In an attic room overlooking Istanbul’s glistening Bosphorus Strait, a man lives in silence, moving periodically from a white bed to a black table. For nearly a month, he speaks not a word and eats only what visitors feed to him. Downstairs, a woman stands motionless outside a window, gazing intently into a nearly empty room. In the basement, music blares each time someone enters a darkened chamber to dance alone.
“You don’t feel like you’re entering an exhibition, do you?” asks Simge Burhanoğlu, the curator who has brought 10 artists together in one half-renovated house in Istanbul’s Galata district for 28 days of continuous performance. The house will subsequently be converted into a research space and library for the Performistanbul platform she founded in 2016. Burhanoğlu hopes visitors will feel that they’re participating in a “live process,” which is also her preferred term for Needed: You, the 672-hour event that began February 16 and concludes on March 16.
“We’re trying to not eliminate from the audience people who are not interested in performance art, or in art at all,” says Burhanoğlu. “We want to open a door where you can see whether you can click with a performance or a person, whether you can use that as a mirror to look at yourself.”
Performance art is a relatively new, and still underdeveloped, underfunded, and little-understood art practice in Turkey, according to Eser Selen, a performance artist and assistant professor at Istanbul’s Kadir Has University. “There’s no formal training for performance art in Turkey, and only perhaps a handful of classes in the entire country that teach it at all, so it’s hard for young artists to grow technically, artistically, and ideologically,” says Selen. “But even though the work is not always very refined, it can be very courageous. Turkish performance artists are very engaged with politics.”
That’s no small feat in today’s Turkey, where artists, journalists, academics, and activists have been jailed, dismissed from their jobs, and otherwise punished. The government claims these actions are necessary to fight banned terrorist groups, and to restore order after a failed military coup attempt shook the country in July 2016.
Although the performances in Needed: You are not overtly political, many hint at timely topics such as surveillance, expression, and freedom of movement. Curator Burhanoğlu says they are all fueled by the current situation in the country. “Many people in Turkey feel useless these days, like they can’t change anything,” Burhanoğlu says. “Here, in this house, everything is about you, your presence, your interaction with the artists, with this building and this environment. The way that you add to the final result of this process proves your value.”
One room of the house has become covered with the letters visitors have written — more than 800 in all — in response to the simple question asked by artist Ekin Bernay: “What do you want?” Another wall is filling up with Polaroid photos of the guests received by İ. Ata Doğruel, the artist in the attic, and the home-cooked dishes, bags of potato chips, and bunches of bananas they’ve brought for him to eat. On the ground floor, the sounds generated on an interactive screen accompany the daily routine of artist Batu Bozoğlu, who carries a speaker on his body 24 hours a day.
Connecting directly with audiences is essential to performances like this, says Selen, the performance artist and professor. “The only ‘product’ is in the audience’s head, what they bring out from the performance,” she points out. But this same intangibility also makes performance art difficult to sustain financially. “People don’t think that it requires or deserves funding.”
Needed: You is self-funded and not generating a profit; the venue is a house that belongs to Burhanoğlu’s family. Ticket sales, from 2,000 visitors thus far, will fund the purchase books for a library, for which Burhanoğlu is also seeking sponsors. She has set up an official association in order to solicit donations. At the upcoming Mamut Art Project, an annual fair for emerging artists, Performistanbul will also sell re-performance rights for the works that it presents.
At the same time, even as Burhanoğlu looks for economic and institutional support for performance art in Turkey, she savors the present atmosphere of possibility and newness. The performances still take visitors by surprise. “People feel a real response; they see Ata as a person they have to take care of, for example,” she says. “Will we lose our power if they instead start to look at the work from a distance, to react to it as an artwork within a discipline?”
Needed: You continues at Performistanbul (Hacımimi Mahallesi Dibek Sokak No. 32, Galata, İstanbul) until March 16.