Mom, am I Barbarian?

Identity design, 2013

Biennial map. Design: Ruben Pater.

Right after the Gezi park protests, the 13th biennial took place, discussing the exact same issues that ignited the protests in the first place. When the Turkish cities turned into teargassed battlefields where police and protesters clashed, I was working at Lava in Amsterdam on the visual concept for the biennial. This article looks back on the design process and the events surrounding it.

Sketch about the spatial hierarchy and urban transformation. Design: Ruben Pater.

In december 2012, curator Fulya Erdemci announced her ideas for the 13th Istanbul biennial. This biennial would use the public domain as a political forum to address the massive urban transformations in Istanbul. Old city centre neighborhoods like Tarlabaşı were being torn down and inhabitants forced out to make way for expensive condominiums and hotels. Parks and public spaces where replaced by shopping malls, and two new satellite cities were planned to be built on the outskirts of the city.

The title Mom, am I barbarian? (from a poem by Lale Müldür) was meant to kickstart a new debate, with the role of the ‘barbarian’ as a mode of resistance in a political debate where gentrification is promoted as a victory of civilization over barbarity.

Design interns Lisa and Marina working on sketches.

Waiting for the Barbarians

The term barbarian is derived from the Greek word barbaros. It is an onomatopoeia of babbling, and meant someone who was not Greek. Today we use the word barbarian synonymous with uncivilized, but literally it means anyone speaking an unknown language. Even today ‘civilized’ states wage wars on ‘barbarians’ (e.g. terrorists, extremists, immigrants, etc.) in defense of civilization. As in the 1980 novel by J.M. Coetzee Waiting for the Barbarians, the ‘civilized’ often end up resorting to barbaric methods themselves. President George W. Bush famously said after the 9-11 attacks: “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists”.

Left: A chinese whisper sketch, inviting twelve people to copy the previous title. Right: Typography reference, logo of TOKI, the Turkish housing Ministry.

Barbarism Begins at Home

I started in September of 2012 on a visual concept for the biennial with the help of Lava interns Marina Gärtner and Lisa van Kleef. The design concept needed to reflect the strong statement of this biennial, and guide the viewer towards its message. We decided to use the relation of the civilized and the barbarian as an oppositional force.

Biennial poster. Design: Ruben Pater.

Since items had to be in Turkish and English, this bilingualism was the starting point to create relations of power, and it also referred to the origin of the word ‘barbarian’. Lava interns Marina and Lisa helped me by writing each in one language, Turkish or English. By writing one language first, the text would occupy space on each sheet of paper, forcing the other to use the remaining space. Switching between formal (typeset) and informal writing (handwritten) each language in each item, would be the starting point, then drawing lines between the two, mapping this hierarchy, but also referring back to walls, streets, and architectural structures.

Posters for the biennial public programme. Design: Ruben Pater. Poster for the film programme. Design: Ruben Pater.


Five months after the concept of the biennial was presented, a group of people gathered in Gezi park in Istanbul to protest the demolition of the park. The government wanted to replace one of the few parks in Istanbul’s centre with a shopping mall modelled after Ottoman military barracks. This act is exemplary for the ideology of Erdoğan's AKP, a mix of imperialism and neoliberalism (so-called Neo-Ottomanism) with complete disregard for the secular freedoms that are fundamental to the Turkish republic. Taksim square and Gezi park have great symbolic value for Turkish secularism, as it is a symbolic place for freedom of expression. That is why, when the police violently evicted the protesters from Gezi park, the protest quickly grew into a massive revolt with an estimated 3,5 million protesters nationwide.

Taksim square, Istanbul, June 2013. Photo: Bulent Kilic for Agence France-Presse.


When the riots spread across the country the biennial issued a statement of support to the protesters and called for an end to police violence. However, there was also criticism. The biennial’s main sponsor Koç Holding builds tanks for the Turkish army. Some artists in the Gezi protests called for cancellation of the biennial, and demanded the topic of urban transformation should be handled by the Gezi park movement. Signs and internet memes popped up that made played on the biennial title and the design.

Gezi park banner with a word play on the biennial title: ‘Mom, am I human?‘ Photograph: occupygezi tumblr

Conflict and Consensus

Following the events in Gezi park, curator Fulya Erdemci decided that the biennial would go on, but it would be free of charge, and all interventions in public space would be cancelled so they would not interfere with the Gezi movement. For some artists this felt like a retreat into the white cube, like artist Ahmet Ögüt who suggested an anonymous biennial, with interventions everywhere in the city by unknown artists.

Antrepo, the main biennial location. Photo: Ruben Pater.

Because of the shift in the biennial concept, the curator asked the design concept to change because it originated in public space and the urban transformation, and it was important to show signs that the biennial was listening to criticism and changing its position. The biennial asked the public programme design would now become the overall identity.

Posters in Cihangir. Photo: Ruben Pater.

Watching Riots from the Ivory Tower

In July of 2014, I spent three months in Istanbul designing posters, publications and signage. There was no biennial opening, but the artists, staff members and VIP's were invited for drinks on a hotel rooftop. By then, riots in Istanbul had started to flare up again, and on the day of the unofficial opening, the city was filled with teargas and riot police. When me and Hans Wolbers, director of Lava, finally made it to the hotel rooftop through the teargas, we encountered a scene of artists, staff members, and VIP's, watching the riots from the safe elevation of the hotel rooftop while enjoying free drinks. I could not have imagined a better metaphor for the problems this biennial faced.

During its two month opening the biennial turned out to be a succes with a record of 337,429 visitors, three times more than the previous edition, despite all the discussion and negative sentiment. It featured artworks of great quality like the performance by Héctor Zamora, and works by Angelica Mesiti, Bertille Bak, Cinthia Marcelle, Halil Altındere, Hito Steyerl, José Antonio Vega Macotela, Mika Rottenberg, and Nicholas Mangan.

T-shirt design. <i>Barbar</i> is Turkish for barbarian. Design: Ruben Pater.

Barbaric Speech Confusion

This biennial shows how things become problematic when sponsor and marketing goals start interfering with artistic and political ideas. As a designer, cultural differences turned out to become more of an issue as the discussion around the biennial increased. Although I worked together with Turkish designer Özge Güven, not speaking Turkish prevented me to understand the complex relationship between the Istanbul art world and this biennial. The design of the biennial could have been much more effective, if rooted in the social and collective struggles that were going on.

Made at Lava. Thanks to Fulya Erdemci, all biennial staff, and the Lava design interns for their hard work.

Visit the biennial website
Lava biennial work

Winner of a Gold Award at the European Design Awards 2014

Design Interns

Andreea Marciuc (RO)
Bruno Landowski (FR)
Lisa van Kleef (NL)
Marina Gärtner (DE)
Özge Güven (TR)


Erdemci, Fulya. ‘13th Istanbul Biennial Conceptual Framework’, 2012.
Erdemci, Fulya. ‘Mom, am I barbarian?’, Curator text, 2013.
Ögüt, Ahmet. ‘Another World Is Possible - What about an Anonymous Istanbul Biennial?’ Art Leaks, 2013.