A long time ago, in the wee early years of Bitchslap, Peter Stanners–Copenhagen’s own Ben Affleck–went to Istanbul and wrote about it for our magazine. Given that he’s currently the bespectacled boss of The Murmur, he could probably use a nostalgic little pat on the back right about now (and really, couldn’t we all given the recent state of world affairs?) Here’s a look back in time to Bitchslap Issue No. 7, when we were all filled with higher hopes–or at least slightly less disillusioned–than we are today.
ISTANBUL WITH THE TRIANGLE PROJECT
Words and photos by Peter Stanners
We landed in Istanbul at sunrise. The air was dry and warm and the day looked set to be a scorcher; such a far cry from the pre-autumnal drizzle that we’d left behind in Copenhagen. We were herded through passport control, the Scandinavians breezing through to the baggage terminal. And then there was me. A cursory flick through my British passport: “Visa? No Visa”. What? Huh? But surely I’m European, we’re all Europ… Then it dawns on me. I’m not in Europe anymore.
I get escorted to a little plexiglass office around the corner where I get asked for £20, $20 or €20 for my admittance, which I don’t have, so I get marched through passport control by a sour little woman to a cash machine, then back to the visa man who inspects my notes, fresh from the cash machine, against the glaring halogen light in his booth. He peels off what looks like a cheap looking postage stamp, sticks it into my passport and waves me away. I deliver my newly validated passport to the young looking immigration official who examines it and eyes me knowingly. “English? Speak English well, yes?” he asks. “Yes, yes of course I do.” He places my passport on his desk and starts scribbling words on a small piece of paper. He presents them to me. “Dungeon? What is this?” Sorry? Hold on, wait a minute, is this some sort of intimidation, some initiation ritual? “A dungeon? It’s like a prison, except underground, and dark.” I gesture what I hope in sign language might represent a dungeon before ploughing through “morsel” and “desolate”. He then smiles and hands me back my passport. “Thanks you”, he says. “Welcome to Istanbul”.
Istanbul lies on the Bosporus, a channel of water much narrower than the Øresund that links the Black Sea with the Sea of Marmara and ultimately the Mediterranean. This channel bisects a narrow strip of land, about 30km wide, which makes it easily controllable; important, since it is the most direct link from Europe to Asia. Much is made of Istanbul’s unique position, of it holding the prestigious honour of being the only city in the world to straddle two continents. A city has existed on the site since 660BC and in the ensuing two-and-a-half millennia has been the capital of the Roman, Byzantine, Latin and Ottoman Empires. General Atatürk spoiled the fun in 1930 when, as part of his radical wave of reforms aimed at secularising the defunct Ottoman Empire, crowned Ankara the capital of the new Turkish state and renamed Byzantium “Istanbul”.
We had to negotiate a small fleet of taxis to ferry us into Istanbul, despite the promise of a designated “Triangle Bus” that should have picked us up. I pack myself into a taxi, that unsurprisingly provided us with no seatbelts, with three Danish strangers and off we hurtle down the motorway towards Istanbul. The sun is well-risen, the day truly started, the blanket of humid heat gently offset by the air roaring through the open window which offers views of miles and miles of concrete housing estates and industrial complexes set in an arid wasteland. I sip Søren’s whiskey and begin slipping further into that semi-lucid state of beginning a new day without having ended the last, when suddenly the landscape drops away and we’re confronted by a blue, shimmering panorama. The Bosphorus twinkles below and Europe beckons ahead and I try as hard as I can to appreciate the moment of crossing from one continent to another in a taxi with total strangers, headed into the depths of an unfamiliar city whose historical majesty is globally unparalleled. But the wonderment eluded me, and I just sipped on the whiskey smoking my fifth cigarette of the day with a rising sense of nausea.
Istanbul is the first corner of the Triangle Project with New York and Copenhagen occupying the other two. Jacob Fuglsang created it as a musical and artistic exchange program. Tall, thirty something, with a slight stoop and a bald head, he was the brains behind the whole thing. This is the first stage: bringing Danish artists and musicians to Istanbul. I meet Jacob on the top floor of the Hall, a 130-year-old recently renovated Armenian Church, converted into top-end venue by a canny Brit, Allan. The Hall served as the Triangle Project’s headquarters and primary venue. The control room was on the top floor, a glass table cluttered with laptops and ash trays, drafts of the schedules stuck to walls, two resident mongrel kittens with their soot-black mother and a roof terrace overlooking the densely populated side streets of Beyoğlu, downtown Istanbul. It is only the second time I had ever met him, his big, yellow, wraparound sunglasses and cargo shorts making him look more like an off-duty marine in Operation Desert Storm than trans-Atlantic conceptual artist. His thoughtful eyes and easy manner are inviting though, and we are soon on the terrace talking about how crazy it is to be here while the sun fries my virgin northern-European skin.
Beyoğlu is a district on the east side of the river on the European side of Istanbul. Through it runs İstiklal, one of the longest walking streets in the world with a million visitors a day. Down it runs a red tram, reminding me of the trams I’ve seen in movies of San Francisco, except it doesn’t climb obnoxiously steep hills and is pretty slow. It was apparently built to ferry bankers from where they lived at Taksim Square to the banking district, by the Galata Tower, at other end. It’s a steep walk downhill from here to the river and is probably one of the strangest neighbourhoods I’ve been to. First there were music shops, dozens of them all selling identical merchandise down a few streets. Then there was a similar lighting district, with hundreds of shops all selling the same identical light bulbs. Then the random tubing streets and the second hand furniture stores and the sign making neighbourhood, all in segregated districts, all competing to sell the same products as everyone else. Pretty much the opposite retail model of North America and, increasingly, Europe: where massive super stores sell everything you could possibly ever need under one roof, in one self-contained district.
At first time drifts by uneasily. I suffer without sleep, becoming nervous and unsettled until my body catches up with the hours. By the end of the second day I had begun to feel settled. That night we had dinner on a roof terrace and I ate fresh sea bass to views of the monumental mosques, lit up brightly across the river. Down below the streets were noisy and chaotic, but so much more alive than pre-autumnal Copenhagen, where when people feel the first bitter east wind of the season they retreat indoors to hibernate. Tanja Schlander is with us, a tall skinny redhead who plays upon her uncanny likeness to Pippi Longstocking. I think she was a key organiser with the project, and she talks of her time in Århus at art school before moving to Israel. She gives me knowingly sideways looks as I speak to her about my photography. All the way through I’m reminding myself, “Peter, these aren’t people you can bullshit.” I ended up sounding pretty dull.
The next night was the first real party. Copyflex and Kid Kishore played the most incredible improvised bhangra, electro mashup with samples of the Colonel talking about the Biennale. Åsmund, aka Copyflex, had come to Istanbul to also represent the Colonel and his Biennalist movement. Coinciding with the Triangle Project, the 10th Istanbul Bienniale is a massive international art show with installations all over Istanbul. This year’s theme is “Not only possible, but necessary; optimism in the age of global war.” The Biennalist movement was devised by the colonel to encourage dialogue on this topic; is it real optimism? Why should we be optimistic? Should we be optimistic about global war at art conferences that are sponsored by multinational corporations (Saab, sponsor of the prominent Documenta modern art festival, produces warplanes). We wore white headbands with “Biennalist” written on them in red to encourage lively, optimistic debate on the subject. They looked pretty cool.
I flitted between the Hall and Dirty throughout the night photographing Rosa Lux, Copyflex, Christian Marcus, Kid Kishore and Istanbul’s very own Bang! causing a general raucous with the local crowd. I meet Arim and Hakan who wonder why we’re here. They’re young, early twenties and spoke good English. “You’re from Denmark? I would love to move to Scandinavia” Hakan tells me. I tell him it’s cold and dark for 3⁄4 of the year but he shrugs. “Turkey is not humanist you know?” He says, “it is so hard to get things done. It is not organised.” I ask him why he doesn’t go. It’s difficult, he tells me. It’s hard to get visas to work and visit and even then it’s too expensive to go without having some work. “If Turkey would join the EU it would give us the opportunity to do more.” I ask how many people are like him and Arim–educated English speakers. “Not so many” he says. “Even in Istanbul.”
It’s a sentiment expressed by Cev Edit and the band “Reverie Falls On All” the next day at a Turkish artist talk in the hall. Cev Edit’s opinion of Istanbul and Turkey is not overly optimistic. It’s a draining experience with little international opportunity and exposure. Military service is compulsory for all men except for those in education, which explains their long stays at university. Things aregetting better in Turkey though he says. Specialist Universities were opened in 2000 in Turkey that allows for more opportunity for Turks to study art and music without having to take the more competitive traditional route through academies. This might encourage a new breed of less conventional artists who don’t deal with typical Middle Eastern themes such as war and headscarves, which he himself is trying to stay away from.
I wake up the night after eating a donner kebab and my guts are upset with me. Cramping, diarrhoea and nausea keep me away from the action and close to a toilet. I can’t eat or drink without feeling like wanting to be violently ill. Nick (the one half of Bitchslap) and his girlfriend Mille eventually arrive and we end up chilling on the street outside the hall for the evening. It is rented out tonight for a special wedding party and we sit outside while Silencio, MHM 1 and Rudeless paint on the adjacent wall next door to the transsexual brothel. The brothel and the Hall have inverse opening hours so that the one doesn’t infringe on the business of the other; nobody wants to get caught going to have transsexual sex by their mates on their way to the Hall for a night out. The wedding caterers operate out of a modified lorry with full kitchen facilities in the back. As they pass by they offer us incredible canapés and hour d’oeuvres that we snack on while watching the stream of upper class Turks arrive in cars with blacked out windows. Serdar, our local street gangster who arranged our painting walls in exchange for a small homage to him, guided the traffic and the local men sat on the undersized stools outside the little teahouse watching on. It was a good night.
The next evening I went to hospital. There is only so long that I can manage going to the toilet five times an hour, being afraid of farting and perpetual stomach cramps. Tanja and Sarohan, one of the Hall employees, take a taxi with me to the local Turkish emergency room. People were slumped on the floor bleeding, burned and crying for attention. A foreigner with an upset stomach didn’t impress them. I was diagnosed as having a stomach ulcer, had a shot in my ass and was told to vacate the bed for some guy who’d been stabbed in the arm. I fainted and was brought back in, given oxygen and nitrous gas to wake me up. Sarohan, acting as my translator, was speaking feverishly about the diagnosis with a doctor who casts me unsympathetic glances as he throws his arms in the air and walks out the room. Sarohan’s by my bed– “Pete, do you have insurance? There’s a private German hospital up the road.” We get to the German hospital and in hardly any time I’m upstairs in a private room with a drip in my arm waiting for the blood tests. Sarohan smokes out of the window and talks to me about Turkey. “I would love to be able to leave” he says. “But it doesn’t really look likely.”
Saturday night, I’m fully recovered, thanks to antibiotics that mean I shouldn’t drink. I’m a bit dizzy because I had a few beers anyways and I’m thinking perhaps drinking isn’t the best idea. I’m in the Dogzstar and people are gathered on the main floor waiting for Alberstlund Terror Korps (Kid Kishore and VJ Cancer) to come on stage. Cancer has been preparing his visuals all week, drawing by hand, scanning and colouring in on paint. They come on stage in their green shirts, ties and masks when a chav barges to the front of the crowd, armed with a spray can and with a green stocking over her face. She starts spraying on fabric and ripping it apart, throwing it into the crowd who retract in an uneasy confusion, not knowing if this is part of the act. The music starts up, “Tag din telefon jeg ska’ snak… med dig, tag din telefon jeg ska’ snak snak med dig” and the techno drops when Yanne, dressed as an alien invader, appears hanging over the railings of the upper level. It’s a techno, ghetto-hardcore, alien invasion urban terror experience. Huge green ATK flags manned by Teppop are flying over the packed dance floor in the midst of which the alien and chav are scuffling for supremacy.
People were clearly suffering the day after when we gathered for Åsmund’s artist run up to Taksim square. With our red and white “Biennalist” headbands and posters explaining the Biennalist movement stuck to our bodies, we ran down a packed Istiklal, shouting “optimist!” and laughing and smiling and discussing the motto of this year’s Biennale while people wearily watched the spectacle. A man in a light-blue shirt starts to run with us and I ask him if he’s an “optimist”. “No I am Kurdish,” he says with a smile and runs on.
The final night was hosted by Bitchslap in the Hall. The acts were fantastic: Gry with her haunting, looped electro pop, Michael Mørkholt’s recorder accompanied laptop music, Band Ane with more laptop music and her crazy homemade microphone. In the side room we had a mini exhibition of Silencio’s posters and René’s photographs while in the main room we held a slideshow of photos I had taken so far in Istanbul. After performance artists Kargo had finished their show “Kargology”(“an investigation of information patterns in public space as well as the ways individual people experience the constant flow of information in the city”) Copyflex, ATK and Rosa Lux played to the appreciative crowd.
It’s hard to reduce ten days, the drama and crises, misunderstandings and exhaustion of the project to a few pages. We only had a couple of translators to communicate to the staff with and the constant changes to schedules were a perpetual headache, never really knowing what was going on where and when. I don’t think anyone really appreciated how much hard work it was all going to be and by the time is was the turn of Bitchslap to host a party, most people where so exhausted you could feel the tension lingering in amongst the small talk. It took me three days to recover.
Lying in bed at home in Copenhagen the stillness was so overwhelming I wanted put on some loud trance to mimic the club down the street from the hostel that had serenaded us to sleep with euphoric electro every night. I dreamt of the wild street dogs police, the street vendors who toiled night and day at half a dozen jobs just to get by and the friendly homeless man who slept outside the hostel on cardboard who told us how “In Istanbul, if you have no friends, you have no hope of surviving.”
It was a clever decision to have Istanbul as a destination for an art project. It’s volatile, insecure and wild, held forcibly together by a powerful military and police force who are trying to protect one man’s secular vision of almost a century ago; a vision that is being slowly eroded by the popular election of an Islamist president and the call for the removal of the ban on headscarves at school and in the workplace. The military has dissolved the government three times, 1960, 1971 and 1980, when they deemed its actions to be unconstitutional. It is still illegal to insult Attaturk. This combined with Turkey’s obvious desire to become a part of the European Union results makes Turkey a perfect destination for encouraging constructive dialogue, artistic or otherwise. It is hard to assess what impact the project had on Istanbul as a whole, whether the art was accessible to the general population and not just the literate, educated few. It is a question, however, that can also be asked of art anywhere.
I kept on dreaming of Istanbul for days after I returned and the memory of its energy still resonates in me. It is a fucking mental place that had no signs of skateboarders but thousands of cops, stray dogs and homeless people. Is it European though? With as many young people looking west for inspiration, I can only hope that Turkey develops in a direction that encourages its youth to stay and invest in its own future once it joins the EU. Which might probably happen some decade soon. For now though I was glad to be home with the rain and cold and empty streets that are so typical of northern Europe. Seriously though, who needs the EU when you have fabulous weather?