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Interview: Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev

The 14th Istanbul Biennial kicks off on September 5 with the theme SALTWATER: A Theory on Thought Forms. Nicole O’Rourke chats with the main figure behind the event, curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev

Last September, the Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts (İKSV) invited members of the press to the Haldun Taner Stage in Kadıköy, on the Asian side of Istanbul. The press – many of whom had to cross the Bosphorus via ferry to attend – were led to the stage while the 14th Istanbul Biennial’s curator and former artistic director of dOCUMENTA (13), Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, along with some of her “alliances,” addressed us from the auditorium seats. It was at this gathering that the title of this year’s Istanbul Biennial – SALTWATER: A Theory of Thought Forms – was revealed, and where answers and specifics were trumped by art and language. It became immediately evident that this Biennial would not be typical and that everyone is a part of the performance, and that this is not just about art.

The information regarding the 14th Istanbul Biennial, which opens on September 5 and runs until November 1, has maintained this level of mystery thus far – both cryptic and performative, using language and thought as a tool rather than conforming to conventions. This can be seen even in the language surrounding the Biennial. The Biennial has “participants,” not “artists;” it is “drafted” instead of “curated.” This Biennial is much more open to debate and criticism than its previous installment. As some of you might remember, the 13th Istanbul Biennial – held during a time when people literally took to the streets – did not quite succeed in creating the space needed for debate or sharing. And this is exactly where the selection of Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev as the curator became a crucial factor.

When she became the artistic director of dOCUMENTA (13), Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev proved herself to be one of the leading curators of the 21st century by bringing together figures from the spheres of science and art who held differing points of view. Now, she turns the entire city into a public sphere where artworks, projects and panels extend from Büyükada to Fatih, from Kadıköy to the northernmost point of Istanbul. She is also aiming to create a multidisciplinary platform as part of the talk and discussion program Speech Acts and Forms of Discourse, gathering different artists, scientists, curators, philosophers and cultural activists around seminars, presentations, readings and conversations.

Christov-Bakargiev’s “alliances” or “agents” range from the South African artist William Kentridge to one of the most influential scholars in art, Griselda Pollack. There is also a list of “participants,” who could be anyone from a fine artist to an oceanographer. We also know that there will be more than 80 participants from Africa, Asia, Australia, Europe, the Middle East, Latin America and North America in this Biennial, which will take place in over 30 different locations throughout the city. The unique locations highlight another important aspect of this Biennial: it is a literal and figurative travel through the city’s history, its important locales, monuments, passages and peoples. But, particularly interesting is Christov-Bakargiev’s use of buildings that are linked to Armenian, Greek, or Kurdish roots, like the Agos building or the Trotsky House, where the famous thinker spent his first years of exile. These locations make the Biennial acutely political, even if it is just through the use of certain locations and even before we know what will be shown.

What are the politics of SALTWATER?
The politics of SALTWATER are immense and enormous, but they are folded into the exhibition in many different ways – and not always visible. I believe in, and come from, Feminism and Arte Povera, and I also studied linguistics, structuralism and semiology when I was younger. So I know everything is political. How you sit at a table, how you make love, what you eat, where the food comes from. So, the form itself is political – how the viewer stands in front of an object, how much time it takes to get from one venue to another. Behind all of these choices, there is a strong awareness of political issues that are both of the body, which has been completely colonized by corporations in our time, and of space – for example, public space, which has been severely privatized in our time. I was thinking about Edward Snowden, in his hotel room in Hong Kong, and how he really had a huge impact on the political world... but he achieved that result from a hotel room. So, I was thinking about the way that public space, or public agency – the ability to act, change the world, be part of a group of people who share values and concepts, and act together with them in a political sphere – sometimes occurs in a space that is from a physical point of view, retreated, like a hotel room, a garage, a boat – a temporary space of habitation. So, the politics in the exhibition have something to do with the venues chosen and their dispersion. Ranging from the Trotsky House on Büyükada, where he was in exile for four years, to a lighthouse on the edge of the Bosphorus and the Black Sea, which obviously for me is also a reference to a critique of the third bridge being built.

Do you address current topics like the Syrian refugee crisis or Kurdish issues in Turkey?
I never speak about one thing without the past. I do not believe an art exhibition should be flattened into what is happening today only. The only way to address what is happening today is to put it into perspective with what has happened before. You cannot address the problems of the Kurds without addressing the problems of the Armenians and the Greeks, which we must not forget. This country had approximately 3 million Armenians, 3 million Greeks and 3 million Turks in the early 20th century; it is now almost a monoculture with a very large Kurdish minority – how can you address the Kurdish question without thinking that a very major minority at the turn of the 20th century were Armenian and Greek? If you do not understand the past, you can only address the present. The Syrian refugee question is urgent, as are the struggles of Kurds and all peoples, but I speak in the exhibition of patterns of violence and repression that are worldwide – art can do this, fold distant and nearby questions.

In the exhibition, for example, there is a presentation of indigenous Aboriginal art and activist movements from 1936 to 2010. It has nothing to do with the region, but I picked it especially because I want to make an exhibition where you reflect on the bigger questions of politics and you can compare and see how different parts of the world have dealt with these stories and these knots. There are waves – of history, of ethnic cleansing, of war and bombings, of exploitation… What we are living now is one wave. By bringing the Australian artworks, I am actually, in an oblique way, speaking about the Kurdish question and the Syrian question, too.

There are over 30 venues for this Biennial, many of them with incredible stories. How did you find these locations and choose what to show there?
Indeed the organization of the whole Biennial is very much connected with the symbolic and physical properties of the venues. Even these so-called “normal” venues have a history. Istanbul Modern is a depot that became a museum. ARTER is interesting because it is an Art Nouveau building on İstiklal. The Galata Greek Primary School represents this loss of a Greek population that used to be in Turkey at the beginning of the 20th century, while the Italian High School represents a whole history of Mediterranean relations that go back to the Byzantine period.

Maybe the most emblematic is the Trotsky House on Büyükada, which is a ruin – all that is left of it are the outside walls, and it has an overgrown garden. Orhan Pamuk took me there, and it occurred to me to take most of the artists there because it speaks to the failure of utopias in a way, like Trotsky’s failure, but also to the fact that all we have are these utopias. Then it speaks to destruction and the flourishing of life. It also speaks to the agency we have in places of retreat. We cannot really occupy public space anymore, whether in Turkey or London. There is the possibility of reforming things in retreated spaces, like I mentioned earlier – in hotel rooms, for example.

Connecting the artists to the venues is kind of instinctive. For example, I thought immediately of showing Adrian Villar Rojas the Trotsky House because it almost looked like one of his works in the sense that he is very much speaking about a situation after the anthropocene, which means after a period where humans have destroyed themselves and the environment and ecology. After this catastrophe is a flourishing of life, like from a compost. It occurred to me that he would love this place. And indeed, he did.

What do the fictional or imaginary venues represent to you, why the inaccessibility?
The inaccessible, fictional or imaginary venues are actually not imaginary; they are very real in the sense that they exist as physical locations. Riva Beach is a military beach, and it has all of this equipment left over from the Cold War. For me, it is interesting that it is inaccessible due to military reasons because it becomes a sort of metaphor for the fact that we do not really live in a free landscape.

The second inaccessible location is the former French Orphanage in Tophane. The building is contested legally between the French and Turkish governments, so I could not get access to it as a venue.  It has a collection of molds that belonged to an Armenian plaster maker at the beginning of the last century. It is a unique place, with a unique collection of molds, probably from many buildings all over Istanbul. I wanted it because I wanted to speak about a lost craft... So, one for military reasons, one for diplomatic reasons, and the third one is Casa Garibaldi. It was an Italian Workers’ Association in the late 1800s. Istanbul at the time was very multi-cultural and each community had its own cultural centers. But it is inaccessible due to health and safety reasons... I find it beautiful to install Lawrence Weiner’s work there anyway; it speaks to the fact that we live in this society where they tell us that everything is accessible to everybody, but that is not true. It is a big lie of our age... I thought it was important that our venues reflect this problem of inaccessibility.

The Biennial has “collaborators” ranging from oceanographers to philosophers. As a curator, why do you consider these kinds of collaborations important?
I do not call myself a curator. I am drafting this biennial, which means to draw or make a plan. I am interested in different fields of knowledge. It does not come from any curatorial concern but more from my wanting to live a life that is full and rich with ideas and knowledge – and to understand different fields and what they can contribute. It is not a curatorial thing; it is a life thing.

Making an exhibition is very much connected with mutual inspiration between different people. The more you bring different fields of knowledge next to each other, the more people are curious. 

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