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by Gurur Ertem

Promises and Pitfalls of “Political” Curating in Live Arts

A group of people convened in the mid-1990s at the modern dance classes Christine Brodbeck was teaching—almost for free—on most days of the week. The studio that Brodbeck had rented for these classes was located in a building, also known as the monastery, with many art studios in the Tarlabasi neighborhood of Istanbul. The building was later demolished, and the studios were lost as part of some enforced gentrification projects of neoliberal urban transformation, which constituted one of the reasons for the Gezi Park Protests, which I will talk about below.

The 1990s were also a time when choreographers such as Geyvan McMillan and Aydin Teker were teaching workshops to non-dancers in university settings. Some later well-known choreographers such as Mehmet Sander, Ziya Azazi, and Mustafa Kaplan, who were engineering students at that time, are from this cohort. Mustafa Kaplan, who also taught as a substitute teacher when Christine Brodbeck was not present, was employed on a part-time basis at the Theatre Research Laboratory of the City Theatre of Istanbul, founded by Beklan Algan and Ayla Algan. Mustafa invited self-taught dancers from many walks of life and educational backgrounds to work with him on a project basis in exchange for free classes each evening at these studios. From these evening sessions grew friendships and projects. Some participants pursued professional dance training abroad, while others chose different paths, still related to dance, like myself.

As part of the not-for-profit, self-organized initiative Bimeras, I co-organized and programmed the iDANS Festival for Contemporary Dance and Performance in Istanbul between 2006–2014. The festival had been significant for articulating Turkey’s emerging independent contemporary dance scene with its European counterparts. I believe it also served as an example of the self-organization of a group of individuals dedicated to developing their field.

While I was pursuing my graduate studies in performance studies and sociology abroad, Aydin Silier founded Bimeras to support the international touring, education, and distribution of independent choreographers. When IETM Network[1] called for a program comprising local artists for its plenary meeting in Istanbul in 2006, Bimeras responded instead by organizing an international marathon program titled IstanbulREConnects that hosted artists from Turkey and the neighboring countries such Cyprus, Greece, Bulgaria. The motivation was to take a political position against essentializing cultural and national identities and to emphasize the cross-pollination and hybridity of cultures, as well as questioning the artificial bordering processes of nation states, especially those in proximity with numerous shared customs, songs, and traditions. IstanbulREConnects evolved into the iDANS Festival.

iDANS was the first festival of its kind in Turkey that was based on a curatorial vision and thematic inquiry. It featured yearly around thirty international performances that included co-productions, commissions. Besides live performances, the festival also organized conferences, publications, workshops, public art projects, and installations. It sought to assert contemporary dance as a salient field of knowledge production and a vibrant artistic field.

As of 2010, projects in public spaces—repercussions—of which never failed to surprise—comprised a significant focus of the festival. When the largest public space performance in the history of Turkey, the Gezi Uprising, took place in 2013, we decided to suspend the festival in its existing format. We no longer found the festival format as an appropriate response to the pressing issues of our times.[2]

One Cannot Curate a Revolution; One Can Only Join it
During the days leading up to the Gezi Uprising, iDANS was working on the commissioned special project Addio alla Fine [Farewell to the End] created by the Dutch choreographers Emio Greco and Pieter C. Scholten in collaboration with the interdisciplinary art collective biriken and the playwright Özen Yula. Addio alla Fine was conceived as a meditation on endings and on endings as new beginnings. Departing from the idea of bringing the audience—living in a period marked by scenarios of approaching ecological and political disaster—together on “Noah’s Ark,” the performance aimed to take the passengers on a carnivalesque boat journey departing from Halic Tersanesi, one of the oldest shipyards in the world located at the Golden Horn, the inner harbor of Istanbul. Because the carnivalesque, joyous and participatory content of the work became a reality during the Gezi Park occupation, we decided to direct the interested public to the Gezi Park as we judged there would be no better place to imagine a new beginning and to invent political culture than there. We maintained that, in a way, Addio all Fine had already begun, merging into the spirit of a pluralistic participatory democracy movement, and invited the public to join the journey at Gezi Park.

Hannah Arendt describes “public happiness” as the “treasure” of revolutionary moments where a sense of possibility and potency prevail. Yet, this treasure is fragile because it comes to being through action, the consequences of which cannot be foreseen. Political action, for Arendt, is performance par excellence: it does not subscribe to a means-ends rationality; it is an end in itself. In that regard, it is similar to a virtuoso performance where one enjoys acting for its own sake.

As the courses of action are irreversible and unpredictable, this “treasure” can get lost in the murk of history. Establishing a common world and carrying forth the legacy of revolutionary moments requires skilled “pearl divers” who memorialize this “lost treasure” through stories, artworks, poetry, and historiography. And, for these to be able to appear, to be looked at and talked about in ways that matter depends, of course, on the existence of spaces of appearance, which is precisely what authoritarian regimes aim to eradicate.

The culture-creating spontaneity and the world-making dimensions of the uprising manifested the intertwinement of aesthetics and politics in such a way that no artistic program in/for/about public spaces and no artworks with political pretensions could approximate. In the light of these experiences, I chose an active withdrawal from the curatorial field and continued to think, write, teach, learn, and inquire about the affective and aesthetic enunciations of the political outside the confines of the art world. I’ve been attending to how communities and artists make sense of, bear witness and respond to political developments in the wake of the Gezi Uprising in Turkey and beyond. In a way, I’ve come to agree with Oliver Marchart’s view that a truly political position on the part of the curator can only be achieved outside the art world.

I also concur with Marchart’s view that one cannot assume that exhibitions, theatres, and other cultural institutions and their programs are always already a public sphere because it is accessible to the public.[3] Universal access and inclusivity regarding the representation of so-called marginal artists do not turn a space into a public sphere or “a space of appearance,” as Hannah Arendt would call it.[4] Marchart draws on Ernesto Laclau’s and Chantal Mouffe’s positions on the notion of the political—which entails an ineradicable dimension of conflict and antagonism and aims at disarticulating a hegemonic formation. Therefore, Marchart argues, a truly public sphere emerges only when conflict arises. More importantly, Marchart says that conflict and antagonism cannot be organized. It just breaks out and cannot be foreseen. That is, one cannot curate or organize a revolution or conflict.[5] It may only prepare the conditions for different positions to emerge. Marchart maintains that a genuinely political sphere cannot be produced in the field of art, while a conflict that breaks in the art world will revolve around artistic, field-specific questions. In that regard, the curator’s true political standpoint can only be as an intellectual who works to change and influence culture and political agendas for a counter-hegemonic project. As such, the curator stands outside the field of art, actively organizing in social and political contexts beyond the art institution and connecting these back to the field of art.

Pseudo-Politicality of Identity Politics in Curating
Curatorial practice is an exercise of the faculty of judgment as much as it is a practice of care. Yet, I discern an absence of judgment and thorough thinking in the field today, especially in those self-proclaimed political or activist orientations that focus on what I consider a problematic identity politics.

Let’s revisit how activist curating or curatorial activism is often understood today. In her book, Curatorial Activism, Maura Reilly argues that the art world is a fortress of straight white males whose dominance extends to museum collections, exhibitions, galleries, auction houses, and private collections.[6] Against this, she outlines several curatorial practices that provide visibility to underrepresented populations in chapters such as “Resisting Masculinism and Sexism,” “Tackling White Privilege and Western-Centrism,” and “Challenging Heterocentricism.” Reilly uses the term “Other artists” to describe a broad spectrum of marginalized groups such as non-white artists, LGBTQI+ artists, and feminists. She provides compelling statistics about their inclusion or the lack thereof in major exhibitions and art institutions. Similarly, artist and curator Jaamil Olawale Osoko calls for a radically inclusive decolonial curatorial practice and criticizes the lack of supportive inclusionary spaces for individuals who identify as trans, queer, disabled, Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color.[7] Many other artists, curators, programmers, and curatorial collectives voice similar concerns and create programs aiming for inclusivity and diversity in the manner of an “affirmative action” to represent perspectives from marginalized groups.

However, one problem with this is that many of these critical endeavors engage in an institutional critique of sorts, seeming to imagine MoMA as the paradigmatic example of an arts institution today, and consider it as their primary interlocutor, overlooking the peripheries of the art world where communities and independent initiatives abound. Another problem with this approach, which I think is the most important one, is that it risks falling prey to identity politics that are not necessarily emancipatory but affirmative of the neoliberal status quo. Furthermore, they risk insinuating a forced performance of identity where unique, heterogeneous creative trajectories of artists get buried under identity categories and labels. In most artistic programming today, it’s as though there is a checklist of identity categories curators are compelled to include. Often, this entails presenting artists from, for instance, migrant backgrounds, indigenous groups, feminist and queer perspectives, voices from the so-called Global South—as though the Global South is a monolithic entity and as if pockets of wealth and privilege do not exist there as well. Indisputably, the visibility of marginalized groups in the art world is a welcome development. Yet, the visibility and inclusion of minority positions do not necessarily lead to the empowerment of these groups for broader social change. Similarly, programming about climate change does not incent social transformation counteracting the planetary crisis if everybody is talking all at once in the art world about the same things and preaching to the converted.

To make my point clear, I would like to recall here Nancy Fraser’s criticism of liberal strands of identity politics (i.e., “feminism of the 1%”, environmentalism of the rich”) and social movements. I also find it relevant from the perspective of the art world to heed her astute warning that we cannot establish a counter-hegemony by embracing what she calls “progressive neoliberalism” and the identity politics articulated with it.[8] Fraser had written in the 1990s about the “eclipse of redistribution [who deserves income] by recognition [who deserves rights]”[9] to understand what had gone wrong in the center-left and the left, both in academia and the broader political sphere, and to detect an imbalance in the thinking and practice of progressive forces whose one-sided focus on identity, status, and culture was obscuring the rise of neoliberalism.

Fraser contends that neoliberalism is more than an economic project but an entire institutionalized social order that can articulate with different and competing projects of recognition. Civil rights movements and women’s movements achieved essential gains, but these did not translate to social equality for all. It benefited the upper reaches of the professional-managerial class. In that stratum, women and People of Color had achieved significant gains, but this was not the case for everyone else. Fraser argues that the “window-dressing” for the neoliberal project came from the progressives.[10] They provided some cover for the free-market advocates by bringing in liberal-individualist currents of feminism, anti-racism, and LGBTQI+ rights, among others. As Fraser argues, the progressive neoliberal program did not aim to abolish social hierarchy but to diversify it. It “empowered” talented People of Color, sexual minorities, and women.[11] It is an inherently class-specific ideal geared to ensure that “deserving” individuals from underrepresented groups can attain positions and get equal pay with the straight white men of their class. In other words, beneficiaries could only be those already possessing the social, cultural, and economic capital.

Mainstream neoliberal currents of the new social movements and the high-end, symbolic forces of the economy formed a distinctive combination of views about distribution and recognition. The progressive neoliberal bloc aimed to liberalize and globalize the capitalist economy, which meant financialization and dismantling barriers to and protections from the free movement of capital, deregulating banking and predatory debt, deindustrialization, weakening unions, and spreading precarious, poorly paid work. These policies hollowed out working-class and middle-class living standards, transferring value and wealth to the top one percent.

None of this should imply that we should silence pressing concerns about gender inequality, racism, ethnonationalism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia. Fighting these issues is of utmost importance. Yet, it would be counterproductive to treat these as singular issues unrelated to the global capitalist social order. Constituents of the global crisis converge—planetary heating, ballooning precarity, declining living standards, racialized and sexualized violence, authoritarianism, militarization, war… The emancipatory coalition that offers a response to this nexus should be connecting the multiple social movements on a strand, and specially be sensitive to class dynamics. To realize the critical potential of curating, one needs to attend to the affective dimensions of the political and the specific economic and social conditions underlying racist and sexist articulations. A merely moralistic approach or one that is based on scientific arguments does not suffice. A truly political curating needs to build communities that go beyond artistic tribes and aim for a genuine plurality instead of caricatures of diversity, traversing the lines that fragment contemporary public discourse.

Gurur Ertem (Dr.) is a sociologist, dancer, and dance/performance studies scholar. Recently, she was a Research Fellow of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation in Berlin. Besides teaching at the Mimar Sinan University of Fine Arts/Istanbul (Department of Dance) and Boğaziçi University/Istanbul (Department of Sociology), Ertem is a professional trainee in the Tamalpa Life/Art Process® - Movement Based Expressive Arts and Somatic Education. Ertem’s transdisciplinary work combines the arts with social and political theory. She was a Humanities Fellow at Akademie Schloss Solitude/Stuttgart and a Fellow of the Hannah Arendt Seminar at the Institute for Critical Social Inquiry/New York. Ertem has served as a jury member for the German Dance Platform 2020/Munich and curated the iDANS Festival for Contemporary Dance and Performance in Istanbul between 2006-2014. She is the founding co-director of Bimeras Istanbul and Bimeras Berlin, a not-for-profit initiative for inquiry across the arts, social sciences, and humanities. For more information: http://www.gururertem.info


[1] Founded in 1981, IETM International Network for Contemporary Performing Arts is one of the oldest and largest international cultural networks mainly linked to the independent performing arts scene. See https://www.ietm.org/en.

[2] The Gezi Uprising was the largest wave of demonstrations and civil unrest in the history of modern Turkey. It began on May 27, 2013, as a sit-in by a group of environmental activists. According to a government-backed construction plan, Gezi Park, a public park in the center of Istanbul, was to be demolished. A replica of an Ottoman-era barracks would be built in its place, housing a shopping mall and a luxury residence complex. For more than a year, numerous activists and neighborhood initiatives had been trying to prevent Taksim redevelopment measures. Over time, “Gezi” had become the overarching signifier, standing for a multiplicity of frustrations such as the growing authoritarianism of the government, interventions of the state into people’s lifestyles and choices, the commodification of public goods and spaces under neoliberal policies, nepotism and partisanship, police violence, and the abolition of the democratic mechanisms of checks and balances. The composition of the protesters was highly heterogeneous and encompassed both organized and non-organized groups such as the LGBTQ, Taksim Solidarity, numerous left-wing parties and unions, anti-capitalist Muslims, Alevis, Kurds, Kemalists, students, artists, and football fans. A broad range of social, cultural, and ethnic groups who would not come together under normal conditions, as well as thousands of individuals with no prior political affiliation who felt excluded from the ruling party’s definition of “the people,” were united in revolt.

[3] Oliver Marchart, Conflictual Aesthetics: Artistic Activism and the Public Sphere (Berlin, New York: Sternberg Press, 2019).

[4] See Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: The Chicago University Press, 1958), 199.

[5] One cannot curate or organize a revolution, but the president of Turkey and his judiciary extensions think otherwise! It is absurd that the philanthropist and cultural organizer Osman Kavala is in jail for “organizing and financing” the Gezi Uprising. Furthermore, actor and playwright Mehmet Ali Alabora has been living in exile since 2013, for the government had accused him of “rehearsing the uprising” with the play Mi Minor directed in 2012. About the play Mi Minor, please see Burcu Yasemin Seyben, "My Life Has Become More Absurd Than My Play: ‘Mi Minor’ and the Crackdown on Artistic Freedom in Turkey,” The Drama Review 63, No. 3 (2019): 36–49.

[6] See Maura Reilly, Curatorial Activism: Towards an Ethics of Curating (London: Thames & Hudson, 2019).

[7] See Jaamil Olawale Kosoko, “Crisis in the Gallery: Curation and the Practice of Justice,” in Allianzen: Kritische Praxis an weißen Institutionen, eds. Elisa Liepsch, Julian Warner, Matthias Pees (Bielefeld: transcript, 2018), 118–130.

[8] Progressive neoliberalism is a term Nancy Fraser introduced to describe the phenomenon of the alliance of progressive forces with the tenets of neoliberalism. See:Nancy Fraser, The Old is Dying and the New Cannot be Born: From Progressive Neoliberalism to Trump and Beyond (London: Verso, 2019). Also see Nancy Fraser, “Critique of Capitalism,” Public Lecture, The New School, Institute of Critical Social Inquiry, June 18, 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mspR7LIP8NY.

[9] Fraser, The Old is Dying and the New Cannot be Born, 37.

[10] Ibid., 11, 44.

[11] Ibid., 13.

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Issue 55

Curating Dance : Decolonizing Dance