Istanbul from a different perspective: a conversation with Mari Spirito, founder of Protocinema

by Mara Sartore
January 12, 2016
Mara Sartore
Spirito Mari

We publish today the interview with Mari Spirito which describes Istanbul lively art scene, with the belief that the best way to fight terrorism is to continue to put even more energy in art projects and to continue visiting  this wonderful city.

I met with Mari Spirito during Art Basel in Miami Beach. She is the wonderful and very energetic woman who in founded Protocinema, a non-profit art organization in Istanbul. The mission of Protocinema is, in her own words, “to open up a dialogue by showing artists’ work in parts of the world where it has not yet been shown.”

An early Protocinema project, 2012, was an exhibition of Dan Graham’s work in Istanbul. Of course, Graham is an internationally acclaimed artist, but up until that point he had never shown in Turkey. On the occasion of the exhibition, Graham held a great conversation with Can Altay before a public audience in Istanbul. In New York in early 2012, Protocinema worked with Ahmet Öğüt on an exhibition of his work in a former real estate office on Suffolk Street, on the Lower East Side of Manhattan; in this case Protocinema helped expand the audience for a Kurdish – Turkish-born artist who had, up until that point, gained little exposure in the U.S. Protocinema has also frequently featured the work of emerging artists, or otherwise provided support to artists at crucial turning points in their careers. Through Protocinema, people are seeing artworks that give another perspective. As Mari puts its: “Ultimately, if art can break down stereotypes, misunderstanding, miscommunications, which I believe it can, then that is at the core of everything that we’re doing.”

Mara Sartore: The first thing I’d like to ask is about is your relationship with Istanbul and how your projects were born there.

Mari Spirito: My relationship to Istanbul is long and rewarding–and not without struggle. When times get hard we talk about it and work it out… [laughter] I first went to Istanbul in 2007 and I met all these amazing artists, writers, and curators. Then I started going back and forth quite a bit. I was, of course, meeting artists, and over the years I started organizing exhibitions in Istanbul of artists from elsewhere. At the same time, I was including artists from Istanbul in shows I was curating in New York. It happened organically, and I began wondering if there was a way I could do this full time. This led me to create Protocinema. Protocinema is a non-profit art organization that makes site-aware exhibitions in the world. In one way, it’s very much inspired by ArtAngel, London, where the art is commissioned for a specific space. For Protocinema, the budget is much smaller and the artworks are responsive to the context in which we exhibit them, but could also be exhibited elsewhere. I wanted Protocinema to be transnational so that I could go anywhere, and I started it in New York and Istanbul because these were the cities I was living between. Then I moved my main base to Istanbul. It’s all working–we have been making exhibitions this way for almost five years. Regardless of recent hard times, things in Istanbul are happening, and the context is very dynamic. Artist are making strong work. For example, there’s a new space opening in Istanbul called Alt. It is in a former beer factory, and I am going to be directing/curating this space as well. The exhibition spaces are underground–Alt is the Turkish word for “under.” We will open with two shows: one of major video works by Rodney Graham, and a group show called If you can’t go through the door, go through the window, with new works Aykan Safoğlu, Hasan Özgür Top, and Hera Büyüktaşçıyan. Even in hard times we all keep creating–“the water will find its way,” as the proverb goes.

Mara: How much do you think the politics in Turkey are influencing the art scene?

Mari: How can the politics in the world not influence any art scene? We are in a major historical moment right now. This is largest movement of people in 200 years. Our existence is changing every day. Our voices are getting squeezed, and there’s less and less freedom of speech and freedom in the press everywhere–not just in Turkey. Art is a place where we can bring up concerns. Most of the work that artists are making in Turkey is dealing with major concerns.

Mara: What about the recent Istanbul Biennial, how was it for you?

Mari: During the biennial Protocinema I did an exhibition with Latifa Echakhch. She is a very responsive and empathetic artist and she showed three works. The main work was called Farewell [2015], and we had a young person painting text on the ground with water that would dry up after several minutes. The text was from fragments of letters that Syrian boys wrote to their parents to say goodbye before they would go to fight for ISIL. Needless to say, it was very emotional and intense, but also subtle and poetic. Latifa dealt honestly with the situation, with what she was feeling at that moment, which I am so very grateful for. The biennial had great moments, but my understanding was that there were people who were frustrated that it wasn’t actually dealing with what is going on at this moment in time. The curator decided to talk about the Armenian genocide because it was the one hundred year anniversary. This needed to be discussed–but people felt the biennial wasn’t current enough. The biennial is a very important exhibition for Istanbul because people come from all over the world to participate. It engages the art community and also people not in the art community. It’s a very open and influential event. From the previous edition that opened up right after the Gezi Park protests came the decision to no longer charge an entry fee. Now many, many more people come who weren’t looking at art before. They have things to say about it. I am curious to see the impact of this in the coming years. Many of the artists, writers, thinkers, and curators I now meet in Istanbul came to art through the “biennial door.”

Mara: At the press conference of the biennial people were asking the curator her perspective towards the Syrian situation and the Armenian situation, and she was not exactly taking distance… but she wasn’t really taking part. Is this what you mean?

Mari: Exactly, I empathize with her position. It’s clearly complicated, and especially difficult to say what her position is as a non-Turkish person working in Turkey. Maybe she tried to hard to be protective of the situation and of the Biennial itself. This protectiveness was perceived–fairly or not-to be opaque and hard to access.

Mara: For you as a foreign curator, what are the difficulties working in Istanbul? Are there any limitations on your work, or is it stimulating to work in such an environment?

Mari: For me it’s more about the latter. The cultural landscape is open and there is space to do amazing things. The people who are participating are extremely engaging. They care a lot. The art community is made up of different camps and scenes, like anywhere. I find it to be genuinely collaborative, and that people are supportive and available for each other. I think that the nature of working in the art field is that we are creating new things all the time. We get to make our own rules and break our own rules. This is what’s happening. Another thing we’re excited about at Protocinema is our emerging curator and artist series. I selected seven young curators and artists and invited them to make an exhibition through a specific process. Protocinerma was invited to collaborate with another non-profit artist-run space – 5533, speaking ofthe the collaborative aspect of the art community in Istanbul. First they give me a proposal, and I work on it with them–we learn by doing it together. Then we give the proposal to our mentor curators, who are people working in institutions in Turkey and abroad. Those curators give feedback, in exchanges about ideas. Then our seven curators make the show. They work together with their different skills, and help each other. The idea is to foster a network of peers, a support structure. It’s a positive chain of effects because: 1. Young artists are getting their work exhibited; 2. Young curators are getting input from all these amazing people who have worked in the field for a long time; and 3. The people working in the field for a long time get to find out first-hand what is going on on-the-ground with artists here. It’s a win-win-win situation.

Mara: Just out of curiosity, why did you choose the name Protocinema?

Mari: I wanted the name of my organization to be made of words that are familiar to many, and make up a new word. I wanted the name to be about my concerns about cognitive thought processes, perception, and belief systems. There was also an early idea for it to be something that was in motion. In Werner Herzog’s film Cave of Forgotten Dreams [2010], he talks about cave paintings, asking: “Why do these drawings show the beast with eight legs instead of four legs? Maybe this is man’s the first attempt to represent motion, maybe this is protocinema.” So, for me, Protocinema is about how we understand and then represent the world; how we communicate it to each other, and then what the result of that communication has the potential to be.

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