eipcp Policies European Cultural Policies 2015
08 2005

The Issue of 'Otherness' has Become a Cliché, But the Problem Still Exists

Hüseyin Bahri Alptekin

Hüseyin Bahri Alptekin




An e-mail-interview with Hüseyin Bahri Alptekin
Questions: Raimund Minichbauer

I would like to start with state cultural policy. What will be the main developments (in general and especially concerning the field of contemporary visual arts) in Turkey on national and regional levels until 2015? And how will it deal with regional disparities within Turkey itself?

I think we have to skip anything about the state's cultural policy in Turkey. We have never had one and we won't ever have one either, which benefits contemporary arts, especially the visual arts. This is due to the monopolist state tradition and the government’s power strategies, and by the same token this extends to dealing with regional disparities within Turkey itself as well. The state works with the artists it thinks are appropriate representatives of the country - artists who work with conventional strategies, coming from modernistic tradition, academics, state oriented sculpturers and painters who produce "beautiful art, modern art" - and that is the beginning and the end of it.

However, the state has supported some bilateral international projects. But the state doesn't even support the Istanbul or Ankara art scene, never mind the other regions. Some of the artists close to the state’s policies and to the government in power have always been supported, but that is another ‘ontology’ and we are not talking about macramé, right?

What is the situation concerning the influence of private and corporate sponsors on the arts scene today, and what could be future developments?

The actual situation concerning the influence of private and corporate sponsors on the arts scene is improving somewhat, but it is still fairly minimalist in terms of full support. The support they offer is always conditional. The support is quite subjective, arbitrary, capricious as well as pragmatic and random. It can be offered but also it can be abandoned, withdrawn without any specific reason, and there is no sponsor policy or ethics.
We never know what future developments there might be. If there is an economic crisis this in turn causes a cultural crisis, a cultural crisis causes social crisis and paranoia, and in that case we have to forget about art. Hostility towards art then emerges (then art becomes the symptom of the loss, they are reluctant to support it when there is economic crisis). The media have always supported art in terms of sponsor priorities and their own local interests rather than addressing global issues. Even globalism is structured in the sense that we are a closed, introverted and basically feudal culture. The rich support the rich, the poor are pragmatic ...
Although private and corporate sponsors have been slow in this regard, they are gradually becoming aware of the global, international and ideological paradigm of contemporary art and its role and how this is linked to cultural policies, European Union Policies. They are aware of the emerging power of art within the media as a tool of communication. It is a paradoxical but a hopeful sign for the future. On the other hand, global capitalism tends to appropriate sub-cultures, pop-cultures and other marginal aspects of urban life that contemporary art best represents, engages with and participates in. In that sense, sponsorship is both intelligent and opportunist. I believe there will be more support for art in the future. It is in their interest.

Turkey’s position in the international arts world has been shaped by institutions like the Istanbul Biennial. How do you imagine that this position will develop within the next decade?

It is quite true that Turkey's position in the international art scene has been shaped by Istanbul Biennial as the major institution. The peak was the ‘92 Biennial. The Biennial has been structured in such a way that it has attracted international interest in Istanbul and even to other regions such as the Balkans, Russia, South-east Europe, etc. for the first time. The Biennials that followed ‘92 with the introduction of foreign curators and with the involvement of the international professional art crowd has played a big role and so step by step Istanbul has attracted more and more international attention with its exotic ambiance and its emerging artists. I believe that the Istanbul Biennial, whatever its structure is, will become one of the important institutions with a traditional international perspective just like the Film, Music, Jazz and Theater Festivals - all organized by IKSV (Istanbul Art and Culture Foundation), a private foundation supported by public funding and sponsorship. What is a traditional international perspective in this context? Up to now, i.e. during the last 10 years, there have been a lot more music and film festivals apart from those organized by the Istanbul Art and Culture Foundation. There will be more contemporary art events in the next decade. In the last five years Project 4L and the Platform Contemporary Art Center have become important institutions in the contemporary visual arts scene. The latter is the only institution in Istanbul internationally recognized as an art center, archive and international residency. Meanwhile, since 2000 there have also been a few artists running collective projects, marginal networks and non-governmental art organizations, that worked without any financial support, just individual initiative and solidarity, collecting rent from friends and so on. Some have collapsed due to the lack of financial support, some have lost motivation and energy, some have given up the struggle and shifted to incorporate themselves within more powerful and glamorous networks. After all, the international atmosphere and ambiance of the Biennial has stimulated alternative structures, events, artist alliances and publications in general. Unfortunately the Sea Elephant Travel Agency, an artists’ collective known locally as "loft," which I initiated in 2000, has also ended and ceased regular activities in 2004 due to financial problems and local difficulties. The project continues with some international collaborative projects.

What are the developments and experiences with co-operation between the European Union and Turkey in the field of cultural policy and funding programs? What will happen in the future?

Co-operation between the European Union and Turkey in the field of cultural policy and funding programs have developed quite rapidly in the last couple of years with residency programs, international exhibitions, symposia and conferences. There is a great deal of action in the contemporary art scene in Istanbul and even in the provinces of Turkey, especially in Diyarbakir and Izmir. To comment on that miraculously rapid acceleration is complex in many different senses. Probably there are similarities and a kind of raison d’etre within the Balkan region. Mainly it goes along with the ideological and political strategies of the European cultural policy decision-makers. They choose different regions at different times, such as first the Balkans, then Bosnia, Albania, Kosovo, the Caucasian region (Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, even Chechnya), and Turkey as a candidate country and the geographical region where Kurdish people live, especially Diyarbakir and the region around it. Actually for the last ten years an abstract geographical area called the South-East European region has been invented, but frankly no high-level projects have been realized. The decision to invent this region is not only based on economic, geographical and political concerns but is also due to a need for ‘otherness’ in relation to Europe. Thus the need for the exotic, folkloric, ethnic, marginal, peripheral frames cultural policies too. The issue of the ‘other’ and ‘otherness’ has been discussed for the last fifteen years and become a cliché, but the problem still exists. Some institutions have strategically manipulated some interesting projects proposed by artists of the region, because they benefit their administrative needs to spend their budgets instead of realizing projects that would develop the dynamics of the art in the region. Of course the mobility of the artists and intellectuals of the region provided within the framework is extremely important, unless it results in the repetitive circulation of the same people through the art circuit, in a kind of symposia tourism. You are invited to attend the discussions, to have some fun, but it hardly ever turns into the possibility of strong individual expression. Instead it results merely in useless workshops and endless repetitive group shows. The symposia and forums usually end without any post-production or evidence of future activity. The same organizations repeat exactly the same meetings in exactly the same places. Networks are announced and proposed but remain inaccessible due to their administrative and bureaucratic structures and jargon. This approach does not really stimulate artists to realize their creative projects. Basically, their ideas and creative proposals remain suspended in the air and are sometimes used by the administration to meet other financial interests.
My experience of attending such forums has sometimes ended up with my feeling great frustration and even depression. One of my projects with the Sea Elephant Travel Agency co-operative, entitled "Jules Verne and the Black Sea"1, was presented on several occasions in various symposia and forums, but in the end was appropriated without permission, manipulated and actually taken away from me so that it could be used to apply for European Union funding. It was selected and given a huge budget. I have been reduced to being an observer of my own project that has become removed from the original idea, now involves different partners and has been given a different focus, simply to spend the money on worthless events. Unfortunately, that happened three years ago and it still continues. All our efforts with our regional partners, together with five years investment of energy and vision, have been for nothing. I know that there is no copyright on ideas, and in any event a long process of legal intervention will kill an artist’s motivation. It has all taken a lot of energy and has unfortunately disrupted what had been a potentially fruitful project.
This is just an extreme personal experience, and some other more positive programs have co-operated with other artists and events. But it all goes through more and more institutionalized frameworks. Unfortunately, artist initiatives and collectives can’t maintain their continuity and motivation. They are basically conceived as marginal, since they do not fit within the bilateral framework. Many individual initiatives just fade away.
I am quite optimistic about future developments. First of all there are a lot of artists from abroad in residencies in Istanbul. There are many European institutions and curators visiting the city, living here for long periods, working here and realizing various collaborative projects with local artists. They have the opportunity to investigate various local dynamics, alternative structures and gain knowledge of the contemporary art scene, its history and context. Residency programs in both directions are extremely important, especially the artists visiting from abroad. They live here and in the regions, and when they go back they can say more about the situation here.
For the future development there are different dynamics that are already advancing quite rapidly. A lot of young artists have the chance to show abroad and they have vast possibilities for mobility as artists through residencies and projects. Networks and communication are easily accessible to everybody by means of Internet. There are a lot of artists now who live in Istanbul, and they also promote different aspects of the local artist scene and vision. Since Turkey is a candidate for the European Union, this also provides a great transparency and interaction for the local artists here.
Unfortunately, some non-governmental initiatives remain on a low-profile level. Strangely most of these attempts focus on the search for funding to address local social issues and conflicts rather than for ambitious and visionary artistic projects.
Academics also have a tendency to use their status and power in an elitist manner. Universities should be unconditional for artists in a Derridian sense. The academy requires local stability rather than mobility and international exchanges.
For the future, the best way forward is to have a European presence here on the ground in Turkey rather than through an abstract conceptual and intellectual ready-made approach.

Which new counter-strategies are being developed in the cultural field that could serve as future models concerning new forms of self-organization and transnational co-operation; new strategies by feminist, anti-racist, Kurdish, etc. groups, finding new ways to counteract logics of permanent co-optation of critique through capitalism?

These counter-strategies tend to be ephemeral and do not last. They are generally opportunist attempts to seek a way out and possibilities to escape. Complaints of discrimination are known to be sympathetically received by the outside world, including Europe. Political, ideological and ethnic issues are more successful gateways than the work itself. That discordant context results in a strange trap for artists. They are expected to be or to produce art that is feminist, anti-racist, Kurdish, etc. Maybe they will end up in certain global contemporary networks and gain mobility and participate in a lot of group exhibitions, but it is within a certain context that is dictated to them. That is the essential risk of this trap. However, this "otherness" is a category shared by both artists and those who commission and fund the art. There are nonetheless some productions that have integrity. Different ontologies do exist, and there are now more possibilities to communicate as there are a lot more networks and cultural platforms.

How will the overall situation concerning public funding in the field of contemporary visual arts develop?

The structure of funding and supporting the projects is hierarchical. One side is applying, the other is offering; one is proposing, the other is answering; one is asking, the other is compromising; one is wishing, the other is negotiating. One is supposed to be such and such and therefore the applicant claims that he/she is such and such ... One’s position is controlled and he/she answers to that. One is supposed to be "the other" ...
That paradigm should be changed in favor of a critical perspective, which requires a dialogue on positioning and a discussion of the situation. As art is another kind of knowledge, the dialogue within cultures and cultural policies should be firstly based on "sameness," rather than "otherness". This will avoid notions of a hierarchical function that leads to ignorance and conflict. Any art event deals with specific knowledge and the way to reach that knowledge is very important. It is critical and political, it is an act and that is also part of the knowledge. Therefore all the perspectives (curatorial, financial, creative, post-productive, etc.) that construct the work and knowledge require a vital dialogue. Otherwise hospitality turns easily and suddenly into hostility and we miss the knowledge where art resides.
An actual event can be an appropriate example in this instance. A group exhibition opened on 8th July 2005 in Berlin, at the Martin Gropius Bau, called "Urban Realities: Focus Istanbul". This exhibition claims to cover the faces and perspectives of a city and culture which is a candidate for membership in the European Union and to valorize the strong emerging contemporary art scene and its components. The show consists of 40 artists from Istanbul and 40 artists from abroad. Most of them have mainly worked in Istanbul or on Istanbul, and some of the non-Istanbul artists who were commissioned to produce work had not been in Istanbul before. Curators and organizers have claimed that this is not one of these "national" or "regional" exhibitions such as a Turkish, Istanbul or Balkan show.
Up to that point all was fine. In the middle of the process of realizing the project, some artists had some problems with the structure, conceptual framework and curatorial and financial aspects of the project. A flux of e-mailing started among the artists and the curators, leading to a series of meetings in Istanbul organized among some of those participating artists from Istanbul. Through that process of communication or mis-communication, some artists have withdrawn from the project as well as some Istanbul curators and a writer.
Unfortunately, the project coordinators, curators and organizers took this situation as a boycott and didn’t seek a dialogue to understand the motives for what happened. The reasons were not taken seriously and were viewed as a form of cultural rebellion. In fact no collective decision was taken, it was more of a collective reflex. The withdrawing artists had different individual reasons for not participating in the project, conceptual, cultural, ideological, ethical, curatorial and financial reasons. The participating artists were not considered as individual decision makers with individual artistic personae, but were seen as part of a cultural boycott. None of them have received a personal e-mail but only general ones addressed to all or the same letter with the address and name changed.
That was not really a collective act and it could happen to other similar projects with the same problems of a risky and slippery focus and a discriminatory structure. Unfortunately, this exploded the project. What was intended as a friendly project, a hospitality for Istanbul, its culture and its artists, turned into a situation of cultural hostility, all because of the missing dialogue between two cultures and a hierarchical cultural policy. A show is just a show. A show is not just a show.

Edited by Aileen Derieg


1 The "Jules Verne and the Black Sea" project is based on the "Mutual Realities, Artistic Exchanges, Inter-Regional Solidarity" idea, a boat-lab tracing an imaginary itinerary of Jules Verne in the Black Sea belt (including Moldova and the Caucasian regions) after his novel "Kéreban le Tetu" ("Keraban the Stubborn" in English). The project was borrowed without permission by Appollonia (South-East Cultural Exchanges), based in Strasbourg, France, and an application made to Culture 2000. Once the project was selected for support it was totally changed.