With the below text by İlhan Ozan, we launch our first issue, orbiting around art in the public space. m-est.org’s issues will unfold over six articles, which will be supplemented/complemented by a public event, most likely held in Istanbul.
Could artistic practices still play a critical role in a society where artistic production is absorbed by the culture industry and where artists have become a necessary part of capitalist production and the chain of consumption? This was Adorno’s dilemma on whether art could escape being a commodity and keep its relative autonomy from society.
As defined by Adorno, the autonomy and “social character” (fait social)—the social mediation of art—show the condition of art in advanced capitalist societies. This question keeps its importance in today’s system of cultural and artistic production. We recently witnessed the reappearance of the question of art and politics with the intersection of Gezi Park protests and 13th Istanbul Biennial; as the biennial opened the issue of public space in art to discussion in its conceptual framework, the concept of public space in exhibition practice is being questioned once again. I’d like to thus remark on a few points about public space and art in the public space.
There is a tension between the protests and the biennial, stemming from the proposed structure of the latter, initially planned to use the public spaces as biennial venues where the protests were happening, including Gezi Park. The friction arises from the environment sharpened by the protests—the proposed venues had already been turned into a site of “art” by anonymous protesters. It was believed that the protests had already displayed the real artistic creations which could not be reached by ‘purposeful’ artistic actions of the Biennial. Then, the argument that the biennial should withdraw from public spaces went further and some even claimed the biennial wouldn’t be needed at all this year. As a result of a series of debates and forums in which the curator of the biennial was also present, the biennial’s withdrawal from the public spaces was announced. However, Biennial venues still remained on the same line as before from Taksim to Unkapanı throughout the spaces Antrepo, SALT, Arter, Rum İlköğretim Okulu, and 5533.
I have two questions I want to ponder on at this point. First of all, do social movements make art unnecessary? Second, would the biennial neutralize the effects of the protests, or would it actually contribute to the protests if it was held in the public spaces used as venues?
I must say that I oppose the view that art and politics exist as two separate domains and that political art or aesthetic politics can only take place through the intervention of one domain into the other. The modernist idea of the avant-garde must be abandoned definitely, definitively. However, it does not mean any form of critique is impossible. Artistic practices can contribute to the struggle against capitalist domination, yet it requires a proper understanding that such a relationship cannot be simply formulated. Hence, I don’t intend to argue that the biennial would be more successful if it was held in the public spaces. The success or failure of a biennial does not solely depend on the venues but on the biennial as such. From this point of view, I’d like to draw attention to how art can take place in the public spaces, or why the Istanbul Biennial, indeed, could take place in the public spaces as it was initially proposed.
First of all, I need to specify that there is no single space when we talk about the public space. Public space’s connotations are always plural and there is no center to this diversity of spaces. A second important point is that the conceptual dichotomy of public space and private space is a modern invention and I don’t completely agree with this division. However, I will particularly refer to the spaces where protests took place such as Taksim Square and Gezi Park in the framework of this discussion.
To start with the public spaces, they are always a domain of political conflict and a ground for agonistic struggles. Taksim Square is a perfect example of this as the square is historically a symbol of the Republic. That is why the square holds a importance in the current power conflicts when it is closed and forbidden to the protests not supported by the government. It is a field of conflicts for the political interest.
When looked at from agonistic point of view, the conception of the public space is quite different from the view defended by J. Habermas who envisages the public spaces where deliberation takes place through a rational consensus. However, not only the ones in Taksim Square but also many conflicts, every day, show us no rational consensus can effectively be reached. The consensus that Habermas defends as a regulative idea is a conceptual impossibility. It requires the possibility of a consensus without exclusion. That is precisely what is rejected by the agonistic approach. Habermas’s approach remains unable to fully grasp the conflicting nature of consensus and the ineradicable-ness of antagonism.
In the frame of this antagonism, how could artistic practices take place? The core of the argument concerns the possible forms of critical art and the ways in which artistic practices can contribute to the questioning of existing power relations. In relation to this, we can consider a characteristic of Gezi Park protests which is avowed by the different voices present. The success of the protests has been closely related to its characteristic of not following an identity politics, which is to say that the movement did not develop out of a certain ideological group or an identity politics directed by a particular group. In fact, that is what makes today’s politics radical worldwide as emphasized by various thinkers. Accordingly the relationship between identity and politics stand in crucial position for both art and social movements.
How should politics approach different identities, one of best examples of which is, in my opinion, Gezi Park protests? And how should art potentially deal with identities? It is possible to construct a correlation between art and politics rather than conceiving different forms of political and non-political art. Continuing the discussion over identities, the formation of identities becomes a question. Identities are never pregiven. They are discursively and socially constructed and are being shaped constantly.
We encounter another question here: which identities should be supported by the critical artistic practices? The answer is simply not this or that identity but those dominated within the existing power relations. What should be done in the first instance is, as C. Mouffe remarks, to disarticulate the existing discourses and practices through which the current hegemony is established and reproduced. [i] Accordingly, the political dimension of artistic activism lies in the view that they are realized as counter-hegemonic interventions whose criterion is to occupy the public space in order to intervene the status quo and reveal its repressive character.
The forms of individualities constructed through a set of practices, discourses and language games. C. Mouffe remarks on the strategy whose criterion is to disarticulate the existing hegemony, which is followed by a process of re-articulation of new and old elements into different configurations of power. [ii] Therefore, only a process of de-identification does not work out by itself. As the second move, a moment of re-identification is crucial because without the process of re-articulation, it would base on an assumption that new subjectifivities were already there and would appear once the dominant ideology disappears. In fact, social movements may not be initiated by conscious acts but it can be directed to a certain extent by strategic interventions and artistic action can efficiently take part in this process.
Exhibitions in whatever form they take are always ideological; as hierarchical structures they produce particular and general forms of communication. The ideological aspect of the exhibition lies in the particular forms of communication they create. Exhibitions are, therefore, contemporary forms of rhetoric, complex expressions of persuasion whose strategies aim to produce a prescribed set of values and social relations for their audiences. As P. O’Neil emphasizes such exhibitions are subjective political tools, as well as being modern ritual settings, those upholds identities (artistic, national, sub-cultural, international, gender, or race-specific, avant-garde, regional, global, etc.) are to be understood as institutional ‘utterances’ within a larger culture industry. [iii]
Today, artists cannot follow the radical critique offered by the classical avant-gardes, but this is not a reason for the end of their political role. To the contrary, they still hold an important position in the hegemonic struggle by subverting the dominant hegemony and by contributing to the construction of new subjectivities. In everyday life, biopolitics is surrounding in a complex set of networks so a counter-radical politics calls for the articulation of different levels of struggles. In fact, artistic actions via biennials can function as a political tool in this resistance.
[i] Mouffe, Chantal, Democratic Politics in the Age of Post-Fordism; Open: The Art-biennial as a Global Phenomenon, Journal No:2009/16.
[iii] O’Neil, Paul, The Curatorial Turn: From Practice to Discourse; The Biennial Reader, Edited by Elena Filipovic, Marieke van Hal, Solveig Øvstebo, Bergen Kunsthall, Norway, 2010.