Istanbul’s Open-Air Studio

The metal fence of a construction site is transformed into an art installation by dozens of handwritten notes on the landmark Taksim Square in central Istanbul on June 14, 2013. (Marco Longari/AFP/Getty Images)

The metal fence of a construction site is transformed into an art installation by dozens of handwritten notes on the landmark Taksim Square in central Istanbul on June 14, 2013. (Marco Longari/AFP/Getty Images)

“Every time I go back, whole neighborhoods are different,” says Beyza Boyacioglu.

Boyacioglu, a Turkish filmmaker trained at the School of Visual Arts in New York, was discussing the shifting landscapes of her home city of Istanbul from a New York sublet in Brooklyn, where she was accompanying the tour of her recent documentary film.

The film, Toñita’s, was created by Boyacioglu and fellow filmmaker Sebastian Diaz. It deals with themes of cultural preservation amid a rapidly changing urban environment, gentrification and urban renewal, as it tells the story of the last existing Puerto Rican social club in Brooklyn’s historically Hispanic neighborhood of Williamsburg’s South Side, or “Los Sures,” as its Latino residents call it.

Although the theme is an American one, a similar one arises when Boyacioglu speaks of her hometown, Istanbul, where urban renewal projects have been sweeping the city with increasing speed and force for the past few years.

“The issue of urban renewal has been a really hot topic in Turkey for [some time] . . . It exploded at the Gezi protests, but it started much earlier,” says Boyacioglu.

Last fall, the organizers of the Istanbul Biennial stated that the art exhibition strove to capitalize on “the notion of the public domain as a political forum” as an answer to Istanbul’s rapidly reinvented skyline. In an attempt to draw artists into the conversation and to promote a platform on which to engage arts in the city’s public space, the fair set out with an ambitious plan of exhibitions in public spaces. But the Biennial was eclipsed by the Gezi Park protests that broke out in late May 2013.

Following the protests, biennial organizers decided to move exhibitions from public spaces slated for demolition into galleries, resulting in a lost opportunity—at least in Boyacioglu’s opinion: she described it as a “safe choice.”

Boyacioglu and Diaz chronicle the story of Toñita, the matron of the private Puerto Rican social club where she hosts nightly community gatherings filled with music, food and games of dominoes. The impending end of an era hangs heavy on the screen, even among the upbeat soundtrack and vital sense of community. Gentrification, skyrocketing rents and the aggressive construction of high rises and shopping centers threaten what little is left of Williamsburg’s Caribbean community. Toñita and her club are the anchor that hold it down—but it is clear that it won’t be that way forever.

Equally, in Turkey, the same cultural pressures that threaten Toñita’s “happen to neighborhoods, especially in Istanbul,” says Boyacioglu.

After a June 7 screening of Toñita’s in Istanbul at Documentarist 2014, Boyacioglu spoke to friends after the viewing: “They said, ‘We wish people made more films like this here, because it’s happening to so many neighborhoods in Istanbul.’ And, I think it’s happening even worse there.”

Urban renewal has ushered in a new era of arts activism and civil society movements in Istanbul. Squatting communities, where social activism meets public art space, are on the rise. Youth gather to occupy spaces declared untenable and no longer useful, slated for tearing down to make space for new structures. “They have screenings . . . They are building a community. I don’t know any other place like [them],” said Boyacioglu of one such community.

In Istanbul, the important conversations in the arts take into account the site of works with equal—if not greater—importance as that of the art itself. This is mainly due to the fact that these sites exist under imminent threat, as relics of history routinely obliterated, to be replaced by something new.

Boyacioglu lists some of the cultural landmarks that have recently been demolished or closed down: “Emek movie theater, a really old, beautiful, historic building—they tore it down to build a shopping mall. There’s another one [in Taksim] that they tore down, same story.”

She explains that there was another theater in the same area that also faced closure: “An organization, Architecture for All . . . started a social media campaign [to save the theater] and started a community, and they also renovated inside the movie theater . . . and I think they raised money to get digital projection. So that movie theater survived.”

Collectives such as Architecture for All (Herkes İçin Mimarlık) have been gathering momentum over the past few years, cultivating a growing cultural movement in resistance to Turkey’s ongoing urban renewal projects.

Online initiatives in English and Turkish, What’s happening in Taksim? and #occupygezi architecture, have since focused on repurposing urban landscapes in a different way—one that gives value to existing spaces and structures.

As for Boyacioglu, she hopes to try her craft in Istanbul one day, but not just yet:

“I wanted to design a place [to focus] specifically on Istanbul. The time is right—right now people really want to create communities.

“I had the idea of starting a documentary [film] center in Turkey,” she said, initially inspired by last year’s Gezi protests. “[It] created a very dynamic youth movement. Now, people are very active, in Istanbul especially. I’ve never seen anything like that [there] . . . Everyone wants to do something.”

Boyacioglu is aware that creating public art—and obtaining the space in which to do so—will face its share of challenges in Istanbul.

The next Istanbul Biennial, to be held in the fall of 2015, could be a telling gauge of how far Istanbul’s artistic activism has come. For now, the struggle between civil society and state continues.

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