Istanbul Biennial


Panel Discussion:

Who Needs A World View?

September 12, 4-6 pm


“The idea that someone in chains, muzzled in a hole in the ground in the company of worms, might in no way be prevented from thinking whatever he likes, may well console those who see being in chains as an unalterable destiny. In reality, people muzzled by the economy can only think freely if they can free themselves in thought, that is, from the economy. And they can only do this if their thought changes the economy, in other words, makes the economy dependent on it…. The recognition that thought has to be of some use is the first stage of knowledge.”

Bertolt Brecht, “Who Needs A World View?” (c. 1930)


How should we know what to do about the world economy? How can artists and intellectuals intervene across the diverging scales of contemporary politics?

Liberal democratic society has only two measures of value, and therefore only two standards for organizing its collective decisions: profitability and popularity, calculated on the markets and in the media. This formula has given rise to extreme consumerism, predatory business elites and populist political leaders who draw on ethnic and religious identifications to pump up their individual images. What has disappeared in the spectacular splash and the aggressive national posturing is any kind of collective project, such as the industrial modernization projects on which so many Leftist artists and intellectuals collaborated in the early twentieth century. The question we face, as artists and intellectuals, is how existing forms of cultural production and distribution can be reconfigured, in order to help generate egalitarian aspirations after the current bankruptcy and collapse of the exclusionary liberal formula of market-driven, media-centered democracy. How can new values of solidarity and reciprocity become visible in thought, serving as measures and standards for vitally needed changes in reality?

This panel asks about a view of the world, which is essential to any collective project at contemporary scales. Yet this cannot be a static or univocal “world picture.” It would be futile to resurrect the industrial utopias of modernism, or to remain content with scattered snapshots of oppression and resistance, mere gestures of hope and rage. Postmodern fragmentation must be overcome, not by going back to monolithic disciplinary structures but instead by creating long-term frameworks of understanding and action. What’s lacking are ways to coordinate disparate modes of perception and expression, so that situated acts of showing and saying can become pathways into sustained processes of collaborating and doing, both within existing communities of value and across the boundaries of language, class and historical experience. Art is a way to crystallize perceptions and memories, to express desires and ideals and to open them up to transformative debates. It is a vector of denormalization and liberation, for sure: but it is also a symbolically effective arena for the negotiation between individual freedom, small-group autonomy and social planning in complex societies.

The question, therefore, is not whether art should be interventionist, but what kinds of interventions it can perform, at what scales, where and why and how and with whom. To overcome the cynical view of large exhibitions as spectacular malls for the sampling of “world flavors,” or as global popularity contests with an underlying profit motive, will require many kinds of work on the aesthetic, ideological and organizational levels. Only at this price can artists and intellectuals even aspire to contribute to collective projects, and to find more trustworthy ways of measuring their success or failure.

Over half a century ago, Brecht put the question bluntly: Who needs a world view? Today the answer could be this: Anyone who stops to think about the immense challenges that await us over the next half-century.

Participants: Meltem Ahiska, Bassam El-Baroni, Charles Esche, Marko Peljhan, Irit Rogoff; moderated by Brian Holmes

Biennial info here


5 Responses to “Istanbul Biennial”

  1. diren al Says:

    A Contribution to the Critique of the Political Biennial: Zaaaaaaaart!

    At the night of September 11, we were also at the Antrepo for the opening of the 11th International Istanbul Biennial. We were there, however, not for adding our words to the absurd cacophony of “radical” statements which were floating in the air like over repeated tongue twisters but to “zaaart” this spectacle. There is only one answer to your statements like “socialism or barbarism” echoing in the saloon filled with your sponsors, bodyguards, ministers with fake smiles and old wine smells—catering was so poor indeed; if two peanuts are enough to be sponsor, then we are willing to do it next time!— and it is: “zaaart!”. The rest is empty words.

    Last night was yet another example of the age of cynicism in which statements do not make much sense and the fact that we live in an in a conceptual emptiness that swallows and empties every word. What is enthusiastically clapping the speeches of the CEO of the Koc Holding and the Minister of Culture, right after shouting out “every bourgeois is a criminal”, if not a symptom of cynicism?

    Fortunately, we don’t need this game to remember the dreams of liberty that you were whispering to our ears last night. Don’t worry, we also remember things. For instance, we remember the appreciative advice letter written by the deceased father of Koc Holding, which granted us this exceptional night, to the generals of the 12 September, right after the military coup d’etat. Maybe you would like to use it for your next spectacle?

    Thirty years ago, they dampened us; they hurt us bad in this country. Today we were mourning but tomorrow we will continue from where we left off. 13.000 robbers under the name of the IMF and the WB will be in Istanbul on 6-7 October. In those days, we will dampen them; the streets of Istanbul will be shut down for them. Let the carnival of our resistance be their nightmare!

    Our shadow is enough!

    Direnistanbul Commissariat of Culture
    Direnistanbul Popular Propaganda Network
    Beğenal Rascal Army Choir
    Direnistanbul Committees of Proletkult

    September 12, 2009

  2. brianholmes Says:

    First of all, I wish the best of luck to all those involved in Resistanbul and I encourage everyone to protest against the IMF and the World Bank.

    I understand you are disgusted by the sponsorship of the Biennial; so am I. Expressions of such disgust are necessary, whatever the quality or strategy of the art that is presented in this kind of event. I have very often been in the street throwing stones, there are lots of good targets! And I have found careful arguments to explain my disgust, like you do. But I also know what I am doing as a writer, holding my nose and participating in this project.

    I am collaborating with a large network of people who try to change the content and the uses of art, in order to support whatever possibility of transformation that currently exists in society. The goal is to impose a different understanding and valuation of aesthetic practices, which connects them to social issues and makes them into a critical force. This takes years of effort and I have been working on it in lots of ways, along with many of the people who are involved in this particular event. We are definitely not 100% successful, but who is?

    You will say, real critique can only come from the outside. Again I agree. I prefer to operate outside the official institutions, I think the real inventions are made autonomously, but the problem is, autonomous initiatives remain far too small. The counter-globalization movement which has revived the critique of capitalism remains far too small: it has not found the way to break out of isolation, to break into society itself. I think we have to go into the institutions and change them. For that we need many events like What Keeps Mankind Alive, better ones, stronger ones, more deeply connected to active social forces which cannot only be protesters but must go much further into the whole cultural, professional and class structure of the contemporary societies.

    Standing against the IMF is a good start. Subverting the Istanbul Biennial is a good start. But both these things are totally inadequate to the task. That’s important to remember. Anyway, down with Koc and down with the IMF! Let’s find the imagination, the knowledge, the skills and the solidarity to really change something in this world.

  3. Brian Holmes Says:

    –> For one follow-up on this discussion check out a conversation “commissioned” by a publication called El Tiempo Celeste (Celestial Time???) and reprinted by Afterall:

    Here it is said among other things that my statement (I guess that means the text for the roundtable) is pathetically romantic and that the above response to Resistanbul is “rather unsophisticated.” The latter comment is, for me, the characteristic one. Anyone who recognizes that what’s mainly going on in the international artworld is a transfer of considerable amounts of money to people pursuing their private ends and pleasures, in exchange for letting their works be used to legitimize transnational state capitalism, is by definition rather unsophisticated! And probably doesn’t fit very well in Celestial Time!!!

    Still the conversation is worth reading. There is a lot of discussion as to how the Biennial was too Modernist, too “realist” and did not do anything to change the strategies of display. Some quite interesting things are said by Pip Day, whoever that is. My view is that the artworks in a show like this could develop their full potential only in a social situation which allows for collaboration with people in a whole range of institutions – schools, workplaces, theaters and leisure facilities, psychiatric and other hospitals, etc etc – and also with people who are not part of institutions, people engaged in self-organized associations on the anarchist model. This would open up a real public sphere of politically involved individuals and groups, and thereby inscribe art in quite a different support structure than the usual neoliberal corporate legitimation complex and real-estate market that pays for it nowadays. And it would allow the excellent works in a show like this to develop their full symbolic potentials, which I think could be crucial to the cultivation of generous and resistant human beings.

    The text above, and the roundtable in Istanbul, was meant to provoke a discussion on the ways of collaborating that might lead to such outcomes. However, I am afraid that most of the members of such a sophisticated milieu is actually perfectly happy to drink their champagne and complain that the display strategies are not good enough to solve the world’s problems…

    Further opinions on these questions are quite welcome.

  4. Protest Camps Says:

    […] [vii] A grounded reflection on the camp from a participant argues that it was a productive and worthwhile failure: . For an interesting precedent to this debate, see for example the exchange between representatives of the Resistanbul anti-IMF mobilisations and art critic Brian Holmes around the 2009 Istanbul Biennale, which occurred at the same time as these mass mobilisations: […]

  5. Protest Camps and White Cubes – Gavin Grindon Says:

    […] [vii] A grounded reflection on the camp from a participant argues that it was a productive and worthwhile failure: . For an interesting precedent to this debate, see for example the exchange between representatives of the Resistanbul anti-IMF mobilisations and art critic Brian Holmes around the 2009 Istanbul Biennale, which occurred at the same time as these mass mobilisations: […]

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