Istanbul inside the Google Cultural Institute

Even though Walter Benjamin mentions how art’s value is less about its rirualistic value, I remember having a very ritualistic relationship with particular media: the Q’uran. Believing that rooms with the Quran are said to have more angels in it, I grew up in rooms with a Q’uran corner. An Arabic book with Arabic texts, only there to fulfill its ritual function. The existence of Quran brought other rituals with it; you were not supposed to touch the Q’uran unless you had a valid religious bath (a ceremonial bath you take every day), and you were supposed to place it above your chest. The ritualistic dimension of Quran possession is probably more prominent to the Turkish eye, since Turks don’t know how to read Arabic letters, but always have the Arabic version of the holy book as a ritual. I remember being anxious around the book, when felt Muslim at the time.

When Islam applications emerged, my father downloaded Quran to his iPhone, and this is where the problems started: Was my father allowed to bring his phone to the restroom? Was it okey for him to keep his phone below chest level? Would he be better of carrying and interacting with Quran, or not carrying it and respecting it? My father was able to resolve this dilemma thanks to his engineering background, and told me the following: “Handan, this is not the real Quran, what is inside this phone are just 1s and 0s. I can do whatever I want to with my iPhone.”

As manifested in the instance I have explained above, and Benjamin’s discussion, the technical reproducibility of art has altered what art is how it is consumed, and the means it serves. Emergence of photography was particularly significant at this point, considering that it didn’t rely on primitive and intuitive methods of documentation, such as forming a sentence or drawing on walls, but rather on a particular technique of capturing image. From my perspective, what all inspiring photographers do being distracted by the exotic, the sunset, the historic, the poor, the far-away. Particular visual narrations are appealing for photographers, which often serves to politically function in a way – the Afghan girl photograph, for example, about how primitive Afghanistan is and how they deserve war.

The Google Art Institute, despite a visual design that depicts it as a neutral, meta- museum, is as well biased considering that it also creates a narration. The following words from Benjamin summarizes the curators’ power of reconstructing the history: museums are “where the way each single image is understood appears prescribed by the sequence of all preceding images.” Museums are a way of representation, just like the news, they are reconstructions of history by a narration that occurs through the alignment of particular elements together.

Just like the term “news,” “museum” has a neutral resonance – we are likely to think of news regardless of its context, or the agents involved in its formation. This is likely to occur because what makes news politics is more about what is not in the news, than it is about the content of the news. With this understanding of the neutral connotation of the museum, I would like to cmparatively analyze two cases: the “Mural Istanbul Festival” on the Google Art Institute versus “the Don Quixote Occupation House.”

In the Mural Istanbul festival, a municipality with a secular majority, had domestic and international artists make graffiti on walls of Kadikoy, Istanbul – a city that has been the capital of Roman Empire as well as the Ottoman Empire. The history of the city causes makes it problematic to regulate the city and renovate it, which consequently leads to complicated streets, hard navigations, and a city where only locals can understand and navigate. The walls that have been part of old apartments, historic streets and alaturca homes has become walls for Graffiti where artists made statements about the Occupy movement. These two items – the alaturca lifestyle of people in old houses and the politically-grounded graffiti culture, blended very well together, considering that blending has what made Istanbul what it is.

Despite having been seen almost all of the graffitis of the “Mural Istanbul Festival,” I learned about the project yesterday when I was navigating in the Google Cultural Institute. While Google Art Institute represents items from museums that are traditionally museums, Google Cultural Institute enabled me to observe these graffitis with the function of the museum: graffitis were visible to me in relation to eachother.

Google Cultural Institute, therefore, has became a means of re-conceptualizing and re-historicizing not only what has been formed, but also what was intentionally constructed to not function as a museum. Istanbul’s street art culture fits the city’s aura and characteristic, one that enables blending, and makes contrast look beautiful, but this time, what was made to be kept undercover (municipality’s agency and economic financement in graffitis) is emphasized through the GoogleCultural Institute, turning the Graffitis from counter-culture street demonstrations to elements of a museum.

The framing and construction power of GoogleCultural Institute is even more obvious when we realize that squatted houses are not present in it. After the Occupy movement, the leftist – socialist – counter-culture agents in the Turkish society found means to strengthen and demonstrate, and an abandoned house was occupied. The Don Quixote Social Center is known and acknowledged by only the Occupy Gezi protestors, some foreigners in the city, a couple of leftist websites. The link to their video has only 1400 hits.

The counter-culture dimension of this art project makes the “the Don Quixote Social Center” impermeable to any ideological attack or appropriation, and most importantly, it is built to be invisible to the Google Art Institute. Its own existence counters the idea of private property, and therefore do not fit by any means to the concepts of museum, copyright, or ownership.

Just in the case of news, what defines the Google Cultural Institute is not the existence of museum elements in it, but it is rather about what is not inside in it. On the surface, one would easily think that Google Cultural Institute is a meta-museum, trying to recreate the experience of a museum. However, considering the agency involved in creating the Google Cultural Institute (it does not function like a social network, so everybody are not making their own museums) Google Cultural Institute is a particular way of representation, it is far-away from being meta yet, but it is more like an art itself with a particular demonstration: the demonstration that the ritual can be taken out of the art.