It was at Canlandıranlar Animators Festival that I came across Melis Bilgin’s animation, Tetrist. Remember Tetris, the phenomenal video game of the 90s, in which you are supposed to keep building blocks until there is no room left? Melis’ Tetrist –Tetris set in Ottoman and contemporary Istanbul- is a critical take on the urban sprawling, which leaves us gasping for air in this concrete jungle. I was so moved by her short film that I knew I somehow had to meet her in person. And we did because there was only one degree of separation between us!
We clicked the moment we started talking about the city; a trip down the memory lane over a cup of coffee. I felt like we were two fellow Istanbullites in the diaspora. She reminded me of all those frivolous details of my childhood memories from the ’80s that I would no longer have the urge to recall for this is hardly the city we grew up in. The warmth of childhood nostalgia, the haunting images of a by-gone era coupled with the predictable fate of global cities in our ever more connected world; this is the talk I am sure you would love to eavesdrop on:)
Melis Bilgin…? I was born in Istanbul. After my high school education at Robert College, I attended Bennington College, the USA when I was 17 and then moved to NYC in 2001. I moved back to Istanbul in 2004 and have been living here since then. I am an artist who works in visual and performing arts. I paint, make short films -Tetrist and Odalisque– and video art, write and direct. I also teach art and design courses at Beykent University.
Your unforgettable childhood memory in Istanbul… Sitting inside the gigantic windows of the Museum of Painting and Sculpture as I watched the boats glide on the Bosphorus… Driving under the lindens on the way there. They seemed to hold the sky in place… There was a man who used to ride his horse on the E5 highway. He used to wear a cowboy hat and we used to call him the E5 cowboy. I used to press my face to the side window in order to spot him whenever we went driving. I wish I could find a picture of him… It seems like one of those unbelievable phantoms of childhood…
I have a vague recollection of going to Taksim square as a kid and visiting my uncle there. He sold postcards on Taksim square when he was still a university student. To me, it seemed like the coolest thing to do; “Everybody goes to Taksim square and everybody knows my uncle because he sells postcards in Taksim. How exciting it must be!” and of course the postcards! The more the glitter, the better!
Spring in Istanbul means… Randomly running into friends at Beyoğlu and chugging beer hurriedly in between films during the Istanbul Film Festival… I have friends that I run into once a year and only at the film festival. But that’s also changing now that there are fewer Taksim cinemas at the festival.
Summer in Istanbul means… That chill I feel when I am barefoot inside the Hagia Sophia in mid-August.
Winter in Istanbul means… Sipping sahlep, topped with cinnamon, on the ferry.
Fall in Istanbul means… Petting wet dogs at bus stops.
The scene you most enjoy watching… The way cargo liners erase the lights of the Asian side as they glide along the Bosphorus at night.
Among all the things you discovered in Istanbul, which one did you enjoy most? Two things, one immaterial and one material: the first one is the high-minded and conscientious fighter spirit I witnessed in Istanbullites recently. As for the second, there’s a Viking graffiti inside the Hagia Sophia. Some Viking, probably bored to death during a sermon, carved his name onto the marble there. How he ended up there is what I wonder.
The sound/scent which you associate most with the city… The smell of lodos, the south west wind and the sound of baby seagulls on the roof.
A special Istanbul moment.. I cannot shake off a particular image that stuck with me ever since I turned a corner at Harbiye on the early evening of may 31-the day Gezi Park events kicked off. I did not know whether there’d be anyone at all, but there I was, witnessing what seemed like a mass migration towards Taksim. I think that will be my favorite image of Istanbul for a long time.
Istanbul means… A constant yearning.
The most underrated place… I’d rather not say; I’d like it to remain just so.
The changes in Sulukule, and Tarlabaşı districts, Haydarpaşa train station, Emek movie theatre, Inci patisserie, the Gezi Park, possibly the Yeniköy Park, the Kadıköy Pier in Beşiktaş, Karaköy, Veliefendi Hippodrome, Fenerbahçe waterfront, the forests where they are building the third bridge… you cannot really zero in on any one of them; it is the loss of a much larger landmark: the city’s fauna, flora, culture, history, memory and soul altogether.
An Istanbul landmark whose loss you feel sorry for… Had this been prior to the Gezi resistance, I would have answered the demolition of the Emek movie theatre, with all its memories. The Gezi Resistance gave me strength and hope that we can change things, but I have also started looking at a larger picture. I can see that Istanbul as a landmark in its entirety is about to get lost itself. The changes in Sulukule, and Tarlabaşı districts, Haydarpaşa train station, Emek movie theatre, Inci patisserie, the Gezi Park, possibly the Yeniköy Park, the Kadıköy Pier in Beşiktaş, Karaköy, Veliefendi Hippodrome, Fenerbahçe waterfront, the forests where they are building the third bridge… you cannot really zero in on any one of them; it is the loss of a much larger landmark: the city’s fauna, flora, culture, history, memory and soul altogether. I believe that’s why the resistance became so important for all of us.
I should also mention that the loss that hurts me the most on a personal level has not come in the form of demolition. The loss of a landmark doesn’t necessarily come in the form of destruction; it may just be the denial of access. As a kid, I was a student of the arts courses offered by the Association of Painting and Sculpture museums inside the Dolmabahçe Palace. The Dolmabaçe Palace crown prince quarters- at the time, it was still Istanbul Fine Arts and Sculpture Museum. I was their first student as a kid. I was four years old when I first climbed inside the gigantic windows and painted there, while watching the Bosphorus. I studied and played there every weekend for over a decade. I loved chasing and getting scared by the swan in the garden. I loved the long, creepy hallway of the bathroom on the ground level. I loved the moss on the walls of the inner atrium. I loved climbing the stairs to the museum itself. I loved when tens of children came together to paint murals on the walls of the garden by the pier. So many children and adults were welcomed into the world of art there for the first time. But now, the museum is closed. The foundation has moved to an apartment in Nişantaşı and the entire area is sealed off from the people thanks to the prime minister. It has been taken from the use of the many and been turned into the pm’s office only. Has it been demolished? No, but the chance for new generations to form memories there has been destroyed. You cannot even approach the exterior wall of the complex anymore, as there is a police squad there at most times. I wonder if they have ever seen the interior; I wonder if they even know what they are keeping away from the people.
Inci Patisserie and Emek Movie Theater: Photo credit: Anonymous
The sound of Istanbul which you miss the most… Frogs. We moved to Ataköy in 1984 or 85 when it was merely a swampy area being built at the time. There was a brook that used to smell horribly. I hated the smell but loved the endless chorus of frogs croaking. Think about it; when was the last time you heard a frog in the city?
Three things that drastically changed your relationship with the city… Living in New York, the constant urban transformation and gentrification I witnessed in the past 9 years and the summer of 2013.
Living in New York made me regard the make-up of this city differently. I guess that’s also why I first thought of “Tetrist” in New York and finally made it in Istanbul. But more on that later… The transformation I witnessed over the past 9 years upon my return from New York, devastated me in many ways. I guess I was trying to anchor myself here via memories rooted in various places all over the city. As I saw these places change, I started feeling rootless and more adrift in my hometown than I imagined possible.
That changed on May 31, 2013 with the Gezi Park Resistance. Until then, I guess we thought that everybody was already speaking for himself. Trees have no tongue, they cannot speak up and so, suddenly everybody cast aside their identity and united to speak up for the one thing that could do nothing but keep silent. Trees symbolize life. They are rooted for life. I think that as the trees of Gezi Park were being uprooted, we each felt uprooted. It’s the symbol of life that brought the city and the country together. We were anonymous, and rejoiced in being united in anonymity. Seeing everyone there, so willing to cast aside differences, so defiant in the face of a huge blow to the life energy within, made me receive the city and its people warmly again. I read art theorist Zeynep Sayın’s comments in an interview where she spoke of how the uprising was deeply linked to the wonderful symbol of the tree of life. I think it’s this tree of life that brought us together under its shade and on its branches.
I am afraid that Istanbul is becoming less people oriented and thus, less life oriented. It’s becoming a city of skyscrapers, and as such, it is blocking the winds, changing the local climate, blocking the migration routes of birds and it’s changing our perception of ourselves. It’s playing with our perception because it’s becoming a city of financial and residential fortresses; it’s imposing a new form of hierarchy within urban life. It’s forcing apart people from different walks of life.
As a result of the urban transformation projects implemented here, what do you think Istanbul will look like in the next few years/decades? I am afraid that Istanbul is becoming less people oriented and thus, less life oriented. Just think of the wild boars that had to cross the Bosphorus swimming a few weeks ago. Why are they swimming across the strait? Because their habitat is gone. It’s becoming a city of skyscrapers, and as such, it is blocking the winds, changing the local climate, blocking the migration routes of birds and it’s changing our perception of ourselves. It’s playing with our perception because it’s becoming a city of financial and residential fortresses; it’s imposing a new form of hierarchy within urban life. It’s forcing apart people from different walks of life. Joseph Campbell once explained that the highest building of an era was a sign of what was of most significance at that time. He gave examples of cathedrals, palaces and financial buildings. If that’s the case, what is most important in Istanbul at the moment? Should that really be the case when we have such incredible history and architecture around us?
One thing that the Gezi Park has contributed to the urban way of living in Istanbul? Taking initiative. The park forums that sprung up, the neighborhood workshops that took place, local zines and networks are all a result of a city’s people taking initiative. In early september, I learned of Ahmet Atakan’s death through a writing on a Kadıköy wall. I saw it as I was walking to the morning ferry. It was not in the papers yet; I had long quit watching the news and had not gone online yet as I was rushing to work. A city wall gave me the news. how sad and crazy and amazing is that? The people of Istanbul have started communicating through the city itself. This is taking initiative when you have nothing to trust but the life and the force of the city itself.
Why did you choose Matrakçı Nasuh’s miniature of Galata area? The idea behind “Tetrist” first popped up in my mind in 2003 when I was living in New York City. I remember looking at the Manhattan skyline one day and thinking of how it seemed like a Tetris game of blocks falling on a grid. Then, after I moved back to Istanbul, I started thinking of how everything seemed to have fallen randomly as there was no grid and things seemed to complement, replace, erase and pile on top of one another. I remember looking at the back of the church of St Anthony in Beyoğlu from a terrace and seeing this tiny adjunct barrack on its back. I first likened it to a fungus growing on the bark of a tree. Then, it reminded me of Tetris pieces that just don’t fall into pieces and stick out in an annoying fashion. That’s how the idea came: every empty lot in Istanbul was being filled with something but they were just not falling into place. It was like a badly played game of Tetris. So, I guess the Beyoğlu neighborhood was always on my mind for the project. When I finally set out to do the animation, I sought an image of the istanbul skyline I could play with. When my friend and artist Gül Ilgaz showed me miniatures of Matrakçı Nasuh, I thought that was it. There was a depiction of the 16th century Galata area in one of his miniatures. I loved how green and well-planned the area appeared. I knew that for a long time the structures on the hill were constructed so that none of them blocked the view of a structure behind it. Everyone could see the sea. It seems almost as if excess was deliberately avoided then. The Galata area is still one of the few areas of the city where the historical architecture has not been blocked by more recent structures. I thought of what might happen to the skyline here at the rate we are going. Once the Galata tower was the highest structure in the city. What happens when you build so high and dense that you lose what was historically the highest structure? In that sense I thought the Galata tower would make a good symbol.
How can we relate the game, Tetris to the transformation taking place in the city? What happens in Tetris? You keep building. You try to squeeze things in the right place. You try to fill any empty spot you find. You try to make do with a limited area and expand upwards when you need to. To me, it’s an urban architecture metaphor. Sometimes an entire line gets deleted in the game and new blocks keep piling up. I kept thinking of how the earthquake of 1999 erased parts of the city and how immediately new buildings rose up in their places without much thought or planning. In Tetris, your objective is to keep the game going as long as you can without reaching the top of the screen. If you sky rise, then the game’s over. I felt that we were nearing the end of a game; that this city was doomed to be over if the transformation kept going this way. It’s being built and rebuilt but what if there comes a time when it can no longer be built?
Also, I am sure everyone who has ever played and watched others play Tetris will relate to this: Tetris is only worthwhile and fun if you are the player yourself. It’s unbearable if you are watching it. That to me also explains the craze with all this urban transformation; it must be fun for those playing this game but it’s unbearable for those of us who are exposed to it.
You were the first graduates of Canlandıranlar Animation Talent workshop. What was it like to be a participant in the workshop and create your first animation film? I produced “Tetrist” at the first animators’ talent camp. It was great to work together with other animators; some of who were first timers like myself, and get feedback from area experts. The soundtrack that chronicles different eras of the city was an idea that came from the feedbacks. So was the placement of the title of the piece, as it gave everything away. Had it not been for Canlandıranlar, I probably would have kept this project unrealized for a long long time.
Istanbul Travelogue? Fresh air.
Photo credit: Courtesy of Melis Bilgin and Berat İlk.
For more Matrakçı Nasuh miniatures: Matrakçı Cities