The invisible city of alternative theatre: tactics, collective actions and micro-publics in Istanbul's cultural economy.

Author:Sanul, Gokge
Position:Special Issue: Cultural Economies and Cultural Activism


In general terms, the contribution of culture in maintaining the symbolic legitimacy of the political order is a significant issue for scholarly research (Ahearne, 2009). In more concrete terms, it can lead us to an investigation not only of government-initiated cultural policy and planning, but also an assessment of a much more diverse set of agents and agencies (Bennett, 2009) that together produce the spaces of culture in which they operate. In urban contexts, with a high density of interacting actors, this leads to political questions concerning the role of these actors in the ordering of these urban spaces, and the ways in which their actions contribute to the control or even censorship of particular cultural expressions and the exclusion, banning, suppression, or simple ignoring of cultural actors (Evans, 2001: 8).

Considering this context, in this paper we present an empirical analysis of alternative theatres in Istanbul, Turkey. The aim is to gain a better understanding of the ways in which these cultural networks shape the urban spaces in which they operate, how this in turn is regulated by local government regimes, and the extent to which these cultural networks contribute to the city as a site of democracy. Turkey is an interesting case in this respect. The post-2002 political dominance in Turkish politics of the Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi--AKP) has had particular consequences for cultural politics on the urban level. Istanbul is seen by the AKP both as a neoliberal growth machine and as perhaps the prime site for the implementation of its conservative socio-cultural beliefs. This produces various tensions between government actors and cultural actors that demand further investigation. These tensions emerge particularly vividly in the domain of alternative theatre, since these spaces are characterized by an 'alternative' position to a neoliberal project that is organized around the cultural economy imaginary of the AKP government, and which tends to make invisible these theatre spaces in the city. It is this very invisibility, we argue, that allows these alternative theatre networks to shape and democratize urban space through the following: (i) their relations with the local governments; (ii) their collective movement which bypasses traditional forms of organisation (Gole, 2013; Firat and Bakgay, 2012) and emphasises the role of urban cooperation instead of competition (Sennett, 2013); and (iii) the creation of a micro-public (Valentine, 2008; Fine, 2010).

The remainder of this paper is structured as follows. The following section offers a succinct discussion of Istanbul's cultural landscape, to set the scene and to better understand the position of theatre within the wider cultural economy. This is followed by a section in which we briefly sketch the main political effects of the rise of the AKP, focusing on the state regulation of cultural expression through shifts in cultural governance, and on the ways in which state-driven urban transformation projects shape cultural practices on the urban neighbourhood level. We then briefly introduce our methodology before discussing in more detail the case of alternative theatre in Istanbul, focusing on two key dimensions: (a) the relations between alternative theatres and local governments and (b) the organization of alternative theatre spaces and networks. Finally, in the conclusion we summarize the key points in our article and critically reflect on the contribution of alternative theatre to the city as a site of democracy.




The cultural economy of Istanbul

Istanbul is at the heart of Turkey's cultural economy regarding its number of enterprises, employment and consumer expenditures. According to national statistics, 40% of all cultural industries in Turkey are based in Istanbul. Similarly, 20% of household expenditure on cultural and entertainment services take place in Istanbul and its share in the entire country with regard to the number of theatres, cinemas, performances and their visitors is almost 30% (Aksoy and Enlil, 2011).

In terms of theatre infrastructure, there are two major types of public institution, namely Istanbul State Theatres (IST) and Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality Theatres. IST occupies a key position in the field of theatre with a 20 million Turkish Lira (approx. 6 million Euro) yearly budget, more than 250 staff members and 13 theatres in various districts of Istanbul. Other important actors are the private theatres that are autonomous companies with a seating capacity of 150 people or more (Langerova and Seyben, 2013). The most recent statistics point to a total of 189 theatres in Istanbul (Turkstat, 2013), with an increase of 18% between 2010 and 2013. While several theatre spaces have closed as a result of the urban renewal process of Istanbul, it is possible to trace the causes of an increase in spaces to the newly opened cultural centres by AKP municipalities and/or to the number of private theatres.

In the current AKP era, with its marriage between neoliberal economic policies and conservative political and socio-cultural principles, Istanbul is seen both as a growth machine and as a terrain for sociopolitical transformation (Aksoy, 2014; Eraydin and Kok, 2014). Considering governance and the organization of the state, this has led to a process of policy devolution to local government very much in line with similar experiments by neoliberal forms of governance in other countries (Gualini, 2006; Jonas and Pincetl, 2006). At the same time, research shows that there is a coherent multiscalar regime in place with the central government and Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality (IMM)--both governed by the AKP--working closely together with AKP-governed district municipalities in Istanbul to promote the image of the city through mega-events and to invest in cultural infrastructure (Ince, 2010; Aksoy and Robins, 2011).

With the cultural economy, the main trend has been to look towards the private sector for the funding (and cultural management) of cultural organizations through the incentive of generous tax breaks (Aksoy and Enlil, 2011). This has led to significant private sector as well as NGO involvement in funding the contemporary arts; the arts are not considered for structural funding by central or local governments in Turkey. The opening of the new Istanbul Modern art museum (inaugurated in 2004) was funded by the Eczacibasi Family; SALT, a research-based contemporary art institution, is funded by Garanti Bank; and ARTER, a contemporary art gallery, is funded by Kog Holding, to name some of the more important venues that have created a lively contemporary art scene in Istanbul in the last fifteen years. Despite this prosperous environment for the contemporary arts, the position of independent, small-scale actors within the cultural economy is much more difficult: they are not an object of the policies and funding schemes of local governments, nor do they manage to gain long-term support from private funders. Private funders seem to find it more attractive to be associated with prestigious and highly visible contemporary arts organizations, whereas AKP municipalities have introduced the notion of 'neo-Ottomanism' and now prioritize the traditional arts (as a source for funding and as a legitimate part of cultural tourism and the cultural industries).


Shifts in cultural governance: state regulation and urban neighbourhoods

In the Turkish context, theatre has for a long time been attributed with the task of spreading Westernization in the context of Turkish patriotism, with the aim of transforming an Eastern, Ottoman, traditional and patriarchal society, into a modern, secular and 'civilised' one (And, 1992; Buttanri, 2010). In the era of one-party rule, 1923-1950, during which the foundations of the newly founded Turkish state and its project of Westernization was strengthened, many plays were banned as they praised the old Ottoman Empire (Unlu, 1995). Censorship continued during the multi-party era that commenced in the 1950s, but the 1960 Constitution was the first and only Turkish constitution that promoted freedom of expression. Enabled by this newfound freedom and in particular in the 1970s, many private theatres flourished by introducing epic theatre to Turkish audiences. The 1980 Military Coup, however, changed all this, putting several censorship mechanisms in place. Left-wing thought in particular was excluded from publicly-funded theatres, and self-censorship became an identifible norm in private theatres. At the same time, the actors that were fired from the State theatres, laid the foundations for the rise of the alternative theatres of the 1990s (Basar, 2014).

Following the first election success of the AKP in 2002, the AKP has emphasized a more conservative social agenda. This has led to various interventions in individual freedoms and lifestyles, with Birkiye (2009) even arguing that "criticism of the AKP government, its record and world view as well as ethically questioned themes or even words are all subject to censorship" (p. 270). In the context of culture and theatre, however, many interventions are less explicit than censorship and mainly revolve around changing government regulations. Thus, one of the first initiatives of the AKP government was to change the legal status of municipal theatres in order to be able to include state bureaucrats in the administrative boards of these theatres. Also, attempts were undertaken to privatize state theatres, which is understood by Aksoy and Seyben (2015) as a shift to a conservative position and a shift against a secular cultural industry. As former Prime Minister Erdogan declared:

"There is now a debate about theatre. In fact, the issue is not about theatre. It is about a different matter altogether--it is about an elite that...

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