Ein Gender-Projekt Aus Istanbul | Istanbul’dan Bir Toplumsal Cinsiyet Projesi I 1997

Kunst . Feminismus . Migration I Sanat. Feminism . Göç

Kültür ist ein zweijähriges Projekt von und mit acht Künstlerinnen, Medien- und Sozialwissenschafterinnen aus Istanbul, die ihre urbane Situation als Lebens- Kultur- und Aktionsraum thematisieren. In der Kollaboration zwischen diesen unterschiedlichen Angehensweisen verbinden sich kulturpolitische, soziale und ökonomische Zusammen-hänge und werde aus einer geschlechterspezifischen Perspektive heraus analisiert. Wie sich die starke Migrationsbewegung am Stadtbild abzeichnet und welche Auswierkungen sie auf die Lebensbedingungen von Frauen haben, zeigt eine Untersuchung der informellen Textilindustrie. Das zweisprachige Buch deutsch/türkisch bringt diese Aufzeichnungen in Beziehung zur postkolonialen Diskussion, welche die Prozesse der Marginalisierung aus der Sicht kultureller Repräsentation bearbeitet. Welche Rolle spielt die Kunst in der Gestaltung der Beziehungen zwischen dem Westen und aussereuroäischen oder minoritären Kontexten? ist es möglich, die kurdische kulturelle Repression in den Zusammenhang von postkolonialen Strategien anderer Minderheiten zu stellen wie etwa die schwarze oder hispanische Kulturproduktion in den USA? In der Publikation Kültür werden die Erfahrungen und Problemstellungen, die sich durch die Überlagerung von verschiedenen Praxen und Kontexten ergeben, weitergeführt. Sie umfasst Recherchen, theoretische Texte, künstlerische Arbeiten und dokumentarische Aufzeichnungen.

Das Buch beinhaltet zudem eine auf Interviews basierende, bebilderte Chronologie der Frauenbewegung seit den 80er jahren in Istanbul, in der die themen sexuelle Gewalt, aktivistische Strategien, die Beziehungen zu anderen politischen Bewegungen, Pornografie und Zensur, Zugang zur Öffentlichkeit, Medien sowie die Beziehung zu westlichen feministischen Theorien und der postkolonialen Kritik zur Sprache kommen.

Text: Outsourcing and Subcontracting

By Ursula Biemann

Even though the categories West and non-West have become pervious in many ways and don’t seem so useful anymore when describing the situation in metropolitan centres, the conflict between these two world narratives continues nonetheless on similar terms. With the opening in 1991, this discourse has taken new directions, and I will discuss, using the example of a two-year project, what curating might entail in this field. The notions of outsourcing and subcontracting are borrowed from the new economic order which we are facing since the breakdown of the socialist structures.

From a curatorial perspective, with this project I intended to intervene in these transnational relations on various levels. First of all, I mediated between a European art institution and artists from other contexts in an attempt to eliminate the biased contract between Western curators in possession of the concept of funding and decision-making power on the one hand, and the artists, hungry to participate in the international art scene, which had been excluded them for many years, on the other.

I went to Istanbul with the idea of presenting a different kind of art practice that operated on a concept of art that claims a social commitment and is strongly context-oriented, gender specific and collaborative in its mode of production. If Western art was being presented to Istanbul in a big way, someone needed to be on the spot to introduce a different strategy, a critical practice with a different understanding of the role of the artist. The intention was to acquaint some artists with an option that would also provide the tools to deconstruct what seemed so attractive at the moment, namely the white master discourse.

Then, I wanted to intervene in the stereotyped image of the Turkish woman in Switzerland. The Turkish woman wearing a scarf often stands for women’s submissive role in Muslim societies. Her image is that of a backward, uneducated, rural woman. Generally speaking, representation of migrant women in Switzerland is still dominated today by Christian funding agencies. There is very little self-representation except for some programmes on free radio stations. Also, I wanted to find out what gender discourse, if any, was taking place among women artists in Istanbul. It turned out that the term feminist art practice had very negative connotations at the Academy: It was associated with screaming street activists with whom the institution simply couldn’t identify. Also, Atatürk had let women believe that he had resolved the problem of gender specific inequality in his modern nation by giving them the right to vote in 1923. The (or One)feminist approach in art thus far had consisted in unearthing women artists from an unwritten history. By contrast, the cultural studies department was, of course, familiar with gender theories. Thus a project aim became the attempt to combine these perspectives and come up with gendered strategies for an art practice.

And finally, there was the delicate question of cultural repression with regard to the Kurdish issue, which needed to be addressed in one way or another. During the preparations, I had the chance to accompany a delegation of journalists and feminist activists to Diarbakir to investigate women’s conditions in the war in the Kurdish regions. I felt that I needed firsthand information to understand the situation in depth. On that occasion I was able to make contact with the Kurdish cultural centre in Istanbul, which became an important link in this project.

Western Curators in Foreign Services

Postcolonial theories represent an important frame of reference for this project. The problem with this discourse is that the majority of authors relate to British conditions or to North American minority cultures. In practice, however, it is essential to analyse every situation precisely, in order to avoid talking in unreflective, established terms that describe power relations of a different historical moment.

For us the question was how far postcolonial discourse was applicable to the specific situation of Kültür. It was important to take a close look at these historical images. The art space is indeed a place where the relations resulting from the colonial experience can and should be represented and discussed, since this is the place where cultural codes are being negotiated. But the art institution is also one of the sites where the postcolonial process materialises. As a curator, I have the choice of either critiquing and transforming the existing power relations or reproducing them. Not asking this question usually leads to reproducing them.

To develop new strategies it is necessary to understand how established Western curators proceed in extra-European contexts. As in many countries, the opening in 1991 had a strong impact on Turkey. Changes were noticeable immediately. Twenty new private TV channels joined the single state channel. Also, the art scene in Istanbul attracted the interest of European curators who came to pick and choose within the local art scene those artists whose work corresponded best to Western criteria and concepts. A new and rather competitive climate started to spread in the small Istanbul art circle.

On the other hand, Western curators also stage large scale, on-site exhibitions where the concepts hardly distinguish themselves from the exhibitions they curate in the West. These shows come across as gigantic advertising campaigns for Western art, and it’s not surprising that they create the desire to take part in them. It cannot be overlooked that this kind of globalisation of Western high art also has a colonising impact in other geopolitical contexts or on minority cultures. Similar to other media, art too devalues existing cultural signs through the validation of Western aesthetics and symbolic values in a sheer and financially overwhelming onslaught.

Negotiating the Terms

For a curator, to tackle a different cultural context and to work with those cultural producers automatically means to engage in a power relationship which is described in the theory books as postcolonial. I realised that, I couldn’t simply extract myself from the dynamics nor theorise somewhere in the safety of an unchallenged centre… that on the contrary, such a collaboration would personally involve me as the curator in this relationship which demanded to be negotiated and reformulated “live”, as it were, with all its participants. Until then I had formulated a critique of representation, now I was suddenly a party in the postcolonial relationship, I was in the middle of this problematic programme. It became clear that if Kültür wasn’t going to remain a descriptive exhibition practice, if it was to aim at transposing theoretical critical strategies into its work method, then it needed to allow space for this negotiation. The critique of Kültür needed to set aside the normative Western art quality standard in favour of an analysis and elaboration of the specific situation in Istanbul and an unravelling of the artists’ ties with their geopolitical contexts. Also, due to the relative ineffectiveness of the deconstructive approach in the art discussion ? an approach that didn’t politicise the gender relations but merely shifted them to the level of cultural signification ? we intended to once again tie feminism to political interests lying outside the academic ones.

From the initial discussions in Istanbul, through the research and production phases and the week of presentation in Zurich, the project took place in a workshop structure. We decided to focus on the relations between cultural centre and periphery, dynamics which are particularly relevant in the context of the Turkish metropolis, where the tension between what we call the modern, democratic, Western centre and the post-modern, migrated, illegal realities on its borders is constantly increasing. Kültür situated itself on the periphery, as it were, and drew from there a cityscape, which derived from the social spaces, the migrant histories and trajectories of the people who occupied that space.

Outsourcing and Subcontracting

At the core of the project was the research itself. Field trips to textile sweatshops, interviews, home visits, chats, video recordings. The suburbs are often as far away as a 2-hour bus ride in one or the other direction from the commercial centre. The garment industry is an informal, grey-market, semi-legal industrial sector employing mainly women who have migrated to the big city. It is very labour-intensive and frequently operates by subcontracting to smaller shops that hire workers on a short-term basis. A migrated, informal, precarious and completely deregulated life is the norm in these neighbourhoods. They have no communal structures, no history other than the migration stories we recorded on video and photographed. We focused on invisible cultural expressions and on the cultural process of marginalisation per se. If a contemporary discourse expects to be successful, it cannot be formulated exclusively from a perspective of the Western observer. A critique needs to emerge from the sites of production, from “the country of origin”. Outsourcing curatorial activities becomes a necessity in this particular discourse.

Istanbul as a geopolitical site at the crossing between the Balkans, Asia Minor, the Eastern Mediterranean and the Black Sea area is virtually predestined to bring to light the alliances of contradictions and existential struggles. It is in a particularly strategic location; a chaotic giant, a city forcefully striving for modernism and suppressing its Ottoman history that keeps cropping up everywhere. It is a city that denies the multiplicity of its cultural composition, which spans from Sephardic to Uzbek influences, an enchanting city with a skyline of utmost beauty, a site of violence, where power uses medieval measures to coerce people into the nation’s narrow scheme.

I have asked myself if it’s tenable to engage with a place that conducts untenable politics including massive human rights violations or if we should impose a cultural embargo. I came to the conclusion that it is more effective to engage with the democratic forces on the spot, strengthening the critical dialogue and opening up new possibilities of action within the field of representation. After all, it’s through interpersonal relations, educational institutions, symbolic representations and cultural work that power relations are produced as well as challenged.

Politics of Representation

With the massive entry of the media, it was very obvious that the field of representation was a new battle ground to be taken seriously. We recognised that in particular the conflict of ethnicity and the right to express oneself culturally has shifted increasingly into the area of art, media and education. For a cultural practice, particularly in postcolonial projects, it’s important to keep in mind that these forces are embodied in totally ordinary work relations and contents on which we can have a direct impact. The local integration of art projects has become an important strategy in the resistance against a globalisation of Western aesthetics and values. It is a resistance against a relentless evacuation of art works and against their random interchangeability at international art exhibitions.

Based on the arguments of institutional criticism, as mentioned earlier, and of the interchangeability and marketability of art, I refrained from offering a neutral exhibition space, from selecting promising talents and from presenting finished positions. In fact I didn’t judge and select at all but tried to navigate the project, at times just floating along I tried to yield control as much as I could, e.g. the budget for the entire project was openly posted, a big lump was handed over to the participants to be self-managed. It became a subcontract.

The Kültür participants decided to research the condition of migrant
women at the urban and social periphery of Istanbul and by doing so they placed themselves firmly at the centre. This choice led them to
question not only their own privileged positions, but also the means by which the migrant’s existence is devalued. They questioned the role the Academy plays in excluding their narrative and in pushing these subjects to the margin. It turned out, for example, that certain methods like field work and recording oral histories were being repressed at the sociology department, where these methods were reserved for use by higher ranking faculty members only. Up until then, research for these younger sociologists had consisted of library work. This project brought them into the field and into personal contact with people whose work and existence are not represented elsewhere. With the work on Kültür, the participants broke the taboos and brought minority representation into the academic context in a lively way.

Dealing with the diplomatic aspects of this cultural and political situation influenced a number of my decisions. As an outsider I could afford more risky positions than a local initiative would have dared. Knowing that we had to face Kurdish refugees in Zurich motivated me during preparations to carefully integrate a member of MKM, a Kurdish cultural centre in Istanbul, into the project. At that moment three participants left the group, seven stayed. It is not a harmless thing to be associated with MKM, considering the police force makes regular raids on the centre, arrests and tortures its members and destroys its archives. Including a Kurdish element in Kültür was the most delicate and diplomatically difficult move I was to make. It could have shattered the whole project, yet it was a necessary decision, since excluding this element, once again, would have meant reproducing Turkish State policies.

A City Project

A year later, we were invited to participate in the International Istanbul Biennial. Adapting Kültür for this setting triggered a whole range of new reflections and discussions on both sides. This required the application of major diplomatic skills. It was a move worth making, since this is yet another site where postcolonial processes are wont to manifest themselves.

As the only project of its sort at the Biennial we dealt directly with the urban situation in Istanbul. Migrancy may be the key issue in Istanbul, which registered an increase of population from 7 million to over 15 million over the last few years. Istanbul’s major changes in the last few years raised questions of intertextualities and displacement in the contemporary metropolis at the Biennial’s symposium, How do we understand the meaning of and the dynamics behind migrancy, the changes in the cultural topography, the erasure of the distinction between cultures and places? For us the question was also, How can we, as cultural producers, make sense of the drastic transformations or even intervene in the process? From the
outset it was clear that we wouldn’t think of intertextuality and displacement as merely a philosophical or discursive subject but we would also think of them as a result of financial, political and military decisions which become apparent in the way cities are transforming. The speedy reorganisation and segmentation of social groups in terms of function and status is only one of the visible marks which have been made on the urban fabric in recent years. Particularly striking is that the majority of people now living in Istanbul leads a village-type life and doesn’t even attempt to integrate in the cosmopolitan idea anymore. In turn, new conglomerations of lifestyles emerge; communities consolidate both among the migrant settlers in gecekondus as well as among the affluent cosmopolitans who leave the inner city to move into newly built American, country-style, high-security suburban areas. The model of interweaving cultures and dissolving cultural differences may be appealing, but in view of these developments they tend to be overly optimistic and don’t advance us much in understanding the larger scenario. And the larger scenario is, of course, to turn Istanbul into a global city.

So we decided to organise an open-air night forum on city politics in one of the gecekondus, a slum neighbourhood called Karanfilköy which is always under threat of demolition and evacuation. The forum was organised together with civil organisations and an association of progressive architects and urban scholars. At the Biennial exhibition space we had an information wall with videos and texts.

Writing Oneself into International Relations
Art and culture, especially when detached from local conditions, lend themselves outstandingly well to upgrading the image of a city and promoting the objective of becoming internationally attractive to trade and finance. That’s the practice we are involved in when exhibiting aesthetic productions in art-defined spaces, when engaging in the art discourse at panels and symposiums and particularly when disseminating them internationally through the daily press, art magazines and Biennial catalogues. It may be no coincidence that the Istanbul Biennial was founded simultaneously with the globalisation trend, as were many large-scale art exhibitions and festivals in other ambitious cities at that time.

Migrant settlements, as they clearly don’t correspond to an ideal vision of the global city, come under pressure. There is a real conflict of interest over urban territory, which is carried out on two fronts: in the symbolic and the urban space. A critical art practice could consist therefore in making visible the links between these two discourses, i.e. the public space of (symbolic) representation of international art and media and the public space of communities like Karanfilköy where the urban struggle takes place. These two sites are tightly connected – feeding each other Ø and Kültür situates itself in both of them, which has not been without conflict, since the two sites operate according to their own politics and priorities.

In Karanfilköy, the site of our forum, where the police force had bulldozed over fifty self-built houses to clear the way for a financial district, the globalisation scenario has an incisive effect on real peoples’ lives. Thus opening a public space, a forum of self-representation, could be a valid cultural strategy against privatisation and dislocation. Yet the point of this project in the art exhibition may not be so much to draw the attention to the existential struggle of several million citizens, but rather to understand how international art is not just in line with certain global changes but that it actually constitutes those very relations within which it operates.

Today, postcolonial art and curatorial practices could bring the identity politics of the eighties – which sought to deal with cultural difference either by emphasising multiple identities or by showing the constructed nature of national identity – into the context of wider transformations of the very public sphere that has been created by this new cosmopolitanism.