Sarp Renk Özer of AVTO speaks with Merve Ünsal on cultivating arts organisations from scratch, and helping them survive.
In Turkey, independent arts initiatives have been and continue to be a crucial site of exposure, experimentation, and excavation. Ranging from the artist-run spaces of BAS to the storefront 5533, initiatives have been modest yet permanent fixtures, propping up the often precarious scaffolding of shifting institutional and financial support agendas.
In this conversation with Sarp Renk Özer of AVTO—whose website describes themselves as “an operating system working across the field of culture, providing interfaces dedicated to knowledge production”—Merve Ünsal inquires about the self-reflexivity that keeps initiatives both nimble and steady. As an “operating system,” AVTO constantly shapeshifts, anchored by an articulation of ways of being that relates to “instituting” as both a verb and a modality. What follows is a conversation that points towards a user-oriented organisational practice.
Merve Ünsal: How is AVTO situated physically and non-physically in Istanbul? In other words, how is the multifunctional space in Istanbul in conversation with your activities in publishing and other types of public-facing interfaces?
Sarp Renk Özer: AVTO is located in a modest apartment basement. Repurposed from domestic conditions, this space is built to serve AVTO’s constituents’ gathering, presentation, working, and recreational needs. Considering the fact that we are always low on budget, we had one shot to create a setting that could answer the basic needs at hand, as well as ones that might arise in the future. This task was not a great fit for an architect whose working methodology often required them to foresee all possible use-scenarios and problems in advance, and then to come up with a well-thought-out solution. So, detecting the space and inventing its uses was more suitable for an artist who would be open to sustaining a long-term bond with AVTO and to learn, unlearn, and research together with the team.
As a long-term constituent of AVTO from the early years, Can Altay was invited to make the initial intervention that would activate the space. We haven’t had the necessary financial resources to allocate to such a task, much bigger than our scale, but that didn’t stop us. When one resource runs low, there’s usually another that can compensate in some other way. We call it “read and react,” or of minding the circumstances but proceeding anyway.
With a very small budget and a lot of time, we set off on a multi-staged process. Though instead of baking and then eating, the process was reversed: we started using the space and then began building routines—thus, the needs revealed themselves. Also, Can is a teacher and he cleverly used this opportunity to turn this process into a learning experiment for young architects and designers who were finishing their senior year at Bilgi University. In the end, we only spent money where it was absolutely necessary, because Can was able to repurpose the display elements that Future Anecdotes designed for the 5th Istanbul Design Biennial.
This starter kit will serve as a base to build upon. New artists, designers, architects, and users at large are able to take over this semi-improvisational, semi-structured design process, which began with curator and architect Meriç Öner. Maybe an analogy might better explain how the process should ideally work: the space itself is considered as a text body on a word processing document. Every user, or in this case, the contributor, is invited to edit it with “tracked changes on,” enabling physical overlaps, revamps, and do-overs to occur, and allowing spatial footnotes to appear in real time.
We are also heavily influenced by the open-world video game Minecraft, which allows players to build environments according to their in-game preferences. Players are able to set the conditions and the scene, and make any changes as they see fit. In a similar way, our physical space has modular furniture comprised of parts capable of being modified into chairs, shelves, and tables, with custom presentation and work elements adjustable at will.
Another inspiration for us was Workers Club, a setting from 1925 dedicated to self-education and cultural leisure activities by Alexander Rodchenko, as well as the 2019 exhibition Signals from Another World, curated by Andris Brinkmanis and designed by Rihards Funts.
Funts’ design conceived of the exhibition space as a walk-in and free-for-all work and gathering space, over and above displaying the work—basically, merging two spaces ordinarily separated from each other (the labour space for the team that runs the organisation, and the sterile space dedicated to display). This played a critical role in our envisioning of life together at AVTO.
Finally, in our permanent space, this versatile display setting integrated functions in a tiny basement floor to host programmes, events, and leisurely activities. Bringing in the legendary hexagonal drums or the Rodchenko chess piece will probably not be possible, but music-making and gaming will eventually be a part of life at AVTO.
Image: View from AVTO’s display elements, designed by Can Altay. Courtesy of AVTO. Photo: Doğa Yirik.
MÜ: You have been anchored in different physical spaces in Istanbul, and exhibitions are a part of AVTO’s practice. What have you learned from your moves in the city, if anything?
SRÖ: I think cultural organisations (at any scale) communicate their worldview not only through direct means, such as publishing or programming, but through their expenditures. When budgets are allocated without taking into account economic hardships that real people face, these entities start reeking of indifference. Physical spaces, especially, serve as litmus tests to reveal whether good intentions and practice go hand-in-hand—because what takes place is usually visible to the naked eye. It renders one’s priorities explicit a lot more accurately than texts and press releases.
Our priorities are simple: we try to cultivate something from scratch and help it survive. In our previous locations we were guests. Rooting under temporary conditions is very debilitating. It took AVTO five years to actually anchor itself in the long term. Since 2022, we have shifted our focus away from programming towards settling down. Through our informal networks, we obtained a family property to host our operations in 2021. Now that the dirty work is done, we are resuming our programmes and will dedicate ourselves to publishing in the years ahead.
Image: Installation view from Başak Altın’s Hâfir, Korfmann Library at the Çanakkale Biennial, 2022. Courtesy of AVTO. Photo: Doğa Yirik.
MÜ: How does your locale (be it conceptual, physical, or a hybrid) inform your work as an organisation? How has AVTO evolved since its inception in 2017, given the many changes and ruptures in Istanbul since that time?
SRÖ: AVTO was never directly affected by the hostile political environment in Turkey. We are keeping a low profile and operating under the radar. It’s important to note that it is a huge burden to operate as a legal non-profit entity in Turkey, unless you’re able to defer or avoid state officials from nosing around and pestering you arbitrarily. It makes almost zero sense for us to form an association, because getting monitored on a regular basis and dealing with the bureaucracy is too much to handle for us right now. On the other hand, one has to be approved by the parliament to become a foundation, which is out of the question [laughter]. So the convention in Turkey is to start an LLC, or not exist on paper at all. Both of these options provide a lot of breathing room, especially in terms of content. But I’d call it a double-edged sword, because an organisation then becomes ineligible to apply to funds and grants—so one has to choose between putting up with unnecessary paperwork and petty surveillance, and running on a tight budget.
Speaking of İstanbul and running on a tight budget, it might make sense to clear up a misconception. Some of the cultural grants in Turkey (a major part of them are funded by the EU) regard organisations like us as well-off—just because we’re located in İstanbul. This, I believe, is inherited from the early years of Turkey’s one-man government reign. During this period, Erdoğan was actually referred to as a progressive politician pressing for the implementation of laws and policies required for Turkey’s EU membership. The economy was thriving thanks to a positive stable environment that attracted substantial investments in culture. A handful of big game corporations founded institutions of their own. This abundance even propelled individual cultural producers. There was an unprecedented proliferation of art initiatives, collectives, and galleries. But there was a catch. All of them were based in İstanbul. In short, the critique of “İstanbul-centrism” became a pressing issue, and eventually (after a decade or so), to a certain extent, it brought the struggles of cultural producers in other cities to greater attention.
Over the past decade, the political scenery has gradually changed. The hardships of cultural producers in Turkey worsened as a result of Turkey’s economic downturn, especially since the pandemic. For reference, the loss of the lira’s value amounts to over four hundred percent. So, under this regime, organisations like us are financially and legally precarious regardless of location. Nevertheless, being based in İstanbul remains a sort of liability for those seeking support or funds. Ironically, local institutions can’t shake their anachronistic sensibilities, and still attach importance to İstanbul-centrism even today.
MÜ: You refer to AVTO as an operation, and I am thinking about operating systems, functioning operatively, and being/embodying the operative. Could you articulate why and how operation has been important to AVTO as an organisation?
SRÖ: I think organisations akin to AVTO are only potentially, not inherently, useful. Frankly, this type of work is unsolicited by the public and does not answer the needs situated at the first stage of Maslow’s (long-debunked) pyramid. I don’t mean that such entities are essentially useless. On the contrary, they bear a myriad of potential in terms of possible uses. It’s just that entities like AVTO often run their course without fully probing their purposes, without investing in trial and error, and finally fail to devise one in good time.
What’s withholding might be our relationship with exhibition-making practice. More often than not, off spaces, artist-run spaces, art initiatives, and endeavours by other names cling to making exhibitions ineluctably—as if they could not exist otherwise. At times it’s done “for the sake of it,” or as if there was nothing else to be done, in order to fulfil a sense of purpose. I draw parallels between this tendency and a syndrome I call “painter’s reluctance.” As a dying breed, trained painters or sculptors that went through a traditional art education (and embraced it), more often than not, tenaciously hold on to their media, rather than testing unknown waters in terms of practice.
But make no mistake, I’m all for calling an object by its name. A book as a book, a cork as a cork, and so on. But when it comes to agency, another approach could come in handy, especially when seeking these unknown potentials and devising a use out of them. For this reason, I find referring to an organisation of this nature as an “operating system” significant and helpful to the cause. To put it more simply, what’s imbued within general modes of operation constrains its ability to generate and sustain an economy, bond with publics, and grasp which circumstances one operates under.
The beauty of an operating system is in its openness and adaptability. It can accommodate different types of users’ needs, and even many needs at once. It is meant to facilitate and support cultural production without imposing complicated modes. I mean, making things public should be as minimally perplexing as possible. Especially for those that have a tendency to overthink at times. From this standpoint, forms and functions are but tools. Even the content is a secondary priority. Why do we build systems? To make things work, or to make work easier or more efficient? Although with trial and error we could tell, making things easy is not an easy task.
I’m hesitant to sound too optimistic or convinced, as these kinds of assertions are but gambles against time. Also, it’s cringe-worthy to read the “talking the talk” on the about sections of .org websites with promises that are at times too big and too bold, considering one’s own scale or capabilities. There’s no denying that AVTO could be less ambiguous in terms of the work to be done and the publics to serve. We exhaust every bit of our willpower to prove that this ambiguousness doesn’t stem from the snake oil salesman’s rhetoric—you know, such as vapourware items that are developed, but never produced, that lure investors and customers in a similar way. I could draw parallels between how such practices are described within the field of culture, and how some commercial script writer convinced my aunt to buy bogus domestic gym equipment through telemarketing after midnight, guaranteeing that her belly fat would be gone in no time.
I admit that the more complicated an operation is described, the more suspicious it gets. Not in a sketchy way, but will anything really come out of it? Or is it yet another effort in vain with less action than words? You know, a tree is known by its fruits, and a cultural organisation by its deeds. That’s why it’s accurate to describe these operations as gambles against time. Because how else could we test bold assertions unless we plug each other into polygraphs? We can either refer to actions taken publicly, and works finished or published, to verify the intention behind works.
A craftier, yet more complicated way, might be to constantly make oneself accountable by abandoning corporate communication methods to speak more openly and directly about the organisation on a human scale. I wonder why public institutions report to their boards but not to the public. Isn’t it kind of ironic?
In short, I would not disagree with anybody casting doubt upon the “operating system” term for this reason. Because essentially what AVTO does is similar to the work of other small scale organisations run by individuals. I mean, AVTO also publishes books, holds gatherings, and makes exhibitions as a team. But that’s rather what it engages with in the meantime, while investigating its role in the field, setting a function, and finding a timely purpose as a system. It is not necessarily interested in creating content as an author organisation, but rather aims to be operated by constituents. In a similar sense, independent organisations adopt practices limited by exhibition-making as if they were trained painters making paintings. There’s nothing wrong with that—besides, exhibitions occur in the present moment, so to react to one’s time actually makes a lot of sense.
What I’m problematising about exhibition-making is conceiving it as a closed-form expression with no changeable variables in its source code (i.e., its blueprint, in a computer programme) that requires all practices to follow the same rules, with no place for other approaches. From this standpoint, a crucial task of today’s organisations is to accept the possibility of no source code (e.g., focusing on a different level of cultural programming) or conceiving of organisations as a dynamic and open-source system that is flexible and adaptable. That being said, there can be a tendency to conflate the processes of exhibition-making with the exhibition itself, which are just the interfaces.
MÜ: How do exhibitions function as an interface?
SRÖ: What makes one exhibition function, and another lead to nowhere? Which actions justify spending public allowances? When we take into account the finances and hard labour required to make them happen, it’s difficult to resist becoming a hater. If exhibition-making is regarded as being on the verge of obsolescence, especially in terms of creating social or political impact, the blame is probably on cultural producers sticking to routine practices while continuing to expect different results. I don’t have a crude recipe to offer, but I try to look elsewhere and draw knowledge from other fields, especially from computer science, to better comprehend efficiency and usability.
Exhibitions give form to action, thought, or knowledge while rendering them accessible to the public. Similarly, an interface in an operating system materialises the source code to shape the users toward a certain interaction. It serves as a representation of the underlying thought processes encoded in the source code, and translates embedded flow into an environment that makes the underlying processes accessible to the user.
To reiterate, I refer to an “interface” as an affordance that provides access for an exchange of knowledge, or affects those that interact with it (in the case of exhibitions). Display and situation design determine how these acts are to occur, or if they will occur at all.
To strip my thought from analogies, here’s what I mean by those terms:
AVTO: the operating system (hardware, software) where source code is executed
Process of making programmes: source code
Exhibitions/Programmes: the interface
Which are all connected and dynamic.
Image: Installation view from Burak Kabadayı’s Static Shifts, Dynamic Rifts, AVTO, Istanbul, 2021. Courtesy of AVTO. Photo: Doğa Yirik.
MÜ: And how has this changed for you over the course of AVTO’s evolution? What have you learned from your exhibitions?
SRÖ: All of our experiences—good, bad, and ugly—led us to evolve into who we are now. As an organisation, we provide adaptability in our source code, that is to say, our constituents are the primary subject of their own operations in their own way. We imagine a public that employs AVTO’s capabilities as authors themselves, so that operators can assume a facilitating role, rather than acting as the programmer in the long run. While the mode of the exhibition, as an interface, was our primary focus in the beginning, our flexibility allowed our interface to convert to publishing recently, and has the potential to eventually be reflected in different ways. Almost none of our initial programming was merely “on view,” but rather required a form of engagement, encouraging the users to have their own stakes.
From our early years, I’m referring especially to two examples: the collective translation of the international feminist collective Laboria Cuboniks’ manifesto, Xenofeminism, to Turkish. While the programme was mainly run online via an open-access Google document, the presentation room at AVTO was used as a workstation where weekly gatherings were held to translate different chapters of this text. These sessions never concluded with a finished work at hand, so the output of these sessions were rather rough drafts at best. These attempts were printed out and left hanging on panels to make the editing process accessible to those that were less savvy with digital co-working affordances. There were also blackboards on display where newly coined, impossible-to-translate, or contested words were listed with their explanations.
Another example I would like to touch on would be Mesut Lizor’s Yer-Değiştirmek (Rotation).1 In a semi-theatrical setting, Lizor used AVTO as a makeshift classroom for a lecture performance series. Over a period of six weeks, he performed as “The Professor Lizor” and went through a curriculum covering different topics introduced in the book, such as religion, the economy, human and animal rights, and law-making.
In short, we preferred to dedicate our time, energy, and resources to lectures, performances, translation workshops, and reading groups. Working almost exclusively with texts and rather volatile forms of thought such as presentations and debates was a key experience to develop AVTO online.
As mentioned before, AVTO, as a malleable operating system, is presented on a specific interface both onsite and online. Many colleagues in Turkey start like-minded initiatives, but quit, most often because of challenging conditions or, you know, life gets in the way. There’s nothing wrong with calling it a day at the right moment. On the contrary, it’s very healthy. But what about those peers that had to quit because they lack certain online or onsite infrastructures and were forced to quit? Or the ones momentarily distracted but eventually planning to return after a hiatus? We already touched base on what a drudgery maintaining a space tied to an organisation is. Over time, we realised the importance of how we do things, rather than what we do; how important the system was to keep our organisation alive in some capacity, even in a dormant state, and how important it is to focus on the ethics, the terms, and the conditions of knowledge production in the field of culture, as well as the importance of changing continuously, rather than just providing space and an “interface.”
Image: Working session for translating the “Xenofeminist Manifesto” at AVTO, Istanbul, 2018. Courtesy of AVTO. Photo: Doğa Yirik.
MÜ: Taking positions and integrating repositioning into your practice are also reflected in the way in which you have conducted translation as a collaborative practice. Could you elaborate more on the translation of The Xenofeminism Manifesto that you mentioned above, considering how working within and around language becomes reflected as a position? How does translation speak to and differ from your publishing practice?
SRÖ: It was a collaborative yet authorless effort that took place primarily online via Google Docs and secondarily through onsite activities. Laboria kept their writing quite accessible, yet their text includes many “new age” words and terms that don’t exist in the Turkish language. Turkish is historically a contact language, under heavy influence of foreign languages, and thus borrows almost all the terms currently in use about art, design, and architecture from Latin languages. As an attempt that could be considered either wishful thinking or an emancipatory exercise, AVTO set off to generate words anew, rather than relying on imported vocabularies. The intention was not to take a purist stand, but to calibrate our subjectivities—this challenge provided an opportunity to articulate thoughts and emotions without reference in our native language.
Not surprisingly, conflicts arise while negotiating and contemplating how meanings might assume form. AVTO keeps track of all the novel words generated in translation sessions for a number of purposes. It greatly informs how the organisation articulates itself, but most importantly these translation sessions enable us to attune to a shared vocabulary.
MÜ: How do you distinguish between the terms “institution” and “initiative”? Or rather, how was AVTO instituted?
SRÖ: Here, I want to contrast the difference between an institution run according to the needs of an employer, and an organisation run by individuals, real people, and the public itself. An institution naturally has finances, but is in a race to achieve a minimum level of employer/founder satisfaction. Delivering to a board, writing annual reports that look good on paper, even if, in practice, projects were left at the stage of good intentions.
An organisation, on the other hand, has all the time in the world. I’m referring to such an abundance that many well-off institutions lack, and will never have.
There’s no denying that there is a source code for “institutions,” as they are accountable to boards instead of publics, and may be stripped of their budget—or in other words, their life force—if they do not deliver what’s expected. Following Mladen Stilinovic’s thought suggesting that “just as money is paper and a gallery is but a room,” we could consider cultural institutions as consisting of a board of executives and some esteemed donors. That’s why we might regard them as old dogs incapable of learning new tricks. But I wonder, could they really be this incapable, or do we deem them so by taking their corporate state of mind as a given ourselves?
I liken my relationship with cultural institutions to eating table d’hote meals in Turkey. Locally, table d’hotes are served in uniform metal plates with slots for each dish, and the experience is neither tasty nor nutritious. It helps to suppress hunger. Nonetheless, we never really questioned the taste or the serving quality. With hindsight I wonder: was the food getting worse because we gave in, and constantly lowered our expectations, rather than objecting to the way things were? Just as nobody deserves to eat terrible food, nobody deserves to put up with the political, social, or economic indifference shown by cultural institutions.
Image: AVTO’s fluid visual identity designed by Walter Santomauro. Courtesy of AVTO.
MÜ: And this operational framework has informed your visual identity, which I know has been a critical part of your presence as an operation?
SRÖ: Designed by Walter Santomauro, AVTO’s logo brings together two asterisks that trace the letters “A” and “V”—although this image actually serves as a visual proxy, because the identity is set to change over time with the input of constituents. Walter came up with a fixed shape, but his intention was not to contain future interventions. Rather, he set his sights on rendering AVTO more open and malleable, because a template is enabling for those that don’t have any design skills or knowledge. The work principle is quite simple: substitute or mix-and-match the asterisks with other images. The primary goal of implementing a dynamic and changing identity was to use it as a time stamp to keep track of how the organisation reacts to time. Like in every other foundational design process, AVTO is committed to a “permanent temporariness” as its only constant.
Image: View from Mesut Lizor’s lecture-performance at AVTO, June 2018. Courtesy of AVTO. Photo: Doğa Yirik.
MÜ: What does practice mean in the framework of AVTO?
SRÖ: As a millennial, I consider the process of developing a practice closely tied to gaining access to an idiosyncratic language which renders one’s subjectivity transmittable in some sort of form. This process is germane to dredging up ideas, abandoning them, constantly repositioning the self, admitting being wrong, and not being ashamed of starting from scratch.
MÜ: AVTO has diverse outputs, including podcasts, exhibitions, documentaries, research projects, and publications. How do you decide which mediums to use to convey your message? What role do these different outputs play in achieving your organisational goals?
SRÖ: Even though it’s equally critical, we’re more concerned with the questions posed and whether the issues at hand are relevant, rather than finding the right media for content. Usually, either time or circumstances tell what makes sense. For instance, we began producing a podcast series purely out of necessity. Until the pandemic, we had never considered producing a podcast. Our initial plan in 2019 was to invite Denis Maksimov to come to İstanbul for a learning programme about Futurology (Avenirology as he refers to it). After physical gatherings became almost obsolete, he redeveloped his curriculum into seven modules and brought the Pythian School of Futures to life.
Our publication series was also developed upon a need: documentation of art works produced in Turkey today that provide something more than monographical texts and installation shots. Simply put, we asked ourselves how we could produce documentation about their contexts, rather than reproducing images or regurgitating reviews of works. So our publication series has a simple logic: focusing on an artist’s single work, aiming to delve deep into the work’s subject matter or the artist’s research. The outcome is a reader that brings together new and already published texts. A similar approach goes for other media as well. What we attempt is to read and react to the time that we operate in, considering “today” art historically—as the past of a future to come. The scarcity of documentation on art, design, and architecture is an enduring issue in Turkey, and the work of precarious entities like AVTO is especially volatile.
Sarp R. Özer is a research curator and writer working as a system operator at AVTO, an independent cultural organisation based in İstanbul since 2017.
Merve Ünsal is an artist working around methods of tuning in. She is the founding editor of m-est.org and a PhD student at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
1. This programme was based on Lizor’s artist book in a tabloid newspaper format covering fictive news from a country founded in the place of Turkey under the name Rotation. This futurist piece of literature portrays a utopian regime that has only one law in its constitution: rotating between different types of employment. This state is self-defined as the true utopia according to the author, where the biggest cause of decay in humanity is resolved: unemployment. In summary, citizens are to change their jobs in specific periods of time depending on the difficulty of the job with no exceptions. In the first chapter of this ongoing trilogy, Lizor positions himself as the protagonist of the story portrayed as a professor from the philosophy department at the national university. The cover page features a reporting of his arrest by the state despite being the founder, because he ironically breaks the law by disobeying his next rotation duty that mandated him to work as a waiter. This book imitating a newspaper in form and content covers many mundane stories to delve into how life would go on in such a utopia, where absolute happiness is found through labour rather than leisure.