February 03, 2010

What Keeps Mankind Not Alive?

by Ezgi Basak

The largest contemporary art event of Turkey took place in Istanbul under the name of “11th International Istanbul Biennial” for two months since its opening in September. This biennial distinguished itself from the previous Istanbul biennials, claiming to be “the most politically engaged” of all. The curator was a socialist-feminist artists’ collective from Croatia called ‘What, How & for Whom’ and they came up with a controversial title. They took the name of the song‘What Keeps Mankind Alive?’ which closed the second act of the play The Threepenny Opera, written by Bertolt Brecht. The play was based on Brecht’s assertion that ‘a criminal is a bourgeois and a bourgeois is a criminal.’ In the conceptual framework, ‘What, How & for Whom’ proposed the urgency of the question posed by Brecht for us living under the neoliberal hegemony and investigated the role of art in instigating social change against global capitalism. It was a large-scale event. We could see the posters proclaiming “Socialism or Barbarism” and “What is robbing a bank compared with founding a bank?” everywhere in the Istanbul streets.

Despite its glory in the international arena, the entire biennial was a huge irony. First of all, they targeted solely the middle-class intellectuals. It’s very common in Istanbul biennials, but this time I would have expected from them to make an effort to engage the “others”, those who are outside of the bourgeoisie, in the biennial not just as art objects but as real audience. Wasn’t that supposed to be the point? They could at least have made some public performances or street exhibitions. But they did nothing other than putting those posters on the walls, calling people to rob banks, which clearly did not attract them at all. Moreover, the biennial was sponsored by Koc Holding, one of the biggest corporations in Turkey involved in arms dealing. And yet it was not the worst part. Somehow, nobody seemed to remember the letter written by the father of Koc Holding’s CEO to the generals of the 1980 military coup, in order to congratulate them and to give them advice. When confronted with this fact, the curators said: “A society that discusses Brecht is better than a society that doesn’t discuss Brecht at all.” For me it was nothing but a striking example of how opposition and resistance were appropriated by the neoliberal system and being marketed as art in closed spaces. Should we learn how to resist from the ones whom we should resist, and on top of all, pay them to teach us?

We, the anti-authoritarians who gathered together under the name of Resistanbul against the International Monetary Fund-World Bank visit to Istanbul, added another question: “What Keeps Mankind Not Alive?” Our conceptual framework said: “We acknowledge the urgency in these times when we do not get free healthcare and education, our right to our cities, our squares and streets are taken by corporations, our land, our seeds and water are stolen, we are driven into precarity and a life without security, when we are killed crossing their borders and left alone to live an uncertain future with their potential crises. But we fight. And we resist in the streets not in corporate spaces reserved for tolerated institutional critique so as to help them clear their conscience.”[1]

Since the curators claim to be radical, we should ask them whether they would ever dare to put that letter in the exhibition. The answer would probably be negative, because then they wouldn’t be sponsored. On the other hand, I’m sure they would again say that it is better to make this biennial without the letter than not making it at all. But doesn’t that amount to sheer cynicism if the limit of “the radical” is drawn by CEOs? I think we should give credit to Slavoj Zizek who says that “cynicism” is a form of ideology. He says: “Cynicism is the answer of the ruling culture to this kynical subversion: it recognizes, it takes into account, the particular interest behind the ideological universality, the distance between the ideological mask and the reality, but it still finds reasons to retain the mask. This cynicism is not a direct position of immorality; it is more like morality itself put in the service of immorality.”[2] And I believe that, above all, it is this cynical discourse that keeps mankind not alive.

[1] For more information on Resistanbul: http://resistanbul.wordpress.com/

[2] The Sublime Object of Ideology, Slavoj Zizek.

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