mental state and aiming to create a “hinge”.
The six streams of Biennial consist of, the continuation of news by other means, ways of learning, archiving, element politics-geopoetics, trans-sensory aesthetics and far past-unorthodox and ancient solutions. By definition, the biennials are extraordinary art events that increasingly include more and more research and archive-based works, which are free from the pressures of canonic contemporary art market. Through this liberation, the biennial becomes a platform of free expression. It is not a surprise for me that this biennial does not include any NFT works, which deeply shook the art world but contributed nothing.
The 17th edition is interested more in the process rather than the final result of artworks and research. No doubt that communicating with local communities and attempting to create a common ground are important more than ever in a politically divided country. Through this approach, the curators invited over 500 people from different mediums such as poets, authors, researchers, fishermen, architects, ornithologists, puppet masters, comedians, activists and chefs to think out loud together. They aimed to increase the interaction between art and social fields, indicating that art is not just a visual feast and needs to address current problems with social participation. Therefore, there is a well-designed public program including performances, open studio workshops, surveys and discussion platforms that take place in 12 different venues.
Venue selection process of a Biennial is always the most adventurous part because it needs to create intersections between the audience’s daily lives. Biennials in Istanbul were always successful at surprising us by making forgotten places of memory visible. We’ve seen many examples before such as IKSV’S office building (Nejat Eczacıbaşı Building), which was completely derelict before and was used as a venue for previous editions of the İstanbul Biennial. In this sense, Zeytinburnu Medicinal Plants Garden, Hasanpaşa Gashouse Museum, arthereistanbul, Barın Han, Central Greek High-school for Girls and Metro İstanbul Yaklaşım Tüneli come forward as this edition’s venues. Some of these venues have a concrete place in the public’s collective memory and are respected as parts of Istanbul’s 130-year-old industrial and cultural heritage that battles to sustain its existence. On the contrary, some venues have already been forgotten for many years and the public is not even aware of their existence.
Even though the scale of the 17th Edition diminished, it still continues to be influential. Its balanced and mid-scale approach and social practice-based narrative aim to reach wider audiences. One of the biennial venues, Hasanpaşa Gashouse, which was founded in the late 19th century to provide energy for the Anatolian side of Istanbul was closed in 1993 after the city switched to using natural gas. In a country driven by the passion for new construction projects, it is almost impossible to protect historical and natural sites. However, with the involvement of local communities of Hasanpaşa neighbourhood, the Gashouse building could be restored and started to operate as a museum. As one of the venues of the biennial, it hosts the works; Time/On Ground project and Silent University Orientation Program, which I was particularly interested in. Initiated by a dialogue between Nepal’s Picture Library’s Feminist Memory Project, In Time/In Ground conceived by Merve Elveren and Çağla Özbek in collaboration with The Women’s Library and Information Centre Foundation Project proposes alternative readings on the feminist movement and aims to bring new momentum to make its collection accessible. In addition, an autonomous, solidarity and exchange-based educational platform called Silent University Orientation Program, led by lecturers, consultants and research fellows mostly consisting of migrants searching for alternative collective practices, can be observed in both Hasanpaşa Gashouse Museum and SAHA Studio. In another special venue, a 257 meters long tunnel located in İstanbul’s busiest underground stations at one end coming out at Taksim, Carlos Casas’s research-driven sonic and visual composition can be experienced. Artist adds new layers to his sensorial explorations into the enduring legacy of physiological and ecological trauma… By hearing the echoes, the audience might feel the immersive experience, a resonance of the recent past. Maybe the rustling voice of the trees in Gezi Park...
To me, the heart of the Biennial was Barın Han, by its multilayered being. The building served as the atelier of Turkey’s leading calligrapher and book-binding artist Professor Emin Barın. He strongly believed in the collective practice and in improving new ways of realizing it via practices such as the “Thursday Meetings”. Barın Han consolidated a radio broadcast program titled “Dumpling Post” inspired by Hrant Dink Foundation’s Dumpling Festival organized in Kayseri, a reading room, a poetry channel, a magazine focusing on disability/ability strength and various art exhibitions such as Extracurricular, a survey exhibition consisting of autobiographical presentations addressing multifarious social-justice issues of contemporary Bangladesh. Furthermore, theatre historian John Bell’s collection of puppetry and street performance featured in archive-based photo collages on the first floor of Barın Han. The audience may follow the journey of how puppetry becomes a political manifestation and how it becomes a tool for expression across different geographies. As I mentioned, the biennial is built as a process based time-free model, in this sense Cooking Sessions produced ‘Wallowland’, which started long before the biennial opening and it will continue to operate after the biennial is over. Wallowland is a site-responsive dialogue-based installation that traces the interactions of İstanbul’s water buffaloes with multiple ecologies in the wetlands around the city that are under threat of disappearance due to the devastating urbanism policies. In collaboration with herders, biologists, environmentalists and ethnomusicologists, a series of metabolic surveys consolidated for the project and will be celebrated with a festival launched alongside the biennial and will continue beyond this year’s edition.
If we take a look at all the significant biennials and exhibitions in the world, we can observe that the pandemic affected us all in similar ways and it would not be absurd to say that art professionals tend to develop similar conceptual narratives. Documenta 15 and Istanbul Biennial’s 17th Edition propose collective living and point out its different aspects in their own narratives. By offering public programs and gatherings, both are searching for new and effective approaches derived from eastern spiritual methods. Both art events aim that their effects would last much longer after their closing dates by adopting the lumbung and compost model. However, these two also have different characteristics in the ways they investigate the city and the culture. Maybe this may start a new discussion; what will be the future of biennials or exhibitions if new models with new exhibiting techniques are not invented?