Palimpsests of Violence: Urban Dispossession and Political Theatre in Istanbul.
If Turkish theatre has witnessed a shifting terrain in the new millennium, however, so has Turkish politics. The ascendancy and rule of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) has challenged the Kemalist state project that had previously defined Republican history, with its emphasis on Turkish nation-statehood and secular modernization. Campaigning on a neoliberal brand of Islamic social conservatism, part of what the AKP has introduced into Turkish political life is a historiographic tendency in which an array of past political grievances are brought together to rewrite Kemalist memory politics. While drawing attention to the "multiplicity of alternative memories" that have emerged in the wake of this shift, Onur Bakiner nonetheless signals the arrival of "a new state-sanctioned historiography," where conservative-nationalist readings of the past have resulted in selective reckonings as well as further silencings. (1) Two trends in particular are important to note: first, the emergence of a depoliticized memory of the country's successive military coups that obscures the history of human rights violations, and second, a discourse of neo-Ottomanism that both imagines a Muslim-Turkish imperial past and engages in facile celebrations of Ottoman multiculturalism.
How did alternative theatre respond to this shifting terrain? How did playwrights and theatre artists negotiate the possibilities as well as the limitations of conducting political theatre in the new millennium? In this essay, I focus on Ahmet Sami Ozbudak's play Iz (The Stain), which was directed by Yesim Ozsoy at the alternative theatre venue GalataPerform in Istanbul in 2013, to formulate some preliminary answers to these questions. Iz was created by Ozbudak in 2010, in the context of the Yeni Metin, Yeni Tiyatro (New Text, New Theatre) writing workshops that Ozsoy had been organizing at GalataPerform since 2006. Since then, the play has had a smooth run, and the company celebrated their hundredth performance in June 2016. Meanwhile, Ozbudak has published a novelized version of the narrative that also includes the playtext, and negotiations are in process for a film adaptation. The play, in other words, has grown beyond its seemingly medium-specific identity, despite a tight dramaturgical structure and pronounced use of theatrical space and media.
What is the play's enduring appeal? Iz tells three concurrent stories, each of which is anchored around a specific moment in modern Turkish history. The first story is set in 1955 and centers on Rum (Anatolian Greek) sisters Eleni and Markiz, who are tending to their mother, an elderly woman who has not exited her bedroom in a number of months. As they discuss their mother's condition, the political tension that underlies their everyday existence culminates in the events of September 6-7, during which Istanbul's Greek community was systematically attacked by Turkish mobs, a particularly heightened node in the harassment, alienation, and ultimate decimation of Turkey's non-Muslim populations in the twentieth century. The second story is set in 1980, in the wake of the military coup of the same year, and features the young leftist revolutionary Ahmet and his landlord Tugrul Usta. Ahmet is in hiding in Istanbul, where he works in hopes of providing for his wife and daughter, whom he has left behind in an unnamed southeastern province. The conservative nationalist Tugrul Usta is a frequent visitor in his renter's space and the duo's relationship is by turns affectionate and sinister, nurturing and threatening. The third and last story is set in 2010 and depicts the turbulent relationship between Rizgar, a young Kurdish man who struggles to survive as he transitions between the formal and informal economies of Istanbul, and Sevengul, his trans girlfriend, whose own precariousness is underlined throughout the play. What unites these three stories is the fact that they all occupy the same architectural space, an apartment in Tarlabasi, a historically mixed quarter of Istanbul that has been through a series of transformations and now sits at the heart of the city's experience of gentrification.
As the play's title makes clear, the joining together of these historically disparate "stains" or "traces" forces Iz's viewers to consider the cyclical manner in which violence and marginalization have impacted Tarlabasi's inhabitants, and how each have come to be surrounded by the layers of exile and migration that mark the memory of this neighborhood. The result is a political-aesthetic project that reaches across temporal boundaries in its attempt to "re-distribute" what philosopher Jacques Ranciere might call the "self-evident facts of sense perception," forging conceptual connections as well as political bonds between previously unconnected spaces, histories, and humans. (2) At the same time, however, the language surrounding tz disavows an overt political project, presenting the Tarlabasi apartment, rather than its inhabitants, as the play's central protagonist. (3) This disavowal is noted throughout critical responses to the play: although commentators overwhelmingly praise the production, they underline a lack of historical-political contextualization. (4) From a broader perspective, their concerns resonate with questions generally leveled at identity political art, that is, artistic projects associated with identity-based political movements: first, whether it turns the particular identities and experiences on offer into readily consumable tokens, and second, whether such a practice could house a materialist-political critique, in this case, a focus on classed dispossession in a rapidly gentrifying city.
In what follows, I will draw on Iz's dramatic text, GalataPerforms production, and my interviews with playwright Ozbudak and director Ozsoy to make two related points. First, recent discussions in theatre scholarship on the efficacy of political theatre have shied away from focusing on artists' political intentions or agendas, arguing that outdated models of artistic sovereignty are inimical to the goals of grassroots political engagement. (5) For some scholars, the suspension of intended political effect has hailed a parallel turn to affect, and a re-training of theatrical encounters toward aesthetic or affective pleasure. (6) In turn, these discussions have resulted in queries regarding the political limits of affective experience. (7) In the first section, I draw on this body of scholarship, yet argue that for playwrights working in contemporary Istanbul, the relationship between aesthetics and politics has less to do with the question of artists' intentionality (or a parallel withdrawal of political intention) and more so with how they negotiate their politically fraught environment and their ultimate inability to impact their work's representation. As excerpts from my conversation with Ozbudak will show, Iz's status as "political" theatre is related to the contexts in which it circulates and the ways in which it triggers both local and global audiences' sense of what is at stake in the "political" in contemporary Turkey. In such a context, GalataPerforms depoliticizing gestures or what might at first glance appear a rather tokenistic catalogue of characters is in fact part of how the play relates to the "explosion of memory" characterizing the new millennium. (8) Specifically, Ozbudak's use of an arabesk aesthetic reframes the issue of tokenism and identity politics, underlining the play's central concern with migrant dispossession.
Second, whereas questions of national memory and cultural identity permeate the new playwriting emerging from alternative theaters, Iz is one of a grouping of site-specific performances that focus on the relationship between urban history, gentrification, and public memory. These include Murat Mahmutyazicioglu's plays Sen Istanbul'dan Daha Guzelsin (You Are More Beautiful than Istanbul) and Sekersiz (Sugarless), initially staged at Kadikoy Theatron and AsmaliSahne respectively; the site-specific performance Yokus Asagi Emanetler (Things Entrusted Downhill); Pera'nin Zamani (Pera's Time), produced by AltidanSonra Tiyatro and Lokstoff! and staged at Kumbaraci50; GalataPerform's Balat Monologlar Muzesi (Museum of Balat Monologues); and playwright Gulce Ugurlu's Ev'vel Zaman (Once Upon a Time), co-produced by the Istanbul Culture and Arts Foundation and staged at Tasra Kabare. And whereas each of these projects engages its site-specificity differently, taken together they are indicative of a shift in alternative theatres relationship to urban history, and particularly political violence and spatial memory. In the second section, I argue that it is against this backdrop that Iz's political consciousness and reflexivity can be evaluated. The site-specificity of GalataPerform's stage, situated in a district with a similar history of dispossession in Tarlabasi's neighboring area of Galata, compounds Ozbudaks diegetic choices in Iz, implicating the theatrical event in processes of urban transformation. I end by calling attention to how alternative theatres like GalataPerform are part of the broader coterie of voices that hope to participate in the re-branding of "old" Istanbul in the twenty-first century, Iz's foremost political critique, I argue, is ultimately its self-reflexivity, its awareness of the fact that alternative theatre in contemporary Istanbul is not external to processes of gentrification; it is, however ambivalently, shaped by these developments.
It is not a coincidence that Ozbudaks exploration of memory and urbanity is set in Tarlabasi. The dynamics of ownership that characterize the Tarlabasi apartments layers of habitation are central to the urban history of Istanbul, if not the broader dynamics of migration and dispossession in postwar Turkey. Tarlabasi rests within the borders of historic "Pera" (now called Beyoglu), located across the Gold Horn strait from the city's historical Byzantine and Ottoman center. In the late nineteenth century, "Pera represented the 'Frankish' Istanbul" as its cultural identity came to be defined by its Greek, Jewish, and Armenian inhabitants. (9) The designation of the Empire's native minority populations as Frankish was itself the result of a complex historical operation: late nineteenth-century Pera housed embassies and international establishments and symbolized a foreign landscape, eventually becoming the target for Ottoman urban planners' efforts at constructing "the first 'Europeanized' quarter of the city." (10) This historical legacy meant that Tarlabasi would weather the transition from empire to nation-state quite badly. In the decades following the founding of the Turkish Republic in 1923, districts like Tarlabasi held conflicting connotations, as Istanbul was reconceptualized in line with "the nationalist project of the Ankara elites." (11) On the one hand, broader Pera symbolized '"Europe in Istanbul' for the Turkish bourgeoisie" who sought to ally themselves with an elusive image of Western civilization. (12) On the other, Pera became a "European" quarter with no non-Muslims, as the broader cleansing of Republican Turkey's non-Muslim populations slowly drove communities like those of Markiz and Eleni out of historic Pera and ultimately outside the newly drawn borders of the nation-state.
In the decades following these forced exiles, parallel migratory movements took place within the borders of Turkey as rural populations lured by rapid economic expansion moved to cities like Istanbul. Tugrul Usta was thus one among a wave of migrants from the Black Sea region who settled, informally, in the abandoned neighborhoods of Tarlabasi during the 1960s and 1970s, inheriting a spatial history that official narratives barely remembered. In the play, we are told that Tugrul Usta's family occupy Markiz and Eleni's abandoned home and are sitting down to dinner one day when the mysterious mother, whom the sisters have left behind, comes ambling down from the attic. Over time, the mother is slowly absorbed into the family's fabric and treated, with all the historical irony that this entails, as a treasured visitor. This dynamic of compromised ownership continues many years later, by which time Tugrul Usta has acquired legal ownership of a number of apartments in the neighborhood and now rents them out to new generations of migrant workers like Ahmet.
Ahmet's arrival in the neighborhood takes place in the wake of the 1980 military coup but also at the dawn of Istanbul's slow integration into neoliberal capitalism. Throughout the decade, urban planners and municipality officials tore through old neighborhoods like Tarlabasi with thoroughfares like the Haussman-inspired Tarlabasi Boulevard, displacing the area's poorest residents and triggering a period of physical dilapidation. (13) By the 1990s, Tarlabasi housed a mixed group of residents that were also often members of Istanbul's most marginalized populations: undocumented immigrant workers, internally displaced Kurdish migrants who were fleeing the states violence in the country's southeast, Roma populations, and sex workers. (14) Rizgar and Sevengul are the next generation of tenants to inhabit the Tarlabasi apartment, and they embody this precarity. In fact, Sevengul's presence in Tarlabasi is meant to signal another set of migratory paths entirely, this one reflecting the urban migrations forced on the city's trans populations since the 1980s, including the violent evictions that accompanied the city's preparation for the UN Habitat II conference in 1996, (15) and the far lengthier process that has redesignated their neighborhoods for higher wage earners.
However outstanding their differences, in other words, all of the characters in Iz are, or become, migrants, vying for belonging in an urban landscape that continues to dispossess its inhabitants. (16) How does Ozbudak represent the connections between their experiences? In the play, characters from different diegetic spaces co-habit the stage space unbeknownst to each other, creating a narrative effect akin to that achieved by a cinematic split screen. At moments, the contents of their varied storylines parallel one another, with swift scene changes, fluid blocking, and shared stage props contributing to the audience's sense of enmeshed timescapes. In one such scene, Eleni and Markiz entertain themselves with stories of illicit love affairs between Turkish men and Rum women in turn-of-the-century Ottoman Istanbul. Eleni is enraptured by the travails of Harikliya Hanim, a Rum woman who works as a cook in Sultan Abdulhamit's summer residence and suffers from her love for a young Turkish statesman. As Eleni narrates Harikliya Hanim's troubles, however, it is Sevengul who embodies them on the stage:
Eleni: One day, the woman [Harikliya Hanim] undressed in front of the church. She was completely naked. All of a sudden, when she understood what she was doing, she was embarrassed, so she wrapped herself in her clothes and ran home. Just then, Sevengul enters with a cloth hag in her hands. She has tossed something on haphazardly. She climbs on to the chair. Eleni: Harikliya Hanim came home and climbed on to the chair. At this point, she is going to hang herself. Then this unexpected thing happens, her lover comes up behind her. Just then, Rizgar enters wearing a fez. He tries to understand what Sevengul is doing on the chair. (17)
As Rizgar walks towards the jilted lover Harikliya Hanim/Sevengul, the comic fez collapses the distance between Harikliya Hanim's affair and Sevengul's own sense of betrayal (see Figure 1). Rizgar, it turns out, has donned a fez while entertaining a group of Swedish tourists, and Sevengul quickly needles him as to whether this touristic service included casual sex with the visiting women. What is extraordinary about this scene, however, is the manner in which it collapses an array of Ottoman/Turkish dynamics of race, gender, and sexuality onto one another, creating a palimpsest that stretches from the racial hierarchies of late Ottoman imperial culture to the neo-orientalism that allows Rizgar to parody an imagined Ottoman Turkish masculinity, an experience made all the more complicated when juxtaposed with his urban marginalization as a young Kurdish man.
In Iz, moments such as these appear to endow the space of the Tarlabasi apartment with the certainty of its previous owners' historical presence, what Ozbudak refers to as the spaces yasanmislik or "lived-ness." (18) At the same time, however, the materiality of the fez fails to secure a sense of historical certainty. This is especially evident with another of the play's significant props: a cloth bag that initially seems to contain a dead cat, yet whose contents shift depending on the storyline in which the theatrical signifier plays a role. The cloth bag's transformations playfully reference the ambiguity surrounding Schrodinger's cat, reminding the viewer that we will never know precisely what has transpired in that bag/space. (19) In the absence of documentary truth, we are asked to consider these characters in conjunction with one another, as constituents of a shared space, intervening in what Jacques Ranciere might call "the sensible delimitation of what is common to the community." (20) Indeed, Ozbudak wishes to intervene in perceptions of the neighborhood that might identify these historical moments as disparate, rather than an ongoing negotiation over the politics of public memory and urban history in twentieth-century Turkey.
Negotiating "Political" Theatre
I borrow these theoretical formulations from Ranciere's foundational discussion on the "re-distribution of the sensible." In The Politics of Aesthetics, Ranciere describes aesthetic practices as arrangements of human experience that intervene in the distribution of the sensible, that is, "the system of self-evident facts of sense perception that simultaneously discloses the existence of something in common and the delimitations that define the respective parts and positions within it." (21) The distribution of the sensible, in other words, refers to arrangements of sensory experience that are premised on locating oneself in relation to a previously defined commonality. This commonality could refer to the experience of democratic citizenship as well as the symbolic, spatial, and practical rituals through which individuals realize their connections to this experience. Aesthetic practices re-distribute the sensible, proposing new parameters for defining the "in common." Crucial to Ranciere's understanding of the arts' potential for re-distribution is the fact that such a process is neither inherently politically emancipatory nor an extension of political domination: aesthetic practices can both transform and uphold existing political configurations.
As indicated above, Iz's structure questions the literal distribution of parts and positions in a transforming city, inviting us to consider urban dispossession as the basis for defining the "in common" in Istanbul.
In The Emancipated Spectator, however, Ranciere further notes that it is only in the absence of an over-determined, overt political message that the possibility of a re-distribution of the sensible, or what he terms "aesthetic efficacy," becomes possible: "a paradoxical kind of efficacy that is produced by the very rupturing of any determinate link between cause and effect." (22) For Ranciere, this efficacy results when viewers engage in autonomous interpretation, overriding the political intentions or agendas of a master artist. It thus follows that in contexts where such autonomy is rarely afforded to individuals, the withholding of intended effect can, paradoxically, result in an aesthetic-affective experience that is politically emancipatory in nature. Yet, we must ask: is the lack of political intent always inherently political? Liz Tomlin suggests that the withdrawal of political intention might hold potential for the re-distribution of affective experience in disadvantaged communities; nonetheless, theatre scholars' emphasis on these forms of unintended political effect risks flattening the purchase of the "political" itself. (23)
In many ways, this theoretical framework reveals the complexity of the relationship between the aesthetic and the political in Iz. The company's disavowal of an overt political message gestures towards the "aesthetic efficacy" of which Ranciere speaks, that is, the kind of efficacy that can only be made possible by the disavowal of political intention. At the same time, this disavowal parallels the play's lack of historical and political contextualization. For example, we never fully appreciate Ahmet's political ideology, which is generally glossed as a version of 1970s left revolutionary activism. Likewise, Rizgar's cousin Dagli, who visits the apartment briefly, has participated in guerilla warfare in the southeast of the country. This information is left unexplained, however, and his appearance mostly serves as comic relief. Set against the background of the depoliticized memory practices of twenty-first-century Turkey, Ozbudak's catalogue of characters thus risks being read as a form of tokenism, paralleling critiques of identity politics that question the wedding of politicized identities and claims to experiences of violence, cultural oppression, or marginalization. (24) Iz's viewer is in fact left facing a landscape of serial devastation: Markiz is raped during the anti-Greek pogroms of September 6-7; Ahmet is shot to death once his landlord reveals his political identity; Rizgar is fatally stabbed during a struggle over drug money; and Sevengul flees the apartment out of fear of continued violence. If Iz does promise a degree of historical or political recognition, identity-based suffering appears to emerge as its precondition. Upon first glance, in other words, the play becomes mired in questions regarding political intent, its withdrawal and the relationship between this withdrawal and aesthetic form.
During the process of researching Iz, however, I found that my conversation with playwright Ozbudak pushed me to find another way around these theoretical questions. As the following excerpts will show, a closer look at the playwrights own relationship to politicized content revealed the binary positioning of political intentionality and depoliticized tokenism to be a false opposition. Ozbudak initially noted that his starting point had been "human stories," or narratives of everyday experience from Tarlabasi. (25) For the playwright, these stories' relationship to the political was somewhat paradoxical: on the one hand, "politics" referred to the history of political violence that was an unavoidable dimension at the stories' core; on the other, the stories acquired "political" status, that is, an explicit relationship to Turkey's ongoing political dilemmas, through outside intervention. Ozbudak noted:
I actually did not start off by wanting to write a political story. But in this country, everything touches politics. . . . I started off by asking, how did those sisters live in this apartment? What did the 80s revolutionary do in the apartment? What are people doing there today? As I searched for the answers to these questions, I reached data that inevitably had to do with the political, economic and sociological dimensions of Turkey's recent history. When I received an award in Germany, they told me that this was a beautiful example of political theatre. But it was never written to be political. But in Turkey, say if you were just writing a story that takes place in a hotel lobby--this will touch upon everything. The blocked-ness of the system, the depravations of politics. It's inevitable. . . . I am not a very political person. But if you live in this country, you cannot be cleansed of politics. (26)
During my conversation with Ozbudak, references to the political, or rather references to Turkish playwrights' inability to "cleanse" themselves of politics, encapsulated a number of key dimensions of producing political theatre in Istanbul today. On the one hand, Ozbudak's comments revealed a commitment to the idea of a cleansed narrative domain, an interiority not yet touched by politics. Indeed, in the comments above, the allure of or nostalgia for such a domain is figured as the space inside the Tarlabasi apartment, and the small, daily routines that compose the inhabitants' lives. On the other, Ozbudak was well aware that in Tarlabasi, there was no interior space or daily routine that could be cleansed of politics. What the inhabitants did inside their apartments (figured here as an extension of their interior selves) was shaped by an ever-present, politically saturated outside.
Moreover, these dynamics of interiority vs. exteriority were replicated in how the label "political" was ultimately attached to the play itself. As a celebratory gesture from outside the Istanbul theatre scene, the designation of "political theatre" had originated in the international festival/new work theatre circuit. (27) In other words, the play had become about Turkish politics by traveling to Germany. Later on in our conversation, Ozbudak repeated the reference to Germany, adding:
Human stories immediately entail a political atmosphere. But if I were a playwright in Germany, writing a character in Germany, I don't know how it would work there. Because in Germany, the state is something that provides services. Here, the state is a structure that has trained its eyes on your bedroom. You feel it, you feel the political atmosphere of the state everywhere. (28)
With these comments, Ozbudak made clear that whereas politics was central to the depiction of all "human" stories, the ability to imagine a sheltered, inner space for these humans came more readily to playwrights with certain geographical situations than others. During our conversation, the geography of Western Europe emerged as a clear counterpoint to Turkish society, offering Turkish artists much-needed international support and appreciation, while ultimately existing as a model of state-sponsored cultural flourishing that the Turkish artist could never fully enjoy. In the excerpt quoted above, the presence of "a political atmosphere" is so pervasive in the world of the Turkish playwright that it is neither possible to imagine a sphere untouched by it nor possible to imagine a "politics" untouched by the state.
As these brief excerpts immediately reveal, the issue of the withdrawal of political intention sits at the heart of a dilemma faced by the contemporary Turkish playwright--but the core issue is not the facilitation of affective experience. Instead, in a context where references to "politics" implicate both the histories of political violence that drive the productions aesthetic strategies and the inevitable heteronomy of these strategies with regards to their own political moment, stating that one wishes to avoid an overt political agenda is a way to negotiate a political atmosphere that is relentless in its destruction of autonomous, interior spaces. Ozbudak's statement that he had not imagined himself to be writing a political play also resonates with a point that Ariella Azoulay has made about photography, arguing that rather than a quality inherent to certain images, "the political is but a space of human relations ... and that photography is one of the realizations of this space." (29) Similarly, iz's political stakes have less to do with its author's intentions or its narrative arc, and more so with the work's ability to trigger both local and global audiences' sense of what is at stake in "the political" in Turkey, whether this be the politics of urban memory or that of histories of political violence. Where the question of aesthetic form is concerned, a closer look at the play's genre conventions, particularly how the playwright engages the arabesk genre and its central theme of migrant dispossession, reframes the critique of tokenism. During our conversation, Ozbudak noted that some reviewers had (disparagingly) likened his play to the work of film directors associated with the arabesk genre, criticizing what they saw as an excessive emphasis on painful experience. The playwright added:
In fact, there is a side that leans on the arabesk tradition but if you look at the narrative and its mathematics, it is a very Western text, with a very European narrative. But the story itself is local, ethnic and arabesk. (30)
Here, Ozbudak's reference to the play's "Western" and mathematical qualities referenced the fact that it retained a linear, cause-and-effect structure that mimicked the convention of the well-made play, even as it relied on temporal intermixing. Conversely, the play's locality and ethnicity was encapsulated in Ozbudak's use of the term arabesk, which references a cultural sensibility typically associated with the experience of migration and the exaggerated displays of emotionality that have accompanied its depiction in postwar Turkey. The term arabesk (arab-esque) refers to a hybrid musical genre that emerged in Turkey in the late 1960s, mixed Western and Egyptian rhythmic patterns and was often framed in (kitsch) opposition to the older, Middle Eastern cosmopolitanism of classical Turkish music. (31) As arabesk musical culture overflowed into the Turkish film industry in the 1970s, it became a distinct aesthetic reference point, associated with the alienation of young, marginalized men populating Istanbul's migrant-heavy periphery.
Ozbudak's decision to blend elements of "Western" dramaturgy with the "arabesk" idiom of suffering may be read as an instance of identity politics lacking a materialist basis. Yet, a more local reading would note that the arabesk tradition of solipsistic suffering ("a language of the emotions and the inner self" (32) ) is central to the play's depiction of migration, as well as its ability to bind multiple migratory routes to one another. In fact, Iz ends with an unmistakable nod to the arabesk tradition of migrant suffering. As Rizgar lies dying in Sevengul's arms, his monologue transitions between his childhood in southeastern Turkey and his inability to gain a socio-economic foothold in his adopted home:
I want to be the owner of Istanbul, what do you have to say about that? I want people to bow down in front of me. I want them to be afraid. I want everyone to be afraid of me. What do I want? That's what I want. (33)
Here, Rizgar's yearning underlines a form of ownership that permeates the play, that is, a desire for recognition that coincides with the idea of a rightful ownership of Istanbul. This proprietary longing seeks to redress a form of dispossession that transcends the buying and renting of property, implicating the multiple memories of migration that underwrite Tarlabasi's twentieth-century transformations. It is no wonder then that Ozbudak's initial title for the play was not Iz but Terk, which translates roughly as abandonment. Ozbudak's use of the arabesk aesthetic is neither a disinterested formal choice nor an aesthetic tendency that seeks to override a materialist emphasis. Instead, it draws on a longer genealogy of politicized art to re-distribute the sensory experience of Tarlabasi, connecting palimpsestic histories of violence to contemporary struggles with urban renewal and classed dispossession. (34)
Site-Specificity, Gentrification, Theatre
If Iz is revelatory of the possibilities as well as the limitations of political theatre in contemporary Istanbul, it is equally indicative of a turn to site-specificity that has characterized the city's alternative theatre circuit since the late 1990s. To be clear, my use of the term site-specificity does not imply that the production's location was mandated by the play's content; rather, GalataPerform's site-specificity enhanced the Tarlabasi apartment's layered texture, rendering the theatre into one of the transient layers in question, as imbricated in changing regimes of property ownership and dispossession as the characters in Iz. Indeed, GalataPerforms experience of their neighborhood existed alongside the forms of uneven gentrification that visited Galata during the first decade of the twenty-first century. This period coincided with the spread of a series of urban transformation (kentsel donusum) or gentrification projects across Turkey, projects that have characterized the municipal ascendancy of the AKP and have sought to re-brand older neighborhoods and public spaces. As excerpts from my conversation with artistic director Yesim Ozsoy will show, these processes of urban transformation have shaped GalataPerforms own trajectory.
Galata is nestled in another corner of historic Pera and surrounds the Galata Tower, a structure built by Genoese traders in the fourteenth century. The neighborhood's contemporary profile is an outcome of the post-1980s aspirations shaping Turkish society, including the re-designation of older neighborhoods for a newly affluent class of urban professionals. In the twenty-first century, Galata has emblematized urban transformations of a neo-Ottomanist vein, that is, processes of gentrification that promote a nostalgia for Ottoman-inspired cultural and entertainment practices. The neighborhood has thus emerged as one of many sites marking the idealization of "Ottoman cultural cosmopolitanism," (35) as its dilapidated buildings and non-Muslim history have been renovated for both touristic and local real-estate purposes. At the same time, however, neo-Ottomanism has not been a purely local dynamic: as scholars have shown, the AKP s glorification of Turkey's Ottoman past has coincided with broader cultural imperatives, such as Istanbul's designation as a European Capital of Culture (ECOC) in 2010. (36) Designed to showcase the cultural life of the city while promoting the preservation of Istanbul's (vaguely defined and entirely depoliticized) multicultural history, the European Union-supported ECOC project has paralleled, and in some cases even expedited, local gentrification efforts.
GalataPerform is located on the first floor of a tall nineteenth-century apartment building on Buyuk Hendek Caddesi, seconds away from the Galata Tower. The company first rented and then purchased the space in 2003, when, in director Yesim Ozsoy's recollections, the neighborhood was in a state of abandonment. Disconnected from nearby thoroughfares, Galata was home to artists and generally identified with the lighting and electrical equipment retailers located in its periphery. One of the group's first projects involved acquainting themselves with the neighborhood. Dubbed Gorunulurluk Projesi (The Visibility Project), this annual effort would continue from 2004 through 2012, supported from its second year onwards by the AKP-run Istanbul Municipality. During our conversation, Ozsoy remembered:
We started a neighborliness project. We created a map and for one day, we would mark certain areas, identify places where artists were performing, where there were exhibitions, it was almost like a treasure hunt on a map.... Later on we created projects with the local storeowners, we opened exhibitions, we produced a play in the butchers shop. And we generally talked about the people, the artists and the storeowners working together. There is a very deep artisanal culture in the neighborhood, on our street for example you see all electricians. Then again I say that this is the electricians' area but if you look at its past this is an area where Sephardic Jews [Sefaradlar] lived. There are a lot of synagogues in the area. Galata is an interesting neighborhood, there are synagogues, churches and mosques, there is the Mevlevi dervishes' lodge [Mevlevihane], so the culture runs deep but it really can't express itself.... The minority culture in particular remains hidden. Nobody knows this area's Sephardic culture, that in the 50s people were talking to each other in Spanish from one balcony to another. (37)
As Ozsoy's comments immediately make clear, "understanding" Galata required recognizing one's place within a long-term process of dispossession and transformation. Where neighborliness is concerned, a broader analysis would have to delve into the mixed class positions and civic memories that composed the experience of "commonality" implied by Ozsoy's vision of neighborliness. What is important for the purposes of this essay, however, is how the process of "mapping" this neighborhood revealed the inevitable recognition of levels of ownership; thus when Ozsoy noted that the neighborhood could not "express itself," the "it" was a receding entity, referencing an agent that was layered and multiply dispossessed. During our conversation, it was clear that these changing regimes of property ownership were directly manifest in GalataPerform's experience of their space. Ozsoy remembered the experience of having an elderly Sephardic Jewish tourist knock on the theatres door, only to ask to see the rooms and hallways in which she had grown up before having to emigrate to Israel. "Her traces are in the apartment," Ozsoy told me, "like all of the people who had to leave their spaces, who tried to create homes [yuvalar] but then had to abandon them, leaving their traces behind."
During our conversation, Ozsoy noted that Galata's gentrification had eventually rendered the Visibility Project unnecessary, causing the company to halt the activity after its eighth installment. At the same time, it was equally clear that Galata's makeovers had resulted in a drastically lopsided "visibility": "neo-Ottomania" had gained ground in both cultural life and political discourse, yet in a manner that hardly acknowledged the issue of non-Muslim discrimination and dispossession. The neighborhood itself had become visible, but through a neoliberal prism that highlighted the growth of a touristic service industry. Journalist Bahar Cuhadar nodded to these transformations in her review of Iz, noting that "you are in a building [GalataPerform] that, next year, may transform into one of the latest boutique hotels in the area." (38) GalataPerform, in other words, had participated in rendering Galata visible but was not itself immune to its transformations.
Iz's site-specific staging is thus akin to what Cathy Turner has called the archaeological palimpsest, that is, performances that "come to view space as a layered entity, and their occupations of it as a form of interpretive spatial practice." (39) The play's main acting space is a small rectangular living room, flanked by walls with peeling wallpaper. Above the stage, in full view of the audience but beyond the diegetic space of the play, rest two screens that show camera footage of the actions taking place in an offstage hallway and bedroom. At any given time, the audience is asked to consider the juxtaposition of the action taking place onstage, and the camera footage of the commotion backstage (see Figure 2). Not surprisingly, Ozsoy uses these dual visual spaces to highlight the co-presence of the apartment's different occupiers. When Sevengul and Rizgar fight onstage in 2010, we notice the presence of Ahmet smoking worriedly next to the window in 1980, or Eleni fixing her hair as she watches the neighborhood through the same panes in 1955. The streets upon which she looks are those of Galata posing as Tarlabasi, cementing the connection between the play's timescapes and the ongoing transformations that surrounds the theatre. (40)
As such, Iz negotiates a tension that Turner identifies as central to palimpsestic arts spaces: this category of site-specific performance often underlines the absence of the past, its unique "otherness" and tension with regards to its present. At the same time, this emphasis risks obscuring the performance's "thereness," the phenomenological event and its political immediacy. Turner asks, "Does this emphasis on the past (albeit the past-in-the-present) mean that in the tension between presence and absence, archeological performance will tend always to point towards what is absent, fragmented, lost and displaced?" Will it, in other words, ignore "the phenomenological experience of the present" and its political implications? (41) I would argue that Iz cannot but remain aware of the tensions of presence and absence. In fact, Ozsoy negotiates the issue of immediacy through the incorporation of digital material in the performance, what GalataPerform calls the productions "cinematographic dramaturgy." The material that the audience encounters on the screens that hang above the acting space is shot in real time. In Ozbudak's words, the actors are thus "on air" even when lingering backstage. Yet the presence connoted by this practice is cut through with the awareness that these scenes are often meant to re-create past events. In contrasting moments where the action taking place on stage is chronologically dated by the events captured on the screens, the digital material battles for phenomenological recognition alongside the narrative presented by the live bodies on stage. In such moments, the digital materials supplement and enhance the theatrical events liveness. In the Tarlabasi apartment, past uses of space stand in constant tension with present-day practices, informing the audiences sensory experience of their phenomenological materiality, if not their political visibility.
In this essay, I have focused on GalataPerform's Iz to develop a broader framework for thinking about the relationship between theatre and politics in contemporary Istanbul. Whereas there are clear limits to my ability to extrapolate from a single production, I suggest that Iz encapsulates a series of tensions that are key to alternative theatre. The play's layering of the Tarlabasi apartment seeks to comment on urban history and gentrification in Istanbul, thus joining GalataPerform's production to a broader range of cultural products that have emerged since the early 2000s and sought to reconsider and contest the nationalist memory politics of the twentieth century. At the same time, Iz indexes a specifically theatrical exploration of public memory, violence, and dispossession in Republican Turkey: it draws on the medium specificity of theatre, exemplified in qualities like the material proximity of the actors embodying the three layers of Ozbudak's story, to intervene in the sensory regimes that would ordinarily delimit their "parts and positions" in a transforming city and a national history. In Iz, "what is common to the community," in Jacques Ranciere's words, is articulated in relation to urban transformation and dispossession.
Iz clearly enters, in other words, a politically charged terrain. At the same time, the play's political disavowal, as well as its seeming tokenism, appear to engage in a form of depoliticized remembering, especially when placed against the political backdrop of twenty-first-century Turkey, where re-articulations of the past risk producing selective and commodined forms of particularism or nostalgia. I have suggested that a closer look at the play, as well as my conversation with playwright Ozbudak, might push us to consider the assumptions through which political intentionality and depoliticized disavowal emerge as polar opposites. I borrow these reference points from a broader body of scholarship that has responded to Ranciere's notion of aesthetic efficacy, that is, a focus on aesthetic or affective experience that overrides an artist's political agenda. When observed from such a vantage point, Iz's political disavowal appears to facilitate an affective experience, albeit one whose aesthetic reference points can be connected to the representational strategies of identity politics. Rather than confirm or decry these observations, however, I have suggested that Iz might instead illustrate the tension between the multi-referentiality of "politics" and that the conditions that frame political disavowal in contemporary Turkey. Simply put, in a context where artists are fully cognizant of their limited ability to navigate "the political" at both local and international levels, evaluating the aesthetic and political strategies of an "emancipatory" theatre might require looking beyond the binary of political intentionality or depoliticized tokenism.
Ultimately, Iz's political consciousness with regards to the Turkish past is rooted in GalataPerform's own site-specificity and the fact that the productions sensory strategies call attention to a very particular "phenomenological experience of the present": the fact that alternative theatre itself is implicated in the cycles of urban transformation that permeate Ozbudak's diegetic choices. To be clear, however, my point is not that GalataPerform is an agent of gentrification. Rather, my suggestion is that the alternative theatre circuit in Istanbul is an exemplary site to think through the ambivalent and ever-vulnerable participation of arts practices in the broader transformations of this city in the twenty-first century. These transformations have been multiple and complex, pushing us to ask: what can alternative theatre contribute to our understanding of urban history, political violence and spatial memory? What can it tell us about the changing political landscape of contemporary Turkey?
I would like to thank Hulya Adak and Rustem Ertug Altinay for including my contribution in this special issue, Ahmet Sami Ozbudak and Yesim Ozsoy for sharing their time and thinking, and Zeynep Devrim Gursel, Rustem Ertug Altinay and Saygun Gokariksel for their feedback and suggestions on earlier versions of the article.
(1) Onur Bakiner, "Is Turkey Coming to Terms with Its Past? Politics of Memory and Majoritarian Conservatism," Nationalities Papers 41 (2013): 691-708 (696, 692).
(2) Jacques Ranciere, The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible, trans. Gabriel Rockhill (London: Continuum, 2004), 12.
(3) For more on GalataPerform's presentation, see http://galataperform.com/izetkinlik/.
(4) See Bahar Memis, "Zenciler prensesi olacagim," Haberturk, November 5, 2013, http://www.haberturk.com/yazarlar/betul-memis/891559-zenciler-prensesi-olacagim; Fatma Onat, "Kapilar hatirlatmak icin carpiyor," Milliyet Sanat, March 12, 2013, http://www.milliyetsanat.com/haberler/artblog/kapilar-hatirlatmak-icin-carpiyor/1592; Eser Ruzgar, "IZ" in Var mi Bu Ulkede?," Milliyet Sanat, May 5, 2013, http://www.milliyetsanat.com/yazar-detay/eser-ruzgar/-iz-in-var-mi-bu-ulkede-/1933; Rengin Uz, "Dunden Bugune Hayata Yansiyan 'Iz'ler," DirenSanat, January 15, 2014, http://www.dirensanat.com/2014/01/15/rengin-uz-dunden-bugune-hayata-yansiyan-iz-ler/.
(5) See Jacques Ranciere, The Emancipated Spectator, trans. Gregory Elliott (London: Verso, 2011) and Nicholas Ridout, Passionate Amateurs: Theatre, Communism, and Love (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2015).
(6) See Jill Dolan, Utopia in Performance: Finding Hope at the Theatre (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2005) and James Thompson, Performance Affects: Applied Theatre and the End of Effect (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).
(7) Liz Tomlin, "The Pendulum of the Political: from Effect to Affect?" (Presentation, Political Performances Working Group of the International Federation for Theatre Research, Stockholm, June 13-17, 2016).
(8) Bakiner, "Is Turkey Coming to Terms with Its Past?," 696.
(9) Ayfer Bartu, "Who Owns the Old Quarters? Rewriting Histories in a Global Era," in Istanbul: Between the Global and the Local, ed. Caglar Keyder (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 1999), 33.
(10) Bartu, "Who Owns the Old Quarters?," 33.
(11) Caglar Keyder, "The Setting," in Istanbul: Between the Global and the Local, ed. Caglar Keyder (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 1999), 10.
(12) Bartu, "Who Owns the Old Quarters?," 33.
(13) Ozlem Unsal and Tuna Kuyucu, "Challenging the Neoliberal Urban Regime: Regeneration and Resistance in Basibuyuk and Tarlabasi," in Orienting Istanbul: Cultural Capital of Europe?, ed. Deniz Gokturk, Levent Soysal, and Ipek Tureli (London: Routledge, 2010), 57.
(14) Ash Zengin, "Trans-Beyoglu: Kentsel Donusum, Sehir Hakki ve Trans Kadinlar," in Yeni Istanbul Calismalari: Sinirlar, Mucadeleler, Acilimlar, ed. Ayfer Bartu Candan and Cenk Ozbay (Istanbul: Metis Yayinlari, 2014), 366.
(15) See Deniz Kandiyoti, "Pink Card Blues: Trouble and Strife at the Crossroads of Gender," in Fragments of Culture: The Everyday of Modern Turkey, ed. Deniz Kandiyoti and Ayse Saktanber (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2002), 277-94.
(16) Today, migrancy remains an ever-present threat in Tarlabasi, as the neighborhood is the target of a public-private partnership that hopes to transform the area into a commercial and residential center.
(17) Ahmet Sami Ozbudak, Iz (Istanbul: Artemis Yayinlan, 2016), 231-32. The original reads:
Eleni: Bir gun kadin kilisenin onunde soyunmus. Cirilciplak kalmis. Bir an ne yaptigina ayinca cok utanmis, elbisesini sannip eve kacmts.
Tarn bu sirada iceriye Sevengul elinde bez torbayla girer. Ustune gelisiguzel birsey sarinmistir. Telasla sandalyenin ustune cikar.
Eleni: Kadin eve gelip sandalyeye cikmis. Kendini asacak artik. Hic olmayacak sey ya, asigi arkadan gelmis.
Iceriye bu sirada kafasinda fesle Rizgargirer. Sandalyenin ustune cikan Sevengul'un ne yaptigini anlamaya calisir.
(18) Ozbudak, Iz, 211.
(19) I am grateful to Zeynep Devrim Gursel for drawing my attention to this point, as well as for her generous feedback on an earlier version of this essay.
(20) Ranciere, The Politics of Aesthetics, 18.
(21) Ranciere, The Politics of Aesthetics, 12.
(22) Ranciere, The Emancipated Spectator, 63.
(23) Tomlin, "Pendulum of the Political," 6.
(24) See, for example, Wendy Brown, Stales of Injury: Power and Freedom in Late Modernity (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995), 64-74.
(25) Ahmet Sami Ozbudak, personal interview with the author, Istanbul, June 9, 2016. All of the following quotations from Ozbudak were recorded during this interview. The translations are my own.
(26) Ozbudak's original comments during our conversation were: "Hic politik bir hikaye olsun diye yola cikmadim ama bu ulkede ne yaparsaniz yapin hersey politikaya degiyor.... Yola cikisim, o kiz kardesler bu evde nasil yasiyorlardi, 80de devrimci bu evde ne yapiyordu, su an buradaki insanlar ne yapiyor? Bu sorularin cevabini arayinca Turkiye'nin yakin tarihi ile ilgili hem politik, hem ekonomik, hem de sosyolojik bircok veriye ulastim, o da kendiliginden bu yapinin icinde olustu. Almanya'da odul aldigimda bana bu politik tiyatroya cok guzel bir ornek dediler. Ama politik olsun diye yazilmadi. Ama Turkiye'de atiyorum bir otelin lobisinde gecen bir hikaye bile mutlaka degiyor. Sistemin tikanikligina degiyor, politikamn su anki bu yozluguna degiyor, bu kacinilmaz birsey bence.... Ben cok politik bir insan degilim. Ama iste bu ulkede yasiyorsamz annamiyorsunuz."
(27) Ozbudak's reference here is to the Stuckemarkt Festival in Heidelberg, where he received a "Best Young Playwright in Europe" award for Iz.
(28) Ozbudak's original comments during our conversation were: "insan hikayeleri politik atmosferi zaten isin icine katiyor. Ama Almanya'da bir oyun yazari, Almanya'da bir karakteri yaziyor olsam nasil olurdu bilemiyorum. Cunku devlet orada hizmet veren birsey. Burada devlet dediginiz sey artik sizin yatak odaniza kadar gozunu dikmis bir yapi. Hissediyorsunuz yani, her yerinizde hissediyorsunuz politik atmosferini devletin."
(29) Ariella Azoulay, "Getting Rid of the Distinction between the Aesthetic and the Political," Theory, Culture & Society 27, no. 7-8 (2010): 239-62 (251).
(30) Ozbudak's original comments during our conversation were: "Arabesk'e yaslanan bir yam da var ama hikayeye, matematigine baktigtinizda cok Batili bir metin, cok Avrupai bir kurgusu var. Ama hikaye etnik, lokal ve Arabesk."
(31) For more on arabesk as low cultural consumption, see Martin Stokes, The Arabesk Debate: Music and Musicians in Modern Turkey (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), 99-108. For more on arabesk's connotations of vulgarity, see Ayse Oncu, "Istanbulites and Others: The Cultural Cosmology of Being Middle Class in the Era of Globalism," in Istanbul: Between the Global and the Local, ed. Caglar Keyder. (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 1999), 104-11. For more on the transformations that these connotations have undergone since the 1990s, see Meral Ozbek, "Arabesk Kultur: Bir Modernlesme ve Populer Kimlik Ornegi," in Turkiye'de Modernlesme ve Ulusal Kimlik, ed. Sibel Bozdogan and Resat Kasaba (Istanbul: Tarih Vakfi Yaymlari, 1998): 168-87.
(32) Stokes, The Arabesk Debate, 11.
(33) Ozbudak, Iz, 286. The original reads: "tstanbul'un sahibi olmak istiyorum, var mi? Insanlar onumde egilsin istiyorum. Korksunlar istiyorum. Benden herkes korksun. Ne mi istiyorum? Bunu istiyorum."
(34) Where contemporary political struggles are concerned, efforts to resist urban renewal and gentrification in historic Istanbul neighborhoods have involved a rethinking of the built environments previous lives. Yael Navaro-Yashin has written about these connections in the context of the Fener and Balat neighborhoods, where residents' reactions to the "sovereign move" of urban transformation is cut through with the fragmented nature of their knowledge of the neighborhood's previous inhabitants, especially the Rum and Jewish communities. Yael Navaro-Yashin, "Knowing the City: Migrants Negotiating Materialities in Istanbul," in Heritage, Memory and Identity, ed. Helmut Anheier and Yudhishthir Raj Isar (London: Sage, 2011), 236.
(35) Oyku Potuoglu-Cook, "Beyond the Glitter: Belly Dance and Neoliberal Gentrification in Istanbul," Cultural Anthropology 21 (2006): 633-60 (642).
(36) The naming of Istanbul as a ECOC motivated Deniz Gokturk, Levent Soysal, and Ipek Tureli's edited volume Orienting Istanbul: Cultural Capital of Europe? (London: Routledge, 2010). For more on the connection between the ECOC project and neo-Ottomanism, see Ash Igsiz, "Palimpsests of Multiculturalism and Museumization of Culture: Greco-Turkish Population Exchange Museum as an Istanbul 2010 European Capital of Culture Project," Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 35, no. 2 (2015): 324-45. For more on the connection between the ECOC project, performance practices and gentrification, see Oyku Potuoglu-Cook, "The Uneasy Vernacular: Choreographing Multiculturalism and Dancing Difference away in Globalized Turkey," Anthropological Notebooks 16, no. 3 (2010): 93-105.
(37) Yesim Ozsoy, personal interview with the author, Istanbul, November 24, 2016. All of the following quotations from Ozsoy were recorded during this interview. The translations are my own. Ozsoy's original comments during our conversation were: "Bir komsuluk projesine basladik. Bir harita olusturuyorduk ve sabahtan aksama kadar burada belli bolgeleri mimliyorduk, iste sanatci ile tanismak olsun, performans olsun, soylesi olsun, surekli programlari takip ederek o haritadan bir nevi hazine avi gibi dolasryordu insanlar.... Daha sonra ilerleyen zamanlarda bolgeyle, esnafla baglantili projeler yaptik. Sergiler actik, kasapta oyun yaptik, boyle seyler de oldu. Ve genelde sey diye de tanitiyorduk, esnaf, sanatci ve halk bir arada. Burada cunku cok yogun bir esnaf kulturu var, bizim sokak oldugu gibi elektrikcilerle ilgili bir bolge. Burasi elektrikcilerle ilgili bir bolge diyorum ama gecmisine baktigimiz zaman ashnda Sefaradlarin yasadigi bir bolge burasi, kac tane sinagog var bolgemizde. Galata enteresan bir bolgedir, yani hem sinagoglari var, hem kiliseler var, hem camiler var, Mevlevihane var, yani cok yogun bir kulturu olan bir bolge ama kendini bence o kadar da iyi ifade edemiyor.... Ozellikle azinlik kulturu gizli kaliyor. Mesela kimse buranin Sefarad kulturu oldugunu bilmez, 501erde burada balkondan balkona Ispanyolca konusuldugunu bilmez."
(38) Bahar Cuhadar, "Burasi Istanbul!," Radikal, May 8, 2013, http://www.radikal.com.tr/yazarlar/bahar-cuhadar/burasi-istanbul-1132646/.
(39) Cathy Turner, "Palimpsest or Potential Space? Finding a Vocabulary for Site-Specific Performance," New Theatre Quarterly 20 (2004): 373-90 (373).
(40) See Onat, "Kapilar hatirlatmak icin caliyor."
(41) Turner, "Palimpsest or Potential Space," 378.
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|Date:||Sep 22, 2018|
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