Vasif Kortun is Director of Research and Programs at SALT, a contemporary art foundation based in Istanbul. He was the Founding Director of Platform Garanti Contemporary Art Center, Chief Curator and Director of the 3rd International Istanbul Biennial (1992), curator of the Turkish pavilions for the 1994 and 1998 São Paolo Biennials and the 2007 Venice Biennale.
In this interview, he talks about his notion of the museum of 21st century and the ideas behind SALT. A stroll through Istanbul, from its past to its future.
A Skype conversation with Vasif Kortun
Conversation transcription below
Part 1 of 2
Part 2 of 2
Michela Alessandrini: Thank you very much for participating to this interview, Vasif Kortun. I would like you to introduce SALT and its engagement in the Turkish art scene and to know what makes your institution different from the others in your country and abroad.
Vasif Kortun: It’s hard to say how SALT is different from other institutions, because it’s not really an art institution — although it has a lot to do with art, as well as other things — and it’s not only an exhibition institution. The programs and everything we do is not primarily built around exhibitions or with the goal to make exhibitions: but it is built around research. That makes SALT both a research centre, a small university without students, an exhibition space and a museum all at the same time.
When we were putting this institution together, we were fully aware of the fact that it would not make any sense to make a museum in the 21st century: that was, somehow, a very ancient idea. The concept of what we should be doing in the beginning of the 21st century in Istanbul had to be completely different. It creates a kind of a problem, because you immediately fall off the grids — you are not really part of the network. You are part of the network but then again not. There are things to be gained from that, and things to be lost from that. But that’s OK, and we really decided to take on.
As it is not fundamentally an exhibition-based institution, it is very hard to figure out SALT from the view point of looking at other social institutions that look like art centres, ICAs, kunsthalles, or museums. We are not part of that game. We are very interested in contemporary art, in the built environment, in the socio-economic history. We are still in the humanities, classically speaking, we still rotate around that. We miss science in this institution — although that could have been another road to take — and Istanbul is very unique in that way. In terms of the international situation, it is very unique as well.
Istanbul scene has been dominated, regulated, and run by private institutions and public service for the last 30-35 years. These are all smaller institutions, smaller in scale, compared to Topkapi Palace or the archaeological museum — these are huge institutions of previous centuries with amazing collections. The contemporary or the 20th century is relegated to the private institutions, in terms of the service. And all of that scaled up at the beginning of the two thousands with the accession talks with the EU, with the economic changes in the country, with Istanbul becoming a world centre again, waking up from its sleep of a hundred years, good or bad — there are many negative things about that as well. With that came the contemporary art institutions, which it’s not really shocking because it happens all around the world: at this moment it is just happening in Lebanon with new museums now, in Hong Kong with M+, in the Gulf: it’s happening in most places where there is a condensation of capital, money, and liquidity…
MA: I was intrigued by your notion of the museum of 21st century. You said that this is quite an old idea today and that it is quite problematic to open a museum today. I would like to know what do you expect from an art institution of 21st century.
VK: There are many ways to address this question. I was thinking of the original notion of the concept of the museum, as it was invented in the late 18th century, and it gained its particular form in the 19th century, and all of this trajectory. From an educational institution, from a civilizing mission, to its spectacle mission right now, within that trajectory. I was referring to more encyclopedic institutions, with their many many departments — chronological departments, medium-based departments, geography-based departments, etc. These are all things of the past.
I’m not saying that one should get rid of the Louvre or of the Metropolitan, the Art Institute of Chicago or the MoMa. Those are institutions with their particular legacies and history — it’s very nice to see that they are still around. But the urgencies of today, the contemporary moment, and possibly our future, demand other things from the cultural sector, other form of responsibilities. We know now that knowledge is not departmentalized at all. It would make no sense at all to make a departmentalized institution right now. We also know that knowledge doesn’t come from the West anymore. So we have to think of the future of an institution that doesn’t prioritize the West or is not a colonizing institution but a decolonizing or decolonial institution.
Also right the demand of our present time — maybe it’s a self-imposed demand — is to have a less neutral institution, and be more engaged with the political sphere, social sphere, ask good questions to the public, make decisions — not only allow the context for people to make decisions but also take lead on certain things. As the public sector dissolves, a public institution, an art institution, or an institution cultural service should be a little bit more specific about what they do.
And also, for a new institution today, we have to move on — as many institutions are moving on obviously — from a notion of audience to a notion of context where your users enter either a convivial or a complicated or an agonistic relationship with you, but with the understanding that the new institution is a cultural space where all these things can be discussed: it can be convivial and agonistic. This is the ground we claim, even if we may not like it, so we can actually affect the future of the institution in interesting and quite valid ways. The old institutional and civilizing arrogance of the 19-20th century has to go away.
MA: Could you spend a few more words on what you are doing at SALT, particularly within the art field?
VK: What we do in the art field here at SALT, is a research institution: some of these researches you see, some you don’t. We are an archive institution: that’s an important aspect of what we do. We have probably the most complicated archives in the country, in terms of going deep in certain fields especially in the work of certain artists, who started their practice in the early 70s or at the end of the 60s.
So more or less this has been our timeline so far. It may go a bit further back — this is going to happen in the near future — but what we have done so far is from the 70s onwards. As an example, there was an artist who was completely forgotten here, Ismail Saray, nobody remembered him because he left the art practice in the 90s and he was in London, so he was doubly removed from Turkey. We did a kind of retrospective on him. It took like 3 years to put together all the objects, data, stories, everything, that was from scratch. We are going to do a publication on him; we did two exhibitions and there may be some kind of projects outside the country very soon, in London I think, we are negotiating with some institutions to have the imagination of that project. Then, we did a project on mid to late 70s on artists and the political context, before the coup d’état.
That was also a research project with two publications. We do publications, usually after the project. We never do catalogues, we never publish anything. We did it at the beginning, once, but we had the material already. We never publish anything before something happens. It’s usually a year or two years later. We don’t work in this kind of new capitalist way, we don’t like this kind of “experience” economy. We like to unfold projects over time when they become boring, because that exciting moment is finished, all we do is after that exciting moment. It’s a purpose way of approaching projects, so that their life time, their life span are much longer.
MA: It’s another approach to time.
VK: Yes, because we are neophiliacs, we like to do a show and then go to the next one, next one, next one, next one… We try to undo that ideology in the way we work. That’s very important.
And now we are working on the 1980s, that will be an exhibition up during the Biennial time (editor’s note: Istanbul Biennale, September 5 – November 1, 2015), is part of the Internationale project. We look at the period between the birth of neoliberalism and 1989. In Turkey it corresponds to the dictatorship in 1980 and then to the neoliberal economic policy; it will take it to ’93 and look at all major changes in the society: the art world, urbanistic transformation, all that.
This is how we work, and there are always one or two research-based projects each year; the rest are faster projects, we do normal exhibitions as well.
For the art community we are the memory institution. We try to take something from the past and push it forward, and try to look at that past much more critically.
And more or less there is a retrospective every year, one year is a person from outside the country. We work with Hassan Khan from Egypt, with a retrospective, the biggest show probably ever, we work with Akram Zaatari, with Rabih Mroué. These were all artists from the region, that’s also important for us.
As we are in Istanbul, we like to believe that we are part of a larger region. We like to think that everything we do, the art world as well, is a kind of interface. SALT is not an object-based institution; objects are not in the centre of what we do. It’s archive, it ‘s discussion, and other things.