amber’12: Interview with Ekmel Ertan, Director of amberPlatform in Istanbul

By Eva Kekou, 4Humanities International Correspondent

As a 4Humanities international correspondent based in continental Europe I think it is very productive to link the world of digital humanitie with interesting works of media art by both institutions and artists based in different places overseas and in Europe who all strive for art, expression and the promotion of interdisciplinary in the arts.

For this month I have interviewed Εkmel Ertan, who is based in Istanbul. Working with Amperplatform, he has worked on a number of projects with both European and overseas partners. Ekmel Ertan has organized a series of successful art events for Amber Festival and Amber Conference, which take place at Istanbul Modern and its surrounding exhibition spaces.

amberFestival and amberConference took place in mid-November in Istanbul. These events, known as amber’12, selected as their theme ‘Paratactic Commons.’ As stated on the website, many of the questions that were discussed and investigated throughout the conference and exhibitions had to do with the digital commons.Can the digital commons work as an alternative platform to launch political thought whose main aim is sharing, transparency, and the freedom of information access? What can we learn from free software, copyleft movements, peer-to-peer systems, open source platforms, and the creative commons? What is the place of the digital commons in contemporary information economies and ecologies? Could the digital commons show us how to share our common resources rather than exploit them? What kind of paratactic artistic strategies could shape the digital commons?

For amber’12, Ekmel invited a number of artists and academics to show their work and challenge the discussion about multidisciplinarity in the arts. In addition to this work, Ekmel is working with his team and European partners on a number of different projects. They all seem to quite enjoy creativity and bringing new ideas, themes and topics of discussion to Istanbul’s very diverse and challenging contemporary art scene.

Eva Kekou (EK): Can you give us some information about how Amberplatform was founded?

Ekmel Ertan (EE): amberFestival started in 2007 with the initiative of a group of people who came together and founded BIS Body Process Arts Association (Beden İşlemsel Sanatlar Derneği). Since 1999 I have been teaching in the Visual Communication Design Department of Bilgi University and several universities as part-timer. New media culture developed around the VCD departments of a few universities. In 2007 there was a visible need for an independent platform created by a community of young researchers, students and artists that were working or interested in the field of new media to use to exchange experience and knowledge internationally as well as locally. This need was the actual base for amberFestival. The founders of BIS – who were artists, researchers, academics from diverse disciplines – were already working or professionally interested in the field of art and technology, and they were looking for a multi-disciplinary platform to support the development of the field locally. Therefore we decided to start with amberFestival in order to bring international artists together with local artists, students and art followers to create a platform for exchange and to provide visibility for young local artists.

EK: What were the aims, intentions and plans for amberFestival?

EE: amberFestival was the first event that drove BIS further. The original intention of BIS was not to organize festivals, actually, but it was the starting point, since such an event has the potential to collect interested people together. Therefore, follow-ups came in few years: amberConference started in 2009, amberNetwork was initiated with the contribution of 10 organizations and independent art managers from the focus countries (Caucasian, Turkic and Middle Eastern) in 2008, and amberPlatform formed as a public space and a set of year-long activities in 2010. Lately, amberPlatform as functioned as the legal structure for BIS only. amberPlatform also participates in several multi-partner international projects that have been supported by EU Culture Frame 2007-2013 and other local or international funds since 2008.

Our aims, as we declared at our founding, include the following:

  • To examine the social effects of new technologies from a critical perspective
  • To promote creative and participatory technology culture
  • To explore artistic expression made possible with new technologies
  • To create an international platform for the exchange of knowledge and experience and for the facilitation of new collaborations
  • To promote artists who live and work in Turkey and their works

EK: Do you feel you have fulfilled your initial plan?

EE: I believe we succeeded in what we intended when we set off. We have accelerated developments in the field and given it a new direction with a critical approach.

EK: What difficulties have you encountered?

EE: As an independent organization we have always suffered from the lack of regular organizational support. Only after five years were we able to hire an employee just this year. All the people who have worked for the amberPlatform events have actually worked on a volunteer bases. I believe this is not fair at all, but this is the fate that many organizations and people who work in art and culture in Turkey share.
The main difficulty arises from the lack of public money for art, especially contemporary art. Our ministry of culture, nor any other institution, does not have a long-term policy to support the art and cultural scene. Tthe local authorities also don’t have such a mission. Art, except for traditional forms, is not supported by the government and being an artist is not a reputable field from the point of view of these governmental bodies.

Because of this, there are no local sources that we could apply to for financial support for the organization. This has not changed in the past five years, although we have proved ourselves as an institutional body after our 6th festival and the many events that we organized in the previous years.

However, in project base support we have been luckier. Our projects have been supported by the EU Culture Frame 2007-2013 program, the İstanbul 2010 Cultural Capital of Europe Agency, the cultural offices of European Consulates in İstanbul, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Turkey. Private sector support has also been important but more fickle.

EK: I know you have successfully organized amberConference and amberFestibal every year. Can you give us some information about these events and some information about previous events you have organized?

EE: Since the beginning of amberFestival, what we have been trying to do is to bring critical questions to the attention of a more general audience. That is why amberFestival is a thematic festival that raises a particular question every year. If you follow the themes from the beginning, you will see a continuous relationship between each year’s themes. In order, our themes have been “Voice and Survival”, “Interpassive Persona”, “Uncyborgable?”, “Datacity,” “Next Ecology”, and this year’s “Paratactic Commons”.

“Paratactic Commons” suggests reclaiming the commons as a para-political tactic. Reclaiming the commons is the only way for an “exodus from disaster capitalism” – as Aslihan Senel, the local organizer of “The Mapping of the Commons of the Istanbul Conference and Workshop” from amber’12 – phrased it. By the commons, we mean not necessarily the private vs, the public but rather the commons as a whole. We believe that we can survive and create a better life for humanity only by reclaiming the commons, which are the essentials, including things like air, water and other natural resources to concepts like human rights, freedom, the right to knowledge, and so on. The word “paratactic” is about placing the commons on the same level as the private and the public without any subordination as resources owned in common and not belonging to anybody or any entity. The commons, this common ownership of both natural and human resources, is what we already losing. Reclaiming the commons is an important change for our society; that is what we believe and what we wanted to discuss this year at amber’12.

EK: How was the audience involved and how were these events received by the public in Turkey?

EE: Unfortunately, I have to say that we are not a wide reaching festival in İstanbul. After six years, we are well known but only among a group of art followers, young artists and designers, communication students, and, of course, the new media community in Turkey. This is where we have to criticize ourselves. This is also related to the current structure of mass media and the financial barriers to accessing communication channels in addition to social media and web-based media.

EK: Is collaboration a keyword for amberPlatform? If yes, how?

EE: Collaboration is a keyword for amberPlatform. Since our inception we always collaborated with other independent organizations, artists and artist groups in İstanbul. We have always wanted to collaborate and to include them in amberFestival.

EK: How is interedisciplinarity and innovation in the arts perceived? Are people from outtside the community willing to support this platform as an initiative for innovation?EE: amberPlatform is an interdisciplinary organization due to the nature of the field we are dealing with. Art and technology is an interdisciplinary field without borders, I believe. Innovation has not been a keyword for us, at least up until recently, as we have prefered to use the word creation. But in our latest projects, the word innovation is more on the table. We have recently been working on innovative solutions for a better life for organizations in the cities. Since 2010 the city has been one of our focus points regarding new technologies.

EK: Is outreach a keyword for you?

EE: I believe it is, although we have been as successful at that as we intended. We are trying to reach more people to become a part of our audience or to become participants. But this problem is due to financial barriers most of the time: although we are a public organization, we are not visible enough in all media channels. But on the other hand, we have come a long way, and we are closer now than we were in the beginning to building our own public critical approach to art and technology.

EK: Can you inform us about your future plans and intentions as an organization?

EE: This year we are going through a reorganization period. We will see, through this reorganization, toward what new direction our focus will shift. I can generally say, though, that we will continue with amberFestival either annually or biannually, but amberConference may have a new shape. amberFestival may expand abroad, probably in Central Asia. amberPlatform will become a research and production platform backed by its physical structure as well.

We will also continue the projects that we are already running or for which we have newly applied for funding. Most of those projects are about the city and new technologies. The shift in our focus toward the city is a shift we have gradually been working toward since our inception. I believe that this new direction will continue in the near future.

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