I can't go on, I'll go on
a text by PASAJ (Zeynep Okyay, Seçil Yaylalı, Elif Bursalı, Giorgio Caione)
for Supermarket Art Fair Magazine 20'
The title of this article is taken from Samuel Beckett, ‘The Unnamable’, 1954.
1 According to 2006 TUIK reports, only one person per hundred visited museums or art galleries every month.
2 Aylin Seçkin, cultural economist, panel-talk on 'Back to the Future: What Is Contemporary Art?' at Corpus Gallery.
3Carol Duncan, “Who Rules the Art World? 1984
4Kristeva, Julia (1995), What Good are Artists Today?, in Chambert, Christian, ed. Strategies for Survival – Now!, The Swedish Art Critics Association Press
5Han is an Ottoman Turkish building that combined several functions (a hotel, stable, storage depot or selling point). "Nimet Hani, which was constructed at the beginning of the 20th century, is an ‘Ottoman office han’. In other words, the product of the encounter of a distant descendant of the Turco-Persian caravanserai with the Western-designed office building." Tareq Daoud, "a thousands dots and no line" 8 November -15 December 2018, PASAJ Karaköy
7The project was initiated by Goethe-Institut, the Consulate General of Sweden in Istanbul, the Embassy of the Netherlands and the Institut français de Turquie; in cooperation with Anadolu Kültür and Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts (IKSV)
This text is written primarily to give the reader an idea of the contemporary art scene in Turkey. In addition, it aims to underline the need for independent art spaces in today’s conditions; not only with their artistic or cultural significance; but also their social, economic and political contexts. The objective is to bring a critical stance to the current art scene in Turkey, through the experiences of off-spaces, particularly those of PASAJ, the independent art space that we have been conducting for nearly ten years. However, instead of expressing it only in our own discourse, we chose to include other artists' perspectives in this article. So their voices were added here, and they reinforced our argument with their statements.
The state has never been an actor supporting contemporary art in Turkey. There are museums and fine art galleries supported by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, today however there are no independent cultural and artistic spaces supported by the state in the field of visual arts. Only municipal centers are funded by local governance. In 2020, the Ministry of Culture and Tourism’s budget has decreased by approximately 1.6% compared to the previous year. It takes less than one percent of the total state budget, to be more precise 0,433%, dedicated not only to culture but also to tourism.
The whole field of culture is left to the private sector and private money. All this was encouraged by globalisation and the free market and it caused rapid growth in the contemporary art market. In light of the privatisation in the 1980s, the contemporary art scene in Turkey gradually became like a private foundation with art institutions owned by banks whose investment will further increase in the 2000s.
While the concept of what we call ‘art lovers’ actually grows in the general cultural discourse, the privatisation of arts and arts education, the absence of state’s investment for culture and cultural strategy, and lack of audience development led to a certain public disinterest in contemporary art. A vast majority of the population does not visit exhibitions.1
On the other hand, paradoxically, every year in Turkey, almost three thousand university students graduate from arts and culture departments.2 This colorful, smooth and flawless appearance of the art world is perhaps a point of attraction for many. Yet, the contemporary art scene is full of infrastructure problems: artists still have to fight for rights such as fees, copyright protection, and freedom of artistic expression. Working for low or no pay has for long been an industry standard for art workers. And none of this is spoken, disclosed or discussed. Where there is no criticism, only one side calls the tune, and this is how it is for the artistic scene.
Except for rare examples, the galleries endeavor to show the works of the very few artists (as their capacity dictates) whom they represent to reach their collectors. On the other hand, when we look at the number of artists in Turkey, we can say that only one group of artists’ visibility is considered important, and the presence of others is not taken seriously.
The contemporary art market is so pragmatic and prone to instrumentalisation that it uses artists in some way, no matter how active or resistant they are. Gregory Sholette describes this with the term ‘failed artist’ in his book Dark Matter: Art and Politics in the Age of Enterprise Culture. As the value of Jeff Koons increases, the value of a hundred other artists decreases. “This glut of art and artists is the normal condition of the art market.”3
Will there be exhibitions for a small number of artists, audiences and collectors that the galleries can reach? In a dynamic, vigorous city like Istanbul, will we experience art ignoring or interfering with its questioning attitude, its influence, and place in social transformation?
At this point, independent art spaces gain importance in terms of balancing the existing forces in the contemporary art scene. They propose a different alternative to a bank-dependent museum, art institution or commercial gallery. The independent spaces are courageous because they do not have a lot to lose and they believe in the creative process rather than the connections or fame of the artists. These spaces, where anonymous and pluralist structures gain value, are different from other actors in the art scene with their self-directed structures that do not serve any institution, thanks to their flexibility, communication methods, the autonomous environment they create, their programmes and aims. The dependencies of independent art spaces are constructed not on a necessity or formality, but on a common benefit, as state Stine Hebert and Anne Szefer Karlsen in their publication ‘Self-Organised’ (2013).
We think these structures can be everywhere and in every medium. Nevertheless, PASAJ put emphasis on the skill exchange and sharing of experience through participatory art, and go one step further from the state of contemplating or attracting intellectual interaction, stressing the need to open a platform for artistic production and action that we can actually participate in and that would lead us to a common experience.
What is this common experience for? Julia Kristeva writes in her 1995 article ‘What Good are Artists Today?’ that we all need a common experience. “I think we all need a new, surprising, painful or pleasant experience and then to understand this experience. Is this still possible?” she asks.4 This egalitarian structure makes it a common experience in which a person without an artistic background can also be involved in the process.
Relocated many times, each time, PASAJ is being reshaped with the surrounding neighborhood in order to grab these moments of surprises that Kristeva speaks about. Established in a room of twenty-seven square meters in the Halep Passage in 2010, the first two and a half years, it realised more than fifty exhibitions and talks by local and foreign artists. The aim was to make room for every site-specific project. When we moved to Tarlabaşı, in this diverse and low income neighborhood, we were amazed by the use of public space in everyday life there and the establishment of direct dialogue. The Tarlabaşı programme was built on friendship, relationships, and the process of brutal gentrification and social change in the area. We had quite satisfactory feedback from the neighborhood through our actions made between 2014 and 2018. Based on the idea that ‘contemporary art is for everyone’ we needed to widen out our audience. Through participatory art projects, the audience were not simply viewers anymore, they even became participants. It was a real exchange: we touched their lives and they touched ours and the artists'. Today PASAJ continues its projects in Nimet Han, a historical building in Karaköy with many little rooms, as well as in its surroundings. Here, in a room of sixteen square metres, it focuses on the memory of the place and works on the past and future of the room, the historical ‘han’5 and the local area.
Working hours vary according to each project, each move enables new acquaintances and collaborations. Being open to change is a condition for staying alive in this territory. This rhythm nourishes life with its dynamic structure, but at the same time, it is very likely to get hurt in the adaptation process. If the wound will not heal, it will keep on bleeding. These alterations affect every stage of our lives, and also the cultural and artistic climate.
But at the same time, we consider the value of memory vital to the experience, especially through the fast-changing memories of events and places in Istanbul and contemporary Turkey: brutally gentrified neighborhoods, inaccessible public spaces, abolished or displaced landmarks. We believe that we can recall participatory memory practices, social representations of the forgotten or unknown past through socially engaged art projects produced in situ that invite the local inhabitants to share, discuss, collect and learn from the experiences together.
The dominant art scene in Istanbul still has an elitist and traditional ‘white-cube’ sense of art where clean, presentable and risk-free spaces and works of art are featured. The environment that we are trying to establish is a bit more nonsterile, hybrid, uncertain and process-based. Such high sums are being spoken about in the art market today, and such an aggressive race is underway that what we are trying to create can be understood as a whim or hobby. But PASAJ is not a utopia, it is a living, real organisation... Besides, the art as we understand it is not a concept that has a direct relationship with marketing and sales, anyway.
It is very important to us how we construct our spaces, with whom we share them and how we express ourselves. PASAJ tries to connect with the local community and care about their sensitivities and priorities. It invites artists to build up site-specific projects in communication with its surroundings. With its hotel-based artist residency programme in an industrial neighborhood of Istanbul, AIR Bayrampaşa, it offers a multi-layered neighborhood whose history, architecture and social structure is a research area for artists.
We believe we need to relocate art, to put it in transitory areas, alleys, local restaurants, wheelbarrows and many other places. Hybrid, transformed, shifted… a table (MASA project), a room (Oda Project), a local restaurant (PASAJ Tarlabaşı), a website (m-est.org), or a grocery store (49A) can each be an independent art space. Ali Artun describes the establishment of PASAJ with the following words: “Think of a gallery; no gallerist; no exhibition; no audience, no customers, no collectors; no sale anyway. A box room at the bottom of a passage filled with cheap clothing and haberdashery shops has become empty, after a whitewash, it has become a gallery.”6 This is not only our way of starting but many independent art spaces share the same experience: Mehmet Dere, the founder of 49A in İzmir, transforms the tobacco shop inherited from his father. An off-space from Ankara, Küçükesat, Torun (‘grandchild‘ in English) used to be a local ‘kıraathane’, a café full of elders playing cards and socialising which is transformed into a Torun with the contribution of the next generation.
Lack of material resources may cause independent art spaces to be ephemeral. On the one hand, the dynamism here feeds production, on the other hand, we have to find solutions without stopping despite financial difficulties. How long should we continue, should these structures sustain? As the co-founders of the PASAJ independent art field, which has been actively continuing since 2010, we often ask ourselves this question: Why do we still do this work that requires a lot of effort, time, and money, with almost no financial return and no visibility, and still do it fondly and willingly?
Temporality is perhaps inherent to these organisations. We aim for continuity of these spaces, for freedom of artistic expression and the practice of criticism, which we want to establish for all of us. We want to continue on our way, but what do artists think about these spaces? Can these venues fulfill their role in an ideal way? How much can these structures give independence to artists?
To find the answer, we asked these questions to several artists who made projects with PASAJ.
Evrim Kavcar mentions that PASAJ provided a "comforting and reassuring" support during the project she realised together with artist Elif Öner, ‘Dictionary of Sensitive Sounds’, where they created a participatory dictionary and organised a series of talks called ‘dear reader’ in April–May 2019. “The independent nature of an art space encourages independent thinking. PASAJ provides a denk-raum; a thinking space or a place to breath, contrary to other spaces that are mainstream. An area where we can stay alone, where we can be ourselves. Profit is never the priority; that is another source of motivation for the artist."
The project ‘Today's History’ is an attempt to record the history of the present with the critical approach of the artist – Ekmel Ertan. It is presented with a multi-disciplinary fiction and is composed of three parts, each of which consists of a new installation by the artist. “I probably could not have made this exhibition anywhere else since I did not make my career as a professional artist in a classical way. The experimental attitude of this place, which is open for everything and approaches the artist with support and participation, has already made it possible to show this work there. You probably could not make an exhibition which you expect the audience to come and see three times in a row, in a commercial gallery.”
Hacer Kıroğlu, who carried out ‘Silent Squares’ in Karaköy with the curatorship of Inez Piso and added the Russian churches of Nimet Han and neighbouring buildings to the project explains: “The building of PASAJ led me to a place I never thought of, carried me somewhere. The fact that PASAJ has a flexible structure that does not produce bureaucracy made me think faster. It was a new topic for me and a site-specific project has emerged."
Banu Taylan, on the other hand, experienced new discoveries by making improvised music: “I performed and conducted in the ‘Garden Choir’ event in Halep Passage and in PASAJ. Most of the participants were shop-owners from the passage where the gallery is located. Throughout the project, we used the sounds of the urban garden’s donated objects, musical instruments and the sounds they made, sometimes walking around the passage and playing with sounds by settling in a corner. It was a pleasure to catch the same frequency, to break off together.”
Nicoletta Daldanise, as the curator for Elmas Deniz and Özgür Demirci’s exhibition ‘Money Issue’, said: "PASAJ was the occasion to share in a wider context our personal reflections, offering the possibility to touch delicate issues, such as poverty and the artist’s status, with a critical input from the public too."
Since 2014, there have been two private funds covering independent arts. SAHA, a non governmental association founded in 2011, provides support to facilitate the growth and development of independent non-profit art initiatives with an emphasis on ongoing public programming and activities. ‘Spaces of Culture’7 provides spaces and resources for the realisation of cultural projects within the visual and performing arts, as well as for discussion, training and development opportunities for local institutions. The project covers projects from three cities: Izmir, Diyarbakir and Gaziantep.
In addition to the limited funds available, the continuity of these spaces seems to depend on the development of alternative economic models. The fundraising party ‘Çorbada Tuzun Olsun’ (ÇTO) that PASAJ has been holding since its first year, provides us with a small resource in this context. Our Erasmus+ projects also contribute to the continuity of the space. By thinking that we can learn strategies from different disciplines, we also hypothesise the models which they adopt. Apart from this, we develop different types of collaborations, we can be located in venues given to us by cooperating with a restaurant owner like İsmail or an independent architect who has opened his office to PASAJ for a while. In the collaboration model we have with Ramada Encore Bayrampaşa; every year an artist stays in this hotel and conducts a short-term research residence in Bayrampaşa.
Being flexible and adapting to new conditions is challenging but also a must. There is always a struggle but if we move away from the difficulties of fighting alone and unite through commons, similarities, awareness, and recollections, it becomes an act of solidarity, and it is worth doing. We try to create the best version of PASAJ with our good sides and shortcomings and set goals for the future. We strive for an order in which artists can get the allowances they need and deserve for their production and volunteer supporters can get a payment for their work. Till then, good luck to everyone!