Is there such a thing as public space today? Given the decisive battles over public space that have taken place in the twenty-first century alone, this was a timely question posed by the heavily criticized 13th Istanbul Biennial, titled “Mom, Am I Barbarian?” In January 2013, it was announced that the theme of the biennial would pose the public domain as a political forum— a proposition soon engulfed by the politics of the Gezi Park protests, which erupted in May 2013 against the planned redevelopment of the park on Istanbul’s Taksim Square. In response to police brutality, the protests spread throughout Turkey.
In the aftermath of these events, the biennial was forced to rethink its concept. It was soon decided that the biennial would move indoors and, for the most part, into private spaces: Antrepo 3, ARTER, and SALT ( belonging to various Turkish corporate dynasties), as well as the old Galata Greek Primary School and 5533, an independent artist space located in a commercial complex in the old city. In effect, the 13th Istanbul Biennial was pulled into the very zone it was trying to depart from—the private. And so, the question around the efficacy of actual public space as a site for public representation and political debate, posed to frame the work of the 88 artists included in the exhibition, was essentially answered even before the biennial had begun.
But there was more to say. And Hito Steyerl pretty much said it in performance/lecture, Is a Museum a Battlefield? (2013). Produced especially for the exhibition, it framed the museum as an apparatus of security, mapping out the relations between the arts and the military industrial complex through the motif of a single bullet. The violence of the art space— implementing every spectator of any kind of major art show in the grand spectacle of art and war—was mirrored in the 13th Istanbul Biennial itself, which was sponsored in part by Koç Holding, whose subsidiary Otokar produces military vehicles. Steyerl thus raised an obvious question: do biennials have any political efficacy at as public exhibitions today, given the complex webs of private and public interests in which they are embedded?
Beneath the issue of public space, something else was at stake in the 13th Istanbul Biennial. The Gezi Park protests were sparked by plans to reconstruct the Ottoman Barracks, formerly on the site of Taksim Square and demolished in 1940. Was the public response a rejection of the Turkish government’s apparent desire to revive Ottoman history? It is a revival that, in many ways, goes against the very tenants on which the modern Turkey was founded, since much of Turkey’s Ottoman heritage was dismissed when the republic was established in 1922. Could it then be surmised that, in the battle for public space, there lies a deeper fight both against and for a national identity? Perhaps this is why Volkan Aslan—alongside such works as Burak Arikan’s Networks of Dispossession / Mülksüzleştirme Ağları, a collective data compiling and mapping project on the relations of capital and power within urban transformation initiated at Gezi Park—chose to intervene in the attic of Galata Greek Primary School with a simple gesture. He installed a flaccid neon rendition of the Olympic rings, hung limply from the ceiling. The work, as subtle as it was, moved away from the arguments around public space within the context of aggressive state redevelopment ruminated on in this biennial. Rather, Aslan’s work alluded to a much larger failure: that of the concept of the “nation” as framed within a united, international global community bound by common and arguably “public” ideals, which have since proven ineffective in what is becoming an incredibly volatile and unpredictable twenty-first century.
There is an irony to this suggestion of a certain failure of the state when it comes to thinking about the “public” and how it is represented, one that complicates the mapping of space presented at the 13th Istanbul Biennial. That the entire exhibition, which unfolded in private spaces, was open to the public for free for the first time in the biennial’s history further complicated the definition of the public domain. Public space here was a product of private support. Enter Stephan Willats, whose selection of early works from the 1960s and 70s at ARTER comprised a series of diagrams, charts and graphs that explored the notion of civic engagement. In a series of texts grouped under the headings of “Art and Cognition,” “Life Support Systems,” and “Control,” Willats explored various life systems, describing the restricted and hierarchical behavioral conditions produced within a machine-age culture while highlighting the potential of net systems for greater equilibrium between needs, behaviors, and structures. In his reading, the notion of public space is altogether dismissed in the context of the complex ecosystem of relations that produce social conditions, which is something that is important to consider when acknowledging the 13th Istanbul Biennial as a collaborative effort between private funders, corporate sponsors, and a whole constellation of artists, curators, volunteers, and other agents. In this context, “public” is more a product of civil society’s networks than physical— or even “official”—demarcation.
In reflection of this, other works at ARTER sought ways to think about the public domain as a product of interrelation, including Angelica Mesiti’s Citizen’s Band (2012) (one of a few works presented in Istanbul that was also on display in the recent Sharjah Biennial), in which four films present four migrant musicians performing in different public spaces: a swimming pool, a train, a taxi, and a street corner. Maider López’s Ataskoa (Traffic Jam) (2005) is a documentation of a staged traffic jam on Mount Aralar in Spain, in which people were invited to essentially jam together through public announcements made via newspapers, radio, flyers, and posters. Some 160 cars containing 425 people turned up, each distributed by color along the road upon arrival. Lunch was organized and a film was made of the day, giving the event the feeling of a Sunday outing, or a country fair. In Ataskoa, as in Citizen’s Band, we find the same kind of insistence on collective action that is invoked in Héctor Zamora’s live performance Material Inconstancy (2012), a continuous loop of 35 brick-layers throwing bricks to one another from various piles stacked in and around the hall of Mimar Sinan University as they chant poetry. In both works, a proposal for alternative forms of collective consciousness and collective action is clearly stated. The public domain is nothing without the networks, negotiations and cooperation that produce and define it.
Nevertheless, at the 13th Istanbul Biennial there was a palpable sense of loss for public space, particularly given the fact that the only independent artist space included in the exhibition, 5533, presented the ongoing work of Maxime Hourani—who produced, along with a number of cultural practitioners, a book of protest songs against the transformation of peripheral areas in Istanbul. The project—along with the title of the biennial, drawn from a book by Turkish poet Lâle Müldür—recalls Marc Nichanian’s claim that the poet or the artist is a mourner and both poetry and art acts of mourning. And yet, though we might well mourn the loss of a certain idea of public space today, what the 13th Istanbul Biennial presented was ultimately not a proposal for public space but a move towards defining—or at least engendering—civic space. Whether intentional or not, such a proposal should be commended, not criticized, given that it filled the gap of a notion of public space that perhaps simply doesn’t work today.