Interview with Halil Altındere
(Translation from Turkish by Bülent Çınar)
Borga Kantürk: USER'S MANUAL Contemporary Art in Turkey 1986-2006 was published in 2007, simultaneously with the opening of the 10th International Istanbul Biennale. Yet, as far as I know, the book is actually the result of a long-winded project. The well-attended exhibitions under your curatorship have aimed to bring together particularly young contemporary artists, in line with your vision. The publications which accompanied these events essentially employed a method based on creating some sort of memory, an inventory of exhibitions and trends. Much similar to the exhibitions you organized, I am Sorry that I will Kill You in 2003, Free Kick in 2006, and Be Realistic Ask for the Impossible in 2007, your book USER'S MANUAL Contemporary Art in Turkey 1986-2006 also brings together a group of artists from various generations in addition to a group of art writers and curators, again from various languages and trends. First, I would like to ask this: When did you first feel the desire to publish a book of this kind?
Halil Altındere: In addition to being an artist who is involved in contemporary art, during the last decade I was involved in art publishing and worked as a curator, two activities which nurture and influence each other. Regarding curatorship, I can say this first and foremost; I have worked with a generation of artists who started their production after 2000 or emerged after this year. These artists either came to or were brought together in the above mentioned exhibitions in groups of 30-35 people. In recent years, we have witnessed an international circulation of post-1990 contemporary art in Turkey. The upgrading from a local to an international level has subsequently brought in its train a seriousness that would endow a historical quality to the post-1990 era. To put it more bluntly, this process was a necessity and until then, it had unfortunately been impossible to speak of a historical inventory. We wanted to produce a comprehensive, and if possible, a complete work. That was the difficulty. During those times, an exorbitant interest came from different parts of the world in contemporary artists from Turkey, especially in the art scene in Istanbul. In fact, people were even speaking of an “Istanbul Miracle.” However, as I said, the step that would take the “miracle” to a historical level had yet to be made. Certainly, there was no absence of initiatives that existed or strived to exist, yet a majority of these were confined to the virtual medium; that is the e-journals, then blogs and practices, which were carried out through personal efforts—some remained unfinished while others would not go beyond the project stage, etc. In my opinion, the Art-ist Contemporary Art Magazine was the first serious step to fill this gap. While none of the members of the team, which brought it to life, was an art historian, it somehow strived to specialize in the practice, to pick up the spirit and even to classify contemporary art. Therefore, while we were contemplating the USER'S MANUAL, we wanted to create a reference guide for the group of readers-viewers both in Turkey and abroad, or a "source book" in the widest sense. I would like to note that we prepared it with the sense of doing "homework." When compared to the publishing perspective of the Art-ist Contemporary Art Journal, USER'S MANUAL would seem rather quiescent and "peaceful." Nevertheless, the pages allocated to the young generation of contemporary artists and their projects should not be shrugged off. It is exactly in those pages that history breathes. Since the well-known publishers, institutes, and institutions in Turkey failed to undertake such a practice, we did it. I don't even want to talk about the financial difficulties we encountered.
Borga Kantürk: And the preparation process? How did it develop?
Halil Altındere: Actually, the preparation process for the book spanned over a period of three to four years. We planned, programmed and, as always, were punctual. The first phase was to be realized in the form of a round table. And indeed it was. A team which included the chief witnesses of contemporary art in Turkey, writers of the time and curators met at the Platform Center of Contemporary Art and discussed both the project and, thanks to the occasion, the histories that they were related to under the moderation of Erden Kosova. The discussions would be recorded, put into writing and the main text would take shape after the second, maybe even the third reading. Unfortunately, despite the face-to-face conversations with relevant people, this process failed and as editors, we changed the format. This led to a two-year delay. While we had initially intended to focus on the 1990s, we found ourselves discussing the 1980s. Essentially, these debates were about the historical boundaries of the book. We had not even found a title for the book and which time period would be tackled, where it would start from; that was the question. The Avant-Garde Turkish Art, the 1970s, New Trends, the first conceptual formations in Turkey, the line that started from the 1970s leading all the way to Altan Gürman; each one of these stood as an issue of its own separate publication. Certainly, the book was to include these important processes as well. We prepared a book that started in the later 1980s, focused on the 1990s and looked at the 2000s. The book took as its basis the practice of the last two decades: that's how the history of 1986-2006 came into being. In our opinion, the starting or departure point was the Çaylak Sokak exhibition in Maçka Art Gallery of Sarkis, one of the artists to whom the book is dedicated. [The other one is Altan Gürman.]
Borga Kantürk: We have known Art-ist for many years. It has a general publication policy. It is a rather eclectic magazine where the editor changes from one issue to the next, and which discusses the sociology, politics, and points of resistance of art. In USER'S MANUAL, the pattern strikes us—maybe in the first chapter of the book—as an assessment of contemporary art in Turkey, compiled from the texts written by authors from different generations. The second chapter brings together about 80 selected artists rather within a certain system exactly like an Art Now book. Four pages were reserved for each artist and information on each work in addition to their photographs, but there is no information about the artist or a CV. There is a marked difference between these two chapters. What do you think about this? And it seems that the target audience is determined as foreign collectors and critics. This aspect is more dominant in the second chapter. The book has an effect like a guide on "Contemporary Art in Turkey for Beginners." However, the first chapter converges to the traditional publication policy of Art-ist with more scattered, polyphonic and varying texts. What can you say about the transition between these two chapters?
Halil Altındere: Actually, what we did was some sort of a history-memory excavation. Frankly, this is not directly our job. As I said before, it is the job of institutes or publishers. And since those circles failed to start an initiative in this field for years, we undertook this project as a small non-profit publishing house. By the time the publication of Art-ist Contemporary Art Magazine started, we had already been involved in the contemporary art world. There was a dynamic network and this was used really well. We never aimed at starting a publication merely for the art scene in Turkey. Yes, Art-ist was published in Turkey and some writers, artists from Turkey participated in it. However, we also included to a great extent guest editors, young writers, and interviews from abroad. When we turned back to take a look at the past, we noticed that we had actually been consumed by a certain group. Overall, it is clear that we kept a distance from the art debates in Turkey, and the readers view this from a different point. If you have noticed, the last three issues of the magazine were printed only in Turkish. Why? This didn't come out of the blue. We came to see that Art-ist had practiced transnationalism at an excessive speed. While the direction of the look shifted from the inside and towards the inside, we set our hands on the issue of curatorship, which unfortunately still continues in Turkey, the widely accepted problems of art, the grandiloquent issues of debate, as well as other positions. Because, after a point, you place people in unreachable positions, and aiming to bend the elitist attitude, you end up an elitist yourself. The reader had lost touch with the magazine and we started to receive neither a single letter of criticism nor any requests for information. We received neither criticism nor suggestions—positive or negative. Moreover, there wasn't any publication to compete with. In this respect, we were forced to assume many things and we had to bear our own cross. Of course, this had its benefits, too. This year, Art-ist Contemporary Art Magazine and Siyahî, a culture magazine also published by Art-ist, were invited as guests to Documenta. Again, in connection with these processes, Art-ist writers received important invitations from abroad with "writer" scholarships such as Vahit Tuna's symposium, Süreyyya Evren and Sezgin Boynik's HIAP scholarships, Hüseyin Bahri Alptekin's trip to Indonesia for the magazine, etc. However, another problem emerged: Obscurity, indirect rhetoric, and the handicaps these would create in the future; a serious risk that would block dialogue. Due to these reasons (to reduce risk, broaden the perspective, and to rescue the view from that fixed angle) we persistently invited young writers in the recent issues. Yes, USER'S MANUAL was not developed through experimentation, and for a reason; the Art Now, New British, New German Contemporary Art style books, which are published in several countries have a certain format. If the structure you pointed out—the one that Erden Kosova also mentions—was realized in the book format and in an entirely separate manner or expanded in a way that spans the entire book, in short, if the strategy in Art-ist was also applied here, we would still be denounced as elitists, and even conformists. It would be more correct to say that we made a blend. In a city of fifteen million people, the number of readers is still much below the desired level; even Art-ist, in its 10th year, prints only 1,000 copies and only 700 are sold. This is a serious problem. USER'S MANUAL needs to be brought to various areas, various channels of interest and experience. We worked with people from all generations, young and old. We received texts with invitations. That's how the transition was made.
Borga Kantürk: When we look at the release date of the book, Santral Istanbul or Istanbul Modern offer publications on contemporary art in Turkey with the institutional exhibitions as well as exhibition books. They hosted major parties and openings during the International Istanbul Biennale. The Modern and Beyond exhibition, and before that, another exhibition that looks back at the history of the Istanbul Biennales; all these seem as if they were constructed to display a collection, and to offer the international market and local audience a book for beginners. So what about the USER'S MANUAL? Is this a coincidence?
Halil Altındere: USER’S MANUAL may not be compared to the others. First of all, this is not possible in terms of content. There are artists from four different generations in the book. One cannot find such a wide span in the publications you mentioned. Certainly, USER'S MANUAL may also be read as an extremely well attended exhibition, yet it is not an exhibition book. The difference in the selection and structure of content stems from the fact that the editor is a producer of art and assumes a curatorial identity.
Borga Kantürk: You edited USER'S MANUAL together with Süreyyya Evren. Does Süreyyya’s presence manifest itself in the text and yours in the visual part? Did you make such a differentiation?
Halil Altındere: The book actually consists of 3 chapters. Chapter 3 did not really stand out, as it is short. Süreyyya Evren put an intensive effort into establishing a system that correctly treats the texts from 15 writers in the first chapter with different contents, focal points and issues. And there are 77 artists in the second chapter from four generations. The criticism generally focuses on the selection of the artists in the second chapter and whether these choices were right or wrong.
Borga Kantürk: Initially, you had departed from the idea of a round table, which transformed—maybe due to necessity—afterwards into a collection of texts by writers from different generations. When we look at the book, some texts, which had been written in the past, were pushed back into the agenda while others were specifically written for this book and yet others were drafted by new and indeed very young writers.
Halil Altındere: Yes, in fact, with the exception of a few essays, most were written exclusively for the book. And a major portion of the texts came from young artists-writers.
Borga Kantürk: The texts that stand out most are those by a generation, that was born in the 1970s.
Halil Altındere: There is Nilgün Özayten’s text, which takes a look at art in Turkey in the 1960s and 1970s. Since it is one of the most important theses in this field, we extracted a fairly long portion from Özayten's work titled, "The Object Art, Conceptual Art, Post Conceptual Art Trends in Turkey." Beral Madra was among the most important witnesses of the period between 1986 and 2006, which was covered in the book, and it was just as important that she contributed. Madra wrote quite a comprehensive text. Vasıf Kortun had written the catalogue text of the İskorpit exhibition, the first exhibition where the four generations in contemporary art production in Turkey were brought together (realized by René Block and Fulya Erdemci). We asked him if he could contribute to the book. In the pre-İskorpit period, the togetherness of various generations had never been addressed. Kortun's text was a good model for the intergenerational system the book was based on. Yes, Erden Kosova contributed a short text, but Erden was one of the writers whose views and assessments were the closest to ours, and more importantly, he was one of the witnesses of this process. Again, one of our young writers, Şener Özmen, put into writing with his energetic language the "regional" breakdowns we requested from him in relation to the contemporary art practices of the 1990s. Although Özmen's essay speaks about Diyarbakır, the actual emphasis is placed on the 1990s. In addition to these, there were also other authors who evaluated art from different perspectives, such as Ali Akay, Evrim Altuğ, Fulya Erdemci, Marcus Graf, Mahmut Koyuncu, Ferhat Özgür, Ayşegül Sönmez, Başak Şenova, and Pelin Tan. USER'S MANUAL is definitely not an art history book. It aims to shed some light on certain and important aspects of art. Doubtlessly, the book has certain shortcomings both in textual and visual aspects. The selection of artists and texts was made according to the editors’ views. We preferred a polyphonic structure. We tried to assemble in a single publication writers and artists who would not normally be found side by side. In this respect, we suggested not a publication prepared by a certain museum or art institution that is directed at its own memory or content, but a more democratic one.
Borga Kantürk: When you think about books such as Art Now, different editions such as Vol.1 and maybe later Vol. 2 or extended versions are published. The artists change and when the memory is expanded to the future, some artists from the past may be taken out. And, in addition to this, introductory, informative suggestions—albeit short—written on these artists by certain curators and writers, and sometimes texts by the artists themselves are also included in the book. The point I get stuck on in the USER'S MANUAL is the absence of artists’ texts in the part which you refer to as the second chapter. The impression I got two or three years ago from our earlier conversation as well as from what I understood was that texts—albeit short—on the artists would also be included in the book. Ultimately, however, the book was released without the texts, only with the visual materials of and information on the artists. These texts were to consist of the material written by curators and critics who follow those artists closely, and for some, texts were to be requested from the artists themselves.
Halil Altındere: Art Now or Cream are actually both models. In this familiar model, of the four pages allocated to an artist, one includes a text which describes the artist. Frankly, we did not want to follow this cliché. In the initial phase of the book, such a model was naturally contemplated upon. In this chapter, eight writers were supposed to write about the artists. There were almost 80 artists. And when we tried to divide this number among the writers, an interesting picture emerged; many writers—naturally—wanted to focus on the artists they felt close to and knew well. In fact, there were even instances where they all wanted to write about the same artists. So we came to realize that we could not get any good results from the participating curators and writers except for a few artists. Even more interestingly, some artists were even left in the open! This was not a fair situation. It was odd for a book which was supposed to be democratic. It was very clear that some texts would be enthusiastic while others would be distanced texts written on request. So we were forced to give up on this scheme. As an editor, my concern was that it would be wrong to “imprison” the artists in a single text. What also had a direct impact on the content of the book, as you notice when you take a look at the contemporary art scene in Turkey, is that there are many artists, while there are only few critics and writers in the field, which was one of the reasons that led us into making this choice.
Borga Kantürk: Actually, I am not questioning why this was not included in the USER'S MANUAL. When I think of the contemporary art scene in Turkey, one of the first things that catch my attention is the remarkable scarcity of artist texts. This also has something to do with the fact that texts generally try to cover the overall picture and to describe the environment through geographic, cultural, sociological differences and political positions. Efforts that focus on the artist and concentrate on what s(he) does are very limited. Perhaps this could be achieved with one-to-one interviews with the artist and the vision that the artist may thus be revealed; where and from where s(he) looks may be understood. I agree that it helps to reveal a little bit more about how much it overlaps with where it is placed, located. Regional or historical texts are written, but barely any texts have been done except for certain artists. That's what I meant.
Halil Altındere: Yes, as you said, there are texts about certain artists. And, frankly, there is also this: Artists do not tend to produce texts, write about themselves, either. Therefore, there is no sense in forcing this. Even if there was, it should not be so hard to anticipate what kind of texts would come out. For instance, we thought thoroughly about this method with the co-editor of the Be Realistic Ask the Impossible exhibition, Şener Özmen regarding the exhibition catalogue. Consequently, a series of "complex" texts arrived, which were written by the artists regarding their own production or artistic understanding. Some were poetic, some internal breakdowns, some were academic, some very personal and closed texts which could not be penetrated. Therefore, at this stage, we preferred not to use the artists’ texts.
Borga Kantürk: This is clearly a problem that emerges not only in USER’S MANUAL but one which appears in general. You had noted this at the beginning of our interview. What also complies with Art-ist’s principles of publication is that specific books, that focus on only a few artists or a single one, rather than providing a more general view of the younger generation, may strengthen the creation of such texts. For instance, there is this book-exhibition series produced by René Block. He curates artist exhibitions of your generation, and has prepared artist monographs that also accompany these.
Halil Altındere: Yes, that is an artist-centered project. And its writers produce texts solely on a particular artist. I mean, that's how the process works there. But, as I said, while selecting the texts for USER'S MANUAL, we paid attention to this, and we particularly asked that texts would not be about a single artist. You can see some names as references again in some texts, however there is no artist-specific text. The real issue here is to stick to the period and offer a selection of the protagonists of that period. In fact, there is a section in the book which many people fail to notice: The "Top 20" list. This is certainly the subjective choice of the editor, and is included in the book as an important suggestion, albeit a short one, as a matter of debate. In this chapter, there are 20 exhibitions held during the covered periods. Beyond being a list, it is actually an index that determines the view of the past also from an ideological point of view.
Borga Kantürk: So, could you give us the title of a book which would be a reference to this publication?
Halil Altındere: Currently, there are very few books printed in Turkish and that focus on the history of contemporary art practices in Turkey. There is no comprehensive publication other than USER'S MANUAL. We pointed that out in the editorial section. There is Vasıf Kortun and Erden Kosova's joint publication Offside but Goal, printed, however, in German. It is a book that consists of rather individual testimonials. While USER'S MANUAL appears to be a book created by two editors it is, in reality, comprised of the synergy of more open-ended views from various channels, fortified with texts by 15 writers. In addition, there was also Haldun Dostoğlu's Museum-Book project. It was an exhilarating project. After all, that book was also a product of a gallery director. For instance, the Museum-Book highlighted the period between 1950 and 2000. There was a similar historical line also in the opening exhibition of Santral Istanbul, but they started with guest art historians. These are all different from USER'S MANUAL as they are more institutional publications. An older example would be Kamil Şenol's contemporary art e-magazine http://www.nihayeticimdesin.com/. Again, in the same manner, Vasıf Kortun's RG (Resmi Görüş, Official View) magazine lasted only four issues as a periodical and later on was transformed into a blog. Add to this more recent examples including Şener Özmen's book Travma ve Islahat (Trauma and Reformation) published by the Lîs Yayınları in Diyarbakır, in which he subjects the contemporary art practices of the 1990s to "excessive interpretation," to quote his own words, and Süreyyya Evren's Aranan Kitap (Wanted Book) where he gathers in a certain context his "art-politics" essays from the daily Birgün. This last book was also published by Art-ist Publishing. However, what I have listed here was released in connection with issues much different from the ones in USER'S MANUAL.
Borga Kantürk: There was something also mentioned by Vasıf Kortun. In his speech, Kortun was pointing out the shortcomings regarding museum publications and research. Granted, exhibition is an active field; however publishing is also important. For instance, you are doing what is actually expected of a museum. Naturally, your publication looks "more independent." Museums generally focus on their own collections or most of the time, limit criticism on the positive aspects of the exhibitions. Are you taking the responsibility from the museums?
Halil Altındere: In order to be able to publish important publications of this kind, museums need to have coherent and strong teams. They have the capital, so they have the strength to do this. USER'S MANUAL has a different claim: This book has brought together writers, artists, and curators many institutions would not be able to bring together. In my opinion, this is where the real success of the book lies. I think this book would not have caught such polyphony if it had been published by a museum. On another note, there were three more names that I wanted to include in the book: I am talking about Ayşe Erkmen, Kutluğ Ataman, and Hüseyin B. Alptekin. At the roundtable meeting we held in 2004, the list of artists was almost the same. When the book was delayed for two years, the editors worked on a list with younger artists. We never thought of taking anyone off the original list of participants. We could not find an opportunity to talk face to face with Kutluğ Ataman and Ayşe Erkmen due to their busy exhibition schedules. Ayşe Erkmen said that she could not participate in the project due to her busy schedule. And Ataman's secretary told us about his busy schedule. Meanwhile, I met with Hüseyin B. Alptekin twice. He first said that he accepted. We prepared the visual materials and then he said he could not participate. Yes, the absence of these three names was a major shortfall for us.
Borga Kantürk: I learned that you view USER’S MANUAL as a curatorial book, as if it was an exhibition. Could you elucidate that?
Halil Altındere: At the beginning of our conversation, I said that it could be viewed as such. But you might have also noticed that there are always artists from the young generation in my exhibitions. And there are artists from four generations in this book. However, there are also some artists and documents extracted from archives.
Borga Kantürk: This is rather hard to sense in the book. When I first picked it up, I could not feel the structure you mention. I was able to generate ideas in this direction with your guidance. Frankly, I would have preferred to see this book-exhibition concept more clearly. You frequently mentioned the İskorpit exhibition. Is USER'S MANUAL a product in connection with the İskorpit exhibition?
Halil Altındere: That exhibition took place in Berlins in 1998, and if I am not mistaken, with 14 artists. There were several artists from different age groups in the İskorpit or Contemporary Art from Istanbul, with its subtitle. It was like a "national team." In that exhibition, it seemed rather impossible in those times, to bring together Serkan Özkaya and Sarkis or an artist born in 1974 with another born in 1938. Middle and senior age generations had their own theme-based exhibitions. In USER'S MANUAL, there is this polyphony, this intergenerational quality. İskorpit focused on fewer artists.
Borga Kantürk: Let’s return to the issue of two editors. What did you share with Süreyyya? Do you think that it was a harmonious result?
Halil Altındere: When I decided to produce this book, I anticipated that I would be entering something pretty comprehensive. Such publications normally require a larger team, but unfortunately, even at Art-ist magazine, the core team is comprised of only a few people. This load is shouldered again by certain names. Süreyyya Evren is one of those few. Süreyyya was actually one of the rare examples of people who could look at contemporary art from both an insider and outsider position. While Süreyyya's editorship brought forward his identity as a writer, mine reflected a perspective that witnesses the period, through activities and documents, of someone from inside the process. We both had passed the ball to each other before. And since we had already been working together, we didn’t have any problem in terms of harmony.
Borga Kantürk: There are various issues the book covers, addresses, and introduces; such as the Top 20 list. Have there been any debates on the list that would bring the book on the agenda? You noted that the criticism on the book remained weak. What can be done to help this criticism to come to the fore?
Halil Altındere: With regards to criticism, in general, we have been criticized on the selection of texts and particularly of artists. This book was prepared within a certain process and focused on the situation, the productions of the artists up until then and the progress in the processes and in their events. No doubt, the presence of some artists in this publication will raise some eyebrows in the future as it already does now while the reason why other artists were not included in the book will be discussed. If a second edition of the book should be prepared, then a new series of entries might be made; new artists, exhibitions, events may be included and some may be taken out.
Borga Kantürk: And you closed an agreement with Germany's leading art publications distributor REVOLVER to open up foreign markets. How about the reactions from foreign audiences?
Halil Altındere: We are able to receive responses for our magazines, but USER'S MANUAL is not a periodical; it is a "large" book. That's why the feedback on it will take some time, as will establishing it on an international level. We stuck to a very simple principle in our decision to work with Revolver: to ensure that a book into which intense efforts and a large amount of time were invested is distributed in a professional manner also in foreign markets. That's why we made a deal with Revolver as co-publisher. In the book, Art-ist was presented as the publisher and Revolver as the official international distributor. Although it is located in Frankfurt, Germany, this institution is an active publisher, which participates in many international art events. They provide us with some sort of a showcase. They have partners in the United States, United Kingdom, and the Far East. They work pretty well and we believe that the book will attract more international attention over time. USER'S MANUAL was released around late September, early October and there is already quite some demand for the book in Turkey.