The Biennial Questionnaire: Bige Örer

Ahead of the Istanbul Biennial 2013, director Bige Örer talks to ArtReview

By Helen Sumpter

Freee, Protest is Beautiful 2007/2013, Agoraphobia exhibition, 13th Istanbul Biennial Bige Örer, director Istanbul Biennial 2013. Photo Manuel Citak 13th Istanbul Biennial poster, design by Ruben Pater, LAVA Amsterdam


Istanbul’s art scene has expanded rapidly in recent decades. As has the international art world’s focus on the city. What have been the main reasons behind this and what, for you, defines Istanbul’s current creative energy?


The contemporary art scene that inspired the Istanbul biennial (launched by the Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts in 1987) —fresh, dynamic, cutting edge, albeit with limited financial means and institutional support—has evolved into a much larger and multi-layered field: the art market has grown exponentially and erratically; many galleries have opened; there are more independent, self-funded initiatives; more privately-funded, non-profit institutions. Artistic production has become more sophisticated with a wider interest in socio-economic, political, historical and aesthetic/formal issues, as well as more innovative artistic, curatorial and institutional strategies. Yet public support, a critical art press, and an educational system to sustain the art scene in Istanbul—and also form a further link to the transnational scene on an academic level—remain near absent still. Against all the positive progress and reinforcement, a multitude of problems rooted in these contradictory circumstances continues to pose some very Turkey – and Istanbul – specific difficulties.

What role does the biennial play in Istanbul’s art scene?

BO: The Istanbul contemporary art scene has undergone significant transformation over the past 10 years. Since the millennial turn, the Istanbul Biennial has become a central coordinate on the international contemporary art map and gained a reputation for its experimental and unique character. The biennial has opened up a platform of interaction for the contemporary art scene in Istanbul, and the international contemporary art community. It has served as a dynamic plane of dialogue, a meeting point, and a critical site for the development of new aesthetic and political imaginations. In a period of increasingly rapid communication and experience exchange, the biennial has become the main hub in Istanbul for the introduction, debate and assessment of current paradigms in both the theory and practice of local, international, and transnational contemporary art.

The openness and solidarity of the resistance movement created a unique public domain and art has been one of its components

How has this changed over its history?

BO: Since its inception, the biennial has acted as a temporary museum and each biennial ignites public discussions, as well as deliberation in artistic circles. The increase in the number of viewers of the biennial (50,000 in 2005 compared to 110,000 in 2011) is an evident manifestation of the expansion of the biennial’s audience. In every edition, the biennial uses new materials and establishes new relationships with art and public spaces, which in turn has attracted the interest of local audiences in contemporary art.

The main focal point for this year’s biennial – ‘the public domain as a political forum’ in the form of ‘an exhibition in a dialogue with the city’ – could not be more relevant (with this summer’s protests in Taksim square, initiated by plans to redevelop the space). But prior to these events, what made this subject particularly pertinent to Istanbul as a city and to its art community?

BO: Urban transformation has been going on in Istanbul since the 1950s. But in the recent period, with the emergence of lucrative housing markets and the rise of the construction sector after the 2001 economic crisis, the city has experienced a drastic transformation, which has affected every citizen. The upcoming edition of the biennial has been exploring the possibility of public domain as a political forum and urban spaces as the spatial component of the democratic apparatus.

The theme of this year’s biennial is also a reflection of the curatorial practice of Fulya Erdemci, the curator of the 13th Istanbul Biennial. She has always been interested in the relationship between art and the city. Istanbul Pedestrian Exhibitions (2002 and 2005), initiated by Erdemci, were the first major urban public space exhibitions that adopted a critical stance on the position of the individual in the city. She has also been exploring the potential of the public domain to become a political forum in her curatorial practice since. Moreover, as she is a curator from Istanbul, she is very much interested in the country’s current sociopolitical issues.

The title of the biennial Mom, am I barbarian? reflecting the idea of an ‘absolute other’, is taken from Lale Müldür’s book of the same name. What is the particular relevance of this work to Istanbul and to its artists?

BO: Lale Müldür is one of the most influential poets in Turkey. She has developed a unique poetic language. Drawing inspiration from her language, we hope to rediscover and remember the relationship between poetry and contemporary art in the biennial.

What matters the most is to provide artists and curators with an independent and autonomous space in which they can express themselves freely

Fulya Erdemci uses the word ‘barbarian’ with its two connotations. Originating from the Greek word ‘barbaros,’ it refers to those who cannot speak the language properly. But in its current use, the word is laden with strong connotations of exclusion. Quoting from the conceptual framework, ‘barbarian ‘may refer to a state of fragility, with potential for radical change (and/or destruction), thus, to the responsibility to take new positions, new subjectivities to rethink the possibility of “publicness” today.’ Barbarian is related to language; a language that we don't understand and need to invent to imagine a different world. The title forms the artistic axis of the exhibition in terms of the unknown or yet to be invented languages as well as art’s and social movements’ relationship with poetry.

How did the biennial’s prologue exhibition Agoraphobia, and accompanying discussions (25 May-27 July at TANAS, Berlin) feed into the final programme of exhibitions and events?

BO: Agoraphobia deals with the politics of space in relation to freedom of expression and unfolds the core question of public domain. The issue of freedom of expression is also addressed as one of the core topics of the biennial’s public programme, which explored the urgency of spaces of freedom of speech in the context of a neo-liberalised public domain. Agoraphobia translates these issues into practice; represents an artistic exploration and in a way complements the issues previously explored in the public programme. It brings out diverse artistic strategies and formulas that can steer the imagination towards resistance and change.

When the protests began in Taksim Square on 28 May what were your immediate thoughts on how the Istanbul art community, and the biennial in particular, should respond?

BO: The Gezi Park protests proved the strong sense of unease and discontent in the society and brought together the demands of different groups. But this is still an ongoing process; the struggle is alive. The protests continue to create their own forms of resistance such as the standing man or viral performances. The art community is coming together to discuss what has been going on and we feel that the protests deserve a better assessment rather than a quick response. We still need time to think around this transformative experience that has opened up new possiblilities.

How did those thoughts change as events escalated, and would there have been a point at which discussions would have needed to take place as to whether the Biennial should still happen at all?

BO: To the contrary, this is a time when artistic production is more important than ever. Creativity and humour have been important aspects of the resistance. The openness and solidarity of the resistance movement created a unique public domain and art has been one of its components. Not only contemporary art, but also literature, music and all forms of artistic expression are much needed to improve dialogue, understand one another and what is happening. The main theme of the conceptual framework of the 13th Istanbul Biennial has become a part of the daily experience and has transformed us all.

The third event in the biennial’s public programme (which began on 8 February) was itself the subject of protest – when Brussels based artist duo Vermeir & Heiremans’ performance Art House Index, was disrupted (on 10 May). How does protest against/or as part of the biennial, fit in with its framework?

BO: Today, not only in Turkey, but also in the international art world, the relationship between art and the private sector is a highly contested point of discussion. In Turkey, criticism towards private sector support of art has increased over the last decade and this is partly due to the upsurge of privately-funded art institutions. On the other hand, public support is near absent in Turkey. Under current conditions, the biennial believes that what matters the most is to provide artists and curators with an independent and autonomous space in which they can express themselves freely.

This is an ongoing process; the struggle is alive

Vermeir&Heiremans’ performance, as well as the 3rd Public Programme titled ‘Public Capital’, intended to suggest alternatives to the aforementioned relationship. The aim of the performance was to offer a critique of the multifaceted and complex relationship between art and capital. The entire event aimed to question the relationship between private capital, contemporary artistic production and the making of publics and to envisage if and how private capital could be used for public profit. The fact that these protests happened during the public programme that dealt with the issue of public capital is not coincidence, but rather points out the urgency of these issues in the contemporary art world.

Workshops for emerging art critics are part of the Biennial’s public programme. Why did you feel it was important to engage directly with critical writing in this way?

BO: Alternative art education and innovative methods are part of the current discussions of contemporary art in Turkey. The biennial seeks to develop ways to contribute to these discussions and thus supports the development of creative art writing. Workshops where art critics come together with the curatorial team are part of this support.

How do you think Istanbul’s art scene will develop over the next decade, and what changes would you most like to see happen?

BO: The contemporary art scene in Istanbul will evolve into a much larger and multi-layered field. Despite limited financial means and institutional support, we can imagine the artworld in Istanbul growing more dynamic, cutting edge and critical over the next decade. In a time where free media is much needed, citizen art critics are significant actors and alternative art education methods should be further explored and supported.

The 13th Istanbul Biennial, titled Mom, am I Barbarian? will run from 14 September to 20 October 2013. Entrance ll be free.

August 2013