Lonesome in Istanbul

Three generations of artists: Banu Cennetoğlu, Gülsün Karamustafa and Güçlü Öztekin, as well as Özgür Erkök of Ha Za Vu Zu in conversation …

(BC) What does working in Istanbul imply today? What’s changing. How do these changes affect the artist’s production research, modes of communication, training, and modes of presentation. Where shall we start? The nineteen-nineties?

(GK) Yes, I would be happy to. I am an artist who has chosen to live in Istanbul since the nineties yet who works internationally. I made this chime very consciously despite the fact that it was a difficult choice at the time. In that period and those preceding it, the longing of artists from Turkey was to get out of here with the attitude of choosing to exist in countries that could be seen as artistic hubs and continue their art there. In the early nineties, in this period when the world was changing rapidly, many values were shifting and being repositioned; many new openings were being experienced, and most significantly as the walls between the center and the periphery were being demolished, I had the opportunity to engage with the world as an artist. And even back then I thought Istanbul could be the right place for it yet it was not easy in that time; it was not because communication possibilities were a challenge. At the time, travel opportunities were also scarce due to financial constraints. Yet we still had established relationships with alternative groups-for instance the Shedhalle in Zurich. Other than that, there were certain contacts in Germany and France and the occasional big exhibitions-we were treading among these. So after 2000 there was a truly incredible communication revolution, and with this communication revolution everything became much easier and beyond this, the circulation had also gained a great momentum, not just regarding art, but all the issues in the world. If today Istanbul is able to elude certain impossibilities and really become a center in which artists desire to live and work, this is again something that transpired as a result of this communication, this mobility. As a city it is extremely enticing. I suspect that the existence and sustainability of a movement nourishing the issue of contemporary or current art in Istanbul for nearly two decades has made this situation equally attractive. That is to say, the relationships that were established within this circulation up until now have produced successful results and in light of these results Istanbul is now a center of attraction. Today, in some respect, Istanbul has resolved its political issues; it is possible to assume that military coups won’t occur at each and every step. In this respect, both as a safe space and as an appealing place for artistic events, and as a space where art is truly transforming has really become a center of choice today. Additionally: persistent, continuous work of the artists and their communication. with the world has also in a sense enabled Istanbul to become a city of choice. So, that’s my point of view.

(BC) Güçlün, one of the things I adore about you, is your optimism. I was not present in Turkey during the years that Gillsiin has talked about… I graduated from the university in 1994. And while attending the university I did not study Art, but rather Psychology. I left for a year the same month that school ended, just as I had imagined I would, however, I returned eleven years later.

(GÖ) And how did that come about?

(GK) And where did you move to, the U.S.?

(BC) First I went to Paris. I went there for a month and eventually received a year-long scholarship at a photography school. That one year became two. Then New York, and then Amsterdam. As a fresh graduate who on the one hand was preoccupied with learning and mastering photography while studying psychology, as well as detaching myself from my family and proving myself, I left Turkey thinking that all of this would not be possible here… My family and education were quite suffocating, and back then the expected production was through other people’s works. I’m speaking for photography in particular. It was impossible to even discern what was possible what I could actually do… I decided to go no matter what, one way or the other. For eleven years all my training and production was outside of Turkey; what Güçlün talked about I had only heard or read about or had some conservations with those who passed through… When I was at the Rijksakademie in Amsterdam in 2002, everything became slightly more immediate. I could say that I was quite anxious as I came back in 2005.

(GÖ) Well sure, you were living in a completely different culture.

(BC) And I came back immediately after my term at the Rijksakademie. The situation there was entirely different. On the one hand there is great competition, but on the other everybody’s talking to everybody about their work. I mean I can take four hours of your time saying “Güçlün, I made something like this, what do you think,” and you give me this time and vice versa. When I came to Istanbul in 2005, it was. precisely that time when residency and exchange programs were launched and attention was focused on this…

(GÖ) Well, for instance in 2005, Istanbul had turned into a relatively free, more open place where you could assure some response to your work. If it were in another state, would you have still returned to Istanbul?

(BC) I did not come back for the work. I would not have.

(GÖ) Ah, I see, okay. So it was not like, now there’s path open for me there.

(BC) No, I had to come back. Not having any money, not having a visa, nowhere to stay in the Netherlands, and my mom getting sick right around that time…

(GÖ) Meanwhile, as we say 2005: It was precisely then when we began our work with Ha Za Vu Zu, and at that time already a movement had started in Mimar Sinan. At that time, as a reaction to our school, we had begun to understand how barren the environment here actually was. After all the movement in Istanbul, the momentum we are talking about actually corresponds not to the period when we were in school but to the period after we graduated. We actually come from a very closed environment, one where we mostly talked amongst ourselves. And there was not any signal coming to the school from the outside for instance. And we were not really after a signal. Yet I remember one day we ran into Vasif Kortun, even with Hans Ulrich Obrist… We had done a shop project at the time… With graduation, slowly some movement began…

(BC) The attention of the outside…

(GÖ) Yes, thank you. But later, after we turned into Ha Za Vu Zu we began to go abroad. It was actually then, I mean we began to be introduced to that thing. And of course, people from abroad had begun to come here as well.

(BC) You are both a collective and you have your individual production. And all of you have very active, distinct individual productions, but in Ha Za Vu Zu the energies come together. Next to one another, together, and separately — it is all there.

(GÖ) This is something we constantly talk about, when we came together as Ha Za Vu Zu, we constructed it as a space not where we would do the things that we were used to or the habits we practiced, but rather as a space we could create together despite ourselves. That is to say somehow we always tried to separate our individual work from our collective work. Without that insulation it would anyway not be possible to produce our individual work simultaneously.

(ÖE) That is why we are not an artists’ collective in the strict sense, rather we provide a place where artists come together as individuals…

(BC) Of course, like Hafriyat for instance… (1)

(GÖ) It is very good to recall Hafriyat: At that time Hafriyat was established as a reaction to the galleries of the time, because of the problems of their particular era.

(BC) In a different yet similar manner I can connect it to the BAS project. BAS is the end of my fears and the book material that I felt the need to share, it emerged from my feeling that I could be more free if I somehow created my own space since I was nervous about the above mentioned clicking when I returned to Istanbul in 2005. Because otherwise it could have been as if I were constantly having to ask for something from someone…

(GÖ) That is not a bad thing but sometimes the distance between the work you are doing and socializing may get blurred. I mean that both are not really insulated from each other.

(GK) Here I would like to immediately insert something. The mode of production and the issue of support for production, I mean how did we produce as artists? And here I would like to return to the very first question: there is a before the nineteen-eighties, and a before the nineteen-nineties. These are very personal productions. With the nineteen-nineties the opening of doors and international circulation; though to be honest, what sort of a support was there from Turkey, the country we lived in? None. That is to say in no form, under no condition, neither production support nor support for the artist. And in this case, the artist who wants to produce has two options, and many of us survived with these for a long time. If you look at my early work it’s ephemeral. The second case, this is for artists in circulation, the support coming from countries they work in, which was for a long time really the only support we received. And how much was that? The funding that allows for the production of a work and that money is never anything, you know, a few cents to realize a small work. Other than that, if the institution had the means, we worked with the modest grant they would award. Until all the way to the end of the nineties an awareness developed with biennials; it became possible if an artist made a work that someone at least sponsored or provided support for the material of the work.

(BC) Okay Güçlün, if I have understood you correctly, in the first half of the nineteen-nineties there is a period of production that is political, rather hardcore, and from the gut by a group of artists including yourself… And after the second half of the nineties, as you said this mode of production assumes a different face with a certain concern for visibility, and also the West nourishing creation production modes rather heartily.

(GK) Yes, at that time there was an incredible accumulation that needed to be expressed and there was neither visibility nor self-marketing, none of this was a concern. That was something to be done and that needed to be done. And everything was grounded in that. This is what underlies the notion that is called contemporary art… The underlying issues that we are trying to coin, trying to define, particularly in Turkey, entail an entirely different effort, an entirely different desire, that issue from the gut, that has to be shouted out loud.

(BC) Then what do you say to those people who produced these works at that time being inclined to retreat at the point when pretension, commissioned productions became dominant? Not every constitution can handle that gut instinct with the market concerns; you know one is thrown off balance…

(GK) I believe Damien Hirst made a similarly genuine entry… or looking at Jeff Koons’s oldest work, I see the same eruption, but this is appeased after a certain point — it is commercialized.

(GÖ) I recall from Walter Benjamin, the contemporary being actually untimely, not relating to its time. When political work was done in the past, it wasn’t the right time for those either. I think this is also connected to that coming from the gut. For instance we have witnessed this very directly. In the past five years there have been so many works produced on the flag, I think doing that anyway corresponds to doing the right thing at the right time.

(OE) There is actually a political stance that does not take too much risk there. Because you can see what’s going to come more-see the potential risks. If you are a young artist, for instance and want to be accepted to an exhibition, be visible, you should produce works on this political level, within that framework so that you can assure a certain influence.

(BC) At the same time isn’t the denial and ignoring mindset we see frequently in Turkey’s domestic and international politics really analogous to the current condition of the art market?

(GÖ) Yes.

(GK) I mean maybe one also has to expound on the art market.

(BC) Yes.

(GK) It would seem like a sudden explosion of something that isn’t there, and suddenly we are talking about 2,500 private collectors and 50,000 galleries we’re talking about…
(laughter)
And all of these investing in art-pages devoted to eco-art-that is the economy of art in newspapers and all corporations rapidly developing a collection in one manner or the other.

(GÖ) Or to put it more crudely to launder their taxes…

(GK) Of course these are the known dimensions, but the fact that all of these have erupted only in the last few years and there is still no state museum and in the establishment of many private museums, private art centers in contrast. All of these, I mean maybe everything should be considered all together.

(GÖ) Actually I am thinking now that the museum has never been that significant in our lives.

(GK) It was not significant for us either, but I must say this: It is an issue. I confronted the year I first entered the academy and said we should have a museum. The day I took my backpack and went to Europe I saw an original painting for the first time. My generation, besides their art, has spent an intense effort on the museum and this issue has never been resolved, because the museum is something that requires state support. This support could not be secured at any time. While the museum is a subject that should not concern me terribly, it has been an issue I have had to support throughout my life. Politically…

(GÖ) When we say what does it mean to make art in Istanbul, we have to find the response with the exigencies here, about being here. We also have to make it a necessity to come together after this. But it is evident from what we talked about regarding the market that one has to exert resistance to certain things. I mean if these are set loose, they change whatever they can take loutishly for profit.

(BC) It is necessary to know how to say no.

(GÖ) Where will we ground our strength to say no?

(BC) At the moment I can only justify it within myself because — like probably everyone here — I feel alone.

(GÖ) Right. We all could agree about this, if we are talking about Istanbul from very different generations and about the environment here, no clear mode of speech or organizing has yet been established regarding certain issues. I mean the questions you ask as to what will happen in the future, I think we should consider these.

(GK) That is an excellent concluding sentence.

(1) The Hafriyat Art Initiative was founded in 1996 by three young art school graduates. The founders were the painters, Antonio Cosantino, Hakan Gürsoytrak, and Mustafa Pancar. The number of artists in the initiative changed over the years. The initiative is known for its political standing. In their exhibitions, they show Turkey’s agenda, which is not openly covered in the media. Their existence is not only new and refreshing for the art world but also for the history of civil initiatives in Turkey.