The 2007 Istanbul Biennial with Matthew Schum

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NIGHTCOMERS ‘Dazibao’: an Interview with Curator Pelin Uran

MS: Can you describe the project you worked on for the 10 th Istanbul Biennial?

PU: Five curators; Borga Kanturk, Ovul Durmusoglu, Adnan Yildiz, Marcus Graf and myself were invited by to curate the night program of the biennial. The concept was inspired by Dazibao, which was anonymous, low-cost, low-profile, counter-official street posters hung illegally within the public space during the Cultural Revolution in China. With the nightcomers project, we appropriated these initial premises of this political act into the sphere of arts while at the same time transforming it. The decision was to work with the format of video. We had an open call and wanted amateurs and professionals to send us videos that they think are relevant in today’s political situation. The program aimed to promote the fusion between art and social activism and our biggest concern was to find a ‘language’ that would favor and advance participation

The aim of the project was to integrate art more directly into the realm of the social. During the process we collaborated with the artist duo, bik van der pol and they have chosen the specific locations of the nightcomersscreenings. Initially, they chose 59 sites for each night of the biennial another location within Istanbul. Then the number decreased to 25 due to logistical reasons. They also chose how this mobile project should function. They proposed working with a technical team who would take all the necessary belongings with a van and stop at the location, paste a white cartoon on the wall and do the screening for 2 hours and leave. Since the project takes place at public sites in Istanbul that are outside the traditional confines of art, we aimed to find a place between mobilization and specificity—meaning that it does not essentially belong to one particular location and is not determined by its environmental context, which is really important.

One of the most vital issues of nightcomers for me was the de-centralization of authorship, which is really important everywhere especially in Istanbul. One of the ways to challenge authorship seems to me the collaborative aspect. However, working with four other people was challenging, I have to say. Another point is that nightcomers was primarily about anonymity. Although most contemporary art is produced collectively, we have a tendency to believe in the individual creators. In contrast, nightcomers aimed to play up the aspect of anonymity rather than promoting individual works and artists.

MS: You are a good example of a international curator from Turkey: your graduate studies were done in New York, you have worked in both Italy and Berlin over the last two years, and now you are back as a curator in the 10th Istanbul Biennial. Is it essential to travel like this to survive as a curator today?

PU: On top of meeting different artists, curators, critics and therefore widening your perspective, I think it is essential to travel if you do not want to be trapped in the local and provincial politics. If you are moving constantly, there are ways that you can escape and be apart of the local scene and I think this is very liberating. And also if you are free-lancing I cannot see another way. I do not want to be tagged as a Turkish curator who works solely within some limitations. Up to this point, I have tried to work and do shows in non-profit spaces abroad. Hou Hanru’s invitation to co-curate the night program for the Istanbul Biennial is actually the first thing I have curated in Istanbul. I liked the experience because it was a collaborative project and it added direction to my upcoming projects.

MS: Do you ever feel unanchored? How is moving constantly a good or bad thing for you and your curatorial practice?

PU: I think it works in both ways because the more that I travel the more that I meet very interesting artists, but sometimes I feel like I am overloaded with information. Sometimes it becomes hard to process it all. Since 2003 I have not had a base. I was constantly here and there, and it became difficult to concentrate. At this point, I realized that I wanted to be based in Istanbul and continue traveling from there. When I tell my artist friends of mine who are traveling constantly, they tell me that this is a good decision. I also feel that to keep the network going on, people need to know where you are based. So, it is a transition period for me. I will see what happens.

MS: Is there one city you have been to recently that seems to be the most happening in terms of contemporary art? Why?

PU: I was in New York for two years, then I did an internship in Utrecht for two months, then I moved to Torino to work at Fondazione Sandretto, then to Berlin, and now I just moved back to Istanbul. Even though I spent some time in Pristina, Yerevan and Tirana, they were short-term stays. I think I can only compare the cities where I spent more time. I did my MA in Upstate New York and I am more than happy to have spent time in academia in the States. I had the chance not only to meet artists and critics but also many other people from many disciplines that helped me to cultivate my own perspective. Even though New York is so market oriented, I had the chance to meet amazing people with whom in the long run, I am collaborating on projects with. I think New York still has many surprises. However, Berlin is great because people are not crazy about networking and not pressured to do ten different things at a time. It is more relaxed so the situation seems more humane to me. I think this situation affects the one-to-one relationship of a curator and an artist. I do not know if I am answering your question, but this kind of opportunity is more important to me than finding the best contemporary art scene. Istanbul, on the other hand, I think has ups and downs. Since I moved back recently, I will try to find my own way in Istanbul.

MS: How has Istanbul changed in regard to offering something unique to the field of contemporary art and how important is the biennial?

PU: I am not sure if Istanbul offers something unique. If it does, it is in the form of concentrated power, I guess: even though it is everywhere quite the same, because of the smallness of the art scene here, you see it more directly. But what I can say is that the biennial, no matter how contested the biennials are in general, is the most important thing for Istanbul. Even if in every biennial people complain about this and that—there is still no event that is comparable to the Biennial. And I think to reflect on the history of the Istanbul biennials in retrospect is very crucial. For me, the only Biennial that inspired and excited me was the 9th Istanbul Biennial, most of all because of its radical curatorial statement. And I am definitely sure that the structure of the Biennial is changing as well. However, I am not only speaking of the Biennial per se, but also how it activates and motivates the art scene around it.

MS: Contemporary artist here often deal with the complexity of Turkish national identity. What do think is unique about the Turkish approach to politics through art?

PU: I can only answer this question in relation to what I understand or do not understand about the national identity. I did my first exhibition on the critique of reading any kind of work but especially non-Western works through national, ethnic or cultural origins. I do not think that it is specific to Turkish artists to deal with identity. I think it was the interest of the art world in the “other” in the last twenty years, which caused artists from non-Western cultures, therefore also Turkish artists, to highlight their identity and cultural origins and to locate themselves within that arena. However, according to me, attributing a different social and historical space to non-Western artists has marked them as “others.”

I think that if these concerns can be seen in an expanded field it would encourage the understanding of the relationships between the universal and the particular. The issues of national identity, immigration, exile and repressed minorities should be interpreted from a wider perspective than one defined by geography or ethnicity. Moreover, making connections and associations between different situations and to interpret disconnected and fragmented contents as inter-relational and applicable to a variety of contexts, seems more apt. And I tend to appreciate works which can open themselves to a variety of interpretations as opposed to dealing solely with specific national identity.