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Thinking About the 'Seventh Continent'

Art and Its Healing Power: Can Biennials Make A Difference


By Billur Tansel (images courtesy of IKSV)

Nicolas Bourriaud, 16th Istanbul Biennial Curator (photo by Muhsin Akgun)

As the inauguration date for the 16th Istanbul Biennial approaches, we had a talk with Bige Örer, the director of the Istanbul Biennial. Organised by the Istanbul Foundation for Culture & Arts (IKSV) and sponsored by Koç Holding, this year’s biennial will be curated by the esteemed art historian and philosopher Nicolas Bourriaud. The biennial’s title was announced as ‘The Seventh Continent’; and will take place between 14 September and 10 November 2019. During our chat, Ms. Bige touched upon the past biennials, her vision and expectations on the upcoming biennial.

Bige Orer & Nicolas Bourriaud (photo by Ilgin Erarslan Yanmaz)

You conducted your studies in political science, public administration, communications management and sociology. Please tell us a little about yourself; and how did your involvement in the culture and art platform via the Istanbul Foundation for Culture & Arts contribute to your perception of culture and arts and life in general?


I am the director of the Istanbul Biennial and the IKSV Contemporary Arts Projects. I see myself as a facilitator of artistic projects. As IKSV, we are organizing the Pavilion of Turkey at the Venice Biennale and the Cité des Arts residency programme for artists from Turkey. We also organise exhibitions and public programmes together with the collaboration of many people and institutions in different parts of Turkey and abroad. I am also working as the Vice President of the International Biennial Association which aims at fostering a dialogue and a sharing of knowledge and experience between biennials.


I have studied political science and sociology and, at the same time, I was interested in art history and art production during my studies. I believe my educational background has played a crucial role in widening my perspective on contemporary art and exploring current political and social issues in the world. I think art is not separate from where we live and how we live, so all these fields come together and add multiple layers to our understanding of art and the world.


You have been working at the İKSV since 2003 and you were appointed as the Director of the İstanbul Biennial in 2008. This means you have directed five very successful biennials already and about to realise the sixth biennial this year. How have your views of the biennial changed over the years?


Every biennial includes many stories and it is a great pleasure to work with such a wide variety of artists, curators, academicians and people from different disciplines, generations and contexts. We learn from each other every time we do an exhibition. During my directorship, I have worked closely with artists, encouraged to have new commissions which engage with the local context and tried to create a space for learning and debate. I see a lot of opportunities and strengths a biennial can offer to the art community and general public; and we have been reaching out to different groups in the society through our exhibitions and public programmes as well as our publications.


What are the biggest challenges for you in this process?


Each edition of the biennial has different challenges depending on their context. I think we [would] all admit that 2016 was a particular year in world[] history.


In such moments – when our society had breakdowns due to [a] larger crisis – we slowed down, talked with people, contemplated on our practice and continued to do what we know best as a symbol of resistance. While many people were thinking that we should stop working, we believed [in] the power of continuation. Culture and arts play a more crucial role in fostering dialogue and peace in difficult times and therefore the Istanbul Biennial offers a platform that features different viewpoints, new networks and new forms of communication. We are lucky to be collaborating with curators, artists and supporters that feel the same way.


For this biennial, in spite of our intense, year-long preparation of the historical Haliç shipyards, we took the decision not to use the venue, a month before the Biennial’s opening, after it emerged that asbestos had not been entirely removed from the area where the exhibition was planned to take place. The hazard to public health and safety made this decision inevitable. Instead, in the immediate aftermath, we chose as our main venue the old Antrepo 5, which in March 2020 will open its gates as the Istanbul Painting and Sculpture Museum, housing the collection of Mimar Sinan University’s Fine Arts Faculty. As a result, just as it did in the 2005 and 2011 editions, Antrepo 5 will host the Istanbul Biennial one more time.


You are also very active on the international platform, you take part in many projects as a consultant or jury member, you are the Vice-President of the International Biennial Association to help facilitate a liaison and communication between the curators on an international basis. The latter seems to go hand-in-hand with the mission of the Istanbul Biennial to create a dialogue for collaboration between art actors from around the world…Do you find that these relations you build facilitate your goals for this task?


Of course, I always believe in dialogue, shar[ing] experience and knowledge. The IBA [International Biennial Association] acts for all the members as a space where we discuss all the urgent issues, and think about many collaboration possibilities. It is an enriching experience for me to work on the programming and publication committees on future actions of IBA.


How are the curators, biennial themes, artists and works selected? The curators are selected with care and precaution, the curators of the last few years have been professionals from different backgrounds and nationalities, giving the careful examiner a chance to study their different views and approaches. According to you, what is the role, relevance and influence of the İstanbul Biennial in today’s geo-political standing?


The Istanbul Biennial, organised by the Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts (İKSV) works with an international advisory board. Members of this board include curators, artists and art historians from Turkey and abroad. The curator of the biennial is chosen by this international advisory board, together with IKSV.


Each Istanbul Biennial is the result of a different curatorial approach. In the previous 15 editions, we have worked with prominent curators or collectives for making this important exhibition happen. It is always exciting to unveil new layers of the city through different perspectives. And I strongly believe that the themes of Istanbul Biennials create a beautiful constellation that reaches to infinity.


After studying all of the previous biennials since 1987, it seems that in the latest years more local up and coming artists were invited to take part in the biennials as compared to the previous years? Did IKSV set new standards in this respect?


The Istanbul Biennial, became one of the most appealing and experimental international large-scale art exhibitions in the last 12 years. The learning and public programmes of the biennial have developed as well in order to reach diverse groups in the society. The biennial acts as a learning space sometimes not only for the staff but also for many visitors who experience an art exhibition for the first time through the biennial. 


Since the Istanbul Biennial does not have a fixed venue, for every edition we have an opportunity to start from scratch and to explore the city from a different standpoint responding to the conceptual framework of the exhibition.


In 2013, we decided to make admission to the biennial free of charge for everyone with the belief that the exhibition must be accessible by all. 

It resulted with an important success in terms of visitor numbers. Since then, the Istanbul Biennial is free of charge and our doors are open to everyone who would like to find a moment of inspiration and aesthetics. Our collateral activities have a crucial role in the understanding of our exhibitions; we try to unfold different ideas embedded in the curatorial concept through talks, lecture performances and reading groups.


What do you find most exciting about this year’s biennial? Can you tell us about this years curator Nicolas Bourriaud and the theme ‘the Seventh Continent’?


We are very glad that we have the opportunity to work on this biennial with esteemed French art historian, scholar, philosopher and curator, Nicolas Bourriaud, whose research embracing the idea of multiverse is vital for the thoughtful minds of today. Nicolas Bourriaud has made remarkable contributions to the socio-political changes that the world has undergone since the 1990s and we believe his work in the 16th Istanbul Biennial will also help us open up new spaces of discussion and production, while providing new perspectives for the visitors of the exhibitions.


This year the title of the 16th Istanbul Biennial is The Seventh Continent. As many people know, this term refers to a gigantic mass of plastic waste that now covers no less than 3.4 million square kilometres of our oceans – that is almost five times the area of Turkey. The biennial will highlight today’s art as an enquiry about global life, a sum of studies about human effects upon the earth. Due to the increasing interconnections between cultures, the development of transportation, the migratory flow, the old centres now shelter a multitude of micro-cultures. The natural elements drift away together, reduced to particles and waste.


How was this year’s biennial planned? How many artists were invited to take part in it? Which venues will be used? 


This year, the 16th Istanbul Biennial will unveil 36 new commissions by 56 artists which will be dispersed in multiple locations around the city. 56 artists and art collectives from 25 countries have been invited to participate in the biennial.


The 16th Istanbul Biennial, will run from 14 September to 10 November 2019 in three spectacular locations across the city: the main location Antrepo No.5 which will be opening as the Istanbul Painting and Sculpture Museum in 2020 and will host around works of 40 artists; the Pera Museum in the heart of the city; and in a series of historic sites in Büyükada, the largest of the so-called Princes’ Islands in the Sea of Marmara.


What are the aims, hopes and expectations of the biennial of this year; and what are your projections for the future biennials?


The biennial aims at serving as a dynamic plane of interaction, a meeting point, and a critical site for the development of new aesthetic and political visions. It has become the main hub in Istanbul for the introduction, debate, and assessment of current paradigms in both the theory and practice of local, international, and transnational contemporary art. It also believes in the on-going support and development of concepts of ‘critical art’ that merge the political with the aesthetic and engage both the political and social environment.


What are the criteria to measure the success of each biennial? What kind of feedbacks do you get from the artists, writers and viewers?


The 15th Istanbul Biennial in 2017 was visited by more than 440.000 people in eight weeks at six venues. When compared to the previous biennial in 2015, the number of weekly visitors was increased by 21%. Both visitors from abroad and local people attended and experienced the biennial. So I think that’s the success of the biennial.

The main objective of the Istanbul Biennial is to create a singular space to artists for producing new works while giving a possibility to experiment, which naturally contributes to their own practice. Additionally, the biennial exhibitions enable and provide continuous interaction between local and international culture and art. It also creates an open and public space for dialogue and learning from each other. Therefore, we would like culture and arts to take the main stage during the 16th Istanbul Biennial and create a feeling of togetherness, through creation of new networks and new forms of communication through art.


Billur Tansel is an instructor, independent curator and writer that specialises in Contemporary Art. She has a BA in economics and philosophy from University of Mary Washington in Virginia, USA; a MBA from Sorbonne & Dauphine Universities in Paris; and a MA in Visual Communication Design from Yeditepe University. In addition to being an academician, Ms. Tansel has been actively involved in the art scene as the director of various art galleries, curator of several exhibitions, initiator of educational programs for children and adults, and an author of several publications. Ms. Tansel is also the founder of Open Dialogue Istanbul, a nomad international contemporary art project that focuses on educational programs, talks and dialogues. You may connect with Billur through her LinkedIn.

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