Author: Deniz Kırkalı
Photo Credit: Bağımsızlar
This series consisting of three texts will introduce independent spaces and cultural producers, initiatives, and collectives from Istanbul, Turkey in visual arts, publishing, film, and music. It questions who or what contributes to our communities and investigates the urgencies, challenges, and potential of collective and collaborative modes of production. These endeavors do not necessarily abide by the highly institutionalized and professionalized models but instead provide alternative methodologies and insights for artistic and cultural production in the locality of Turkey.
The series aims to present a partial portrait of the underground, underfunded, and underrepresented attempts in the arts and culture that are quite loud and powerful at the moment amidst the social, political, and ecological conditions. It does not wish to romanticize the work, render such endeavors sustainable or lament the limitations and challenges they face. Instead, they simply note and map them down, give them visibility that they might lack especially in international arenas and create an alternative archive. It also wishes to expand to other localities in order to create alternative international networks and solidarities, allowing in diverse voices from outside of Europe more towards the so-called periphery.
The second piece of the series looks at three very distinct but strong efforts at solidarity and self-organization in the current political, social, and economic landscape of Turkey. Many systematic misses and pressing needs require building support mechanisms of our own, very rarely backed by institutional bodies, and needless to mention the government. In such, they prove the significance of resisting, making noise, saying no, building alternative models, and gathering of bodies even and perhaps especially in times of isolation and rupture.
Omuz, which literally means “shoulder” in Turkish, is a solidarity network started in early spring 2020 by a group of cultural workers as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic. It is run by a group of volunteers that is still expanding as facilitators rotate every couple of months. Omuz carries a mediatory role between those who are able to and willing to give financial support to cultural workers who need support.
Through their website (omuz.org), Omuz facilitates the transfer of 1000 TL (as of February 27, 2022 it equates to 64.17 Euros) from the supporter’s account to that of the cultural worker. According to an e-flux piece published in June 2021, “With all of its participants, Omuz is built on mutual trust, unconditional financial support, and the sharing of labor and resources.”
The pandemic has only emphasized the precarious working and living conditions of artists and cultural producers in Turkey.
With no governmental support, an ecosystem fully reliant on the private sector was and still is in dire need of a support mechanism of its own. When I spoke on the phone with artist Civan Özkanoğlu who is one of the volunteers of Omuz, he remarked that even though the country is struggling financially and there is ever more need for financial stability in the sector, Omuz is receiving less applications compared to its earlier times.
There aren’t just less people willing to give support but also less demand for it. Another fact, that is no news to me but can, in fact, be surprising for those who are not familiar with the art ecosystem in Turkey is that most of the supporters are other artists or cultural workers, peers who already know one another.
This, I believe, reveals a cultural reality; we are quick and enthusiastic when it comes to dealing with emergencies, however, we tend to struggle with establishing structures and models that are sustainable and continuous.
The emergence of Omuz was necessary for ensuring that cultural workers are able to cover their basic needs such as paying their rent or bills, getting food, simply sustaining their lives in humane conditions. Once the pressing urgency of immediate support due to disruption the pandemic had caused has relatively subsided or life has gone back to what is deemed the new normal, the group felt the need for contemplating other needs and urgencies in the sector that would ameliorate the conditions for those who operate in it.
Therefore, one of the working groups has started the Omuz Dictionary. The dictionary simply aims to provide space for having conversations around some predominant terminologies and conditions of the field rather than creating final and fixed definitions for them.
I find this fluid, open attitude towards creating a dictionary especially noteworthy as it does not claim to know fully what is actually meant but recognize that these definitions, in fact, are always changing, transforming and dependent on the very conditions that they arise out of.
They want to build a corpus in order to create an awareness around notions such as precarity, security, or gatekeeping as well as discuss the scope of exploitation in arts and culture. Within the scope of this, they have started a series of online conversations.
So far having convened three of them, the group has tried to expand their work to people who have expertise and operate in other fields through these conversations. Further conversations are currently being programmed and I am certain that further definitions and complexities arise out of these encounters.
Susma Bitsin is a solidarity platform established by women working in cinema, TV, and theater. It has started following the global #MeToo movement and as there was a growing need to address harassment, mobbing, and abuse in the sector.
A fairly large group of women gathered for the first time on November 4, 2018 in order to address and discuss the cases of harassment and mobbing that has long been talked about behind closed doors. Since that initial meeting, the platform continues to grow and meet regularly, online for the past two years due to the pandemic.
Susma Bitsin assumes a very loose organization and there is no room for domination. Anyone can talk about anything and moderate the session as they wish. Respect for one another, giving space to express oneself, and dialogue are crucial. One unwavering rule is that everything that is brought up in a meeting has to stay there.
Even Susma Bitsin members present in one meeting do not talk about the content of the meeting to another member who has not been present in that session. This is extremely important and necessary for ensuring women feel safe and protected in the meetings. It is needed in order to create an open space where women are not hesitant to be vulnerable, express their concerns or experiences. Otherwise, they believe that the safe space that is being carefully held can be disturbed.
One also has to attend at least one meeting in order to be included in the mailings. And finally, videos need to be turned on for at least the first fifteen minutes of the meetings, for transparency in order to establish this safe space.
As the conversations can easily become very fragile and emotional, there is no tolerance for judgment, tyrannizing, questioning one’s statements, and making sentences that start with “one must.” Only those who have had similar experiences are invited to pass on their experiences when a specific issue is being discussed.
The meetings are held irregularly, as there is an agenda, a new harassment case to be discussed, or just to check in with one another and address pressing problems, issues, or cases. Since cases of mobbing, abuse, and violence don’t seem to diminish in the sector, their main agenda is to address the ongoing cases and issues.
However, they have also been organizing regular panels around the definition of abuse, description of violent behavior or attitude and one’s rights in the face of violence, and the psychological impact of such experiences women are regularly exposed to. These are, indeed, highly personal and subjective notions, yet we learn from one another as we witness, exchange and gather together.
Therefore, organizing these panels with experts is highly significant and essential in order to understand the meaning and limitation of these words, one’s rights and be able to protect oneself and one another on a personal and collective level. The panels also have a crucial impact on how the cases are approached and talked about in the meetings.
Abuse of and violence towards women is a main issue in today’s Turkey as Turkey has a tremendously high rate of femicides. Turkey has also recently withdrawn its signature from Istanbul Convention, the Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence. These alarming facts demonstrate why many Turkish women, regardless of their age or sector, are oppressed, silenced and hesitant to speak out as they don’t feel protected by any larger bodies.
Therefore, especially in such an environment, it is extremely important to be in solidarity, give attention, and show support and care to women who choose to come out and speak out. It is also an ongoing process where we are learning together the changing dynamics, definitions, how to talk about certain issues, how to protect each other when there is little support from outside of these self-organized bodies and not replicate the same oppressive behavior we are suffering from.
This is exactly why Susma Bitsin is revolutionary and encouraging that women working in other sectors will offer similar support mechanisms to one another.
Bağımsızlar, which translates to “independents”, was also born out of a need for solidarity in the arts. Independent art initiatives are an important component of the art world in Turkey, yet as they do not have the same resources as governmental cultural institutions or private equity groups, they do not get equal visibility. Thus, they are not always addressed or consulted as culture politics are being defined.
Bağımsızlar has been gathering since the early 2010s in Istanbul in order to give visibility to independent entities in the arts and bring together these initiatives that are very active in their localities or in the so called periphery as well as building dialogue with international artists and initiatives.
Ekmel Ertan from amberPlatform was the one who initially suggested in a meeting organized by halka sanat projesi in 2014 to create a map of these independent actors. However, it was only in 2020 that the project speeded up and the expanded working group has started the website bagimsizlar.org.
Ekmel Ertan remarks; “What we call the alternative or independent, relies mainly on the self-exploitation of cultural actors. Precarious living and working conditions threaten the independent arts and culture ecosystem. As individuals and initiatives, we can no longer sustain our presence and activities in such an environment which creates the need for solidarity.”
Creating a map is a much needed step in order to visualize and make visible the scale of the independent arts and culture ecosystem. It helps to emphasize the critical role of the independent actors in the arts.
The group meets regularly on Zoom, however, as it is run based on volunteer work, it is not always easy to create the optimal conditions for gathering. They have already created a bibliography of material including academic texts and projects on independents which they want to expand and make accessible. Their current tasks are, first and foremost, reaching more independent bodies and actors to include on the map and improving the web infrastructure.
Once they reach their goals with the mapping, they want to create the necessary conditions for independents to exchange knowledge and experience as well as gather physically to produce together in the future. Needless to say, for all these, they are in need of resources.
When I ask about their current agenda and priorities, Ipek Çankaya replies; “Our main priority is to bring together local independents working in arts and culture and tangent fields both on a map and also physically in order to promote and maximize collaboration.”
They currently have a regular programme on Açık Radyo (Turkey’s largest independent radio station) that airs every Friday at 7pm local time where they discuss issues concerning all arts and cultural actors with an emphasis on independent bodies. Çankaya stresses that this is especially important as it is working towards building an archive of conversations around pressing contemporary issues dominating our times.
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About the Author
Deniz Kırkalı an independent curator and writer based in Istanbul and London. She has co-founded Garp Sessions, a summer research programme in Babakale, Turkey and topsoil, a transnational curatorial and research collective. Her writings have been published in international magazines and platforms such as AQNB, Flash Art, this is tomorrow, Art Rabbit, Cogito and Art Unlimited.