On 7th and 8th of November, Salt Galata in Istanbul hosted a brilliant two day workshop titled ‘Cool Istanbul: Urban Enclosures and Resistances.’ The workshop was initiated as part of a research project based in the Institute of European Ethnology in University of Munich.
The event takes its name from a Newsweek cover from 8 years ago featuring the title ‘Cool Istanbul.’ Using this title as a starting point, the discussion of the workshop focused on investigating the creative processes in the production of a cool Istanbul, along with the consumption of the cool city and the brutal reality of gentrification, urban poverty, precarious labor, exploitation, discrimination and run-down neighbourhoods behind the cool façade of the city.
The host institution, Salt Galata, is located in the ‘cool’ neighborhood of Galata. The building now occupied by Salt was formerly the headquarters of the Ottoman Bank and has gone through an extensive restoration project led by the renowned architect Han Tümertekin. Salt Galata now acts as an art center which houses a museum dedicated to the Ottoman Bank, a public art library/research center, a temporary exhibition area and workshop areas along with an artsy cafe, bookshop and an over-rated and expensive restaurant.
Workshop rooms in Salt Galata are designed wisely. The partition dividing two rooms can be removed as occasions require and this results in a large, unified space. This flexibility proved to be very useful in the case of Cool Istanbul since the number of participants was surprisingly high. The workshop was divided into different panels and in each panel two or three scholars or specialists did a presentation which was followed by a discussion and q&a.
Ruin Porn and Tarlabaşı
Begüm Özden Fırat introduced the recently coined term ‘ruin porn’ in the panel titled ‘Art and the cool city.’ According to Fırat, ‘ruin porn’ is a new kind of documentary photography which emerged in Detroit with the flux of eager photographers traveling there to document the financially bankrupt city. Apparently a similar tendency was observed in the Tarlabaşı neighborhood of İstanbul which is going through an urban renewal/gentrification project initiated by the state that aims to replace the low income householders of Tarlabaşı with middle and high classes. Fırat points out the ‘cool’ parties (with private security) organized by the middle-class hipsters and neo-hippies (as she calls them), who are attracted by the ‘coolness’ of the poor neighborhood that is falling apart. According to her, what might save Tarlabaşı from the corrupt and ruinous gentrification project is not the ‘cool’ parties or daily occupations of deserted buildings but rather, ‘uncool’ activities such as analyzing the class and capital accumulations as well as sustained occupation of deserted buildings and creating political organizations for organized resistance. The title of her presentation brilliantly exposes the superficial interest of the middle-class in Tarlabaşı: ‘Can be seen until demolition.’
‘Glocalized’ Music and Turkish Arabesque Rap
Second panel featured two scholars working on Turkish rap which focused on the socio-economic effects of unchained neoliberal urban policies on the low-income class. Tom Solomon’s research investigated the Turkish rap singer Nefret’s (today known as Ceza) first album Meclis-i Ala Istanbul and Ekin Can Göksay introduced the music of arabesque rap singers to the audience. Solomon explained Turkish rap in the light of the fancy term glocalization which can be described as, ‘reworking global commodities (in this case rap) by local cultural producers.’ Arabesque rap, which can be considered a sub-genre of Turkish rap, is the product of an under-served society which is kept behind the curtains of the ‘cool’ city.
Another subject to be discussed in the workshop was food and restaurant business in the context of the cool city. Zafer Yenal made very accurate remarks about the rise of the cool being intertwined with the rise of neoliberal consumption and how being a successful consumer today is about being the cool consumer. Yenal exposed the marketing cliche of ‘thinking outside the box’ as the main driving force behind the creation of the cool, as the main goal is to finding out places, food, products, etc. which have not been explored by the mainstream market.
Standing Man and Working Poor in the Cool City
One of the highlights of the workshop was an extra panel which featured Erdem Gündüz (aka. Standing Man), a performance artist who became famous after his epic passive resistance during the Gezi protests. An interesting thing he said was that he does not label his ‘standing’ during the Gezi events as ‘performance art’ unlike the public opinion. Rather, he told us that many people from different walks of life resisted for 17 days in various ways including doing yoga and tai-chi; what he did was to merely resist like any other protester. According to him, the audience looks at his profession and labels what he did as performance art because he is a performance artist.
By far, the best and most impressive panel of the workshop was the very last one on the second day, organized by the interdisciplinary academic Aslı Odman, a specialist focusing on working people’s health and precarity among other subjects. The panel titled, ‘Working for Cool Istanbul’ featured professionals (or workers) from different professions and each talked about their share of problems in their fields of work. It was a unique panel in the sense that, a construction worker, an arts sector employee, an ex-corporate professional now a PhD candidate in sociology, an NGO employee, a private teaching institution employee, a call center employee, and a textile worker were presenting their first-hand experiences of working in Istanbul. Odman has done a brilliant job in bringing these people from different walks of life who have all suffered from the ‘pain of work’ as Odman coins the term. Like other panels of the workshop, this final panel exposed uncool things about Istanbul which are constantly neglected, disregarded and hidden behind a cool façade of artsy cafes, new skyscrapers and expensive boutiques, owned and consumed by the privileged few.