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For visitors to Istanbul, and even many city residents, the local art scene is a foreign world. But there are no guidebooks to this world, no maps, and no tourism experts to lead you by the hand. Without these resources, the smallest problems can turn into insurmountable difficulties.
Artist Information project
PiST///, a non-profit artists' initiative which opened in Istanbul's Pangaltı neighborhood in May of 2006, aims to counter the lack of information about contemporary art in Istanbul with its current project,
Artist Information. Open for visits through August, the sleekly designed installation takes on the familiar profile of information booths scattered throughout city squares, airports, and tourist attractions worldwide. A smiling person waits behind a desk, ready to answer your questions.
Artist Information want to know: Where can I rent a 16 millimeter camera in Istanbul? How many contemporary art collectors are there in the city? What does the term "ethnic" mean, and how does it function within contemporary art in Turkey? PiST plans to compile and publish a list of these questions, along with their answers. In some cases, PiST will call in artists and curators to give responses. But rather than supplying a single, "correct" answer to each inquiry, PiST will also include a range of responses from individuals outside the art world.
Artist Information, PiST capitalizes on its independent status to criticize the tourism and art industries' claims to expert knowledge. But the project also works to more productive ends: giving everyone a potentially "expert" status, it is transformed into a forum where people can work out the difficulties of making and displaying their art, together. In fact, PiST plans to conclude its
Artist Information project by arranging a series of round-table discussions that will bring together many new-found "experts" to debate eight questions selected from those asked at the information desk. As a further extension of the project, PiST has produced a "guidebook" (a calendar of local art events, entitled
LiST) and will schedule "tours" (artist-led walks in the city), beginning in mid-September.
How to speak a local language?
Artist Information project has stimulated new relationships with international visitors, it has provoked little interaction with its immediate neighbors. PiST's neighborhood is only slightly removed (by one metro stop) from Taksim, where the majority of the city's arts venues cluster. But PiST is a unique phenomenon in the area. "We've never seen anything like this," notes a local tea seller named Ali.
Shopkeepers and residents watch goings-on at the art center in much the same way one might spy on an eccentric neighbor: with varying degrees of curiosity, but little desire to make contact unless provoked. In large part, locals hesitate to find out more about PiST because of their impression that it is mainly a forum for foreigners.
PiST/// 7-24, a continually changing display window that faces out onto the street, garners the most widespread approbation. "People like the display window," says one shopkeeper. "They come and look with curiosity at the new pictures."
Since opening in 2006, PiST  has gradually begun to increase what founders Didem Özbek and Osman Bozkurt term their "research" into their neighborhood. Both Özbek and Bozkurt lived just around the corner for several years before opening PiST, and the decision to establish the art space sprang out of their own personal relationship with the area. In part, they acted out of frustration. All around them, other residents were asserting their presence in the public space -- shouting for tea, regulating parking, and arguing in the street. Appropriating three neighboring store fronts (formerly an electrical hardware store, a restaurant, and a grocery store), the pair made room for their own art interests amongst the local shops and bars.
Still, they note, functioning at the street level as "PiST," rather than as "Didem and Osman," is a delicate process. It is not clear whether locals' reserved attitude is specifically a response to PiST's ambiguous status -- or if such a response indicates that PiST successfully fits into an existing way of life, where "live and let live" is the neighborhood's established code. After all, not all of the shops in the neighborhood feel the need to announce themselves as something specific. Some are simply
there, like a local repairman, whose store full of wood serves in place of a sign specifying what exactly he does.
Branching out with
Turkish Pavilions project, PiST made its boldest move to date. Pangaltı is distinguished by numerous pavyon bars, which surround PiST on all sides. In Turkish, the word
pavyon indicates a specifically Turkish brand of seedy bar, a late-night entertainment spot replete with loud music, plentiful drinks, and an all-female staff who serve and entertain the exclusively male customers.
pavilion is also an art-world term. Perhaps most famously, the Venice Biennial hosts national artist pavilions, where, since the 19th century, artworks have been organized geographically. On several occasions, Turkey has sponsored a Turkish Pavilion in Venice.
For one night,
Turkish Pavilions was hosted simultaneously at PiST, and at the neighboring Golden Gate bar (pavyon). Superimposing images and video footage from Venice and Istanbul, the project contrasted two types of pavilions which are each exhibition spaces in their own right. Pavyon-goers and an art crowd mixed in the two venues, and in the street, which eventually became so crowded that cars could not pass. Still, when Bozkurt apologized to neighbors for any unwanted disturbance, they waved him away, thanking him instead for bringing a little more life to their street on a weekend evening.
Turkish Pavilions was a humorous look at different representations of national identity; a tongue-in-cheek comparison of a low-brow entertainment industry and exhibition practices in a city famous for its varied festivals; or even an offensive showcasing of "flesh on display" at the pavyon bars. But for PiST, it is most significant as another step in the initiative's "research" into its own specific position in its surrounding Istanbul neighborhood. PiST's unconventional use of former commercial space and 24-hour programming anchors the initiative in the immediate community in a way that no other Istanbul art space manages to do. It remains to be seen what kind of pavilion PiST will transform itself into.
Free-lance writer and research fellow in art history at the Ecole Normale Superieure, Paris.