The institution cannot take sides but it has to have a position

A conversation with Vasif Kortun and Vladislav Shapovalov. 
Silvia Franceschini
Published originally in doppiozero

SALT Beyoglu is situated 300 hundred meters from Taksim Square and tries to keeps a critical position towards the politics of Turkish government. Could you explain to us how the current unstable political situation is affecting the everyday work of a cultural institution? How are you trying to respond to the current situation through the programs at SALT?

It is hard not to empathize with the concerns and preoccupations of our public. Why would one go see an exhibition in the midst of an extraordinary time? The overwhelming majority of our public has a different view from that of the government. I could not say it is our duty to take a side but we certainly have an obligation to provide tools for better judgement that enable people to form their opinions in more sophisticated ways. We decided last summer to accept the uncertainties and respond to the situation through programs that resonate with the context, anticipate the situations that might arise and add a bit of complexity. One cannot under conditions of this kind pretend all is normal. It is essential to operate in two temporalities, one is to be very flexible and respond to the time with different programs. The other is to develop the long-term potency of the institution, the stamina to survive daily politics and resume functions not necessarily visible to the public eye; in our case, research and archive. The extent of hospitality has soared since last June and SALT has been housing many projects, programs, and meetings of collectives, initiatives, small institutions and NGOs. As such, SALT is expanding also into a “frame and a context”. All this is apart from cancelling and postponing events, and observing the fragility of a cultural institution.

Nowadays boycott of events and institutions (Manifesta 10 in Saint-Petersburg, Sydney Biennial) seems to become the main strategy for art practitioners to express their protest towards the politics of the state or towards the policies of the institutions. Do you see any potentiality in boycott and which strategy could be appropriate for the institution to express its discontents?

There is a world of difference between Manifesta in Saint-Petersburg and the Sydney Biennial. The first was a generalized boycott against Russia. It called in players not necessarily inclusive to the project.  Sydney was neither a boycott nor a protest. The withdrawal text of the five artists proposed a precise question about the accountability and the context of the Biennial. I signed the letter of support for the artists but I hesitated in signing the one against Manifesta. I have many issues with Russia but the kind of aggression exerted upon that country by the USA and NATO in the last 20 years is a prime cause for the essentialist bigotry that is coming out of there.

The institution cannot take sides but it has to have a position. All is fine when you operate under democratic conditions where debate and discussion are not hampered by either fear of repression or censorship or retributive budget cuts. But what happens when you are under extraordinary conditions, repressive legislation or public intolerance? Institutions claim a mythical responsibility to the public but that’s not all of it. The institution acts in the “present” but it bears a past and a heritage, and hopefully an imagination and a sense of direction for the future. So, we are talking about three kinds of publics, not only a contemporary public, but one in the past and one for the future. It is not about survival but more so about retaining an integrity with the decisions you make. I am for an institution that is located in the psyche of the people it engages with. That kind of “co-ownership” is the goal. 

The exhibition “Scared of Murals” have been on display at SALT Beyoğlu just before the start of the protests at Taksim square. The exhibition is telling not only the story of Intellectual Left in Istanbul comprised of musicians, actors, writers, directors and photographers who played an active role in the shaping of the political culture at the end of 70s but also how intellectuals have lost their primacy at the second half of the same decade. Today very often we can hear concerns that social and cultural agenda in contemporary societies are dominated by conservative tendencies. How do you perceive the role of socially engaged intellectuals in contemporary politics and culture in Turkey and abroad? 

It is true that the social and cultural agenda is overseen by forms of managerialism and conventionality. The critical question is if the public will keep on accepting this dumbing down and conform to what institutions offer.  Institutions are trapped in the endgame of trading off credibility for fast cash that saves only the day. I remain extremely hopeful because when the public is left to its own devices it produces great intelligence. It institutes. We saw in Istanbul phenomenal examples of these during the occupation of Gezi Park and after. One thing is for certain, it is not enough to talk, write or critique, you have to be on the street where things happen.

We are witnessing the rise in documentary exhibitions about engaged artistic movements of the 20th century. Why do you think this is happening? Would you agree that this rediscovery is guided by the feeling that the failure of such movements represents one of the most important keys to understanding and rereading modernity at the light of the current cultural and political situation? 

I agree. I would separate one-off revisionist projects that consume political potentials and have no effect on the way the institution operates. For SALT 20th century is a tool kit for reading the present time. Everything we do as the institution keeps on transforming it.

I've been looking at the map you realized for SALT’s participation to The Institute Effect program at Lisbon Architecture Triennale 2013 called "In situ Qualitative” which investigates the individuals effect over the institute", and I was very interested in seeing the representation of how flexible an institution can be according to the personal choices of the internal curator. Could you describe better how the SALT team works together? 

:) Long story.

SALT is one of the few institutions that does not need to be called "interdisciplinary" since all the disciplines, modern and contemporary art and architecture, material culture, media and politics melt together in a single programming. Do you think that the format of “encyclopedic institution” is something particularly relevant for Istanbul or is it the only way for cultural institutions to exist nowadays?

We opened in 2011, and are post-post-encyclopedic so to speak. And, we are not departmentalized. SALT has a unique climate where different sets of knowledge clash and benefit from each other without any arrogance. It gets stale when things becomes cozy. Our next hire in programs will be in geography or literature. The desire to build a “museum” in 2014 stems from an inferiority complex, it is simply a nouveau riche idea.  

I am interested in how the digital forum “VOTI, The Union of The Imaginary” that you have been running between 1997-2000 together with many other important curators, was able to establish solidarity and focused conversation among a core group of leading curators. Do you see nowadays the solidarity between curators in the global community? Now, when the written conversation through internet has become an everyday routine, which medium/media could host a space for a similar professional confrontation? 

VOTI was a very intelligent response to those days in terms of medium and technology. 
We are under different conditions where institutions are under serious threat. For many of us the question is not “curatorial”. It is about moving institutions out of their slumber and weave very powerful alliances, share knowledge and collections, establish front-lines, keep each other out of harm’s way. We can no longer be alone with our problems.

When you started your collaboration with the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College the curatorial practice was just starting to professionalize and solidifying as a discipline. In 20 years it seems that this practice is going already beyond that and indeed in many institutions there are no more curators (like at SALT) and young curators do not even consider exhibition as a part of their practice. How do you envision the evolution of this profession and how do you think the education in the field could respond, adapt and form figures in the “post-curatorial world”?  

Histories of exhibitions, public reception and all that is here to stay. The curatorial, I am afraid, is not. We consciously began using the post-curatorial, a term invented for SALT to connote what we do. 

The Istanbul Biennial you curated with Charles Esche in 2005 was simply titled "Istanbul" and was concentrated on the city itself striving for alternatives to the dominant, competing ideologies of rampant neoliberal gentrification on the one hand and suicidal nationalist isolation on the other. The last Istanbul Biennial by trying to address a new relationship with the city has failed its attempt in front of the rising of spontaneous creativity of the citizens participating in protests for a reconfiguration of the public space and the urban sphere. How do you comment on these latest events and how do you see a possible future relationship between the Biennial and the city in Istanbul? 

2005, 07 and 09 built a novel and cogent narrative for a biennial in a city like Istanbul. 2015 should continue from there. The challenge that lies ahead is to test intelligent pilot programs and face not only the excluded but also those who feel they are excluded. Exclusion is cultural, spatial, historical, religious, economical and between levels and layers of citification. There has to be a confrontation and difficult questions have to be posed. I am speaking of an efficient structural experiment where an audience becomes --so to speak-- “an audience with the biennial.”  There is a phenomenal local and international artistic practice and legacy out there to roll it out.