Ankara's public spaces, slide-shows, animations and videos
Can Altay studied architecture before he began to exhibit as an artist, but it is more often the unplanned, unforeseen and unsanctioned uses of urban space that are the subjects of his art works. In 2001 he began to write about and document the ‘minibar’ phenomenon in his home city of Ankara in Turkey, a scene that has its counterpart in many other towns and cities around the world. The minibars are not street parties exactly, but informal (and technically illegal) one-night happenings that colonize suitable gaps in the built landscape – the spaces between apartment buildings – and turn them into temporary open-air night-clubs. Altay has filmed and photographed some of these events, interviewed some of the participants and documented the barriers put up by local residents to discourage them, and then presented this material alongside a small collection of classic texts on the ideological construction of urban space. The texts have been annotated by Altay with Post-it notes, and the audience are encouraged to add their own thoughts in the same format.
More recent works have applied similar methods – a mix of slide shows, animations, videos, interviews and texts by Altay and others – to the investigation of Ankara’s ‘papermen’, the city’s rag-pickers, unofficial recyclers and, in a recent show at the Kunsthaus Dresden, unlicensed street traders. Informal economies, clandestine organizations and the subversion and occupation of urban space are alive and well, and Altay shows the Turkish capital to be full of spontaneous and self-regulating networks that have largely been produced by failures in the formal system. His practice stands out because it’s grounded in the city he lives in and understands, and because the investigations he undertakes have developed over time. There’s a focus and a clarity to his field of study, and each succeeding work connects with the rest, building from a Zeitgeisty survey of teenage drinking into a genuine mapping of these twilight zones, which are outside the law and yet central to the life of the city. What links his works is the idea of a commons – not explicitly in terms of a nostalgic or hopeful longing for the recreation of pre-capitalist locations but simply through the observation that, though modern urban public space is not publicly owned, social and economic pressures have led certain groups to claim it as such, despite the risk of being criminalized in the process.
The work also addresses a kind of micro-politics, in the specific sense of everyday transaction and negotiation. This is seen, for example, in the observation that though the minibars are discouraged and constantly move from one spot to another to avoid harassment, the participants respect certain unspoken rules of behaviour that make it possible for the authorities to tolerate them, or in the tightly defensive organizations formed by the papermen and street traders to protect their meagre living from those who are unfortunate enough to aspire to it. But, though the work fits neatly into the neo-tradition of urbanism, it’s not polemical and it doesn’t glamorize or flatten out its subjects to make them fit any particular conclusion. There’s no Utopianism here, just attention to real existing situations. Added to this is a welcome awareness of the sometimes uncomfortable relationship between document and theory or between the observer and those observed, and a sensitivity to the uncomfortable non-relationship between the art context and the field of activity being portrayed.
Perhaps in order to apply a similar logic within the art context itself, and with a nod to the recycling methods of the papermen, Altay’s contribution to the recent group exhibition ‘Art For … Part 2’ at Platform Garanti in Istanbul was to appropriate the works presented in the first part of the show and reconfigure them. The show was then itself also appropriated and the project continued through the next exhibition, ‘Normalization’, with photographs, videos, drawings and installations from 19 artists now condensed, re-edited and woven together, accreting in a corner of the exhibition space like a miniature shanty town on the edge of the orderly and spacious curated show.
Altay’s reworking suggested the existence of other possible interpretations of the work, but, like his research into the informal social and economic activity that appropriates Ankara’s nominally public urban spaces, it also suggested the possibility of alternatives to the architectural, economic and ideological framework in which they were placed.
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