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Istanbul International Arts Culture Festival - :
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Istanbul International Arts Culture Festival

| June 3, 2012 | Comments

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A New Yorker Festival on the Bosphorus? Turkey’s Hippest Colloquy Serves up an Unpredictable Mosaic of Culture

ISTANBUL — The lovably goofy Istancool is no more. In its third year, the swanky Turkish arts-and-culture get-together returned last weekend with the more neutered name Istanbul International Arts Culture Festival (“IST. Fest” seems to be the prefered abbreviation), with “Istancool” demoted to subtitle. “It was like a bad song that got stuck in your head,” festival founder Alphan Eseli acknowledged in an interview. “And it was misleading because it’s not all about being cool.”

In some ways, this waffling between the lovable but laughable and the more buttoned-down but boring is symbolic. It reflects how the whole enterprise has grown almost faster than it has been thought out, and is shooting for an ideal that has not quite been fully formulated. Still, the basic idea is not too hard to explain — the event aspires to be a kind of summit for figures from art, fashion, and film. It is overseen by husband-and-wife cultural entrepreneurs Alphan Eseli and Demet Muftuoglu Eseli — he’s a filmmaker, while she’s an art director for Vakko, a multi-headed Turkish fashion and media conglomerate that sponsored the event, and hosted the first day of talks in its boxy postmodern corporate headquarters (designed by REX Architects).

This year, the free-to-the-public two-day program of speakers featured, among others, the wry, jaded film director Andrew Dominik (“The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford”), dashing American artist Aaron Young (vanguard representative of the motorsports-as-art trend), and chilled-out-to-the-point-of-being-comatose fashion photographer Mario Sorrenti. These globe-trotting Hollywood and fashion types mixed with figures of more regional renown, like bestselling Turkish novelist Ayse Kulin, urbane Italy-based moviemaker Ferzan Ozpetek (subject of a MoMA film retrospective a few years back), and Turkish architect Emre Arolat, whose talk really got the crowd riled — gentrification, it seems, is a hot topic in this fast-developing metropolis.

What to say about this event, and its place in the world? Turkish cultural policy has been in the news frequently of late, with the government going on an aggressive campaign to demand the return of antiquities from foreign institutions. In its way, IST. Fest grows out of the same cultural conjuncture. Both initiatives are unthinkable without the surging sense of dynamism brought on by Turkey’s entry into the club of fast-growing “emerging” nations, which brings with it a new sense of assertiveness.

Yet at the same time, the confab offers a positive alternative to this type of jingo. In a welcome letter, Demet and Alphan expressed a hope that their endeavor might offer young people in their country “the opportunity to come together with those people that have inspired them, to open their minds and reshape their own worlds,” billing the talks as a “multi-national and multi-disciplinary cultural exchange program.” It’s clear that they are invested in an ideal of a frictionless cosmopolitanism.

However, like economic globalization, cultural globalization is not a smooth process. It tends to come on the scene as a jagged series of collisions — some of them fruitful, some less so — between local interests and international forces. In its own benign manner, this affair reflected this unevenness in the way that the Turkish cultural figures and the foreign ones seemed to have very little to say to one another onstage. I have no idea what filmmaker Zoe Cassavetes and Turkish actress Meltem Cumbul were meant to do together onstage for their joint presentation. Neither did they. It was strange.

In the end, it was one of the handful of visual artists on the bill who served as the example of what the future of the festival might most productively represent. South Africa-born, Germany-based Robin Rhode was, in addition to being a speaker, the subject of a show at Istanbul ’74, a nonprofit art space run by the organizers (in recent years, it has been collaborating with New York’s Lehmann Maupin on programming). Rhode spoke well about how the playful video- and street-art experiments on view there grew out of the effort to find a mode of creativity with some kind of social resonance beyond the smart set. This ambition — even if it is mainly just an ambition — gives his body of work all its daft energy, and an emotional tone that makes it more than just a pleasing spectacle.

I’m told that in the future, the art component of this festival may be more integrated with the programming at Istanbul ’74, perhaps serving each year as a summation of the art space’s activities. This scheme promises to give the visual art aspect more local resonance, and, if done right, to give the proceedings more texture and depth as well. In any case, I don’t expect Istancool / IST. Fest to hold still. Above all, it has the most powerful of forces driving its evolution — the global spotlight on the megacity of Istanbul itself. That makes it an endeavor that is worth keeping an eye on. Indeed, my guess is that it’s probably going to be hard to look away.

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Category: Art News