Agora Europe

First entry of a three-parter where Deniz Kırkalı investigates Istanbul's current cultural & independent scene by introducing the venues & people galvanizing the city.

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Author: Deniz Kırkalı

Photo Credit: BAS

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. 

BAS Istanbul @ We are Europe

The arts and cultural scene in Istanbul has seen numerous artists run and independent spaces appear and fade away in the past decade. And I’m not saying this in a pessimistic or defeated manner. Ephemerality is akin to precarious organisms especially in such dynamic and ever changing cities with as complex social and political dynamics as Turkey.

Therefore, the conditions make it difficult for them to sustain themselves for many years. However, while they exist, they carry great potential for questioning, challenging, and transforming the ecosystem they operate in, even if temporarily. I have started a research project titled Etut|Study Session together with the now non-operating independent space Poşe in 2019. Through various “invitations,” Etut|Study Session ruminated on alternative collective and collaborative modes of working in the arts and culture in Turkey and beyond.

It conducted one-day workshops in Istanbul, inviting approximately twenty initiatives, collectives, spaces, independent artists and cultural producers and researchers from various parts of Turkey. The third and the final invitation of Etut|Study Session is an ongoing online platform where such independent actors and collective bodies can get together, build alternative communities, share knowledges, and use according to their needs and urgencies.

In September 2020, we held an online event called “This closure” moderated by Dieuwertje Hehewerth, which brought together five independent spaces from Paris, Amsterdam, London, Mexico City and Wellington in an attempt to expand the scope of the project to other cities in the world.

The workshops held in Istanbul as well as the initial conversations for “This closure” revolved around five key notions; being alternative, responsibility, financial models, sustainability and inclusion/exclusion. Revisiting notes and findings from these workshops, I realize that some of these notions and words such as the word “alternative” are not serving us anymore.

Additionally, I notice that many individuals and bodies who participated in these workshops are no longer active which suggests that some words we put an emphasis on such as “sustainability” are still highly relevant. 

In today’s Turkey, sustainability, censorship, and continuity being major challenges, the presence and motivations driving such independent, underground, or collective organisms are, in fact, driving a much richer and diverse art world. The three spaces this initial text introduces have very distinct operating mechanisms, urgencies, priorities, and existence strategies. However, they are significant and noteworthy in order to begin to understand the dynamics of Turkey’s arts and cultural scene. 


AVTO has recently reopened in its new location near Taksim Square with the solo show of Burak Kabadayı titled “Static Shifts, Dynamic Rifts“. AVTO is -or perhaps has- an art space but it is also an “operating system” as defined by the AVTO team, functioning in various fields and media through podcasts, exhibitions, documentaries, research projects, and publications. AVTO online which is a separate entity that does not simply document or report on the exhibition or the programme taking place in the physical space, presents all content and research as equally weighty materials and among the constituents of their ever evolving model.

Sarp Renk Özer, one of the founders and the “organizational operator” of AVTO, stresses the mutability and openness of their model. In an ecosystem of organizations and institutions that tend to stick to a model that works, an artists that “sells” and conceptual frameworks that are never too threatening, controversial or emancipatory but, on the surface, trendy, sensitive and Western, being open to shift and play around a model that might or might not work long term can be thrilling.

The young team of AVTO is not deterred from taking risks, creating a new vocabulary for their model, and it strikes me as providing a rather fresh and novel perspective on operating in a highly conformist art ecosystem. AVTO takes shape according to the needs and demands of the team running it and they manage to find a good balance between being professional and remaining experimental and flexible at the same time. 

AVTO © AVTO Space, courtesy of Deniz Kırkalı

Özer and the editorial operator, Ezgi Yurteri, emphasize that rather than waiting to benefit from the local system and economies, they attempt at providing the resources that will satisfy their basic needs in accordance with the skills and practices of the operators.

When I ask about their current priorities and struggles Özer and Yurteri respond, “We approach all processes of production professionally and we highly prioritize being able to compensate our contributors and collaborators for the time and work based on our own standards that are higher than those that the field sets. We also wish to be able to honor our own efforts at minimum and provide social security to those who have worked hard for this for years. AVTO also believes that transfer of resources between actors working in arts and culture is critical for sustaining oneself and to perceive the work that is being done as an occupation.

They are motivated by creating more room for collaboration, paving the way for those who are willing to join the sector, expanding their community, including new independent operators, and finally, imagining futures without stressing too much over finding additional resources. 

KOLI Art Space

Another relatively new arts space in the Asian side, KOLI Art Space is an LGBTI non-profit space founded by Elçin Acun and Yasemin Kalaycı located in the hip neighborhood of Yeldeğirmeni in Kadıkoy.

Having recently received support from a major funding body in Turkey, SAHA, KOLI Art Space is a gathering space for the queer community as well as the many artist communities living in Kadıköy. A corner shop, glass from top to bottom, and with a basement that is reached with a wooden ladder, the space is a welcoming and open one, in line with their inclusive attitude. Its spatial components necessitate a redefinition and consideration of queerness and politics of visibility. 

KOLI Art Space © KOLI Art Space

Defying the othering language and the dominant manner towards the queer community in today’s Turkey, KOLI Art Space is concerned with initiating dialogue through exhibitions, performances, talks, and music events, and providing a space for gathering and producing together especially at such an oppressive and discriminatory social and political climate. In that way, Acun and Kalaycı frame KOLI Art Space as a solidarity platform. “We wanted to create a space that focuses on gender inequality and that has an ideological agenda as well as an activist attitude regarding the discrimination LGBTI+ individuals face and for giving them visibility and tools for emancipation.Acun and Kalaycı say.

Again, financial sustainability is the main point of concern along with various levels of censorship. Its locality and openness, which are characteristics of the space and the spirit, also come with concerns over censorship, self-censorship, and community pressure. Additionally, as with most initiatives of its scale, they have to master juggling between various jobs and income resources to sustain the space. Yet, they are slowly getting wide recognition as they have a rather busy calendar with exhibitions that change every three to four weeks and that invite a number of international artists among emerging local artists and curators. 


Finally, BAS is a physical collection of artists’ publications and printed matter, initiated in 2006 by Banu Cennetoğlu and currently run by artists Aslı Özdoyuran and Marina Papazyan. Set in the upper floor of a local outdoors shop in Karakoy, BAS has been used by artists for different purposes as well as researchers working on BAS and its collection.

Its new epoque, with its vibrant purple carpets and unique display shelf system, has recently hosted a solo exhibition by Ünal Bostancı titled “La Isla Bonita” and continues to be a welcoming and hospitable space for the cultural workers of Istanbul who’s thirsty for engaging with one another after brutal lockdowns.

Aslı Özdoyuran, wearing cozy slippers and offering me mountain tea she has just brought back from Athens, tells me how she’s spending most of her days in the space immersed in the publications which she’s nowhere near going through. We also chat about her growing interest in publishing and the editorial projects she has lined up for the next two years. 

BAS is a notable space in Istanbul’s art scene where there is a growing number of independent publishers, grants for producing artist books and artist publications and even an art book fair. The fast growing independent publishers such as Onagöre and Dante ve Istakoz, and Borderless Art Book Days, an event that showcases publications and text based works that is set to have its fourth edition in May at Arter, prove that there is increasing interest in and an enthusiastic audience for art publications and print material overall. 

The willingness and effort to keep BAS going, as a library and a space that hosts such a rich personal collection, is very valuable. Özdoyuran tells me that their current focus is digitizing the archive so that it can be accessible to a wider international audience. Having a digital catalog is highly crucial for bringing visibility to the collection as well as for creating a system that would make it easier to organize, find and share with others the motivations, focus, and scope of the collection. Sitting among Bostancı’s installations and shelves of books, I can’t help but imagine how else the space could be used as such gathering spaces are always the life-blood of the artistic scene of Istanbul. 

BAS Space © BAS

Driven by a young generation of cultural actors, these three spaces present a glimpse of what the local arts scene in Istanbul is in need of and is motivated by. Despite the challenges of the current climate and sustainability always being a struggle, they are a glimmer of hope for a more collaborative, welcoming, and inclusive arts and culture sector. Sustainability is not necessarily only about duration but the ability to shift, adapt, transform, evolve and reflect when needed. Arising out of a need, lack or a gap that they feel is needed to be addressed, such endeavors first point to and then challenge the conditions and limitations of the ecosystem they are part of. 

In that sense, they are naturally not isolated or completely “independent” from these conditions, structures, or systems they live through but are essentially interdependent on all these other actors and settings that form them. Prioritizing creating communities, and developing relationships that will outlive existing models or structures, they present alternative collective and collaborative modes of working in the arts in Turkey. 

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

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