An Interim Report: Istanbul Exclusive, 1/2006


As it happens, xurban (sometimes) feels the necessity to outline certain issues that need a retrospective evaluation, the ones that we have long been interested in through various productions. And, as in corporate parlance, to assert that we are in good standing as of the first quarter of 2006, we want to intervene on the trading floor.and quote the stock. Following is an excerpt of an essay that we have produced for the magazine “Gomorra” published in Rome,  in which we have re-evaluated the previous positions that guide us towards a direct engagement.

Illuminated by the writings of Walter Benjamin, the idea of catastrophe for us came to the surface in varied occurrences both in the metropolis and in various sites in the country. Although its physical signs were visible (and recordable) in the environment, the term mainly came to signify a deteriorating social life, a decadence of human relations and of solidarity under the influence of global (pervasive and continuous) war, the new modes of production and consumption that point out the workings of the global market system. The mainstream media is a catalyst, a kind of accelerator in deterioration, corrupting speech, suspending utterances to render political engagement impossible. Everyday encounters can be termed catastrophic, owing to the bio-political arrest of subjectivity, while dereliction of the urban environment is from now on deemed by us to be uniquely emancipatory, facing the influx of global capital.

In the romance of the ruins, the European subject transformed himself into a wanderer, searched for an inner truth and a spiritual/secular origin. For us, however, the ruin comes to signify a modern catastrophe, a doomed vanity of progress, something we again shared with Benjamin. Around us, the extreme exposure of the ruins came into existence both during the 1999 earthquake close to Istanbul and in September 11, both exposed to the degree of obscenity by the media, capitalizing them. We tried to make some sense of these events to develop a reasonable response and came upon a inverted conclusion: The catastrophe of the earthquake was not ‘natural’ at all, exposing greed, corruption and a totally inefficient response of the military-police state, while the collapse of the twin towers seemed utterly natural, given the disposition of global dominance. A passionate/artistic response is most often in conflict with the politically correct, and our grievances focused on the anonymous victim of mechanisms that exclude political participation even in the most imminent life-course of beings. The global all-out war still keeps piling ruins upon ruins, as in Iraq, even when all indications clearly show that the majority of global populations are against it. The clear separation of political power and the will of the people show the extent of bio-political domination.

The Siege
The contemporary urban ruins concentrate on the site of conflict which came to a temporary halt, where a kind of cold war is waged in between different nodes of power. The resurrection of the ruined will become the sign of triumph of the capital, the reason why we tend to glorify their dereliction as opposed to resurrection. In the romance of the contemporary ruin, the artist does not seek to redeem the past, but to preserve the ruined as the true monument of the city, on which a catastrophic existence is inscribed. Meanwhile, every corporate-private takeover of urban property (and public space) can be seen as another catastrophe. (As Karl Polanyi suggests, we know we are doomed by “The Great Transformation” (the original sin) that is, the self regulating market that in turn led to the commodification of the land and nature, together with labor power.)

Whose city is it?

When Saskia Sassen asks the question in reference to various claimants on the global cities around the world, İstanbul barely misses the frame. Or, does it?

A couple of centuries ago, the answer would be simple, at least theoratically. Indeed, together with everything in it including the mineral, the flora and the fauna, the city belonged to the sovereign himself, his highness reigned supreme throughout Ottoman generations, almost uncontested. At the top of his powers, he was called the “Sovereign of the World”, but then of course mostly by his subjects, bowing down their heads to avoid his direct gaze. With a single nod, heads rolled (literally), but then as supreme power always delivers, he was utterly benevolent, maintaining  the schizoid balance to keep ethnic/religious populations of the city at bay. Or was it just what everyone imagined to be? Whatever is left behind as the index of the mighty is now the tourist’s attraction, a palace here, a mosque there as the busloads crawl through narrow streets. That is one city, devoured  by global tourism. It is as hollow a shell as a themepark, its own hyperreal simulation, claimed either by the delusional resident-Muslim, by the posessed poet with conviction, or by the equally disillusioned tourist. The enchantment is long gone, or better, it was perhaps never there to begin with. The suspense that supplied the food for the spiritual gave way to indifference, the equivalence of the sights to see around the globe. When memory is completely drawn out of the resident and the tourist, space becomes the stage for one more spectacle to be consumed.

Today, as global capital sees the city as the organizational commodity, the other İstanbul is going through a massive change. In concentric circles, starting from the inner city, gentrification is underway, totally uncontested.  The politics of exclusion does not need the brute force and coersion to keep masses in the metropolis contained in their own dereliction and misery. The masses have already been sedated by the sheer appearance of wealth, something they already know that they can never attain. This is the de-personification of the sovereign with unlimited power, a fate İstanbul shares with other global nodes around the globe. The real violence resides in the fact that power is unleashed through consent, with the best of intentions making the cultured and educated an accomplice along its way in the name of a common good. The techno-elite is only too happy to contribute creative means to the politics of exclusion. History contests to every instance of such a collaboration, and in most cases, the elites are even more ruthless than the real sovereign. 
In some cases, whatever is initiated for the benefit of the majority in terms of jobs and opportunities eventually turns against their very livelihood, against the earth and the life, defying law, court orders and massive protests of the inhabitants. Yet in other terms,  the most ‘ecologically friendly’ industry, (global tourism) is set to reign free and unchecked to a degree to lead to the extreme barbarisms of the tourist and the locals, pillaging of the land and the sea. More, the integrated complex of advertising, corporate media, and sports (football) as the spectacle of the lynching mob, are packaged and manipulated together to turn everyone into an accomplice in this transparent violence.

There had been more to this country’s documented atrocities in the past: Military coups and their bloody aftermath, detentions, torture and executions, burnt villages in the Southeast, forced migrations and ‘unresolved’ assassinations as the manifest violence inflicted in the name of  the Nation. Moreover,  mafioso organisations and massive corruption indicated a violent robbery of the wealth of the people. And all this under the auspices of some ‘authority’, but more importantly, and sadly, most with a nodding ‘yes’ from tranquillised masses of ordinary fascism.

As it becomes more and more apparent, the ideological outlook of the manifest Turkish-Muslim population of this country is best described as a special blend of anti-communism and nationalism, since the beginning of the republic in 1923. Political Islam is a late-comer into this agglomeration, but nevertheless it is best suited to be pushed into a new agenda of neo-liberal politics. The delicate balance in between keeping the xenophobia alive (through national and islamic sentiments) and quietly aligning the country with the demands of the global market and capital, the political power in Turkey is among the most opportunistic in the developing world.

The politics of exclusion works in distinct ways

As the prime (public) real estate in istanbul went to the highest bidders of multinationals, the city awaits its multi-billion dollar mega-projects to be developed simply to keep out the disadvantaged masses from the premises. In these terms, İstanbul is a divided city. It appears more and more the case that public space  is being privatized, quietly, in discrete ways. The gated communities of İstanbul were the sign of nouveau rich, of the informal economy and the clandestine accumulation of wealth. Now, segregation becomes transparent as exclusive spaces in the heart of the city do not need physical barriers.

As of 2006, three cases stand out in Istanbul as the prime examples of a rape of invaluable public assets, among a host of many others. One involves the so called Galataport, a more than a kilometer long seafront development on the most valuable public property that formerly housed the facilities for the passenger marine-port of the city. Planned is again the port for cruise liners, and, as it happens, a number of five star hotels and shopping malls that are “free for public access”. Unlike the similar “wharfs” and seafront developments in Europe and in the U.S.,  one should be dumb not to realise that simply the pricing policy will keep a vast majority of the city dwellers outside the premises, in a country with a per-capita income that oscillates in between 3 to 5 thousand USD per year.  The highest bidder turned out to be an Israel-based corporation (Ofer) and granted all income in a 49 year agreement. And interestingly, the very first museum of modern art of Istanbul (Istanbul Modern) is already established inside the lot, as to indicate the exclusive quality of production of culture. Another mega-rape is right across the Bosphorus on the Asian side, this time the existing freighter port and the train station of Haydarpasa (a seafront property more than a million square meters) again to be turned into luxury hotels and residential complexes. And the third, aptly called Dubai Towers, are to be twin towers of some Guinnessian magnitude in the new financial-corporate district of Levent, in a city that expects also a Guinnessian magnitude earthquake within the next 30 years or so. (The book of records has a special place in the Turkish psyche, as the bruised pride of a nation is frequently rectified through the most absurd of achievements.)  In none of these cases the residents-citizens have a slightest say, except for farcical-democratic act of voting for the local and central governing bodies.  And in all cases, the techno-elite, including planners, architects and others, produced the necessary obedient body from inside. In addition, the private security (privatization of the policing)  in quantitative terms (number of personnel) in Turkey now exceeds that of state police force, as the fierce (and violent) defence of private property is the number one priority. More and more the private security is empowered with  elsewhere unheard of rights, including the right to shoot (to kill).

Picasso in Istanbul

Integrated to the wholesale packaging of the city of Istanbul is a multi-million dollar production of an exhibition titled “Picasso in Istanbul”.  The art-historical Picasso cult aside, this anachronistic showing off of Art (in capitals), in return, coincides smoothly with a renewed interest in Istanbul as the exotic locale. What could have been termed “bon pour l’orient” in colonial times, the purely out of context event is presented as the all-inclusive show of culture, and was able to attract record crowds in shortest time, thanks to the massive advertisement campaign whose budget probably exceeds that of the exhibition itself.  Picasso paintings as the epitome of art is pushed into the system of the spectacle in 2006 in Istanbul, while traces of critical art production try to survive through meager budgets. The best of intentions (of the wealthiest family in Turkey) in this case for the first time makes possible a mass-exposure to original paintings, but then in the most sterile, isolated and conservative manner. Once again, what is best for the benefit of the masses had been decided on, exclusively, with neither space left for a critical reflection, nor a possibility of a comparison.

To conclude

We strategically hope that the possibility of actual resistance against global hegemony is right there, in the streets, in the factories, in the hospitals, in the homes and in the universities waiting to be realized. 

However  we are aware of the fact that today micropolitics is rendered impossible as the liberal and the conservative nodes has total control over the circulating political discourses. This brutal dominance inserted via (mass)mediatic means in which ‘serious debates’ are fluffy enough to fit into a parceled airtime. Political exclusion works with its inclusive strategies: any possible resistance melts down altogether without reaching their boiling points so that they can be presented as an example of (quasi) democracy.

This particular representative democracy is going through its very own crisis as the daily politics demand a reflection of its corruption back on the everyday life. Therefore the decay of the politicians and the repressive state is completed by the participation of the masses. This is dissolution of any salient ethical understanding of the self and the other. In other words, this is a mass mediatic hysterical imitation of macho politicians, tough singers, police directors, soccer players and coaches and retired generals that render the scape.

How is it possible to introduce poetry back into the ways we observe the metropolis? Does İstanbul still have the resonance of the transcendence, as dreamt by Kublai Khan and in turn as invisible  a city Calvino meant it to be? If aura is still a semblance of a distance, the silhouette on the approaching horizon,  is it still possible to step back, or better, embark from the port in order to re-sacralize the space from a distance?

xurban_collective, 2006