[spectre] Interview with Erden Kosova

nat muller nat at xs4all.nl
Wed Nov 21 09:59:08 CET 2007

dear friends and colleagues,

this interview with Erden Kosova was originally conducted for=20
www.labforculture.org as part of coverage of the Istanbul Biennial.

Erden Kosova is a critic and curator based in Istanbul. He contributes=20=

to two independent Istanbul-based magazines, Siyahi (post-anarchist=20
politics) and art-ist (contemporary art). His ongoing PhD research at=20
the Goldsmiths College London focuses on the critique of nationalist=20
ideology by the contemporary art practice from the Balkans and the Near=20=


Istanbul coverage blog:=20
Original interview:=20



NM: How do you see the current tensions within Turkish society, between=20=

nationalism and religion, affect the arts in terms of what is produced,=20=

how it is produced and how and where it is exhibited?
EK: The tension that has been recently troubling the country in the=20
last couple of years seems to have polarised the society drastically,=20
and it is true that the main protagonists of the emerged polarisation=20
are the army as the defendant of a secularist nationalism and the=20
governing party AKP, which has its roots from Islamic movement but=20
transformed into a pragmatic, neo-liberal and conservative project=20
claiming the whole of right wing of the centre. Yet, it is hard to=20
infer a clean-cut binarism between nationalism and religion. The=20
disparate versions of nationalism in Turkey always retained a certain=20
interpretation of Islam and the Islamists always adhered to a=20
nationalist differentiation from the rest of the Islamic world. What=20
rather emerged from this tension are two opposing sets of political=20
forces that brought old enemies into alliance. The first bloc can be=20
named properly as =D4nationalist=D5: the militaristic machinery which=20
claims to be the motor of implantation of (dogmatically) modernistic=20
values; the central-left which recently abandoned all the links to=20
social-democratic principles; the Kemalist intellectuals whose=20
so-called leftist-nationalism slips very easily from anti-imperialism=20
into projects of alter-imperialism; two segmented versions of=20
ultra-nationalism (one of them more religious); ex-Maoists who became=20
the non-religious preachers of Kemalism, some small communist parties,=20=

the EU-haters and so on=C9 The opposing bloc can be defined as a=20
willingness to have a more globalist/planetary perspective and a=20
resistance to the opposing block=D5s call for an absolute identitarian=20=

closure in favour of national belonging: the AKP which is being=20
supported by the so-far culturally marginalised segments of the=20
conservative parts of the country and the rising Anatolian bourgeoisie=20=

and claims the legacy of the Ottoman ecumenism; the established pro-EU=20=

bourgeoisie, liberal, social-democrat and socialist intelligentsia who=20=

have been trying to challenge the authoritarian structure of the=20
Republic, the non-separatist segments of the Kurdish society,=20
non-Muslim communities and so on=C9 The looming threat of a military =
d=D5etat, the increasing aggressive tone in the discursive campaign for=20=

nationalism, massive demonstrations held in the big cities, lynching=20
attempts on some communist, Kurd or human rights activists,=20
assassination of Hrant Dink, tension around Kurdish and Armenian=20
issues, disappointments from the EU-integration process=C9 The boiling =
the pot came finally into halt by the massive landslide election=20
victory of the governing party, which then seemed to deem the absolute=20=

defeat of the nationalist bloc. Yet, the original source of the=20
tension, the Kurdish =D4problem=D5 which triggered all the nationalist=20=

paranoia of being further dissected has remained intact in respect with=20=

the political atmosphere in the invaded Iraq. When the separatists=20
Kurdish guerrilla of PKK, resumed armed struggle and inflicted several=20=

losses to the Turkish army the nationalist pathos returned with a=20
hegemonic power after including the AKP into the nationalist rhetoric.

The dominating tone within the contemporary art practice in Turkey has=20=

been decidedly anti-nationalist, anti-statist and anti-militarist. In=20
the absence of an appropriate contact with the public (until recently=20
there were hardly any art spaces to exhibit contemporary work), the=20
bitter tone of this crusty criticism harmed no one. Yet, the opening of=20=

independent and mainstream institutions in Istanbul made contemporary=20
art more visible and this attracted some confrontation. A non-profit=20
and progressive art space got raided by the ultra-nationalists after=20
exhibiting a documentary research on the 1955 pogrom against the=20
non-Muslim communities. Halil Alt=F5ndere, the curator of the FreeKick=20=

exhibition was tried with the infamous accusation of offending the=20
=D4Turkishness=D5. Some artists have been directly accused by the =
figures within the art scene of being traitors. Hou Hanru, the curator=20=

of the 10th Istanbul Biennale, has recently been publicly condemned by=20=

the dean of a prominent fine art academy with the accusation of=20
denigrating the Kemalist ideology in his catalogue text. And just a=20
couple of days ago, a forthcoming exhibition entitled as =D4God Fear=D5 =
be held in an independent art space has been targeted by an=20
ultra-religious daily newspaper. Hence, the politically transgressive=20
art practice has now its opponents.

But, more serious than this conflict, is the fact that the public image=20=

of the contemporary art scene has worsened considerably with the last=20
couple of years. After the opening of several large-scale art=20
institutions and the establishment of a certain culture attached to it=20=

(sterilisation, commercialisation, trivialisation of the art practice)=20=

, the contemporary art scene as such is being conceived as the=20
uppermost example of cultural corruption and decadence. This remarkably=20=

fierce sense of resentment will cause more trouble for the contemporary=20=

art scene. I would say, the critical segment within the scene should=20
prove its integrity by divorcing itself from the ongoing normalisation=20=

and recuperation.

NM: You have been working a lot round discourses of nationalism and=20
national identity. How would you categorise an event such as a=20
biennial, which at first glance seems a trans-national non-space for=20
contemporary art (the unsolvable regionalism<>internationalism debate),=20=

while at the same time the geo-graphic spread of its artists has never=20=

been more important (cfr. the sheer abundance of ISO country code=20
abbreviations in catalogues). What does=20
nationalism/nationality/national identity mean within this set-up? Are=20=

biennials incomplete life-size atlases of the art world?
EK: I share the dizziness of witnessing the rising spectacle dimension=20=

in the large-scale exhibition. I came to the field of contemporary art=20=

from the field of radical politics and therefore I have this=20
never-ending discomfort with the scale of these things and I cannot=20
cease to adhere to the yearning for the production of a transversal=20
interaction between critical projects and practices from the differing=20=

parts of the globe. I have a certain attachment to Istanbul and an=20
interest in the wider region, which possesses similar experiences and=20
cultural character to my own. So, I can say I don=D5t mind to remain in =
parochial position which at the same time can relate to other=20
geographies=D5 sensibilities. The planetary framing and the national=20
motivations invested in the biennial format is too big for me. I am not=20=

clever enough to conceive the content offered within this scale.=20
Although I personally lack proper social skills, I cannot abandon the=20
comfort of a modest and human-scale relation to cultural products and=20
artists. I find it hard for any critical voice to deliver its political=20=

message through the biennial format. A number of people who cannot=20
escape to commit to this format are aware of this problem and they are=20=

trying to decrease the number of attending artists gradually and to=20
intensify their and the artists=D5 engagement with the location of the=20=

biennials with residence programmes and sustained research schemes.

NM: You have critiqued elsewhere the so-called =D2miracle of Istanbul=D3;=20=

that is, Istanbul's city branding, which heralds the beauty of the city=20=

and its bridging between East and West, but does not really deal with=20
the city=D5s problems. How do you judge previous, but in particular this=20=

current biennial, within that respect?
EK: This criticism was about the general ideology of the Biennial and=20
not the local practice. The biennials between 1997 and 2003 have=20
applied to a certain sense aestheticism and psychologism and made use=20
of concepts like beauty, pathos, poesis and so on. Yet, the last two=20
Biennials have been a return from the sentimentalisation politics of=20
Istanbul. You can debate about the quality of these two exhibitions,=20
you might compare them; but there is an obvious willingness to engage=20
with the contemporary urban problematics of the city. It is also=20
strange to observe that aestheticism and psychologism has recently been=20=

adopted by the local scene, mainly promoted by the emerging art=20
institutions and commercial galleries ,whereas the Biennial pursued a=20
turn towards politicisation. About the current biennial=C9 Although it=20=

has been rightly criticised because of the curator=D5s problematic use =
political terminology (optimism, global war, world factory and so on),=20=

I think it managed to address the heated local and actual agenda of the=20=

country. The IM=82 section unfortunately failed to benefit from the rich=20=

social surrounding =D0 a more direct engagement with the building and =
neighbourhood could have strengthened Hanru=D5s scenario.

NM: How would you describe artistic production outside Istanbul?=20
Diyarbakir for example?
EK:Istanbul will remain the big giant who sucks all the energy around=20
it. This is the nature of the city, it has been the capital of three=20
successive empires for more than a millennia. The republican modernism=20=

and =D4the project of Ankara=D5 could not challenge this. With the full=20=

integration into neo-liberal economics Istanbul became even more=20
thirsty for innovative energy. So whatever comes up in the country, it=20=

is called into the =D4Polis=D5. Izmir and Diyarbakir are two cities =
managed to produce a discursive togetherness among the local artists.=20
Izmir had a more aesthetic, conceptualist and epistemological approach=20=

,whereas Diyarbakir was unsurprisingly more identitarian and humorous.=20=

K2, the independent art space in Izmir has performed until now quite=20
remarkably =D0 yet, they have a problem in producing their audience. =
might decelerate the motivations of the young artist-organisers.=20
Diyarbak=F5r was genuinely a miracle. Young people, who saw contemporary=20=

art as a vehicle of loudly expressing their traumas, isolation and=20
criticism, created a scene from nothing, with the most minimal=20
resources. Yet, I don=D5t know how they are going to transcend the=20
initial phase of this discursive togetherness. The social problems of=20
the repression remains unchanged and you cannot speak about the same=20
thing with the same media forever. The scene needs a vitalisation and=20
juvenescence. We will see whether the younger generation will have the=20=

same ambition about contemporary art as their predecessors. Everything=20=

is so bound to the general political atmosphere in the region.

NM: How do you look back at Leaps of Faith [1], 2,5 years after its=20
realisation. Do you feel that somehow you were able to transcend=20
discourses (and gazes) of territorial division and nationalism and=20
offer a different lens. Would you tackle the project the same way=20
EK: If I could turn back and had a more control of things I would=20
emphasize the modesty of the project from the start. At some point we=20
stressed the fact that it was the first international contemporary art=20=

exhibition of its scale on the island, so that an unnecessarily high=20
expectation was invested into the project by the local scenes, which at=20=

the end caused some tensions. But generally I am personally very=20
satisfied by this adventurous experience. We had extremely limited=20
resources: no support from any local official institution (which would=20=

actually collapse the psychological legitimacy of the project); no=20
infrastructure other than an empty flat, two laptops and mobile phones.=20=

And in these conditions, I think the curatorial and production team=20
gave its best. There was criticism from the start that actually could=20
be addressed to any site-specific art project: that we should have=20
afforded more to have a stronger contact with the local scenes and that=20=

our project was opportunistically exploiting the traumatic scenery in=20
the divided city. We could have managed to get more contact with the=20
Greek Cypriot side (which was a quite difficult thing, since they were=20=

suspicious about the nature of this artistic project initiated by a=20
Turkish Cypriot, which was unusual) and to motivate the Turkish Cypriot=20=

students to be included in parallel events and panels if we had more=20
time and energy. But in terms of art works I don=D5t think there was any=20=

hint of arrogance and patronisation of the external gaze. Of course=20
some participations failed to deliver to offer an insightful=20
interpretation. And local artists came up with more touching projects.=20=

I think it was a valuable experience in bringing people together in=20
this frame. I think it made a small contribution to enhancing=20
interaction between multiple sides and to establish a platform critical=20=

to the multiple versions of nationalism and ethnocracy. If the=20
education programme of the Manifesta 6,was held without any obstacles=20
this dialogue would have progressed further. I wish I could have the=20
personal resources to continue to work with the artists I met.

NM: You have mentioned elsewhere that radical critique and guerrilla=20
art have become absorbed by the large art institutions in Istanbul,=20
hence depoliticising them. Yet at the same time you have also expressed=20=

that moments of crisis open up possibilities (as was the case for the=20
momentum after Hrant Dink=D5s assassination and group 19 January). How =
you position yourself as a curator, critic and activist within these=20
dynamics=C9and what is to be done?
EK: The assassination of Dink was the deepest shock for the=20
intelligentsia. People felt like the most precious and fragile among=20
the community was brutally snatched off. The initial anger motivated=20
small initiatives to emerge. Group 19 January, which consists from=20
people from the art scene, was one of them. But we don=D5t talk about it=20=

publicly. The only thing I can say is that the initial sense of=20
solidarity and ambition is unfortunately lost. We are going to see what=20=

we can do in the future with the current group. New energies have=20
emerged and they need to cohere into each other, discursively and=20
humanely. As I mentioned before, there is an urgent need to differ from=20=

the recently landed huge mainstream art machinery and strengthen the=20
emerging independent platforms and affinity groups.

I am not sure whether I can pass as a curator or an activist=C9 But, =
I have tried to do so far is to reinforce and facilitate the links=20
between politically engaged art and radical politics. There are too=20
many things to be done: texts to be read and written, interviews to be=20=

done, discussions to be held, connections to establish, exhibitions and=20=

events to organise, for all those who retain the creed in possible=20
interaction between cultural practice, social change and personal=20
differentiation. I personally have to leave the laziness, inertia and=20
melancholic mood, get some formalities done, contribute to forthcoming=20=

collective projects and work, work, work=C9

[1] Leaps of Faith, curated by Erden Kosova and Katherina Gregos,=20
13.05.05-29.05.05 (Nicosia) was an international exhibition and=20
multi-disciplinary arts project marking the first time in 30 years that=20=

a part of the UN controlled Green Line (buffer zone) dividing the=20
island is opened up for use in an international event. The project=20
aimed to animate and activate public spaces, buildings and sites in the=20=

divided city of Nicosia and the war-ravaged Green Line, partitioning=20
the capital of Cyprus, through an international public arts event.

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