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Art, Politics and Other Things in Life — Updates by Hakan Topal

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CLUSTER: Urban Planning, Pedagogy and Activism in Post-Revolution Cairo Wednesday, November 12, 5:30 pm

Supported by a grant from the Ford Foundation, Omar Nagati and Beth Stryker of CLUSTER (Cairo Lab for Urban Studies, Training and Environmental Research), an organization created in the wake of Egypt’s 2011 revolution to establish a critical space for urban discourse, and platform for art and design initiatives, share their work and projects.  

Located in Cairo, CLUSTER explores the shifting dynamics of urban space, culture and democracy in post-revolution Cairo through symposia, design workshops, exhibitions in downtown Cairo passageways, and pubic programs.  Their conversation will be moderated by Hakan Topal, Assistant Professor of New Media and Art+Design at Purchase College.

Omar Nagati is a practicing architect/urban planner living in Cairo. A graduate of Cairo University, he studied and taught at the University of British Columbia and University of California Berkeley, with a specific focus on informal urbanism. Nagati adopts an interdisciplinary approach to questions of urban history and design, and engages in a comparative analysis of urbanization processes in developing countries.  Together with Beth Stryker, Nagati has recently cofounded CLUSTER, a platform for art and design initiatives and urban research and design initiatives downtown Cairo.

Beth Stryker works between NYC and Cairo and has curated exhibitions and programs for the Downtown Contemporary Arts Festival in Cairo, Beirut Art Center, Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects, Smack Mellon, the AIA/Center for Architecture in NYC (where she held the position of Director of Programs), and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, among other venues. With Omar Nagati she co-founded CLUSTER, a platform for art and design initiatives and urban research in downtown Cairo.

Hakan Topal is an artist living and working in New York City. He is an Assistant Professor of New Media and Art+Design in the State University of New York’s Purchase College .   He was cofounder of xurban_collective (2000–12) and has exhibited extensively across the globe. He represented Turkey at the 49th Venice Biennale.  He is coeditor of The Sea- Image: Visual Manifestations of Port Cities and Global Waters (D.A.P.), emerging out of work for Istanbul European Capital of Culture 2010.

The Overlooked Besieged Alternative in the Middle East: The Rojava Cantons


In my previous article I wrote about how both soft and hard Islamists render a very dark future for the Middle East. I finished my article by stating that the Kurdish Movement may provide a salient alternative for the whole region. However, this alternative is currently under attack by Islamists and its supporters.

As I write this article, ISIS thugs surround the northern Syrian city Kobanê — also known as Ayn Al Arab. While both the Kurdish guerilla group PKK, Syrian arm PYD and some factions from the Free Syrian Army are desperately fighting to keep ISIS out of town, the situation is getting worse by the day. Turkey is reluctant to open its borders for humanitarian and military assistance, and so help ISIS to take over the town. In fact, the Turkish government sees this siege as an opportunity to eliminate autonomously controlled cantons established by PKK/PYD in 2012. While in effect ISIS seems to be running a proxy war for Turkey, the Syrian civil war and the sectarian fire is quickly spreading all over the region, igniting already tense ethnic issues.

To read more continue to Public Seminar website >>

Utopias and Realities

Monday, September 29, 2014
Anthology Film Archives
32 Second Ave, New York, NY 10003
Admission Free

Curated by Graciela Cassel, TransBorder presents an international panel of artists to discuss current positions relating to reality and utopias as well as individual and  social concerns. Our presence as “bio-political” beings assures our continuing interest  in creating new spaces: for some, these spaces are utopias, for others, realities.


Kathleen MacQueen (USA)
Gerald Pryor (USA)
Hakan Topal (Turkey/USA)
Jorge Zuzulich (Argentina)
Alejandro Schianchi (Argentina)



20 September – 16 November 2014
Opening: 19 September 2014, 19hr

nGbK / neue Gesellschaft für bildende Kunst
Oranienstrasse 25, 10999 Berlin

Facebook event page

Artists: Pedro Barateiro, Ricardo Basbaum, Paolo Bottarelli, Anne Dukhee Jordan, Wietske Maas, Amina Menia, Yves Mettler, Pratchaya Phinthong, Timur Si-Qin, Sun Xun, Hakan Topal and Clemens von Wedemeyer.

With texts by Dipesh Chakrabarty, Reza Negarestani and Beatriz Preciado.

Curated by: Elena Agudio, Dorothee Albrecht, Bonaventure Ndikung, Matteo Pasquinelli, Eylem Sengezer.

The Greek word metabolē meant originally to change and, literally, to throw over. In times of worldwide human-made transformations, climate change and ecological awareness, expanding and exploding the notion of metabolism seems to be crucial to understand present and future politics. The exhibition investigates the understanding of ‘metabolism’ in contemporary art in a dialogue with philosophical and scientific research beyond Eurocentric rationalization.

Biological metabolism is a process that constitutes living beings in their continuous exchange with their environment. Photosynthesis, for instance, struggles to capture and condense solar energy at the basis of the food chain that sustains the whole biosphere. For the parasitic relation of terrestrial life with the outside cosmos, French philosopher Michel Serres in his book The Parasite once defined the sun as our energetic horizon and the very ‘ultimate capital’.

Like many other scientific ideas, as soon as the concept of metabolism emerged in the 19th century chemistry and biology, it generated a contagious fascination in art and politics. Marx himself registered the ‘metabolic rift’ provoked by the industrial revolution and envisioned a ‘social metabolism’ long before environmentalism. However today the human appears to be made also of the non-human, of a heterogeneous stratification of minerals and microorganism, including machines, synthetic materials and immaterial data.

The exhibition The Ultimate Capital is the Sun brings together artists, philosophers, scientists and curators to explore various grounds of metabolism with no desire to establish a centre of gravity.

CONVERSATION: Starting from Zero: Art, Harmony, and Innovation

Thursday, September 18, 4:30 pm 
at the Neuberger Museum

Join a fascinating conversation among scholars, conservator and curator about the technological and conceptual innovations of Group Zero, an international movement of artists. 
Participants: Elizabeth Berkowitz, adjunct professor of Art History, Purchase College; Hakan Topal, assistant professor of New Media, Art+Design, Purchase College; and Reinhard Bek, partner, bek&frohnert, LLC. Moderator: Avis Larson, assistant curator, Neuberger Museum of Art.

Turkey and Syria: On the Bankruptcy of Neo-Ottomanist Foreign Policy (June 4, 2013)

I wrote this piece just before the Gezi protests and repression in Turkey. It provides a perspective for understanding those events, as it highlights the tragedy of Syria and how Turkish policy is implicated. 

At the end of May, the Syrian civil war consumed more than 94,000 civilians and destroyed the country’s civic and cultural heritage. In addition, the civil war crystallized regional fault lines along the sectarian lines; on the one side Sunni Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey, on the other side Shiite Iran, Iraq and Hezbollah (Lebanon) represent ever-increasing nationalistic conflicts.

While Assad’s army commits war crimes, kills thousands of civilians, and unleashes its terror on its population, factions within the Free Syrian Army utilize comparable tactics to bring Assad’s supporters to submission. This is a war with plenty of religious morality but without ethics. In a recent video circulated on YouTube, a Free Syrian Army guerilla cuts the chest of a dead Syrian soldier and eats it in front of the camera. How can we make sense of this absolute brutality?

Islamists who have no interest in democratic transformation hijacked the Syrian revolution. Any salient voices for the possibility of a diplomatic solution are silenced, effectively forcing the country into a never-ending sectarian war. Can the total destruction of the social and cultural infrastructure be for the sake any political agenda or social imagination? What will happen when the regime falls? Is there a future for Syrians?

And tragically, the civil war cannot be simply contained within Syria. It is quickly expanding beyond its borders, scratching local religious, sectarian and political sensitivities, especially in Turkey and Lebanon. A recent bombing in Reyhanli—a small town at the Turkish-Syrian border with largely Arab Alevi minority population—killed 54 people and subsequently, the Turkish government quickly covered up the incident and accused a left wing fraction having close ties with Assad regime of mounting the attacks. It was a premature and doubtful conclusion. Leftist guerillas have no history of attacking civilian targets in city centers. A couple of weeks after the attacks, the Turkish hacker group Redhack uncovered some early intelligence reports that identified the possible attackers, linking them to the Al Nusra Front—an Al Qaida association operating freely in Syria—supported from Turkish bases. The government was silent about these intelligence documents.

Criminal investigation is continuing. However, no matter who executed the Reyhanli terror attacks, be it Assad sympathizers in Turkey, the Assad regime, or the Al Nusra Front, the objective is to pull Turkey into the circle of war by provoking local sectarian divisions. In fact, Turkey’s ethnic, cultural and political fabric is extremely sensitive to Syrian civil war. Nevertheless, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan lacks any governmental responsibility or wisdom; instead of carefully navigating the Syrian crisis, he gambles with the Islamists on the faith of Assad’s regime and pushes Turkey to its very limits both financially and culturally. After the Reyhanli attacks, the Turkish public became aware of the fact that Turkish foreign policy lacks any salient political calculation. There is no exit strategy. At this moment, Turkish minorities are on high alert, feeling the increasing religious and nationalistic oppression and day-to-day discrimination. Today, in a ground-breaking ceremony, Erdogan named the third Bosporus bridge as Yavuz Sultan Selim, the Ottoman king who persecuted Anatolian Alevis in the end of 15th and beginning of the 16th centuries.

Since the Islamists took control of the government over a decade ago, neo-Ottomanist imperialist ambitions have fueled Turkish foreign policy. Erdogan and his team imagined a Middle East where Turkey plays a big brother role, leading regional economic transformation into a big functioning market. The transformation in the region after the second Iraq war was considered a historic opportunity for Turkish neoliberal-Islamists. Total disbelief of western democratic models wrapped-up with Arab Occidentalism created a fertile ground for Turkey’s increasingly colonialist hunger, that accesses huge young Arab markets, reaching oil fields and extending political influence. These imperial ambitions at first presented themselves via so-called “soft power” moves; Erdogan established very close connections with the regions’ notorious dictators and leaders. For instance, he frequently visited Assad and his family, and called him a close friend. He had no trouble receiving the Al-Gaddafi International Prize for Human Rights in Libya for his “distinguished service to humanity”—no, this is not a joke. He supported Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir, a war criminal whose supporters committed genocide in Darfur.

When it comes to Arab Springs, Erdogan and his team were caught unprepared. He scrambled his policies to adjust to the reality on the ground. These days, when it comes to Syria, Erdogan speaks about democracy and human rights, he (rightly so) asks Assad to step down and stop committing war crimes. However, how can we trust an Islamist who has been a keen supporter of war criminals?

A year ago, with direct knowledge of the government, Turkish military planes bombed and killed 34 Kurdish (Turkish) citizens from Roboski village, who were simply smuggling gas and cigarettes. It has been over 500 days since the incident and the Turkish government blocked any attempts for a criminal investigation. Currently, there are thousands of students, academics and journalists in Turkish prisons. In fact, Turkey has one of the worst human rights records within the developed world. Every time the opposition presses Erdogan’s government for justice, he effectively changes the public agenda by bringing forward issues such abortion or alcohol ban to further divide society, playing to his Islamist base. With his notorious temper, street charisma and machismo, he may be a popular figure on Arab street, but with his divisive right-wing agenda, he is far from a democratic leader who can promote peace or democracy in the region. While the Arab youth thinks highly of him, they forgot the fact that what they need is not another powerful patrimonial figure to replace their unfortunate dictators. When democracy is served only as an option for minorities, it presents itself as the dictatorship of the majority. This is now playing out in the streets of Turkey, which I will explore in my next post.

Sadly, if we can identify a common tread among societies in the Middle East, it’s the chronic hypocrisy inflicted by all governments, public recklessness and immunity. It is not Islam per se, but years of Middle Eastern-style patrimonial government that paralyzed societies. Not to mention that internal and foreign policy lacks any long-term strategic thinking. The possibility of dialogue and careful diplomacy is replaced with bullying; politics is understood as a pure power game where those in power have the right to absolute appropriation of commons, suffocating minorities and opposition.

Syria has become a sad corner of the world where there are no good fronts any more. Evil has consumed the territory. Cities are in ruin. Turkish support for Islamists in Syria created more bloodshed rather than providing a swift solution. While Turkey also pays a price for the long lasting civil war in Syria, Turkish foreign policy is sidelined in any decision-making process. The U.S. and EU do not want to step into to the hell— fearing that a western intervention would have larger consequences. In the mean time, as the war is escalating, it is pulling Turkey and Lebanon, two of neighboring countries, into regional abyss. Erdogan’s government will be remembered as one of the losers.

The really sad thing about Syria, whoever wins this war, is that they won’t have a country to celebrate.

Michael Hardt is the new resident of Boğaziçi University’s Boğaziçi Chronicles! Here is an interview that I did with him in Turkish. 

For more information:

Original video interview can be seen at: WHAT NOW? Michael Hardt on Continuity and Leadership

Aerial Photograph of Mount Ararat, Turkey, 06/17/1949

Interview with Art Vidrine & Hakan Topal


Interview with Art Vidrine & Hakan Topal as final project.
MFA Graduate Seminars IV, Spring 2014

Art:  How do you balance the different expectations of academia and the art world in your artistic work?  Research, knowledge production, and dissemination in academia value objective, rational analysis that can be verified, built upon, or contradicted in further academic studies.  Art often pursues ambiguity, complexity, room for subjective responses that may not hold up to scientific scrutiny.  How do you approach the two sides in your work?

Hakan:  I see my academic studies as an extension to my art practice. I can say that I am interested in in-situ knowledge production and my work is usually based on some sort of social research. While I would certainly not consider my scholarly work as my art, over time, they became increasingly interconnected. For instance reading, writing, teaching, discussing provides me a space where I can develop new ideas and concepts, in return I apply them to my artistic research.

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© Hakan Topal, 2018