On Slippery Ground was written a month (April, 2013) before the now current outbreak of protests, and related events, which are taking place in Istanbul and throughout Turkey—developments that will be covered by forthcoming reports from this desk.
Turkey’s recent history has been nauseatingly unstable but it would not be inaccurate to argue that, over the last decade, its political landscape has been primarily marked by the unexpected success of the AKP – the Justice and Development Party. The articulation between a moderate conservative rhetoric and an unreserved appeal to neo-liberal and pro-EU policies indelibly altered the image of the party cadres heritage as that of Islamic, anti-Western hardliners and paved the way towards the landslide victory in the 2002 election, which was also facilitated by the spectacular collapse of centre-left and centre-right parties, whose successive coalitions had been tarnished by corruption scandals. 1Among numerous cases of proven and unproven corruption, the exponentially expanding personal and familial wealth of Tansu Çiller –the leader of one of the centre-right parties and the first woman Prime Minister of the country (1993-1996) – had been at the core of the debates. In a separate incident, a traffic accident in Susurluk in 1996 triggered another scandal: a high ranking police officer from an Alevite and leftist background, an ultra-nationalist militant who commited assasinations in the 70s and was later recruited by the state secretly for illegal activities (sabotaging the Armenian terror group ASALA in Europe and exterminating the Kurdish elite in Turkish cities) and a pro-state Kurdish feudal lord (also a member of parliament whose links with drug trafficking had been extensively exposed) were found dead or badly injured in the car crash. This strange combination triggered the ongoing debate about the presence of a ‘deep-state’. The first two terms of the AKP government concentrated on resisting the fierce reactions coming from the bureaucratic status quo, which saw the new government as a direct threat to the basic principles of the Kemalist Republic. After breaking down the hegemony of the army within the state structure and re-formatting the judicial system in accordance with the party line, the AKP government succeeded in winning a third term and as a result, the power balances shifted dramatically. The AKP’s contingent alliance with the local liberal intelligentsia seemed now to be unnecessary and already occurring instances of one-man leadership, arbitrary prosecutions, glorification of the values of the majority and consequent cases of discrimination intensified.
A huge number of Kurdish and socialist politicians and their sympathizers have since been taken into prison with fictitious accusations. Demonstrations in public spaces are being suppressed by brutal force. Critical voices in the mass media have been silenced through subtle pressures on media barons, who don’t want to be excluded from the distribution of public contracts and lose out on the benefits of the country’s steady economic growth in the last ten years. Costly and grandiose projects are put into operation without any negotiation with experts and NGO’s and without any respect for ecological and historical concerns – such as building a third Bosporus bridge, a much bigger airport, two satellite cities in the periphery of Istanbul, and opening up a 40 -kilometer-long water channel from the Black Sea to the Marmara – a second Bosporus, so to speak. Symbolic projects related to so-called ‘Islamic sensitivities’ 2The concept of ‘sensitivity’ has recently become a wide-spread term that has been instrumentalized by the right-wing intelligentsia to rationalize the majoritarian policies of the government. Just after a group of art galleries were raided by a mob in Tophane,Istanbul, claiming to have reacted against the supposedly ‘decadent’ life style exemplified at exhibition openings at these institutions, the Minister for Culture visited the neighbourhood and stated: “No one has the right to impose their Anatolian ways of living to Istanbul, but no one has the right to dismiss the customs and traditions of the people here (meaning: in Tophane) either.” For an extensive discussion, Banu Karaca, ‘When Duty Calls…: Questions of Sensitivity and Responsibility in Light of the Tophane Events’; http://red-thread.org/en/article.asp?a=49 that had been kept so far in suspension (such as the building of giant mosques in central parts of big cities) were initiated; a new presidential system aimed at fortifying the powers of the current prime minister was opened to public opinion. Despite the recent softening of the political tensions, along with the negotiation process between the state and Kurdish guerrilla movement, the government’s authoritarian leanings persist unabated.
In this bleak atmosphere, there has been a notable increase in cases of censorship – not only in the wider field of culture but specifically within the visual arts scene itself. In an early and extravagant example, Prime Minister Erdoğan came across a particular unfinished monument at the Armenian border [Mehmet Aksoy’s Statue of Humanity], which he decried as a “freak” 3http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-13199787 and ordered its removal. Financial support by Turkish consulates in the frame of exhibitions held abroad have been withdrawn at the last minute since their critical content, touching on issues such as discrimination against the Kurds, Armenian genocide and other national taboos, were deemed improper – yet these instances were not publicized as the artists in question feared further loss of support and stigmatization. Last year, a painting by Sevil Tunaboylu, depicting a Kurdish female guerrilla in a poetic setting, was found slashed during its exhibition in the Çanakkale Biennial. The hesitancy, or rather the failure of the curatorial team (and all of us) in publicly condemning the vandalism, and the disrupted communication between parties, indicated the sense of fear and auto-censorship that has been internalized by actors within the art scene. The increased frequency of governmental interventions in the design and funding of TV series, feature films, theatre plays and artistic events, and some physical aggressions against art galleries and works, has led a group of researchers to open up the Siyah Bant (Black Band) platform to monitor, archive and analyze recent cases of censorship in Turkey.
The deepening repression within the political and cultural sphere should have produced a palpable reaction from the contemporary art scene in Turkey, which was after all characterized by its political edge in the past; but a strange sense of paralysis instead prevailed One reason for this stagnation might be that critical energy had already been exhausted in anti-militarism, anti-nationalism and anti-statism, and repeating the same formula against the newly arrived power structure would sound against the pursuit of innovation and remain merely repetitious. Or perhaps there is still some confusion about how to articulate a criticality without falling into the reactionary positions of the old status quo. But there is a more crucial factor that feeds the stagnation: the rapid commercialization of the contemporary art field and its consequent institutionalization. The artistic environment in the last decade was defined by nascent institutions, mushrooming galleries, a new generation of collectors, newly emerging constellations of art directors, dealers, auctioneers and consultants – a global phenomenon experienced locally in fast-forward mode – demanded a different sort of engagement with artistic practice; and artists who had previously cherished a sense of experienced or illusory autonomy have had a hard time adapting themselves, while the credibility of their political inheritance deteriorated dramatically.
Kamusal Sanat Laboratuvarı (Public Art Laboratory), a group comprised of artists, activists and academicians has been focusing on this intensifying bond between capital and contemporary art. They organized performative interventions that highlighted the past affiliations of the Istanbul Biennial’s main sponsor – the Koç family – with the 1980 military junta as well as their current investments in the arms industry. Another target of their critique was Şekerbank, a financial institution which promotes and exhibits ‘eco-friendly’ contemporary art projects whilst also financing hydroelectric plants that have had devastating effects on the Anatolian environment. This reaction is not solely limited to the artistic field. Last year, blue-collar workers who were expelled from their jobs by Borusan Ltd. for their labor union membership occupied the company’s Borusan Center for Culture and Arts. 4For a reference and more visual material please check this Turkish site: http://nakliyatis.org/index.php?i=haber&id=673 Only recently, families suffering from the government’s so-called ‘urban transformation process’ joined the wide-ranging group of activists and artists who abruptly took the stage during a public seminar held as part ofthethirteenthIstanbul Biennial to express their skepticism about the plausibility of an urban criticism aimed at “discussing the public sphere” under the aegis of sponsoring companies that are deeply implicated in dynamics of gentrification, and urban and ecological destruction. And very recently, in another Biennial seminar, the presentations were interrupted by performances by activists; they were carried out by security guards and another activist was brought to the nearest police station with the charge that he had singled out and recorded the Biennial curator with a video camera throughout the seminar in a way that was deemed to be harassing.
Market-oriented segments of the art scene do not flinch, of course – indeed, they cherish the benefits of an expanding bubble of art speculation. But those who have engaged with the possibility of a criticality with the cultural sphere have been submerged by heavy pressure coming from the leftist intelligentsia and activist circles, which declare any political gesture within the existing conditions of contemporary art as attempts for ‘fake catharsis’ – political gestures whose critique brings about nothing but the salvation of the educated classes’ conscience. Tensions, antagonisms and polarisations in the scene are deepening dramatically. Similar tensions can be observed in many corners of the globe; but the combination of political complexity in Turkey and rapid commercialization and institutionalization within the local art field seems to produce spectacularly conflicting instances.
This depression within the art scene in Turkey does not only relate to the soft sterilization and instrumentalization of art practices by the capital but also to direct interventions in content and form coming from the new art machinery. There has been a visible shift in the size and presentation of artworks, from smaller-scale, less polished works, to more grandiose, decorative and importantly saleable aesthetics. But besides the soft conformity to the demands of the market, there have been notable instances of dispute and confrontation. Last year, Istanbul Modern, one of the leading art institutions on the scene, invited a group of artists to submit works for a fundraising auction. Bubi Hayon’s sculpture, comprised of a chair with a chamber pot embedded in its seat, was among the eight pieces submitted to the museum. The chief curator asked Hayon to make a subtle modification of the piece, specifically on the chamber pot which, he probably thought, might displease and scare off potential collectors. The artist naturally refused and the dispute evolved into a full-fledged scandal after wide protestations of local artists. The controversy suggested the extent to which the art institutions that have shaped the local artscape in the last decade tend to refrain from hosting artworks and exhibitions that would contradict the antagonism-free vision and rhetoric of the government.
Another scandal broke recently, when the new owners of Bilgi University decided to sell off the art pieces that had been collected by the previous owners, whose aim had been to transform their ambitious exhibition hall, Santral Istanbul, into one of the prominent art hubs in the city. The problem was that some of these works had been donated by artists themselves, who hoped that finally a collection would properly represent the history and current dynamics of art in Turkey. The absurdity and ethical recklessness of this decision gives us a glimpse into the vulnerability of artists, and art workers in general. There have been some recent attempts at opening up an alternative platform for the defense of artists’ rights in their transactions and contacts with the state and the newly arrived private institutions. But it remains to be seen what will happen on this increasingly shifting terrain.