10th Istanbul Biennial

IMC, Istanbul Textile Traders Market, photography by Serkan Taycan

The atmosphere created by architectural design determines one’s impression of an environment. This is the reason why the İstanbul Textile Traders Market (IMC)  was selected as one of the main exhibition venues for the 10th International İstanbul Biennial, entitled Not Only Possible But Also Necessary: Optimism In The Age Of Global War. Through this title, curator Hou Hanru envisioned a hopeful event while addressing the challenges of globalization  and broader urban issues . The conceptual framework specifically  addressed the problematic aspects of modernization in Turkey. The specific curatorial statement in selecting the  IMC was intended to build on the ideology of the venue’s architectural background and its contemporary cultural situation under the title World Factory. despite such intentions, the statement was  externalized by the venue, resulting in an exhibit that contradicted its curator’s intentions.. Although Hou Hanru chose the IMC as a distopic metaphor for the failure of modernization in Turkey, his plan remained conceptual and failed in its execution.

Turkey experienced modernism well after its European counterparts, applying it differently to local circumstances. At the time that  the complex was built in the 1960s, the politics of liberal system had caused a crisis between the local and global economy. In this context, IMC presents an important architectural symbol for the Turkish perception of modernism. This perception involves the combination of westernization and traditional culture. This is the reason why the architectural design of IMC blends old covered bazaar plan with a modernist style. After more than fifty years, this building is still reflects this zeitgeist, representing the contemporary cultural conflicts in the society between the migrants, muslims and secularists who use its commercial spaces. Hybrid-cultural codes can be read  through local music labels  by immigrant musicians and through textile shops .The absurdity of neo-islamic fashion and the artifical look of shop window dummies wearing headscarves with exaggerated make-ups clearly suggests this type of  duality. The venue is located close to downtown, between the highway and shantytowns, which refers to an undefined place, sort of another planet. Thus, it creates a liminal area with a strong social contradictions. Hence, IMC did indeed provide a potentially perfect venue for questioning the social conditions of Turkey in visual form. Instead of  opening a discussion of local modernity as intended, the exhibition added another level of complexity to an already complex and problematic site. It highlighted  the miscommuication which is the main challange of society. It also  emphasized the fact that there are at least two different audiences and a serious communication problems between them and the project. The cultures developed by generations of rural migrants to the city and the biennial spectators created a clear contrast. Yet, this was not the only communication problem in the exhibition. First of all, the shops were transformed into white-cubes, becoming isolated art-galleries. Hence they simply  failed to raise awareness beyond their own walls. Despite the fact that  exhibition in public space  is always problematic, here it could have been used as a tool to establish the curatorial statement.  Conversely, by isolating the exhibition places, it was not possible to foster an interactive attitude. Despite the existence of a conceptually organic relation between chosen works, a solid interaction was not presented. Furthermore, an integrated approach to local context was missing and there was no response from the local population after the biennial.

World Factory is not only the biennial  sub-title of IMC, it is also socio-economic term defining the capacity of the working class in third world countries.In the context of the IMC, it was used in order to problematize the this economical condition in the complex. Actually, the same exhibition World Factory was displayed for the first time at Walter McBean Galleries of San Francisco Art Institute, concurrent with the year of the biennial. The only difference was the contribution of five Turkish artists from the previous exhibition. Accordingly the exhibition was reconstructed, similarly re-exhibited and tried to be articulated within the biennial’s context via IMC. On the other hand the exhibition was not specifically formulated for the venue. This made it an exhibition in limbo.

As suggested by the title, most of the works exhibited at the IMC mainly took on the subject of globalization in third world countries, economic issues and working conditions. The people who worked in the IMC were inadvertently taking part in the exhibited works through symbolic understanding, and were in fact indirectly materialized. In a sense it was a way of telling them,  Hey! You and people like you are the subjects of this project! Come and see yourself! After the biennial I was involved in a project in which I interviewed the traders and inhabitants about their experience and interpretation of what had happened, and its effects on their casual life. Most of them  had no idea even of what a biennial was. This indicates a serious connection problem. The two audiences– local inhabitants and biennial spectators—never interacted. While the ongoing show was definitely unfamiliar to the inhabitants of IMC,  the IMC also served as a means of touristic sight-seeing for the Turkish biennial spectators. Ironically, there was a sign just near the the gallery-hybrid-shops that said “We do not sell chinese made products” When considered closely, it could be seen that this was not a piece of art work. This presented the following paradox:  the state of the market itself was more of an artwork than the art.  At least art-spectatorship had affected the mode of seeing, making it possible to interpret the site itself in a new way. Yet this was less a consequence of the curating or the art, but a function of audience.

This exhibit suggests the continuing contradictions between curating that aims at enhancing social consciousness and the elitism which is an inherent part of fine art exhibition. How can it be defined as strong exhibition, if it wasn’t even communicating with its nearest neighboors? The inhabitants of IMC should have been  informed about the biennial which  would  temporarily change their daily routine. Instead of ignoring their existance, the exhibition could be presented as a part of daily-life. Even though most of the  biennials spectators are professionals; common people such as shopkeepers should have been welcomed at the show, especially since it was their workplace. Moreover,most of the works were installed on the same floor, only few others had been placed another block which is quite far from the other.  The reasonable aim of this arrangement could make the spectators discover the building, but it made audience get lost in this complex structure rather than discovering it. Since the venue itself can be perceived as a huge installation in its own right, the exhibited art works were lost and became invisible in its complexity. The conceptual loss of transparency blocked visuality becoming a social form.

Is this disjunction inevitable? Rather than installing the works in a scattered manner, one could  map  a focused exhibition plan with more visible perception. If  it had been up to me to curate the IMC part of the exhibition, I would have developed an interactive approach recognising its primary feature as public space. I would display works similar to Sora Kim’s Capital Plus Credit, which interacts directly with the audience. The project suggests an alternative bank system, creating its own model by bartering. Spectators are free to leave a simple object; after the biennial, they got back another object with %3 interest that had been left by someone else. The objects left by the spectators, hanging on a wire in plastic pockets and the statement of accounts were part of the installation. While Kim’s humoristic artistic practice questions economic issues, it  also creates a unique dialogue. My selection would particularly include site-specific installations which deal with the architecture of the venue. Based on the vital circulation of the traders market, upbeat scenario of the biennial should have perfectly fit in.

I would have transformed the shops into  ateliers rather than transforming them into pocket cinemas for video-screenings. I would have regularly  organized the events to reach the potential of the inhabitants of the place and the spectators. Such events would include perfomances, artists’ talks and video screenings that would be accessible to all, held in the open-air courtyards between the shops. One of the parallel and independent project at the IMC titled Big Family Bussiness, BFB was a model for possible interactions, which defined itself as an open process. Rather than transforming the shops into isolated white-cubes, they could have been used as open labs.  However it was not possible to observe a similiar discourse in the whole venue.

How do we obstruct and response to the problem of communication and interaction as well as curatorial failures in such a liminal public space? Significantly, the focus here is on the gap between curating that claims to be socially conscious and social consciousness that looks away from real life circumstances. After the exhibition, could we satisfy one’s curiosity for the possible descriptions of socially consciuos curating?

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