As part of Wales Arts Review’s birthday celebrations, James Lloyd reflects on his articles for us from the heart of the 2013 Turkish uprising in Taksim Square and Gezi Park, which examined the cultural impact of the conflict, and looks at the aftermath, the legacy, and the recent developments.
Taksim Square is a grey stretch of concrete. Glassy and ruinous in the rain. Aside from the AKM or the Republic Monument commemorating Turkey’s independence, it is largely forgettable. And when you consider that Istanbul’s history stretches back 8,500 years, that it has been occupied by Byzantine, Roman and Ottoman Empires, and that Taksim Square is the focal point of the city, where all kinds of people converge for any number of reasons – the equivalent, say, of London’s Trafalgar Square or Rome’s Piazza Navona – it is an indignity that this should be so.
Gezi Park is a green fingerprint amid the five star hotels and many nondescript office buildings. A necessary public space that, like Taksim Square, is in need of a conscientious redesign that will benefit long-term the city and its people. The previous plans to redevelop this area resulted in the protests that began at the end of May last year. That proposal, signed off by Turkey’s increasingly divisive Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, included the flattening of Gezi Park in order to rebuild the Ottoman Taksim Topçu Kışlası (Taksim Artillery Barracks) that existed on the site previously. Instead of its former incarnation however the plans for the reconstructed artillary barracks would instead house a shopping complex. Depriving Istanbul of a historic public space without consultation, along with the unmerited police brutality that followed, was the tipping point for what became known as Occupy Gezi – the spirit of which hovers over the various campaign trails currently taking place in Turkey before the elections on 30 March.
The propaganda machine is in full swing. A great banner hangs over the facade of a building on Sıraselviler Caddesi, just off Taksim Square. It features a birdseye view of the most recent design for the redevelopment and pedestrianisation of Taksim Square. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the images show groups of trees here and there. A section of Gezi Park is also featured and there is no sign of the intended artillary barracks. Although it is an improvement on Taksim in its current state, it is, as mentioned of the previous plan, a massively unimaginative project, one that smacks of lip-service on behalf of Istanbul’s municipality.
The AK Parti has adopted a conspiratorial tone since the Gezi Park protests. This attitude escalated towards the end of 2013 following a corruption scandal and has continued in recent months. All of which was exclamated by the death of Berkin Elvan. An adjudged plot to overthrow the government has been blamed on foreign powers seemingly jealous of Turkey’s growth and an ill-defined interest-rate lobby, not to mention several other ‘terrorist’ groups and an alleged ‘parallel-state’ inspired by the followers of Fethullah Gülen. Most recently, however, Twitter and YouTube have become the main targets of the AK Parti’s beleaguered leader.
Just this week Erdoğan vowed to ‘wipe out’ Twitter, implementing a ban some days later, and then threatened to extend the ban to YouTube* unless it gave up its ‘immoral activities’. The Twitter ban caught the attention of world’s media quicker than the events of Gezi Park and in many ways this is very sad. To me, the prioritisation of the ‘hyperreal’ as opposed to reality highlights a growing dissatisfaction and desensitisation to the world around us, replacing them instead with plots and fictions.
Last year I wrote for Wales Arts Review in Occupy Gezi: The Cultural Impact Part II that:
While Turkey’s domestic news channels remain in a state of comatose, Twitter has been and remains a highly useful platform for disseminating information regarding Occupy Gezi. Nonetheless it is equally accountable for a flourishing ventriloquism; disembodied voices and paranoid and unhinged. This is not a surprise. Multiple realities permeate people’s opinion and regardless of their legitimacy they are highly pervasive.
The fiction of Don Delillo, for example, frequently posits a society in which the spectacle has replaced the human component. Suffocated by simulacra, the real exists as a proto-type to an artificial model. In White Noise members of the SIMUVAC team attend real-life toxic spill where people are being evacuated. Jack Gladney, the novel’s protagonist, asks one of the team members what SIMUVAC stands for. ‘Simulated evacuation’ is the reply. When he remonstrates with the team member that the toxic spill is real and not simulated, the former explains that he knows that, but SIMUVAC thought that they could ‘use it as a model…a chance to use the real event in order to rehearse the simulation.’
Following on from this I was reminded that in 2002, Ron Suskind, the Pulitzer Prize-winning American journalist, wrote an article for Esquire magazine that displeased the Bush Administration’s communications director. A senior aide told Suskind that he lived in what they called the ‘reality-based community’ and that they defined the people who occupied such communities as those who ‘believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.’ The aide finished by declaring, somewhat ominously, that: ‘that’s not the way the world really works anymore…We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.’
The multiple realities spun out of the Gezi Park protests and all that followed has left Turkish politics in a surreal state. Erdoğan and certain members of his party have been particularly demonstrative of using real events to simulate their own version of events to explain away charges made against them. It seems Erdoğan will do anything to protect his reputation as he looks to make certain his place in history. (On a personal note, I can tell you from my own experiences that I sometimes feel like I am in living in the Turkish equivalent of a Hollywood political thriller.)
The banning of Twitter, however, is no doubt a myopic, ill-thought out solution to a long-term problem. It certainly did not stop Turks from sending a record amount of tweets in the days that followed (there has been a fifty percent drop off since then). However, the question of where all of this will end remains. Having watched events take shape for close to a year now, and having read much commentary about the situation in that time, as well as reflecting on my own experiences of Occupy Gezi, it would seem that no one is really sure.
*Since the writing of this Youtube has been banned in Turkey.