Istanbul – Welcoming the Unthinkable

Read our feature on how a nation's art reflects its society, from the September 2013 issue.

By Lara Fresko

Taksim Square, Istanbul, 6 June 2013. Photo: Lara Fresko Neriman Polat, Mülk Allahındır (All Possessions Belong to God), 2007, glass mosaic. Courtesy the artist HaZaVuZu, Cut the Flow, 2009 (performance view, Rotterdam). Courtesy the artists

Public Space: Where Artists Live

In his most recently translated book, Aisthesis (2011 French/2013 English), Jacques Rancière writes: ‘Thinking is always firstly thinking the thinkable – a thinking that modifies what is thinkable by welcoming what was unthinkable.’ The events that took place in Istanbul at the end of May, and spread across Turkey this summer, were one of those instances when a large number of people started welcoming the unthinkable, simply by experiencing it.

It’s too soon to tell what the Gezi Park events will amount to. It is, however, possible to look back upon what led to them by reviewing a recent history of Istanbul’s contemporary art scene – a scene in which welcoming the unthinkable has been a practice, not only in works of art but also through the ways in which artists relate to each other and their worlds.

Urban Transformation, Communities and Collectives

Let’s begin with the most visible trigger for the events of this summer: the reaction to the initial threatened destruction of ‘a couple of trees’ in the proposed redevelopment of Gezi Park was both literally and symbolically the product of Istanbul’s experience of urban transformation, an issue with which many artists, collectives and institutions have grappled. And since the first instances of welcoming the unthinkable occur in conversation, beyond the singularity of self (even if it is a conflicting one), I would like to begin by outlining some of the artist collectives based in Istanbul.

The reaction to the redevelopment of Gezi Park was both literally and symbolically the product of Istanbul’s experience of urban transformation

Hafriyat is a collective founded in 1996. The name – which literally means excavation – is most commonly used to designate the debris extracted when digging for foundations or the detritus of destruction and construction. In keeping with this, the members of Hafriyat tackle issues of urban transformation and the displacement – human, cultural and material – that it entails. Early works by members such as Murat Akagündüz, Antonio Cosentino, Hakan Gürsoytrak and Mustafa Pancar depicted their urban surroundings and the changing fabric and moments from daily lives situated within it. 

Consumerism was integral to their critique. A work by Neriman Polat, shown in the Hafriyat exhibition Your Eyes Are Bigger Than Your Stomach (2007, part of the 10th Istanbul Biennial) spelled out Mülk Allahındır (All Possessions Belong to God), using mosaic tiles to mimic the decorative aesthetics associated with the ‘liberal’ architectural style – simultaneously referring to the new rising Islamic bourgeoisie of the time, the economic network that brought that bourgeoisie about, the ideology that secured it and that ideology’s internal contradictions. 

Nalan Yırtmaç, another member of Hafriyat, has long been working with children in neighbourhoods undergoing gentrification. Her most recent exhibition, titled Lütfen Arkaya Doğru Ilerleyiniz II: AFETSEHIR (Please Move Towards the Back II: Disastercity) (2012), in X-Ist gallery linked urban transformation, immigration and economic insecurities, in paintings and collages based on photographs taken in Anatolia and Istanbul’s transforming neighbourhoods. The collective set up its own space, Hafriyat- Karaköy, in 2006, holding exhibitions and gatherings, and hosting other artists and collectives who deal with similar issues – many of whom I mention below.

Oda Projesi, founded in 2000 by members who had been together since 1997, work with issues of urban transformation. Like many other artist groups, they experienced the gentrification process of Galata, the neighbourhood of Istanbul in which they had a space until being forced out in 2005 as a result of the selfsame gentrification. They continue their work as a mobile collective.

Essential to what each of these collectives does is the way in which they relate to each other

Atıl Kunst, an all-female collective established in 2006, has, alongside other work, long been emailing weekly Gündem Fazlası (Surplus of Agenda) – digital images that can be printed out as stickers – whose content engages with current and ongoing issues in social, political and quotidian life. Extending their interest in the digital medium, the collective has also exploited the Internet as a space in which to invite other artists and collectives to contribute.

KABA HAT, a very young collective, founded in 2012 by artists who have been working together since 2010, followed yet another method of opening the ground to others while engaging with issues of urban transformation. They issued an open call for projects in honour of the mayors of Istanbul and Ankara. (The collective was taken to court by the mayor of Ankara.) These practices – of sticker production and public projects – aim at existing within a larger public sphere, beyond what we think of as the traditional venues for the display of art, and into the streets. Ha Za Vu Zu, a collective best known for its soundbased live performances, takes this up in the performance piece Cut the Flow, performed on several occasions in different cities, with the creation of a human barricade to block the flow of a pedestrian road. 

Essential to what each of these collectives does is the way in which they relate to each other – by inviting other artists and collectives into their venues and collaborating with them on projects; and also how these groups of artists relate to their environment – materially, culturally and personally. That is to say, it isn’t solely their artistic works that are significant, but the ways in which their practice extends beyond art into social and political formations.

Institutions, the Public and the Protest

Institutions whose programming focuses on uncovering the historical archive as well as creating a current one, exploring issues from Turkey’s recent past – such as urban transformation as well as the aesthetics of resistance and revolution – have also been important in the lead-up to the Gezi Park moment. SALT, for example, which consists of three previously separate initiatives – Osmanlı Bank Archives, Garanti Design Gallery and Platform Garanti – focusing, respectively, on historical archives, urban studies and contemporary art, has held many talks and exhibitions exploring the urgency of these issues in our daily lives. Depo, a nonprofit space that focuses on social issues alongside the arts, has also hosted many gatherings by artists, such as Açık Masa (Open Table), a platform for discussion set up by Mürüvvet Türkyılmaz in 2000, as well as curated exhibitions that bring together works that are pertinent within the context of sociopolitical engagement in the arts.

Especially valuable have been exhibitions that present archives and histories of previous moments of resistance and revolution

Especially valuable to the conversation now have been exhibitions that present archives and histories of previous moments of resistance and revolution in Turkey, because they have provided context and dialogue for the current generation of artists. Afişe Çıkmak, 1963–1980: Solun Görsel Serüveni (Let’s Go to Postering!, 1963–1980: The Turkish Left’s Visual Adventure) at Depo, and Duvar Resminden Korkuyorlar (Scared of Murals) at SALT, which followed the five-year history of the Visual Artists Association (GSD) up to the 1980 coup and explored the relationship between the artists community and the workers movement, are two such examples just from 2013. Talks held in the context of these exhibitions brought together artists of different generations in an interaction that marked gaps and traced continuities.

Scared of Murals, which I worked on as a research assistant, triggered protests by student collectives and a group of art activists who claimed that an institution with ties to capitalist enterprises such as a bank, whose two historical buildings SALT occupies and is in most part funded by, couldn’t or shouldn’t appropriate leftist aesthetics. Part of this group would later also protest this year’s 13th Istanbul Biennial and its public programmes, which tackle issues of the public sphere in its curatorial framework. 

Talks and performances that began almost seven months ahead of the main exhibition aimed to start a conversation around the public domain as a political forum, hosting artists, activists, architects, musicians, poets and thinkers from around the world. The initial critique of this year’s biennial followed on from protests that may have gone unnoticed in previous editions – that the big corporation(s) financing this critical art event are the perpetrators of urban transformation themselves. 

The moment of heterotopia, with all its flags, banners, slogans and writings on the walls, will remain in our psyche for a long time to come

Another group that has played a role in the criticism of the biennial’s choice of topic and execution, though from a different angle and in a different manner, has been ImeCe (Turkish for ‘collective work’), a group known for its urban activism, which, in an essay published in Bir+Bir magazine, articulated its position to be one of ‘turning their backs’ on the biennial in order to foster ‘another public’. The group, which is primarily an urban movement, includes artists, academics and art activists, and has been a prominent voice in this debate. Their statement thus opened another aspect of the debates on what is public, what are different publics and how do they relate to our commons.

In responding to the biennial and the protests that it drew from such a multiplicity of different views, a conversation ensued, perhaps best foreseen by Robert Sember of Ultra-red (a sound art collective, founded in LA in 1994 by AIDS activists now concentrating their activities on what they call ‘deep listening’), who was a speaker at the set of lectures held on 22 and 23 March within the public programme of the biennial. Speaking on the second day, after the protests against the biennial, he asked: “How can we listen to the protests yesterday?” It seems now, in retrospect, that even if the protests were heard by most simply as noise, it has become an intervention from which a much larger debate emerged.

Reframing the Writings on the Wall

Though by no means an exhaustive account, this limited history gives a glimpse of what have been long years of dedicated search for, and practice of, alternative art strategies that directly act upon and engage with the world both socially and politically. The ongoing moment of Gezi Park, which during its short-lived occupation was transformed into a place where everything was free, has changed many to the core, in that they experienced firsthand the possibility of a different economy, and related to each other in new ways. It has also given us a lens through which we can reread previous histories and practices where this may have been explored.

Looking into the future I believe the moment of heterotopia, with all its flags, banners, slogans and writings on the walls, will remain in our psyche for a long time to come. We will probably not be able to articulate what transpired instantly; it will surface through daily routines and latent epiphanies. Which is why the historical trajectory of what came before is valuable to establishing what might be done in the future.

Nowadays people are being drawn back to their local parks, where they are meeting their neighbours for the first time; and to their communities, where they will continue their struggle. ‘Art is not political because it deals with political matters or represents social and political conflicts,’ Rancière writes, ‘it is political first and foremost because it reframes the distribution of space, its visibility and habitability.’ It seems the moment of Gezi Park has, in turn, reframed the way we look at contemporary art practices.

This article originally appeared in the September 2013 issue. The 13th Istanbul Biennial is scheduled to take place from 14 September to 10 November