Question: Charles, you recently stated in Frieze that the most interesting thing about the present boost of new “non-western” biennials, is the fact that the latest ones (Kwangju, Havana, Tirana, Johannesburg) present a new tendency: a relative distance from a purely commercial system and an engagement with local political conditions. Is that what you both strive for in the Istanbul Biennial too? How is this put into practice?
Charles Esche: I was describing a condition that can be used by artists and curators to create a different space for the work to be seen. In general, I am not sure we want or can really imagine to have a full distance from a ‘purely commercial system’ in the sense that commerce makes things possible that would not be otherwise. Anyway, Istanbul is more integrated than Tirana. Our project is more to emphasise the specific and singular within a work of art by relating it to the time and place where the work is done. In that sense, some of the work in Istanbul will not be so portable and easily consumed because it emerges following a residency and therefore out of a specific set of conditions. Those conditions are not only geographic but also about personal identity and economic possibility. What we have tried to do is to frame these conditions in a certain way and then support the response of the artists in whichever direction they went. What comes out may well be sellable and we have nothing against that. It’s just not very interesting for us, except if it brings money into the biennial itself.
Q: What are the main characteristics of this biennial?
CE/VK: Modesty, access, difference and ingenuity. The aim is to form a relationship between the Biennial as a whole and as a composition of many works, people, events and perspectives with its lived context and audience of Istanbul. The city should itself be a part of the experience of the biennial in the sense that around half the works are made here and will reference the surrounding environment in different ways. The other half will reference other sites and places in the world, mostly from the regions around Istanbul, from the Balkans to Central Asia and the Middle East.
Q: Much emphasis is given to the fact that you don ́t want to use monumental historical places as exhibition site, but sites that have a more common reference to the everyday and are linked more directly to the urban, economic reality of the city. Next to that you both stated explicitly that in this biennial you prefer to work with site-specific commisions, residencies and educational models, i.e. more intimate forms of exchange which react on the particularities of a place. Is this working model them only solution to meet the demands of being more concerned with a local historical and political context?
CE/VK: There is no solution in art, we are more interested in a proposal for the very specific situation of Istanbul at this time of the radical transformation of the city. In part the reason to disappear the exhibition into the city fabric came as a result of the transformation where spaces of scale that we first selected were absorbed into privatization and such. We realigned the exhibition to slow the speed of the exhibition in relation to the speed of the city, connecting the various sites with passages through the city itself. We also wanted to locate the project outside pure event culture, hoping that some of the initiatives will have longer term resonance. The exhibition presents a departure from its predecessors because it is not indexed to the previous models. For instance, it was important for us to avoid a touristic reading of the city and its relation to contemporary art by avoiding the old Byzantine and Ottoman sites. Istanbul is interesting in that it is both an extremely old European imperial capital and a city that has experienced growth rates in the last 50 years that are unimaginable in the rest of Europe.
Q: You started with selecting artist from the Istanbul area and then worked outwards to Asia, Europe and beyond. Could you explain the mutual relations between artists in your selection? Where there specific selection criteria involved?
CE/VK: The exhibition inevitably builds up along a process of research that shapes itself as scattered parts of a puzzle that comes together as a biennial. It is not only about geography but about building a specific and intimate relation to the city, for the residency artists at first and hopefully for viewers afterwards. The second element of the biennial, the ‘Not-Istanbul’ if you like, are artists whose work reflects a particular and different urban or even rural context, to show what is absent in Istanbul as well as reveal something of what is there by default. The relations between artists come together around these twin poles of Istanbul Not Istanbul, to misquote Rene Daniels but will remain individual responses. Some simple criteria for us were not to have long videos to try and prevent exhibition fatigue, and largely working with artists with whom we had a relationship, rather than try to grab celebrities or create new stars.
Q: How do the artists that you both invited react to the local conditions of Istanbul with their projects? Can you tell already something about some core projections which you regard as most important in the process of the exhibition taking its form?
CE/VK: A number of artists were invited following their own longstanding connections with the city through residency experiences, deep personal interest and research. For example Karl-Heinz Klopf has been visiting Istanbul on and off for years and his extremely site specific proposal reflects this extended period of observation. During the Biennial a number of spotlights will fall on specifically selected broken, uneven, misleading and adapted steps in the hilly area leading from the Bosphorus water-side to Istiklal Caddesi. Under the spots invited street musicians, shoe cleaning boys and street sellers will continue their daytime activities after dark.
Other artists that have spent time in Istanbul include Wael Shawky, Phil Collins, Solmaz Shahbazi and Erik Gongrich, all of whom are making new workbased on their individual experiences. Someone even more familiar with the city, Serkan Ozkaya will reflect on the lack of a continuous art structure in Istanbul that has left its artists and art lovers to rely on reproductions as their only source material. His work, a double height Statue of David painted in gold, will stand on a roundabout in Beyoglu a marker of his own desire to see this sculpture in the flesh and to make it available to others.
An equal proportion of artists have been invited to present work that deals with very different urban and rural situations. Together these two approaches will create a dialectic from which the reality of Istanbul as a lived experience will emerge.
Q: This is the first time the Istanbul Biennial is being organized under the direction of two artistic directors, which by accident corresponds with the dual direction of the Venice Biennial by Maria de Corral and Rosa Martinez. They each made separate exhibitions, is this going to be the case too at the Istanbul Biennial? Or to put it in other words, how is your collaboration being put into practice? Do you have different responsibilities?
CE/VK: We worked with the assistant curators Esra Sarigedik and November Paynter, in an organic manner, and the hierarchies dissolved along the way. The two of us have known each other for longer than the biennial and we share certain interests and confidences that would probably be essential to working like this. It’s important to remember that the selection process is but only one of the many aspects of organising the exhibition. We test each other’s decisions, choices and preferences at all stages and seek to strengthen them through discussion. Any collective action of course implies degree of compromise but the project itself is not compromised because there are some fundamental agreements. Ours was not a conflictual or selfish process, or a territorial one. That one of us is positioned in Istanbul helps a lot.