Independent Art Organizations and Corporatization of Art Scene: amberPlatform Case

Ekmel Ertan
Director, amberPlatform/BIS
Sabancı University, FASS

On May 27 as it became public through the social media that a wall of the Gezi Park was torn down to let the construction machines in, a group of 50 voluntary activists from the solidarity came to the park and started to stand watch. The group spent the night at the park. Next morning, around 5AM construction machinery went into the park accompanied by the police. Police immediately started assailing with tear gas and batons to the volunteers who spend the night watching the park. The news of this event went out that morning and rapidly spread via social media and awakened a large majority. As Süreyya Sırrı Önder, an MP came to the site and stopped the demolition by standing in front of a bulldozer, the event took on a different dimension; the news spread even more and a reaction started to form. Next morning, as the police repeated themselves and set the tents of protesters on fire, very different groups living in Istanbul all reacted with the same sensibility and decisiveness. Many sectors of the populace including football fans, shared the sentiment. An unbelievable crowd was pouring into Taksim from all over Istanbul, some crossed the Bosphorus bridge on foot since the transportation prevented by the city. The violence of the police escalated. Barricades were set up on the major arteries leading to Taksim and protesters clashed with the police. The clashes took the form of officers directly firing at people with tear gas canisters and the crowd pulling back and going forward again after police leave. Meanwhile the revolt became even more widespread in Istanbul as well as other cities joined in the protests. The clashes intensified as people poured in the streets and the police attacked them with tear gas, water cannons and batons.

The events that led to the current revolt started with an opposition to the government’s decision to reconstruct in the middle of a city park old military barracks that was demolished in 1940 by the recommendation of Henri Prost, the French planner who was reworking Istanbul’s master plan at the time. The proposed new military barracks was in fact a shopping center. Given the fact that Istanbul’s biggest need is public places and parks, the transformation of a public space ito a private property was an unacceptable idea to Istanbulites, especially given that the park in question is in the city center where this need is direst. Further, the Taksim square bears the political memory of Turkey. Besides a dominant representation of the republic, it also provides a public space of expression to those socially and politically marginalized or “othered” in one way or another. As such, it is the most visible and most public urban place.

It all started out with the uprooting of a tree and escalated with the unacceptable violence of the police but such a local incident would not have been enough to make also other cities in Anatolia rise up. The causes were closely related to a number of facts that have been accumulating. In the last two years the number of political detainees had surpassed those of China and Iran; Turkey was also the world champion in the number of arrested journalists; administratively, the people were not consulted in decisions that concerned them leading to a systematic digression from democratic principles; the judicial system was instrumentalized for political ends and the prime minister increasingly behaved as a tyrant, an a priori sultan who intervened in the everyday life of the citizens. Erdogan had almost managed to bring the 40-year old Turkish-Kurdish conflict to an end but the oppressive and othering discourse he employed in this case constituted a stark contrast.

Since May 27 when the revolt began until the last few days mainstream media outlets failed to report on the event, they ignored them. This was a clear breach of people’s right to receive accurate information. As Taksim, the heart of the social memory of Turkey was heavily bombed with tear gas, Haber Turk channel chose to broadcast a documentary on penguins and NTV went for recorded old speeches of the prime minister. In other channels continued with their usual sitcoms. The only dissenting channel Halk TV (People’s TV), Ulusal Kanal (National Channel) and Hayat TV supported the revolt and report on the events with complete live coverage from the first day. While CNN Turk was acting dumb CNN International started reporting on the events. Only when it was impossible to cover what is going on in Taksim with silence, this time disinformation started on those media channels.

After 15 days of peaceful occupation of the park, finally last weekend polis entered in the park again. There were many children and elderly people in the park. They trusted on the authorities, who had explicitly declared that there won’t be any intervention in the park. People left the park on the violent assault of the police with the tear gas and chemical-added pressurized water. But the resistance continued till the morning in the streets and all around İstanbul. Now we have a PM in the same league with Mubarek, Kaddafi, Asad or the western ones like Hitler, Mussolini, Salazar and all other fascist dictators of the world. (Ertan)

The history of oppressive regime goes back to 80s and even before. But 80’s was the last and may be the biggest breaking point in the near-history of Turkey. Coup d’etat started setting up the ground for neo-liberal capitalism.

As Pelin Başaran stated in her research on privatization of culture in Turkey, in the last three decades “The state was minimized in accordance with neo-liberal principles and lost its control over many spheres, including culture. With the “liberalization” of culture, the wealthy class, which sought the restoration of its hegemony, started to act in the cultural sphere with its lifestyles and habits, and with its cultural investments in which economic and social capital were transformed into each other. Since the 1980s, the leading families in Turkey have opened their own museums among them the Sadberk Hanım Museum, the Rahmi Koç Museum, the Istanbul Modern, the Pera Museum, the Sakıp Sabancı Museum, and the Çengelhan Museum. They exhibit their large private collections either in their old mansions or in other historical buildings. In addition, corporations like Garanti Bank, Akbank, İşBank, Yapı Kredi Bank, Siemens, and Borusan Holding have established their own cultural centers and galleries.” (Başaran)
Mayor of Municipality of Istanbul, says that “Istanbul should leave its position of being industrial city with rather it should be the city in which more qualified labor exists and which approaches to the world with a different attitude…After that time, Istanbul should take the functions of being finance center, cultural center and congress center…” (Başaran)

With those objectives and the entrance of the leading families and holdings into the cultural scene starting from 80’s, they formed a cultural scene -so called- above classes, politics and ideologies, which is a reflection of global authoritarian populist politics. Today all cultural life is mediated by the extensions of big corporations or the institutions, which are direct connection with these families and holdings.

In current cultural life in İstanbul the state is not a real actor. The State Museum of Painting and Sculpture has been closed for renovation for the last 9 years. Ataturk Cultural Center, which was house of the state opera and ballet, was closed eight years ago with the same reason; the promised renovation never properly executed. State theatre has been under the thread of being closed down, the draft law is waiting to be approved. Beside that the state does not financially supporting art, except poorly funded movie sector and traditional arts and crafts.

In addition to all those, the PM and his cabinets’ approaches and understanding of art has been alarming in many sense. Translating from E. Aysun, “It should also be emphasized that the coup d’état in 1980 left the civil society weak implying serious legal restrictions, creating a big gap among the state officials and the professionals of the culture sector. This gap has caused the state to position itself in opposition to the contemporary artistic and cultural production, and implement occasional censorship to art works and artists in the name of protecting the moral or religious rights of the society. The Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan provoking the demolishing of a statue that he finds ‘freakish’ or of Interior Affairs Idris Naim Şahin defining artists as possible terrorists are only few of these cases.” (Aysun)

Those attitudes also illustrated an insecure field, which could have been secured by ostentatious venues and events of private sector. According to Başaran following the withdrawal of the state from the social spheres, culture has become seemingly more inclusive thus, it has emerged as a new area for hegemonic struggle.

As a result of neo-liberal politics and the decisions made on the representation of İstanbul as a finance center, culture gained more importance. Emerging “service class” demanded new tools to create its identity. Those corporal cultural institutions have created an aura for this new middle class, they feed them to create their identities through the art and culture they served.

Those cultural venues are sharing a certain class identity. The architecture, interior design, graphical identity and their self-representation as well as chic and expensive cafes inside, draws a frame that defines what an art institution should be; therefore what art is! I like to refer to McLuhan’s motto, “medium is the message” here. Those institutions became the mediums for art consumption and they define the way as well as the type of the art to consume. I believe –in connection with the arguments on museums-, artworks loose their individual stories, social importance and true artistic meaning, but turn out as objects of a temporal art history.

Lets come back to the connection between those corporations and their ongoing investments that made possible with the help of the current government against to the objections and protestations of the local peoples and NGOs.

Doğan Holding, which has TV channels Kanal D and CNN Türk besides main stream newspapers and many others, also has HES (Hidroelectrik Energy Santrals) in Sinop and Giresun and amines in Gümüşhane; Doğuş Holding, which has NTV, Star TV and many others, has also Artvin Dam and HES on Çoruh river and many other HES projects; Çalık Holding who has Atv and Sabah newspaper has also mines in Erzincan and HES in Rize; İpek-Koza Holding who has Kanaltürk and Bugün TV and Bugün newspaper has also running gold mines in Bergama, İzmir. (Yavuz) All of those investments are suspicious and against to the will of local people, NGOs as well as ecologist and experts. Opening up every square of the country to the corporations for such investments are the most argued executions of the current government due to their ecological endangers as well as corrupted relation between the government and the corporations. Erdoğan changed the laws in one night, rendered court decisions ineffective, suppressed local protests with the polis force and the most importantly blocked the information flow by putting pressure on media. This dictatorial face of the government actually became visible during the Gezi Parkı occupation.
It is difficult to find your way as an independent art institution in such a socio-politically manipulated scene with complex interest relations?

BIS (Body Process Arts Association known as amberPlatform) founded in 2007 as an association by eleven individuals consists of engineers, dancers, academics, artists, researchers, and theoreticians who are working in the field of art and technology. As declared in its foundation texts, BİS aims to examine the social impacts of new Technologies from a critical perspective, to promote creative and participatory technology culture, to explore artistic expression made possible with the new Technologies and to create an international platform for exchange of knowledge and experience and for new collaborations. While BIS evolves in the last 7 years since our inception, we expanded these ideals with concepts like technology for people, technology by people, open knowledge, transparency, DIY culture, creativity, ecology, the commons and similar. BIS annually curates international amber Art and Technology Festival since 2007. amberFestival is a thematic festival. amberFestivals themes so far was –starting from 2007- voice and survival, inter-passive persona, uncyborgable, datacity, next ecology, paratactic commons and finally this year we are focusing on technology and foolishness with the title “Did you plug it in?”. As it can be seen through the themes we are advocating a certain approach to and understanding of technology. This stance requires a careful relation with supporters, sponsors and collaborators.

BIS realized first amberFestival in 2007 with personal bank credits by the initiators beside the financial contribution of cultural institutions and attaches of invited artists’ countries. Between 2008 and 2010, BIS got a 3-year grant from İstanbul 2010 European Capital of Cultural Agency. This was the first that we and independent contemporary art institutions, artist groups and artists at large supported by a governmental body in Turkey. But I want to remind that İstanbul 2010 ECCA was using European money at large and it was a European perspective although initiated by local individuals. The state or any governmental body did not internalize 2010 experience. A year after there was nothing left; no institutions or any organizational changes based on new learning acquired from the 2010 experience and no more funding or funding bodies targeting art. In 2011 and 2012 we managed to realize the festival with the support of the consulates, cultural institutions, universities and by programming the activities of other projects that we have been running at the time in the festival.

Beside the festival (and conference in the frame of festival), we run or have been running international multi partner projects that are supported by mostly EU Culture Frame 2007-2013. Most of those projects’ budgets were granted in half by the funding body and the other half asked to be covered by the organization’s self financial resources. Beside that they do not cover the organizations daily base costs and salary of the employees. Nevertheless EU funds were our main financial source since 2008.
In the contrary of EU countries in Turkey neither state nor city supports NGOs or other independent art institutions on a regular base. Actually with the habits of 1980 coup d’état, NGOs are still suspected bodies from the state’s point of view.

Although we organized 6 international festivals and conference in İstanbul since our inception, run 7 EU projects as partner and 1 as the leader, curated many exhibitions in İstanbul and abroad, beside the workshops, Artist in Residency Programs, production of artworks, lectures, seminar et al. we only could managed to employ a professional half a year ago. The three initiators of BIS put their volunteer effort to make the organization sustain. Our experience showed us that EU funding system and mechanism is somehow working to let individual organizations come to existence and survive. But no organization or no individual should be expected to be as durable and passionate as we were. Thanks to EU but that is not enough to let an independent art network developed in İstanbul. Local system should encourage and help individuals and young organizations.

Esra Aysun states in her article on the cultural entrepreneurship in İstanbul, “The necessity for a funding model that would enable the emergence of independent organizations that would not pursue the policy of any government or private corporation and would be formed by artists or cultural management professionals has yet to emerge as a discussion topic”. (Aysun)

We want more share for the art at large from the public money. In Turkey, states cultural expense per person is less than 1/10th of Europe. Thus as independent organizations we do not want to rely on the private money. Basically for two reasons; we do not want our organization to be a tool for the strait forward advertisement policies of the companies and we do not want the art we present to be a tool to justify those corporations other involvements that we disapprove. On the other hand we are not interesting for such corporation as well, since we are working in a niche, we are not organizing big and popular events and –the most important- we are critical!

Therefore although it is against on going neo-liberal policies, state should be an actor in the art scene by not making art but indirectly supporting artists and art organizations. Municipalities especially municipality of a city like İstanbul that defines itself as a world city should develop funding mechanisms to support art and culture field and should create a stable and democratic ground to let the creative industries develop. On the other hand private sector stop pouring all the money to its own institutions and should left its hegemonic approach. A good solution would be a foundation, which creates a pool with the contributions of private sector to support independent artists and art organizations. Private sector should understand that a creative city, a vivid cultural life and a real art scene is only possible with independent individuals and organizations. Their invisible investment will help them more at the end and will be cheaper than running a luxurious, gated art institutions for the same 200 audiences who are everywhere (the number is symbolic).

EU funding system is very important and functional but we know that shares for the art and culture is getting smaller everywhere. Therefore we need to look for other solutions. We should consider crowed sourcing which can be a good solution. Actually that is an even better solution as a direct democracy formula. Kickstarter and indigogo showed how successful such systems can be.

After all the experience we had I believe as independent organizations, we should keep small which increases our capabilities to implement creative solutions and act local in an international network of sharing resources and experiences.

Ekmel Ertan, “#direngeziparkı #direndemokrasi (#resistforgeziparkı #resistfordemocrasi)”, http://rozenbergquarterly.com/?p=5365, June 2013
Pelin Başaran, “The Privatization Of Culture And The Development Of Cultural Centers In Turkey In The Post-1980s”, Boğaziçi University, 2007
Esra A. Aysun, “Looking at the Cultural Entrepreneurship in Istanbul“, Current Issues, Supplement of the 130th issue of Sanat Dünyamız magazine, 2013
Yusuf Yavuz, “Bu medya Gezi Parkı’nı neden haber yapamaz”, http://www.odatv.com/n.php?n=bu-medya-gezi-parkini-neden-haber-yapamaz-1206131200

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