The text book(s) accompanying the 2009 Istanbul biennial named ”What Keeps Mankind Alive?” start by presenting statistics that most biennial curators shy away from or even try to hide. Here one can find the exact statistics of what and how the funding of the biennial has been used and where it comes from exactly and its a very sympathetic feature. Other examples of the presented statistics are for instance that 70 artists, 30 women, 32 men, 3 collaborative projects and 5 collectives with 141 works are exhibited in the in total three biennial venues that amount to 6.000 m2, and that the artists come from 40 countries and 26% come from Eastern Europe, 14% from Western Europe, 39% from Middle East, 4% from Caucasus, 7% from Central Asia, 6% from North America, 1% each from South America, the Far East and Australia and so on. The 4-women curatorial collective What, How & for Whom/WHW from Zagreb took the title for the biennial from a song by Bertolt Brecht that stresses the fact that “a criminal is a bourgeois and a bourgeois is a criminal” (Brecht) as the main theme and they wish to create a hub of critical thinking by giving the floor to explicitly political art, primarily with a Marxist edge. 

After 2009 edition of the Venice biennial with its non-statement thematics, Istanbul's more hard-core political curatorial strategy seems like a much well needed breath of fresh air: at last there's a curatorial team that has an urgency to say something that will trigger reactions and thoughts within a biennial visitor. At the end of the day it is however rarely any curatorial statements or the text books of a biennial that counts; it is instead the overall impressions of the art works presented, and in what manner the exhibition is shaped. 

After having gone through the venues it is clear that the curators prefer art that in itself is a political statement and that it should be completely, if not overly, clear (leftist). Moreover, the curators have a preference for documentary video art and for work that comes with diagrams and graphic tableaus. This leaves no room for any subtler messages or for the audience to make up their own mind since the works tend to propagandist shove the message down one's throat. Any critical thinking of the spectator's does not seem like a necessary feature for WHW since the curators (and the artists) obviously knows exactly how things really are and expect the spectator to simply be taught. Many works, like for instance the videos and wall texts/drawings of the Russian collective Chto Delat, or a great deal of the many documentary videos presented, present their reality as the reality and leaves no room for doubt or differences of opinions. At worst the art works are reduced by the curatorial team to a pure documentary functionality like “visualisations of otherwise scattered and elusive information, and help to put the bits and pieces together in a coherent picture of power struggles and influences that shape everyday reality” - quoted from the catalogue text about the graphic table Administration of Terror, 2009, by Bureau d'études. 

This sort of presentation leaves little room for complexity, alternate experiences or multi-layered readings and becomes the unfortunate ocean in which most of the 141 art works drown in. If the work weren't chosen because its activist approach, the work becomes activist through the curatorial context. This sort of set up are hardly never fruitful for critical thinking, on the contrary, it tend to inhibit it. 

Very few works manage to avoid pushing labels or being somewhat meddlesome, but when they do, what ought to feel normal suddenly feels liberating. One of the works that definitely stands out is Ruti Sela & Maayan Amir's piece Beyond Guilt#2, 2004 – one of the works in a collaborative video trilogy. Here interviews with several male prostitutes are being made in hotel rooms. The interviews take surprising turns along the 18 minute long video, however no judgements, political statements, explanations or conclusions are being made throughout the video, not even after it is evident that what the men in the videos have in common, other than their line of work, is that they served in the Israeli military with high ranks previously. The video leaves the spectator with more questions than answers and a feeling of being able to commence critical thinking. Lisi Raskin's cardboard box made installations, sculptures and environments placing a magnification lens at nuclear power plants and the Cold War era so strongly connected with each other certainly deserve to be mentioned here as well. Raskin's sense of humour set our fears in perspective and makes it possible to use a new and different critical approach to the reports of possible and impossible production of (nuclear) weapons of mass destruction today. The installations, among other Control Room, 2008, looks like something a child made, which of course is a very easy and smart way of placing real life control rooms in reflective light.

Detail, Lisi Raskin, Control Room

Detail, Lisi Raskin, Control Room

For whom was the 11th edition of the Istanbul biennial meant for, really? To the greater part of the, in the large part leftist, art world, the messages here comes as neither a surprise, nor does it come with provocation – the problems pinpointed here are already well known and also fought in these circuits. The curatorial endeavour of the 11th Istanbul Biennial is set out to challenge what an exhibition can revolutionize about the inequality issues presented in the art work, but it speaks to the already convinced and hence turn in this setting to something very politically correct. Hence, the curatorial team turn into the art world's Michael Moore. One is left with the question if not the means used for the biennial had been better used by supporting real political actions instead as in the extreme bourgeois setting of an international art biennial. At the end of the day, just when it was getting interesting again, the curatorial team of the 11th Istanbul Biennial inadvertently and unfortunately becomes pretty bourgeois themselves.