Friday, May 11, 2007

Why the Open Library?

Vasif Kortun will discuss the Open Library Project

May 16, 18:30

Open Library
Vasif Kortun

Istiklal Avenue, where Platform is located, was recreated in the 1860s, during a kind of semi-colonial period of the late Ottoman Empire between the Crimean war and the second constitutiuonal era of 1909. It was the only wide and straight street in the city. Coinciding roughly with the Haussmanization of Paris, it was the first street where a notion of anonyma could be experienced. During this time, there were more than sixty exhibitions on the street, some taking place in the smaller storefronts. As many of the cities that lost their port-city status, depopulated during two world wars, and industrialized in times of national economy, it became a different city altogether until the recent global economic change.

Since the mid-1990s many business changed hands with increasing speed. The micro-economy of shoemakers, tailors, barbershops and corner stores were pushed out and replaced by bars, chains and caf├ęs, and flagship stores of international companies. Modest art centers were also edged out and replaced by glamorous commercial galleries and cultural centers. Although it is still a place where the experience economy is practiced in a more colorful way than in a zero-friction zone shopping mall, the future remains uncertain.

When visitors come to Platform, they do not pass through metal detectors, are not under the gaze of surveillance euipment, and are not confronted with the suspicious gaze of armed security personnel. Nor are they treated to an environment that implies cultural supremacy. Platform has always been aware of where it is located.

Open Library was a revisitation of Platform's exhibition space in the form of a library. One of the most evident goals of the project was to produce a moment of pause from the frenetic stream of passers-by through the largely consumption oriented experience of the pedestrianised Istiklal Avenue, and to break the verticality of that stream.

By setting up an uncanny threshold between the street and the normally white-walled gallery, Platform’s functions were blurred. The current status could be perceived as a library or as an idiosyncratic exhibition. To set up a library in a high-rent ground floor space could be seen by many as a waste of an opportunity to make big money. A gallery could have been acceptable for culture stock, but a library?

The Istanbul based multidisciplinary design studio Superpool conceptualized this question of a “neither-nor space” by setting up an auditorum with seats on one side facing a very long “stage” with books arranged as a backdrop. This proposal with two singular elements, shelving one side, and bleachers on the other, produced public interactions of a third kind, between watching and reading, walking and resting.

Not only Istanbul's libraries are in general far and few between, they are not exactly public spaces because they do not actively encourage access. They are not zones of rest, and daydreaming, but archaic dwellings for disgruntled students, and for the occasional afficianaodo and researcher. They are invisible, and lack the symbolisms of what they should be.

The notion of a library in an exhibition space was to familiarize an unsuspecting public who visited the space, often without any expectation, either to see an exhibition or in extension of window gazing. What would frustrate some expectations was that there was here a lot to watch, except for people who are picking up a book, or reading, or dosing off. Nothing could be taken home even although all the contents belonged theoertically to all. It would be a public experience where nothing of object value could be exchanged. To a lesser degree, it was about reshuffling the gallery experience. Unlike cinema, where the whole audience experiences intimacy on publicum but without a body, the experience of the exhibition is that one watches and is also being potentially watched by another, and the institution gazes over those who are watching the work, and those are watching those watching the work In the “Open Library” —an oxymoronic title that indidates merely a hope— one could simply watch nothing more than “closed” knowledge, an absurdly beatiful experience.

The open library would metaphorically “close” in the evenings. Curtains were drawn over the whole span of shelves. The curtain would become a screen on which many public public programs, ranging from screenings to presentations took place. Public programs literally began when the public library closed. The Open Library also hosted mini curated libraries along with disscussions to transform the project into an active public space.

After six years of exhibition practise, despite a few projects that bordered on limits of exhibition practise, the institutuion grew tired of the space, the space became increasingly fatigued, and the audiences –we would suspect-- became tired of the institution. The pure rhtym that exhibition practise demands, has a desensitizing effect and begins to fulfill a need that is so blatantly based on expectancies of a range of the possible. This transaction between the audience and space gets increasingly regulated by the codes of normalization. In the six years of the institution's history however, two international chain coffee shops popped up on either side of the building, new shops came, many older spaces closed down, and the whole profile of the street began to change. Platform was faced with the question: should we be staying the same as if all remains the same and we are not under the daily terror of experience economy? Institutions are not labels that have to be maintained ad infinitum. They have to make themselves unavoidable.

Furthermore, in the six years, Platform's library expanded exponentially, the archives were solidifed and a residency program was started. The added functions to the building contributed to the icreasing severance of the institution's functions from each other as the library and research conponent became increadingsly invisible to general audiences, iresultiong in an institution that is half-visible. Hence, a critical aspect of the project was to communicate and display Platform’s unrelenting archives, which combine many acquisitions with thousands of donations from friendly institutions, artists, critics and curators.


Platform was invited as one of two not-for-profit spaces to participate in Frieze Projects in 2006. Our project ‘collecting point’ was a drop off point for art publications, periodicals and other materials that were displayed for reference at the Frieze Art Fair. Platform's concept was to turn the economy of the art fair around to set up a stand that did not exchange goods for cash, but, on the contrary, to simply exchange a promise for publications. These publications that were made available for further research at Platform were also an additional incentive for the project.

It is critical to understand that institutuonal discourse is invariably linked to the politics of space and Platform's experiment was one in hospitality.