The 2007 Istanbul Biennial with Matthew Schum

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‘Global Warming’: Interview with Curator

March 2008

When I interviewed Hou Hanru at the San Francisco Art Institute I started by mentioning the obvious—that globalization has been the primary theme in his work. He laughed as though this were a gross understatement. The curator has built his reputation on interpreting and displaying globalization as contemporary art. These exhibitions around the world typify an era of stylized globalism that has been also referred to as “biennialism.”

What I hoped to capture in the following interview is how Hou Hanru embodies his patent subject matter. How his unique, sometimes peculiar approach to representing “the global” entails more than a tired biennial theme, but an attitude conditioned by larger forces. Like some of his colleagues, Hou Hanru is a student as much as a subject of politics…

His experience goes beyond sensitive shifts in discourse, or art expanding into more untraditional and lucrative markets. Rather, one senses revised instincts that changed the established art world’s purview irrevocably. It is a story of new conditions engulfing art and exhibition practices in the 90s as biennials organized by a new professional class. These are curators who erupted like other art movements of the past, in key cities, on key projects. His story describes curatorial instincts that have been shaped by changes in the political terrain of the last two decades. As the curator states below, “The artistic event,” that gave so-called “biennial art” prominence, “becomes a platform to talk about social issues or the transformation of the world—all from a particular perspective, using particular languages.”

On the importance of his directorship of the 10th Istanbul Biennial, Not Only Possible, But Also Necessary: Optimism in the Age of Global War of 2007, Hou Hanru said, “Basically the Istanbul Biennial, personally for me, is a summary of my work, for the last ten years or so.” Thus we see this moment’s political shifts presenting fresh challenges and opportunities in a contemporary art and exhibition culture that began some years back…

Matthew Schum: Globalization is an important theme in your work as a curator.

Hou Hanru: (Laughs)

MS: In December 2006 I interviewed the curator of the 2005 9th Istanbul Biennial, Vasif Kortun, during which he said something that has since helped me understand the global position that emerged in the 90s. Kortun pointed out that the so-called rise of the curator was directly linked to the end of Cold War. Curators connected emerging institutions with the broader art world: Europe for example became more integrated, east and west. I was wondering if you could reflect on your story. How did you become a curator, or a ‘link’ between China and France? Were there major political shifts that led to your transient practice as an independent curator? Perhaps the ‘China/Avant-Garde’ exhibition at the National Gallery in Bejing? Or the political and artistic climate in China prior to the events at Tiananmen Square in June 1989?

HH: Clearly I think we belong to a generation that really grew up with the transition from the Cultural Revolution to the Opening of the 80s, and then the end of the Cold War. And then I moved to Europe. We valued and faced new kinds of social and political questions. When you look back at this it actually also shows a very interesting process from the Cold War period and the end of the Cold War: the transition to a different but equally intense discussion on globalization.

I started working with art when I was very young. I was in art school and all those things. In the early and middle eighties, we were looking for a way to break through all the constraints of the established academic or official arts by looking to modernist and contemporary art. I belong to a group of artists and critics who work on the kind of self-organizing first avant-garde art movement in China. From the late 70s to the 80s you have ten years of really very intense… let’s say, struggle of artists looking to claim freedom of expression, self-expression, and then of course, new languages.

So, I was very much involved with that. If I remember the first period that I was involved in curating, it was already starting in the years ‘84-85 or so. During that period I was writing and also somehow working as an artist. The driving force at the time was the Chinese Opening—the so-called Reform [and?] Opening, when everyone was looking for liberation from the Cultural Revolution and previous periods of one official ideology’s dominance.

Of course, the ‘89 China/Avant-Garde exhibition was a very important event. It is an event that was maybe less important for the art world and more important for society. Meaning that the avant-garde movement had reached the point were it would have an inevitable presence in the society — and society started reacting to it. So, it was much more like a social event, or even a political event, than an art event. The whole preparation of ten years [of art had] arrived at that point [and meant that art] needed to go and embrace society directly. Being involved with that event as one of the curators has been important for me to [be able to] really understand how we should work, and how contemporary art makes sense in society.

Then, of course, we lived through the Tiananmen event. A year later I went to live in France. If you look at that time, it’s very interesting in terms of the globalization process. The Chinese avant-garde movement has always been about relating itself to the world. They were inspired by western whatever — experimental art, modern art, contemporary art; on the other hand, going outside the boundaries of one society to allow others to be individuals who explore, who deal with issues common to everyone in the world. That is a very central concern.

So going to live in France, like many others from Huang Yongping to Chen Zhen; and we had in the United States Gu Wenda — for all these people, I think the personal ambition was to be a part of the global situation, rather than simply representing China. That actually shows contemporary art moving from a more national kind of perspective to a much more global one.

It was also the moment after the Cold War that people [began] to look at the relationship between the western world and the non-western world through a different perspective. People started looking into post-colonial issues: issues of migration, identity, and modernization, esp. modernization outside the western world. When you look at that, it is important to understand that globalization is not simply a prevailing American or Euro-American model. It is also a lot of other possibilities that have been circulating the world—coming back to influence even the western world.

This is the reason why we were looking for new significance, new meanings of contemporary arts in different parts of the world. And that is why we’ve seen so many biennials and events happening outside of the West. It’s just crucial. It also allows or creates a demand for people we call independent curators to work on [these issues].

MS: Do you have a tangible sense for how globalization has changed from when you moved away from China to today?

HH: Yes. There is a very important change. When we arrived in Europe it was the high time of the European social democracy. Then, ten years later, you can see the collapse of that system. Because of the neo-conservative, so-called ‘revolution’ imposing one kind of economy—which is so-called liberal market economy — that actually kills the social democratic system and social system. It is a very rude reality.

On the other hand, you see, especially in China, India, in non-western countries, it is becoming the driving force of the world — the most dynamic anyway, as a market or production system. There is a new dynamic. There are a lot of new contradictions. This is all very different from the Cold War time, when the world was completely separated in to two camps and there were two very clear kinds of ideology out there.

Also, there were two very clear economic models: one was the liberal capitalist market-driven model; another was the state-planned economy. In between you had the Third World, and European social democratic, nation-state capitalism. All this was a more or less clear-cut system. Now we have a kind of reorganization. But one part of the system is very much dominated by one kind of dynamic, which is global free-market capitalism — whatever you want to call it. And that is generating a lot of reactions, a lot of resistance, and also a lot of innovative ideas to produce alternative models.

MS: And that is where you see art coming in I believe, as a set of alternative models?

HH: Well, art has to negotiate with this new context. Not necessarily every artist is related directly to this social background. But if you look at the bigger picture, we have to understand how art continues to make sense in the world in terms of its relation to this change.

MS: I ask because it seems you couched the Istanbul Biennial at this divide between the East and the West that you described…

HH: It is not the ‘divide’ of the East and the West. Istanbul itself is traditionally understood as a meeting point of this East and West. But, I actually proposed to look at it from this perspective: It is different models of modernization that make this city interesting, and [the idea was] to make the city or the event articulate on this dynamic.

East and West, and South and North – whatever you can call it – you have different ways you can divide the world for the convenience of understanding some specific issues. At the end of the day, it is about the reality of forms as ways of thinking about society, especially the trend of modernization. How different cultures chose different understandings of this common past and came up with different solutions.

So, when we talk about the divide of East and West, I think we really need to understand it from this perspective. It’s no longer geographical divides as we once thought in the past. China is not necessarily an eastern country. Maybe some Europe countries somehow remain very western, but if you go to major cities, metropolitan global cities, one cannot simply define it as traditionally western.

MS: No, no. But I think there was something poignant about how the biennial proposed a sense of movement. Not simply that Istanbul is a meeting point of cultures—that’s the cliché—but that there was an intersection: it arranged a place of passing through and that you were moving towards a different kind of potential.

HH: I think the biennial was really about making visible the potential—to push certain… to illuminate certain kinds of potential that are even more effective.

MS: You’ve curated in many countries over the years. Do you have a favorite exhibition that you’ve done, like a film director might have a favorite movie-making experience?

HH: I’d rather not think that way. Every one for me was equally important. Every time it is very different. Every project I do I try to think about how it is related to the momentum of the context, to the specific place. Every biennial project for me has a very clear and different political, social, cultural, artistic agenda. This agenda is always trying to answer to the needs of that momentum of the society.

For example, with the Shanghai Biennial, the intention was very clear. It was the first time we had an opportunity to organize an international contemporary art biennial in China. And, then, [in the process of organizing, we were thinking] What’s the effect? What was the influence? It must be much, much bigger than simply making a good exhibition. It has to leave a legacy. This legacy is to allow contemporary art to be accepted by the public, and also to help establish certain kinds of institutional support.

That was based on different kinds of concerns about how contemporary Chinese art had been surviving as a semi-underground activity. And also the perversion that the artists have to produce outside of their country while they are living there and therefore automatically become a kind of prey of the international market. Still it is the case. How do you help build up a healthier support system? How do you create a more… normal state of being? So they don’t have to turn their work into a kind of tool, or instrument of any… anything. The whole effort of the Shanghai Biennial in 2000 was to centralize on this intention.

Based on that, I really have to think about strategy. What kind of exhibition we should have there. The exhibition should be much more like a facturation of different kinds of efforts, rather than a provocation. In the meantime, how not to lose the critical edge when it is needed. So that the whole exhibition has been understood not only as an exhibition, but a beginning of a whole series of political and cultural events that happen — ones that can help build up the infrastructure.

MS: That leads to my next question. I wonder if you can reflect now on how the role of the curator has changed; how biennials have changed, since when you began directing larger exhibitions like this.

HH: I belong to generation of curators who came from this very particular social or political transition. Also, you have people coming from so-called non-western backgrounds to become part of this discourse, apart of this dynamism: you have people like Okwui [Enwezor], Vasif [Kortun], and many other people…. In the meantime, we basically have invented a profession, somehow, that didn’t exist.

I mean, before our generation you have of course Harold Szeeman and few – very few – others who have been independent. On the other hand, their concerns have been still mainly about the transformation of art itself. I think our generation, coming from different backgrounds, we all understand it is not only a question of making art different or evolving according to the logic of art history; but it is constantly a kind of looking for [or] building up a significance between what we call art and its social position.

The artistic event becomes a platform to talk about social issues or the transformation of the world—all from a particular perspective, using particular languages. It somehow becomes a new laboratory of social change. This is what I want to understand [as a curator]. That is what, perhaps, forces us to invent a new role for ourselves. You might say the name of the ‘curator’ has obtained a whole new meaning.

MS: You do see the work that you do as more directly involved with social transformation than the previous generation, which was engaged with a more art historical form of transformation?

HH: Probably. I think so, yes. Of course, that doesn’t exclude [the fact that] that the previous generation has their own political and social agendas. But I think we are putting the whole question on a much larger, much wider, global perspective. We are dealing with the interaction between different cultures. That is very different from the generation of Szeeman.

After the 90s, it doesn’t matter which generation you belong to, you have to deal with the fact that art is from Latin America, from Asia, from Africa, and has become a very important part of the system. From here it’s inevitable that people have to travel to China, to… I don’t know to Mali… to wherever to understand what is happening there.

MS: And was that something you feel happened because of this invention of a role for the curator, or was it something that the curator figured out how to capitalize upon?

HH: Well, it’s not because… I think when you look at the big picture, the whole post-colonial discourse, the whole debate of globalization has helped to create a new intellectual knowledge, and intellectual inspiration to redefine our job. So, I think there is a very interesting interaction, and this interaction generates people who are specialized in organizing these kinds of events. And you might call them curators….

MS: Is it possible to say how curating in Istanbul is unique?

HH: Well, unique because it was very different from the previous editions, I think. This Istanbul Biennial was conceptualized based on a very particular agenda as an understanding of the historical background of the city and the recent changes in the city. And especially, making it into an urban event — physically integrating the city. That actually brings us to think of the biennial as a complexity. It is a complex system that generates possibilities, activities.

It is not only one exhibition: we have [focal points] that are the individual exhibitions, which are very organically integrated into the architectural context. Those architectural contexts have actually been identified and chosen as a statement on some particular issues, such as political / social projects; economic issues / production; exchange / migration; and finally self-organization. For me these are some of the most urgent questions that we need to answer today — again, related to what I understand as issues of globalization. They are all trying to answer this from an alternative perspective, or trying to bring about diversity rather than one clear set menu.

That opens the door to many, many individual works. What is also very important is I tried to make it disappear and integrate into the flux of everyday life. This is why we have the program from day to night. It is not only for the art lovers coming to amuse themselves. It’s really about making it accessible to everyone living in the city—anytime in any context. We have the Nightcomers going around the city. We have the Dream House opening in the evening. That allows everyone living in the city to at least have a bite of the cake, hopefully.

In that case, it is about not about controlling the situation, but leaving the whole to be controlled, to be used by the people. In that case, I think it is different from the previous biennials.

MS: The previous biennials you’ve done? Or just Istanbul?

HH: The Istanbul Biennial. But if you look back many of my projects have been developed in this way. Basically, the Istanbul Biennial, personally for me, is a summary of my work for the last ten years or so. In the sense that there are a lot of ideas I’ve been working with that for the Istanbul Biennial I try to get to be more visible, more mature, more tangible. For me this biennial shows a certain maturity of the experiments I have been doing for the last years.

MS: As you said, in the biennial there was an attempt to engage outside conditions on the street. Was a there a part of the program that you felt integrated these conditions best, at a particular venue?

HH: I think every venue is very different and needs a different articulation. Instead of emphasizing one kind of language, one clear image, I actually tried to emphasize the organic relation between the artwork and the buildings. So you can see you have different approaches to the buildings.

For example, the AKM (Atatürk Cultural Center) was treated as a building where the work [was already] totally integrated [inside], almost like it had been in existence there—like a historical fact. The IMÇ [Istanbul Textile Traders’ Market] was totally conceived as a shop space. So rather than the conventional exhibition, it is a shopping experience. This shopping is not about consuming. It is about understanding how the artwork can produce a new relationship when it goes into a place like this. Then, Antrepo [No. 3] was much more artistic in a way. But again we tried to break the traditional form of museum-like presentation. We tried to bring street experience into it.

The other places [of exhibition] were largely self-organized by the artists, and other organizations, other curators….I think every place has its own very particular articulation for interpreting the potential meaning of the building.

MS: Like the AKM, I think it is interesting that you say it was like curating historical fact. It is the most unyielding sort of building. But that was what was intriguing about it for me—that you actually curated in a place that was impossible to curate because it is so ornate.

HH: Well, basically there’s no impossibility. I mean, my philosophy is that there is no bad space. You can do anything, even on the street corner — out there, even in a very ugly place. It’s ok. And that is what makes you rethink ‘What is a good artwork?’ and how much a work can still make sense in this place, and how much certain works don’t make sense here.

MS: That actually brings up another point about the Atatürk Cultural Center. It does seem as though building made it hard for particular works to stand on their own because the building itself is so overwhelming.

HH: The strategy actually was to install works in a way that looked like they were already in existence there. It is not an imposition or something. These things grow out of this context. You are not imposing anything there. They are just like little strange parasites growing up from this organism.

MS: What about working with artists? Do you see the role of the curator as collaborative in its own right?

HH: Well, I think it is a constant back-and-forth kind of dialogue with the artist. You cannot exclude the curator. A curator should have a vision, a project in mind, and should be active in making this vision happen. There’s no doubt about that. One should not fear or be scared by assuming one’s role.

At the same time, the vision of the curator always comes from dialogue with the artist, and learning from the artist as far as what they are doing, how they think about their work. And then it comes also from learning from other people from different professions, different disciplines, different fields. An exhibition, somehow, is a summary of this learning process.

What is important, also, is that it is not only a display of this learning; it’s a transformation of this learning process into the making of a new context for new production. That means you basically build up a framework of a factory and people come and produce new things. Or a laboratory — a curator maybe is the one who gathers up all these elements together. But again, what kind of experiments happen is up to every individual inside to decide.

So, this [equals] dynamism: what is important is to think about is the relationship between curating artistic production, reception, discourse – all those things – as a dynamic system, which is in permanent interaction. It is not simply for curators to go there sit next to some works and hang them there. This is really not the case.

MS: Yes, you took risks. You said the IMÇ was supposed to be a shopping’ experience. In fact the World Traders’ Market [IMÇ] set up a set of relationships that could be quite risky: in that there wasn’t a conflict, exactly, between the people that have their shops there – between family owned shops and the art – but there is something about the ‘politics of globalization’ that could be hard to swallow for some people, where you have people who are very much living in a global reality and then you have artwork which represents this global reality much more in the abstract.

HH: I think it is really important to create a possibility for those people who are living the everyday reality, influenced by globalization, to understand from an intellectual perspective what their life is. If art makes sense to these people, maybe it is a way to stimulate their thoughts by having this experience. To allow them to think about their life in a different way. People can like or not like it… that’s totally fine. What is important is not to have everyone say this is good or this is bad, but, at least for a short moment during the events, people have to confront this. They might be interested. They might not be interested. But, things are there. What is important is they have access to those things.

MS: And, is it something that works in the reverse? Where the biennial-goers have an access to the world of the workers…

HH: I think the fact that the biennial had its show there it was also to bring the artists or the art crowd from the ivory tower. The intention of using the site, which is totally beyond the tourist map, was really to bring people there to understand that art is not something in the ivory tower. You guys may be coming from anywhere in the world—I don’t mind. But, you should be there if you really want to understand why the Istanbul Biennial makes sense: it is because you have to look at this reality.

MS: What about the political reality? Last year, and even today, Turkey is a very sensitive political environment.

HH: The history of Turkey has been a very interesting history, as I said in my essay. It is also a very important motivation for this project. A central conflict was the political project. What kind of political project of modernization has been invented, imposed, implemented in this country for the last hundred years: from the Young Turkish Movement to the end of the Ottoman Empire, to the establishment of the republic, to the Cold War to today? One should understand that this is a continuous negotiation. What kind of relevance [does it have] with modernization? What kind of organizational model is relevant in different periods?

Today we should understand what is happening there, from the perspective of so-called Islamists. My understanding of that is that the utopian project of the Atatürk / Kemalist project doesn’t function anymore today. It becomes… always, like any revolutionary regime — it is always been based on a combination of goodness for people, social equality, imposition of certain ideology, and violence. It’s always been like this.

In the meantime, Turkey has a very interesting relation with the West, with Europe. It continues to try to redefine its position, on the side of Europe. In the meantime, it tries to keep its relative independence as a hub in the Middle East. Also, there is its relation with America and American foreign policy — its vision about the Middle East, NATO, all these things. Its history has been already very, very complicated.

Today, when the Islamist party came to power, it shows that certain things have not been digested by the society: in terms of the imposition of certain modernization projects, and certain so-called westernization projects. Turkey is a huge country and what we are focused on in the past is very much only looking at the European part of the country, which is one-tenth of the territory. When you look all those things together, you should understand that actually this gain of power by the so-called Islamist party actually is not only about Islam. It is about how urgent it is for the country to come up with another model of modernization which is a bottom-up modernization. One that is coming up from the needs of the people—not only from the political elite. This is very important to understand.

I think you can also understand that Islam is not a fanatical religious movement. It very often represents the voice of the people who suffer. When the capitalist system abandoned, or the Communist system, or—whatever—revolutionary idealism abandoned, the normal needs of people, then people had to organize themselves under certain visions, and Islam has a tradition of helping the society in social solidarity.

On the other hand, this particular Islamist power is a very interesting combination of social elites and populist voices. What is happening is that they are pro-Europe; pro-capitalist, pro-business. They are conservative… Actually I would look at this power much more in terms of Berlusconi, or Bush, rather than anything else. They are not simply religious. They are using a populist voice to gain power. But that is another question. In the meantime, I am also critical of this establishment.

But, the old establishment does not work anymore. So, this is why we need to mobilize new voices.

MS: You did come under heat for certain things that you said, which to the outside person might seem not so controversial. The Dean from Marmara University, Fine Arts…

HH: Oh, yeah. I mean, I think my own voice is nothing. In my essays I actually quote a lot of the internal voices from Turkey. The Turkish intellectual voices they come up with a critical understanding of the history Kemalism, I quote that, and try to understand that…

(Someone knocks on the door…)

HH: The way I understand it is that it was more about the internal struggle between those others who from within the old establishment were trying to make their voices heard. They felt kind of left out.

MS: This group from Marmara University?

HH: Yes. I read the letter and basically what it said was that you are not supposed to insult or even criticism Atatürk. In this case, if the constitution says certain things, well, it is not my business to talk about the Turkish constitution. But, like in any society, all the established ideas, political ideas, once it becomes a discursive power, once it’s become a political power there must be a moment when it has to be questioned.

MS: They said that it was too much for you to say that the National [Independence] War [1919-23] was a ‘Kemalist’ project that was ‘anti-humanist.’

HH: Well, if you read the text [“Not Only Possible, But Also Necessary: Optimism in the Age of Global War” 10th Istanbul Biennial catalog introduction], it is not anti-humanist. One has to put it into perspective. Like every revolution, there is a terror. But this terror, once the revolution is successful, can no longer last. If the people that made the revolution want to keep their power they have to turn their power into democratic power. That means the terror is no longer necessary. You cannot simply ask people to think in the same way that you do. And that is it.

MS: I wonder how much that political pressure in the atmosphere made its way into the biennial?

HH: Well, the old powers, the old parties, don’t want to go away. The new powers represent something that not everyone agrees… I think it is a very healthy situation. If you walk in the center of the city on Istiklal [Street], you have manifestations of this and that happening at the same time: you have the police there, and then you have people that are trying to sell the latest version of the iPod. It’s a very good thing. It is wonderful. This is what makes the city wonderful.

MS: As far as the biennial institution, IKSV [Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts], that is the major visual arts institution in Istanbul. Do you get a sense that the art infrastructure is growing in city, or is it threatened?

HH: Yes. Totally [growing]. The foundation itself has really been an important thing. Basically, it is a private organization playing the role of the cultural ministry—when there is no cultural ministry—or the cultural ministry doesn’t do their job.

MS: But, you get a sense that it is evolving, staying as dynamic as the city?

HH: Of course. What is more important, because of the Biennial, because of all the festivals, they have generated a wonderful contemporary art scene. They have also helped other people to build their own infrastructures. For instance private banks, they have galleries, Platform [Garanti], all these things are organically, systemically related to the history of the Biennial. The Biennial brings artists there, helps train curators, helps train organizers, and also incites other people to contribute financially, socially to the making of the scene. IKSV has really been playing a crucial role in making this happen. Of course, not everything is related to it, but it is because of some major actors that IKSV is there.

MS: I wonder if you have any advice for the next curators of the Istanbul Biennial. It is a group out of Croatia — What, How, and for Who, (WHW).

HH: Well, I certainly don’t have any advice for them. They have been coming from a very intense, very important activist background. That is a very good sign. They have organized things by themselves, with nothing, really, just good motivation. They have been operating their space in Croatia for the last ten years or so and working globally with some really interesting people. I am sure that they will come up with a very interesting idea.

Also, I believe they can understand the context very well. Especially, I hope, they have a very different approach than my approach.

MS: It’s been great talking with you Hou Hanru.