In Conversation with Gallerist Mari Spirito

By Sam Gimson

Mari Spirito
Mari Spirito

The following is taken from an interview that I conducted with Mari Spirito, the New York gallerist and founding director of Protocinema. Spirito, active in the art community both in New York and Istanbul, speaks about her art organization, Protocinema, her work connecting artists with new audiences, and the art scene in Istanbul.

Sam Gimson: Can you tell me about Protocinema?

Mari Spirito:  Protocinema is a transnational, nomadic, site aware art organization. It’s transnational in that it takes place in Istanbul and New York, we do two shows a year in each city, and it’s nomadic in that it doesn’t have a permanent location like most art organizations. We’re always looking for different spaces and these are determined by the artist and the kind of works they want to show. When we decide on what the work will be we’re just as much considering the kind of space we want to display it in.

At the moment Protocinema has a project by Can Altay in a park in New York City, before this we did an exhibition with Jacob Kassay in a storefront near Taksim Square. There was an event with Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster and Tristan Bera in an apartment above Suriye Pasajı; this is what I mean by site aware, it’s an awareness of what the site is, whether by this we mean the city or a specific location within it.

SG: I understand that the name Protocinema is derived from the Werner Herzog  documentary film Cave of Forgotten Dreams. What is the connection between this film about the Chauvet cave paintings in France and your organization?

MS: In Herzog’s film the beasts depicted on the cave walls are drawn with eight legs instead of four, and the director muses at one point and asks whether perhaps this is man’s first attempt to represent motion, perhaps this is “protocinema”.

SG: Does the title of Protocinema continually relate to the exhibitions?

MS: I love cinema and a lot of artists now are working with film and video. Moving image is the language of our present age. We also show sculpture, installation, photographs and event-based work, so it’s really a bit of a doppelgänger title. It’s to get you to dig in, so people who have only heard of Protocinema might think it’s a film organization but when they look into it they realize that it’s about art exhibitions.

Of course video art is often an important part of our projects. Jacob Kassay displayed his film (untitled) here in Istanbul back in January, which shows a helicopter hovering off the ground. It’s shot on 16 millimetre film, the propellers are spinning at 24 revolutions per second which he synced to the 24 frames per second of the film, so when you look at the image, it seems like the propellers are motionless or just shaking. The piece is about our perception of motion and our perception of images and how it changes our knowledge. If you had never seen a helicopter before you’d think it just floats motionless.

SG: How do New York and Istanbul differ with regards to their art and art scene?

MS: Well New York is a very saturated art context, with galleries, collectors, and resources for artists, and funding for non-profit organisations. In Istanbul there’s less support, so each side sort of fits together. Istanbul’s cultural landscape is wide open so there’s space to do things, whereas in New York it’s very dense. Hopefully we’re fitting these two things together to build something important.

SG: It seems that there is little funding for grants and no one cares much about art education in Istanbul.

MS: The art scene and art education is still evolving here; non-profit contemporary art organizations are appearing. Part of the challenge is in that I don’t want to come here and do things the way I did them in New York, instead I want to take the knowledge and resources I acquired there and say, well how can this be applied to Istanbul and what do I need to learn to make it work here.

SG: There’s been a lot of investment in Istanbul recently, which came first the investment or the art?

MS: The art came first. It always comes first as with other cities in the past such as New York and Paris, the art came first then people came to look at it, and then came the support for the work. Artists have been making work here throughout history, the buzz came afterwards.

SG: I do feel however that investors seek out such destinations, latching on to them as soon as there’s the remotest tremor of energy. Do you think investment serves to incentivize artists?

MS: Well I think that artists have incentive to make art just from their being, but of course having resources to work and places to show it is inspiring. Most of the money, however, is going towards restoring mosques. But we’re seeing a re-awakening, people are starting to pay attention to contemporary art and they’re beginning to support it, but I think that if a young artist gets too much support too quickly it could have negative consequences.

SG: Is the media portrayal of the Istanbul art market accurate from your experience?

MS: From my experience, I would say no. The media portrays an art boom where money is pouring out of every window, but its still very hard for young galleries and nonprofit organizations such as mine to keep running. But exciting things are happening, there’s a new art fair here in September to coincide with the Istanbul Biennial called Art International Istanbul. It’s great because it will be the first time that we’ve had a truly international art fair.

SG: And what has Protocinema got planned for the future?

MS: Trevor Paglen is coming here in September, he’s showing a new cult film called “Drone Vision” which features aerial footage of a landscape taken from an American surveillance drone. And then in New York we’ll be showing a Turkish artist called Köken Ergun, who has made a three channel video about the Shiite celebration of the Day of Ashura. It’s filmed in a town near Istanbul. I’m showing the film in New York so as to open up dialogue about different religious experiences within the context as it is in New York.

To learn more about Protocinema, please visit its website. We want to thank Mari Spirito for taking the time to discuss her work in Istanbul and her thoughts on the art scene that is developing here. Do you visit galleries in Istanbul often? What are your thoughts on the Istanbul art world?