Being public is not a given, it has to be earned. Vasıf Kortun and Özge Ersoy discuss art institutions, publics, and institutional alliances
Vasıf Kortun, curator, writer, and educator in the field of contemporary art, speaks with Özge Ersoy, AAA Public Programmes Lead. Kortun is the former Programs and Research Director of SALT, a non-profit research institution located in Turkey, which has a collection of almost two million archival documents on recent art, architecture, design, urbanism, and social and economic histories. SALT uses exhibitions, public programmes, and publications to make these resources available for research and public use.
This conversation is part of Who Owns It?, a series that considers users as active participants with the agency to change institutions. How do people build a sense of ownership or community around a common aspiration? What unites a seed collector and museum curator, or a refugee camp and an impermanent shrine? AAA asks artists, architects, farmers, and scholars to reflect on users that produce, collect, build, and destroy.
Slider images: (1) SALT Research Ferit F. Şahenk Hall, 2017. (2) Winter Garden, SALT Beyoğlu, 2018. Photo: Mustafa Hazneci.
Özge Ersoy: In your farewell talk at SALT in March 2017, “Questions on Institutions,” you mentioned that the “most amazing contributions to public thinking were fermented, tested, and negotiated away from the threatening gaze of the order, philistines, shared half-truths, and populists.” I like the fermentation metaphor, because it refers to a closed environment—to a change or transformation that happens in the absence of oxygen. We often think about art institutions as spaces of presentation, offering a sense of openness, but you emphasise that they can and should also act as a retreat or safe space for critical practices.
Vasıf Kortun: I used to employ the term “monastery” until my wife Defne, who makes everything from pickles and vegan cheese to ginger soda, suggested that fermentation was a better metaphor. Monastery is actually not a metaphor but a generic term for an incredibly resourceful and diverse history. It can allude to sects, secret societies, and messianic orders, none of which are useful to our discussion here. Associated concepts, such as gauging opacity and transparency in institutions—which colleagues like Nina Möntmann had discussed in the context of a second wave of institutional critique—were in the back of my mind. I was hoping to identify a practice that already existed at SALT but not only at SALT, and to underscore a crucial role of the museum that gets overlooked by its exhibitionary output.
A great miso takes a number of years to make, pickled cucumber can be ready in a couple of days—things demand their own time. Even if the notion of fermentation has an urgency in this post-liberal toxic environment, the concept has always been essential. You establish a safe space where discourse and research flourishes, even if such a space is not invulnerable. Vilém Flusser wrote years ago that a roof protected you from the elements, the door was a threshold, and the window was a place to watch the world from; but with the antennas, television, and telephone cables, a house was no longer a shelter. We are all the more exposed now.
Second, as an institution, when your safety is at risk for financial, political, or legal reasons, it may affect your capacity of taking care. Nevertheless, as we know from discussions on the public sphere, while change is actualised and/or manifested in the streets, it is fermented in a sphere that carries aspects of a hortus conclusus—in the middle of which sits a public table.
I do not want this discussion purloined by a simple causality. It is not as if something happens “outside” to which one responds by gauging degrees of openness. What we have to understand is that the dual aspect of an institution—its openness and closure—is neither in opposition nor disconnected from each other.
ÖE: In the arts, we often speak about what should be privately owned and what should be publicly shared. In Istanbul, we talk about this a lot because private families, banks, and corporations have been at the fore of supporting major cultural institutions, while the state is barely involved in supporting the production, presentation, and circulation of artworks by living artists. In Hong Kong, despite the considerable amount of public funding for the arts, most of the non-profit arts organisations, including AAA, still heavily depend on private support. For me, this type of infrastructure pushes us to think much more creatively about how we define publicness. I believe that access, transparency, accountability, or public funding are not enough for an institution to identify as public. And, as you write, both public and private funding “are in effect privatised interests of a representational system.”
You ran privately supported institutions for twenty-five years. Can you talk about how you have chosen to interpret the term “publicness” through the institutions you have developed so far?
VK: Imagine the absence of an institution that creates a tangible paucity, a deficit in the lives of the people whom you care for. We have these kinds of feelings all the time. I still cannot overcome the passing away of my friend, artist Hüseyin Alptekin, eleven years ago. I am less because he is gone.
At Taksim Square in Istanbul, a gargantuan mosque goes up as the Atatürk Cultural Center is demolished. The Center was arguably the most significant civic purpose building of Turkey’s twentieth century. The savage displacement of the physical traces and spatial memory of the secular past produces a kind of deficit in our lives, and for those who were too young to experience the Atatürk Cultural Center, they have no such deficit to experience. What constitutes public mindedness for me was SALT’s project on the Center in 2012. This is how an institution occupies a place in you. The Performance of Modernity: Atatürk Kültür Merkezi, 1946–1977 stood witness to Turkey’s transformation. Imagined in 1946, opened in 1969, burnt down in 1970, reopened in 1977, closed for renovations in 2009, and demolished in 2018, it becomes obvious that it was conditioned by power that kept changing hands. To study the Center means not only to study Taksim Square, but also to understand an incredibly robust international modernism in the form of architecture. It underscored the importance of the arts and culture in the public sphere.
I was following a different track of thought between 2008 and 2011, as we were building SALT. In 2013, after the Gezi Park protests, we had to rethink the place of the institution and the meaning of “institution in context,” and again at the end of 2015—a profoundly violent year—we could not go back to our old ways, old programmes, and act as if nothing had happened. There were two elections, the first of which was not to the satisfaction of the President, and he did not hesitate in annulling it until he got what he wanted. It felt like we were unable to see beyond the horizon, then SALT Beyoğlu closed down—and a few months later a suicide bomber took the lives of a number of people 300 feet away from the building.
There is no single interpretation for what constitutes “public mindedness.” We were having a discussion recently with our colleague Benjamin Seroussi from Casa de Povo in São Paulo. Benjamin said something to the effect of “an independent institution cannot be independent of its context.” That stayed with me.
What matters is the potential of art to offer diverse ways of connecting societies and thinking about the world. Providing a space that allows it to flourish would be a good start. To provide the context you have to have integrity, you have to know when and what to compromise and not to compromise, you cannot act on impulses of dumb heroism nor play three-monkeys. You also have to gain the trust of the users and constituents, which happens slowly but can be lost in a second—especially if you are privately funded, many people are suspicious of you from the start.
A sense of ownership and critical engagement with the institution makes it public, but this relationship is contingent upon the institution’s performance. Being public is not a given, it has to be earned. The way I look at it, at the historical juncture we are at, it is all the more important to enlist the support of liberal businesses. We should all be worried of the ascendant global fascism and make tactical pacts with each other. Wealthy individuals and businesses had helped build the cultural world as much as the public sector. We need them more than ever now, and institutions can tell stories in ways that allow for making more informed decisions.
Slider images: (1) Front facade of the Istanbul Cultural Palace, 1969. SALT Research, Hayati Tabanlıoğlu Archive. (2) Main entrance hall of the Istanbul Cultural Palace, 1969. SALT Research, Hayati Tabanlıoğlu Archive. (3) Photo taken on the opening night of the Istanbul Cultural Palace: (from left to right) Hamit Şerbetçioğlu and his wife, Cihan Alp, Ayla-Hayati Tabanlıoğlu, Yusuf Ergüleç, and his wife, 1969. SALT Research, Hayati Tabanlıoğlu Archive. (4) Fire brigade rescue work on the night of the fire on 27 November 1970. SALT Research, Hayati Tabanlıoğlu Archive. (5) The Performance of Modernity: ATATÜRK KÜLTÜR MERKEZİ 1946–1977, installation view, 2012, SALT Galata. Photos: Mustafa Hazneci.
ÖE: There is a group of institutions, including SALT, that uses the terms “user” and “constituent” when talking about their publics and working models, which suggests they consider themselves as sites of collaborative knowledge production. Stephen Wright’s definition of usership is helpful in thinking about this notion as a tool to challenge spectatorship, expert culture, and the traditional understanding of ownership.
When did the understanding of publics begin shifting for you, and how did you start shaping the institutions you led in this direction?
VK: We have been engaging with these concepts for almost a decade in ways that were institutive. One of the threads before the founding of SALT was rethinking notions of the customer, audience, public, community, and user. I was doing my homework on feedback loops, radical trust, and stigmergic systems (processes by which ants and similar insects create complex social, physical, and communication structures without central organisation). I was dreaming of ways of “gifting” those who, on their own accord, enter a relationship with the institution. The original idea comes from Bazon Brock, as early as documenta 4 (1968). As he would say, “Listening and watching is also work.”
Our relationship with friends like Lara Fresko or Ahmet Dönmez (Baron von Plastik) developed over time through their responses to SALT when they assumed agency through blogs and other venues. They were assessing our projects not as “hired pens” or paid critics, but out of personal curiosity with no interest in press packages. We had to take their reactions seriously and eventually worked with them. SALT cares for constituents more than constituencies, whereas our colleagues from other institutions use this concept to refer to a space of political representation. For them, it is more about identifying representational clusters such as a refugee organisation. This runs the risk of coloniality.
It occurs to me that North–West–European institutions are inclined to self-produce a crisis, and their response to the crisis is then presented to the rest of the world as the solution. The far-right does the same. It invents crisis in order to manipulate fear and uncertainty. Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán barks about the threat of refugees, but there are almost no refugees in that country. Ceaseless “issue invention” skirts the fundamental issue. Museums often address their colonial legacy by decolonising with a colonialist attitude. They speak a different language now, but how they speak is harder to change. Whereas I am concerned with the manner of speaking.
SALT chose not to speak about these things or brand them and has been more interested in particular individuals as constituents. I always had the belief that institutions are not by default essential. If you do not meet the challenge of becoming pertinent you may as well quit, and we should never forget that only when a constituency and a museum see each other eye to eye during a condition of exception is when stuff really happens. It could be a severe crisis, a revolutionary instance when you understand with all the cells in your body that what you know does not work and you feel the urge to reorganise life all over again.
ÖE: There is an ongoing effort, both in theory and practice, to rethink citizenship beyond fixed identities or a status that can be granted, put on hold, or cancelled. What role do you think art institutions play to affect public debates about citizenship? In other words, how do they go beyond “powerless socialisation”—when publicness is reduced to an experience of gathering—to use your term?
VK: One my role models, Kathy Halbreich, said to me eighteen years ago that institutions are the context of bringing people together and not dividing them further in a divided society. At that time, she was at the Walker Art Center and instituted a policy of distributing membership cards to people living on welfare.
First, you have to create an environment for people who do not normally come across each other to meet—stop profiling and “targeting” audiences. (I learned from Kathy early on how to reverse rotate security so that people do not have the impression that they are followed.) People of different classes, beliefs, and backgrounds do not cross each other normally—some will watch the world from the tinted glasses of their SUVs. They will have never seen a public hospital in their lives. They also do not cross each others’ neighbourhoods and places and homes. A cultural institution is possibly one of the few places that confrontation really and metaphorically takes place. An institution is not for the privileged to view “other people’s miseries.” To navigate this contextual environment needs utmost care and attention. Everybody has to feel at home just enough, and no particular group can claim ownership over another.
If that’s in place, and people are feeling welcome, you can begin to have layered programmes that take the user seriously. You do not want to infantilise people. I have always said SALT likes to create programmes for people who are more intelligent than the institution—as the “outside” is always more intelligent and knowledgeable. Ideally, what we do as institutions is stir the latent knowledge that often stands dormant and perhaps needs further exploration. This is when a discussion begins to shape itself, has its own life, and is no longer owned by an institution. The fundamental goal is to institute a culture where people understand you are serious and diligent: they may not agree with you, but they will still be engaged and take it elsewhere. Other than programmes, in terms of hospitality, collaborations, and partnerships, there may be another level of discussion taking place.
Finally, there is the aspect of serving multiple patrons, on which Manolo Borja-Villel, the director of Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid, said in a discussion, “We had the Royal Queen downstairs and drag queens upstairs. Snipers on the rooftop and stilettos on the backstage. The two events occurred in a kind of parallel universe—each with their own communities and probably blissfully unaware of each other.” I understood in the long run that people do not have to be cognizant of each other’s presence.
ÖE: The democratic project you allude to depends on the principle of participation. Who do you think was excluded before? For an agonistic democratic framework, do you only work with the convinced? If not, how do you convince those who are not convinced that this framework is in their best interests?
VK: It is not required to participate right there, and right away is not a requirement. Some may prefer to take the discussion to their workplace, to their friends, or to their home or social media. Originally, only the included had their values, aspirations, and visions translated to the masses. I was more interested in the changes after the 1960s in cultural institutions, and to what happened after these great experiments in the democratisation of museums, where no one would be excluded. From the 1980s onwards, inclusivity turned into a massive dumbing down in institutions—remember the blockbusters? The public imploded and got superseded by populism. I am not trying to say everything was fine before, and I don’t have a problem with good visitor numbers. The question is how to retain an agonistic framework where different positions are entertained. There will always be people who remain with the institution, even if they disagree with it. That is the strength of SALT; it has shown that capacity to be taken seriously, and it will not merely speak to a “captive audience,” or for their view only. İt is a very tough position to maintain. As my colleague Charles Esche used to say, “Art is not for everyone but it could be for anyone.” If that anyone becomes someone, we have done our job.
ÖE: In your talk last year, you said you used to believe that museums don’t have to take a side but only offer propositions to help people make better informed decisions. You also mentioned that you are not so sure about this anymore. What changed your mind?
VK: In the talk, I was referring to the idea of the institution taking a position on a public matter. I am still torn between the urgent and the long term, between the reactive and the well-researched. The choice between taking an implied stance—a minimum moral imperative—and making an open declaration is still unresolved for me. You see, in the conditions we are facing, we are supposed to draw the line between what can and cannot be said without throwing the institution in harm’s way. We go through these kinds of editorial decisions all the time because we do not like to find ourselves in a position of censorship later. However, the line itself is not a given, and the lonelier you are when you are drawing that line, the more conservative you will be. It is the ambiguity and arbitrariness produced by power that is profoundly disturbing.
A colleague and a friend, Osman Kavala, was detained and then jailed in the fall of 2017. He is a civic leader and the founder of Anadolu Kültür—a non-profit organisation advocating for cultural rights—and its Istanbul-based initiative Depo, which is a space for exhibitions, public programmes, and a publisher for politically and socially informed cultural projects. Osman has been accused of having links with the organisers of the Gezi Protests in 2013 and the coup attempt in 2016. The charges are baseless and we have been waiting for an indictment for more than 300 days. In this instance, the best way of supporting Osman is to constantly find ways of keeping his legacy as strong as ever. To make a statement against Osman’s incarceration at a major institutional level would have been great, but I have not seen institutions getting together and co-authoring a text.
Slider images: (1) Futurefarmers, Seed Journey, 2016, detail. The Uses of Art: Final Exhibition, SALT Galata, 2017. (2) Refik Anadol, Archive Dreaming, 2017, installation view. The Uses of Art: Final Exhibition, SALT Galata, 2017. (3) One and the Many, installation view, SALT Galata, 2017. (4) How did we get here, installation view, SALT Galata, 2015. Photos: Mustafa Hazneci.
ÖE: Speaking about institutional solidarities, I also want to ask you about SALT’s main alliance, L’Internationale, which is a confederation of seven art institutions that seek ways to share collections, expertise, research, and public access among partners.1 What does it mean to work transnationally and trans-institutionally in this particular time shaped by neo-nationalism, and how has it changed the way SALT thinks about its publics? Finally, how do you think L’Internationale is different from other historical and contemporary international networks and institutional alliances?
VK: It started with the L'Internationale. Post-War Avant-Gardes Between 1957 and 1986 project in 2011. SALT joined in 2014 as the confederation was being created. None of this would be possible without European Union support, which is quite telling, because it underscores the value of a post-bilateral society. UN-style international organisations such as AICA, CIMAM, and others have not been effective for a myriad of reasons. Manuel Borja-Villel and Zdenka Badovinac had served as presidents of CIMAM. Charles Esche, Bart de Baere, and I have also served on the board over the years. The establishment of L'Internationale carries all of the disappointments we had with CIMAM. This is not a plea to get rid of AICA or CIMAM but to institute, next to those, more agile, intimate “networks” with different sorts of perimeters. L’Internationale is a powerful body of institutions that sees the world from a different lens than its peers in the power corridors of London, New York, or Paris.
The alliance works, firstly on a programme level. We understood in the past that putting teams together without a content-driven agenda is not the way to go. The confederation creates the possibility of different teams from different museums to work together on parallel projects with a core conviction. I cannot overestimate the value of the confederation and it was a privilege to share a table with some of the most thoughtful and inspirational curators and museum people in the world today. There is little agreement but a lot of respect.
There is a consensus that we are facing similar conditions to those in the late 1930s but we have already lived through that, and the “never again” institutions put in place to avert another disaster have not been effective. This is a new situation, and in the new culture wars, we need new kinds of internationalisms. We need to take care of each other.
Vasıf Kortun is a curator, writer, and educator based in Ayvalık, Turkey. He was the Founding Director of the Museum of the Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College, Annadale-on-Hudson (1993–97); Proje4L Istanbul Museum of Contemporary Art (2001–04); Platform Garanti Contemporary Art Center, Istanbul (2001–10); and SALT, Istanbul and Ankara (2011–17).
1. The L’Internationale partners include Moderna galerija, Ljubljana; Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid; Museu d'Art Contemporani de Barcelona, Barcelona; Museum of Modern Art, Warsaw; Museum van Hedendaagse Kunst Antwerpen, Antwerp; SALT, Istanbul and Ankara; and Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven.