The Art Biennial as a Public Health Problem

The Art Biennial as a Public Health Problem

If speaking of biennials as a public health problem was ever hyperbolical, the Whitney Biennial controversy this past summer has ensured that it no longer is. Upon the revelation late last year that Warren B. Kanders—a prominent member of the Whitney’s board since 2006—owns Safariland, a company that produces tear gas and such munitions, around 100 of the museum’s staffers demanded his resignation. The activist group Decolonize This Place followed by occupying the Whitney to amplify the staffers’ demand. In February, Michael Rakowitz, one of the biennial’s participating artists, declared his withdrawal due to Kanders’ board membership. As the controversy heightened over the spring, Forensic Architecture, another Whitney Biennial participant, announced that their contribution will consist of a video focusing on the tear gas Triple Chaser produced by Kanders’ Safariland. In mid-June, eight more participating artists, including Forensic Architecture, withdrew from the biennial. Forensic Architecture published another video revealing that the ammunition produced by another one of Kanders’ companies, Sierra Bullet, has been used in Gaza. Kanders finally resigned in late June, leading the eight artists to revert their decision to withdraw

A striking similarity exists, then, between the ways in which mining and curatorial practice operate. . . as methodologies no longer acceptable in the Global North are given a fresh lease of life elsewhere.

The Whitney case provides a potential precedent for the debate that has yet to fully develop around the 16th Istanbul Biennial that kicked off last month. The Istanbul Biennial is organized by İKSV (Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts) alongside various other major arts and culture events the foundation organizes in the city, including a jazz festival, a design biennial, and a film festival. İKSV’s board of trustees include pro-government businessmen like Ethem Sancak, who in recent years have made enormous profits in the construction business, and longstanding members of Turkey’s business elite such as the Koç and Eczacıbaşı families. The Koç family has been the Biennial’s major sponsor and will remain as such until 2026, while the Eczacıbaşıs founded and continue to give direction to İKSV.

Last April, İKSV declared that the Haliç (Golden Horn) Shipyards would be among this year’s Biennial venues. The shipyards have, since the mid-2000s, been the subject of a so-called regeneration project dubbed Haliçport. The project aims to transform the shipyards’ function from labor and collective production to luxury recreation and consumption. An activist group named Haliç Solidarity has striven to prevent the shipyards’ transformation albeit to no avail. In June, the group’s unofficial spokesperson and heritage scholar Gül Köksal, wrote up an intervention to problematize İKSV’s decision to use the shipyards as one of the Biennial’s venues [1]. She eloquently demonstrated how this was not the first time that art was made to serve the profit-led pillaging of the site—not to mention that of various other such sites across the world—but only its latest iteration. Among the most controversial precedents in this respect is the Turkey Pavilion in the 2016 Venice Biennial also run by İKSV. The pavilion was commissioned to Teğet Architects, the design firm that was also employed in the shipyards’ transformation and that exhibited the industrial remnants they pillaged from Haliç in Venice.

The 16th Istanbul Biennial, whose rationalization of venue choice, curatorial framework and sponsors’ industrial activities have come into alignment with one another in their ecological destructiveness, shows that this ethical question is inextricably related to aesthetics.

A couple of months after Köksal’s intervention, İKSV announced that the Haliç Shipyards would no longer be among the Biennial’s venues. But the official justification had nothing to do with the controversy surrounding the Haliçport project. Instead, İKSV’s press statement pointed to “the delay of the construction process on the site of the Istanbul Shipyards, and the need to complete the disposal of asbestos materials” found therein. The emphasis here on asbestos is worth further consideration, as it risks trivializing a crucial public health problem and does so for at least two reasons.

The first reason concerns the instrumentalization of asbestos to facilitate the programmatic reorientation of urban space away from public interest, social organization and collective production toward luxury consumption, speculation and profit, recalling other similar recent instrumentalizations elsewhere. Second, this overemphasis on asbestos implies that there is no other public health problem with what has been happening at the Haliç Shipyards. Foregrounding asbestos this way obfuscates the fact that the shaping of urban space around profit and speculative development causes health problems beyond such exclusive spaces as those currently being produced out of the shipyards. Moreover, if İKSV is so sensitive about public health, then consistency would require the foundation to also reveal the activities of its founder Eczacıbaşı and the Biennial’s main funder Koç, who have endeavored to operate gold and silver mines that use cyanide in southwest Marmara—a region that was thrown into the limelight just last month for this reason.

Nevertheless, there is one aspect of this year’s Istanbul Biennial that does allow for some consistency with its trivialization of asbestos: the conceptual framework proposed by Nicolas Bourriaud, whom İKSV appointed as the curator of the Biennial. Consider the following excerpts from Bourriaud’s curatorial statement:

Our world is becoming more and more molecularised . . . [as] we enter the Anthropocene . . . . In this de-centred world, both anthropology and art have to engage with a multitude of points of view. . . What would a space deprived of a centre be? . . . Acknowledging the end of the canonical western division between nature and culture, both anthropology and contemporary art embrace animals, plants, minerals and machines: they reintegrate culture into nature, and vice-versa. . . . [T]he Anthropocene has obviously contributed to this awareness, as the impact of human activities on nature generates an intertwined world. Art has become an anthropological enquiry into global life, connecting humans and non-humans. Each artist could be considered the ‘foreigner’ or the ‘savage’ of the viewer, who spontaneously becomes an anthropologist immersed in an unknown society. . . . [The 16th Istanbul Biennial] is an anthropology of an off-centred world and an archaeology of our times. It . . . studies the human effects, tracks and prints in the universe, and their interaction with non-humans.

Figure 2. Haliç Shipyards as seen in March 2013. (Photograph: Arild Wågen, WikiZero)

Bourriaud’s approach to the politics of ecology is perfectly in line with the mainstream understanding of what the Anthropocene might entail. This understanding has little or no room for the historical fault lines and contemporary antagonisms which involve racialization, class, gender, and settler colonialism. At best, it sees these fault lines and antagonisms as peripheral to the politics of ecology, and at worst, perpetuates them under the guise of ecological sensitivity (note here the racist and colonialist undertones of the curatorial statement’s references to “savages” and “anthropologists immersed in unknown societies”). It assumes that if there are any fault lines and antagonisms on which the politics of ecology ought to focus, these involve the conflicts and contradictions between “humans” and “non-humans” or “nature” and “culture.” In other words, we are all both equally guilty for and equally affected by the so-called Anthropocene—no need to worry about concrete political projects and processes such as capitalism, accumulation, expansionism, imperialism, colonialism, patriarchy, speculation and financialization, and the violent centers of power produced through these. For, we now live in a “decentered” world.

Contrary to the curator’s stance, it is now evident that challenging the mainstream approach to the Anthropocene is no longer only a matter of conceptual consistency but also one of sociopolitical urgency heightened by racialized, gendered and anti-labor policies currently being advanced in various parts of the world. It is with such a sense of urgency that a growing number of historians and theorists strive to demonstrate that neither the historical responsibility for nor the continuing effects of what has been termed the Anthropocene ought to be seen as evenly distributable across humankind and the geography it has inhabited. One most recent case in point is Kathryn Yusoff’s book A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None, which considers as a geological phenomenon the role of racialization and settler colonialism in the processes now debated under the rubric of the Anthropocene. Yusoff understands the geological character of the role in question in two ways: both as a materiality traceable across geological strata and as the history and the conventions of the discipline of geology itself, the science that governs the production and organization of knowledge on the planet. She interweaves the two characteristics so eloquently as to confront her readers with a geological stratum comprising the mortal remains of those racialized and colonialized through violent methods—not least by geology itself—that conditioned the socio-politically and geographically differentiated historical processes now bundled together under the Anthropocene.

Figure 3. Anti-Kanders protest at the Whitney Museum in April 2019. (Photograph: Perimeander, WikiZero).

To turn to the curator behind this already much-problematized and nearly outmoded conceptual framework: Nicolas Bourriaud rose to curatorial fame in the late 1990s for his “relational aesthetics” theory. Relational aesthetics has been castigated almost since day one and especially by critics from Marxist and feminist traditions. These critics have problematized Bourriaud’s theory for deriving art’s social and cultural significance from such self-fulfilling qualities as the extent to which artworks are “participatory” and “interactive,” rather than from their ability to help confront and/or mobilize political antagonisms and push for political transformation. Unrelenting, Bourriaud went on to curate the 2009 Tate Triennial where he praised artists’ “nomadism” and thereby politically obscured—not unlike what he had done through his “relational aesthetics” theory—the various violent inequalities that underpin mobility in the global neoliberal era and affect the lives of those banned from travel, displaced from home or obliged to resort to potentially lethal refuge journeys. It must be noted here that the 2009 Tate Triennial was the last time that Bourriaud was commissioned to curate a major art event in the Global North.

That İKSV has commissioned a curator insistent on an approach that obscures the social and political antagonisms underpinning the various problems whose urgency has recently become all the more visible returns us to questions around sponsorship and venue selection mentioned earlier. Recall the 16th Istanbul Biennial’s instrumentalization of asbestos when explaining its withdrawal from the Haliç Shipyards and the ecologically destructive mining endeavors of its founders and funders that this official explanation ought to invoke. The southwest Marmara region where these endeavors have recently come to intensify is currently the subject of considerable interest among Canadian companies that lead the global gold and silver mining business. These companies are continually looking to extend their activities to geographies where licenses are easier to secure or where anti-mining activism is less globally visible than it is in their home country. Turkish companies come to the rescue, attending mining fairs in Canada where they scramble to win  local representation of multinational corporations who are otherwise legally ineligible to mine in Turkey. A striking similarity exists, then, between the ways in which mining and curatorial practice operate—at least to the extent they have been featured in this essay—as methodologies no longer acceptable in the Global North are given a fresh lease on life elsewhere.

Figure 4. The 2014 Taipei Biennial is the precedent for this year's Istanbul Biennial, in that it was also curated by Bourriaud and was Anthropocene-themed. One of the works exhibited at Taipei, Surasi Kusolwong's installation Golden Ghost (Reality Called, So I Woke Up), was paradigmatic of the ways in which Bourriaud has repurposed his relational aesthetics theory for what has been termed the age of the Anthropocene. The work consists of 5 tons of waste fabric within which 12 gold necklaces are hidden. The Biennial's official website introduces the work thus: "Kusolwong invites visitors to hunt through a huge industrial waste landscape of threads for pieces of art designed and made by himself, real gold necklaces with golden ghost symbols. If visitors are lucky enough to find one, they can take the hidden treasure home. . . . Through his participatory and interactive work, Kusolwong integrates the traditional craft of goldsmithing with modern narrative, historical socio‐politics and current economics and ecology. He transforms the exhibition space into a place for experiencing, revoking and reconsidering such issues of human civilization." (Photograph: Forgemind ArchiMedia, Flickr)

From the opioid-promoting Sacklers to the Tate family’s entanglement in colonial slavery and, most recently, the Whitney Biennial controversy, various revelations this past summer have reinvigorated the ethical question of contemporary art sponsorship by socio-ecologically destructive capital. The 16th Istanbul Biennial, whose rationalization of venue choice, curatorial framework and sponsors’ industrial activities have come into alignment with one another in their ecological destructiveness, shows that this ethical question is inextricably related to aesthetics. Hence the reason why abandoning asbestos-infested venues or questioning sponsorship alone might not suffice to grasp the public health problems surrounding the Biennial.


A version of this essay was originally published in Turkish, in the September 2019 issue of the architecture and design magazine XXI.



[1] The hyperlink provided here links automatically to a Google translation of the original Turkish-language article.

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