Syndrome of the Present Seminar #2

Day One 05.07.2018 | Izmir, Turkey

The seminar began with an introductory talk by Erden Kosova at the ruins of the Kadifekale fort, providing an apt vantage point to examine Izmir’s urban topography. From this view, it is possible to see how the areas located closer to the Aegean Sea, an area where refugees risk fatality by attempting to cross into EU territory, has received ample financial investment so as to greaten its touristic and commercial appeal; in contrast, the outskirts of the city — where the majority of the 150,000 refugees living in Izmir reside — were visibly dilapidated. This area has a long-standing history of being inhabited by newcomers to the city.

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Following the introduction, the participants received a presentation at the Izmir branch of WAHA (Women’s and Health Alliance), located in the nearby Basmane neighbourhood. The branch was initiated and continues to be run by former Syrian refugees living in Izmir. The presentation of Mohammed Saleh, the director of the association, included discussions on the vocabulary used by juridical systems to address the refugee crisis and how such vocabulary and its implication of legal status (or lack thereof) both influences the local societal attitudes towards the refugee presence and further poses a hindrance to the refugee’s access to welfare infrastructure.

Visit at WAHA, Izmir

During the afternoon the seminar was based at the French Cultural Centre, where a series of presentations by Dr. Mehmet Penpecioğlu (Political-Economic Background of Izmir’s Urban Development and Planning Within the Historical Context), artist Metehan Özcan (Living and producing in Izmir: Authors of the City), human rights lawyer Ayşegül Karpuz (representing the refugee advocacy group Halkların Köprüsü — The Bridging Peoples Association), and historian Erkan Serçe further unfolded the themes of urban topology, the role of neoliberalism in city planning, and how social memory functions as an active component in the inscription and narration of history.

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The first day concluded with a tour of the Culture Park led by Erkan Serçe, whose presentation provided a historical survey of the Culture Park’s development, its original inspiration from the Soviet model for public spaces and it’s contemporary significance.

Day Two 06.07.2018 | Izmir, Turkey

The second day commenced with an excursion to the archaeological excavation site located in the Konak region of the city. The site includes the house believed to be the birthplace of Sabbatai Zevi, now extensively remodelled. Although still in development, the house shall eventually serve as a public feature in the archaeological site, a project that is supported by the local municipality. Explicit mention of the house’s connection to Zevi is absent from the site’s promotional narrative — one could speculate that this absence, despite the site being commonly mythologised as pertaining to Zevi (even to the extent that Google Maps refers to the site as ‘Sabatay Sevi evi’ — literally, Sabbatai Zevi’s House), serves to avoid formally acknowledging the site as possessing religious/ideological significance.

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Adjacent to the house is the former Jewish district, a dense web of largely concealed synagogues within the labyrinth that is the Kemeralti bazaar. Led by Nesim Bencoya, the participants retraced the path of Zevi in a visit to the former Portuguese Synagogue. The synagogue was a frequent backdrop to many of the events associated Zevi, including the proclamation of his messiahship. The synagogue is now owned by a collective of entrepreneurs, where it is typically used to present talks on subjects such as trade and economic ventures

The participants also visited the Señora Synagogue. Built in the 17th Century, local tradition purports that the synagogue was established by Donna Garcia, the daughter of a prominent merchant of Sephardic origin — a remarkable (although highly unlikely) tale, in light of the absence of women within the context of religious institutional histories.

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After the excursion, further presentations were given by the participants. Raşel Meseri and Aylin Kuryel presented their recent publication Being Jewish in Turkey: A Dictionary of Experiences — a book that deconstructs common vocabulary and linguistic expressions amongst the Jewish-Turkish community, thereby excavating the political and social etymology of such language. Artist Artur Żmijewski discussed several of his films, commenting on the negotiation of political ideologies both within his work and around its production.

Day Three 07.07.2018 | Istanbul, Turkey

The Bülbülderesi Cemetery sprawls across a steeply sloped hillside, creating multiple vertically stacked platforms of closely allotted stone tombs, upon and between which greenery and silence flourish amidst the urban Üsküdar neighbourhood on the Asian coast of the city. An early morning excursion in the cemetery was accompanied by artist C.M. Kösemen, author of the award-winning book Osman Hasan and the Tombstone Photographs of the Dönmes — an extensive research into deciphering the motifs distinctive of Dönme tombs, of which many can be located in the cemetery. Despite the ostracisation of the Dönme, rejected by both Jewish and Muslim communities, the tombs of Dönme families are not restricted to a specific area within the cemetery but are instead dispersed throughout — often characterised by lavish motifs, in sharp contrast to the sobriety of surrounding tombs. Further inspection, as C.M. Kösemen described, reveals an array of distinct semiotics — including hand-tinted photograph portraits, elaborate stone carvings, and modernist fonts.

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The afternoon session took place in Cezayir; owned by the currently imprisoned Osman Kavala, co-founder of DEPO (one of Syndrome of the Present’s partner institutions), Cezayir holds a tradition for intensively hosting NGO meetings. During the afternoon, presentations by Asena Günal, director of art space DEPO (one of the partner institutions of our project), and artist Zeyno Pekünlü generated discussion on how artists and institutions can (collaboratively) deploy strategies to both actively resist and combat social and political conditions, particularly (but not limited to) those conditions that heavily moderate the production and presentation of art. Further, Zeyno Pekünlü spoke of how techniques of archiving and collecting existing media — both digital and physical — provide a perspective through which to reflect on tropes of human behaviour, drawing sensitive focus to the evocation and allowance of vulnerability, a typically concealed sentiment yet often entrenched with socially significant charge.

Day Four 08.07.2018 | Istanbul, Turkey

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Following a morning visit to the Museum of Turkish Jews, the seminar held in SALT (another partner institution) concluded with a presentation by Gülsün Karamustafa, one of Turkey’s most outspoken and celebrated artists, whose career spans forty-years. Karamustafa presented a number of her video works and spoke of how the works enunciate an intimate proximity between a personal/collective memory of Istanbul and its shifting political geographies, thereby meditating on subjects such as migration, poverty, government regimes and public protest.

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