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We should learn through the dance.

Elmas Deniz »

Today my boyfriend showed me a video — which he found out about from an interview with Julian Assange and Google CEO Eric Schmidt [1] — directed in 1971 by Robert Alan Weiss for the Department of Chemistry of Stanford University. An epic about protein synthesis, where you can see a hundred hippie students making music, dancing in order to represent a biological event. Assange’s argument is that realizing the same type of performance as an education method would not be possible today in Stanford, because of conservatism—mainly changing the interests with a shift that occurred in the late 70s when money-making became the preliminary aim. He says: “That those people who were altruistic and not too concerned about finances and fiscalization simply lost power relative to those people who were more concerned about finances and fiscalization and worked their way up in the system. So certain behaviors were disincentivized and others were potentiated.”

A friend of mine said to me recently: “I don’t read books with ease anymore, I read them in an opportunistic fashion—I think about if it is going to be useful to me, what can I extract from it, if I can use it somewhere.”

Art was not a profession back then and it is a very appealing one now.

Neo-liberal capitalism is deeply felt in all domains of life. Artists are the people who are trying to resist those sets of normalizations and reflect it in their artistic production (as content, themes etc.) It falls true, but as a (social) ”culture” it seems to me that art culture goes with the same PR- flow. As an artist who mostly worked (and was interested in) self-organized bodies, that inner-socio-culture is important because this creates true dynamics, gives things shape, provides fertile ground and becomes a nameless quality. Therefore I don’t see a problem with speaking from that perspective — some with style homemade quasi-anthropology. (How is the relation between us? The mode of production, positions of artists, manners.) The rest can be told by historians, academicians anyway.

Hüseyin Bahri Alptekin was visiting Izmir where I was living at that time. It was 2000—he was haunted by his bunker project and monuments with the horses. Together, we went to make photos in one of the squares of Izmir. I was an enthusiast, who wanted to do something in the city with very little knowledge of what was going on in the art world. These were the years when the Artists‘ journal was flourishing and a couple of RG (Resmi Görüş) [2] was published and they both were the unique available sources in Izmir. “Platform CAC“ was at its first or second year. Hüseyin immediately became my hero and he was representing all the qualities of a thinker-initiator-agent-great artist. An artist who is deeply engaged with life thinking about the circumstances around, who wasn’t passive. We talked for a while back then; his advice was different than the advice the young artist would get from their circles today. He later invited a group of artists from Izmir to include us in B-Fact: Back Sea/ Baltic Sea/ Barents Sea [3] Exhibition which he organized in Istanbul. Also I participated in Under the Beach: The Pavement Exhibition [4] curated by Vasıf Kortun and Halil Altındere, also in the same year, 2002. I don’t remember which one was earlier but this is how I entered “the thing.”

In the 1990s, “contemporary art” from Turkey was an alternative despite the lack of a mainstream to oppose. That missing mainstream was available in developed countries and in places where monetary capital was strong and which had an art tradition and a basic infrastructure. So mainly, as a geographical alternative (also historically), Turkey was to be considered an extension of Europe; the West invented others in those years — Eastern Europe. Art from Turkey immediately gained international, very high quality interest indeed — not from all, however, but only a group of art professionals, who were doing amazing things, critical thinkers who were interested in the alternative modes. Therefore the inclusion of art from Turkey into the international circulation occurred through a couple of interesting discourses — political art: the fight with the local state apparatus, identity politics based on an anti-national alliance (all maybe with a slight exoticism by their nature). In addition, initiatives, collaborations were dominant, epidemic in those times. Then, in the upcoming years, many exhibitions that claimed to be ”international” presented at least one artist based in Turkey.

Video Still from “Protein synthesis: an epic on the cellular level”, directed by Allan Weiss, Stanford University

Also, the absence of the capital-galleries-collectors-art fairs was making art production a very compelling (economical) alternative by default. Artists were generating discourses alongside with a few curators, a few writers. Group exhibitions were common and rarely did solo exhibitions take place. As an advantage of a little circle, there was a strong connection among the artists and a common ground for discussions: mainly about exoticization, the issue of otherness, the representational crisis of West-East, in identity politics mainly the national identity, ethical issues, the opposition to state dominated institutions alongside with other types of production. Artists were more of what I would call ‘biennial independents‘ who liked to exhibit in public institutions.

These are my observations from those years.

It may seem that my approach is a nostalgic one, however, nothing can prevent me from saying something if I see value in it. Even if I risk to sound like good old days — even though I draw from a positive perspective — the situation was not merely positive. It was a single-channeled discourse and it was like a box that everybody had to fit in.

When we navigate to now, jump, mainstream domination happens all over Istanbul both internally and externally—international mainstream arrived in the city and Istanbul generated its own mainstream. The “alternative” component of the 1990s got lost somewhere on the way. The considerably small art circle of the 1990s had left the institutionalized formats (state-history) to create a new discursive field for contemporary art that we were experiencing. For the last couple of years even that channel also became diluted without being scrutinized. This sort of abandoning critical thinking resulted in going to a worst possible direction; – majority – welcomed by a poor ground in terms of artistic discourse.

To note that bright exceptions cannot break the rule, I am trying to make my argument visible and my selection is intentionally not balanced. Besides, I mention all of those as if it was experienced in a strong contrast but all happened gradually for sure.

I continue with the advantage of being in a small group that cannot be possible again. I remember November Paynter was talking about this advantage somewhere. Inner communication was more efficient, information flow was quick and nourishing. This was working out informally without any printed material. However, since the art world has become larger and printed material got frozen in size, this mode of connection was not replaced by publications. While those internal common discussion space has ended, this “hidden collective being” (I call it) turned into divided single – individual star artists. Also it seems to me that people lost their common problems. Because of being part of the international contemporary art culture nowadays, these common issues fall unimportant, national representation, state suppression and identity politics was (forming the discursive channel and this channel was limited to almost the single one mentioned earlier) itself also becoming re-exotic.

Logo of Sea Elephant Travel Agency

Once artists were pioneers and now they are stars or potential stars. Effects of this starization process is felt most in that young generation who does not experience the same transformations, leaving them half-blind. The process seems completely spineless at many points. Through these changes artists enjoyed the comfort of the previously missing infrastructure (large-scale art institutions, better recognition, etc.) international visibility, together with emerging collectors and new galleries, even two art fairs in Istanbul. Suddenly internal discussions of artists was about getting into that art fair or the other, getting into that collection or not; the collective domain turned into the commercial man’s talk. Initiatives lost visibility or lost their radicalisms. Artists were autonomously produced without galleries. The issue of visibility was increasingly in the hands of those parties who had power. Art initiatives, alternative modes of exhibition making seemed forgotten. Indeed, these are not only complaints, but the developments could be truly observed in those years. They might be willing differently but mainly artists in this circumstances continue to produces, as if they ran their businesses (remember the bright exceptions). The Sea Elephant Agency [5] and discussions around this initiative were very interesting but now the focus is mainly on Hüseyin’s pieces in important collections.

Then again I have to note that I compare the major elements, I don’t question their existence or not. You may find very great initiatives, self-organized people, completely opposite visions but they are not the majority.

The increasing homogenization of artistic production and its operation within easily acceptable expected models becomes more enclosing. Decrease in spaces, in which an exceptional production can be presented and discussed, is accompanied by the development of spaces aimed at prestige. These converge with the debility of critique and create a rather problematic sphere. Interestingly enough, in the last few years, we are witnessing the emergence of larger/large-scale and increasingly more elitist art spaces. Although we acknowledge their good intentions, these institutions are also replacing alternative movements, guarding their subjects and hollowing out situations and concepts.

The collapse of the Berlin wall, post-cold war era, introduction of global internet, and Turkey suddenly becoming an emerging economy (previously a 3rd world country). It is expected that there would be a greater transformation. [6]

But what worries me is that the art practices, especially in Istanbul, have been drifting in a considerably different direction since the end of 1990s. It is not easy to speak about or make drastic claims because the taboo of discharging yourself from any critique and a culture that seems to critique but does not really do so, are ingrained. The art movements of the 1990s in Istanbul, which started out as a relative alternative, embraced various modes of resistance and critical structures; these movements are now gravitating in full speed towards the commercial sphere as the economic situation changes. In the sphere of contemporary art, where money was not at stake once, money is now talked about and overrated. This brings along a transformation; the radical maybe marginal disobedient nature of artists is replaced by passivity and ethical ambivalence. We are witnessing how capitalist strategies, especially PR strategies, are settling into the field of art. An increase in the number of galleries in recent years also contributes to the emergence of a generation of artists, who produce within their closed shell; without being interested in resistance, one of the fundamental components of art, and all of this is being normalized with the support of money. This is usually a profile in contradiction with the claims of art, through which the political claims of the art work itself starts to become ridiculous and loses its credibility.

It is necessary to draw attention to the issue of instrumentalization of art. In this web of relations, the artist is not the dominant one. In contrast, the ones with economic power and concern about prestige are in the position of dominance. Instead of going with the flow and adapting to the institution’s conditions, we need to live up to the critique. Whatever its name may be—initiative, art center, gallery—the nature of the knowledge it produces should not instrumentalize art, stay away from elitism and should open up room for participation and diversification in the production and distribution of art. This is the issue and it is impossible under some conditions. Artists themselves have to produce the discourse to overcome those handicaps.

We should learn through the dance.



2. Resmi Görüş, a publication with in total three issues – initiated, edited and many texts written by Vasıf Kortun. It was later transformed into a blog: and

3. 2003: B-Fact: Back Sea/ Baltic Sea/ Barents Sea, initiated by Huseyin Alptekin, Bilgi Atelier 111, Istanbul, Turkey.

4. 2002: Under the Beach: The Pavement, Istanbul Museum of Contemporary Art Project [2001–2004], curated by Halil Altindere-Vasif Kortun, Istanbul, Turkey.

5. Hüseyin B. Alptekin who founded the Sea Elephant Travel Agency as a visual and performing arts laboratorium, focusing on inter-actions of a variety of populations and cultures in the Black Sea Region.

6. The rest of the text is an excerpt from an unpublished interview made for the Muhtelif Journal, Istanbul.

Elmas Deniz

Born in Bergama, she is an İstanbul based artist. Beside her artistic practices she is a writer, and initiator of various artist run initiatives and self-organized structures. Founder of Merkezkaç publications, editor of the Mental Space Series of Sanat Dunyamız journal. She was one of the founders and a project co- director of the K2 Artist Initiative between 2004-2007 in İzmir. She is interested in global power structures, state- control, urbanism, economy and globalization as it is reflected in her organizational as well as artistic practice.

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