Contemporary Art - Science - Urbanism - Digital Culture

Shaped by global capital and local and regional political turmoil, the cities of Berlin and Istanbul have been the sites of market-oriented policies aimed at increasing global competitiveness, commodification, and the political sterilisation of public space over the past decade. Rapid and drastic changes resulting from neoliberal urban transformations have led to political polarisation and social injustice, undermining the possibility of living together in a democratic society based on the principles of equality, inclusiveness, and connectedness. Despite the rise of exclusionary politics, the promotion of monolithic identities, and the widespread homogenisation of physical spaces in these two cities, their populations have been undergoing continuous diversification. Called forth by political, economic, and ecological changes alike, migration not only connects these two places in both past and present, but being fundamental to the urban experience, it also stands at the centre of a current global backlash of anti-pluralist rhetoric and politics.

In the face of the uninhibited neoliberal restructuring of both Berlin and Istanbul, the struggle for affordable housing, access to public space, sustainable living, ecological justice, and the right to live differently has intensified. Various forms of resistance have unsettled the urban tectonics of both cities, forcing us to remap the urban as a primary terrain for political struggle, contested by a plurality of voices. Interferences ‘from below’ have put the relationship between local governments and social movements to the test, provoking questions about where and how the political subjects of the city emerge: Who are we, the city?

Embracing Diverse Formats of Knowledge Production: From Conference to E-book

To answer this question, the conveners of the international conference “We, the City: Plurality and Resistance in Berlin and Istanbul” invited the authors of the following three chapters to present their work from May 23–25, 2019 at two venues, Humboldt-Universität and Aquarium in Berlin. From the beginning, the format of the conference was catered to create synergies between practitioners and theorists of the urban in both Berlin and Istanbul. A minimum of one collaborator from each city was invited to work in bi-urban tandems and to decide on the format with which they wanted to have their topic of expertise presented and discussed.

This unorthodox approach towards the conference organisation not only allowed for a diversity of disciplines and perspectives but also fostered a truly horizontal culture of collaboration. The result was a three-day conference during which activists, cultural producers, and scholars alike navigated a wide array of knowledge production. Most of them coming together for the first time during this event, they decided upon formats as diverse as moderated talks, panels, film screenings, multi-media installations, guided tours, and performative acts. The multiplicity of these formats, which all had either implicit or explicit comparative aspects to them, allowed to tread new analytic paths between these two urban scapes—paths that move beyond the oriental-occidental patterns of thought with which Turkish-German encounters would previously have often been framed. Instead, the comparative threads spun between Berlin and Istanbul throughout the conference allowed for a two-way dialogue at eye level.

Following a long halt forced onto us by the Covid-19 pandemic, three years after the conference, this e-book reflects on this unique set of bi-urban collaborations between both cities. The variety of formats, which the event was widely applauded for by many of its attendants, is now mirrored in this e-book: conversation pieces and essays are accompanied by critical reflections on conducted workshops. This freedom of experimenting with different text forms is in many ways detrimental to what the academic system requires from its members—many of whom have contributed to this edited volume. Professional uncertainty and the pressure to publish in indexed journals, coupled with sheer unruly competitiveness, are the drivers behind the oftentimes unwanted necessity to produce texts of a certain shape and form, inhibiting the possibility to experiment with other valuable formats. With the e-book being available as open access, this publication at hand furthermore allows for wider availability, including to readers from Istanbul, Berlin, and beyond.

Chapters and Contributions

How do residents of Berlin and Istanbul experience, express, and contest the physical, political, and normative reordering of their cities? Can we find the elements of an egalitarian democratic imaginary and a nonhegemonic conception of “we” by thinking together the instances of resistance in Berlin and Istanbul and the plurality that both cityscapes represent? Who are “We, the City”?

Ayşe Çavdar provides a first answer to the latter question with her opening of Chapter I, “The City in Resistance/Resistance in the City”. Her contribution “A City without ‘We’: The Subject Lost in Urban Transformation?”, sheds light on the im/possibilities of forming a singular collective “We” through resistance as viewed in relation to the urban movement in Istanbul, a cityscape  tormented by its increasing fragmentation. Contemplating on missed opportunities of Turkey’s urban activists of the past decade as viewed through a journalistic and auto-ethnographic lens, she inquiries into the ethics and politics of activism. Applied to the case of Berlin, politics of activism is also the subject of the following chapter, Matthias Coers’ photo essay “The Housing Issue is a Societal Responsibility”. Pondering upon photographic material documenting a strengthened Berlin tenants’ movement, the essay owns up to its pamphlet-like title by introducing the reader to some of the main actors of urban resistance from the 2010s in Berlin as well as by broaching the issue of the social divide which the lack of political will concerning the housing question has produced (and we may add here, continues to produce).

Closing the chapter with another photo essay, Sister Sylvester’s “Kaba Kopya / Rough Copies” profiles another form of resistance, one that has forcefully emerged following the July 2016 coup attempt in Turkey that has—among others—resulted in the dismissal of over 2,000 academics. The struggle for freedom of speech, thought, and research in Turkey, which continues to this day, is portrayed through an intriguing series of pictures taken in, for example, Istanbul, Mersin, and Amed/Diyarbakır depicting the so-called “solidarity academies” that have emerged as a result of the state’s various attempts to suffocate academic freedom in the core. They have opened up space for radical forms of pedagogy that have, among many things, also turned court rooms into lecture halls.

Chapter II, “The I in We: Un/Silenced Subjects” investigates the second defining moment of this e-book’s title, namely plurality, through the dual prism of subject and group formation. With “The Pandemic State of Emergency as a Reading Guide of Notable Absences in the Urban Class Society of Istanbul”, Aslı Odman analyses the class relations in Istanbul by emphasising the role of labour. Underlining how the actual makers of the city, their occupational risks, and also their fatalities, remain unseen (in opposition to, as she writes, the “hegemonic ‘We’s’ constructed in official and public discourses”), her map-based analysis not only renders labour (as well as labour’s resistance) visible. Her long-term examination of the necropolitical sphere of public health is given additional topicality by including latest data on the Covid-19 pandemic. The other two contributions to this chapter zoom in on another group seldomly recognised as political subjects in both Berlin and Istanbul: Syrian newcomers. The piece “Spaces of Encounter and Change: Mapping Migrant Economies of Syrian Entrepreneurs” examines both cities along a comparative axis. Here, Tuba İnal-Çekiç and Urszula Ewa Woźniak draw a bi-urban map of migrant economies as they successfully navigate the paradoxes of labour market integration and encounter. Their reflection piece discusses a joint workshop on Syrian entrepreneurship conducted by an interdisciplinary group of students from both cities and sheds light on food practices as a form of inhabitation and the persistence of everyday racism. The chapter closes with Hilal Alkan and Anna Steigemann’s dialogical piece “What Makes It a Home? A Conversation on Syrian Refugees, Neighbourhoods, and the Right to Be a Host in Istanbul and Berlin”, which identifies various elements to homemaking, such as hospitality and the crucial role of the neighbourhood. In it, Steigemann, among other things, scrutinizes the challenges of state-managed refugee mass accommodations vis-à-vis place-making practices of Syrian refugees, while Alkan compares their settling experience in Turkey and Germany by looking into the im/materialities that turn a place into a home.

The final Chapter III, entitled “Walking the City”, consists of two practice-based contributions that both successfullyqueer the mundane practice of walking—thereby dismantling the epistemological hegemony of the white, cis-male, heterosexual flaneur. The practice of walking as discussed here relates to both resistance and pluralism, as Sema Semih, İlayda Ece Ova and Kristen Sarah Biehl demonstrate with their text “Curious Steps: Feminist Collective Walking and Storytelling for Memory, Healing, and Transformation”. Reflecting on their workshop programme Cins Adımlar, they examine two alternative walks through Istanbul’s historical Beyoğlu neighbourhood, thereby emphasising the importance of an alternative approach to knowledge production and feminist pedagogy for the achievement of reconciliation, justice, and democracy. In a similar vein, Banu Çiçek Tülü looks into the political and gender-related implications surrounding the sonic experience of walking. In “Queer Urban Sonic Analysis: Blocking the Sound”, she discusses a workshop she conducted with various groups, including women, LGBTQIA* and people with disabilities. The material result of the workshop, a subject-centred design of headphones as a tool of resistance, raises awareness for the very different experiences of power/less(ness) that various city inhabitants make with this seemingly simple act.

Reflecting on the decade that led up to the Covid-19 pandemic, this e-book tries to grasp some of the social and political changes that neoliberal urban transformation and migration movements have in/directly brought about in both Berlin and Istanbul. These changes are in turn accompanied by a wide set of social practices, some of which are highlighted in this publication: the fight of local communities against the housing crisis, the home-making practices of migrant newcomers, the creative forms of resistance in the name of academic freedom, and the appropriation of seemingly profane acts such as walking, to name just a few.

Showcasing the historicity of urban resistance practices and various possibilities of alternative pedagogy, the following three chapters of this e-book all embrace the idea of a multiplicity of political subjects in the urban. Essentially, our emotive title “We, the City” represents the multiple fights for compliance with the yet unfulfilled promise of equality in plural democracies and advocates for an understanding of (urban) society as a pluralistic assembly worthy of preservation.