Saturday, 7 July 2018

Guest post: "Pioneer Cities of Culture and how Istanbul changed the narrative", by Filiz Ova

World Cultural Cities (Tianfu) Symposium, Chengdu, China

I am writing this article from from Beijing, on my way back from the World Cultural Cities (Tianfu) Symposium
 in Chengdu, China. I am amazed by their openness, friendly hospitality and, at the same time, their urge to westernize. It reminds me very much of Turkey at the beginning of the Republic, when scholars, artists, specialists from Europe were invited to implement the principles of high culture.  Contrary to China, however, not with the aim to become a global superpower, but with the somewhat naïve intention to become a secular democratic Republic.

I ask myself what has remained in 2018 from this pursuit for freedom and happiness through education in high culture? Turkey’s 90 years of fight towards democratization and westernization remains so immensely poignant in the spotlight of an era of never ending political turmoil and economic stagnation.

Looking at the World Cities Cultural Report 2018 on “Pioneer Cities: Connecting the World Through Culture”, a time of global economics and the political race among world powers, culture is the new trendy topic. Who is to become the superpower of culture?

In her opening speech in the World Cities Culture (Tianfu) Symposium, Laia Gasch, Special Advisor to the Deputy Mayor for Culture and Creative Industries, emphasized the importance of what makes cities ‘livable and lovable’.

Prior to the symposium, I had given a lot of thought to what has happened in Istanbul and Turkey during the past 5 years. Upon Laia’s speech, I was struck by the simple question: is Istanbul, our capital of culture old and new, still livable and lovable? How have creative industries survived since Gezi 2013? Where do we stand in the conversation of Global Cities of Culture, and how did we change the narrative of this conversation. We are a ‘survivor,’ certainly. But we haven’t merely survived, we have turned our misery into our strength.

According to the statistics (İKSV, Public Engagement in the Arts, 2017), only every 5th school has a music room in Turkey, speaking of private schools only. Where existent, arts education does only comprise the most basic knowledge with no focus on any kind of creative development whatsoever.  As a result, 66% of the Turkish population has never attended a concert, opera, theatre or the like; 81% has never played an instrument; 57% doesn’t watch any movies even on the Internet. TV is the most popular activity (86%) among Turks. On top of that, Turkey, and especially Istanbul (which holds 52 percent of the country’s employment in the creative sector) is periodically disrupted by political turmoil and economic turbulence.

Especially after 2016, international visitors, including all kinds of artists, big and small, have literally deleted Istanbul from their map. The image of vibrancy, of an affluent cultural heritage and a “must go” destination, conversations on İstanbul today summarize roughly around terrorism, bombings, a coup d’état, oppression of free speech and war zones. So what has been İstanbul’s narrative until today? How can we still lead the conversation?

What happened was that we turned to the local and, I have to add, what is local is often global. What is true for our local community politically and culturally is true for so many others around the world, from the US through South America, Asia and Europe. 

Istanbul, Turkey

Difficult times have fostered local productivity. Almost like a natural cause. Our focus became the local art production and re-writing the narrative of the arts in our communities and neighborhoods. Istanbul theatres for instance, have hit 90% occupancy in 2017 (Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality Annual Report 2017).

Turning to our communities has also lead to new initiatives and artistic export from Turkey to the world. To give a few examples: the Borusan Philharmonic Orchestra, born and based in İstanbul, has completed successful Europe and Asia tours with world-renowned violinists Vadim Repin and Daniel Hope. Young musicians are playing in concert halls and world-class orchestras from New York to Berlin. The Istanbul Jazz Festival has initiated a showcase ‘Vitrin’ to promote contemporary Turkish music around the world, currently holding it’s second edition.

Again, through the International Istanbul Jazz Festival 2017 and the Department of Cultural Policies of the Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts, a choir consisting of Syrian women, initially founded as a psycho-social support project for Syrian immigrant women, shared the stage with world renowned musician and composer Basel Rajoub at the 24th Int’l Istanbul Jazz Festival, with the participation of over 300 Syrian immigrants from different communities in the city.

Today, Istanbul’s private cultural sector is re-telling its city’s story as a city of culture, putting it back into the international spotlight, from a new perspective though. 

We have survived through our soft power. To be precise, through our skills of complex problem solving, critical thinking, creativity, emotional intelligence, and flexibility. These are the must have skills stated by the Global Report on Pioneer Cities (World Cities Cultural Report 2018).

I don’t know if İstanbul is still livable. But, to me and many of my friends and colleagues, it is and will remain lovable. 

Filiz Ova (Istanbul, Turkey)
was, u
ntil April 2018, the Artistic Director of Is Sanat Concert Hall, an 800-seat concert and performance hall hosting a seven month seasonal program of a wide range of performances, from classical music to jazz, world music, Turkish music, modern dance, children’s activities and many more. Before that, she was Assistant Director (2008-2013). She holds a MA in Art History and American Studies from Eberhard Karls University Tubingen, where she continues to pursue her Ph.D. studies. She was also a Summer Fellow at the DeVos institute of Arts Management at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Currently she is working as freelance Arts Consultant and as a lecturer at the Faculty of Arts and Management at Bilgi University, İstanbul.

No comments: