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Open Systems: “In Conversation with Gülsen Bal”

Costanza Meli »

The following interview is the result and synthesis of an exchange – started in 2009 – between the Succoacido Magazine and Gulsen Bal, curator and contemporary art theorist and also founder of the non-profit art space “Open Space” in Vienna. The Open Space project was created with the intention of establishing a landmark for research and experimentation of cooperation strategies among artistic practices, and to promote international exchanges implementing a critical approach towards cultural and territorial identity issues through a constant dialectic between geographies imagined and experienced. From the very first interview to the present the Viennese project has expanded into an open platform for debate and discussion between different artistic approaches and points of view. Open Systems is configured as a new operational structure agglomerating knowledges and competences in a pluralistic perspective. We wanted to delve into the most prominent aspects of such research, so we sat down and caught up with Gulsen Bal about the most recent productions and events in the pipeline.

SA: What is Open Space? When did you found it?

GB: To answer this question I have to address certain issues that are related to having an understanding on a different kind of creative journey in its mode of production. This maintains its reflection of culturally specific conditions that focuses on making invisible “visible” by attempting to enforce a structure of positions or positionality which exposes the unclearness of the situation. This is what makes it possible to identify some specific and determining characteristics that compile different practices taking place at Open Space. The idea came about in mid-2007 with an urge how to build and create interconnected routes concerned with European space as well as building a cross border dialogues within its multi layered constituents. The initiation led by me intends to bring diverse creative practices together as well as creating a real and virtual collaborative forum and opening spaces to encourage exchange and joint projects with aiming to explore the future, generating new ideas and implementing them in a collaborative effort to improve trans-national networks as well as creating a network of networks, a zone of communicative transfer in a particular socio-cultural setting. 
The designation of “one always searches for some symbolic point from which one can claim that something ended and something else began” maintains real life case studies and reveals how cultural specific conditions in and/or afar its trans-locality. This sets new kinds of creative connections around the boundaries of ‘New Europe’ in motion. In this manner, the issue commenced here introduces an experimental dynamic that defines the space of current relations to be problematized. This formulates the special attributes of Open Space that rest in its input towards the “production of subject” on the basis of improving new approaches with its visual arts and educational programme that designate an inter-relationship between production of creative practice and divergent lines of encounters. 

SA: I know that your first exhibition project at Open Space, “Temporary Zones,” with artists like Ergin Çavuşoğlu, Nada Prlja, Peter Mörtenböck and Helge Mooshammer, was a strong and important event concerning the potential of a project space to state the role of independent artistic research in face of economic and institutional contexts. Could you confirm this?

GB: In fact, we opened our doors with “Temporary Zones” in the first week of January 2008. This project offers a space for the exploration of current relations of and in predicated conflicts and in negotiation within cultural specific conditions. In pointing out the space of current relations, the scope of the project allows an engagement of a space that identifies the transitional conditions and globalised flows where the temporal construct seemingly erases all its secrets and ambiguities. In a passage of an unstable world, this hunts for a moment of urgency in the insistence of a dissonant power of the role of independent artistic research towards the economic and institutional context.

SA: You say that Open Space “aims to create a facility for contemporary creative practices concerned with contributing a model strategy for cross-border and interregional projects on the basis of improving new approaches with its visual arts and educational programme”. That’s a difficult project. How is this concept linked to practical aspects of your work?

GB: I certainly agree… this is not an easy task at all.
I aim to put across different creative productions in each individual project which is engaged with a continual research on contemporary art looking for new outlines of the possible practices. Each project remains as accountable for a new discourse to be discussed. 
Unlike other small or major institutes in Vienna, Open Space offers a place for exploration of the space of current relations associated with a generative process of a transitory characteristic. Mindful of these issues and current conditions in art; works that have been presented at Open Space keep the form of multi/trans-disciplinary configurations from installation, video, performance to an online platform: Internet-based works. This helps to identify some specific and determining characteristics that shape a project-specificity within multi-directional models that behave “rhizomatically.” And this begins with beginning from beginning. 

SA: How could it be possible for transgressive – social and artistic – practices to coexist with great cultural strategies in this moment of global crises?

GB: I certainly think that this is one of the issues that are worth pondering. This also reveals itself to be true where everything progresses towards the transformations of “demographic politics” and a politicisation of life.

SA: Open Space has been characterized since its birth as an operating system directed to bring diverse creative practices together and to creating real and/or virtual collaborative forums and opening spaces to encourage joint projects. What is Open Systems today? And what changes have you made to the curatorial line and outline proposal since 2010?

GB: The Open Space programme with its three successful years of highly acclaimed international exhibitions and events were laboratory environment derived from contemporary creative practices to discourses of intercultural dialogue and competence through our visual arts and educational programme. At the location of emergence, we have presented a self-contained situation each year: Open Space – Mapping Contemporary Creative Practice (Prog. 2008); Open Space – What is Possible in Creative Practice (Prog. 2009); Open Space – What is Possible in the Political Potentiality (Prog. 2010). We also produced a yearbook for each year, which not only covers the projects that have been presented but also includes additional critical/theoretical essays to provide a different if not better understanding of an essential geopolitical stand, in which a political position and a certain creative/artistic agenda offer new potentials. In addition, Stadt Wien – Kulturabteilung MA 7 gave us an award which is organised within the scope of bestowing the distinguished delivery of the programmes among the Viennese galleries. In recognition of the accomplishments of its activity and demonstrating considerable commitment to contemporary art, the jury members have decided to grant a premium award to Open Space in November 2010. This engagement emerges with the production of encounters from elsewhere, bringing together different forms of thought. I as the initiator and founding director have decided to engage in a shift of the overarching structures at a turning point when the establishment functioned as Open Space, Open Systems in January 2011. And that was the first time when we released an ‘open call‘ in pursuing these transformative connections towards our 2012 year programme. We really entered the realm of OPEN then leading to pluralistic approaches. A subsequent transitory year period followed with the 2011 programme, while the initiation then functioned as Open Systems with the active involvement of advisory board members from 2012 onwards… the advisory board comprised Susanne Lummerding, Elisabeth Mayerhofer, Suzana Milevska, Helge Mooshammer, Peter Mörtenböck, Nada Prlja and Walter Seidl.

State of Transit
Esra Ersen - Hello! Where Is It?

State of Transit
Mario Rizzi - impermanent

Mapping Mobilities
general view

It is in the cany
Christine Schörkhuber - speaking walls

It is in the can
Sanja Ivecovic - Nova Zvijezda (New Star)

SA: How far do you think your project of networking will take you and Open Systems?

GB: Well... “this identifies a specific conjunction of the new outlines of the possible where ‘nowhere’ meets with the settled map through multiple entrances and exits,” as I have mentioned it somewhere...

SA: What question do you pose, what kinds of issues do you consider in your approach to the theme of cultural identity? Does the so-called collective memory cross cultural boundaries? In which way? I’m thinking for example of the recent project such as “State of Transit” and “Mapping Mobilities” that took place at Open Systems.

GB: “A ‘map’, or a ‘diagram’ is a set of various interacting lines” constituting spatial metaphors at a locus of situations and events. Subjectivity exists as a territory and it engenders itself through multiple connections by mapping both psychical and the social locations when engaged in multiple networks of production. There is a discernible approach towards the concept of sovereignty that supports the current political construction in terms of bio-politics, especially about the transformations of "demographic politics” and the politicisation of life. A particular element of encounter, which unfolds a proliferation not just of the forms but of the modalities within creative practice, brings the moments of rupture into “existential territories.” The space of current relations is thus the space affected by an immanent reification. Its vital or critical importance to this analysis is the processes of the engagement of the production of subject. Nevertheless, this seems unattainable; an uncertain transition "can be defined [as] a territory capable of moving, not confined by geographical, national and cultural borders; [but] a territory realizing its own notional space.” Yet it is worth dwelling upon a related thread to identify the cultural objects. Conceptual wise "State of Transit”, a project that we hosted right before "Mapping Mobilities,” focused on the sad events of colonisation and the ensuing decolonisation processes in which territorial disputes and political conflicts give rise to the enormous contradictions embodied by the Mediterranean Sea. The curatorial team of the project, Frida Carazzato & Maria Garzia, were calling into question both personal and collective identities; as they both believe that history plays a crucial role in the affirmation of the Mediterranean character. We had five artistic positions; barbaragurrieri/group, Taysir Batniji, Esra Ersen, Mario Rizzi and Zineb Sedira who – based on the state of transit that has always characterised the region in question – have dedicated part of their research to the Mediterranean area and its dynamics of mobility. In “Mapping Mobilities,” the project curator Christine Takengny invited Michael Hieslmair / Michael Zinganel, Gulnara Kasmaieva / Muratbek Djumaliev and Esther Polak / Ivar van Bekkum. The exhibition presented new and experimental approaches to explore questions around mobility, displacement and migration. This reinforces the transitory space that determines the routes taken per se, while she was more interested in how globalisation has dramatically changed our experience of space. This is also where the static, two-dimensional map no longer adequately reflects the constantly shifting world we live in and the global networks that migratory experience produces.

SA: I’d like to talk about one of the latest projects you curated at Open Systems, “It’s in the ‘can’”. You have chosen a very complex subject and basic at the same time: the critical potential of contemporary art, investigating the concept of power as expressed in the “can”. May you define that problematic space “where the question of the political opens up within the creative practice”?

GB: I am very glad that you bring this up. At this point, culture, in the sense of practices that represent ways of being, also generates forces of resistance to homogenization. Strategically, the project was formulated by what engages culture’s own account of its affirmation of the specific and the local, the limited and the situated, as a source for proliferation. For example, Sanja Iveković’s mixed media work Nova Zvijezda deals with the collective social codes of symbolic and real representations onto the surface. This is linked with another question: what forms the counter-strategies to globalised forces towards the excessive decline of the boundaries between geopolitical and economic conditions in which we place the new artistic capacities? And that frame, the place where one takes a stand, reflects the critical questioning when one considers her practice “as deeply politically committed and historically relevant then as now.” Here I feel obliged to say that this particular work had been shown in Vienna for the first time, thanks to Kontakt, the Art Collection of Erste Group and ERSTE Foundation. Yet Christine Schörkhuber intends to reflect politics, social structure, culture and the way of living in contemporary Hungary in her speaking walls of Budapest installation. However, Kamen Stoyanov in Guys, this is not LA, but it is a cool place too! allows us to engage of a space that identifies the transitional conditions and the flows where the present geopolitics as well as cultural shifts are found as profound and evident in today’s factual daily life. Hollow Land is an art project that the Macedonian artist Yane Calovski developed during his first stay on IJburg. Caught in a moment of flux, identified still with unfinished and suspended structures, IJburg is a location that could easily be appropriated as a film set where the entire production could happen without disturbing the ‘normality’ of the already existing life. The subject touches upon the possibilities of provoking a self-reflective response as introduced in Heba Amin’s video work. This experimental video work Voices from the Revolution presents selected speak2Tweet messages prior to the fall of the Mubarak regime on February 11, 2011, and juxtaposes them with the abandoned structures that represent the long-lasting effects of a corrupt dictatorship. It attempts to depict the harsh reality of the physical state of the city and addresses the role that the urban infrastructure plays in instigating unrest amongst its inhabitants. In this stance, the critical moments of a plurality of questions become countenance, where the question of the political opens up within the creative practice. This signals, for me, the possibility of a new type of politics centred in the question of what is in the ‘can.’

SA: What about the role of cultural institutions in the Open Systems projects?

GB: Above analysis leads to the construction of new concepts in creative processes, which are always an open space or a multiplicity of planes within differential structures. And we are still keeping the unquiet position that has been built upon what formulated the special attributes of Open Space in the midst of a mirror disposition. This articulates how these fields of critical inquiry are interrelated and as a result can be used to produce art practices in spaces of production. It is within this context that our mission is found, in which the practice becomes a mode of distributing and activating ideas and challenges under given circumstances.

This interview was initially published in SUCCOACIDO MAGAZINE, a bi-monthly Contemporary Art Magazine, Palermo (Italy), Issue #20 – September / October 2012.

Costanza Meli

Costanza Meli is an art historian, independent curator, author and publisher. Since 2004 she has been cunducting, with Barbara D’Ambrosio, the project on contemporary art and territorial culture of the area, progetto Isole, in the towns of Isola delle Femmine and Piana degli Albanesi, in the province of Palermo (Sicily) creating residency programs for contemporary artists and a project of public and participated interventions. Since 2007 she has been the president of the cultural association Isole. Between 2004 and 2009 she has contributed with texts to many catalogues and monographic books about Italian artists, public art issues. As a publisher she is currently a founding member of the publishing house Edizioni De Dieux, with Marc De Dieux, for which she is responsible for the series Quaderni d'arte, monographs on Italian and European contemporary artists, and for the art section of the SuccoAcido magazine.

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