Interview with Charles Esche by Pelin Tan

utopia, local modernities, imagined public sphere, representation of singularities, the role of contemporary art

2005 – Istanbul / Eindhoven

Utopia  / Imagination

Pelin - Dear Charles, as I remember months ago we had a long discussion about the meaning of “utopia” and its relation to the concept of “city”. Against the modernistic approach of utopias we talked about an “imagined city”. Since our discussion, I keep remembering Casstels’s text (2000) in which he discuss his own article that he had written in 1968, says at the end: we do not need new urban ideologies or clean meaningful urban utopias – let people to create their own urban myths. In this context what do you think about the process of re-defining our relationship to the city of Istanbul?

Charles: The danger of “utopia” is that it becomes simply an “escapist” and conscious-easing phrase parroted by those engaged in affirming the existing capital and social structures. Through it, you can excuse any action in present while convincing yourself that you remain a radical. I would therefore always prefer the term imagination – but only if we understand it as an applied imagination, because we should not forget that “imagination” could be also escapist if you simply let the thoughts stay in your head and not relate them to the world or any specific context like Istanbul. This notion of the applied imagination relates to the avant-garde project of the earlier 20th century – the question of how to relate art to life and how to imagine the world differently. Of course the project itself became problematic and ultimately failed in many ways – but I think it still provides a qualitative challenge to the modernist legacy that has become now simply a question of aesthetics. The avant garde tradition, insofar as there is a link to contemporary art, is a hermeneutic practice, one that talks about content and meaning at least as much as form. Think about Lizzitsky’s  ‘Red Wedge’ for instance, or his work for early USSR publications. The use of ‘utopia’ in current art practice seems to me more a formal experiment than anything to do with content or meaning – that’s why almost anything was imaginable within a project like ‘Utopia Station’ as long as it performed a formal trick of not belonging to a white cube presentation.

If we look at this biennial, I think what is interesting for me is that many of the artists start telling stories again in order to explore meaning. There was a modernist fear about story telling that I think was absent or not relevant to the avant-garde. Today, perhaps, art is one of the only ways where a certain disinterested but applied speculation about imagining the world differently can take place. So much of other fields (and much art as well, of course) is instrumentalised in the service of the existing order while art still retains the potentiality to think things otherwise and imagine life differently. Of course, it is often immediately co-opted but the constant process of critically engaging with the world, being co-opted but then critically engaging again is vital. As that dialectic continues, the world changes and art becomes a register of the alterations in your own behavior and perception. The applied imagination marks the change that is currently possible – perhaps (hopefully) until the point when the critical engagement with the existing order can no longer be seamlessly co-opted and something gives.

Imagined Public Sphere

Pelin - How contemporary art could play a role for a possible imaginative urban space? How collectiveness, relations, meeting (mentally) are possible as a lot of different groups are claiming the public space, trying to shape the space nowadays?

Charles – Art, when it is more than a luxury commodity, relates to the discourse in what remains of the public sphere. It contributes to that discourse, or tries to create the ground on which it can happen. How we imagine the public sphere as a society is vital to how we see ourselves and our collective potentiality and if we lose the idea of the public sphere entirely, then we lose our potential for acting together. In that sense, of course the public sphere is in opposition to current capitalism with its targeting of the individual consumer and hid/her sovereign choices. At the same time, the public sphere as constructed in north-western Europe under social democracy is over. The kind of consensus that demands, built on ethnic homogeneity, is no longer possible (thankfully, I would add having worked in Sweden) Consensus can be an amazingly oppressive for anyone who wants to create a dynamic cultural environment, The potential public sphere that we need to imagine and create within the art field now is an agonistic one, something that Chantal Mouffe talks about regularly. As people who act in public space now we have so many different objectives, ideologies and desires that agreement is impossible without oppression, but there is a way to fight within democratic limits, to encounter each other on terms under which we do not try to wipe each other out. That space doesn’t really exist at the political level now, but it can in the public sphere of culture and its institutions. I think that’s where a new urban imaginary can be built up perhaps, in working with artists to imagine and create the kind of urban encounters that are agonistic and that adapt to the needs of the possible users. The sphere of art can be a modest proposal for an agonistic public sphere.  Places such as museum or biennials are the places where contested opinions of artists but also viewers can co-exist in livable conflict, because the public sphere is always about, how we live together. The artwork itself also has the potential to be an expression of this kind of exchange too, but that is more to do with the intimate level at which art operates rather than urban space.

Pelin: Charles, what are the potentialities of the city of Istanbul in the context of comparable local modernities?

Charles: I think Istanbul is a fascinating city in many, many ways. Of course, I have to say that I have fallen in love with the city and I miss it when I’m not here. But some aspects are very telling for our current global conditions and it is not only a romantic attachment that draws me here. For instance, nobody exactly comes from Istanbul. Large-scale migration has been happening since the 1950s and has accelerated considerably yet most people here trace their sense of belonging back to somewhere else in the world. Even its original is based on a conquest by people tracing their roots elsewhere, so even for Turks it is somehow an territory in your arrival can be dated and named – something that is very different from the western European notion of belonging as meaning ‘always having been there’. Sakine Cil’s poster project around Istanbul touched on some of this sense for identity very precisely I think, and that kind of identity is likely to be more and more functional in the future, when belonging cannot (hopefully) be based on blood and soil anymore. Of course, many western Europeans are running in terror from this development but hopefully it will either be able to adapt to a more ‘Istanbul’ sense of belonging (the best option) or western Europe will become isolated and irrelevant to planetary developments (dangerous given its sense of its own importance and its weapons arsenal). So Istanbul, along with a very few similar cities offers a model of identity that could be very appealing to citizens who want to act as part of a democratic polity (is not simply become disenfranchised but rich frequent travelers) but avoid the need to belong in the traditional European sense. The other side of Istanbul is its inevitable Europeanness, being one of the oldest and most significant cities on this continent. Unlike Asian and American cities, it can trace its origins as a settlement back as far as any western European city, which means it constantly has to moderate its dynamism through a confrontation with its history. It can’t simply start all over again from scratch – something that is a counterweight to the kind of troubling lightness that many forms of existing globalization offer. Istanbul has to stay aware of a specific and particular culture and history and cannot abandon it in the way right-wing ideologues such as Fukuyama would have is do with our historic struggles. That awkward balance between a transient sense of belonging and a need to deal with real histories in specific places is I think as close as we could get to the kind of located yet planetary consciousness that we need.

Locality / Local Modernities

Pelin- You both had a very good talk in Yıldız University, last Spring, which was one of the 9B talks. You talked about the relation between a biennial and a city, cultural and economical globalization, the notion of periphery biennial, engagement with local condition, local version of modernity…. You were opening up on knowledge of local modernities, local cultural perceptions and situation of Istanbul biennial. My question is; do you think that “pressing the local cultural perspectives” or “local modernities” would be a danger for building up again a western euro-centric framework? How we can deal with that?

Charles - I think we all are living in local modernities, there are basic differences but there is no longer a centre from which modernity springs fully formed. Instead, different paradigms of modernity exist that can be subverted or re-formed in the present post-modern times. Roger Buergel of Documenta proposes modernity as our antiquity and I broadly agree with him. In these terms, modernity is something we look back on, draw inspiration from, even respect but also see as belonging to a totally different time when ethics, technology, the authority of the western world all had different meanings and possibilities. From our perspective is seems now to have been ill-informed and rather naïve about how change happens and how politics and aesthetics work in the world. The whole enlightenment tradition that goes along with modernity is something that we have to undermine, to put it simply. Category, system, universal truth and structure can no longer regulate our lives effectively, or at least foreclose possibilities that we need to go further and contain the experiences of globalised world. As a western European, I have to let go of the dangerous certainty of that heritage and one way to do that without abandoning entirely for a weak relativism is to understand is a local form of modernity with its particularities – a heritage I can still use while immediately acknowledging its limitations and its biases. What is possible and optimistic is that different local modernities start to affect each other at the present moment – which our different heritages intermix on a level field of planetary discourse. This effect has to be on an intimate, almost individual level for it not to revert to old hierarchies – at least for now. What is important for me here is the Agamben idea of singularities. Local modernities can be used by humans placed in specific geographic situations to their own ends – and these singularities can then speak and exchange with each other about their own understandings of modernity. Those exchanges are probably agonistic and approach something we could start to imagine as a planetary public sphere that does not seek consensus but non-destructive recognition. So I would suggest that we need to see ourselves as all fundamentally provincial that could be interesting as a resistant mode to current form of globalization.

Collective knowledge / Layered epistemology

Pelin - As far as know the biennial structure is being layered with several different platforms and the structure has an openness that the audience could relate to each section and artworks in several relations. Urban interventions, re-activization of space, interaction with people, creating discussions, participation, intersection of flowing and crossing knowledge. How can an exhibition space present a collective form of knowledge that has the potential for a critical discourse in public space, radical intervention and collectiveness with conflicting negotiated platforms?

Charles – I think one way is through different kinds of storytelling. We all need to tell ourselves stories, it is how we come to orientate ourselves in the world and build our common sense. The question is can contemporary art alter or affect the common sense we have built up in this way through its presence. I think it can and I think that is how we can reconfigure the public sphere through art. But art of the current time does its public and political work more obliquely, subversively and ‘under the table’ rather than confrontationally. I think this is partly because people are immune to the shocking statement or the overt attempt to change consciousness; it just looks like another form of advertising. At least in the present and immediate future I think a form of directly politically engaged art is only speaking to the already persuaded, it does not change people’s existing common sense. For me, works by Mario Rizzi or different way Dan Perjovschi or again Yael Bartana all clearly reference political issues, issues of who speaks for whom of public and private space and spheres but in intimate, personal and allusive ways. Many of the works in the biennial are made with Istanbul very frankly in mind, but not with an eye to its mediated presence, to stories of Orhan Pamuk or Islam or the Kurdish question. That would be useless I think – just confirming what the mostly liberal people who go to biennials already think. It might give those people a fell good moment but it won’t change public discourse or allow us to feel together in a different way. It’s only if people feel to space to find new thoughts and emotions in relation to these broader questions of the public sphere that art might effect such things. It is through the ambiguity of works like Rizzi, Bartana, Güleryüz, Blum etc that such things might emerge.  Asking ourselves how play is a model of expressing thoughts and fears, how stories behind the shop window reveal much wider social changes, how is history recorded and received – these are important moments to open up to criticality and I think the spaces for doing so have to be intimate and embedded in the city so people can then trust their emotional response and not be overwhelmed by the history or presence of the architecture. That’s where the idea of the biennial as a publicly accessible, communally experienced moment is vital. To make is share these intimacies and hold them in common.  We could also talk about Luca Frei’s space in Tütün Deposu as a rather overlooked place where public spheres came together. Inside and outside there was where the community around the building met the biennial visitors – I think it had an impact as an experience on both sides. These are the moments when the biennial can act for a brief moment as a site for conflicted – or I’d rather say agonistic negotiations. Of course, what is really necessary is that this is then taken up by more regular institutions – but I think taking the Tütün Deposu and keeping it for cultural and art activities would make an incredible and direct difference to that neighborhood – if it was open and inventive in how it spoke to its new neighbors.

Alternative spaces /  Curatorial practice 

Pelin - You were involved with a lot of projects such as Gwangju Biennial, Rooseum Art Center, Cork Caucus and Community and Art in Yogyakarta and you had built up several relational platforms as a model of contemporary art. You did work with alternative art groups, local initiatives, artists/architects who deal with space and the potential of it. I guess those projects influenced for a longer term the infrastructure of the city, the locality. What would you like to say about your curatorial experience and approaches, in general regarding those projects?

Charles - It is always difficult to sum up such different initiatives that have always been done in collaboration with others. I wouldn’t want to claim credit for them, or only in as much as they let a useful legacy for others to develop. What I could do is speak more about trying to be precise and specific. In each project I tried to address the conditions I found there, tried to think them through my own experience and tried to provide a structural model for activity that would work there. I hope you can see that in what the four of us did in Istanbul. There is certainly no template. In Cork it could have been a big exhibition or public commission but organizing a workshop seemed more substantial for the city at that moment. In Gwangju it was about making a network of alternative spaces so that the Korean art scene could circumvent the official art structures and develop itself independently. In the institutions I have worked it was again about seeking out was I saw as necessary – a critical culture towards social democracy in Malmö for instance. I think all these structures and devices are basically tools to make something else happen – something like a critical and resistant culture to put it simply. That’s how we went about thinking what to do in Istanbul – what is necessary right here, right now. To shift the model, open up to the city etc. I think it is a right time to do it now in this biennial - not two years ago nor two years later – if I do another biennial somewhere else it will be different again. 


Pelin Tan


Charles Esche