On “Alternatives” at ArtInternational 2014

Any Questions?, 2014, A 5533 Project by Nancy Atakan and Volkan Aslan.

Curator Özge Ersoy and artist Merve Ünsal were invited to organize the Alternatives section of ArtInternational 2014, and in turn they invited 49A, 5533, Bağımsız Sanat Derneği, Bandrolsüz, collectorspace, PASAJ, Protocinema, Reccollective, Sütüdyo, SPOT, and Torun to participate with projects on the stage of the auditorium of Haliç Congress Center. Below is a conversation between Özge and Merve where they discuss what the title of this section, “Alternatives,” implies, what they negotiated with the initiatives that they invited, and who the audience of this section might be.  

View of Bandrolsüz’s project in Alternatives at ArtInternational 2014, Istanbul.

Özge: We could start by asking how we frame the “Alternatives” section at ArtInternational. Art fairs tend to have different approaches to this section. Some of them give a selection of non-profits booths, some of them invite curators to make a selection, and some establish a non-profit organization that can fundraise for this curated section. Are we here to take a snapshot of how art initiatives work in Turkey in 2014? Or are we trying to speculate on their future? One thing I know is that the “Alternatives” section is not trying to be subversive in the fair structure, as the title might suggest. We are trying to say something else.

Merve: Nothing is really an alternative in such a small ecosystem! To just start with the two of us, I am an artist, who has a part-time job at a commercial gallery and who spearheads an online publication that is based on a moneyless economy. You can talk about your own practice and all of the hats that you put on each and everyday to have sustainable, interesting practices based out of Istanbul. For me, ArtInternational is first and foremost, a place. It’s a platform, a setup with a certain set of rules and a certain timeframe. The fair lasts four days, and the Alternatives section is surrounded by galleries who are there to promote their artists and to make sales. “Alternatives” is the production that happens here (Turkey, mostly focusing on Istanbul and a bit on Izmir and Ankara) that is outside of commercial galleries and that is not supported or is directly related to institutions that we recognize as major players, such as SALT, ARTER, and Istanbul Modern. It is by no means a comprehensive selection. In this sense, the inclusion of Bağımsız Sanat Derneği is a gesture towards admitting, acknowledging, interrogating budding initiatives instigated by those who want to support artists by doing what they are professionally trained to do in other fields. This “association” brings together seven professionals who wanted to pool together their skill sets to become active actors in the arts, producing a model and a sustainable plan that will hopefully push everybody to think about the artists’ career outside of the existing support structures. If they are “independent,” the first contacts they need to make are the spontaneous self-organized producers that we hope to foreground on this stage.

For example, there is 5533, which is a space in İMÇ (Istanbul Textile Traders’ Market), started by two artists from two different generations and backgrounds, with a different artistic director that shape the programming each year, for more than five years now. On the other hand, we have SPOT, which uses the money that they make from educating non-professionals in contemporary art to produce new works of art or publishing. Maybe these two are not that different in their approach to art or to production, but their support structures and raisons d’être are very different. So alternatives also hosts within itself its own alternatives; there is no cohesion here and we need to acknowledge that “miscellaneous” pile situation.

The “miscellaneous” also includes Protocinema, which for me, embraces the hybridity, itinerancy, movement, flexibility. Protocinema organizes exhibitions that are often site-specific in New York and Istanbul. Protocinema’s quest for the right space for the right project and the right situation is a luxury for the artist and the audience. Here, I think about Can Altay’s project that they presented in Contemporary Istanbul a couple of years ago, showing “all” his works as an archive on a computer, placed on a table designed by the artist himself. Is the Alternatives a place where we can ask such questions about presentation of works and representation of artists, for example?

What is at stake by having the Alternatives section at the fair? And what are we negotiating with the initiatives or alternatives that we invited?

Any Questions?, 2014, A 5533 Project by Nancy Atakan and Volkan Aslan.
Any Questions?, 2014, A 5533 Project by Nancy Atakan and Volkan Aslan.

Özge: Art fairs are enterprises with commercial aims but they are also places that give visibility to types of production that are different from the ones presented at galleries. Here we should talk about what kind of visibility art initiatives seek. That was the main topic of discussion we had with the invited initiatives. How different is their artistic production from what is on display at gallery booths, and what does visibility at an art fair mean to them?

Initiatives have different answers for sure. Here, I think of Bandrolsüz that is a collective of five independent publication houses—Bakkal Press, folio, Onagöre, Reccollective, and Too Many Books—which seek possibilities for sale and distribution of artist’s books through sale events, with no permanent space. Within Bandrolsüz is Reccollective, an artist’s collective that works with photography and film. Reccollective does not have an exhibition space either, and thus uses temporary spaces for their exhibitions and books. Both of these initiatives take the book as a place, a space in and of itself, imagining something different than a set audience that attends an exhibition in a space at a given time.

We’re of course speaking about a different type of visibility with initiatives-collectives such as Torun, 49A, Sütüdyo, and PASAJ which all have physical spaces for exhibitions and events. Yet they do differ in terms of their relationship to their audience. Torun is now transforming itself from an exhibition venue that acted as a host to different artists and organizations, selected from an open call, to a series of programmed events with a curatorial position and urgency—located in a restored coffee house of a residential neighborhood, Küçük Esat, Ankara. Another artist-run initiative that reactives a shop is 49A in İzmir, who uses the space of a tekel bayii (the local version of a tabac) whereas Sütüdyo in the same city is an artist’s-studio-cum-exhibition-space—their common aim is to display works that are not necessarily polished, “finished”, or ready to be “distributed”, as spring boards for ideas.

Given these differences, who is our audience if we are all placed on the stage of an empty auditorium, if not the empty red seats? The gesture of bringing these initiatives together here should not seem ironic to the viewer. The intention is rather to highlight the often informal infrastructure that supports production.

And in this infrastructure, initiatives are also closely connected to each other. As you put it, we all wear different hats. I work as the program manager of collectorspace that aims to open up private collections to discussion, while working with 5533’s programming this year. collectorspace has an ongoing programming of exhibitions and public programming with an ambitious mission, whereas 5533 chooses to work with different curators every year—its premise is to operate with no specific strategies in programming, with no preference of exhibition-making or performances.

Our role as “curators” or “coordinators” of this space also includes how to reflect these closely interwoven relationships in the physical space. We are presenting projects in a permeable space separated by modules, including a meeting area that hosts informal talks and discussions. What are the impacts of this close relationship though? How does it affect artistic production?

Pasaj's project at ArtInternational 2014, Istanbul.
View of Pasaj’s project in Alternatives at ArtInternational 2014, Istanbul.

Merve: Relationships. Initiatives are founded on relationships, whether this is between the electrician next door who helps you out with setting up the projector or your lenient landlord or your neighborhood kids who are the first to tease out the weaknesses of the work. For me, this section will help establish relationships between initiatives. As people who are engaged audience members and who have been involved with some of the projects that these “alternatives” have presented, I think we are in a privileged position to be able to draw parallels between what everybody is doing and say “wouldn’t it be nice if you did something together.” Bandrolsüz and Reccollective already have an innate relationship, 5533 has hosted many of the artists and initiatives presented and many more relationships that I can’t think of right now. This kind of “relationship-building” happened last year at the fair many times. The first example that comes to my mind is how for m-est—the online publication we work on together—we interviewed the artist that PASAJ had invited. This published interview is a record of that time spent, to translate the Turkish idiom “touching elbows.”

How do you see the engagement between the “alternatives” section and the rest of the fair? How do we fit in?

Özge: I think there is a tendency to think of the art initiatives in opposition with the galleries that are located outside at the fair, in the exhibition halls. Our title “Alternatives” implies that as well. There is a group of words that we often use to describe them, right? We call them not only alternatives but also “independent”, “small-scale”, “flexible”, “experimental”, “modest” to draw a separation with other models. I’m curious about what this binary serves. I believe that the art initiatives are more complicated than this dichotomy. For me, the ultimate question is not how initiatives as “alternatives” “do it” without institutions or commercial galleries, it’s rather about how artists and curators produce and disseminate work by their own means, devices, urgencies. It’s also about how they open this production to the public. Your question is at the foundation of what the “Alternatives” of this year aspires to do: how do we position initiatives in a changing environment of contemporary art and civic space?

Merve: Which brings me to the question of service. Who are we servicing with this section? This is not by any means to demote our goals here, but I really think we need to focus in on this question of audience. Who is this section catered to? How could the initiatives have more lasting relationships with the galleries, as they are in the same breathing space? Could galleries share spaces with initiatives? Human resources? Contacts? There are a lot of artists who are represented by galleries today whose artists were or are involved with artist collectives. What are the galleries doing to promote and collaborate with initiatives? What can the galleries learn from the initiatives? That’s exactly why this juxtaposition at the fair, for me, serves a very important purpose and perhaps, the galleries are our primary audience.