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One gets the first impression of what it means to be in Istanbul standing in the immigration line at the Atatürk international airport. Organised in a spiral, it involves a wait of around about an hour, in which you come across people who like you, passport in hand, slowly moving forward, little by little, until you reach the point where you encounter the police-guard of the moment. A line of green, red, blue, and black booklets with writing that I can’t quite read. Turkish Airlines, the main airline of the country, is the international airline that travels to the most countries, 108 in total, excluding the recently suspended destinations of Iraq, Libya, Syria, Ukraine and the Yemen. By land Turkey has frontiers with eight countries, three of them at war. It’s not surprising that they you have to wait in line.
The following line to wait in is the taxi rank. I ask the price to get to the zone of Beyoğlu: 55 Turkish liras, more or less 14 euros. I’m surprised. I ask a friend, a member of the modern, laic bourgeoisie if its normal that the tariff is so cheap. She replies that it seems ridiculous because the currency has been devalued by more than 20% in the last few months due to the political instability. The taxi journey passes by the European coast, where the remains of byzantine ruins mix with blocks of modern buildings awaiting construction, one beside the other, with numerous petrol tankers with unknown flags waiting their turn to cross the Bosphorus.
With all this in mind I arrive the following morning at the press conference for the twenty-fourth edition of the Istanbul Biennial of Contemporary Art, curated by a well known figure in the art scene: Caroline Christov-Bakargiev. After curating the last Documenta in Kassel, she has now been chosen for this biennial, smaller in scale but of notable importance. The title of the biennial is SALT WATER A Theory of Thought Forms and it uses the image of this material, omnipresent in the city of Istanbul, by way of an elaborate discourse tied to its principal properties. Sodium is the material that activates our neurological system and makes our vital system function, but is also a corrosive material that rapidly destroys any of our necessary digital devices. The Bosphorus moreover serves to talk about concepts such as nodes, waves and currents that create images that are both scientific and linked to history. This edition seems to distance itself from the present, from the grand problem of the new construction within Istanbul, to employ a vocabulary and series of contexts that are less hard and more liquid, that suggest more than they assert.
The biennial is orchestrated down to the last detail in an elegant circuit and the works are dispersed across numerous places around the Bosphorus that have to be accessed by foot or by ferry, which suggests it is focussed more on the foreign visitor than on the needs of the population of Istanbul. The incapacity of coming to know everything or to visit all the places, a recourse already used in the earlier Documenta creates expectations that are completed through the storytelling of the curator herself.
The locations highlight the different displacements of communities that have formed the history of Istanbul – the Greeks, Kurds and Armenians who were expelled with the creation of the Republic of Turkey – that also echoes what is currently happening in the extreme east of the country. For example, one of the sites, the Hrant Dink Foundation, is situated where once the newspaper Agos was located, an Armenian newspaper published in the two languages since 1996. The founder, Hrant Dink, an important figure for human rights and the reconciliation of certain movements in Turkey was assassinated at the entrance to the building in January 2007. The artists René Gabri and Ayreen Anastasas declare the house as Society of the Friends of Parrhesia, which in ancient Greek refers to capacity to talk truly, even if only as a utopian condition.
Another site of the biennial is the isle of Büyükada, where Leon Trotsky was exiled between 1929 and 1933. Having opposed the bureaucratization of Stalin, Trotsky lost power and was expelled in 1927 from the communist party and sent to Kazakhstan. From there he took a boat, which carried him by way of Odessa to what was Constantinople, by the Black Sea. The ruins of the philosopher’s house become another of these place-works of the biennial. Apparently Trotsky waited there to obtain a visa to continue with the international workers’ revolution, but none of the countries in Europe would grant him one. The United States also refused which left him situated in a “planet without a visa”.
Outwith the biennial but opening at the same time, the cultural institution SALT, a member of the network of institutions L’Internationale, in which also figure MNCARS and MACBA, presents the exhibition How did we get here, that analyses the period between the 80s and 90s in Turkey, a period where the coup d’état in 1980 introduces neoliberalism. From the eighties, the government, along with the army, promised prosperity and liberation, while they acted in social and political life as authoritarian regime. The ANAP (Anavatan Partisi, Motherland Party) was in power from 1983 to 1991 and supported a society orientated towards consumerism, with the military regime blocking all the opposition movements and political organisations. The exhibition shows archive material of those people who lacked political representation, such as anti-militarists, feminists, gay rights activists, defenders of human rights, etc. that united in alternative groups. This solidarity centred on democratic rights and calls for liberty, paved the way for the social organisations that we know today. It is significant that this exhibition takes place today given that may of the laws and struggles remain the same. The current president Recep Tayyip Erdoǧan has passed from a parliamentary system to a presidential system. The term neo-Ottomanism arises from the interest of the current party in power, the AKP, to revive Ottoman traditions and cultures and to relate to Muslim countries. On the frontier with Syria, it is not against the Islamic State that the Turkish army is fighting, so much as against the dissidents and Kurds of its own country.
How did we end up here? Is a question that refers to the present, to “us” as opposed to others. It makes me think of the “waves” that Boris Groys describes in one of his essays in the book of the biennial. Let’s say that every wave is an event. At the beach, every wave is different from all the others, but seems the same because the journey they travel is similar. Each wave is finite, linear movements but ones we know don’t give rise to any progress, as each wave is more or less similar to one that came before. Each wave escapes any type of identity or difference, any description as something linear or circular. History is made up of waves, we see them arrive, they reach us with force and afterwards they dissipate and end. From there arise others, as transitory as the ones before.
"A desk is a dangerous place from which to watch the world" (John Le Carré)