Big Data and the Dark Art of Dispossession
This summer, years of anger against police brutality, gentrification, and evictions – all in the name of urban regeneration – reached boiling point in a series of Twitter-aided mass demonstrations across Turkey. Following this, the 13th Istanbul Biennial, titled Mom, Am I Barbarian? aimed to explore the symbolic territory where digital social lives and street politics intersect, featuring works that question what place ‘Big Data’ has in the culture of protest.
This summer Turkish pedestrians found themselves transformed into a revolutionary mass. On Istanbul’s Taksim Square they protested against their repressive and authoritarian regime over the planned destruction of the adjacent Gezi Park, one of the last green spaces in a city gripped by reckless building projects and covert acts of dispossession. Despite the ruling party’s conspiracy theories, this spontaneous movement was composed of the old and the young, the religious and the secular, of men and women. Much to the dismay of the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the occupation of various public spaces were organised solely through social media. “There is now a menace which is called Twitter,” Erdogan had said. “The best examples of lies can be found there. To me, social media is the worst menace to society.” And it was not just Twitter. Smartphones caught on camera the countless cases of disproportionate violence and web channels began broadcasting in defiance of the international media who largely ignored the unfolding drama. For both the government and the resistance the months since the crackdown have been spent analysing, compiling, and contemplating the immense amount of digital data accumulated during the demonstrations.
Mahir Yavuz & Orkan Telhan – The Road of Cones: The Eviction of Social Memory, 2013, Mixed Media, 250 x 110 x 110cm, photo: Servet Dilber
Announced in January, long before the nationwide protests swept the nation, curator Fulya Erdemci’s conceptual framework for the Istanbul Biennial intended to redefine public spaces under threat of dispossession – the wrongful or cynical eviction of rightful property-owners – as a potential forum for political discussion. Fast-forward the best of part of a year and the seismic shift in the social climate in Turkey has forced the art community to contemplate this summer’s upheavals instead of looking to the future. Consequently, Erdemci and the Istanbul Biennial faced criticism for shrinking back from their earlier plans to stage the city-wide event in those contested sites threatened by redevelopment. Instead, much of the action was shifted to the two major commercial galleries Arter and Salt, which are both situated on Istanbul’s main shopping thoroughfare.
Yaşar Adanalı, Burak Arıkan, Özgül Şen, Zeyno Üstün, Özlem Zıngıl’s Networks of Dispossession Project – Projects of Dispossession, 2013 – Ongoing, Mixed Media ,Dimensions Variable, Photo: Servet Dilber
However, one of the largest venues of the Biennial, the Galata Greek Primary School, an imposing nineteenth century neo-classical building, reveals a typically Istanbulite story of dispossession and displacement. The exodus of the Greek population accelerated in the years following the foundation of the Turkish Republic leaving only a fraction of their once-significant presence in the city. Suitably enough the Galata Greek Primary School was where Turkish artists Yaşar Adanalı, Burak Arıkan, Özgül Şen, Zeyno Üstün, Özlem Zıngıl’s Networks of Dispossession Project was shown. Their exhaustive and ongoing relational data-mapping installation visualised crowd-sourced information that critiqued the aggressive policies that led to the Gezi Park demonstrations. They held their inaugural workshop in Gezi Park on June 6th 2013 and have since undertook in-depth research into urban policy, expressing their findings through relational data compilation and network mapping. The project took the form of three principal charts titled Projects of Dispossession,Partnerships of Dispossession, and Dispossessed Minorities that, while remaining on show during the Biennial, continue to grow through online versions that allow users to contribute data and download the latest maps.
Yaşar Adanalı, Burak Arıkan, Özgül Şen, Zeyno Üstün, Özlem Zıngıl’s Networks of Dispossession Project – Dispossessed Minorities, 2013 – Ongoing, Mixed Media, Dimensions Variable, Courtesy of http://www.mulksuzlestirme.org/
The Networks of Dispossession Project is a visualisation of a community struggle. At first glance it looks a little like the ubiquitous aerial shots of scattered demonstrators fleeing tear gas volleys on Taksim Square during the crackdown. The map exposes the secretive processes that aim to deprive minorities of their property through illicit partnerships between private and state stakeholders. Raising the issue of how urban renewal leads to ecological and social destruction, data-mapping both visualises and exposes the networks of power through an intangible art object. These connecting forces create a relational network, and in exposing eco-destruction they in turn create their own informational eco-system. Another map, Partnerships of Dispossession, reveals the key stakeholders in urban regeneration – construction, architecture, energy, real estate, tourism and culture industries – and traces the relationships between their board members and central figures. The Projects of Dispossession data-map even implicates the sponsors of the Istanbul Biennial in a network of partnerships that have been established between the government and private developers during regeneration projects which have seen citizens stripped of their property in the name of yet another private enterprise.
Hito Steyerl – Is a Museum a Battlefield?, 2013, Video Documentation of non-academic lecture, Approximately 40mins
The largest venue of the Biennial, Antrepo No.3 is a former warehouse complex beside the Bosporus. A favourite Biennial venue, it is set to be transformed into an upmarket shopping complex, joining the 87 existing malls and the 41 projects projected to be realised in Istanbul over the next few years. Upon arrival, visitors were greeted by Ayse Erkmen’s bangbangbang, an immense replica wrecking ball suspended at the ready. Inside, Hito Steyerl’s ‘non-academic lecture’ Is the Museum a Battlefield? explored the relations between military and cultural state initiatives. The Berlin artist presented her findings on the links between Koç Holding, one of the country’s largest corporations and a Biennial sponsor, and their subsidiaries who supply military hardware to the army and police.
HONF Foundation – Diamagnetti (C/SM) Species – An Interactive Media Project, 2012-2013, Life form, DIY Electronic Devices, and synthetic life form, 620 x 400 x 250cm
An example of Erdemci’s occasionally heavy-handed style, Honf Foundation’s Diamagneti (C/Sm) Species takes the form of a sculptural conversation between human and plant life. While the Indonesian group eloquently utilize interactive design to underline both the fragility and vitality of online communities, curatorially this multimedia work makes a blunt connection between independent online communities and organic eco-systems, appearing clumsy alongside the concise works of data art that make the same point.
Like Steryerl’s Is the Museum a Battlefield? and the Networks of Dispossession Project Mahir Yavuz and Orkan Telhan’s The Road of Cones: The Eviction of Social Memory is inspired by data journalism and the impact of technology on globalisation. While exploring the culture of data and its implications of everyday life, Yavuz and Telhan formulate new tools and technologies to create data-driven frameworks. More traditionally production-based than the Networks of Dispossession Project, Yavuz and Telhan supplement their practice with the creation of publications, sculptural objects and installations. The Road of Cones explores the transformation of shared memory. For the artists it is not just minorities that are suffering the effects of urban regeneration and dispossession, it is history itself that is threatened with eviction. Embodying mass information into a sculptural narrative which translates the fluid nature of the data, and by layering it in a conic form, Yavuz and Telhan reflect the complex and repetitive nature of the data itself. Their playful cones are like mile-stones of shifting power relations. They may be small but the power to fight back lies in these colourful towers of data.
In an article that coincided with the Gezi Park demonstrations, Peter Hirshberg, the Chairman of Re:imagine Group, explored the artistic implications of Big Data, a term used to denote a mass of data so large that it requires the development of new tools or processes to reveal even part of its meaning. Artists are key in understanding and interpreting this age of pervasive and persuasive data. While Istanbul Biennial curator Fulya Erdemci may have struggled to realise her pre-Gezi framework for exploring the public domain as a political forum, she has succeeded in situating the data domain as a political battleground. Many of the artists on show across Istanbul during Mom, Am I Barbarian? took the viewer beyond the literal and managed to show the weight of digital and informational citizenship. In goes without saying that history will (and always has) proved Turkey’s Prime Minister Erdogan wrong. On the streets the government may have won the battle, but with Big Data in the hands of Turkey’s artists they might just lose the war.
The 13th Istanbul Biennial exhibitions, titled “Mom, am I Barbarian?”, curated by Fulya Erdemci took place at Antrepo 3, Galata Greek Primary School, ARTER, SALT Beyoğlu and 5533 between 14 September and 20 October 2013.