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Interview with Ceren Erdem

The economic boom enjoyed by Turkey in the last fifteen years reshaped the sector of art and architecture too. In these fields, the private enterprise took the lead and the market became key in the system. At the same time, we have witnessed the inception of a wealth of initiatives – non-profit, artist-run spaces, architecture collectives etc. – which go against this trend. What are in your opinion the main features of the independent scene in Istanbul today?

The effects of the economic boom on art and architecture are not necessarily equivalent if we are to compare it in relation to the market. The mainstream architecture, by the nature of the profession, has to work hand-in-hand with the construction industry one way or the other. In this process, some architecture offices have chosen not to design for controversial gentrification projects, shopping malls etc. For the contemporary art scene, in the absence of state museums or local government supported structures such as Kunsthalle, museums and institutions founded by some of the leading corporations, banks, or businessmen in Turkey have constituted the center of the art scene in Istanbul today. They not only contribute to the local scene with their international program, but also by hosting exhibitions of the artists from Turkey. On the other hand, it is true that some commercial galleries opened and closed promptly, which effected the artists. However, market has never become the key system for the contemporary art in Turkey. Keeping these in mind, we should note that the emergence of artist-run spaces and collectives does not stem from going against the existing structures in the art scene, as the art scene in Istanbul is significantly non-profit, and mostly independent, whether or not supported by corporations. In this respect, the idea of independent spaces that you are referring to introduce multiplicity, platforms to test the ideas, bringing together and operating in collectives.

What are the most interesting independent groups and spaces currently operating in the field of architecture and art?

Rather than ranking, I’d like to name some initiatives and collectives that have been able to run their programme albeit various challenges. 5533 (imc5533.blogspot.com.tr) is an artist-run initiative that has been active since 2007 at Istanbul Textile Traders’ Market (İMÇ). Founded by artists Nancy Atakan and Volkan Aslan, its emergence coincides with the Istanbul Biennial’s using the building complex that year as one of the venues. MARSistanbul (www.mars-istanbul.com) is founded in 2010 by artist and writer Pınar Öğrenci. Despite a break in 2013 and 2014, MARSistanbul’s program of exhibitions, talks and performances continues. Founded by Mari Spirito in 2011, Protocinema (www.protocinema.org) makes site-aware exhibitions around the world. It is based in Istanbul and New York and creates opportunities for emerging and established artists from all regions, in cities where their work has yet to have much exposure. PASAJ (pasajist.wordpress.com) is run by two artists, two cultural operators, and one curator; and hosts socially engaged and participatory art projects by local and international artists. BAS (www.b-a-s.info) is another artist run space that was initiated by Banu Cennetoğlu in 2006 where artists’ books and publications are collected, displayed and produced. The last initiative I’d like to mention here is m-est.org which is an online publication conceived as an artist-centered initiative by Özge Ersoy and Merve Ünsal.

In architecture field, the collective Architecture For All Association (http://blog.herkesicinmimarlik.org/) was established in 2011 by a group of fresh graduate architects and architecture students. They create architectural and design solutions for socio-cultural issues throughout Turkey. On other levels, in recent years some architects and urban designers are involved in solidarity groups for preservation and improvement of urban farms, public green areas, forests, historical sites in and around Istanbul.

Let’s adopt a historical perspective: what was the evolution of the independent scene in Istanbul during the last fifteen years?

In the last fifteen years, there is a constant flux of independent art spaces and initiatives in Istanbul. While in the early 2000s, we witnessed emergence of some artist-run project spaces, towards the end of 2000s, some of them changed the way they operated in favour of commercial galleries, whereas some initiatives could not last longer. I think the gallery boom in late 2000s deeply effected both the commercial and non-profit spaces. As the international and local galleries started to close their spaces in Istanbul, the market as well as the hype around contemporary art faded for a while, which I think later worked for the better of the artists and their production. It has led everyone to think more thoroughly on what and how they produce, and show. Recently, with the new generation of artists becoming more active in the scene, there is the promise of fresh blood and new perspectives in the independent scene.

What does it mean to be “independent” today and who can be considered as such in Turkey nowadays? Is there a form of connection among the independent voices?

I think it is to pursue the ideas, research, and projects that you’d pose as questions in the setting you live and try to create your own space – be it physical, digital, in print, hypothetical and so on – in order to formalize its steps and execution. It is also to be able to think and operate free of any given norms. In doing so, to maintain your voice independent, it is essential to avoid financial dependency. Many artists, architects, creative people, researches, thinkers in Turkey are striving for independency. Through new forms of getting organized, such independent voices are connected in multiple collectives.

This said, I think being independent should not necessarily be limited to its organizational or financial structure. For instance founded by a businessman, Anadolu Kultur and its affiliated art space depo are critical in raising independent voices in Turkey. SALT is a significant for its generous resources for independent researches. Collectorspace is established by a collector and running its program in collaboration with collections from around the world.

The existence of independent voices is always affected by different factors (political, economic, etc.). What do you think are the critical issues today?

The key determinant in emergence and sustainability of independent initiatives is financial resources. Public funds for arts can be compared to none, and contemporary art has no share within these limited funds available. Hence, the survival strategy for the independent initiatives is either to apply international grants when and if they are eligible or to move forward with support from individuals collecting art. Still, in both cases, in order to keep the initiative non-profit and as independent as possible, more creative solutions should to be delved. This economic reality is naturally the result of governments’ policies. Also, on the political front, the critical voices have been confined in gradually shrinking corner. I have been sadly observing that this has started to effect the individuals’ decisions to exhibit highly critical works. This is doesn’t necessarily implies self-censorship, yet, sometimes even the feeling of concern suffices to be cautious in articulating one’s expression.

Thanks to the geographical location, the city of Istanbul played a key role in the relationship between East and West. The recent crisis (the war in Syria and the refugees emergency in the first place) once again proved the importance of the city from this point of view. How the geography of Istanbul influenced the development of the independent scene, also taking into account the international scenario?

I think Istanbul Biennial has contributed very significantly to the development of he contemporary art scene in Turkey. Being the first and leading art event in the region, the international interest drawn in the city encouraged the local independent scene to move forward with their ideas.

Recently, with around 400,000 Syrians living in Istanbul, new art spaces and collectives initiated started to emerge, such as Hamisch the Syrian cultural house, Pages, and arthere.