Normal￼/Strange: I went to the opening night of a strange exhibition this week. Wasn’t at a place designed for exhibitions. Not a museum, not a gallery, not a studio, not a coffee shop, not a collective zone or a historical building that, for example, biennials with a subtle mission of globality/mondial joy would like to dwell in for a time, and not even the street.
The exhibition is hosted at a residential building in the wake of voluntary demolition. Actual people lived there; a couple of residents are still using the building, yet to vacate it, soon, very soon. We saw trash bags out the apartment doors, waiting to go. One could say, it is an unintended installation – sharper (and potentially smellier) than an installation! As far as I learned that night from guests (some of whom were property owners), majority (9 out of 10) of the owners in the building agreed to hand it over to a contractor for tearing down the old for building the new. In fact, it is quite a boring story, because it has been playing on loop for the last decade thanks to the ’99 earthquake in Turkey (the original debris). The quake shook us bad, but it also well embedded the money-making tensions, and a neoliberal economy seeking immersively ‘how to grow money on concrete’ made use of that tension. It seems we made the most of this tension when buildings that were not necessarily dangerous to live in also became disposable according to their location and resident composition. It is money! It is hope! So, in Istanbul and Ankara, owners in numerous old apartment buildings mass-vote for urban transformation, in the ‘conviction’ that the house will be physically safer or better to live in or nicer to rent out. Sometimes the conviction simply comes from the hope of increased return of investment as they hand one unit to the contractor and receive more than one unit later. In either case, the new replaces the old, with a refined look, more profitable, smaller units, fresh concrete (hmmm, yummy!) and stronger prospects. Of course, this has been an overwhelming trend in Istanbul. The overhaul in the city was breathtaking when I used to live there; for two years almost any building I lived in (or considered living in) had a demolition/construction going on nearby. I did not think Ankara would be so eager to compete.
Perhaps, it is hard to overcome the trauma of original debris after all. Perhaps, we need the new so badly. Perhaps, living in brand-new housing makes one feel safer than holding on to the old because one silently knows that the old one was built insincerely. Then it is a moment of truth, even when one does not confess it yet pull a second act based on the absent confession. If these perhapses do not satisfy, think of the issue as a matter of hope, rather than a blame or a praise. I know that no reason will satisfy those who made such houses home and repine over the disappearance of a style, era and soul of architecture. Mind you, many cases of demolitions happen to be in neighborhoods with Republican Ankara apartments. We are not concerned with statistics here. There is something stranger in perhapses than numbers here.
Dangerous/Hospitable: There are special entanglements you can find yourself in if you go to the opening of an art event. The place can be full of people, and full of their intentions that will work very differently than in other moments. A friend, who is also an artist herself, told me about the exhibition and offered to go together. When we approached the building unsure if that is the place, a few excited folks (friends, neighbors?) welcomed us in. Then a bifurcated entry, because the exhibition uses the space of two opposite apartments. Follow the heat; the artist is there. When we walked over to her she welcomed us; but it was the apartment manager (who is also one of the property owners and someone who eased the way for this exhibition to dwell here in this specific building) who made sure we got soused in the welcome: What are we? Are we city planners or architects? (Neither… We are artists) Okay, cool. We should take wine. We should take snacks, here. (Thanks) So, what do we do? (I am actually a geographer) Oh, geographers are dangerous, let me tell you a story: Years years ago, I accompanied a couple of them from France on a trip when I used to work in the public sector, and those geographers were very careful, real shrewd, with maps in their hands, and questions on their mouths, they rake up a lot (Oh! am I being flattered?) No, but I had to control them because they rake up too much… Of course, they are not like you; you won’t rake up like that. (I understand that I’m not being flattered. Tell me about the building a little?) I don’t know what to do about the residents who haven’t moved out yet. Gonna have to turn off electricity and gas. The demolition is coming very soon. (…)
The rest of my conversation with our good-hearted host, who kindly housed the exhibition, kept being a spirited encounter. She did not reveal any feelings about losing this place. Listening to her, it felt like a business. It is happening. It’s gonna go. Life is about change (which we can mistakenly use for upheaval). But it was still a home, livable, with hardwood floor, a fireplace, no sign of being rundown. But they are abandoning it. They want to abandon it for something else. Later, when the artist shared some photos from the stairs in the building, she spotted a cat that I had no idea it was one of the residents in the building. Apparently, the cat cannot abandon it yet, either.
Old/Artist/New: She is a mosaic artist/photographer, documenting ruins, left-out pieces and demolition sites of such apartment buildings in Ankara, photographing stuff in the ruins. She is not alone in this interest. Recyclers of the city will also visit the site and stroll the ruin, looking for stuff that is good to sell. Well, for the artist, this building is her next/now interest, while artifacts on exhibit are other unwanted stuff left near the dumpsters, and she picked those that are signaling a generation gone. But it is also stuff that signals the past unwanted/unneeded, not necessarily decaying. The exhibition is a not a recycling show. Nor is it a random gig. Clearly, she told us, people from an older generation are passing out in this neighborhood, and their stuff no longer holds value for their offspring, is unwanted, and so put outside next to the dumpster. They are reduced to trash. Old photos and other people’s antiques put on sale in flea markets is no novelty in Ankara; but here the stuff recovered from trash are more than personal photos of someone’s youth; some artifacts are statements of belonging to a club, a thought, a conviction, a norm. It’s a small selection, and that makes it more suspenseful. I’d even thought stuff here on exhibit aren’t clean, are they, no but don’t think they were contaminated on purpose. It’s a weird feeling. Oh, I can’t even do justice to the cold sentimentality of a prayer rug who has the face of a president woven onto it. Could it be really used for prayer? Was it just ceremonial, a praise, a show of gratitude? Is it qualitatively different than today’s shows of gratitude? Are these stuff exposing us to a subtle precarity that an created for themselves? Such creepy artifacts threw me off-guard, left me thinking who gave this to the owner (who are they?), why they kept it, used or untouched, and who kicked it outside eventually. A privacy dumped on the public now. This is stuff renounced, and shared here on display in a very-soon-to-be-discredited home.
Fire: She is using the space that will receive new rhythms to remind us of the old. Then, all these are shared with us along with a very particular smell. Of fire. Of fireplace. Because apartments in this unwanted building have classy fireplaces, surrounded with marble and are in okay shape. The first room we went into was washed with an incensed scented wood smell and the active presence of a fireplace. That’s where the artist hangs out. Those who visit the exhibition will likely be taken over with warmth and a sense of that smell in the first room. My friend realized it very unsubtly, and I felt disturbed, uneasy with the smell. It was not about whether it was fabricated. Rather, it took over me and told of a ripped memory. Smell can be touching, even more touching than sound — working with sound, one knows it is hard to escape a rigid opposition between the auditory and the visual. Smell, though, it gets to you… The gap between the moment you perceive it and the moment you are drown in it is so short that it leaves little space for a disagreeing opinion. It may even have little tolerance for indecision – like an unexpected alarm. As someone who documented sounds, traced them, asked about them, and then even watched them in the making, I find smell a visceral evil. Preparing for research, I recall reading on the visual’s domination; I would think visuality needed to leave the door always open, because that’s its way of getting out, too. Sound could lovingly impose width and its access like a mother but make sure to ignore walls, because that’s its way of moving around, too. Smell does not need to signal its presence; it’s a trap; you get close to it, and it hunts you down. This is strange because, we are supposed to take longer to respond to smell than to recognize sound, according to Beckerman (2004: 25). Smell must be the slowest to get:
Then we went upstairs to the penthouse apartment, which has a terrace view of the city. One of the guests in the opening night would unlock the door upstairs to us, because he is the owner of that apartment. And the only person in the building who originally said no to the handover. And it did not matter. And he seemed sad about losing this spacious apartment. And he actually moved somewhere else nearby with a terrace again. And he would get an apartment in return when the new space would be completed, but he did not seem very flattered by the idea of owning smaller, newer space. Perhaps, the smell would not have to be the same.
Do you happen to be that uncomfortable when you visit exhibits or the City’s Modern?
Personally, this was the weirdest time of the exhibition. It topped what we had seen downstairs. Although he had moved out, some of his stuff remained here: books, weak plants, kitchen and mostly any stuff he decided not to take along remained ready for demolition. Stuff was there in the terrace, on the shelves, on the floor. Architecture was still alive. Fireplace functioned. Terrace stunned and pulled people. And we stood there with wine in paper cups in what’s just used to be someone else’s home. It was inhabited. Then a few more people showed up, and soon the fireplace went alive to warm the space. Then we almost congregated. A talk of the woods, the city, the peace, the transiency and intrusion. These are the keys I took with me after that room, feeling uncomfortable because I was comfortable standing there. Aural. Like the uncanny uniqueness imposed somewhere on the audience, like Benjamin’s definition.
Do you ever get the chance to recognize the people who are affected by a site of exhibition?
There you go. Obrist mentioned biennials’ and temporary exhibitions’ skill to be dangerous bridges in cities; a communicative port – how nice – working fully as a ‘catalyst for new, creative input to the city’ (Obrist, 2014: 128). This one I am journaling here felt like a massive one in a small case; and it’s going to get demolished. So I am going back.