Ekmel Ertan - What Does Art Do to a City?

Sümerbank has an important place in my life (too). It actually consists of a perception that combines fragmented reminiscences rather than an event or a memory. I remember that I loved Sümerbank when I was a kid, and I loved it afterwards. As a child of an upper-middle class family, Sümerbank was not the store I dressed from. I would go or be taken to Sümerbank in the summer; it was a very beautiful store in the center of Kuşadası, on the corner opposite to Öküz Mehmet Paşa Caravansary. It was not there one summer when we went to Kuşadası. It was a store that sold durable and reliable goods that sustained the survival of the middle class and represented localness as well as classiness. Or so it seemed to me. Sümerbank was perhaps the only symbol that emphasized - and emphasized all at the same time - the spirit of the Republic that still persisted in the 70s, the state that works for its citizens, a modest and contented society, and also on modernization, welfare state, development and labor, while glorifying the peasantry and being Anatolian, on one hand. Neoliberalism had not yet split our lives, and perhaps the closure of Sümerbank in Kuşadası would be one of the first indicators of that split.

I said for myself that I was a child of an upper-middle class family, I guess we were then. We were a class society back then, afterwards we got mixed up. Now I am a lower middle class individual; If there is still the lower, middle, upper class, if there is still class. Class is a concept that is not much mentioned anymore. We got so mixed up that we all forgot our classes. I was going to say that we are like primary school children who jumped into the garden during an earthquake, but this is not true, either. Because our gardens are different; while we are getting mixed up, we are mixing up "among ourselves". We lost class, but we are not sad because we got rich, we had all kinds of identities, we multiplied, we diversified. When Sümerbank got closed, there was no class left. We could do without. Now, we are all in the class that we want to be, not in the class that we belong to. In the past, our state was obvious from our Sümerbank shoes. The shoes used to last for years, and we used to know ourselves. The shoes we buy now lasts for three months; our psychological state - because we no longer have a state, but "psychological state" - suddenly deteriorates when the shoes lose their polish, until it recovers with a new pair of shoes. Those durable shoes no more exist!

Sümerbank was a meeting place also for the lower and higher middle class. In the period when the "Domestic Goods" discourse was still not a lie, Sümerbank was an excitement for its user, its manufacturer and even its designer, and I think Sümerbank managed to create an identity and a brand.

When the Basma (Printed Cloth) Factory, which was opened in 1946, was closed in 2001, it was perhaps one of the last strongholds of labor that was lost. "Sümerbank Basma Factory workers in İzmir, who have been resisting against the closure of their factories for 97 days by taking an action not to leave their workplace, have been divided. The workers blamed Teksif Union and Türk-İş for the division by the transfer of 351 of the 625 workers to other factories.”i Today, looking back 20 years later it looks like an old story; one of those stories that pass from generation to generation and that start with "once upon a time ...". However, we are talking about twenty years; children who were ten years old in those years are now in their thirties, at the most productive and busiest times of their lives.

The resistance of the labor that is going on next to us was still visible back then. Internet came to Turkey in 1996 and it became widespread only in 2000s. Then our world has expanded, our troubles have increased; we became unable to see what was next to us. A news report of Bianet dated 2001 wrote: "Atıcı said that he started to work in the factory as ‘foot servant’ at the age of 12, ‘I did all kinds of work from ironing to weaving. This factory belongs to as just as much as it belongs to the state ... Closing our factory without taking us into account is an act of bullying."ii Truly, whom does the state belong to? Especially if Sümerbank, one of the founding initiatives, is in question.

According to the same source, workers organized a solidarity night at the Fair Open Air Theater. The news report continues: "On the other hand, many artists, poets and writers from various regions supported the workers in the night, which was attended by approximately 300 people.”

The Basma Factory now only has rotten and bare concrete buildings and walls surrounded by plants. Anything that possibly makes money has been ripped off; neither a piece of wood nor a metal, nothing has remained back else of some pieces of clothes left over in the parts of the buildings that were not entered much. There is also a heavy silence and a faint sadness. There was also a group of people who were 'tuning' when I went there.

***

What does Factory Settings tell us? Like all of us trying to hold on to life in the impasse of neoliberalism, where we are evaporating by becoming individualized, artists try to resist by producing together. It is no coincidence that the Old Sümerbank building was chosen for the Factory Settings. A group of independent initiatives and artists are chasing other sensitivities for the sake of art. Positioning Sümerbank Basma Factory at the center of the project is precisely the natural and conscious choice of those other sensitivities. What does or what can the selection of Sümerbank Basma Factory, where Atıcı, who says "This factory is ours as well as it is the state’s", started to work at the age of 12 and which has been abandoned for 20 years, has to say to us today in İzmir?

What does art do to a city? Unfortunately, just a few cities in Turkey including Izmir are experiencing this question for a while. Art is changing cities and city dwellers with small settings. Art ruins the setting of the city.

Glob.era is a culture and arts initiative set out to create "temporary collective experiences". An independent initiative; a group of people who think that culture and art are the keys to a better life, and work to transform life with new experiences. Independent art initiatives have always constituted the fundamental dynamics of culture and art in Turkey. When the art environment, which was once under the protection and control of the state, was transferred to the private enterprise, nothing much has changed; the mainstream, which followed the world agenda with less delay under the guise of being freer and shifted from national inclusiveness to individual and class audience preferences, maintained the same inertia only by “updating” itself. The state quickly gave up its belief that art is one of the essential elements of a democratic coexistence; maybe it was following wrong models and when it could not get the job done with what it exported, the cost started to be expensive. In fact, good work was done during the founding period; when one end of the arts initiatives reached the village institutes, another fear prevailed. Anyway, the state never had the idea that a dynamic and organized art environment could only be created in collaboration with the civil institutions and individuals of that society. It started to withdraw by 'destroying' the existing institutions. The state has shown that it cannot be a support for the artist under conditions made difficult by neoliberalism. Neoliberalism had neither such a goal nor a responsibility. There has been a natural and spontaneous collaboration between the state and the private enterprise to create another form of control in the field of arts by normalizing precariousness. The parties were satisfied. The dissatisfied ones were not parties. Those dissatisfied ones continued to democratize the society "by force" by creating their own initiative as they always did. This is exactly why the independent art initiatives in Turkey are very important; they did not find a living space within democracy, but they democratized the society by creating living spaces for themselves.

This is also what Glob.era is doing; with Factory Settings, it opens the memory of the city dwellers to “temporary collective experiences” in the time and space of the city. The project coordinators, on the one hand, challenge our memory about the past, the past that "carries us to today" and on the other hand, they raise questions about the future that we "want to reach". "Now" is the result of the past and the reason of the future; not an accidental moment.

Artists, like the project executives, ask questions about the past and the future with the comments made about "now" with this very understanding. The artist's question is a warning, about what we do not know, or what we know but ignore.

The works in the Sümerbank Basma Factory consist of site-specific installations and interventions to the venue. Some of the works deal with the transformation, destruction, and recapture of the nature after the factory closed and buildings abandoned; they try to find the traces of Sümerbank's long story. Artists use, process and place the materials they find in the space. The project has two interesting sides. The first is its temporality and the other is the feeling / effect of having a journey in time strengthened by the original conditions of exactly this moment, the Covid-19 days.

The preparation process in the venue has been completed in a short period like ten days, and an exhibition that cannot be visited by anyone has been opened in the old Sümerbank Basma Factory*. The definition of temporary collective experience is very appropriate. Artists, those who run the project, those who document it, those involved in the project, and a few friends share a collective “acting” process. Works are designed, produced, set up; delivered to time and space, and the place is left. Temporary intervention has been completed. A fine scratch has been made in the memory of the city.

On my way to the Basma Factory, I got the feeling that I fell into another period of time when I left my house, where I have been half-imprisoned for a while, walked through empty streets, passed through a ruined door in an uncanny corner of the city that was already abandoned and now hidden from the "normal" city dweller. I watched the artists move back and forth between today and those days when the Print Factory continued production and was "living". Each move carried a little word, a feeling, a moment, a memory belonging to someone else, a belt buckle, a torn shoe, maybe a handprint, a line, a color, maybe a scent hanging in the air. From a space stuck between the private and the public, a time stuck between the past and the present.

***

Nowadays also, we are stuck in a gap in time and space. We forgot the public space or, to the contrary, maybe we realized it again; I think this awareness will grow even more as we become physically free. As the public space narrowed, we started looking for new spaces for art. In the context of the relationship between the digital and art, Factory Settings brings forth two questions, thoughts again. The first is how digital technologies change the way of producing and consuming*1 art, and the second related question is what the work of art is: Which is the artwork, the physical installations set up and left to the space and time, or the information in the digital file that has already been cloned on the disks of many computers? The first one is perhaps the simplest example of the digital transforming art, because here the digital is actually used only as a means of documentation and then exhibition. The digital is not the medium of these works, I neglect the second question/thought while saying this. This is the most direct and simple effect, as it is limited to recording technologies that are now commonplace and at our disposal. When digital goes beyond being a means of recording and exhibition, and becomes a conceptual and existential part of the “work”, that is, its medium, the effect of digital technologies in the field of art moves to another plane. Digital is not the natural medium of the works in Factory Settings, but becomes a "medium" within the setup of the whole project. With the effect of the Covid-19 process, the project undergoes a transformation as it is re-edited and the display of the works - consequently reaching the art audience - is transferred to the digital environment. The works are set up from the very beginning to be exhibited spatially but also digitally. In this sense, separating the physical from the digital, and individual works from the project — from Factory Settings as a project — turns into a meaningless effort. Project owners and executives create a “temporary” collective experience that will become permanent in the digital environment in a curatorial integrity from the very beginning.

Digital technology thus opens an important place, which is not accessible under normal conditions and has a place in the recent history of the city, to the use of art and the artist, and to the - indirect - access of the audience. An extreme example of this is Stelarc's 1993 work "Stomach Sculpture". In this work he produced for the Fifth Australian Sculpture Triennial, Stelarc swallows the metal sculpture he made. The sculpture opens in Stelarc's stomach and takes the form designed for display. In this process, the camera that Stelarc swallowed with the statue conveys the image of the sculpture in the stomach, which turns into Stelarc's exhibition space, to the audience through monitors. This example is one of the works that the cult artist poses ontological questions about art and technology. Here, the Basma Factory replaces the stomach and internet replaces the monitors. In the same manner, Factory Settings raises other questions having many expansions with their social and historical references.

Artists probably got associated with the Sümerbank Basma Factory primarily with textile design; there were designers and artists working in the factory, coming and going to the factory. Then, in 2001, some artists came to support the protest of workers. Twenty years later, the artists have returned back to the crime scene. That was not their crime. But they were there to commit new crimes.

Ekmel Ertan
December 2020
 

i https://m.bianet.org/biamag/emek/4086-isciler-teksif-bizi-satti access on 27.11.2020
ii Ibid

*1: Consumption→change
Is art something consumed? If the word consumption here has the same usage as in the "Consumption Society" pattern, then "art consumption" would not be a pattern that we would prefer. We do not consume music, we do not consume writing or painting; we listen, we read, we watch. The word consumption can only be meaningful side by side with the work of art within the terminology of economy. Therefore, when we talk about art consumption, we are only talking about an objectified art product that can be bought and sold. However, what I mean here is not the consumption of art in this sense; what happens between us in a museum or in other forms and situations without owning a work of art, without a commercial relationship such as renting or purchasing, requires a term other than consumption. I call it change. Therefore, creation and change are terms that can be used in correspondence to production and consumption for work of art.



Ekmel Ertan works as a curator, cultural manager, artist and educator. Ertan is the founder and artistic director of İstanbul based amberPlatform/BIS (Body-Process Arts Association), which is a research and production platform on art and new technologies. Ertan was the director of the international “amber Art and Technology Festival” in Istanbul between 2007-2015. He curates new media works as an independent curator in Turkey and abroad. Ertan has exhibited his new media installations, photography and collaborative performance works in Turkey, Europe, and The States. Since 2007, Ertan has been working as the site coordinator and director of EU supported multi-partner international projects on behalf of BIS.

Ertan received his BSc degree in Electronics / Communication Engineering from the Technical University of Istanbul and his MA degree on Interactive Media Design from Yıldız Technical University. He worked as a design and test engineer on telecommunication systems in Turkey, Germany, and Belgium. Since 1999 he has taught new media art and design at Istanbul Bilgi University, İstanbul Technical University, Sabancı University. and currently at İzmir Economy University. Ertan continues to work in Izmir, Istanbul and Berlin.


This article is translated to English by Hale Eryılmaz

Hale Eryılmaz (1972, Denizli), completed her undergraduate education at METU International Relations Department and her master's degree in Bilkent International Relations Department with full scholarship. For 25 years, she has been working as a freelance translator in the fields of social studies, popular culture, human rights and torture prevention, culture and arts. She has also worked as a researcher, expert and manager in many institutions in the fields of human rights and civil society for 20 years, and has also been on the boards of many institutions. Some of these institutions are; ROMACTED European Council Program, Human Rights Foundation of Turkey (HRFT), Sivil Düşün, Women's Work Foundation (KEDV), Aegean Association, and UNICEF. Hale Eryilmaz is currently working in Izmir Cultural Platform Initiative and TOBB's Expert Hands Project (integration of Syrian refugees). In addition to numerous publications of articles and translations published on Platform, Sanatatak and Art Unlimited, Eryılmaz has a translation book of Martin Strokes, named "Arabesque Events in Turkey" published from İletişim Publications in the year '98.

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