What are some novel ways of understanding the Earth along with soil, water, air and ecosystems surrounding us in the age of climate change? How do we as artists, researchers and cultural programmers connect with indigenous knowledge in the contemporary context? How does our engagement with indigenous knowledge help us grasp such a global phenomena on a local level?
Last fall, I invited artist and environmental designer Carmen Bouyer, who was visiting Istanbul at the time, for lunch at Ek Biç Ye İç (Plant’n Harvest, Eat’n Drink in Turkish), an urban farm and restaurant in Taksim Square, thinking this new agricultural initiative would resonate perfectly with her recent art projects around foraging in Istanbul and Izmir. Following our meeting with sociologist Ayça İnce who has been running the public programming of Ek Biç Ye İç, I invited both to converse around these questions unpacking their parallel practices and the crossovers between the domains of arts, culture and agriculture.
Conducted over a series of online correspondences in light of ArteZine’s Spring 2016 theme, Nature is Our Body, the conversation below discusses a range of topics including farming methods in urban environments, healthy eating and sustainable living, indigenous knowledge Turkey offers when relating to the practice of permaculture along with the responsibilities of art institutions in the age of climate change.
– Text by Guest Editor Nazlı Gürlek
Ayça İnce (Aİ): Carmen, I’d like to start our conversation by offering a few of my own experiences. ‘The city’ (and ‘the urban’) was often presented in opposition to ‘the village’ (and ‘the rural’) during my studies in urban sociology. And ‘the city life’ with its rhythm and structure seemed to affirm that. I grew up learning the Latin names for plants with the help of my father, who is an agricultural engineer, and earned my first pocket money as a gardener. A few years ago, I felt the need to distance myself from the city and reconnect with nature after 12 years of being a 24/7 urbanite in Istanbul. So in 2013, I took a 100-day trip to South America, where I stayed in permaculture hostels and eco-villages, shopped from farmers’ markets and met with fair-trade cooperatives and organic farm volunteers (WWOOFers). These interactions led me to search for alternative ways around the urban-rural divide. On my return back to Turkey, I met with individuals from seed exchange networks, community-supported agriculture associations, Slow Food groups, composting and balcony gardening workshops, such as Buğday Association for Ecological Living, Ormanevi Collective, and Permacamp project, along with the protectors of bostan[i] (Turkish for historical urban farming areas). All these people and initiatives shared, in common, a strong belief in the wisdom of nature.
Anatolia (or the so-called Asia Minor) is a historically and geographically diverse peninsula, and its people has relatively strong ties with the nature perhaps due to the nomadic histories in the larger region. Nature permeates households through small-scale organic planting and harvesting along with streets through their markets and, of course, cooking.
These are some contemporary agricultural and culinary practices that bring human beings and nature together. Carmen, can you talk about your engagement with these issues in your recent work in Turkey? What kind of role do the local context and a sense of locality play in your larger practice?
Carmen Bouyer (CB): My experiences in Turkey as an artist has certainly expanded my understanding of the relationship between human beings and nature. In 2014, my Yaban Bostan (Wild Food Garden) project at PORTIZMIR3 International Triennial of Contemporary Art explored what I had learned during my studies as an environmental designer from a fresh perspective.
Before arriving in Turkey, I had farmed in the ancient rice fields and food forests in search for the ‘wild agriculture movement’ in Japan and France. This research then bloomed in Izmir when I met urban foragers and people with traditional medicine backgrounds seeking a universal understanding of how to relate to the land. I got deeply inspired to gather the fruits offered by the land, instead of mastering its yields through farming methods.
In İzmir, I connected with wonderful ethno-botanists and biologists, such as Yunus Doğan from Dokuz Eylül University along with Serdar Gökhan and Volkan Eroğlu from Ege University. Thanks to them, I learned that Turkey is one of the richest countries in the world in terms of biodiversity. More than 9000 species are found in Turkey, which is, surprisingly, fully equal to what grows in the region spanning the whole European Union. At least a third of those species are endemic to Turkey, meaning that they grow only in this area. Also, Turkey is a very important region with the influences from three continents. Climates and biodiversity from Europe and Asia, come together with African influences from the South, and create prolific and unique ecosystems. In the world there are several gene centers, and Turkey is one of them, particularly of wild food and fruits. Even the Aegean region of the country alone is home to a wide range of wild edible plants with diverse harvesting, storing, and cooking practices. I was equally inspired by the work of Selen and Murat Akhuy, two visionary permaculture farmers and holistic lifestyle thinkers, involved in the ecological association of Marmariç and the Permaculture Research Institute of Turkey[ii]. Then in Istanbul, I was fortunate to meet Aybike Zengin, a founder of Permablitz Istanbul, an organization that turns empty urban gardens into blooming permaculture farms, and Ayşenur Arslanoğlu, from Slow Food Youth Network Istanbul. Through her work as an environmental activist and insights into ‘Garden’, a sustainable food garden, on the top floor of SALT Beyoğlu― I discovered how this research project, Arslanoğlu was involved in, could open up new potentials in the Istanbul’s contemporary art world. Last year, I revisited Turkey to exhibit work at Maquis Projects and at Halka Art Center, two unique gallery spaces in Izmir and Istanbul, respectively, both dedicated to bridging sustainability and the arts.
All these initiatives are deeply rooted in the specificity of the Turkish landscape. Turkey provides insights into bridging traditional and modern urban lifestyles. Vacant lots, sides of highways, urban wilderness, margins of urban development, old historical sites turned into foraging grounds such as Kadifekale, Güzel Bahçe and Agamemnon forest in Izmir, and the large historical urban farm, namely the Yedikule Bostans in Istanbul. They are doors to realize that we are the land itself, and ‘the world is our body’.[iii] Ayça, how about the beginnings of Ek Biç Ye İç?
Aİ: The idea behind Ek Biç Ye İç is based on the ‘farm shop’ concept, and initially realized by the London-based artistic duo Something & Son for the 2nd Istanbul Design Biennial where they built a vertical farm in the Galata Greek School’s light-well. The relatively small space was enough for more than 300 people to plant edible winter seedlings and observe their growth. Ek Biç Ye İç’s 220m2 Taksim space currently is a pop-up laboratory where one finds multidisciplinary strategies for healthy and sustainable living, as well as innovative exhibit techniques, such as hydroponic systems, compost and a quail coop.
The restaurant serves soups, salads and wraps prepared with the produce that we grow or get from the nearest farms and the remaining bostans of Istanbul in support of local producers. Basically all we do is a matter of communication – both with the nature and the urbanites.
CB: You seem to be asking what our role is in keeping the natural balance, and how we can possibly embrace our capacity to bring back life after so much destruction. Today, when you offer the possibility to people to exchange seeds, plants, and teach them how to compost means, I think, helping the human ability to support natural life processes in a positive way. For instance, I am thinking of the pre-Columbian terra preta (‘black earth’ in Portuguese) practice in Brazil dating back to the 450-950 BC. Man-made large pockets of fertile soil, reaching today, is composed of charcoal, bone, manure and other materials in the otherwise relatively poor soil. The question now is: How do we claim our positive role on the planet?
Aİ: I believe I have a particular role as a sociologist. I observe the habits of city-dwellers and try to create platforms for them to re-think about their life choices. Let us simply look at the difference between recycling and upcycling. Former is the reuse of a waste (a consumed product) while the latter is a creative reproduction so that you consume less. Considering resource scarcity and population growth, we have to seek ripple effects by consuming less ―upcycling― and being slow. I believe artworks like yours and social entrepreneurship projects like ours both have a symbolic value and the potential for a tangible impact in the world. These are some ways in which we can enhance solidarity and resilience around these issues. How do you exactly see the role that art world can claim for itself in this?
CB: I believe that the art world can help us shift our lifestyles, and this is political. The problem is though, there is often an enormous gap between the theories discussed in art spaces and exhibitions, and the actions with tangible impact that they could really host or support. I believe that galleries, museums, theaters, concert halls and cinemas have the potential to really embody life instead of constantly talking about it. We are surrounded by art spaces turning into ‘laboratories for change’, but isn’t it time for those findings to be largely implemented in the very craft of those institutions with a long term ethic? This means to really open their doors to embody the post-industrial realities and ways of living, and become the real agents of transformation themselves, becoming self-sufficient in terms of resources such as energy, food, water etc., and offering the tools and the education to their visitors to implement theses same changes in their lives. These are among the privileged places where new cultures of resilience can express themselves, resonating deeply with local landscapes, traditions and present-day dynamics.