The 2007 Istanbul Biennial with Matthew Schum

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IMÇ Part 1: Checking-Out

Curator describes the IMÇ as, “a microcosmic condensation of the structure of Istanbul, a mega-city in permanent expansion and mutation,” indicative of the city’s “integration into the global economic system.” World Factory is an exhibition about working conditions. For all intents and purposes, the Istanbul Textile Traders’ Market (IMÇ) is a mix between open-air shopping mall and factory.

Storefronts here house workshops and showrooms. Many of the merchants are Muslims providing garments to a like-minded clientele. A family-owned spirit pervades the nondescript campus. Art tourists draw attention, and navigating the six identical blocks of retail space is disorienting. Residents are helpful and treat outsiders with curiosity, not suspicion, typical of Istanbul.

The exhibition site is well chosen because it points to the ways in which Istanbul has long been more global than most cities. A textile working-class connects cottage industries with big business. The trade is both traditional and contemporary; whether designer or conservative couture, clothing represents a unique economic connection to European and Asian markets.

World Factory is, then, a situational exhibition where manufacturing informs art production. Artworks predictably focus on the economic vagaries of globalism. International artists picture workers, their plight, and their creative tenacity from an array of regions, including Anatolia, Turkey’s vast agricultural and industrial territory east of the Bosphorus. These representations are bracketed physically in the unusual mall / work space. Most of what is unpredictable comes out of this contrast between real and representational space within the complex.

In terms of artist projects, many issues concerning the disempowered are rendered intelligently. Biennial or populist pomp was kept to a minimum. The mix of subjects is concise and broadly global. Socially minded connoisseurs will leave feeling more in-touch and aware, especially if they have the patience to watch the various competing videos that vied for space and attention much like the storefront shops outside. Those preferring the less socially-grounded, less documentarian and more transporting aesthetics will walk away feeling irked by the show’s worldly attentions. As one artist colleague I know did, wondering, “Why so much blah-blah? Are artists today afraid to make art?” (She is a formalist.) Video remains the primary means of abstracting social issues, yet it would be unfair to say the exhibition succumbs to universalism (either in humanist terms or video-materialist terms). World Factoryclearly strives to include as many media forms as possible around its populist core. This factor is a real strength, and I found some of the most hard-hitting social projects the most blatantly aesthetic. (Is it wrong to want the formal in the social?)

Only Julio César Morales presented a site-specific, if decorative piece. His Mexican-inspired silhouette wall display fit so well onto the mall’s white plaster foil that it wasn’t initially clear if it was part of the mall or not. For the first millisecond I dreamed it could have been a really unintentionally street-savvy, energetic exception to the slightly depressing exhibit. Given this piece was the sole activation of exterior walls it was indication to me of a missed chance for the curators, who chose to work almost entirely within the IMÇ complex. Engaging the decorative side of the IMÇ might have created a sense of communication between the cellular spaces of the locals and the stalls the biennial occupied. The biennial proposed a neighborly vibe at the IMÇ that was noticeably missing here. It could have tried to be inviting or convivial, or could have been memetic and antagonistic. Instead there was simply a gulf between the temporary and permanent worlds existing during the biennial that an artistic and curatorial intervention could have bridged, however imperfectly.

This points to what is peculiar about World Factory. Walking out of installations into the air of the tedious mall-scape, seeing the sad shops and awkward storefront displays was totally unnerving. But discomfort was an appropriate comedown after the alienating effect of rotating between videos. The obvious reality was that the people working day after day in the IMÇ are much closer to the global problems artists and art-goers find fascinating. One thing that the venue conveys is that globalism is not a state of transformation, but of unchanging self-preservation. The transporting aspect of World Factory is not as observable in the transient installation as in the felt disjuncture with preexisting (global) conditions.

World Factory consists of exiting the commotion of Eminonu’s hectic traffic, and entering the hushed and unchanging insular world of the IMÇ. Almost like walking into a church, this is refreshing because it allows you to feel genuinely out-of-touch with the reality outside first, then with the reality of global industry always being quietly produced inside. So that it is not simply a mater of ‘globalization’ as represented (yet often missing) in artworks.