Following is the second half an interview Elizabeth Wolfson conducted with Vasif Kortun. Read part one here. — Ed.
Perhaps more than any other individual, Vasıf Kortun has redirected the trajectory of recent Turkish art history. As Chief Curator and Director of the 3rd Istanbul Biennial in 1992, Kortun completely changed the spirit of the event, shifting its focus from a national to an international one. By inviting artists from around the world to participate, Kortun facilitated the introduction of a great number of foreign artists to Turkey and of Turkish artists to the international community.
In addition to his groundbreaking curatorial work both within Turkey and abroad, he is also the founder and director of several contemporary art spaces in Istanbul that provided unprecedented research and exhibition resources to the Turkish art community and nurtured an entire generation of artists. This work began with ICAP Istanbul Contemporary Art Project (1998-2000) but was primarily conducted in the two institutions he opened in 2001, Proje4L Istanbul Contemporary Art Museum and the Platform Garanti Contemporary Art Center. In 2007, Kortun began work on a new, even larger institution, scheduled to open this April, whose details he discusses in this interview, continued from Part I.
Elizabeth Wolfson: So obviously these archives, your library, are a very important part of the work of this institution.
Vasıf Kortun: It sits at the core of what we do.
EW: Where do you think the impulse to devote so much of your resources to these types of activities comes from?
VK: Well I know where it comes from personally—my father was in press distribution, so I grew up coming home to piles of printed materials. In high school we had an amazing library at a time when nobody had books in their homes—maybe some people did—or the idea of libraries in a high school was just unthinkable. I was a horrible student, but I spent most of my time in the library. And that was just great.
The lack of databases in Turkey, the lack of networked materials, it leads to the kinds of mistakes that I made as well. When I was starting out I thought “Oh I’m the first this, I’m the first that,” this kind of youthful arrogance, is actually the result of this erasure. You can do this because no one’s contesting you. Three dictatorships, three coups d’etat…. It makes it easy to make mistakes.
EW: Because with each regime change, erasure takes place.
VK: A very serious one, each time. So all of these things combined, I don’t know, from the early 1990s I really wanted to have a space in Istanbul where I could have a library. These days it’s not as critical, because the library is not a space anymore.
One of my colleagues and I were just in Amsterdam last week. On our last day in town, we went to the new Amsterdam public library. It has something like five hundred computers, there’s at least a hundred computers on each level. But you’re also surrounded by books. We’ve looked at a lot of different libraries to see what they’re about and saw new library standards. Libraries as user-centric as opposed to institution-centric, libraries as places of production as well as… everything. I like the kind of diversity of experiences that the library offers. It’s always been there, actually. The homeless go there. The doors are open, you can go in, you work, you do all kinds of things. I like the idea of the library as a social space. I’m really keen on pushing this kind of experience. But it’s also a reaction to this other kind of library. We actually have very good libraries in this city. They’re kind of distributed you know, one here, one there. There’s no central database on which you can access all of the collection, so that’s a problem. But it feels as if libraries don’t like you.
The other thing is that in 1977, with some of my friends, we did a backpacking trip through Europe. We were kids, just out of high school. The second place we ended up was Paris. It was the first summer of the Centre Pompidou, and seeing the library, when you walk in, and its openness to the public, that was very important.
EW: So access to information, a welcoming environment, public memory, the social aspects of research—this are all center to the work that you’ll be doing.
VK: You’re in a country where the government has been sitting on information for a very long time. They put out lies and they conceal. What about the history of art which was mostly—most of nineteenth century art was Armenian and minority. What about that? Why did professors in the School of Fine Arts in 1909 after the Young Turk Revolution kick them out? All of this is common knowledge. What is this bullshit that we’ve been fed that’s called Turkish art history? There’s a lot of stuff that has to be unpacked. From today was well as the past. Right now artistic production is in overdrive, and you have artists that are extremely hungry, and intellectual capital that is extremely weak. And there are no institutions that can arbitrate this imbalance between what is offered and what is desired. And I don’t know if a balance is exactly desirable either. But let’s get the information and unpack it first, make it available for research.
EW: So in addition to the exhibitions that will be organized around the archives, what other exhibitions do you have planned?
VK: Well first, we have Hüseyin Alptekin, we’re doing a non-chronological retrospective, with a book and all of those things. That will be up for three months. Then we will have the Ars Viva Preis exhibition, with new commissions from artists that live in Germany; that will be up for five weeks.
After Ars Viva, we start this new project series, provisionally titled Modern Essays, which is going to be… God knows how long it will go. It will be a series of one person projects that addresses modernism in Turkey. So that will go on for a long time, and then we will probably turn that into a book or some kind of publication.
It will start with Ahmet Ögüt, a great artist… He has this piece, of a Fiat 131 stuck on a hill. This used to be the ultimate emerging middle class car—the Italians had it, the Turks had it, the Spanish had it, the Russians had a copy of it called the Lada. You could stuff lots of children into it. So that’s it. And it’s stretched, like a limo.
Then we’ll have Gülsün Karamustafa’s piece from the show she did in Vienna last year. About the Village Institutes. About this woman architect [Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky] who worked in the Turkish Villiage Institutes, making prototypes of buildings for kids. Who had run away from persecution in Germany [during World War II]. So it has an interesting story of imported modernisms.
And then in September, we have Becoming Istanbul. It is a database of Istanbul that is nonrepresentational. It compiles a huge amount of data, about four or five years of research. Thousands of pages of newspaper, cartoons, films, videos, artist works. But it only works with key words, for example “fear.” And the first leads to another search, it opens these doors very quickly…That’s supported with Burak Arıkan’s situational mapping of the audience’s use.
So it’s going to be a kind of very busy, dense atmosphere. And then we’ll have an exhibition called Scramble For the Past, which is the history of archaeology from 1752—let’s say from the founding of the Louvre, to the founding of the National Museum in Turkey, in 1914, approximately. Which kind of fits archaeology between these two periods, because most of the archaeology in those days was done in Ottoman lands of that time. Regardless to—Egypt, Greece, all of those places. So it’s a reconsideration of how it started, hunters and gatherers, the whole process. And that’s supported by the work of Michael Rakowitz and Mark Dion, with exhibition design by Céline Condorelli.
EW: Obviously there’s an extremely diverse range of topics that this new institution is concerning itself with.
VK: It’s not a medium-based institution. It’s not chronologically limited, it shouldn’t be. Its position is always contemporary, that’s its focus. It is concerned with questions of today by asking questions to history.
EW: Are there any already existing institutions that you see doing this kind of work?
VK: We’re always looking at many different places and it’s a hodge-podge of things we like that you try to transform into your context. This is how we learn, from other institutions. But not all of those institutions are necessarily art institutions.
EW: Are there any particular examples that stand out for you?
VK: Well, I’ve been really fascinated by this new science museum in London, for example, I forget the name. Every day there would be a talk, by a researcher, in the institution. They would give a talk to a very small group of people on something very esoteric that they were working on. But they had to relate that to the context of the people they were talking to. That’s, like, genius. I’m super interested in something like that. I want to have something that all of a sudden just happens in an hour, instead of a premeditated thing, looking in the newspaper… These kinds of chance encounters, we’re trying to build these into the new institution.
Another important thing is to be as agile as possible, in the sense that we never program more than two years ahead. So it can always be fresh and fast. And also how we work with the public. Do you learn from a shopping center, or do you learn from another kind of place. If you learn from a shopping center, what part of the shopping center is interesting for you? What is wrong with the space, what is right about it? And then there has to be part of the institution that’s almost completely opaque to the outside. It has to be protected from the public, the public domain. That’s the place where you can actually think and deduce. We have to provide safety zones for artists and researchers, actually.
EW: What kinds of public programs will the new institution run? I haven’t seen a lot of programming activities in Turkish art institutions thus far.
VK: No, you’re right. Between 2001 and 2007 we carried this city. We must have had 140 to 150 lectures. After 2007, when we started working on this new project, which lasted much longer than anyone anticipated, it left a kind of gap. Last year was not too bad because people came [to Istanbul] for this bogus “2010” thing, but people did come and there were good things. No doubt.
We don’t have a huge public programs budget or staff. But we did it on purpose, because we are invested more in research and archiving. But there are certain principles in place. Our people, when we are on the ground, we will have particular kinds of institutional identifiers, so we will be available. We have to be on the floor at all times, in the form of interpreters, and we have to see what’s going on. What are they looking at, what they like, what they don’t like. Because no statistic is going to give you that information.
Also, we are wiring the auditorium so that six hundred people can watch a presentation and we can project from one facility into the other. We’re also installing a system so that people can tweet back to the screen as a presentation is going on. We’ll see how it goes.
Additionally, there’s an idea of institutional hospitality that has been central to the way we’ve worked for many years. Before it was informal. The downside is that it leaves you open to a lot of mistakes. Sometimes they are predictable, which is unacceptable; if they’re not predictable then it’s okay.
EW: Can you explain a little more about this notion of hospitality?
VK: I’m interested in the difference between large and small institutions, and how can we find some kind of integration? How can larger institutions facilitate things for smaller institutions? It could be equipment sharing. It could be that we open our workshop spaces to an institution, or run a workshop on how to be an art institution. The important thing is to help smaller institutions do things that they would not otherwise be able to do because of their situation. Because the middle has fallen off in Istanbul, there is no middle. There are smaller institutions and then there are the big, big institutions.
EW: The world generally, and Turkey’s position within it specifically, has changed dramatically since Platform ended its most visible activities four years ago. What do you think the impact of these changed circumstances will have on the work of the new institution?
VK: It’s too soon to map this out in its complexity, it’s way too soon. We don’t move along with the times; we never did. We’re a forward thinking institution. We would never do a Middle Eastern art exhibition, for example. That would be of no interest to us. Turkish-Armenian happiness, shaking hands, “let’s bond” project. That is not our way of working.
But don’t forget one thing: when we opened Platform, Turkey was going through its biggest economic crisis ever. The dollar was 600 [Turkish Lira]; we work up the next day [and] it became 1500. We opened both Proje4L and Platform in the midst of major economic crisis. Which was really great, because that allowed us to do things at a modest scale, without any glamour, very serious grounded work. No frills.
EW: Is that kind of work still possible to do in today’s context, where Turkey has staged a 180-degree recovery and is considered a sort of economic miracle?
VK: Well that is what we are going to do. It’s still going to be no frills. It’s still a future thinking institution. How far will we go with that? Only time will tell. But I do think there’s still a huge… I mean if I were a member of the public, I would be extremely suspicious of the cultural world in Turkey. It’s banal, it’s shallow, it’s cheap, and it’s in the arms of private companies, even though the companies are not to be blamed for this—the programs are to blame. I have never been to the Contemporary Istanbul art fair, nor would I ever go. I would feel extremely dirty if I were seen there. Because that’s not my community, that’s not what we’re about, that’s not what we want to do. That’s not the kind of discourse we want to engage with. We take very seriously what we do.
In the sense that we believe that there is much more to culture than what’s being put out there, in Turkey, at this moment. In that way I think history’s on our side, because we will provide, our way, a kind of correction to many things. And if this kind of correction works, I think it will also open the way for other institutions to move forward more easily. And that is possible. And I don’t think institutions have anything to gain from competing with each other. We’re trying to create new ways of working with other institutions. What are the ground conditions, can we lay down ethical standards amongst the private institutions? There needs to be a lot of work done on that.
EW: I’d like to read a quote from an interview you did with Serkan Özkaya in 2004, in which you remarked, “Although I cannot make the world a better place, I will not stop from attempting to do so. I am, however, in full consciousness of this missionary position. I doubt I know any other option.” I’m curious to hear your thoughts on the possibilities and limitations for art to affect social change?
VK: Turks, first of all, we are all fascists. It’s so arrogant for me to say something like this. I do believe it on one level, but the arrogance is really remarkable. “I can make the world a better place.” It’s hegemonic. If we think like that, if we try to have that kind of control over things, when we make mistakes, or if we make mistakes out of those convictions, they are often extremely dangerous.
We work in a different way at the moment. I need to curb my appetite for complete control and work as a team. We’ve moved out of [individual] curatorial to a different level; we don’t do curatorial work. Exhibitions are collective labor, thought out, processed, argued, we always do these things around a table. Curatorial work was needed at a particular moment…. How can we collaborate with the public, source from the public in different ways, share with the public? I think we’re going to get there eventually. I think the ideal situation is to have the institution run by researchers.
We do, of course, want to be on the right side of history. There’s no doubt about that. The secularist critic of the other [religious] culture… I find that to be extremely dangerous, this kind of elitist, fascist culture. The other type, this emergent [Islamic] side, is very very boring, conservative in the sense of the boring cultural outlook, of the current [dominant political] party. So there are two different types of audiences that are not touching each other at all, that don’t brush each other. The institutions of a country are a public space. The idea is to get them all together. How can we bring them all together? To make them communicate—that’s the other goal. Where, on what kinds of sites can this be done? How does the museum become the city’s museum, like old friends you go to? We will pack thousands and thousands of people from this street, this is not the problem for us. Our policies are set in such a way to enable access, not disable access, the way most institutions are doing. But still, there are other questions. Because access is not enough.
I always say the door is not here [points at wall], it’s here [points at head]. How do you break that situation? How do you make it different?