European Capitals of CultureΠοιειν Και Πραττειν - create and do

The philosophy behind the bid formulated by a NGO as bottom up approach

Nuri M. Colakoglu, coordinator of Istanbul 2010 and therefore one of three European Capitals of Culture to have this title in 2010, explained at the ECCM Symposium “Productivity of Culture” that the city has adopted a philosophical approach by focusing on water, fire, earth and air. He gave thereby an idea on how cultural actions can be shaped:

The uniqueness of Istanbul 2010 is that it started out from creating a NGO and therefore represents a bottom-up process until the designation to be a European Capital of Culture besides Pecs, Hungary and Essen, Germany in 2010 was given.

To understand the various layers of history as evident in a city like Istanbul, it should be reminded that there Hellenism, Byzantine, Ottoman and modern Turkey all of which have left their own unique imprint and which are still influencing how the city views itself in terms of history.

In terms of the complexities and problems to be faced in the present, the key question is how these problems can be overcome with the help of culture. Istanbul wants to set here an example. It can be done best by being a grass root, bottom up movement to allow for the participation of everyone.

Istanbul is a city of poetry and philosophy with many outstanding scholars and poets having created the basis for the approach adopted for 2010. In particular Aximander's definition of the four key elements, namely air, earth, water and fire shall be used to adopt the cultural program accordingly.

The Capital of Culture in Istanbul will not focus merely on the centre, but as well on the poor districts. Moreover it is the aim to involve the youth studying in 28 universities which exist in Istanbul. It gives an idea of the dimensions involved.” 1

While it is very interesting to see how the concept for Istanbul evolved (bottom-up, NGO of Civil Society, aware of different layers of history defining the city while wishing to face the complexities and problems of the present, reaching out to the poorer districts), a real test of success shall be if the proposed thematic explorations will bring about cultural clarification of the real knowledge base needed by the city to be governed in the twenty-first century. By taking recourse to the ancient philosophical orientation of Aximander when referring to four elements, such a cultural strategy incurs already at the outset the well known risk of over simplification. Naturally for organisational reasons general themes can provide convenient ways to appeal to popular sentiment while giving space to specific events linked to themes of fire, air, water or earth. Much can be associated in accordance to them. Yet it is not clear if the themes shall be used as a constraint e.g. during the phase of the fire to deal only with fire, nor if the sophistication required for the cultural reflection of all four elements together can be brought about.

Cultural reflection is needed as basis for further understanding of life in the city. It has to be, however, differentiated enough. Here it can be doubted if these basic four elements will do. Since Aximander both society and science have moved on while languages in use no longer depart from such a basic philosophical premise. Or to put it in another way, an evaluative question can be what cultural experiences of these planned events around four elements shall enter during and thereafter daily life and alter the language of Istanbul? If after the year 2010 there emerges a new cultural structure for more sophisticated reflections, then it will be a success.

The test will be, however, if the year of being the European Capital of Culture will allow people of all walks of life in Istanbul come to terms with demands of life in the twenty-first century? If the outcome can be translated into new liveable forms, then something will have been gained. Otherwise the risk is to remember only at random what took place. There will not have been created a new knowledge base which can be used to integrate the diverse life elements prevailing in a city like Istanbul.

Seen from another perspective and assessed already as future European Capital of Europe Dragan Klaic, former President of EFAH wrote a report after he had visited Istanbul in 2005. There is much to be said for sticking to conventional wisdom when it comes to relating culture as does EU policy in general to cultural infrastructures, training and mobility and then to evaluate it in terms of public debate about culture:

Inevitably, Istanbul’s becoming the Cultural Capital of Europe will depend on political influence, prominence and visibility, and yes, much energy will go into real estate deals and things that have nothing to do with culture but rather with the city’s infrastructure and logistics (as, for instance, a possible third bridge across the Bosporus). It is unrealistic to expect the Ministry of Culture and Tourism (that is its official name, and in this case indeed, nomen est omen!) will invest much in Istanbul’s cultural infrastructure. But efforts to secure Cultural Capital status might point out the drastic inadequacy of the cultural infrastructure sustained by the national government and – even more so – the cultural infrastructure supported by the City of Istanbul and its municipalities. It would reveal the dramatic absence of any cultural policy and stimulate the formation of broad coalitions to debate and articulate such a policy. There could be an orchestrated effort to balance investment in the tourist industry with investment in community arts and create an ambitious programme to develop public and private resources for contemporary creativity (which nowadays exist only as private largesse and not as a public responsibility). This could be an opportunity to remap Istanbul in terms of cultural infrastructure and ensure that its modest resources do not remain concentrated within the two square kilometres between Galata and Taksim or just a kilometre further north, while the Asian part and many areas on the European side lack any facilities. It could be a chance to upgrade professional arts education and integrate it better within the best of the existing universities. And the PR agency already contracted by the organising committee could perhaps begin by seeking to change attitudes in the popular media, which do not cover culture at all except as gossip or scandal.

Some of my interlocutors rejected any serious consideration of this idea as pure futility and an example of the touching naivety of an outsider who does not grasp how things work, how power is constructed and how public projects inevitably slide into private gain. Perhaps. But would those who adamantly reject any serious consideration of the Cultural Capital idea be willing to formulate their arguments against it and highlight what would be their own cultural development priorities instead? This would create at least some peg for public debate that is anyhow missing now.” 2

However, there has to be added another point. If Istanbul is interested in carrying on the dialogue with other cities and serve as bridge for Turkey’s relation to Europe, and given its poetic-philosophical emphasis as outlined by Nuri Colakoglu, the city should try to include besides the four traditional elements as well discursive elements related to the dialectic of securalization. As the head scarf issue indicates in 2008, the Turkish society is undergoing a transformation in need of being explained and understood by European member states. The same goes for the many counterparts to Istanbul, namely other European cities. There has to be answered at the same time demands of how European Capitals of Culture can contribute to keeping the imagination alive in a world of not only consumption but also of moral rigidity. It ties in with what was just said above. A secular philosophy free from theology, as was the case in the Islamic world until the 9th century (and in sharp contrast to the mixture of theology and philosophy in Western Europe) entails quite a different cultural disposition than a religious force aspiring to determine the collective identity in quite another way. The question about Europe’s future may well be reflected upon in Istanbul come 2010. It is hoped that by being engaged in a dialogue with European cities, in particular the two other European Capitals of Culture, Pecs in Hungary and Essen / Ruhr in Germany while preparing for 2010, a common future in the making can be at least envisioned.


1 Nuri M. Colakoglu, “Continuity of EU Cultural Policy: Istanbul – a European Cultural Capital already in dialogue”,

2 Dragan Klaic (2005) “Istanbul’s Cultural Constellation and Its European Prospects”, A Report


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