Tuesday, September 20, 2011


Galata Tower, Istanbul.
I have just returned from Istanbul, where I have been for the last several days.  I presented a paper on electronic literature, technological change, and the critical use of database tools at ISEA.  The other panelists included Scott Rettberg, Maria Angel, Anna Gibbs, and Dene Grigar.  As far as academic conferences go, ISEA2011 was among the most exciting that I have ever attended.  In addition to preserving a sharp focus on artists and the arts, I found that the experience was enriched by a city in all of its dimensions that seemed intent to insert itself into my consciousness.  The academic papers were presented at Sabanci Towers while the gallery exhibitions and workshops took place at other sites (a chief sponsor of the event was Sabanci University, which has been endowed by the Sabanci Holding Company, hence the conference site).  It was my first time attending a conference with high security--metal detectors, x-ray machines, and a general security perimeter that insulated the world of the towers from the world that surrounds it.

Graffiti writing, some street in Istanbul.
To provide a bit more context, Istanbul is a city of over 13 million people, which is notable for the number of billionaires that live there and the large numbers of people living in poverty.  Beyond the income inequalities, Istanbul also shows the signs of tension that accompany the changes that are sweeping the globe.  As a historical meeting place for many cultures, Istanbul has an certain innate cosmopolitanism to it that has been produced by years of people trying to live their lives against the sweeping changes of imposed by the fickle hands of imperial ambition.  And, in a way, Istanbul today is not much different.  The forces of globalization march ever onward, but the people are very much concerned with going about their lives, trying to make their livings while finding time to be happy.

A view from Taksim Square.
In addition, Istanbul is notable for its history of religious and cultural pluralism.  Certainly, the number of mosques indicates that Istanbul clearly has a Muslim majority population.  But there are also many Christian churches in the city, Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Armenian Catholic, etc.  In addition, there are a number of synagogues in the city.  And, though I didn't visit Hagia Sophia this time (I was there in 2003), it serves as a clear monument to the absurd travesty of politicized religious conflict. The current treatment of this historical monument shows a pragmatic, historical view of the site that seems to reflect the tolerance that prevails in the city.  All too often, back home, I hear people say things like, "People have been killing each other over religion for centuries," while ignoring examples that prove this is not destiny.  And, quite frankly, the little glimpses of religious tension that I experienced in the city had more to do with a general anxiety that religious extremists could chip away at Turkey's strong secular tradition.  Rather than seeing ancient conflict shaping up, I came away with the sense that religious fundamentalism is something of a contemporary phenomenon, and that older people, no matter how traditional their views might be, were not keen on the mix of politics and religion that seems to have emerged, promising to save us from the challenges of the 21st century.

Karen Casey.  Meditation WallISEA2011, Uncontainable: The World Is Everything That Is The Case.
In other words, my experiences at ISEA seemed to be something like experiencing the entire world in miniature.  The meeting of worlds: Europe and Asia.  Pre-Industrial, Industrial, Post-Industrial.  Rich history and rapid change.  Extremes of wealth and poverty.  Security and insecurity.  Tradition and innovation.  It was truly fantastic to try to think, with my head full of black tea and Turkish coffee, constantly drifting in and out of the ivory tower.  A surreal experience forged at the intersection of absolute realities.

Derya and Utku
But my time wasn't all just thinking about scholarly things.  I had the benefit of good company and fine art to help pull these thoughts into humane directions.  In the first case, I was spent a great deal of time with my old friend Derya and my new friend, her fiance, Utku.  They went out of their way, again and again, to show me all the best things about life in Istanbul.  They took me to their favorite restaurants, prepared some fine meals, escorted me to my events, took me to look at wedding dresses and provided warm hospitality to me.  More importantly, I had the opportunity to share a special moment in their lives, as they anticipate their future together, with all the hope and promise that entails.

Me touching Emergence at Uncontainable: Hyperstrata.
The art we enjoyed together as part of the ISEA exhibition provided a nice opportunity to share my interests with my friends, and to connect my thinking to the broader field of human experience.  While there were many worthy works exhibited as part of the events, I recall a singular experience with a piece that consisted of a giant orb that, when held, would pulse with your heartbeat.  Sean Montgomery's Emergence is a fairly simple work, however, I found it immediately captivating.  To see and hear my pulse produced an immediate affinity with the work, as it was operating on my internal rhythm.  Immediately, the piece made me want to move, then to attempt to alter my pulse.  But after this sort of narcissistic initial encounter, I was taken aback by the fact that other people were watching something that had seemed so personal.  I stepped back to watch as others interacted with the work, and in each case, I watched as they appeared to have a similar experience.  Except this time, as a spectator, I found myself wanting to dance to their heartbeats, and in some cases even doing so.  And I wasn't the only one.
On a Taksim sidestreet late at night.
When I had a second chance to place my hands on the orb, I was now looking outward from the center of the piece.  Watching the lights travel from the orb, out to the floor, into the crowd, and out into the world.  Though, of course, this is only a trick of the mind--after hours of walking through a city that seemed itself to throb and pulse, after reading lots of philosophy, enjoying the company of my sweet companions, struggling with the estranging effects of a confusing world, drinking too much coffee and too much wine--I imaged for a second that all of our hearts were beating at the same time, all thirteen million or so people in the city of Istanbul.  I saw, for a second, the glimmer of another world...

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