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Curatorial Practices
Interview with WHW Collective
by Nancy Garín

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WHW (What, How and for Whom?) was created in 1999 while marking 150 years since the Communist Manifesto. Composed of Ivet Curlin, Ana Devic, Nataša Ilić and Sabina Sabolović, what, how and for whom are the three basic questions of every economic organization that also concern the planning, concept and realization of exhibitions, as well as the production and distribution of artworks or artists' position at the labour market. This interview unfolds within the context and challenges of the 11th Istanbul Biennial.

Nancy Garí­n: The concept of the biennial is based on a well-known phrase of Bertold Brecht; “what keeps mankind alive”. Why did you base the biennial on this concept and how is it related to Istanbul and more generally to Turkey?

WHW: In our exhibitions we are often making references and dedications, but as in the case of our first exhibition “What, how and for whom, dedicated to the 150th anniversary of the Communist Manifesto”, around which we came together as a collective in the late 90s, the Manifesto itself was not the subject of the exhibition, but a trigger to initiate a public debate on recent history. The biennial, called ‘What Keeps Mankind Alive?’ after the protest song from The Three Penny opera written by Bertolt Brecht in 1928, does not directly thematize Brecht’s heritage. Brecht's assertion that 'a criminal is a bourgeois and a bourgeois is a criminal' from The Three Penny Opera is as true as ever. The parallels of the rapid expansion of the liberal economy and the disintegration of the existing social consensus in 1928, a year before the Great Depression, and the contexts of the contemporary global crisis are striking. Thus “what keeps mankind alive”also links us back to the economic concerns of 'what, how and for whom'. In that sense, the three basic questions of every economic organization - what, how & for whom - that have continuously and repeatedly been shaping our work, remain constant concerns.

As the title of the Biennial, "What Keeps Mankind Alive?" evokes two main subjects, politics and economy, inseparable more than ever, suspiciously similar, connected and networked all around the globe. At the moment the current financial crisis imparts a mighty blow to the 'new world order' in which we all have been living for the past decade. The foundations on which the neo-liberal order is based, until recently entirely unquestioned are trembling, so we tried to withdraw the exhibition from the immediate artistic and political context of Istanbul in the sense that we did not go into its local specifics, especially seductive in a city such as Istanbul, but rather tried to address questions of the contemporary world amidst the current economic crisis that are equally important everywhere.

What was important to us was to intervene in the intellectual climate of the city, which in terms of contemporary art is characterized by the conflict between an orthodox left position and contemporary art. We took Brecht as the position that could help us withdraw from the impasse of double-bind discourses of global neoliberalism and local ethno-nationalism. Art somehow finds itself “between a rock and a hard place”, which is a claustrophobic and problematic place to be in the sense that new openings have to be formulated around the fringes of the system, in its narrow cracks. In the context of the Biennial our wish was to try to reflect on the position that the Biennial occupies in concrete ideological and economic landscapes, which dictate the world of art too. We don’t have ready-made tools for how to get out of the deadlock, but we felt we should not ignore its existence. On a general level we believe that cultural and artistic practice is capable of articulating these conflicts from specific perspectives and offering insights that can make us think about them in a different way. But the real question is, is it enough, should we accept this and how can we oppose these limitations?

NG: How have you worked theatricality into the curatorial experience? Is it possible to think that theater, in the case of an art biennial, creates new avenues for the reception of political gestures?

WHW: Brecht in a way invites us to rethink our position again and again, to see the world as amateur actors. Four of us curators tried to take this position in short performances during the first Biennial press conference. Instead of releasing the concept in the conventional press release format, we performed our concept. The performance took place in the Ses Theatre in Istanbul and it was done in collaboration with Croatian theatre director Oliver Frljić. We tried to express 'the truth of our situation', as Brecht would call it, by making visible the curatorial promise that never fails to fail, by performing our decision and contesting the relationship between the curator, artist and the audience, as well as the biennial exhibition structure. Reference to Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt — estrangement effect - is of course obvious. The appearance of four reciting curators on stage questions the need for ''glamour' in an art event and the stereotypes about the position of a curator, in this case all-female collective.

A year and half later, during the press conference for the opening of the Biennial, we refused to perform our roles any more than strictly necessary in terms of the rules of those 'grand openings', and instead monotonously and unemotionally read our text - which was composed mainly of statistics pertaining to the biennial budget and artists. This performance, in a way, might recall the boring and unpersuasive public speeches by politicians in grey suits belonging to socialist nomenklatura in the 1980s in Yugoslavia, speeches that nobody could take seriously any longer, and which really were elitist theater of politics. For the grand opening itself, we invited 4 Turkish actors to deliver our speech instead of us, in Turkish, and we were invisible. In a way, we tried show how replaceable and irrelevant we were, and to what extent we are part of the situation we criticize. We wanted to accentuate our belief that curatorial views are not objective due to its impartiality. A real objective look, on the contrary, is one that emphasizes its position and involvement in the situation.

Theatricality was especially important in the particularity of the biennial, where the regulatory performativity of the system is so strong that in a way it permeates every gesture, artistic or otherwise. We tried to push it to the extreme, devising the exhibition as a stage in which contradictions and tensions between political claims of the artworks and the biennial as well as the apparent improbability of their effects within the 'framework' of the current internationalism of art, which is certainly not directed by revolutionary ideology, utopian social transformation and quest for universal human emancipation, but rather by the consequences of 'spectacle'. We hoped that this tension could be fruitful, not only by its exposure to an audience, but in provoking and activating the audience in making their own judgments, not only about the art, but about our capacity for action in the world.

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