Vasif Kortun is the director of Istanbul’s nonprofit Platform Garanti Contemporary Art Center, which holds exhibitions, releases publications, and offers artist residencies. Currently closed for renovation, the center will consolidate two institutions and reopen in two buildings in 2011. Kortun was the founding director of the Museum of the Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College in New York (1994–97) and the founder of Proje4L, Istanbul Museum of Contemporary Art (2001–03). He curated the third Istanbul Biennial in 1992, and co-curated the ninth with Charles Esche in 2005. In 2006 he received the Bard College award for curatorial excellence. In 2008 he co-curated the Taipei Biennial. A collection of his essays and interviews on biennials, Istanbul, curating and other issues, is due to be published in 2010 by Art-ist Publications.
What was the first exhibition you curated?
The one I want to remember? It was a two-part show entitled “Recollection/Memory” held at the Taksim City Art Gallery in Istanbul at the end of 1991. It featured five local artists, including Gülsün Karamustafa and Hüseyin Alptekin. The project questioned the formation of the Republic of Turkey in 1923 and its subsequent legacy—issues that at the time were not discussed at all in the art world.
Why did you decide on being a curator and what were the shows that influenced you at that time?
It wasn’t a decision; it was a need. I’m not very good at writing so I use the exhibition as a tool to tell stories. It was the general experience of visiting the Centre Pompidou in Paris in the summer of 1977 that turned me on to curating. I think the exhibition was “Paris – New York,” as well as an Ed Kienholz installation, The Beanery (1965). “Magiciens de la Terre” (1989) was also instrumental in helping me understand what an exhibition can articulate; the Pompidou was clearly the best institution in Europe in the 1970s and 1980s. Many issues that could be discussed negatively, such as populism, were quite positively constructed to good ends. Jean-François Lyotard’s direction of the exhibition “Les Immatériaux” in 1985 showed that philosophy could be allowed into the institution through the front door.
Which institutions do you look up to now?
None. It’s hard to find pertinent institutions that are not founded on the scale of an art center. Large-scale operations don’t have strong narratives these days, especially not those in major cities. They impose on themselves a kind of pressure that is fundamentally about dumbing down.
And smaller instititutions?
I prefer smaller places, but that, in the end, is a narrative of disempowerment.
You were the first to internationalize the Istanbul Biennial in 1992.
More than to internationalize, what I brought in were a few major changes. One was to question the national model while retaining it. This put me in the role of a meta-curator. Secondly, the Biennial had a very strong regional component, and I took it completely out of the historical city and severed its dependency from power structures such as the Academy of Fine Arts and provincial territorialism. You have to see the Istanbul Biennial against the background of the historical redirection of the city, the change from production city to service city, the post-1989 collapse of bureaucratic socialist states and the new migration patterns from former socialist states to Istanbul as well as from the southeast. I was merely reacting to what was happening.
You said that “biennials have consumed their role—their job is done” to American art critic Peter Schjeldahl in 2007. Do you still feel that way now?
That was a provisional statement. I was reacting to art fairs because they had almost buried the biennials. They were shorter, sexier and more fun. I’ll make another provisional statement now. I want to retain the biennial as one of few public models that have not been hijacked by commerce. It still presents opportunities for countries without established institutional structures. I like the fact that it’s temporary and lean.
Can you tell us how the Istanbul Biennial has influenced local artists? Has their production changed?
Yes, but I don’t know which came first. The biennial is a symptom of the new internationalization of the art world, of the aestheticization of life and of the neoliberal economy. Of course it has an effect; it polarizes the local contexts. It benefits the kind of artists that are more cosmopolitan, or those who are critically disempowered in their cities.
When you curated the Biennial you deliberately moved away from using historical buildings, whereas this year’s curators [the Zagreb-based collective What, How & for Whom] write that they would have liked to go back to historical buildings such as the Museum of Painting and Sculpture. Would that make sense to you?
What the curators achieved with this exhibition is completely different. They put an end to the fetishization of Istanbul. It’s the first biennial that you could plug into London or Moscow interchangeably. But it’s not a bland global show. For the curators it was more important to use the Biennial as a “stage,” because this year’s edition is truly performative.
Can you tell us about the work you are doing with Hüseyin Alptekin’s (1957–2008) estate and archive?
Platform Garanti acquired his library after he passed away. We now have his archive and are processing a vast amount of information for a set of exhibitions due to be held in 2011, which will include a revaluation with a few artist colleagues interpreting the work and the archive. The work will be placed in a larger context from 1989 onward, the year when Alptekin started to work as an artist.
What is the concept behind the new Platform Garanti?
The new institution is not only for the presentation of contemporary art. It’s a multivalent organization that presents coherent programs in spaces in two different buildings. In terms of the mission, research and archiving are at the core of our activities. Around this we will organize exhibitions, publications and residencies. Finally, there’s an educational component. Platform Garanti will be a space that encompasses contemporary art, architecture, design, urbanism and economic and social history. It’s very exciting to integrate all these elements into a programmatic whole.
One thing that is noticeable in Istanbul is that private firms like Garanti Bank have invested a lot in art, even before the 2004 opening of Istanbul Modern, backed by the Eczacibasi family of industrialists and cultural philanthropists. Do you see the public sector trying to catch up?
The public sector is a disaster. Culture has been relying entirely on private support for 20-odd years. In the eyes of the public, culture and art are sponsored by so-and-so. It’s not a necessity, merely an incidental commodity that may be regarded as a surplus rather than a need. The public has to come back in and lead. Total private support creates a very fragmented cultural sphere in which institutions compete with each other. I can project that we will have at least 20 private museums in the next ten years. If the public sector does not become involved again, it’s going to be horrific.