Fresh Produce

Left: Artist Suna Kafadar, Produce director and curator Zeynep Öz, and Fol Cinema Society's Burak Çevik. Right: Ricardo Cástro (left) and Daisy Lambert (right). (All photos: Wendy Vogel)

EQUIPPED WITH NEW BALANCES (sneakers-as-fashion were made for Istanbul) and an iPhone with international data, I landed at the opening of Produce, the third SPOT Production Fund biennial, late last month, just a few hours after touching down at Atatürk airport. Even though I had visited the city before, I remained in need of cultural decoding, and not just the headset I donned for simultaneous translation during the mostly Turkish-language program.

Directed by SPOT cofounder Zeynep Öz, a former assistant curator of Ashkal Alwan’s Home Works festival in Beirut, Produce replicates the Home Works model on a smaller scale. (In Turkish, the festival is named Domates Biber Patlican, literally “tomatoes, peppers, eggplant,” the region’s signature vegetables and the title of a famous 1980s pop tune.) The event comprises commissioned works, exhibitions, films, talks, and performances that address issues in the area. This year’s theme, “The Game Settled into a Cagey Midfield Match,” took football as a metaphor for the political climate in Turkey and its neighboring countries. It also served as a cheeky reference to conservative president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s past as a semiprofessional soccer player.

The Beirut influence was clear throughout. “It’s a small city with a big presence,” said participating artists Roy Dib and Ahmad Ghossein, both based in the Lebanese capital. Istanbul, by contrast, is a large city with a tightly concentrated art scene, with most art events drawing a crowd of only a few dozen people. Produce devoted much of its program to lecture-performances interweaving history, personal anecdote, and a kind of magical realism, a genre codified by artists like Lebanese-born Walid Raad and Rabih Mroué. Ghossein and fellow Beiruti artist Haig Aivazian were two such lecture-performers presenting existing work at Produce. The roster also included Turkish participants such as Ali Taptik and Suna Kafadar; the former’s explored the transformation of his neighborhood of Osmanbey from a bourgeois quarter to a textile district, while family history, symbolism, and feminist theory formed the roots of Kafadar’s talk about lettuce.

Left: Artist Isil Egrikavuk, curator and YAMA director Övül Durmusoglu, and artist Roy Dib. Right: Onur Karaoglu's performance Mark Raso.

As with Home Works, exhibitions form the backdrop to a week’s worth of discursive programming around the city. Three small group shows were installed along the main drag of Istiklal Caddesi, also the site of a suicide bombing just the month prior. Small presentations of previously exhibited “reference films” (by Turkish artist Inci Eviner and Greek artist Maria Papadimitriou) and guest-curated projects (by the Istanbul Biennial’s Özkan Canguven and Aichi Triennial’s Daniela Castro) complemented the commission program. Seven works produced by SPOT for the festival were installed on two residential floors tucked in the back of El Hamra Han, a covered arcade with stalls of cheap merchandise. The blink-and-you’ll-miss-it facade of the early-twentieth-century building almost disappeared among the glittery shops of Istiklal and Taksim Square, whose gentrification catalyzed the Gezi Park protests of 2013.

The commissioned artists were young, and so was the crowd on opening night, as twenty- and thirtysomethings packed into the three shows. The art in El Hamra Han touched on the unmistakable role of history and artist-run spaces, represented here by torna, a project space headed by Merve Kaptan in Kadiköy across the Bosphorus. Other works considered the simmering issue of gender inequality, like Çiçek Kahraman’s Dara Birnbaum–esque, GIF-like montage of homoerotic Turkish fighting scenes from ’70s films and Sena Başöz’s series of “Nurse” performances. The vernissage ended with a packed performance of Brazilian artist Ricardo Càstro’s cathartic, glitter-speckled Cards on the Table, where participants “danced like fire” and hurled glass vials of paint at a wall.

At an afterparty at COOP, several people asked me how the US media had covered the recent bombings in Turkey. They were rightly critical of my home country’s gloss on the Middle East. To be fair, though, misinformation goes both ways. A bearded designer told me it would be “so funny” if Trump were elected, “Until he bombs us, that is. But Bernie Sanders is winning anyway, right?” Sadly, not quite. Upstairs, the crowd danced to American hits from ’60s soul through Prince’s “I Wanna Be Your Lover.” Thoroughly jet-lagged, I returned to my hotel at Taksim Square after back-to-back Brooklyn bangers by Ol’ Dirty Bastard and Biggie Smalls. Finally connecting to stable Wi-Fi, I realized that Prince had died and I didn’t know. Maybe it was because everyone was speaking Turkish. Or, more likely, the death of an American musical icon didn’t register with the same shock in a country faced with the possibility of war.

Left: Produce's Film and Production coordinator Elif Uluca and Blitz Theater Group's Giorgos Valais. Right: Saturday Mothers protest.

The political polarization was impossible to overlook, even during a week of relative calm. On Saturday morning I set off for SALT Galata, the sole venue in Istanbul these days of the multipronged art and research organization directed by Vasif Kortun. My heart thudded as I encountered star-and-crescent flags unfurled from business windows and police in riot gear along Istiklal across from Galatasary Lisesi, just blocks from the March 19 bombing. I had stumbled upon a protest organized by Saturday Mothers, a group who have met weekly since May 1995 to mourn the loss of nearly eight hundred “disappeared” people from the Kurdish region. This week’s protest also coincided with National Sovereignty and Children’s Day, a day that leftists want to abolish and conservative parties want to continue celebrating.

Övül O. Durmusoglu, a curator based between Berlin and Istanbul, explained that Children’s Day was viewed as particularly distasteful this year, given the child sexual abuse carried out in apartments rented by the Ensar Foundation, an NGO backed by Erdoğan’s AKP party. Over drinks on the roof of Grand Hotel de Londres, a lovably shabby-chic hotel that seems not to have renovated its decor since its opening in 1892, Durmusoglu pointed out Isil Egrikavuk’s thirty-second video projected at the top of Marmara Pera Hotel several hundred feet away. Produced by Durmusoglu’s organization YAMA, Egrikavuk’s video flashes text roughly translated as the tongue-in-cheek directive “Eve, finish your apple!” followed by an animation of a woman becoming the fruit. Three days after the opening, the video was removed by officers from the Beyoglu Municipality.

“The woman question,” as well as religion’s role in policing gender and sexual norms, was raised repeatedly over the weekend. A straightforward lecture by Zeynep Oktay explained the discipline of religious studies—outlawed in Turkey, to the surprise of many audience members. A sports-themed commissioned dance-theater performance by Onur Karaoğlu narrated a homosexual encounter between an American and Turkish man in the ’70s that ended in violence (yet was cast, strangely, with a man and a woman).

Left: Artist Yuki Okumura, art historian T'ai Smith, and artist Sena Basöz. Right: torna cofounder Merve Kaptan and artist Charlie Coffey.

The week’s headliner was Athens-based Blitz Theatre Group’s Late Night (2012), presented in Istanbul for the first time. The ninety-minute work about the universal trauma of war is punctuated by statements about love and loss in wartime, stripped bare of political details: “In those days, as soon as we would hear the planes roar, we would go out and dance.” Vancouver-based art historian T’ai Smith, who delivered a brilliant lecture on Duchamp’s work in relationship to turn-of-the-century “fashion capitalism,” argued afterward about the company’s brilliant use of irony. Yet it was clear that the conceptual theater makers aimed for an emotional resonance beyond Brechtian tactics. At a late post-performance dinner over plenty of raki— the Turkish version of ouzo—cofounder Yorgos Valais pontificated on the nature of love, otherness, and the evils of Tinder. Yet he was quick to admit he was “never a hippie.” At a closed workshop later in the week on the subject of a fictional “Institute of Global Solitude,” Blitz’s Christos Passalis explained, “We are not interested in theory as performance. We are interested in cultivating intuition and atmosphere.”

My final night in Istanbul was capped off by Netherlands-based Yuki Okumura’s performance tying together the themes of translation and ghostly, enduring presence. In an under-construction hotel adjacent to a new upscale restaurant called Colonie, a short walk from the Istanbul Modern, Okumura staged a lecture he wrote about the legacy of On Kawara. The talk considered Kawara’s conceptual oscillation between absence and presence. Substituting both Okumura and Kawara’s bodies were seven native Turkish speakers delivering live translations of Okumura’s English text that they listened to on headphones. The interpreters—a mix of professional translators and amateurs—seemed in a trance, eyes closed as they concentrated on the text they were hearing for the first time. “I really felt the presence of the artist,” said Sena Basöz. Okumura, for his part, sat alone at Colonie during the performance. Afterward, he greeted us anxiously and asked, “So, how many people showed up?”

Left: Sena Basöz performing in Yuki Okumura's On Kawara's Pure Consciousness, or Many Worlds (and) Interpretation—And Then, Silence Arrives. Right: Ricardo Cástro (right) and a participant in his performance Cards on the Table.