Playing It Cool

Kate Sutton at the Istanbul International Arts & Culture Festival

Left: Directors Alphan Eseli and Mark Romanek outside Tophane-i Amire. Right: Artist Robin Rhode with Istanbul International Arts & Culture Festival director Bethanie Brady. (Except where noted, all photos: Kate Sutton)


Apparently, now neither is “cool.” Shortly before its May 25 opening, Istancool amended its name to the less cringeworthy (but also less catchy) Istanbul International Arts & Culture Festival. Now in its third year, the weekend-long program is the brainchild of the city’s cultural power couple Demet Müftüoglu Eseli and film director Alphan Eseli, who together also founded the Istanbul’74 space in the Karaköy arts district. Previous guests have run the gamut from Sir V. S. Naipaul to Tilda Swinton, Zaha Hadid to Courtney Love. This year, the diverse roster featured such incongruous figures as Turkish-Italian filmmaker Ferzan Özpetek and Carine Roitfeld, architect Emre Arolat and artist Aaron Young.

The name change was supposed to put the emphasis on Culture with a capital C. It certainly was celebrating a culture, which was evident the moment we reached the festival headquarters at the Edition hotel, where we were greeted by personal concierges, on hand to arrange everything from private jets to a post-hammam cooldown in the hotel’s “snow cabin,” a powdery wonderland(/walk-in freezer) five floors underground.

The more luxuriant aspects aside, the festival formerly known as Istancool was all business by day, with a back-to-back conversations program that left little time to run off to the bazaar. Friday night, the festival launched with an opening for Robin Rhode at Istanbul’74, the upstairs space that was the site of Tracey Emin’s one-night-stand exhibition during last year’s Istanbul Biennial. Rhode’s five videos were witty and well crafted, many featuring a protagonist interacting with chalk drawings manually “animated” on city walls. The artist attributed the idea to his school days. “One of the big hazing rituals was making the younger boys go into the bathroom and kneel before the wall, and then the older kids would draw something and make the younger ones do whatever they said to that drawing. Having been both victim and perpetrator, I figured this is the language I should use.”

Left: Carine Roitfeld. Right: Aaron Young at the Visionaire Larger than Life gala dinner.

In the front hallway, Rhode’s Open Court loops one-minute footage of the artist pelting a Richard Serra piece with snowballs. Serra got a return serve of his own, via his nephew Shelter, whose Fake Rolexes were flying off the glass table at the Grey Area pop-up shop in the front of the space. The nonfunctioning timepieces would replace tote bags as the way to pick out festival participants from passersby.

The conversation series kicked off a little after noon the next day. Emceeing the program was the disarmingly lovely actress Pelin Batu, who moonlights as an amateur historian on a live, eight-hour, late-night talk show dedicated to analyzing historical events within the context of contemporary politics. “It used to be that people recognized me from Harem Suaré,” she confessed over a glass of wine later. “Now strangers come up and ask what I think about something that happened in 1798.”

The unspoken emphasis on film would stick throughout the next two days. For the first panel, director Andrew Dominik had just flown in from Cannes (where his most recent film, Killing Them Softly, was up for the Palme d’Or) to share his thoughts on Hitchcock’s Marnie. This was followed by another director, Zoe Cassavetes, who was paired with the vivacious actress Meltem Cumbul (whom someone described as “a Turkish Kardashian,” apparently oblivious to the strange geopolitical echoes of that designation). Purportedly, the topic was the hard-line “Women and Cinema,” but this rapidly devolved into an episode of “Growing Up Zoe.” “People always ask what it must be like to have my mom and dad be who they are,” Cassavetes rhapsodized. “But, seriously, that’s the only reality I ever knew.” The next talk was even more surreal, as Jefferson Hack interviewed Turkish-born, Brooklyn-based artist Pinar Yolaçan about her photographs of mature women wearing animal entrails. “I mean, look at that, that’s just gorgeous!” Hack gushed. “What is that collar even made of?” Yolaçan replied, “Placenta.”

Left: Grey Area's Manish Vora and actress Hande Ataizi. Right: Esma Sultan.

When the last panel had wrapped up, participants headed to the festival’s gala dinner at the stately Esma Sultan Yalisi, a magnificent palace nearly destroyed in a 1975 fire. As Turkish law forbids altering historical buildings, the owners cleverly outfitted the ruins into an unforgettable event space, right on the edge of the Bosphorus. Guests glided up in water taxis, while inside the intrepid few tried to flip the nearly five-by-seven-foot pages of Visionaire’s sixty-first issue, Larger than Life. The publication is officially a Guinness World Record holder—certificate and all—but someone should have informed the DJ. When I walked in, he was blasting Shania Twain’s “That Don’t Impress Me Much.”

Upstairs, the elaborate dinner was spread across three long tables, at first sparsely populated, despite starting nearly two hours after the announced time. “It’s Istanbul,” actress Hande Ataizi shrugged, with a smile that almost succeeded in prying eyes away from her plunging neckline. “If you tell people to come at 8 PM, they’ll arrive at midnight.” Things eventually got going, spurred into action by a performance from the cartoonishly rakish violinist Charlie Siem. Afterward, guests stumbled downstairs to discover the giant magazine replaced by what must have held the Guinness record for room most packed with gold balloons and terrible cocktails. In other words, the Boom Boom Room’s pop-up party. The music had thankfully progressed since earlier in the night, fostering a sort of mass euphoria as Kyle Hardin DeWoody, Manish Vora, and Stacy Engman took turns on the dance floor. The festivities went on until 4 AM, but those who didn’t try their luck at the neighboring nightlife legend Reina ended up shutting down, reopening, then shutting down the hotel bar back at the Edition.

Left: Artist Nate Lowman. Right: Kyle Hardin DeWoody poses for Adrian Dannatt outside Vakko Headquarters.

Sunday morning, first-timers learned why raki isn’t an early AM kind of drink, but graciously the conversation program was scheduled later in the afternoon. This time talks took place in the Tophane-i Amire, a fifteenth-century armory building in Beyoğlu whose main hall has been retrofitted with thick transparent plastic over a deep, red-lit well, suggestive of the mouth of hell. The more centrally located site encouraged dashes down to the Istanbul Modern or side trips to SALT, which was hosting a symposium of its own, titled “Treasure Chests or Tools: Some Histories and Speculations About Art Collection.”

The biggest draw of the day was the genial conversation between Batu and beloved filmmaker Özpetek, whose quick wit and obviously warm relationships with his actors (Batu included) immediately won over the handful of audience members who weren’t previously familiar with his work (which includes Hamam, Harem Suaré, and The Ignorant Fairies). After hearing multiple film and video makers—from Dominik and Cassavetes to Mark Romanek, Chiara Clemente, and even Young—lament the moral cost of the movie industry, it was refreshing to hear someone ruminate on just how much he enjoys his craft. “You need to fall in love with whatever you do,” he urged the audience, before indulging an extra hour of lively stories. Finishing to wild applause, the director snuck in one last plea, urging the festival to incorporate more of the local scene into the program (which, as festival director Bethanie Brady assured me, is already in the works for next year). “Why fly around the world to go to a party from New York?”

Left: A boat ride down the Bosphorus. Right: Istanbul International Arts & Culture Festival founders Demet Müftüoglu Eseli and Alphan Eseli. (Photos: Billy Farrell/BFA)