The speakers’ sentiments, which inspired the book-hurling, were shared by many in the audience who saw the speakers as removed and naive, and argued that expression is no match for an economic system that is inherently unequal but systematically upheld by those more powerful than they.
Catherine Pentecost and Brian Holmes spoke as part of the "Red Thread" discussion series leading up to the start of this year’s Biennial in September. They described the "tectonic shifts of the unstable and unsustainable" world market economy, neoliberalism, and American hegemony in the face of the first "real-time" economic crisis in history to a packed audience at a GarantiBank. They fervently called upon "artists, theaters and activists" to use art to "attempt to articulate cracks in the worlds of power."
The presentation waxed long in the language of academia, invoking the names of Polanyi and Marx as thinkers opposed to the dominant species of "Homo Economicus" who created the "faith-based" economics of promising grand futures at enormous risk. Pentecost, an artist herself, described the pair’s ambitiously named "politics of perception" lecture as one based on the kind of "reciprocity" that will define communities who take advantage of the crisis to enact social change. Holmes, a "cultural critic" based in Paris said modernity’s twin systems of neoliberalism and capitalism have "pitted economics against environmentalism" and produced a "cultural blindness" that has fragmented modern life.
But things are not all bleak, they claimed. Every cycle of economic downturn has produced a corresponding peak in creative cultural production. Holmes said the last 30 years have seen a fundamental change in the nature of art production and in artists’ relationships to one another, leading to a rise in groundbreaking initiatives that examined the "reality behind the spectacle."
"Artist-activists now question who is profiting from what, a consciousness usually absent from the commercial art world," Holmes said.
Despite calls to put art toward "productive solidarity," to invest in "autonomous initiatives" and "human capital," and claims that they would attempt to ground their remarks in the Turkish reality, the activists failed to give any concrete examples of the subversive art they hoped that the Biennial and the world in general would bring forth.
The deficiency was noted most poignantly by the first to speak up at the discussion following the lecture. A young man who identified himself only as "a worker" accused the duo of being "Manhattan Activists" still speaking in "global, not Marxist, terms." Furious, he threw a red Turkish-English dictionary at the speakers, and criticized them in Turkish for coming to Turkey and speaking in English without having a translator on hand. An older Turkish woman chastised him curtly for being "rude to guests in your country."
Another man took offense to the speakers’ focus on methods he saw as non-concrete, and that they were raging against capitalism while sitting in a building owned by a bank, the very "powers and institutions you think you are fighting against." He pointed out that the speech was heavy in questions but light on solutions, and asked how the activists supported themselves. "I work 12 hours a day. How should I be an activist if I haven’t got the chance to fight?" Prolonged, agitated discussion on the speech’s adaptability to Turkey’s classist inequalities followed suit.
The commentators might believe themselves to be in disagreement with the academics, but the heated outcome of the lukewarm conference added substance to Pentecost and Holmes’ main point. Although faced with dire financial prospects, all is not lost, and this just might be an ideal time to call into question what should have been examined a long time ago, in art, as well as in society.