A Trailblazing Arts Festival Changing Global Perceptions of Turkey

How Alphan Eseli and his wife Demet are shifting the paradigm with the Istanbul Arts & Culture Festival.

Courtesy of Istanbul '74

For centuries, Istanbul, Turkey has been a cosmopolitan port attracting global citizens from all walks of life, and an incubator for thought-provoking discourse, inspiring everyone from Rumi to Rimbaud. Despite this legacy of sophistication, many evening-news watchers tend to lump Istanbul, and, for that matter, all of Turkey, under the misleading title of “conflict area” due to its proximity to several embattled neighbor-nations. Situated perfectly between Europe and Asia, with Syria to the South and Iran to the East, many in the West, particularly those unfamiliar with the region, are worried that the country will be next in line to fall prey to ISIS, which in the last year has grown from fringe movement to formidable force.

In 2010, out of a growing desire to change global perceptions of Turkey and to connect Istanbul with the international cultural scene, filmmaker Alphan Eseli, in partnership with his wife Demet Müftüoglu-Eseli, launched the Istanbul Arts + Culture Festival (formerly Istancool), now in its 5th year. The event, which in past has hosted icons ranging from Gore Vidal to Tilda Swinton and Terry Gilliam, matches western cultural icons with their Turkish counterparts for 4 days of panels, workshops, and collaborations, meant to build cultural bridges and bring Istanbul into the global conversation.

A scene from one of IST's previous panels.

The festival, which starts tomorrow, is free to the public and takes place throughout the city. The theme of this year’s event is Realism in Arts & Culture, with a program focused on how technology affects ‘reality,’ and speakers ranging from surveillance artist Trevor Paglen to director Mike Figgis to Turkish rap sensation Fuat Ergin. In addition to numerous pop-up events and discussions, the famed Pera Museum will host a series of screenings, and graffiti artist JR will unveil his newest film, Les Bosquets, a collaboration with the New York City Ballet inspired by the 2005 French suburb riots. The event will run from the 22nd to the 25th, and a full listing of events can be viewed here.

Alphan Eseli

In addition to the Istanbul Arts + Culture Festival, the Eseli’s also run ’74GAZETTE, an influential, independently run daily cultural news website and quarterly bilingual Arts and Culture magazine, ’74STUDIO, a creative lab, agency, and platform, and 74MOTION, a digital video lab.

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