The 2007 Istanbul Biennial with Matthew Schum

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IMÇ Part 2: The Work of Art and Its Discontents

Unlike a video, an architect’s graph, or a photo, there was something unusually honest about showing contemporary art in these circumstances. Though subtle, this kind of curatorial shock value, which would be impossible in a museum, is precisely what keeps curating on par with individual artist’s attempts to envision a better politics.

Like the Ataturk Cultural Center, the IMÇ reflects the challenging part of the 10th Istanbul Biennial’s strategy: to enjoy art in an environment that clearly seeks to distract you with everyday realities. Identifying my political leanings wasn’t difficult here. Finding the headspace to be comfortably distracted and still art curious was the more rewarding part of World Factory.

This politics of space as the setting for artwork versus the setting of an exhibition, World Factory represents the politics of collaboration and site-specificity today. Current politico-ethical tendencies have led some artists to call this an era of “post-autonomy” (see this biennial’s Santralistanbul Special Projects K2 participants Post-autonomy).

The 2006 Artforum article, “The Social Turn and Its Discontents,” by British critic Claire Bishop is relative to art making in Istanbul and much of the biennial world, particularly at the IMÇ. Voicing a frustration felt by many, Bishop crudely defined the current look of politically minded art—which translates old site-specific tactics into animated relations, such as traditional community activities as aesthetic process—as a dichotomy between contemporary art’s strictly aesthetic versus strictly ethical preoccupations. To her, the collective projects favored in biennials are problematic as a form of social conscious to the point of being pseudo-Christian. Bleeding heart humanism has eroded artists’ aesthetic impulses it seems. Presumably the global and ecumenical blur in Bishop’s indictment is how unworldly some lightweights in the art world have become.


Initially, some found it ironic that there was a critic named Bishop calling others Christian. Needless to say, there is a dominant, indispensable organizational structure that in fact pervades the entire public sector, not just art. It is a recognizable genetic trait passed-on from the twentieth century and Bishop calling social art projects “Christian” is at once naive and cynical. This is particularly noticeable in an art world governed by themed exhibitions in which less-established artists are subjected to a selection process that complicates the notion of artistic agency, just as it did in bygone eras of patronage. Amateur directors commission projects without specifically acknowledging their intervention in the creative process. I’m not sure contemporary art is capable of a New Wave moment of introspection, but one cannot miss that fact that a more aggressive top-down organizational model redolent of corporate compromise has perennially institutionalized art as a political enterprise. Naturally contemporary artists, like famous agitators of the nineteenth-century suffering through the extinction of academic art ministries, want to break out of the current system of support—but in our age this is what often makes them immediately marketable. In other words, patronage is the light casting a ‘Christian’ shadow and the collective impulse is a lasting liberal residue still justifying contemporary art’s critical existence.


For this reason, exhibition culture clearly entails addressing a poor prognosis—aesthetically and socially—by finding a agreeable, if compromised, sense of balance between soft agendas—activist and capitalist. This is of course where a good curator or artist can be a true life-giver. The activist-minded exhibition World Factory did not resolve these familiar problems. How could it when art’s civic role beyond civic exhibitions is so unclear and its marketplace so crystallized? But some of the strongest works in the biennial are (healthily) motivated towards the political, anti-capitalist, collaborative projects disdained for the sake of polemics in leading trade magazines. One can see the whole biennial as collaborative project in this ‘relational’ vein. We can expect that biennials and their chosen collectives will continue to show these kinds of projects—those that Bishop says have robbed us of our aesthetic heritage. (The critic seems to have backed away from her Adorno-esque argument since writing the 2006 Artforum article in which she constructed an argument through a rhetorical attack on the Istanbul artist collective, Oda Projesi.)


World Factory provides proof of the obvious but unspoken awareness that curating is the core of contemporary art’s collaborative nature. Exhibitions of this kind adhere to an ethical message, coordinated like a director on a film set. And the potentially gimmicky theme of artwork in a workplace transcends both realms of objects and voyeurs to make for a truly unusual viewing experience that arguably necessitates the ‘collaboration’ of biennial-goers as dislocated entities in their own right. At World Factory, the best projects prove that artists can still deal intelligently with the intellectual burden of labor. Though quite different from the last Istanbul Biennial, this exhibition also finds its own way to update the tradition of Realism, which I find to be the enduring historical controversy alive in the aesthetic politics of biennials and what Claire Bishop once called “relational antagonism.” Viewers, along with the primary agents of display, shopkeepers and artists, were enmeshed in what Bishop once described as “a sense of dislocation in which we perform ourselves performing” (Verksted, no. 7, 2006, Art of Welfare, “Live Installations and Constructed Situations: The Use of ‘Real People’ in Art,” pp.82).