On Cultural Agencies and Its Possible Effects

Oda Projesi, Erdoğan Yıldız

We are trying to rethink the contact between artistic practices and various pursuits for alternative politics, and underprivileged social groups deprived of visibility. Hereby we present a conversation where Erdoğan Yıldız, who has been a resident of Istanbul’s Gülsuyu-Gülensu neighborhood for 28 years and a social and political activist in various dissident urban movements, and members of the artist collective Oda Projesi, who took part in the Cultural Agencies project realized in the same neighborhood from 2009-2010, reflect on their common experiences.

Oda Projesi [lit. “Room Project”] is an artist collective run by Özge Açıkkol, Güneş Savaş and Seçil Yersel. The project was initiated in an apartment situated in Istanbul’s Galata district and invited artists and individuals from different disciplines to the neighborhood to realize joint projects. Inhabitants of the neighborhood also participated in the projects as actively as possible rather than becoming mere spectators. Since 2000, Oda Projesi has been focusing on urban spaces in terms of their different uses, production of relationships, changes and potentials and continues to work on projects questioning what private and public spaces are and to whom they belong.

The Neighborhood

Seçil Yersel: We at Oda Projesi, experienced a neighborhood in Galata for eight years in a rather intensive fashion, in terms of both daily life and the effects of the project, and this turned out to be an experience that profited us in every field in which we became active. It is thanks to our experience in this neighborhood that we are currently reflecting on spaces, their possibilities and the relationships they produce. The neighborhood also became a concept of reference we frequently employed in the two-year long Cultural Agencies project. Taking into account both Oda Projesi’s Gülsuyu-Gülensu experience and Erdoğan Yıldız’s personal experience of Gülsuyu-Gülensu, which practices, would you say, do these neighborhood experiences overlap with and what kind of proposals emerge as a result?

Gülsuyu-Gülensu Dükkân [Shop] opening poster

Erdoğan Yıldız: “Neighborhood” is now a hotly debated concept in both academic circles and the media, and as such it is critical and deserves attention. To be frank, there is no prototype neighborhood. Istanbul counts numerous neighborhoods with diverse representations, housing internal consistencies and different dynamics, such as Başıbüyük, Sulukule, Tarlabaşı, Gülsuyu-Gülensu and Yakacık. For instance, Başıbüyük, a conservative neighborhood, and Gülsuyu-Gülensu, one with an elevated political awareness and strong solidarity networks tend to produce very distinct reactions. The foundational dynamics of Gülsuyu-Gülensu are very unique. This settlement was born as a typical squatter [gecekondu] neighborhood in the 1950s and mainly received immigrants from the provinces of Tunceli, Sivas and Erzincan, with a large majority of Alevis, translating into a political tendency to the left of the political spectrum. Albeit housing a number of different cultures (Alevis and Sunnis, Turks and Kurds, secular-minded people and Muslims etc.), it remained immune to the destructive conflicts shaking up the society at large, and on the contrary, turned into a neighborhood capable of solidarity and common reflexes. This presented a potential for organizational purposes. Here you can find hometown associations, mukhtar’s offices, religious communities and various political organizations. The definition of neighborhood needs to be situated in such heterogeneity; singling out a unique aspect and trying to define the neighborhood on that basis would be misleading. On the other hand, the neighborhood can react differently when there is an intervention by the state or public agencies, and when people come to the neighborhood for an art activity.

Seçil Yersel: In my experience, whenever we talk retrospectively of the period of five years when we lived and produced in Galata, we always use the term “neighborhood” to refer to the indeed rather limited number of people with whom we were in touch with back then. Thus we, too, tend to contribute to the creation of a neighborhood myth as such. Perhaps we attribute a favorable meaning to it. And maybe we tend to interpret the micro scale relationships that we witness as strategies and tactics, and feel a need to relate them to other dimensions present in the city, an urge to expand these relationships across the urban space, or attribute value to situations which we rarely experience in urban life and yearn for. While posing such questions as, what is the stance of the artist in a neighborhood in the context of a rapidly changing urban structure, or how does s/he relate to the space, to the people around him/her, the street, the passers-by, etc., we come to question dichotomies like people vs. artists: Who feels like an inhabitant of the neighborhood and who does not? The neighborhood myth is something actively created and also desired and needed in the given urban structure. Upon close scrutiny, this structure reveals itself to be very productive and open to creativity. Instead of preserving the myth status and sticking to such an outlook, I am thinking, what kind of practices does this myth engender when it interacts with daily life -can we analyze that?

Erdoğan Yıldız: The neighborhood is in constant flux, it is never stagnant; it constantly generates reflexes, just like a living organism.

Seçil Yersel: An initiative spread over two years, the project Cultural Agencies fused itself with the daily life of a neighborhood, and yielded a formation and an area of influence falling outside the usual rhythm. It was extraordinary in that it was not preplanned to be imposed to the neighborhood as such; it has managed to create its own space and came to being gradually, it has been shaped during the process, and it has taken root in the neighborhood despite having a specific deadline. How can we narrate the short-lived experience of the project Cultural Agencies in Gülsuyu-Gülensu? What kind of collaborations and anticipations did this project engender?

The first Mobile Vitrine Exhibition, 2-4 September 2009, Dükkân

Özge Açıkkol: The project started off along the conceptual framework formulated by the architects Philipp Misselwitz and Nicolaus Hirsch. The objective of the project was, in a nutshell, exploring how cultural production -which tends to concentrate at the city center, particularly Beyoğlu- would function in the peripheral neighborhoods of the city. Various neighborhoods including Gülsuyu-Gülensu were initially considered for the project. Oda Projesi joined the project team in the next stage. In that period our team consisted of the project coordinator Ece Sarıyüz, project curators Philipp Misselwitz, Nicolaus Hirsch, and Oda Projesi. Gülsuyu-Gülensu was a neighborhood with a high potential for cultural production. It was already a vibrant neighborhood housing cultural events authored by civil initiatives and organizations. We in the project team had a long debate as to whether we needed to join a formation already present in the neighborhood or to launch the project in a completely independent space. In the end, we decided that it would be better to establish our own space, due to the existing political discrepancies among various factions in the neighborhood. We rented a squatter house, and for about a year, strove to bring about its complete spatial and social potential. In the first workshop, held prior to the rental of the said space, urban planning students from Frankfurt’s Städelschule and Mimar Sinan University analyzed the structure and formation of the cultural spaces in the neighborhood. Following this workshop, the structure of a cultural institution was laid out. We evaluated what this structure corresponded to in Gülsuyu-Gülensu and how it could become functional. The said structure comprised the following units: office, library, activities, archive, collection. Although seemingly borrowed from some Western cultural institution, each unit was actually incorporated into the Cultural Agencies structure through its presence in Gülsuyu-Gülensu. The neighborhood does not have well-defined cultural institutions that are familiar to us; however, there were traces of cultural institution units, such as “libraries” in the neighborhood associations or hometown associations, or “collections” comprising various items brought from villages; “communication” was maintained through slogans scribbled on houses and plain posters employing a specific language, or sometimes temporary stalls or megaphones; “activities” corresponded to neighborhood festivals, for instance. In this sense, the politically challenging stage of the project was creating a comprehensive neighborhood archive, which had not previously been created due to political reasons, or maybe simply because it was not deemed necessary. For this purpose, we carried out intensive oral history efforts, which led to the formation of a significant oral corpus pertaining to the neighborhood. As for the collection, which we conceptualized as an archive of neighborhood-specific knowledge, we explored the individual archives of the inhabitants and tried to join these together. In fact, the main axis of the project seemed to shift from an analysis of the given structure towards a focus on its past and formation in order to grasp present cultural mechanisms. In keeping with the neighborhood’s basically oral culture, on Fridays we held debates bringing together somebody from the neighborhood and a guest.[1] For example, artist and feminist activist Canan Şenol came together with Sevim Şahin, a locally active nurse from the Gülsuyu Health Clinic, to discuss common issues such as gender, disciplining of bodies in fields of power, and being a woman in Gülsuyu-Gülensu. Or, event designer Erdem Dilbaz was invited for a get together with the members of a local activists’ cooperative.  In addition, the artist collectives YNKB and Etcétera and artist Burak Delier worked on long-running projects in the neighborhood. There are vast differences between the first neighborhood experience of Oda Projesi and this one. Looking back to our identity in Galata, upon entering the neighborhood we had acted as “neighbors” rather than “artists”. Oda Projesi was established three years after our first step in that district. In Gülsuyu-Gülensu, however, we were there as artists coming to the neighborhood with a team and various financial resources. The difference between our status in Galata and that in Gülsuyu-Gülensu was therefore as large as the difference between a guest and a neighbor. We always had to assume the position of a guest.

Seçil Yersel: The frontiers of the neighborhood are redrawn with the advent of outsiders -those coming for work, those coming for political organization purposes, researchers, municipal officers, i.e. people who do not reside there. This in turn is closely related to the identity of the newcomer and the relationships she has. In this process, I had the impression that the geographic location of Gülsuyu-Gülensu was very, very important. Gülsuyu-Gülensu is situated on top of a hill, and as such, access is meaningful and possible only for those living or working there. It is not a place of transit, it is a last stop; therefore circulation and mobility do not exist and you immediately become visible once you arrive there as an outsider. Gülsuyu-Gülensu has been the place where I felt like I was in a neighborhood most strongly, perhaps because I had transformed it into a metaphor in my mind. Neighborhood as a large house with invisible gates; that is, a thoroughly autonomous space, well-organized and complete with neighbors, where streets can be conceptualized as halls or maybe even living rooms, and houses as rooms. And indeed this space incorporates certain public elements such as the local market open on Wednesdays, political rallies and gatherings in its streets, minibuses racing by and the shabbiest public buses anywhere in the city. Gülsuyu-Gülensu is indeed redefined with the arrival of each newcomer; its terminology, dress code may change, your smile, gaze or posture might shift.

Burak Delier, ‘Is there any other possibility for architecture’ project, May 2009

Özge Açıkkol: Indeed, Gülsuyu-Gülensu can be said to resemble a “fortress,” a structure which we had to contemplate thoroughly during the project. I do not want to make a sweeping generalization, but considering that most art “spectators” in Istanbul are attracted inside an art gallery by its window design, geographically speaking the “spectators” in Gülsuyu-Gülensu had to be the neighborhood’s inhabitants anyway. As such, what we have here is a direct, closed circuit project. In the project, outsiders to the neighborhood somehow became direct participants, rather than mere “spectators.” Indeed the project’s production level superseded its consumption level. I don’t believe that the self-distanciation of the inhabitants from the project is caused solely by their discontent with “urban transformation” and the possible damage that can be inflicted on the neighborhood by such projects. It is also due to the problem of creating a common language. These results come about naturally once you incorporate yourself into daily life through a project which is flexible, albeit with fixed boundaries. That is because, there is a large gap between daily life and “institutionality.” Besides, the inhabitants naturally feel a certain reserve towards big capital, which finances the project. As such, this attempt to realize a local, small-scale project through the backing of big capital did face headwinds, owing to the tension between the big and the small. This tension is not unique to the Gülsuyu-Gülensu context; this debate, although not so old, does already have a certain history behind it. Is the artist a worker? Is culture an industry? These are issues hotly debated across the world. In this regard, I believe the project could have better shared this common concern with the inhabitants.

Erdoğan Yıldız: The project Cultural Agencies had numerous aspects open to observation and monitoring. For example Cultural Agencies, as an outsider initiative, incorporates itself into the neighborhood which is a closed phenomenon complete with its own codes and lifestyles, and this initiative experiences a certain “tissue compliance” or “tissue mismatch” with the local relation network; furthermore the artist collective Oda Projesi also joins in this experience.

Seçil Yersel: There was a large range of reactions. Some of the reasons why the project caused discomfort were: it had EU backing; its financial structure rested on the euro; European and American architects, artists, tourists or foreigners visited the neighborhood on this occasion; the project prioritized “culture” which is opposed to the concerns of the inhabitants related to sustaining their livelihood; the neighborhood’s daily life was recorded as part of the project; photo and video shoots were deemed threatening by those unaccustomed to cameras or disapproving of the police CCTV [“MOBESE”] and tanks placed in the neighborhood. Besides, who were we to abandon our comfortable houses and existence to launch a project in a politically dynamic neighborhood with a leftist background -even claimed to be home to illegality by the mainstream media-, whose housing rights were currently under threat owing to urban transformation? This project seemed especially peculiar among similar neighborhood projects implemented across Istanbul, or even Turkey. An old squatter house had been rented, we were to stay in the neighborhood for a whole year, and we would work on a research project to be implemented in a gradual rather than snappy fashion. It was a rather peculiar project, which initially raised “doubts,” and establishing trust required time, effort and common experience.

Erdoğan Yıldız: However, institutions well-established in the neighborhood, such as Sanat Hayat Derneği [The Art & Life Association] and Temel Haklar Derneği [The Association for Fundamental Rights] can also receive similar reactions; the neighborhood might at times remain indifferent to them as well. As such this is not a reaction reserved to outsiders, but a stance stemming from the neighborhood’s internal dynamics. Nevertheless, the said reaction of the neighborhood does not necessarily lead to conflict or tension. To the contrary, the artist Burak Delier’s [2] work, for instance, has been perceived as a kind of artistic activism propping up the neighborhood’s resistance strategy, or its reflexes against urban development plans. When considered as a process in which both sides influence and learn from one another, this space can well become an integral part of the neighborhood and can engender different kinds of production. Nonetheless there remains a certain pitfall: One must avoid nurturing the neighborhood resistance myth and stay clear from categorizations such as “progressive artists.” These are dodgy concepts. An attempt at reading a neighborhood solely through such characterizations would be deceiving. It would be wrong to infer from our conversation that the neighborhood is inherently a center of resistance, and to objectively qualify it as such. This is because totally different individuals experience other types of relations behind the scenes of this resistance. At the present we are going through an historical period as regards the neighborhood’s future. Istanbul is undergoing an enormous transformation since the 1990s and 2000s. Let’s take the Anatolian side, say from Kartal to Kadıköy, along the E-5 motorway: You will be surprised by the large number of hospitals, shopping malls, high rise buildings and universities on both sides of the road. Cases in point would be the ongoing works of the rail system, the construction of “the world’s largest” courthouse, the upheaval of the Kozyatağı region in parallel with Istanbul’s transformation into a financial hub, or simply, Maltepe University situated in the wooded area behind Gülsuyu neighborhood or Acıbadem University adjacent to the Gülsuyu overpass. Simultaneous with this overhaul is the shift of industrial plants to the outskirts of the city. Accordingly, only a handful of the neighborhood inhabitants work in factories at the present. Large numbers work in service jobs such as cleaning, security, and construction. At this point the critical question becomes: in such an intensive process of transformation and upheaval, how can “old” squatter neighborhoods like ours subsist and preserve their texture of social, cultural and economic solidarity? Can solidarity-based planning prevent the victimization of the inhabitants and their expulsion to the outskirts? Alternatively, can we protect our habitat with a perspective of the kind “We are pleased with our life in the neighborhood, we created these neighborhoods through resistance and sacrifice, we shall never let outsiders intervene, if necessary, we shall resist with all our might”? -indeed we do have such a tradition, unlike other neighborhoods. I believe that the answers to these questions lie in the oral history conversations that we have undertaken.

Seçil Yersel: How did the experience of the Cultural Agencies Project alter your relationship to your own neighborhood? Prior to the project we were not acquainted. Just before its start, we were hastily introduced to you as a key figure very active in the neighborhood. In time, you played the role of an agent, an intermediary between the project’s objectives and the neighborhood. In fact, you were one of the people we most frequently resorted to, or a kind of consultant, even though you did not have an official title.

Erdoğan Yıldız: For me, participating in this project corresponded to setting out to rediscover the internal relations of the neighborhood. To give examples, although for years I had participated in political action, I can say that among the Gülsuyu Gülensu Shop activities, the trip to the Istanbul Biennial with the neighborhood inhabitants, the April 23rd Children’s Day events organized with the kids in the neighborhood, as well as the culture and arts conversations held on Friday evenings bringing together diverse interlocutors around a variety of subjects were all very stimulating. On the other hand, every interview part of the oral history study revealed hitherto unknown aspects of the neighborhood. When we first started debating an oral history study in the neighborhood, two possible drawbacks occurred to me. First, would these records have a negative impact on any current or future “political” action in the neighborhood? Second, would there be any risk of exposing through such interviews any of our friends involved in current political action? However the overwhelming feeling was that, if we did not somehow kick-start such a study right away, it could soon be too late for those inhabitants at 70-80 years of age and with a history of participation in local revolutionary action between 1978 and 1980. In fact, when dear İlhami (Akdeniz) passed away, it felt like bidding farewell to a vast ocean of experience without placing the smallest drop of it on record. By contrast, when we lost our beloved Muzaffer (Bahçetepe) to cancer, I felt that we were on the right track by recording these interviews. Our objective in launching this study was including everyone who had contributed to the formation of the neighborhood, without any discrimination. Without ever letting our sentiments take over, we invited everyone we could reach. This meant ensuring the participation of people from a wide array of political tendencies, religious denominations and geographic backgrounds. Naturally, we could not reach out to everyone. We truly wish this as of yet incomplete effort to be continued. We, the inhabitants, profited largely from the skills and knowledge of our friends, including academics, urban planners, architects and artists. I can say this much: the establishment of a link between artistic creativity and a local organization is the key to redemption, not only for the neighborhood, but also for the artist.

The first Mobile Vitrine Exhibition, 2-4 September 2009, Dükkân

Seçil Yersel: The Gülsuyu Gülensu Shop opened its doors on June 24, 2009, with the primary objective of creating a platform for recording and sharing the neighborhood’s collective memory via a series of interviews initiated just before the inauguration. Our intention was to document individual histories as well as the past and the possible future of the neighborhood through a number of video interviews with inhabitants from different socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds. These interviews, numbering around 50 at the present, shed light on the period from the 1950s to the 1990s. After due editing, these interviews will be brought together in a book and published. In this sense, the project will generate significant feedback to the neighborhood.

Art and Urban Transformation

Seçil Yersel: Based on my experience during the one-year period and its aftermath, I can say that the question of the right to housing serves as a unifying, homogenizing platform in Gülsuyu-Gülensu. You share the same roof and the same ground. In other words, people share the same concern despite differing ownership rights and land register statuses.

Erdoğan Yıldız: It is poverty that underlies this, to a certain extent -I mean, the awareness raising, unifying effects of poverty… Actually I would also like to discuss the question of gentrification at this point. In the eyes of the inhabitants, gentrification corresponds to displacement, because the most direct consequence of this process is urban transformation, which will result in the poor being replaced by the rich and moved to the outskirts of the city. However, if I am not mistaken, in other countries gentrification concerns abandoned buildings or economically distressed areas artists squat and practice their arts. And in this way these distressed areas are gentrified. Our case is different. Now, if we take the Tophane incident for example, it looks as if art galleries, their owners and the artists are the agents of gentrification. It is a tricky issue, because it is too important a subject to be limited to the relation between the artist and the neighborhood. On the other hand, art and artists can become active in spaces other than art galleries. For example in our shop [Gülsuyu Gülensu Shop], on April 23rd, artists held an arts event, during which we got together with local children. As children built their dream houses out of cardboard boxes, they were accompanied by musicians Boris Vassallucci and Louis Coulange. As such, they showed to the children that April 23rd can be celebrated in another fashion. Accordingly, I believe that artists can play an important role in rethinking the whole concept of gentrification, and making references to other spaces.

Özge Açıkkol: Gentrification can be seen as an urban dynamic. It seems like the Turkish gentrification experience started out as an informal one. Just like the way rural migrants summoned their relatives while building a squatter neighborhood, those who purchased houses in districts of gentrification, e.g. Galata, spread the word to their friends, saying “There is a bargain apartment on such and such street” etc. Although there were many complications as regards ownership rights, apartments were bought and sold. That is to say, this city generated gentrification just like it had previously created squatter neighborhoods, albeit due to different needs. These days, if carried out by the state itself, gentrification is called urban transformation, which is a large-scale, top-down, and therefore more dangerous process, which utterly neglects the grassroots level and people’s actual needs. Gentrification is more of an organic process, and it creates its own feedback. Actually the issue about artists is a rather practical, in other words economic one, because these districts are cheap and somehow “attractive” in the eyes of artists and art galleries. Anyhow, what is important is not their presence there, but rather their relationships with their surroundings or the absence of such relationships… Sure, they are not obliged to establish such relationships, yet contemporary art is intertwined with political questions and as such almost begs for such a relation, from an ethical point of view. In a sense, it is a bit weird to organize an exhibition on problems similar to those experienced by the inhabitants and not to invite them. In any case, if you are in a “neighborhood,” do you have any chance of avoiding all interaction with the neighborhood? What is important here is, as Erdoğan has suggested, unleashing the power of art. Yes, art does have a unifying and transforming power… I am not suggesting here that art should be instrumentalized, but since such a power exists, it is in the artist’s hands to employ it in this “mutual relationship”…

Seçil Yersel: Actually the question long since debated by Oda Projesi has once again come to the fore with this project: “How to conceptualize the relationship between art and those socialities traditionally assumed not to follow art?” The artist is expected to be visible in a certain space; it is a very delicate line, like an unwritten agreement; attempts at infiltrating daily life always lead to question marks and debates. They used to say to us “What do you think you’re doing in Gülsuyu-Gülensu; there is no culture or whatsoever here; go to the city center, go to Nişantaşı”… We received a similar reaction from our own artist friends while carrying out our project in Galata: “Leave the neighborhood alone, don’t confuse the kids”, they said. At this point we could take up the concept “tissue mismatch” mentioned above. What is a tissue mismatch? What can it tell us about the Cultural Agencies project? I believe that tissue mismatch is an important source of friction. Anyway, doesn’t hypothetical compliance lead to repetition and mediocre cooperation?

Etcetera… (Federico Zukerfeld, Loreto Garin Guzman), ‘The name of Victory in children’s language,’ one-act operetta, 2010

Erdoğan Yıldız: The population of Gülsuyu-Gülensu brushes the 50,000 mark and unemployment is a significant concern especially among the youth. The neighborhood history goes back to the 1950s: it had an important left-wing potential in the 1980’s, and still stands out as a very dynamic and vibrant neighborhood, capable of sticking together and avoiding conflicts in every period, despite its cosmopolitan character. It set an example for many similar neighborhoods in the mid 2000s by resisting urban transformation. It brought cases against the municipal zoning plan, collected petitions for the annulment of the plan, managed to transform this process into a grassroots neighborhood organization, and established street-based representative committees and neighborhood assemblies, thus asserting its will as a neighborhood not “in itself” but “for itself.” The main concerns of its inhabitants are poverty and unemployment. Since the people have very limited access to health, education and transportation services, participation in cultural events, eating out, going to the movies or making a journey are perceived to be luxuries. Naturally, this is one critical reason underlying the indifference towards the artists visiting the neighborhood. Nonetheless, I say it would be an exaggeration to talk about a tissue mismatch.

Özge Açıkkol: I guess tissue mismatch can be countered with various interactions and relations. In a sense, tissue mismatch is fabricated politically… Just like the tension between the urban and rural areas, or between the city’s center and periphery… In Gülsuyu-Gülensu, we encountered two definitions of culture. The first group said “here culture does not exist,” whereas the second insisted “this is our culture.” Although Gülsuyu-Gülensu and similar neighborhoods do harbor a brand new culture owing to the urbanization of different rural cultures, this is not considered to be “culture” as such -which is one big challenge in itself. Actually urban culture is a result of such cross-fertilization; there is nothing such as a purebred urban culture. Or, we could talk about tissue mismatch in the event of gentrification, since dissimilar people start to live together in the same area then; that’s where the possibility arises.

Seçil Yersel: Actually gentrification has started in the West, and in the USA in particular, much earlier than in Istanbul, and artists there have long since tackled this experience. They have set important examples before us. Artists have seriously debated issues such as, should we express ourselves and share our work in art galleries or instead create independent spaces, and if so, what should such spaces be like? This is a very recent issue for artists in Istanbul, as far as the interaction among artists or the artistic production practices are concerned. There are a number of different spaces evolving in parallel, such as art galleries established by banks, private galleries, or spaces of artist initiatives. Their geographic distribution reveals a certain map, but this map harbors only a handful of examples where work is produced in collaboration with the location. The artist can be said to have the right, desire or need to an existence in an arts gallery, without any outside contact. However, since there are scarce examples of alternative pursuits and there is no platform for debate, artists are frequently blamed and vast generalizations are made about them. They are accused of deteriorating these neighborhoods or triggering change. Let us imagine that artists take the map of Istanbul complete with possible urban transformation areas, and analyze and discuss their relation to these spaces. In terms of urban transformation, Istanbul is home to many practices worthy of lengthy debates, planners come up with numerous alternative plans, and architects come together to work on these issues; however, the transformation the city is going through is a very new issue for artists both in terms of dealing with it and in terms of getting involved. As a result, I consider such events to be very “stimulating” in a search for a new language, and they present an opportunity for a fresh start. When something comes up, we struggle with its results. There are significant experiences, but these do not go hand in hand with urban transformation and the actual struggles in the city. There are a number of urban movements, which open up a space where artists can feel at home, undertake joint projects and engage in fruitful collaboration (I am not talking about making public art but a conceptual engagement); however, the said space is -though it might sound a bit harsh- monopolized by architects, urban planners and sociologists. Artists are told to do their thing in Nişantaşı.

Erdoğan Yıldız: I think I can mention a case in point: last year, we got together as a group of people from the neighborhood and visited the Istanbul Biennial for the first time in our lives. If it wasn’t for the Cultural Agencies project, we would never ever have done that. And, there we saw that artistic works are created with the manipulation of diverse materials. Instead of using its capacity to make great contributions to neighborhood organizations or grassroots resistances, art prefers to dwell or express itself in the center, and the resulting elitist attitude glosses over -or intentionally avoids- certain opportunities, leading to significant polarization and adversity.

Seçil Yersel: This can change only if artists, producers of art and culture feel such a need. Besides, I think that we should also talk about the definitions of being a local, an inhabitant of a neighborhood. Or, what is entailed by living in a given district, and claiming certain rights and thoughts in this regard, versus living there for a limited period and laying claim to totally different rights? All these are questions pertaining to the future to be directed at artists, arts galleries and ourselves. Because, the language and concepts have now rendered certain things so visible that it is not so simple to merely remain a user. If you say “I moved here because it was cheap” and cut it at that, then you shall miss the opportunity to do something for the future. You do not have to become a local or take refuge under such an umbrella, and can rather stay a nomad, but still become engaged there. There is a great potential there and is worth thinking about.

Etcetera… (Federico Zukerfeld, Loreto Garin Guzman), ‘The name of Victory in children’s language,’ one-act operetta, 2010

Erdoğan Yıldız: As an inhabitant of a neighborhood, I believe that if art is to preserve its critical perspective and remain dissident in such a polarization -if such a polarization turns out to be unavoidable-, it must be ready to pay the price of an attack or vandalism directed at art. Wasn’t it Edward Said who expressed his belief in the intellectual’s duty to side with the oppressed, while throwing stones across the Palestinian border? Secondly, the relation between art and the neighborhood, between artists and inhabitants needs to be enhanced. Here, art and artists need to clarify their stances. For whom do the artists produce their works, and what is the result? This needs to be well thought. On the other hand, there is an urgent need for questioning the distance between the language of art and the language of the inhabitants, and for an alliance that will be born from this. Because, I believe that such experiences can help dissolve the present tension and lead to a serious coalition process. In the final analysis, artists and inhabitants are fighting for the same thing -call it an act of emancipation, a process of becoming human. Across the world, people live a wild and inhuman life. We need to become more human, we need to be emancipated, and I think art, artists and their mutual relationship with the inhabitants can play a crucial role in making the neighborhood heard and visible. I think gentrification is not a humane process, it is inhuman. It makes the artist a prisoner, and forces the inhabitants to close into themselves. In short, the artists and inhabitants need to nurture much deeper relations in the process of emancipation and humanization. If we limit art to the center, the voice of the peripheral neighborhoods will become even feebler.

Özge Açıkkol: That is exactly where the project Cultural Agencies comes in, because, by definition, it provokes thought on being an “agent”… As such it is a criticism of the stern, top-down, “corporate” perspective. It seeks answers to the question “What does it mean to be an artist in Istanbul, or to be a space of cultural production and presentation?” Actually we are pretty much under the influence of the neighborhood since the Gülsuyu-Gülensu project. We had a first-hand experience in Gülsuyu-Gülensu, where joint resistance is not a romantic need, but a concrete and successful initiative. Therefore it is important for art to infiltrate daily life. Gülsuyu-Gülensu provides an achieved example, and we can learn a lot from it. I am talking about the exact opposite of artists going somewhere and “teaching” the locals; I am talking about learning from the forms of resistance present there.

Translated from Turkish by Barış Yıldırım


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[[1] http://cultural-agencies-eventspace.blogspot.com

[2]In May 2010, Burak Delier, a long-term resident artist of Cultural Agencies, set off from questions such as “Can we conceptualize architecture in a different fashion? Which of our desires, wishes and needs remain unrealized due to lack of energy and means in daily life?” in line with the inhabitants’ suggestions and interventions and organized local reunions with them. The resulting ideas and propositions were exhibited at the local Aydın Kebap Restaurant, on dinner tables