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15th Istanbul Biennial Explores What It Means to Be a Good Neighbor

The fifteenth Istanbul Biennial has announced that its thematic concern, “A Good Neighbor,” will address the notions of homes, neighborhoods, and modes of living in the private and public spheres as well as how they’ve changed throughout the past decades.

A performance involving forty people asking questions about what constitutes a good neighbor kicked off a press conference that the biennial held this morning. Artists Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset, who were selected earlier this year to curate the exhibition, discussed the biennial’s format and introduced its billboard campaign, which was created in collaboration with graphic designer Rupert Smyth. The artists will work with institutions worldwide to put up billboards featuring images and text related to being a good neighbor beginning in March.

Elmgreen told Gökcan Demirkazık of that they were quite surprised when the biennial asked them to curate the show, after having solicited a proposal from them. He said: “If you dare to let us, we will do it.” The biennial will be held from September 16 to November 12, 2017.

Click more for a Q&A between Elmgreen and Dragset and contributing writer Gökcan Demirkazık.

GÖKCAN DEMIRKAZIK: In previous exhibitions such as “Tomorrow” (2013–14) at the V&A and “The Collectors” (2009) at the Danish and Nordic Pavilions of the fifty-third Venice Biennale, you have created fictional domestic environments to reflect on capital, social structures, and alienation. This time, you have a domesticity invoking title: “a good neighbor.” In what way will your interest in the concept of “home” materialize differently?

MICHAEL ELMGREEN: This time, it is almost a strategy for us to look at things at a micro-level in order to look out at a bigger perspective, and speak about the neighborhood to speak about coexistence in a broader sense. Also about the home—our private sphere—as a vehicle for self-expression where we dare to live out our identities in different ways than when we are in public.

INGAR DRAGSET: There is less focus on the home as a metaphysical dwelling. The title is pointing more toward human exchange or the lack thereof.

GD: Strategies in exhibition-making are an important part of your work as well, especially with your recent show at the Ullens Center in Beijing, where you present artworks in the form of exhibitions. For this biennial, are you thinking of strategies that will circumvent fear—another topic that you talk about frequently in relation to your work?

ME: We hope to curate the biennial almost as if it would be a neighborhood in itself, consisting of diverse identities, allowing the individual artist practices to unfold on their own terms, but at the same time being aware of the context they are a part of, which are the other artists’ works.

ID: We enjoy that curating has this almost performative aspect in the sense that you have to let go of some of the control. Of course, with existing works, you can plan and calculate in a different way and make connections, find parallels or interesting points that bring works together. But with new commissions, of which we have quite a lot, you have to see what happens along the way. We don’t really know until the opening day what is going to be the final result of the curatorial process. But this is very exciting to us. We also initially come from performance—that’s how we started. We have this excitement, as well, in bringing people together in a way as we did in performance projects or theater projects, each with their unique take on the situation, but working toward a common goal.

GD: What kind of discourse will the biennial have, especially given the fact that we are treading on increasingly dangerous lines in terms of artistic freedom of expression in Turkey?

ME: The Istanbul Biennial is an international biennial, so it can be a part of bringing artists from many different countries together: Latin American countries, Asian countries, European. A lot of the challenges that we face today as artists, as citizens, are interconnected. We see many of the same tendencies all around the globe, and a biennial is an important format, in which artists and viewers can meet and discuss and get a sense of togetherness—it is important not to remain isolated, but to strengthen our networks in a world that seems so complex as it does right now.

GD: My last question: What are you doing to be good neighbors to Istanbullites?

ID: Istanbul is very easy to be good neighbors with. It is a very friendly city! I don’t know, do the same as I have always done. Hang out, talk.

ME: Don’t look at these warnings that have been issued on some countries’ websites saying it’s dangerous to come to Istanbul. It’s maybe dangerous for these people who write these warnings to come, but not for you.