Creating platforms for the sounds and voices of the city

June 2, 2023
How Istanbul is re-inventing its music-making mecca as a stage for protest

Can Altay, on setting the setting, and creating platforms for the sounds and voices of the city. A recording studio. A stage. A newspaper. A mini-bar.  He is an artist and designer blurring the edges of everyday and artistry using platforms that fathom the fantastic among the familiar.

Can looks at how we inhabit urban space; creating social interventions and community contributions that reconfigure a place’s meaning and use.  With a focus on collective identities he has moved his practice towards spaces that make music and sound.  He explores how these sonic platforms give rise to unforeseen communities that shift the narrative of a place.  With artist residencies in Bristol’s Spike Island, in Loughborough, and an open recording studio at the famed İMÇ buildings in Istanbul, a modernist musical mecca that’s engraved in Turkey’s collective consciousness.

“In retrospect studying architecture and environmental design gave me the basis for dealing with existing spaces.”

I had access to contemporary art, urban studies, philosophy, so I mixed it up and made it my own.  Not having to build spaces from scratch means you can negotiation a dialogue within an existing environment.  When I was already a practicing artist I did a critical studies program at the Malmö Art Academy in Sweden, producing work mostly in relation to urban spaces. I was looking at ways in which people make space rather than design spaces.

There were two starting points for me: the minibars in Ankara, a kind of impromptu gathering of young people in in-between spaces, generating their own nightlife where the service factor was eliminated. It was just hanging out, but significantly making space through that, without building anything.

The second was the informal garbage collection networks, “the papermen” — in bigger cities in Turkey. Both related to my everyday life, in distinct ways.  And how they related to the city was important to me, almost like parallel universes.

“At the beginning of my practice I was looking at moments and situations where people’s activity surpass the design intentions, I call it “social chroeography”

Ways in which use becomes creative or a generative factor.  This made me think about whether or not it’s possible to make more open-ended work. Spaces or places that invite people to contribute and generate further meaning beyond what I envisioned, or anticipated already.  I call it “social choreography”, or the relationship with inhabitants that sets out certain notions, but also leaves room for a collective production.

“I always intermingle work with my daily life, the places where I live and the people I encounter.”

With the minibars and the papermen garbage project, it was important that I claim objectivity.  But I noticed that exhibitions are also spaces that build a narrative that have certain presuppositions, which also comes with its own limitations.  So, from mid 2000s until maybe 2010, and still now to a certain extent, I have been involved in and thinking about the art institution, art context, and exhibitions as a type of public space, finding how I could intervene.

“My involvement in exhibition making led me to what I call ‘setting a setting’.”

I started proposing small spatial interventions that I call settings; places that immediately gave a context, where people could gather, exchange or produce some sort of knowledge or outcome. So, basically places that also have a presence.

In Bristol, there’s a place called Spike Island where I had a residency. I had this image of Bristol about music. During the residency, I came across people who also worked with sound or music in different ways. And as part of my exhibition we built a simple wooden platform, fitted with a lot of free-cycled Hi-Fi speakers.  They were markers; a podium that could be used as a stage and a place where the audience came together with a sound system for people to literally plug in their instruments and play.  So the space became a kind of instrument as well.

This is what I mean by ‘setting a setting’.  Something slightly dysfunctional — not the best PA, or best technology — that allows something else to happen. So, one by one, people, musicians and sound artists started performing, exploring the limits of what I proposed and also coming up with things I couldn’t have imagined at all, such as ways in which that platform can be inhabited.

“I am as open as I can be in how I curate, from degrees of collaborations to beautiful random encounters”

There are the people with whom I work with in making and running such settings, contacting others who’d be interested, and then word-of-mouth. In the case of Spike Island, I spent three months there before the exhibition opened meeting many people and growing this family of collaborations. Spike Island particularly, and Bristol as well, had that sense of a community that was accommodating and open; an occasion for them to be able to participate in such a platform.

Since I started venturing outside the art audience, doing projects such as “PARK: bir ihtimal” where the encounter is embedded in using the setting, I also started believing in choosing familiar formats, especially for settings in particular neighbourhoods.

“I believe that familiar formats bypass the barriers that would otherwise happen, they are the facilitators for things to happen”.

A recognised interface helps you get over doubts and questions. It’s as simple as saying, “Okay, we are using this space and facilities to make a local newspaper that deals with the issues of urban transformation happening in this neighborhood.”

Everyone knows a newspaper, it’s easy for people to understand how to tell a story through this medium.  This way content flows easily and can be more surprising than when a format is unfamiliar.

Of course, you can try new formats. But for me, it’s helpful to come to terms with  “We are doing a newspaper,” or, “We are a recording studio, come and record whatever you want to record.”  Then whoever contributes also becomes part of a community.  This is the main motivation for me.

“Deciding the format comes from the narrative of the place, or the lack of”

I do alot of drifting to figure out a sense of place. Speaking to people, tapping into existing communities.  I try to be open and start by observing.

For The Showroom – a non-profit art gallery in West London – we produced the Church Street Partners’ Gazette.  Emily Pethick had just been appointed the director and was starting what has become a strong programme.  For this small institution in an area which is relatively disadvantaged compared to its surrounding neighborhoods, a new art space was a sign of change.  I felt, “Wow, there’s a need for a communicative platform to exchange of ideas and news about the neighbourhood, that could also be a platform for reflection”.  So we used the space to produce a local newspaper

“Sound and music is also a powerful way of talking about a place or culture.”

Manifaturacılar Çarşısı Plakçılık Sunar, meaning “Textile Market Records Presents”, is a temporary recording studio for the sounds and voices of the city.  It’s a huge modernist building of the 60’s covering six blocks.  A mystical place and cultural phenomena that’s almost a neighbourhood in itself.  It’s where alot of new music styles emerged, but had lost its allure during the 90’s digital revolution.  Now very few people in their 20s’, 30’s visit.

We inhabit a unit owned by the arts collective called 5533, run by Nancy Atakan and Volkan Aslan.  The idea was to put it back on the map again by rethinking the high street as a site of production, and how the sound collected could become a portrait of the town. What’s fascinating are the dialogues that started here with people like curator Nick Slater and geographer Allan Watson and are still continuing.

The building draws from historical and traditional organizations of space, like the arasta and the badastan, where dealers are based in the historic part of Istanbul.  It’s a very interesting building, it was a massive intervention to the city fabric, but never really blended in, becoming various things over the course of 50 years.  In the late ’70s until mid ’90s, one block became the home of the whole music industry of Turkey with many record labels and recording studios.

Movies also feature this building, telling stories of arrivals from the villages to become famous.  It’s engraved in Turkey’s collective consciousness.  Even if you are not from Istanbul, you would know this place because it’s where the Arabesque syle of music began, a big cultural topic of the ’80s.  For many, let’s say, the ‘high-cultured’ Turkish people, it was like the revenge of the masses.  Melancholic music with almost suicidal lyrics.  Then in the early ’90s, it was the home of Turkish pop.  If you come across any cassette in Turkey from that period you can bet 95% it’s been produced in this building.

With its crazy heritage and almost derelict state, this site is an intriguing look into the past while simultaneously imagining a future for the building.  One unit became a recording studio, with a different mode of operation in terms of financial issues because it’s free to use and open to anyone who is interested.

We devote one day of recordings for music and one day for podcasts.  We never know who will come.  For the podcasts we’re teaming up with people such as Kot Sıfır who instigate discussions of the place and urban issues through the context of the past and the future. We continuously release recordings on Soundcloud, here.

On another level, it’s about generating new possibilities of use bringing in other professions, businesses or activities, or revisiting old functions in a new light by making the space more accessible and forming a community around it.

“Being vocal about your ideas and having a place to express yourself is getting narrower and narrower here in Turkey”

We made calls for support, offerring small gifts in return and raising money from around 50 supporters. There was also instrument donations which is vital.  The brilliant Amira Arzık our producer, Doruk Keskin our sound engineer, and a group of my students  who called themselves “Saz Arkadaşları” (meaning band-mates) worked on the project.

My work is not only about the making, it’s also about keeping memories of a place.  That for me is very important.



Create the triggers to draw the best from a performer where the artist is the instigator and facilitator who sets the stage for community expression that can shift perceptions of a place. With this perspective, a newspaper can become a public space, or a recording studio can create future memories.


Choosing a popular format creates ease for people, allowing content to flow freely provoking thought that tackles the complex issues often found in urban spaces.  The identity of the place is held in collective consciousness, or the everyday and unplanned activities that people appropriate to the space.

Listen for the story — or lack of

Stages are a platform for expression, exchange or information about a place.  At thier most powerful when the community build it together and desire dialogue, sharing ideas, or highlighting the story that is not being told elsewhere.  Crowdfunding brings others into the fold from the outset.

Remix the future

As places evolve and their communities change, creating a platform to debate and discuss future uses reveals unexpected and unforeseen ideas about how a space could be reimagined. Equally creating a legacy that lives on once the installation is over, capturing essential memories that can generate new prospects.

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