As Istanbul continues to expand at breakneck pace, the gap between those struggling to make a living and the lucky minority speculating on a booming real estate sector has drastically increased. Thanks to a number of local artists, however, this issue is not passing unnoticed. Prominent Istanbul-based artists highlight the effects of rapid urban growth on the social fabric and the environment. Hatice Utkan spoke to Rıfat Şahiner, Ali Taptık and Tayfun Serttaş in Istanbul.
“The whole city is represented to people as a consumable. This is what Istanbul is like.”
According to Rıfat Şahiner, an artist and scholar focusing on urban issues, the consumer culture reflects the city’s dynamics: “Not only the museums, shops and exhibitions are consumerist, as Walter Benjamin said, but every part of the city is. I mean, the whole city is represented to people as a consumable. This is what Istanbul is like.” He added, “The biennials, large museum projects and festivals are a part of the urban transformation period.”
As an artist, Şahiner focuses on these issues, conveying in his work the migration and urbanisation dynamics at work in Istanbul. His work Yerleşemeyen, (Un-Settlement) suggests how a city is an unsettled “venue” for its locals and immigrants. Şahiner wrote about his work: “Deleuze and Guattari, in their philosophical essay, Capitalism and Schizophrenia, suggest that capitalism as a system creates deterritorialisation. This phenomena produces capitalist structures and associations, created with cultural intentions and being destroyed by unsettlement. A gap is caused that only the capitalist system can fill. Ultimately, capitalism is just a system and it needs its core concepts implemented within society in order to exist. That’s why it creates new groupings and concepts, such as the ‘modern family,’ a ‘new government,’ and ‘moderate Islam’.”
Şahiner suggested that “in this context, after a closed, authoritarian system in the 1980s, Turkey turned its face towards a more capitalist and competitive model based on urban transformation. Migration from rural regions to cities began to impact population levels in the country’s main production centres. This gave birth to new cultural and sociological trends and led to the creation of shanty towns and poor areas in the cities.”
“One should look at the urban peripheralisation of the 19th century. This will happen again.”
The photographic work of Ali Taptık also focuses on urban issues. As an artist, Taptık aims to showcase the city and the individual within the urban environment. “I have no artistic project focusing on urban regeneration, but as a photographer, I have lots of pictures from areas undergoing urban transformation.” An architect by training, Taptık has an irresistible urge to document the transformation of the city as an organism. “I deploy some of these images along with others pictures that are, let’s say, off-topic, in order to create a narrative. A sort of visual fiction.”
Taptık continued speaking about Istanbul. Just like so many other rapidly growing cities, urbanisation here is far from controllable. “What makes it interesting is that Istanbul constantly changes and redefines itself completely, in the same way that the city has done many times before. Therefore, one should look at the urban peripheralisation of the 19th century. This will happen again. History is mere repetition.”
“This is a place that first experienced an influx of rural migrants and now the process of gentrification.”
Tayfun Serttaş is another artist with an interest in the urban transformation of Turkish cities. He is also a writer and researcher, and lives between Istanbul and Bodrum. Throughout his work and studies, he has taken an interest in the social and demographic aspects of urbanisation. His master’s thesis from 2007 was entitled Photography and Minorities in Istanbul in the Context of Modernism and Cultural Representation.
The artwork “Notalgia, I Left”, with t-shirts hanging on a clothes line between two apartments, is a simple commentary on Istanbul’s transformation. Due to city regulations due to the gentrification process, it is forbidden to hang clothes to dry like this in some parts of Istanbul. Serttaş chose Serdar-ı Ekrem street in the Galata district for his installation. “This is a place that first experienced an influx of rural migrants and now the process of gentrification. And the streets where you can see clothes lines outside the windows are usually the places which have welcomed incoming migrants.”
The installation is a symbolic piece. Serttaş; “I wrote TERK ETTIM on the white t-shirts, which means ‘I left’ in Turkish.” Given current developments, Serttaş might well be among the last people to hang clothes to dry on this street. Many migrants are being forced to relocate to other districts of Istanbul, as their buildings are sold to construction companies for renovation.