[Oberlist] TR* Interview with Erden Kosova

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---------------------------- Original Message ----------------------------
Subject: SPECTRE Digest, Vol 57, Issue 28
From:    spectre-request la mikrolisten.de
Date:    Wed, November 21, 2007 10:59
To:      spectre la mikrolisten.de

Message: 6
Date: Wed, 21 Nov 2007 09:59:08 +0100
From: nat muller <nat la xs4all.nl>
Subject: [spectre] Interview with Erden Kosova

dear friends and colleagues,

this interview with Erden Kosova was originally conducted for
www.labforculture.org as part of coverage of the Istanbul Biennial.

Erden Kosova is a critic and curator based in Istanbul. He contributes
to two independent Istanbul-based magazines, Siyahi (post-anarchist
politics) and art-ist (contemporary art). His ongoing PhD research at
the Goldsmiths College London focuses on the critique of nationalist
ideology by the contemporary art practice from the Balkans and the Near

Istanbul coverage blog:
Original interview:



NM: How do you see the current tensions within Turkish society, between
nationalism and religion, affect the arts in terms of what is produced,
how it is produced and how and where it is exhibited?
EK: The tension that has been recently troubling the country in the
last couple of years seems to have polarised the society drastically,
and it is true that the main protagonists of the emerged polarisation
are the army as the defendant of a secularist nationalism and the
governing party AKP, which has its roots from Islamic movement but
transformed into a pragmatic, neo-liberal and conservative project
claiming the whole of right wing of the centre. Yet, it is hard to
infer a clean-cut binarism between nationalism and religion. The
disparate versions of nationalism in Turkey always retained a certain
interpretation of Islam and the Islamists always adhered to a
nationalist differentiation from the rest of the Islamic world. What
rather emerged from this tension are two opposing sets of political
forces that brought old enemies into alliance. The first bloc can be
named properly as ÔnationalistÕ: the militaristic machinery which
claims to be the motor of implantation of (dogmatically) modernistic
values; the central-left which recently abandoned all the links to
social-democratic principles; the Kemalist intellectuals whose
so-called leftist-nationalism slips very easily from anti-imperialism
into projects of alter-imperialism; two segmented versions of
ultra-nationalism (one of them more religious); ex-Maoists who became
the non-religious preachers of Kemalism, some small communist parties,
the EU-haters and so onÉ The opposing bloc can be defined as a
willingness to have a more globalist/planetary perspective and a
resistance to the opposing blockÕs call for an absolute identitarian
closure in favour of national belonging: the AKP which is being
supported by the so-far culturally marginalised segments of the
conservative parts of the country and the rising Anatolian bourgeoisie
and claims the legacy of the Ottoman ecumenism; the established pro-EU
bourgeoisie, liberal, social-democrat and socialist intelligentsia who
have been trying to challenge the authoritarian structure of the
Republic, the non-separatist segments of the Kurdish society,
non-Muslim communities and so onÉ The looming threat of a military coup
dÕetat, the increasing aggressive tone in the discursive campaign for
nationalism, massive demonstrations held in the big cities, lynching
attempts on some communist, Kurd or human rights activists,
assassination of Hrant Dink, tension around Kurdish and Armenian
issues, disappointments from the EU-integration processÉ The boiling of
the pot came finally into halt by the massive landslide election
victory of the governing party, which then seemed to deem the absolute
defeat of the nationalist bloc. Yet, the original source of the
tension, the Kurdish ÔproblemÕ which triggered all the nationalist
paranoia of being further dissected has remained intact in respect with
the political atmosphere in the invaded Iraq. When the separatists
Kurdish guerrilla of PKK, resumed armed struggle and inflicted several
losses to the Turkish army the nationalist pathos returned with a
hegemonic power after including the AKP into the nationalist rhetoric.

The dominating tone within the contemporary art practice in Turkey has
been decidedly anti-nationalist, anti-statist and anti-militarist. In
the absence of an appropriate contact with the public (until recently
there were hardly any art spaces to exhibit contemporary work), the
bitter tone of this crusty criticism harmed no one. Yet, the opening of
independent and mainstream institutions in Istanbul made contemporary
art more visible and this attracted some confrontation. A non-profit
and progressive art space got raided by the ultra-nationalists after
exhibiting a documentary research on the 1955 pogrom against the
non-Muslim communities. Halil Altõndere, the curator of the FreeKick
exhibition was tried with the infamous accusation of offending the
ÔTurkishnessÕ. Some artists have been directly accused by the Kemalist
figures within the art scene of being traitors. Hou Hanru, the curator
of the 10th Istanbul Biennale, has recently been publicly condemned by
the dean of a prominent fine art academy with the accusation of
denigrating the Kemalist ideology in his catalogue text. And just a
couple of days ago, a forthcoming exhibition entitled as ÔGod FearÕ to
be held in an independent art space has been targeted by an
ultra-religious daily newspaper. Hence, the politically transgressive
art practice has now its opponents.

But, more serious than this conflict, is the fact that the public image
of the contemporary art scene has worsened considerably with the last
couple of years. After the opening of several large-scale art
institutions and the establishment of a certain culture attached to it
(sterilisation, commercialisation, trivialisation of the art practice)
, the contemporary art scene as such is being conceived as the
uppermost example of cultural corruption and decadence. This remarkably
fierce sense of resentment will cause more trouble for the contemporary
art scene. I would say, the critical segment within the scene should
prove its integrity by divorcing itself from the ongoing normalisation
and recuperation.

NM: You have been working a lot round discourses of nationalism and
national identity. How would you categorise an event such as a
biennial, which at first glance seems a trans-national non-space for
contemporary art (the unsolvable regionalism<>internationalism debate),
while at the same time the geo-graphic spread of its artists has never
been more important (cfr. the sheer abundance of ISO country code
abbreviations in catalogues). What does
nationalism/nationality/national identity mean within this set-up? Are
biennials incomplete life-size atlases of the art world?
EK: I share the dizziness of witnessing the rising spectacle dimension
in the large-scale exhibition. I came to the field of contemporary art
from the field of radical politics and therefore I have this
never-ending discomfort with the scale of these things and I cannot
cease to adhere to the yearning for the production of a transversal
interaction between critical projects and practices from the differing
parts of the globe. I have a certain attachment to Istanbul and an
interest in the wider region, which possesses similar experiences and
cultural character to my own. So, I can say I donÕt mind to remain in a
parochial position which at the same time can relate to other
geographiesÕ sensibilities. The planetary framing and the national
motivations invested in the biennial format is too big for me. I am not
clever enough to conceive the content offered within this scale.
Although I personally lack proper social skills, I cannot abandon the
comfort of a modest and human-scale relation to cultural products and
artists. I find it hard for any critical voice to deliver its political
message through the biennial format. A number of people who cannot
escape to commit to this format are aware of this problem and they are
trying to decrease the number of attending artists gradually and to
intensify their and the artistsÕ engagement with the location of the
biennials with residence programmes and sustained research schemes.

NM: You have critiqued elsewhere the so-called Òmiracle of IstanbulÓ;
that is, Istanbul's city branding, which heralds the beauty of the city
and its bridging between East and West, but does not really deal with
the cityÕs problems. How do you judge previous, but in particular this
current biennial, within that respect?
EK: This criticism was about the general ideology of the Biennial and
not the local practice. The biennials between 1997 and 2003 have
applied to a certain sense aestheticism and psychologism and made use
of concepts like beauty, pathos, poesis and so on. Yet, the last two
Biennials have been a return from the sentimentalisation politics of
Istanbul. You can debate about the quality of these two exhibitions,
you might compare them; but there is an obvious willingness to engage
with the contemporary urban problematics of the city. It is also
strange to observe that aestheticism and psychologism has recently been
adopted by the local scene, mainly promoted by the emerging art
institutions and commercial galleries ,whereas the Biennial pursued a
turn towards politicisation. About the current biennialÉ Although it
has been rightly criticised because of the curatorÕs problematic use of
political terminology (optimism, global war, world factory and so on),
I think it managed to address the heated local and actual agenda of the
country. The IM‚ section unfortunately failed to benefit from the rich
social surrounding Ð a more direct engagement with the building and the
neighbourhood could have strengthened HanruÕs scenario.

NM: How would you describe artistic production outside Istanbul?
Diyarbakir for example?
EK:Istanbul will remain the big giant who sucks all the energy around
it. This is the nature of the city, it has been the capital of three
successive empires for more than a millennia. The republican modernism
and Ôthe project of AnkaraÕ could not challenge this. With the full
integration into neo-liberal economics Istanbul became even more
thirsty for innovative energy. So whatever comes up in the country, it
is called into the ÔPolisÕ. Izmir and Diyarbakir are two cities which
managed to produce a discursive togetherness among the local artists.
Izmir had a more aesthetic, conceptualist and epistemological approach
,whereas Diyarbakir was unsurprisingly more identitarian and humorous.
K2, the independent art space in Izmir has performed until now quite
remarkably Ð yet, they have a problem in producing their audience. This
might decelerate the motivations of the young artist-organisers.
Diyarbakõr was genuinely a miracle. Young people, who saw contemporary
art as a vehicle of loudly expressing their traumas, isolation and
criticism, created a scene from nothing, with the most minimal
resources. Yet, I donÕt know how they are going to transcend the
initial phase of this discursive togetherness. The social problems of
the repression remains unchanged and you cannot speak about the same
thing with the same media forever. The scene needs a vitalisation and
juvenescence. We will see whether the younger generation will have the
same ambition about contemporary art as their predecessors. Everything
is so bound to the general political atmosphere in the region.

NM: How do you look back at Leaps of Faith [1], 2,5 years after its
realisation. Do you feel that somehow you were able to transcend
discourses (and gazes) of territorial division and nationalism and
offer a different lens. Would you tackle the project the same way
EK: If I could turn back and had a more control of things I would
emphasize the modesty of the project from the start. At some point we
stressed the fact that it was the first international contemporary art
exhibition of its scale on the island, so that an unnecessarily high
expectation was invested into the project by the local scenes, which at
the end caused some tensions. But generally I am personally very
satisfied by this adventurous experience. We had extremely limited
resources: no support from any local official institution (which would
actually collapse the psychological legitimacy of the project); no
infrastructure other than an empty flat, two laptops and mobile phones.
And in these conditions, I think the curatorial and production team
gave its best. There was criticism from the start that actually could
be addressed to any site-specific art project: that we should have
afforded more to have a stronger contact with the local scenes and that
our project was opportunistically exploiting the traumatic scenery in
the divided city. We could have managed to get more contact with the
Greek Cypriot side (which was a quite difficult thing, since they were
suspicious about the nature of this artistic project initiated by a
Turkish Cypriot, which was unusual) and to motivate the Turkish Cypriot
students to be included in parallel events and panels if we had more
time and energy. But in terms of art works I donÕt think there was any
hint of arrogance and patronisation of the external gaze. Of course
some participations failed to deliver to offer an insightful
interpretation. And local artists came up with more touching projects.
I think it was a valuable experience in bringing people together in
this frame. I think it made a small contribution to enhancing
interaction between multiple sides and to establish a platform critical
to the multiple versions of nationalism and ethnocracy. If the
education programme of the Manifesta 6,was held without any obstacles
this dialogue would have progressed further. I wish I could have the
personal resources to continue to work with the artists I met.

NM: You have mentioned elsewhere that radical critique and guerrilla
art have become absorbed by the large art institutions in Istanbul,
hence depoliticising them. Yet at the same time you have also expressed
that moments of crisis open up possibilities (as was the case for the
momentum after Hrant DinkÕs assassination and group 19 January). How do
you position yourself as a curator, critic and activist within these
dynamicsÉand what is to be done?
EK: The assassination of Dink was the deepest shock for the
intelligentsia. People felt like the most precious and fragile among
the community was brutally snatched off. The initial anger motivated
small initiatives to emerge. Group 19 January, which consists from
people from the art scene, was one of them. But we donÕt talk about it
publicly. The only thing I can say is that the initial sense of
solidarity and ambition is unfortunately lost. We are going to see what
we can do in the future with the current group. New energies have
emerged and they need to cohere into each other, discursively and
humanely. As I mentioned before, there is an urgent need to differ from
the recently landed huge mainstream art machinery and strengthen the
emerging independent platforms and affinity groups.

I am not sure whether I can pass as a curator or an activistÉ But, what
I have tried to do so far is to reinforce and facilitate the links
between politically engaged art and radical politics. There are too
many things to be done: texts to be read and written, interviews to be
done, discussions to be held, connections to establish, exhibitions and
events to organise, for all those who retain the creed in possible
interaction between cultural practice, social change and personal
differentiation. I personally have to leave the laziness, inertia and
melancholic mood, get some formalities done, contribute to forthcoming
collective projects and work, work, workÉ

[1] Leaps of Faith, curated by Erden Kosova and Katherina Gregos,
13.05.05-29.05.05 (Nicosia) was an international exhibition and
multi-disciplinary arts project marking the first time in 30 years that
a part of the UN controlled Green Line (buffer zone) dividing the
island is opened up for use in an international event. The project
aimed to animate and activate public spaces, buildings and sites in the
divided city of Nicosia and the war-ravaged Green Line, partitioning
the capital of Cyprus, through an international public arts event.

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