Living with the Private Sector

Some notes on "Péra" in Istanbul by Vasif Kortun

Most of Istanbul's institutions dealing with art and culture have been located on and around the Avenue between Taksim and Tünel. The Avenue's original name was Grande Rue de Péra, and changed to "Avenue of Independence" after the establishment of the Republic of Turkey. The nostalgia for Pera of the late 19th Century held its way for decades with pretty much the same nuances. A mere phantom of the mercantile culture of the late 19th Century colonizing Istanbul, Péra, despite its ever decreasing non-muslim populations, with its architectural and spatial residue, was a place where "Europeanness" could be experienced. Since the pedestrionization of the Avenue at the end of the 1980s, "Péra Nostalgia" has increasingly become a tool in the service of high-end business.

Neither the turning over of the Aksanat's street level gallery to an electronic store nor the closing of the Borusan Gallery in 2006 came as a surprise. Both were not-for-profit contemporary art outlets of big companies, and the public sphere need not have been consulted. While their public were in fury, I would rather look at the context of the closures part of the process of the transformation of the Avenue.

The re-facading of some of the buildings on the Avenue – initially, through the usage of glass and aluminum a la 80’s and then through a second re-dressing in generic "historical" styles were the initial forays of theme-parking the place. The Aksanat Building bears witness to this as well as Beyoglu Business Center. All but a memory of the mittel-europa elegance, a fiction from poems and nostalgia literature, The Markiz Patisserie that had been closed for some 25 years opened anew in 2004 with pomp and romp plus a mini-mall of high end life style shops in the back. This “shop-window Pera-izm” uses historical styles and nostalgia as a tool to sublimate the pathetic desire to acquire class not only at Péra but also in the so-called restoration programs at the historical peninsula. This is most evident in the Süleymaniye area where an invented “high Ottoman” architectural style is applied to the surface of concrete buildings. The same style necessitates that the poor, undesirable communities are kicked out and replaced by those who "deserve" and appreciate“Hauttomania.” Capital and agencies of the city government have donned their velvet gloves and are busy arranging the city ready for the big sale. The city’s master plan provides full service to the private sector and its business interests.

A barrier runs between the two sides of Tarlabasi Avenue. The barrier came when the mayor of Istanbul sent the bulldozers through to wedge open a small street into a large avenue connecting the Taksim center to the old city. The avenue severed a community in two. To one side stood the prospering, detrafficked Pera, and to the other the ever-debilitating, unsustainable Tarlabasi with its poor Kurdish, Nigerian immigrant communities, bachelor dorms, Romans and the like. 15 years of “forced” under-development, is now replaced by a rehabilitation program to displace the undesirables by violent gentrification with new business and residency.

I claimed two years ago that those art centers endorsed as public spaces —even though they may have been privately supported— will be ushered out of Avenue [Péra zone] and replaced by glittery commercial galleries and show-room-like cultural centers. However, the real-estate values have increased in such a way that the area seems now to be undergoing massive sanitization, thereby eliminating the possibility of cultural centers altogether. One by one, the area's, seedy casinos, brothel/night-clubs are being re-located to another non-muslim district– namely the Pangalti/Kurtulus area, while a clean and chic entertainment industry of valet parking and gate keepers replaces them.

"Péra" is becoming a massive shopping-mall, a “zero-friction” zone, and we can safely assume that, while economic value skyrockets, the side streets will also adopt to high-end as the clientele changes. No more shall we see young girls pulling up their skirts a couple of centimeters while entering "Péra." The punks, heavy metal boys, goth girls, junkies and runaway school kids, anyone who comes here to do or wear what they can not do or wear in their own neighborhoods will shy away. From the transvestites, to the Istanbul Bar Association, from the Maoists and PKK, the freedom of speech that the Avenue was so associated with is now being handed over to the megaphones of the flagship companies of the multi-national brands. Protests and marches are getting scarcer.. It has been three years since the “Saturday Mothers” have gone.

"Péra" has been a much more extreme public space than Bakirköy, Kadiköy and Besiktas centers. It has been the hang-out of the undesirables of difference. No where else on earth can one encounter as intense and concentrated scale of cultural institutions and economic diversification on a detrafficked street. It was a place where economies were radically diversified. Yet, each day a draper, or a photographic studio, or a jobbing tailor, or a funeral undertaker, or a small printing house leave as shopping centers or department stores of multi-national brands settle in. This also transforms the profile of the frequenters of the Avenue. Parallel to this change, a radical transformation has come about with regards to the function of the existing extroverted art institutes whose clientele are not professionals. Few art institutes in the world enjoy working with a mixed-profile audience the make of which is not a bourgeois public. Yet this was the very potential the Avenue offered.

For myself, running Platform Garanti, a street level institution, it was critical to have the guard in plain clothes, eliminate CC surveillance and security gates. Since the audience came from all walks of life, unsuspecting of the discourses of contemporary art, we did our best to eliminate the tension between the inside and outside. After 5 years of attendance levels at approximately 100,000 visitors a year, we will move as well to program to a fragmented public as our core audience if we are not self-conscious about it. The move a larger space does not arrive from internal logic or necessity of the institution but from the overall corporatisation of the cultural sector in Istanbul.

Looking at things from another angle, one could say that social engineering has perhaps never been as successful in utilizing the single national denominator of the banality of populism presented as democracy. We can now choose the style of our next city-transport-boats via the internet, and enjoy a Picasso or another brand artist at the museums! Art and culture has invaded huge sponosored bill-boards. The customers are corporate. The public is substituted by its phantom representation on the screen and the billboards. The historical peninsula, turning into a theme-park in an ever-increasing speed, is now connected to Péra for the avenue's entertainment and shopping potential.

From the galleries of the 1980s; the cultural centers of the 1990s; to the museums of the 2000s, the private sector has reinvented itself increasingly as a mass-mediatized institution self-selecting its audience. Should the public sector not step in, and these institutions do not interface with potential audiences, the corporatisation of the cultural sector will be complete.