Interview with Pelin Tan

For Express, monthly Marxist culture magazine,Turkey

Pelin_TanPelin Tan is a generous and irreverent person living in Tophane, Istanbul

Dear Brian, as you might remember when we met last time we were discussing about the question of autonomy in contemporary art practices. In your writings, in terms of this context, you focus on collaborative, ethical-aesthetic and collective art practices. Could you tell us bit about it with some examples of projects, practices and your engagements?

I began as a critic in the mid-nineties, 1994 actually, by working with an open seminar at the Beaux-Arts in Paris run by a professor named Jean-François Chevrier, where we studied the latest Marxist interpretations of globalization and invited people from all walks of society to discuss the crisis of neoliberal restructuring, downsizing, lean and mean corporations, global oligopolies, that sort of thing. The crisis became obvious with the great strikes of December 1995, the largest and longest in France since May 68; so we were ahead of the curve, our work was immediately relevant. Around the same time I started getting involved with the graphic arts group Ne Pas Plier, a communist group located in one of the red suburbs of Paris, called Ivry-sur-Seine. The seminar culminated in the book of Documenta X, a retro-perspective look back over the second half of the twentieth century with a strong focus on economics, including an interview I did with David Harvey. I think the book is pretty good and somehow helped kick off the hybridization of art with various kinds of research into social change. After that, the collaboration with Ne Pas Plier led onward to the cycle of counter-globalization protests, where we were able to bring large amounts of graphic materials and do great interventions in the demos! The Summit of the Americas in Québec City in April 2001 was particularly memorable, we came with twelve or fifteen people from all around Europe, Serbia, Poland, UK, Germany, Spain, France of course, even two people from Argentina… All activist-artists, but Ne Pas Plier also included sociologists, unemployed people, folks from the neighborhood in Ivry. We made 4000 fire-colored masks on the spot and distributed 200 kilos of posters, stickers, etc, turning a gallery exhibition into a gigantic give-away site for the use of the movements. Along the way to the summits there was some pretty amazing stuff in Barcelona, like a week-long workshop on “Direct Action as One of the Fine Arts” in 2000, bringing together over a dozen really funny and virulent activist groups in an anarchist union hall with money siphoned off from the Macba, which for ten years was the most interesting museum in Europe (personal opinion of course). However, there were limits to autonomy in both those collaborations (the limits being the art world and the communist ideology) and I abandoned the Beaux-Arts soon after Documenta and left Ne Pas Plier after our interventions at the Laeken summit in Brussels in December 2001. A text called “Liar’s Poker,” written in 2002, expresses exactly what I was interested in at that time, which was subverting the art scene and encouraging people to more or less steal the resources and work with the social movements developing their transnational critiques, for instance, the No Border movement. Since then I have collaborated with lots of artists and then launched the Continental Drift seminar with Claire Pentecost and the 16 Beaver Group in 2005. The idea was to look at Anglo-American Empire, how it comes together and at the same time falls apart, how the outlines of the continents change along with the way we inhabit them, new regionalisms, Europe, Latin American revolutions, the Chinese rise to hegemony, all those things. Fundamentally we wanted to criticize Bush and show people they didn’t have to sit quiet like zombies. Continental Drift takes the model developed at the Beaux-Arts and makes it much better, fully collaborative, open to the city, focused on art-activism-social theory, critical and oppositional, free of all hierarchical bullshit and institutional ladder-climbing. Here in the US, where I have returned after 20 years abroad, I am finding lots of interest for this way of working and I am about to launch several other seminars. We need a revolution in this country and we lack revolutionary analysis and praxis. I am looking for ways to contribute.

You claim that “collective aesthetic practices, proliferating in social networks outside the institutional spheres of art, would be one the major vectors for this double desire to grasp and transform the new world map”. You describe it as a do-it-yourself geopolitics. Sometimes, as a person from the site of art production coming exactly from 1990s DIY practice, I have doubts about it as I also face a lot the danger of getting quickly normalized and institutionalized as soon as you create an autonomous network and space. How to prevent it… among the art events, markets, bodies of institutions and state?

Yeah, you’re quoting a text written at the end of the network-fever period, around 2003, summing up the kind of wild enthusiasm we felt during the height of the counter-globalization movement. A lot was done, important experiments with political consequences, and I wanted to inscribe some of that in my essays, especially the ones gathered in the book Unleashing the Collective Phantoms (2007) but also in the text “DIY Geopolitics” from my recent book. Of course you cannot do that stuff in art contexts and museums get filled with a lot of opportunistic simulations of activism that does not really exist. For me as a theorist, it was necessary to move on to other ways of working. However, if you look at a figure like John Jordan, he has gone back to assuming the persona of an artist, teaching and performing, and at the same time he keeps on inventing aesthetic techniques for protest interventions, like CIRCA – the Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army – which is a huge, viral, multitudinous practice. Someone like Alex Foti, who is not an artist, had a similar influence in the EuroMayday movement. So, art or not, who cares? The important thing is to try new experiments after the former inventions come back formatted and repurposed, overcoded. That’s why I say, “Escape the Overcode” – you can never hang on to the old stuff, society takes it away from you. Despite all that I think the art scene is good for more concentrated and sophisticated aesthetic practices, good for developing theory, good for getting around and meeting people too. I publish for free, collaborate, protest, subvert whenever I can, and I am not too worried about being recuperated, although frankly the whole Biennial episode was pretty embarrassing for me, I am not used to making such compromises. However, that’s the breaks of operating in an alienated society: the content and orientation of the Istanbul Biennial was great, a huge advance over what is normally done, but the frame, determined by other forces, was pure neoliberalism, with an additional national-fascist component brought by Koc. You could say similar things about Documentas 10 and 11, the big difference is that there was more protest in Istanbul, bravo for Istanbul, obviously I appreciate it! However, I do think the work of WHW has had very positive effects over the last ten years and I do want to help change the art institutions so that they are more meaningful and can maybe even help people to survive what promise to be the dangerous decades of the early twentieth-first century. We’re not there yet, the institutions have not been transformed, as the recent experience proves.

The economic geographers JK.Gibson-Graham ask: “How might non-producers of social surplus have a say in how surplus is generated, appropriated, distributed, and those to which it will not?”1. As recently I refer to Gibson/Graham’s claim that they try to find the ethical place for the distribution of social surplus value; the value that is not produced in any specific form but reclaimed even by non-producers. How can this help to explain collective places of contemporary art practices that pursue discursive engagements through ideological background and supposedly free themselves from the institutional structure in order to reclaim the distribution of the social surplus that might help to question the ethical positioning? What is the relation between socially-engaged collective art practices between “the existing flows of surplus value”?

That would be a better question for Claire Pentecost, who is one of the keyholders of a space called Mess Hall here in Chicago, they do exactly the things you are asking about. If you don’t mind I’ll let her answer:

“Mess Hall is an artist-run space on the north side of Chicago. It was started over six years ago when a landlord read in the New York Times arts section about Temporary Services, a Chicago based collective. He contacted them and asked if they would like to run a gallery in a storefront in a building he owns at a price of $1.00 per year. Temporary Services was not interested in taking on such a project by themselves, but saw the opportunity of expanding on surplus, so they invited several other artists to work with them in starting a space. The artists who run the space are called “keyholders” as they literally each have a set of keys. There are about 10 of us now, only one of whom was part of the founding group. No one is a director; we run the space without hierarchy and it seems to work very well. We don’t really know the motivations of our landlord, and it really doesn’t matter; we have always done what we wanted with the space and he has never bothered us about it. All kinds of things go on there: skill sharing workshops, film screenings, reading groups, lectures, panels, discussions, performances, exhibitions, demonstrations, celebrations, memorials. The programming is a mixture of things we organize and things proposed to us. We get several proposals a week. Almost everything that happens there would not be supported by a market-economy. Everything at Mess Hall is free. It’s an experiment in a generosity economy since our being there depends on an originary act of generosity. In 2007, inspired by the Black Panthers, we decided to make a ten-point declaration of our principles. It was a maddening, yet clarifying and satisfying exercise, one we recommend. Here are the results:

–We demand cultural spaces run by the people who use them.
–We create the space to remix categories, experiment, and learn what we do not already know.
–Mess Hall explodes the myth of scarcity. Everyone is capable of sharing something. –The surplus of our societies should be creatively redistributed at every level of production and consumption.
–Social interaction generates culture!
–We embrace creativity as an action without thought of profit.
–We demand spaces that promote generosity.
–Mess Hall insists on a climate of mutual trust and respect – for ourselves and those who enter our space.
–No money is exchanged inside Mess Hall. Surfing on surplus, we do not charge admission or ask for donations.
–Mess Hall functions without hierarchy or forced unity.”

How you define and discuss the differences in 1960s and 1990s of counter-urban practices involved with contemporary art practices?

That’s gonna be tough, I was only an itty-bitty baby in 1960. Probably there are a lot more such practices now, because a few generations have opened up a space in the public imaginary for such things. Also the decay of public services under neoliberalism means there are a lot of abandoned spaces, poor spaces, where you can do things because it’s a ruin. On the other hand, the brutality of the police is on the rise and the security panic is limiting all kinds of informal practices these days. One big difference is that from the 70s up to today, the practice of real counter-spaces and not just fancy theoretical models requires the practitioners to exit from the bourgeois high-art or architecture circles. An example is all the experiments organized by Doina Petrescu and Constantin Petcou in urban interstices in Paris, including Ecobox and their subsequent projects, which are marginal in architectural discourse but have an important presence in the city and have also fostered a communications network between practitioners all over Europe. It’s amazing work, Hackitectura in Spain is another example – but people higher up the foodchain of architecture just don’t want to get their hands dirty with such things. The nostalgia for the ’60s just makes me want to puke by the way. I think much more interesting experiments are happening today. The architects in their fancy ties and the pseudo-Situationist urbanists in the universities have lost their nerve and imagination, so most of them stick to models and studies and moan about the good old days. Fortunately there still are some exceptions, more and more, but the hypocrisy of ’60s nostalgia remains a sore point.

By contrast to the formalism of the often de rigueur relational aesthetics, French theorist Jacques Ranciere enlists an ontological argument to detect and describe similar construction in art performance and political performance. Which I find similar with most of your arguments that are about the role of art; especially when you describe at the end of your text in “The Politics of Perception” (with Claire Pentecost). Could you give some examples? What could be the forms of resistance?

You’re right, at the close of that text we traced a totally ontological line from Merleau-Ponty to Castoriadis, with Guattari in the background, who would be a direct mediator with relational art. You seem a little dubious about the results! Claire and I are interested in the affects of resistance and alterity, which are not only the affects of fire and let’s bang it up in the streets. There can also be longer-term projects, involving some kinds of care and changes in daily life, aspects which feminism has given more attention to. That work with tacit dimensions of knowledge and feeling also extends into performance and of collaboration, where the people involved are the artistic material and the work is trans-subjective, it consists in the effects it has on others. We did try an experiment the summer before last, called the Continental Drift through the Midwest Radical Cultural Corridor, which involved around a dozen people moving through the vast Midwestern territory for about ten days, contacting other groups, visiting sites, trying to understand where we are and where we could be in this weird, half-devastated former industrial region, which is also ravaged by agribusiness and more recent forms of corporate hyperexploitation, not to forget an enormous heritage of racism and the prison industry too. I don’t think you can do that kind of experiment in an artistic frame – we certainly did not –  but there are some spinoff works that can be worth showing as traces or proposals for the future. Generally speaking, the reception and elaboration of artistic gestures requires more attention than is usually given, as you can see by the fact that there is so little important art criticism, with the exception of maybe Boris Groys or Suely Rolnik. All the interesting catalogues are mostly about politics, geography and sociology, which is obviously important and welcome, but it leaves a hole at the very center of the artwork. The problem is that there is no good language for affect, you have to invent a style to express it. In our co-written text we wanted to explore various economic, philosophical and artistic issues while also developing a style between us. It’s just one further attempt. Of course I dislike relational art because it always seems like an advertisement for a relational process that never happened. Still the ontological dimension exists and I am looking for more ways to work with it.

As an art critic how do you think your practice is functioning in the production of art knowledge? How you describe your position?

Oh, it’s clear, after for working for years with museums and accomplishing something, I guess, now I want to help open up space for more radically critical and constructive leftist practices within what I consider to be one of the key institutions of neoliberal society, namely the universities. There’s a programmatic text that sketches out the basic idea, “Extradisciplinary Investigations,” once again developed with Claire though she isn’t a co-author this time. It’s a matter of leaving your discipline – art, philosophy, geography, psychiatry, whatever – and coming to grips with another discipline, not just as a theory but as an effective vector of power in the world. You try to cast light on that other discipline, get inside it and then criticize or even intervene on the effects it is producing; then you take that experience as a way to transform your original discipline. Most of what I now write about partakes of this process. I’m gonna be meeting with faculty from a number of departments out at Northern Illinois University the day after tomorrow, around exactly those themes. In 2002 I used a similar strategy in a text called “The Flexible Personality,” which was conceived as a Trojan Horse or a kind of discursive equivalent to Trotskyist “entrism” – you know, when the intellectual Trots would plant themselves in institutions without ever saying who they really are, and try to surreptitiously take over. Well, this text on the Flexible Personality adopted the arguments and tone of the Frankfurt School, fully legitimate as top-level dead white male theorists in the academy, and it used that heritage to suggest the possibility of criticizing the knowledge economy and practicing what I called, as a detournement of Habermas, “communicative activism”! Now I constantly meet students who have appropriated that text as a possibility for a radical approach to contemporary society and its forms of exploitation and oppression. It seems to be a touchstone for many of them, like “Liar’s Poker” has been for a number of activist-artists. The point is to contribute to getting us out of this twisted neoliberal hegemony that has poisoned the planet while reducing mainstream intellectuals and artists to narcissistic idiots of culture or natural born killers in the financial sphere, a rather sad fate either way, imho.

As an outcome of the transformative relation of the art object-subject, current artists are more practicing as a researcher, critical agencies with producing several forms of mapping, alternative publications…bit different then the image of modern artist of the previous century. Do you think this practice could have a danger to be easily appropriated by different geographies of neo-liberalization?

All of the excitement around mapping began with the new topologies of the Internet and the model of contextual research coming from architecture. It was very necessary because the pace of social change became so rapid after 1989: it was another world, you had to get oriented. I liked Bureau d’Etudes the best because they were the most critical, we collaborated and distributed those crazy maps by the thousands in the big demos. A few years later it was natural for Eyal Weizman to work with them on the Territories show which was another important milestone (I did the editing and translations for the catalogue, funny how that happens). However, it must be recognized that there has been a lot of fancy prestige associated with the simple fact of making a map or a diagram. Geography hooks into this new art/research fashion pretty easily, and I don’t have to talk about social-network graphs, because the opportunities for corporate cooptation of that are all too obvious. It’s normal, the vanguard work on that kind of stuff was completed five or ten years ago and now the patterns are set and the big-time cultural production is launched. It’s time to leave mapping behind. The revolutionary web experiments of the 1990s have become Facebook, a new variety of mas delusion. This is why I am moving toward the ideas of territorial intimacy and inquiries around class and precarization, which are urgent here in the US and have the potential to help people get really really angry. We understand the network society now and it is time to attack the networked ruling class, that’s what I think.

You were involved with the journal Multitudes but left it (as far as I know); could you tell about that, and your experiences about the border of discourses and disciplines how it influenced your decisions in integrating yourself to art and activist sites?

Multitudes was a fantastic intellectual crossroads, full of friendship and cooperation, utopian philosophy, aesthetic adventures, economic analysis, political militancy, network experimentation and also a lot of acrimonious polemics which is apparently how it works in any Parisian journal… I followed it from its inception in 2000 and then joined in 2003 after having set my own course, so that was a good foot to begin on. Fundamental to the journal were the Italian emigrés, Toni Negri, Maurizio Lazzarato, Paolo Virno, Antonella Corsani, Carlo Vercellone and others, most of whom also came to Barcelona and participated at the Macba in contexts organized by Marcelo Expósito, so there was a clear interlinkage with art developments as well. The Italians worked mainly on the concepts of general intellect, social cooperation, cognitive capitalism and the common. But Multitudes went far beyond the Italians because it also gathered many former collaborators of Deleuze and Guattari, including French people like Anne Querrien, Giselle Donnard and Eric Alliez, but lots of people from outside France as well, ranging from the Belgian epistemologist Isabelle Stengers to the Brazilian schizo-analyst Suely Rolnik. In addition to the basic concepts of autonomous Marxism, quite well known by now, I have been specially interested in Guattari and schizo-analysis, which provides the kind of trans-subjective ontology I was talking about above, as well as important understandings of social assemblages and processes of deterritorialization. The use of the horse-head nebula on the cover of my recent book is fully inspired by Guattari’s notion of chaosmosis, which is a process of self-transformation including territorial and cosmic components. But back to Multitudes: the journal made a significant contribution to the leading edge of leftist philosophical, economic and aesthetic discourse in this decade, and I am glad to have made a significant contribution to the journal by editing one full issue (number 15) and one dossier or “majeure” (number 28) as well as various articles. There was recently a big split in the journal (yet another one) which resulted in the departure of the whole Autonomist wing and a number of associated people, myself included. My reading of that is complex (I do give some ideas about limitations of the general Autonomist discourse in the introduction to my recent book), but one thing is clear. Coming out of the 1990s dot-com boom, Multitudes banked on the idea that networked cooperation represented a productive innovation within capitalism. This new cooperative potential could be seen, in good Marxist fashion, as being contradictory to the limits imposed on  (immaterial) production by the very nature of capitalist exchange. Yann Moulier Boutang in particular developed this kind of idea, maintaining that the cooperative potentials of cognitive capitalism had already brought about a “great transformation” in the capitalist societies, including many positive aspects that now should be stabilized and protected through a “new new deal” along the lines of Roosevelt in the 1930s. This basic position led him to many rather absurd conclusions, such as the idea that because of their supposed role as the register and stimulus of cooperative production, the stock markets would work wonders promoting a green-economy boom in California. Yeah, sure. After the financial crisis fully declared itself in September 2008, the hypocrisy of being in a journal whose “director” made such statements (because YMB had managed to have himself considered the “director” of the journal too) became unbearable to me. There also emerged a fairly broad consensus among the exiting members of the journal that the mechanisms of parasitic governmentality, cybernetic control and financial expropriation were the defining features of cognitive capitalism, and that the point was not to stabilize the system but to explode it. So that was the end of the story as far as I am concerned. However I am glad to remain part of the ever-expanding circles of Autonomist Marxists and I think brilliant things were done in the journal Multitudes. May its afterlives bear ever more fruit and cause ever more disruption.

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5 Responses to “Interview with Pelin Tan”

  1. Gökhan Says:

    It’s good to have read it in advance in English, I am happy that Express will cover this interview next month.

  2. links for 2009-10-22 – website of caleb waldorf... Says:

    [...] Interview with Pelin Tan do-it-yourself geopolitics Share: [...]

  3. Relational Aesthetics Go Political Says:

    [...] Continental Drift [...]

  4. erden kosova Says:

    the translated version in eXpress is slightly different. some of the questions and answers above are missing in eXpress, whereas the question and answer about the Istanbul Biennial is missing here in the english original.

    i checked the original cos i m little bit surprised by brian’s answer, in which he states that the exhibition is harmed by external condition, most signifcantly by the “nationalist-fascist” frame imposed by the Koç group, a frame produced by neo-liberalism (if correctly transcribed and translated).

    it is no doubt that the istanbul biennial is severly harmed by the politics of IKSV and its links with corporate support. and it looks like that the koç family (at least the deceased grandfather vehbi koç who promoted the 1980 coup and the father, rahmi koç who has some dark links with the state) is not distant to a widely formulated ground of neo-nationalism, that resides on white-nationalism.

    brian also states in the following sentence that luckily there have been protestations against the biennial (or against its corporate links).

    my contention would be here that if the quality of “nationalist-fascist” is to be used here, it should refer not to the contrived sterility of koç group that deliberately abstains from impositions onto the art event (the word neo-liberal is more fitting) and produce an image of “urban cultivatedness”, but to the “some” strands of the protests against the biennial which have been equating anything belonging to the field of contemporary art with western cultural imperialism and striving for a nation-based formulation of resistance.

  5. Brian Holmes Says:

    Hello Erden, greetings, I hope you are well.

    I am very curious about your comment! Of course I am happy to post it as it but it is mysterious to me why you say the question about the Biennial is missing from the English version, because it is not. Check the text again, you will see.

    As far as the translation goes, of course I have no idea. Frankly, I have no idea about the character of Express magazine either, it is quite difficult for a foreigner to know such things. In the English text above I say “the frame, determined by other forces, was pure neoliberalism, with an additional national-fascist component brought by Koc.” So in other words, I am saying that everything outside the direct control of the curators is very strongly determined by neoliberal-type urban promotional concerns, WITH SOMETHING ADDITIONAL, namely what I have identified (correctly or incorrectly) as this “national-fascist element brought by Koc.” By national-fascist I refer to Koc holding’s involvement with the Turkish military-industrial complex — which, in the Turkish as well as the American case, appears to me to be a very dangerous institution, always connected to nationalism and intrinsically subject to fascist developments as we saw in America under Bush.

    So, yes I am happy that there were some protests against the Biennial, because I think it is necessary, indeed very important, that protests be held against the use of art as a communication strategy for the promotion of urban real-estate within the general competition of metropolitan centers against each other. The presence of Koc holding among the sponsors also seemed to be a legitimate focus of protest. I do not at all believe that either neoliberal type promotion or militarist nationalism is the best way to develop any form of culture

    Beyond that, I am broadly ignorant of the exact character of the protests. In my experience, such expressions are often a mixed bag and could include some very ignorant positions. If I myself thought that any contemporary art, and specifically the art shown by WHW, was necessarily reprehensible, anti-social, capitalist etc, then of course I would not have participated in any way! I do not believe that. I think you have to make distinctions. But I still think it was good to protest against the way the Biennial is run, its sponsorship, and above all, against the IMF and the World Bank. Protest can be quite good for democracy. So that is what I am trying to say. Social life is complex and sometimes one can think it is important that people protest against something one has been personally involved in. That is my case with the Biennial.

    Anyone else who had further clarifications or explanations to add should feel free to do so, including yourself, Erden, I have every respect for your comments and I am sure you can add much more to this discussion.

    best, Brian

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