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Nail houses: notes for a map of Istanbul’s independent arts scene

by Simone Ciglia

We can, perhaps, begin with a picture. It is a picture of a house: a house that is, in truth, quite common, that doesn’t seem to exhibit signs of a particular time or place. However, the house does possess one distinctive trait that makes it memorable to the eyes of its observers: it is raised on a portion of ground equal to it in size, solitary, almost an island in a sea of ​​land, and the area all around it is in the process of being excavated, crossed by bulldozers and trucks.

The image comes to us from a sculpture by Turkish artist Ahmet Öğüt (Diyarbakir, 1981). It is part of a series – Pleasure Places of All Kinds – which draws its subject matter from reality. We have seen similar images in newspapers or perhaps on television, most likely in the sections dedicated to more unusual news items. This image references a phenomenon born in China a few years ago, which has come to be known as nail houses: like nails stubbornly fixed in their places, the owners of these houses oppose the land clearance necessary to facilitate new construction projects by refusing to leave the buildings. So, they remain alone amongst the ruptured land that will one day be home to the building complexes, roads and shopping centres of the future; a true and proper monument to the act of opposition. As the artist points out, “public and private space collide in such an absurd way, and transform themselves into an individual and everyday resistance against the strategies of the state or corporate coercion”1.

We have borrowed the image of the nail house because, to us, it seems an apt poetic metaphor to describe the independent arts scene in Istanbul. Megalopolis of 15 million inhabitants, the city represents the clearest example of the economic boom that has affected Turkey since the beginning of the twentyfirst century; an expansion driven by the construction industry but which has had considerable repercussions in other spheres, including the cultural. A recent survey2 of venues in the city dedicated to visual arts – in both the private and public sectors – revealed striking numbers: a total of 78 museums, 143 contemporary art galleries, 31 cultural and artistic spaces. The increase in these spaces, generalised since 2000, has been overwhelming, particularly in relation to galleries, the number of which has risen from less than forty units to more than one hundred and twenty in the past fifteen years. These figures speak of the massive presence that the private sector has in the cultural field and of a market which, perhaps because of its novelty, appears ever more aggressive and voracious.

If the recent wellbeing of the sector has fuelled the economic turnaround in contemporary art, not all the players in the field support this dominant trend. The expansive cultural offerings of the city are not lacking when it comes to that vast and complex galaxy that we classify as “independent”: spaces or groups that produce their work outside of institutions, and who don’t consider profit as the purpose of their activities; different organisations such as artist-run spaces, residencies, editorial initiatives, non-profits. Such a mode of operating indeed appears to be inscribed into Istanbul’s traditions, which has made informality and self-organisation two of its defining characteristics, as Hou Hanru has explained:

Most of the artists have initiated their work directly in the street or in domestic spaces. Self-organisation has for a long time been the main, if not the only, way for them to make their work realized and visible to the public. In spite of today’s boom of infrastructures and the market in contemporary art, most of them are still more than keen to preserve and continue with this link with a self-organizational approach and, especially, with cultural roots in urban reality3.

Starting mainly from the first Biennale of 1987, Istanbul and Turkey have made their mark on the contemporary art map, gradually increasing their importance. Saying ‘Turkey’ in this context means, above all, Istanbul, because it is in the former imperial capital that the majority of the initiatives are concentrated. Present at the Venice Biennale with its own pavilion in 2003, Turkey has built an established system of art in all its forms, with museums (amongst them, Istanbul Modern), exhibitions, festivals, a network of galleries and spaces promoted by banks (such as SALT, Akbank), holdings (Borusan Sanat) and foundations (Arter, SAHA).

Alongside the “official” system, which is closely tied to economic forces and dominant politics, there has been a proliferation of initiatives of differing natures that have given a voice to certain positions that had previously been excluded. In one of the first studies on the subject – dating back about ten years – the sociologist and art historian Pelin Tan attributed this phenomenon to the combination of a range of factors: “the convergence of new trans-local networks, the effects of events in the international art world and the revival of collaborative artistic practices around the world”4. It is symptomatic of this phenomenon that, since then, the art scene has gained the attention and the support of various institutions. A recent example of this the SAHA Foundation’s creation of a Grant for the Sustainability of Independent Art Initiatives 2015–2016. Different organisations – including those located outside of the city – form part of this fund, all of which share the label of “independent”5.

The list of the fund’s beneficiaries features a project which is pioneering within Istanbul’s art scene: Apartman Projesi (Apartment Project) was, in fact, one of the first artist-run spaces. Opened in the Tünel neighbourhood in 1999 as an initiative of Selda Asal, it aimed to provide an interdisciplinary collaboration and exhibition space. Exhibitions (with a particular focus on audiovisual materials), happenings, and performances took place in this space, measuring 24 square metres, until 2007. Apartment Project then started a second life in Berlin, where it moved in 2012, and where it still continues its work today.

The publishing industry is another sector in which independent initiatives are evident6. In this field, SAHA’s funding was awarded to BAS, a space born in 2006 as an initiative of Banu Cennetoğlu and which is dedicated to the collection, exposition and production of artists’ books. Even Turkey has participated in the fresh momentum in this field, which has been generated by the Internet, one of the preferred mediums for independent action thanks to the ease and rapidity with which things can be created and shared. Amongst the most active organisations in this field is m-est, an online publication founded in 2011 and “conceived as an initiative centred on artists”7: on its virtual pages features on artists alternate with features by artists.

Even if Istanbul is the primary catalyst for the majority of the energy in the field of contemporary art, the SAHA programme doesn’t neglect the rest of the country. In the capital Ankara, Torun, an exhibition space that admits it is “far removed from the relationships of contemporary art”, has been operational since 2012. In the first two years of its existence, its structure was based on volunteer work, thus organising a market for self-financing. Videoist, on the other hand, moved to Mardin in 2014. Videoist is an organisation dedicated to video art, created nine years ago through the efforts of two artists8. Its aim is to provide support for creators that express themselves through video art.

Institutional support tries to offer a solution to that which is most likely the most urgent question for all players within the independent arts scene – financial sustainability. In fact, extreme volatility seems to be a unifying characteristic here. PiST///Interdisciplinary Project Space, a non-profit space that gained widespread international visibility following its establishment in 2006, interrupted its activities some years ago. Considered an art project by its founders Didem Ozbek and Osman Bozkurt, it offered a rich calendar featuring meetings, workshops, lectures, listening sessions and screenings, as well as a programme of residencies for international artists (PIRPIR). “Conflicts between public and private space, identity, urban issues and power relationships in the market and in the arts scene”, were its declared interests. Nomad, on the other hand, was interested in digital art. Born in 2002, it became an association after four years, before its eventual demise.

The list of spaces who have stopped operating in the last few years is depressingly long: 6 Aylik, Bir Dukkan, CUMA Contemporary Utopia Management, Daralan, Loft, TOZ. The story of Oda Projesi, an artists’ collective, is a significant one. For five years – from 2000 to 2005 – it ran an independent space in Galata, which was shut down by the process of gentrification that is affecting many parts of the city. Since then, the group has continued their activities in a nomadic fashion, making use of various forms of media: radio, books, newspapers, meetings, etc. Also Caravansarai Art Space, a project born in 2010 as a joint initiative of Julie Upmeyer and Anne Weshinskey, has abandoned its ties to a physical location and instead assumed a fluid state. Under the slogans of collaboration, experimentation, residency and exchange, their space in Karaköy has hosted more than forty artists over the years.

Some organisations, on the other hand, have managed to come back to life after closing down. This was the case for MARS, an artist run space linked to Pınar Öğrenci, whose interest shifted from architecture to art after its foundation in 2000. Other spaces have also changed their focus in line with the demands of the market: Outlet, which combined commercial and non-profit activities, gave rise to the Pilot gallery; a similar example is Sanatorium which, after starting in 2009 as the initiative of eight artists, became a gallery after two years. Proje4L, on the other hand, transformed itself into a private museum (Elgiz).

In this continuously and rapidly changing landscape, there are nonetheless some organisations that manage to stand the test of time. A significant chunk of these can be classified under the heading Artist-run spaces. For almost 10 years – it was in fact founded in 2007 by Nancy Atakan and Volkan Aslan – 5533 has been a multi-purpose place for research, exhibitions and discussions about art. In fact, the gallery is supported by a library, an archive and a meeting space. Following a tradition of collaboration, since last year the space has hosted Proto5533, an annual programme of exhibitions realised in conjunction with another of the most active independent bodies of recent years, Protocinema. Protocinema, which was started in 2011 by Mari Spirito and is based in two physical locations – Istanbul and New York – is distinguished by its itinerant character, realising projects around the world. Another initiative based in New York is collectorspace; it is cast in a different mold, that of the art of collecting, but it falls under the same banner of ‘non-profit’. In 2011, collectorspace opened a small space near Taksim Square in Istanbul, in which it shows private collections to the general public.

Generally speaking, independent spaces tend to vary their offerings, often intertwining different disciplines. Established in 2011 by İpek Çankaya and Sezgi Abalı Attal, with support from Ayşe Kâya, Halka art Project is a place with many identities: residency, gallery, studio, but also meeting place. It proudly proclaims itself non-profit and free of sponsorship – both institutional and corporate. Its membership of the Res Artis networks gives it an international feel. DEPO’s programme is also varied, made up of exhibitions, screenings, lectures, conferences, workshops and meetings. The initiative has a precise geographical focus: the Caucasus, the Middle East and the Balkans are the areas it has identified for dialogue with Turkey. Interest in social issues, which often translates into forms of activism, is another of the principal motives behind independent action. This is a focus for Pasaj, an initiative that produces participative projects. Pasaj is run by two artists, two cultural operators and a curator.


1 http://www.ahmetogut.com/ahmetwebPleasurePlaces.html

2 Research by the Architecture Department of the University of Istanbul, coordinated by Professor Moira Valeri and with the assistance of Çağlayan Ince and Elif Yurdaçaliş. See: Istanbul. Passion, joy, fury, catalogue of the exhibition curated by Hou Hanru et. al., MAXXI, Roma, Quodlibet, Macerata 2015, pp. 46-47.

3 Hou Hanru, Istanbul. Passion, joy, fury, in ibid., p. 16.

4 Pelin Tan, Self initiated collectivity, artist run spaces and artists’ collectives in Istanbul, in User’s Manual: Contemporary art in Turkey 1986-2006, art-ist and Revolver 2007 (available online: http://www.academia.edu/202522/Artist_run_spaces_and_collective_in_Istanbul).

5 http://www.saha.org.tr/en/projects/project/grant-for-the-sustainability-of-independent-art-initiatives-2015-2016.

6 The independent publishing sector is at the centre of Ali Taptik’s contribution, Are we too comfortable on our islands? Do we need larger ships? published in this magazine.

7 Merve Ünsal is the principal author, in collaboration with the managing editor Özge Ersoy, and artists.

8 Hülya Özdemir and Ferhat Satıcı.