Thought Forms and More: Dino Dinçer Şirin talks with Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev


Titled SALTWATER: A Theory of Thought Forms, the 14th Istanbul Biennial opened on September 5. Here, Dino Dinçer Şirin talks with the biennial’s “draftsperson,” Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, about the ideas, encounters, and interlocutors that brought the citywide exhibition into being.


The 14th Istanbul Biennial SALTWATER: A Theory of Thought Forms — poster detail

The 14th Istanbul Biennial SALTWATER: A Theory of Thought Forms — poster detail


Dino Dincer Şirin: The subtitle of your exhibition refers to the book Thought Forms, written by Annie Besant and C. W. Leadbeater and published in 1901 (republished in 1905). Why this book?


Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev: Thought Forms came out of the Theosophy movement. It included drawings and paintings representing thought forms made by three friends of Besant, John Varley, Valerie Macfarlane, and one “Mr. Prince,” alongside the “psychical researcher” Mr. Frederick Bligh Bond. Today we might call these illustrations abstract. But it was several years prior to abstraction in painting—Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Giacomo Balla’s Compenetrazione iridescente (1912) and so on. In retrospect Thought Forms seems like an early theory of modern art. In that sense, the whole exhibition is just a theory of art.


DDŞ: What affected you most about Theosophy’s vision of things?


CCB: Theosophy, a form of esoteric philosophy, did not preclude an interest in science or the comparative study of religions. They were imagining a universal spirituality. Like Marxists, Theosophists were egalitarians. They believed in the equality of all people independent of race, ethnicity, and religion. And in fact, many of them came from socialist movements. Besant, for example, was a Fabian Socialist and feminist who organized a strike of factory women in England. The difference was that Socialism suggested the idea of a society with no religion.


The Theosophists, in contrast, did not think that humans could be happy without spirituality. This is similar to our period, and it seems clear that this drive toward spirituality is something that humans cannot do without today, either. The Theosophists were also the first environmentalists. They thought of the world as a larger unit, rather than a divided existence of humans and nature. This is also similar to our times, if we think of the crises of anthropocentricism. By showing Besant and Leadbeater’s thought forms, I wanted to connect our time to theirs, and bring the contemporary universe into the conversation.


DDŞ: The biennial also considers touchscreen monitors, which we use without thinking about the invisible structures of surveillance they embody. What attracts you to the question of the invisible?


CCB: I see an analogy between the interest in the invisible in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and that in the early 21st century. Both periods witnessed great technological advancements in communication. In the former there was the invention of the radio, the spread of railroad travel, the transatlantic telegraph cable, and then telex in the early 20th century. In science, invisibility came with the microscope, the X-ray, and the photograph. The whole world was obsessed then with invisibility and transparency.


It is similar in our time, not with trains, but with the beginning of computers, the Internet, and the widespread use of cell phones. In the sciences we have the parallel ability to render the invisible visible, for instance through DNA code. So I started thinking about these two historical periods and the alienation that results from superficial uses of communication technology, while also thinking about it as creating networks or social spaces, as in the example of cell phones being helpful in revolutionary processes in Egypt and Turkey.


DDŞ: Your research included traveling around Turkey and visiting places where local people have been protesting against the police and the government.


CCB: I was not involved in the protests, but a lot of artists here were. The trigger for the uprising was when bulldozers showed up in the Taksim Gezi Park to cut down the tree—but the uprising was not only about the tree. It was about gentrification and the loss of public space. It made me wonder if I should do an art exhibition here: is that urgent, or are there other, even more important urgencies?


DDŞ: How were you thinking about public space?

I was looking at analogies between technology and issues of rights in a democratic society. Public space—or the agora, as Hannah Arendt imagined it—is not regulated by private law. Whereas Facebook is a private corporation, as are Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube, and the legal system arranged around them is regulated for private entities. People have substituted for the agora a private square of digital networking. Because it is a private space, anything can be changed and taken away from you, and surveillance is a major concern. When I speak in the biennial about “before the enfolded encoding unfolds,” I am referring to this invisible universe.


DDŞ: Do you think that biennials have room to engage with politics?


CCB: Part of the problem is that everybody sounds like The New York Times—as if all we can talk about is political situations, as if we have no other voice.


DDŞ: Maybe you still respond to political situations, but on an abstract level?


CCB: In the exhibition are the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan’s drawings of knots, in which he is trying to find ways to represent the relations between the imaginary, the symbolic, and the real, or the topology of time. There is a politics to it, obviously, but it is a politics of the emancipation of the subject.


If you follow a line as if it is a string, the line is going under and over like in a carpet—so what is the craftsperson doing there? That craftsperson or artist is activating your mind and your ability to imagine a complex space. This act of looking at patterns gives you agency as well. It is the exercise of learning to see thought forms. That sort of visualization is very important to me, and is related to the politics of form. This is a much deeper politics. What the Surrealists did, for example, was about liberation on the level of perception. Magritte used to say, “You cannot colonize my mind.”


DDŞ: The venues for this biennial are dispersed; some artists will show their work in hotel rooms. What was the idea behind this?

I was inspired to use hotel rooms by the movie Citizenfour (2014). Only one room contains artworks while the rest of the hotel functions as usual. That was directly inspired by the thought that Edward Snowden was in his hotel room in Hong Kong prior to revealing these things that would have incredible consequences.


There is only one artist per venue. I thought early on about public space and where we find political agency and voice. It occurred to me that temporary spaces of habitation, on land and sea, were good places to talk about agency. Orhan Pamuk, who wrote The Museum of Innocence (2008), has been my secret ally and we went around the city together. About a year ago he showed me Leon Trotsky’s house in Büyükada. Trotsky thought that humans were sentimental machines that could be programmed. So the house intrigued me, and I paid a lot of visits to it with biennial artists; Adrián Villar Rojas did his project there.


DDŞ: Can you say more about your collaborations during the biennial’s production?


CCB: In my whole life in the arts, I have been gathering a family. When somebody gets in the family, they stay in. I always invite new people from the location of an exhibition, and some of those people become part of the family. It grows over the years. Nobody has ever left the family so far. I do not believe in this consumer culture of curatorial practice where every exhibition has to feature different names. I believe in long-term relationships. Lawrence Weiner, for example, has been in every group exhibition I have made. It is almost like we are making a conceptual work together.


DDŞ: You call yourself a draftsperson rather than a curator. Can you explain this?


CCB: Curating is an overused word. It really refers to a space of power in the art world. Drafting has to do with the propositional. When you draft something, it is not the final version. It also means drawing, and making up plans for the future. There is a typical contemporary, un-interrogated, un-reflected-upon way of looking down from above, like a satellite view, always GPS-ing things. I want to use that somehow against itself.


Michael Rakowitz, The Flesh is Yours the Bones Are Ours, installation view, Galata Greek Primary School, Istanbul

Michael Rakowitz, The Flesh is Yours the Bones Are Ours, installation view, Galata Greek Primary School, 14th Istanbul Biennial


Adrián Villar Rojas, The Most Beautiful of All Mothers, installation, Trotsky House, Büyükada, 14th Istanbul Biennial

Adrián Villar Rojas, The Most Beautiful of All Mothers, installation, Trotsky House, Büyükada, 14th Istanbul Biennial

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