Istanbul European Capital of Culture 2010
By Gulizar Cepoglu and Ezgi Bakçay
The Future of Culture Now: The New Alice(s) in Wonderland
In 2006, alongside Pécs in Hungary and Essen in Germany, Istanbul was designated as the European Capital of Culture 2010. Istanbulites quite naturally are proud of their city’s recognition within European, but also of the wider global connotations of such a title. Hopefully, this prestigious accolade will pave the way for wider recognition for Istanbul, as an economically prosperous, politically intriguing and culturally vibrant city.
The title, European City of Culture (ECoC) is undoubtedly a milestone. Turkey is waiting to become a European Union member, and the honour of being named a ECoC will not only stimulate recognition and tourism, but it is intended to provide opportunities for redevelopment, employment and heritage management. According to S.A. Pekelsma of the European Urban Knowledge Network, The Hague, writing in “European Capital of Culture – Community or Commercially based?”, the most challenging task for Istanbul 2010 ECoC is to find a way of assuring, “the interaction of economic-based incentives with socially-based motives, to learn how these aims can be aligned with political ideas and objectives”.
Cultural heritage management is and has always been an important issue in Istanbul. Recent archaeological excavations of Yenikapi have demonstrated the presence of a Neolithic settlement in the historic peninsula of Istanbul, proving that the city is 6,000 years older than previously thought. In fact, Istanbul is the world’s oldest metropolis and a true world city in geographical and cultural terms, with its unique influence of east and west beating simultaneously at its centre.
As a strategic geographical and culturally important centre in Europe, and the influence works both ways. Gerald MacLean and a group of historians put an emphasis on the importance of this cultural exchange in their book, Re-Orienting the Renaissance: Cultural Exchanges with the East. The writers’ argument is that, it is not possible to fully understand the European Renaissance without knowledge of the history of Istanbul.
Future Culture Now; Istanbul on View.
Whilst there is a broad range of events planned for Istanbul 2010 ECoC, focus here is upon visual arts and design projects, and the difficulties of branding a city for such an event. How might a complex, but abstract, living organism loaded with the anthropological, sociologic and ethnographic dimensions that create the culture of a city, “maintain the challenging role of culture without becoming a tool for city marketing”, another concern highlighted by S.A. Pekelsma. Undoubtedly, contradictions have developed between the initial goals of the ECoC programme and the projects that have been, or will be realised, which mirror the conflicts of globalisation.
The cultural professionals who formed Istanbul’s ECoC Committee came up with a slogan, “Stage is yours, Istanbul”, defining Istanbul as an actor rather than promoting the city as a stage. The premise is that to be successful as a European Capital of Culture, “it is necessary that the Istanbulites embrace the whole project and support the events with their participation”. The committee sees the ECoC as a “collaborative project”, involving the population, where Istanbulites from all socio-economic groups will connect with the city and contribute. The aim is for the diverse social population to embrace and proliferate art and culture, and realise the city’s genuine potential as a truly global, cultural centre.
Art and Design in 2010 European Capital of Culture.
The focus has been on creating cultural events, projects and exhibitions, which would attract a wider and more varied audience, rather than the normal situation whereby only the city’s elite experience and enjoy such events. The city hopes to encourage “exchange”, “collaboration” and “participation”, and so, open up a new audience. This will be achieved by decentralising the exhibition of art and design, from an exclusive, central base, taking it further afield to the outskirts and under-privileged periphery of the city, thus creating intercultural dialogue through the arts. Initially, Istanbul’s bid was selected because of its innovative cultural and urban programme, emanating from the lively beating heart of the city and radiating out into the previously sleepy, but now resurgent, urban fringes.
Between 2008 and the end of 2010 over 20 portable “contemporary exhibition art projects” will travel between the 39 districts of Istanbul. These projects aim to increase awareness about contemporary art in all corners of the city. The hope is that by encouraging creativity, more locally based cultural infrastructures will grow and develop. Another goal is to provide and encourage employment for highly skilled professionals to work in art institutions across all districts, and to support and develop a new generation of emerging artists.
In these events, artists are being encouraged to focus upon contemporary Istanbul, so as to create a statement and expression of the city that is drawn from local input and experience, and to get the community involved. Nevertheless, it is questionable whether creating art awareness in an area of the city that hitherto was considered as having “no awareness about art”, will help the democratisation of the city. Perhaps the definition of “fringe communities” simply adds to the notion of “the other”. Arguably, this may be considered as patronising; the imposition of a centralised cultural doctrine on the lower classes based on the superiority of intellectual and educated taste.
Additionally, is it possible to stimulate and maintain an interest in art on the periphery, when the subject matter and content of the shows are decided upon back at the centre, within elite cultural institutions? It appears that contemporary art will be thrust upon these communities whether they like it not.
It is also interesting that the first stop for the portable project is the district of Kartal, where award winning British architect, Zaha Hadid, is currently working on a scheme. With its population of 500,000, Kartal is Istanbul’s most important and rapidly developing industrial district. It is solidly working class, with a history of strikes and disputes. But, Istanbul is trying to de-industrialise. Factories are closing down, and working class districts are being demolished to make way for urban transformation and restoration.
No matter what Istanbulites think, in the very near future, Kartal looks set to become a new techno-city. Kartal’s inhabitants have not been asked whether they want Zaha Hadid’s architectural developments on their doorstep. Property prices have already risen, bringing new foreign capital to the area, much to the delight of politicians. But the new developments may cause communities to be broken up and displaced, thus leading to more social polarisation.
Lives and Works in Istanbul.
According to the Istanbul 2010 ECoC Visual Arts Department Committee, the “Lives and Works in Istanbul” project, which runs from 2008 until the end of 2010, is majorly important. The project’s aim is to host a number of eminent visual artists from European Union countries – Victor Burgin (UK), Sophie Calle (France), Sanja Ivekovic (Croatia), Peter Kogler (Austria), George Lappas (Greece), Antoni Muntadas (Spain/USA), Remo Salvadori (Italy), and Danae Stratou (Greece) – in Istanbul. The city will provide the artists with space to live and work, and the project is intended to open new doors for young Turkish artists to collaborate with eminent European artists. This must be good for the emergence of art in Istanbul; and it is hoped that the resulting artworks will become integral to the permanent collections of Istanbul’s art museums.
The strategy of attracting celebrities from the art world, for a project centred on unknown artists, is a paradox. The purpose is to give new and lesser-known local artists the means and publicity to develop in their own right, not simply to further the careers of already acclaimed foreigners. Nevertheless, an aim of Istanbul as ECoC is to highlight cultural diversity and the participation of star names from the art world will boost both local and wider audiences, giving the emerging artists a real opportunity to be seen on a bigger stage.
Another goal, of highlighting Istanbul’s cultural and traditional values, is explored via “Istanbul Otherwise”, a project based on seven objects, each of which is supposedly embedded in Istanbul’s cultural collective memory. Seven Turkish product designers who work internationally, have been asked to re-interpret these objects; a Turkish coffee cup; rosary beads; a piece of traditional jewellery composed of five ornamental Turkish gold coins; a book rest; a Turkish Delight holder or cup; a set of Turkish bath robes; and a shoeshine box. The hope is that the seven designers, with their modern re-interpretation, will resurrect these traditional forms and revive their cultural roots. In this way traditional and contemporary design intersects between daily life and the city’s collective memory. The seven designers, who began this adventure in the Domus Academy, will continue the project at Bauhaus-Universitat Weimar, finalising their designs at Istanbul Yildiz Technical University.
The project seeks to create new “city symbols” while examining the relationship between traditional objects and the city; but perhaps the selected objects are sending out the wrong message about the cultural realities of Istanbul? These selected objects attach an Orientalist view to Istanbul within the global culture industry.
Traditional objects such as shoeshine boxes, rosary beads and book rests are objects from the past, with symbolic meanings from a former time; how then might they represent the new image of a city that is one of the world’s most rapidly changing metropolises? Indeed, these days such objects are usually found in tourist shops. Nevertheless, who is to say that ECoC projects should be exempt from a spot of tourism? As Bruce Mau states in his book, Life Style; “Every city is now in the business of not only making itself, but also marketing itself”.
Communication Design in the Capital of Culture.
As part of 2010 ECoC, “Amber Art and Technology Platform” present their work, showcasing how technology affects the “aesthetic creativity” of a city, and focusing on the relationship between Istanbul and “data”. Istanbulites will have the opportunity to reflect on art and science at a time when boundaries between the disciplines are blurring; science and art are becoming interwoven, while technology affects both fields at lightening speed. Simultaneously, under the heading, “Traditional Turkish Book Arts”, classical arts such as miniature painting, calligraphy, gilding, marbling and binding are also exhibited. On show is work from the Masters of these arts and crafts, from 1453 to 2010, in the exhibition “Masters of Today and Yesterday”.
The land of Anatolia (present-day Turkey) is recognised as the cradle of many historic civilizations, including the Hittites, Phrygians, Lydians, Greek, Byzantine, Anatolian Seljuk and Ottoman states. Anatolia was home to the invention of writing, and many different writing systems throughout the centuries. Nevertheless, the most abrupt script change came with the proclamation of the Turkish Republic in 1923, a year after the Ottoman Empire came to an end.
In 1928, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the modern Republic, replaced the Arabic alphabet with the Latin alphabet. The implementation of the new and simpler alphabet led to the democratisation of reading and writing, which was part of Mustafa Kemal’s westernising policies and reforms that led to the foundation of the secular Republic; this movement is known as the Kemalist modernisation. It took just six months to reform, or, in some people’s eyes, revolutionise the alphabet. The Kemalist modernisation also speeded up the movement to rid the Turkish language of foreign words; and it changed traditional book design.
“Masters of Today and Yesterday” is an opportunity to revisit Ottoman arts and crafts. But, it would have been more meaningful if contemporary Turkish book design had been exhibited alongside traditional book art, thus allowing visitors to develop their own opinions on the impact that new technology has had on book design. Conversely, the audience may have considered just what contemporary Turkish book designers have retrieved from Ottoman craftsmanship, and what they have borrowed from European design, since the alphabet reform.
Design Sprit Istanbul and Design Talks Istanbul.
“Design Sprit Istanbul” and “Design Talks Istanbul” are two urban projects supported by Istanbul 2010 ECoC. From April to May 2010, forty Turkish designers each exhibited a design product inspired by the city. Meanwhile, “Design Talks Istanbul” hosted a programme of internationally acclaimed speakers. The conference highlighted “Design and the City”, focusing on themes such as globalisation, technology, design and culture, and international architecture.
Speakers included; Paolo Lucchetta from Italy, Kari Korkman from Finland, Matthijs van Dijk from the Netherlands, Steve Trstenjak of Foster and Partners from the UK, Jeffry M. Brock and Belen M. Feduchi from Spain, and Burkay Pasin from Izmir University of Economics in Turkey. All the speakers stressed the strategic importance of urban design on social and cultural development, and thereby acknowledged the maxim of Dutch designer and educator Jan van Toorn; “the practice of design nowadays has been entirely incorporated in the complex of economic, politics and culture”.
During the last 30 years, Istanbul has undergone the most radical transformation of its long and illustrious history. New shopping malls and modern developments have appeared; cultural centres and museums have opened their doors to the public; international festivals, large-scale exhibitions, conferences and congresses have been staged. All have had a great influence on the city and, to some extent, have aided the development of design businesses and cultural production. However, the city’s social and political powers have yet to develop an understanding of the importance of information and communication design in the organisation of daily life, and in the construction of the city’s identity. Instead, their focus stays exclusively on marketing. Arguably, communication designers and other image-makers can become an instrument for change, enabling greater social cohesion. Cities such as Berlin, London and New York, and countries such as Switzerland and the Netherlands, have developed closer social cohesion through forms that enable cultural consensus. It is hoped that the authorities in Istanbul will develop an awareness of these matters as a result of their city being European Capital of Culture.
Our City is not a Brand; liberating Communication Design.
In his article, “My Country is not a Brand”, William Drenttel wrote; “Branding was originally about creating value for commercial entities. Over time it became applicable to anything and everything...Today, even nations have become brands!” Undoubtedly, there is a painful tension between the needs of a mega city and the language of branding that is deeply embedded in the mass market. Is it possible to condense a city’s language, pluralism, tradition, and the vernacular of its daily life, into a brand? As Jean Baudrillard asserts, we are bombarded by a succession of surface images in the media that do not connect with reality. As a result, the distinction between what is real and what is imaginary disintegrates. These images are similar to ephemeral fashion objects, which also have little connection to reality; in consumer culture, these images become “more real then real”.
In reality though, it is the citizens who live their life in cities that turn them into global destinations, not the people who market them, or indeed, bestow the title of ECoC. As Jan van Toorn suggests; “Design is more important than ever. It plays a crucial role in the creation of dream-world commodities, and thereby intensifies the capacity of individuals and collectives to identify with a cultural mass market while simultaneously camouflaging the consequences and inconsistencies of the worldwide entrepreneurial culture. It creates and maintains the symbolic connection between the power structures and our experience of reality”.
Inspired by Lewis Carroll’s story, Istanbulites are the new “Alice(s) in Wonderland”. During the tea party, Alice claims that “what she says and what she means” is the same as “what she means and what she says”. However, the Hare argues, “I like what I get” is not the same as “I get what I like”.
Istanbulites have more time before deciding on whether this philosophical, twisted statement applies to their city’s status as ECoC.
“We like what we get” is not the same, as the Hare points out, as “We get what we like”. Meanwhile, as Istanbulites celebrating the pros and cons of Istanbul 2010 ECoC, we may ensure a refreshing cultural exchange and participate in the future of our city, now.