Friday, June 29, 2007

art as mediation, katzen art center, washington d.c.


opening conference for mediation festival, american university, katzen art center, 19 april 2007

In this presentation, I will discuss art as mediation in the context of contemporary art practices and in the context of Middle East, South Caucasus and the Balkans. In doing so, I will explore the parameters of mediation as well as the position of the artist within the socio-political and economic context of this region.

In the past, mediation entailed a crossing on the one hand from the sacred to the worldly and on the other hand, from a a natural and violent world to civilized and secure one. Tribal priests or shamans were expected to help people to confront the sublime powers and nature through special rituals and taboos. Later, a version of this function of mediation was assumed by the priest, the imam or the rabbi.

Modernism placed the artist on the position of the mediator who was supposed to transmit the utopias through sublimated artworks and thereby to fulfill the expectations of modern societies. In 1985, Joseph Beuys, in a conversation with Yannis Kounellis, claimed that “we are here to built cathedrals” (Una Discussione, Parkett Verlag, 1985. p.167). Let me quickly remind that some considered Beuys to be a modern Shaman. He insisted that the artist is the sacred as well as the profane mediator of modern art. In response, Kounellis confirmed this and said: “The construction of the cathedral is the construction of the visible language”.


Without doubt, in our contemporary times, mediation is embedded in a global culture industry—and here, I refer to the concept of “culture industry” as articulated by Theodor Adorno. Contemporary art, for example, is an essential instrument by which a relationship can be set up between artists, artworks, its viewers and its promoters. It is articulated in different formats, such as exhibitions, publications, symposiums, critical reviews, guided tours, workshops, television broadcasts, multiples etc.

In the age of global communication with its fundamental rules of competition and control, the distribution and circulation of artworks and statements are dependent on mechanisms of mediation. The artwork is produced, upheld or reconfigured within the realm of mediation. The quality of mediation defines the dimension and the character of the link between the artist and the public. Mediation in the current art discourse is the process in which the different disciplines are employed for the enrichment and enchantment of visual thinking, for questioning and challenging the global order of things and for experimentation with the aim of creating alternatives to standardisation.

The most effective ways of mediation today are research based semi-documentary representative narrations, analogies or metaphors. Through the socio-political and cultural material, the artists try to create a platform of visual dialogue that intends to help the societies to imagine with them and to reflect on the possibility and potential for change and improvement.

All these resources and methods facilitate the artists to accomplish their goal in mediating.

Yet there are ambiguous interactions in this goal:

One of them is the border between art image and commercial media image:

In many ways, art within the culture industry was never been so accessible to a broad public as it is today. Yet at the same time art has never been so vulnerable and ambiguous in its quest to reach global publics. Equipped with themes, methods and strategies of the commercial media and electronic technology, the greedy vectors of the culture industry is continuously stealing concepts and images from the field of contemporary art. Artists, in turn, obviously enter into a risky venture when they step into this domain as they “subversively” utilize the same methods and strategies. The relation or difference between the images of the commercial media and the images of the art is one of the main topics of contemporary art criticism.

The other is the language barrier:

All across the world, contemporary artists are extremely engaged with mediation and its mechanisms. One of the most direct and significant examples was the work of Antoni Muntadas entitled “On Translations” in the Pavilion of Spain in 51st Venice Biennale. Muntadas exquisitely described his work as exploring issues of transcription, interpretation, and translation from language to codes, from science to technology, from subjectivity to objectivity, from agreement to war, from private to public, from semiology to cryptology. This is the artist as translator. However in his website you will find a significant sentence in different languages which shows that the mediation is not so trouble-free:

Communication systems provide the possibility of developing better understanding between people: in which language?

Nevertheless this trouble – the language barrier- is also an advantage for contemporary art language which can convey its messages through images that carry the potential to be comprehensible worldwide.


Art as mediation in the territory I am presenting is somehow more vital:

It may be explained as an interdisciplinary process of so called dispute resolution. Dispute resolution is mostly related to justice and law in democratic societies.

It is an act in which a neutral third party, the mediator, assists two or more parties to help them negotiate an agreement on a matter of common interest. It is any activity in which an agreement on any matter is facilitated by an impartial third party, usually a professional, in the common interest of the parties involved.

The artist’s role in the context of Middle East, South Caucasus, and the Balkans nowadays somehow fits into this definition. He is the third party – not necessarily neutral but alternative and unusual. A third party that provokes transgression and negotiation for common interest.

Relations of domination and oppression (whether they be economic, cultural, political, or ecological) are not only relevant within democratic (as well as non- or semi-democratic) countries but also across the regional and ideologico-cultural differences. These relations of domination/subordination create and impose an ambiguous intercultural conflict which pulls the artists into its turmoil and attaches mediation an additional crucial process for resolution and reconciliation.

In this respect, for instance, I find contemporary art to be a significant mediation for the resolution of dispute within the democratization process in and around Turkey, in its neighbourhood. As we all know this region is the scene of not only local conflicts but of severe global ambitions and antagonisms.

I will briefly indicate the parameters of this situation:

These art scenes are initially born out the educational apparatuses either of the Western colonialism or of the Real Socialism of the Eastern Bloc. The art practiced under these systems was determined by the academic forms of Western modernism. Nevertheless, these art scenes have succeeded to create their own avant-gardes whose names are yet to be registered in 20th century art history.

When we examine these art scenes, we have to consider the peculiar conditions for the development of an art that broke with the rigidities of academic modernism.

This development was with great pain and in evaluating it we should submit it to a different set of standards than the one that we would use in evaluating the postmodern break that occurred in the West, in the 1980s. Oddly enough, this peculiarity, the conflictual context of the region has created a fertile soil for art as mediation between masses and systems.

In addition to the post-Soviet and the post-Gulf War infrastructural transformations, since the 1990s, the political conflicts of globalization, the economic imperatives of neoliberalism, and, last but not the least, the global commodity culture are corrupting and corroding the local cultures. This organized assault on local cultures and contemporary art production has two components: On the one hand, there is the aforementioned assault of the entertainment industry, the advertisement imagery and the commercial media. On the other hand, there are the frozen ideologies of the nation-states with their stubborn bureaucracies and, in most cases, entrenched anti-democratic impulses.

Artists and art experts who believe and elevate art as mediation are aware of this double encroachement and refuse to give in. For them, artwork and art-making is a tool for debate, criticism and challenge for the construction of effective public opinion. They initiate non-profit organizations, artist collectives and civil NGOs. In a moment, I will try to illustrate this with particular examples.

Within the almost unfinished historical and restless present context, artists and art experts have been trying to de-construct and re-construct the official and private histories, to include everyday life narration into art, to produce artworks for the anxious audience, and to release art from the modernist academic criteria as much as possible. The art works are multi-topic, materializing out of the pot of unfulfilled modernist utopia and the new post-modernist heterodoxies.

The political and social content of art and the methods borrowed from social and anthropological research as well as communication sciences have enriched the artist’s portfolio of infiltrating to the interest zone of the public. The bottlenecks of democratisation processes in the region aggravate the public to turn to alternative ways of declamation.

The art works are attractive in the sense that they are born out of a violent rupture from tradition, out of pursuit of democracy as well as out of many anti-democratic political systems, out of paternalist state capitalisms or brazen neoliberal economies.

This is not to deny that, with the pre-eminence of globalization in the 1990s, many artists of these remote and unregistered art scenes began to attracted attention. After the Wall (not the new Wall in Palestine but the old Wall of Berlin), the famous motto united differences of EU cultural policy-makers forced the curators and art experts to consider the reality of the Other, and to include the non-EU artists into their exhibition programs, which in turn instigated a productive boom in the art scenes in the east of EU. The global West has again discovered its own reflection in the challenging, provocative, or even aggressive works of these artists.

Nowadays, the so called intercultural exhibitions and art market strategies co-determine the global social function (or the role) of art. The exhibitions (biennale and other kinds of global exhibitions) stand here as the only possible global medium of mediation for a whole complex of mediating activities. This system with all its new and refined strategies and statements sifted the dust of modernist polarisation and pursued a reconciliation ground for mutual understanding between the artists of different territories and cultures. This kind of prosaic expressions of numerous curators since the late 1980s was based on the apparently idealistic principles of globalisation.

However, the rosy expectations of the artists of the non-EU (or post-peripheral) countries of the region began to wane as they circulated in and out of the biennials, multi-cultural exhibitions, workshops, seminars, and forums. The process is still going on, but with strategic changes in defining the position of the de-territorialized artist. At the beginning the pregnant concepts such as the other, the emigrant, and Diaspora were popular and promising and the modernist borders seemed to melt away.

But, gradually, it was understood that the tender hand of the Western curator which was extended to these artists was not sufficient to transform the prevailing systems of the Post-Soviet countries and the nation-states of the Middle East. It was understood that the transformations should come from below, from within the local art scenes themselves with a practice of reciprocity and mediation between the historical, geographical and cultural neighbours.

In a series of examples I would like to show you what is being done within these parameters.

Beral Madra, April 2007

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