UNIT TRIP: Ottoman Phantoms Review

by Stefan Jovanovic, AA 3rd Year
Intermediate Unit 12

25 November 2013
Istanbul, Turkey

 

At the beginning of Çukurcuma Caddesi, stands a red house, covered with a large banner that reads The Museum of Innocence. A guard stands just in front of the main door, smoking his cigarette as he eyes you walking past him towards the ticket office. A small windowpane separates you from the cashier, who quickly asks whether you have the book? After taking a second to realise what she is asking for, you take out your copy of The Museum of Innocence, a novel written by Orhan Pamuk, and hand it over through the small opening. She quickly snatches the book, flipping through until she finds what she is looking for. In Chapter 83, on page 713, there’s an image of a ticket, with the words SINGLE ADMISSION ONLY printed below it. She stamps a red butterfly onto the empty circle, returns the book, and wishes you a pleasant experience. A second later the adjacent door suddenly swings open and you are beckoned into the house by the same guard that was standing outside just a minute ago.

 

Entry ticket to the Museum of Innocence

Inaugurated in April 2012, the Museum of Innocence is the physical manifestation of Pamuk’s novel, which carries the same title. Spread across four floors, each chapter is translated into one cabinet of curiosities, reflecting the impulsive romance between the novel’s protagonists and the life of upper class Istanbul of the 1970’s. An entire house curated to depict the life of fictional characters, loosely based on the author’s personal life and home-town, leaves the reader-cum-voyeur quite perplexed as to which part of the experience is actually real, and which is not.

 

Cercle d’Orient (Serkildoryan)

Upon leaving the Museum of Innocence and vagabonding through the side streets of Istiklal Caddesi, the liveliest pedestrian street of the Beyoğlu neighbourhood, you come across a number of abandoned buildings with derelict wooden façades typical of eighteenth and late-nineteenth century Turkish housing. You slowly realise there’s an entire world of hidden fictional characters within; scattered phantom limbs as remnants from the Ottoman Empire.

 

There used to be a series of theatres and cinemas in the arcades of Istiklal, which in the past two decades have gradually been removed from the urban fabric. In the ground where they once stood now lie large empty pits in rust and dirt, awaiting the construction of new shopping centres. The most notorious of these theatres was within an exclusive member’s club, the Cercle D’Orient, which was once frequented by bankers, stockbrokers, pashas and ambassadors. Whilst the magnificent façade remains, covered with its printed doppelgänger elevation, nostalgia reigns in the longing for the Emek Cinema that was once housed behind.

 

Also gone, are the days of Karagöz, the Turkish shadow puppet theatre. Obscure players from a remote past that now only exist in myths or as souvenirs in tourist gift shops. You will also find a number of antique stores along Istiklal, some containing rare books and maps of Anatolia, others vitrines crowded with defunct automata and peculiar objects. And if you venture deeper into the dark alleys you may come across fortune-tellers practicing Kahve Fali, the reading of your coffee cup’s fortune, or a large pink house illegally housing transsexual prostitutes whom you could only glimpse posing out of their windows in the black of night.

 

Karagöz shadowpuppet theatre

In the wake of the recent Gezi protests, the curating team of the Istanbul Art Biennial decided to remove all the performances they had planned to embed into Istanbul’s street life. Instead, disappointed artists such as Tadashi Kawamata had to relocate their installations, performances and art into the institutional warehouses occupied for the duration of the biennial.

Furthermore, to quote the director of the International Performance Art Association (IPA) Burçak Konukman, “We never asked for any permission to use public space from the local authorities. Actually, for me, doing a performance under police surveillance is like killing the nature of performance art itself. And of course, today, there are too many artists using performance art for political activism and intervention.”  Not only have theatrical spaces been destroyed but actors, artists, and performers can no longer even perform in the streets out of fear and frustration that they would be surveilled or prevented from expressing themselves and their work.

 

Inside the Hagia Sofia 

In preparation for 2020, the year when Istanbul would have potentially hosted the next World Expo, I began to speculate on how to reinstate the disappearing culture of theatre and performance. How can the streets of Beyoğlu be transformed into a new form of subversive spectacle, where voyeurs such as Pamuk’s readers will be kidnapped and immersed into a promenade, forcing them to rediscover the phantom past of the city?

 

Typical tea serving at Setüstü Tea Garden

The above description is only one account of Intermediate 12’s journey to the city of the future. Each of us undertook the role of a curator, seeking to design and embed new types of events into Istanbul, collectively working to stage the core of the city’s transformation in seven years time.

 

For more information:

Intermediate 12 Unit Brief

Intermediate Unit 12 Extended Brief

Stefan Jovanovic on Projects Review 2012-13