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 East.
Istanbul coverage blog:
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 �nationalist�: 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 on� The opposing bloc can be defined as a willingness to have a more globalist/planetary perspective and a resistance to the opposing block�s 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 on� The looming threat of a military coup d�etat, 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 process� 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 �problem� 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 Alt�ndere, the curator of the FreeKick exhibition was tried with the infamous accusation of offending the �Turkishness�. 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 �God Fear� 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 don�t mind to remain in a parochial position which at the same time can relate to other geographies� 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 artists� engagement with the location of the biennials with residence programmes and sustained research schemes.NM: You have critiqued elsewhere the so-called �miracle of Istanbul�; 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 city�s 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 biennial� Although it has been rightly criticised because of the curator�s 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 � a more direct engagement with the building and the neighbourhood could have strengthened Hanru�s 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 �the project of Ankara� 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 �Polis�. 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 � yet, they have a problem in producing their audience. This might decelerate the motivations of the young artist-organisers. Diyarbak�r 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 don�t 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 , 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 today?
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 don�t 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 Dink�s assassination and group 19 January). How do you position yourself as a curator, critic and activist within these dynamics�and 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 don�t 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 activist� 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, work�--
 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.