Vasif Kortun. Photo from personal archive

What should one put into the belly of today’s museums? 0

An interview with Vasif Kortun, curator and director of research and programming at the SALT Art Center

Monta Gāgane

To aid in publicizing the ideological concept behind the forthcoming Latvian Contemporary Art Museum, from 8 – 9 September the Kaņepes Cultural Center hosted the international art symposium “Cross-training: 10 exercises for shaping a museum”. In addition to a number of lectures by both local and visiting specialists in their fields, the symposium also included discussions and other activities aimed at examining the transformations of contemporary art museums in the world, and what we should take into consideration while planning our own institution in Latvia.

Among the eighteen lecturers was Vasif Kortun, the Turkish curator, author, educator, and Research and Programming Director of SALT – one of the most visible art institutions in Turkey today. On the second day of the symposium, Kortun presented his lecture “The Museum as a Set of Instruments for Making Informed Decisions”.

Kortun specializes in contemporary visual art, its institutions, and the activities of exhibition centers. Before the establishment of SALT, he was the director of the contemporary art center Platform Garanti; headed the project “Proje4L”; worked at the Istanbul Contemporary Art Museum; and held a position at the Curatorial Study Center at Bard College. As an internationally recognized curator, Kortun has participated in several projects, including: curating the 2008 Taipei Biennale, together with Manray Hsu; curating the 9th Istanbul Biennale, together with Charles Esche; curating and directing the 3rd Istanbul Biennale; and co-curating the 1998 Sao Paulo Biennale.

In addition, Kortun has sat on the boards of such institutions as the Art Initiative Foundation; the CIMAM International Modern Art Museum and Collection Committee; the Asia Art Archive’s Advisory Board; and the FM Contemporary Art Center. Kortun has also served on the judging panels for several awards and prizes, including the Turner Prize, Ars Fennica 2014, and the Velazquez Award. Through Kortun’s long list of efforts in the field of curating (not to mention his many contributions to international publications and periodicals), he has helped change the contemporary art world of Turkey.

Currently at the center of attention for Kortun is the SALT institution’s research concerning critical and topical issues in the field of visual and cultural culture, and encouraging an innovative approach to this work. The institution places great emphasis on its library and archives on the subjects of contemporary art, architecture, design, urban design, and social and economic history, while also executing various programs (almost three hundred, to date) and organizing interdisciplinary events. SALT is also involved in the field of publishing, both printed books and digital books available for download.

In his presentation at the Kaņepes Cultural Center, Kortun spoke on subjects such as: perceiving the museum as a useful tool not only in the contexts of its building and collection; balancing the needs between its public space and internal research processes; and the mistakes of previous museums and how to avoid them, among others.

After his lecture and during the lunch break, Kortun – avoiding empty pontification and looking at the situation with an objective eye – offered a few suggestions and comments on the creation of a contemporary art museum in Latvia.

Exhibition Migrating Spaces. SALT Research & Programs. Publicity image

What would you suggest we do as we prepare for the creation of the Latvian Contemporary Art Museum?

I can’t make suggestions from a distance, because you know the situation better purely by way of living here. I can suggest what everyone is always suggesting. Firstly, put all your knowledge towards the specific situation and see if it is useful and if it will work for this case or not. Secondly, we all go through similar problems at the same time – it is very important to work with institutions that are also very good at doing public services. I’ve worked with private funds all my life, and all of them were also very good public service institutions, but working with each one also has a very specific context.

If you ask this question from a completely public point of view, I would not be up to answering. It is very important to know how to establish continuity in the new institution, and understand that it is not a one-time thing. It has to work for many years and be around for the long term. You have to know how to prepare for that. I think it is the right time and moment for the founding of a Latvian Contemporary Art Museum.

You don’t have a huge population. So, how many people would you like to see in this museum? It is important to understand how to create engagement so that people want to visit it. At first, you need Riga engagement, then – the rest of Latvia, then Nordic and international public engagement. You have to know how to build it, how and what kind of exhibitions to make. There are so many conditions that must be met to do it well.

I think meeting with small groups of people would be a nice and useful thing to do. You need to ask them what it is that they want to see or do, or what is it that they feel they are missing. During that time, people will become much more active. They take part in these kinds of events and get the benefit of thinking of art in different ways – at least, that is what I have observed in my country in the last years.

But of course, I cannot give answers before analyzing the certain situation carefully. If you are very careful in that, not just doing something that others successfully did somewhere else, you can always come up with great impulses. I think we are living in a time in which we are moving away from the classical notion of the art world and exhibitions. We are moving towards a much more interdisciplinary approach. The art world itself is not enough. All institutions need to be ready for all of these changes, and give support in order to go on to the next level.

Exhibition Rainbow in the Dark. SALT Research & Programs. Publicity image

So you are suggesting that our museum should be multi-functional, with lots of other activities – just as you do it at SALT.

Absolutely – but not in the general way. It has to be with your own mission, vision, and direction. You can’t do things just for the sake of doing things. You don’t do this to bring people in; you do this to bring value to – and to create the value of – the institution.

There is an opinion that one of the main problems with creating a new contemporary art museums is that, sometimes, the idea of it starts and ends with just the building.

That is absolutely right. It should never be about the space. The building and the space is not an institution. The institution is in you, in your mind and in your actions, and it has to be realized like that. It cannot be anywhere else. People think that they just have to build a building, and the institution will be there; but it [the building] is very secondary. The building is just a tool for what you want to do. It is not your goal. And it is also important to understand that it is a certain tool that you can use for certain purposes – not for everything. The building is not going to help you if there are many things that you want to do there, but you didn’t plan them all out before creating the building.

At the same time, if the building becomes the main thing, it’s a problem because then it takes priority over your program. Then the building becomes a weight on your shoulder. But you shouldn’t have to carry it – the building has to carry you.

Sometimes, governments with big money do this kind of thing – they put lots of resources into one building, but they don’t think about the fact that money will also be needed to run the operations in it later. The bigger the building you create, the more money you need to run it – you need more security, more cleaning, more this and that.

Exhibition Migrating Spaces. SALT Research & Programs. Publicity image

The Latvian Contemporary Art Museum will be built thanks to state and private funds. Do you have suggestions from your own experience on how these two sources may work together?

I’m not interested in the classical vision of private and state or government funds. They both have both good and bad sides to them. Most often, the boring question that everyone speaks about is that, with private money you do things publicly, and with the public’s money you do things very privately. So, it is important to keep this in mind and not create this kind of a situation. As long as I don’t spend public money for myself, it’s OK. SALT works with private funds because then I know to whom I’m talking. There is a certain face and person to whom you can go, and you know how they do things and take responsibility for them.

Your task is to find a good marriage between both kinds of funds. For many years there has been an opinion that private money is bad, but not necessarily.

Exhibition A Century of Centuries. SALT Research & Programs. Publicity image

Another problem is that sometimes, Eastern Europe countries try to follow in the West’s footsteps, but it doesn’t work as expected. How can we encourage our art world to not follow these trends that often aren’t suitable for us?

I don’t have an answer for that. That is just something that we need to keep in mind. The history of someone else is not your history. The West is the West, but this is not the West. You have to value your history and research it. Why are we not talking more independently? How do we know that “that” event changed the world? Maybe it happened at some other time, somewhere else... Maybe the French philosophers got their ideas from somewhere else. If you think like that, you can actually break the opinion that history is made after the Western narrative that everyone has memorized.

What are your priorities when creating the SALT art collections?

We have not been making art collections for a long time now, but rather other collections. These are collections of documents and photography, architecture, 3D-models, etc. We make collections of things that we think are important. We know what we are doing and what we are trained to do. It is our job, just like a surgeon or an environmental engineer knows what to do. I think that our field is as legitimate as any other field, although it is quite arbitrary. “What makes up history? What is being left out of history?” – these are the discussions we are interested in. Many things that really are important are not always collected, taken care of, or written about. We want to change this situation.

Exhibition One and the Many. 06.09. – 13.11.2016. SALT GalataSALT Research & Programs. Publicity image

Can you comment on the contemporary art processes going on in Europe at the moment, in general?

I would say it is a very good and interesting moment. The art world is expanding with different types of knowledge and practices, and much more so than in the past. It is losing its relationship with the old style and classical point of view. Art doesn’t fit normal disciplines anymore. That is the reason why now is a good time to practice it.

But isn’t it also dangerous when everything seems to be mixed together?

Not at all. Everything still keeps its individual format. Things don’t get similar – they affect each other, but it doesn’t get mixed up like a soup. In this situation, each component gets something.

Your question comes from a very historical position. We are not in the 1880s anymore, so why shouldn’t the museum or library change as well? Their traditional format was needed back then, in that time – not in this time.

But do we know what we need today?

We need community. We don’t need networks.

Well, what is actually getting better? Nothing. The environment is not getting better, our food in not getting better, there is more depression than ever – especially in the big cities. The world is turning into something much worse than it was in the past.

Can we make it better with art?

Definitely. It is a great tool with which to do that.

But are we using this tool?

No. Not as much as we should. Art hasn’t been democratized enough. At the same time, art is something that can make a link between people. They talk and communicate through it. Art itself doesn’t do anything – we do.