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The 13th Istanbul Biennial Public Programme: Public Alchemy

Public Alchemy

Rethinking publicness in Istanbul

The public programme of the 13th Istanbul Biennial examines the ways in which publicness can be reclaimed as an artistic and political tool in the context of global financial imperialism and local social fracture. From February to November 2013, a series of lectures, workshops, seminars, performances and poetry readings will examine how a political, poetic alchemy is at work, both in Turkey and across the world, in which conventional concepts of ‘the public’ are being transformed.

Today, the idea of ‘the public’ provokes extreme reactions, reactions that are weighted by religious, fiscal, governmental and geographical differences. Some see the public as a homogenizing and ideological machine, made up of supplicant and unified bodies, invented to aid categorization and containment, a tool used by the powerful upon the weak. Others assert their role as part of a public as a right of citizenship, a spectacular affront to autocratic legislation and a forceful tool of dissent. Both these perspectives are haunted by the potent image, historical and contemporary, circulated in ever-faster cycles of virtualisation, of bodies acting together to claim space – citizens choosing to be part of the count for or against a cause or a right; jubilant, frightened, heroic and political subjects the fate of which is so often either co-option or violent repression – civilization or barbarity. What are the alternative ways of thinking and being publics? How are these questions particular in the context of Istanbul?

An alternative version of publicness can be read between the lines and in the actions of some contemporary artistic, philosophical and political practices. Here a monolithic understanding of the public is replaced with the assertion of a variously scattered, singularized and networked subject who is inventive and flexible, sensuous and performative, a public subject that appears and disappears strategically, virtually. This public might be epitomized in the activities of the digital creative commons or, more precariously, as the set of subjects that came together in various western cities as the Occupy movement. Whilst these examples seek to either reject or experiment with the spatial and social binaries of public and private, actor and audience, author and recipient in the same way that many artists and curatorial projects do, they also put in place a model of the public with a commonality so flexible that it is uncoupled from history, and often in danger of reproducing the very values of sinuous capitalisation that it attempts to evade.

Whilst such temporary social and subjective engagements express a potent alternative to governmentalized public intervention in many forms, they often fail to grasp the real issues at stake – and the duration of investment needed – for sustainable change. When good-willed interventions ‘into’ the public domain by artists, architects, urban planners and politicians are so often quickly capitalized, how do we rethink our public relations – relations of subjects, between subjects- in the spaces we need to learn to share, and with the methods of co-production that we need to invent?

Publics are not already there, whole, waiting quiescently in the spaces allocated to them, for instance in the city or town square, ready to act in unison in the name of predetermined legislature. Instead, publics are made of matters of our subjective, political demands. Isabelle Stengers and Philippe Pagnarre have written about the sorcery of capital. They describe the magical power of financialisation in which profit, that most immaterial of substances, is materialized in frighteningly sophisticated, creative and inventive forms [Philippe Pagnarre and Isabelle Stengers, Capitalist Sorcery (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011)]. We can see this at work in Istanbul in the sudden transformation of the street, in the miraculous appearance of a new bridge here, a new shopping mall there. But Stengers and Pagnarre turn this financial alchemy on its head by reclaiming witchcraft, with its collective, gendered, ostracized and often anonymised histories, as a form of anti-capitalism. Can we begin to discuss, and practice, a similar alchemy in terms of publicness, where the base material and ordinary knowledge of the public is used in its transformative capacity? One that allows us to reclaim our own sense of publicness rather than have behavior imposed upon us, to inhabit the city without discomfort or compromise, to assert our values without fear of reprehension?

Public Alchemy programme

The public programme will take place on a series of weekends in the months leading up to and throughout the Biennial. Each weekend of events will include lectures, workshops, seminars, performances and poetry readings:

8-10 February 2013
Making the City Public
22-23 March 2013
Public Address
10-11 May 2013
Public Capital
14-15 September 2013
Becoming Public Subjects
1-2 November 2013
Future Publics/New Collectives

8-10 February 2013
Making the City Public

It is clear in the structure of Istanbul that its layers of competing political history reveal traces of complex concepts of public space, from the Imperial to the Republican, from the informal to the formal, and back again. Now, Istanbul is being transformed through huge capital investment, resulting in the destruction of historically and culturally diverse neighborhoods. In this context, our starting point for debate is the social and cultural impact of Istanbul’s urban transformation and citizens’ reactions to this. We seek to question the modus operandi of this transformation and the role of the cultural industries within it. Where is the space for democratic, ground-up negotiation?

22-23 March 2013
Public Address

This part of the public programme examines speaking and listening in the city, the rights to have a voice, the role of music and poetry in the establishment of different voices, and the crucial role that the media can play in creating public forums. For instance in the context of calls for an ‘opening up’ of media rights in China, debates about free speech in the media in Turkey, and the rights of private citizens against media intrusion in the UK, what constitutes free speech today? What role do so-called social media play in the development of new forms of public voice?

10-11 May 2013
Public Capital

In Public Capital our aim is to examine the relation between private capital and the making of publics in the context of Istanbul’s burgeoning art market. How does the art market shape the ways in which contemporary art is made public? How does money impact on ‘autonomous’ artistic production? How do the structures of the art market relate to broader questions of contemporary financialisation? Can we imagine ‘public money’ – an alchemical transformation of the basis of high finance?

14-15 September 2013
Becoming Public Subjects

A commitment to making new publics means rethinking the subject as an author, an actor, a voice that acts alongside other voices. This has profound implications for the ways in which we understand art to be produced and exhibited. How can art foster the construction of new positions and subjectivities? What type of sorcery is implied in being both one and collective?

1-2 November 2013
Future Publics/New Collectives

The final part of the public programme aims to examine future models of cultural production, focusing on practitioners who are transforming the shape and method of making events, actions and exhibitions in the context of alternative political paradigms of publicness. A call for new alchemists of the public sphere!

Public Alchemy published
A book of the public programme, with additional commissioned texts and artistic contributions, will be published to coincide with the opening of the 13th Istanbul Biennial.

Writing on Art
A workshop for emerging art critics will be held throughout the public programme inviting a selection of writers to work with the Biennial curatorial team to develop critical writing on artistic and curatorial projects. Writing will be published on an online platform leading up to and during the biennial. Writers will be selected from an open call. For details pleasse click here.