November 30, 2014

How to Experiment. Onika Simon's ARTSHO5 in Istanbul

Limited Edition Poster of ARTSHO5, Experiment, designed by Kwame Charles, 2014

It’s a fact, isn’t it: Berlin is the hubbub of contemporary art. Other cities have been trying to catch up and even take over. Belgium is eager to promote Brussels as the New Berlin but it’s never a good idea to try being something else. And then there is Istanbul that just wants to be Istanbul and it’s quite rocking at it. I made my first trip to Istanbul over the weekend to visit Onika Simon’s ARTSHO5, titled “Experiment.” Istanbul might not want to be the New Berlin, but the show did remind me of my first year in Berlin in 1998 (yes, I’m getting into that life phase in which one starts to have memories). The winter of 1998 felt like the coldest winter in the history of mankind, but the parties were exotic and literally located underground. Similarly, the 2014 Istanbul-based ARTSHO5 was to be reached by going below ground level through a long and narrow corridor and similar to Berlin 1998 it took place in the middle of a construction site. It was the first show I’d seen where construction workers and artists worked side by side, both wearing overalls and doing their thing, which was renovating a building or making experimental art: on the surface it’s hard to see the difference in who’s dismantling what. The artists had various reactions to the circumstances. While some went along, getting high on the foams of melting nails or making paintings with tools like blow dryers, others worked desperately against it, playing Sisyphus by trying to clean the fine dust from the floor so one could start making art to begin with. The push and pull actually led to a great dynamic. Olafur Eliasson’s recent Festival of Future Nows at the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin was just lame compared to this one. 

Winston Chmielinski, Valerie Schmidt, Onika Simon and
Carleen Coulter in ARTSHO5 outfit. Photo by Anders Pearson

A world wide web event: opening talk of ARTSHO5 with Onika Simon, Seyhan Musaoglu from Space Debris and Budapest curator Gaspar Bonta

That’s because experimentation has two edges and ARTSHO5 managed to reach both. One is the despair or the breakdown which brings you to that edge, or a little over the top to that point where you’re pushed forward. Needless to say, making art in the middle of a construction site was very helpful in that sense, but the artists contributed by, for instance, offering “collapsing” exercises. I collapsed so carefully, anxious to get hurt, that it made me realize I still have heaps of work to do in the letting go section of experimentation. The other edge is on the site of community. Let me go back to my Erasmus year 1998 in Berlin, where the constant socializing with new people in new circumstances drove me to tears every now and then, but also to bliss every so often. ARTSHO5 created this feeling of elation that comes about after spending some intensive days together in the midst of chaos (which is the natural state of things). The art was made during the exhibition (as experimentation is not a final product) in interaction with everything and everybody around. In this process Catherine Greig’s project make:good asked you to solicit help and offer help (of which the latter - recognizing yourself as being useful to others - is surprisingly the hardest thing to do). This kind of trustful connecting and sharing is the philosophy behind Onika Simon’s curating (and her Berlin-based company Spokehub). Yes indeed, it’s the new thing to do after a decade of selfishly protecting and disconnecting. During the Istanbul show tweets with hashtag ARTSHO5 moved across the wall and gave the happening a World Wide Web atmosphere. I myself was happily tweeting all along. 

I definitely need the help of @amanda_amport @wemakegood 

So does experimentation lead to innovation? Well, ARTSHO5 gave me a new perspective on what the next revolution will be about. The turn of mind happened upon encountering Winston Chmielinski’s art piece that invited the spectator to write something down. Chmielinski sighed when he saw me thinking hard to come up with an original idea and said he secretly wished for something plain and ordinary. It was then that it suddenly dawned on me that after centuries of living in the Age of the Extraordinary (with traveling to the moon, and making paintings through dripping, and other exceptional originalities) we have now arrived in the age without the extra. The Age of the Ordinary has this particular ambivalence to it that it looks simple but is complex at the same time (which is my favorite combination). I found more evidence for this theory at the Istanbul Design Biennial, which showcased the 2006-2007 show Super Normal at Axis Gallery in Tokyo that did not exhibit new work but existing objects that “favor synthesis over innovation, invisibility over ostentation, and they achieve their status through use”. Its catalogue said: “Super normal [...] is re-realizing something that you already knew, re-acknowledging what you naturally thought was good in something... super normal indicates our ‘realization’ of what is good in ‘normal’.” And then there was my encounter with innovation strategist Richard Watkins at ARTSHO5, who tried to convince me of the benefits of repair as a way to go forward and not so much the search for the new. The Repair Society at the Istanbul Design Biennial gave Watkins food for his argument: “Repairing is about the constant struggle to make things work, from language, to things, to relations between people, to systems in society.” 

Amazing thermo-reactive screen printing: Dolly Demoratti
proves that blow dryer and Becks go well together

So if experimentation is no longer about the search for the new and the original, it doesn’t mean you have to start mending your clothes with needle and thread (but of course, why not). Valencia James, for instance, is working with the newest technology to renew her own body language that was formed by years of routines and habits. At ARTSHO5 she presented her newest dance piece with artificial intelligence in which she taught her own body movements to an avatar that then improvised on those, which James took as material to improvise on again in real life. And what did the experimentation of ARTSHO 5 say about Istanbul?  At the Coffee Curating and Cultural Management Club of Kate Brehme (née Martin) back in Berlin, Kate told me her impression was that the Istanbul art scene has this grassroots look to it. And yes, Onika Simon definitely had her stamp on the experimentation (and she pulled it through despite the many obstacles) but it also took form the way it did because of the fact that it took place in Istanbul. Visiting the Book Lab at Studio-X and BAS, a space of artists books and fanzines run by Banu Cennetoğlu I got a similar vibe that comes across at that moment when there is a flash between two edges.  

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