Sea of Marble: A Navigational Convergence

“The best witness to the Mediterranean’s age-old past is the sea itself. This has to be said and said again; and the sea has to be seen and seen again. Simply looking at the Mediterranean cannot of course explain everything about a complicated past created by human agents, with varying doses of calculation, caprice and misadventure. But this is a sea that patiently recreates for us scenes from the past, breathing new life into them, locating them under a sky and in a landscape that we can see with our own eyes, a landscape and sky like those of long ago. A moment’s concentration or daydreaming, and that past comes back to life.” From Memory and the Mediterranean by Fernand Braudel (*)

One can identify countless physical traces of both natural and cultural events in any landscape. Endemic vegetation, landforms, as well as the remnants of civilizations are infused on top of each other and characterize a specific geography. The sea as an ever-changing, relatively flat space conceals all the traces of time and transforms them into mythologies. Both the land and the sea are in constant flux with different viscous properties. They touch each other and form a complex, oscillating line of infinite length.

The project Sea of Marble: A Navigational Convergence (2009–10) is developed as an exhibition and a symposium, and aims to address the seas as defined by various manifestations of global trade, economy, and the flow of bodies. It endeavors to develop visual and narrative strategies to tackle with the particularities and potentialities that the sea presents.

The sea of Marmara, located in between the Black Sea and the Aegean, literally means ‘the sea of marble’ hosts one of the major fault lines expected to bring a catastrophic tremor to Istanbul. In addition to several earthquakes, prison islands in Marmara mark Turkey’s recent grim political history of coup d’etats and most recently hosted the country’s most wanted Kurdish guerilla leader. The sea is highly polluted by manufacturing and oil industries. On any given day, hundreds of ships stay anchored, waiting for the next big global agitation. In this respect, the seas are transmitters of history, wealth and culture as well as a source of biological richness and are also the bearers of scourge, oil spills and chemicals, and the invading jellyfish and the disappearing reef. The oil tankers and container ships sail to the effect of millions of tons, accumulating and transferring immense wealth from one part of the world to another. Refugee boats also sail across sometimes to catastrophic ends either while at sea or at their destination. Recent events such as the Gaza aid flotilla, the British Petroleum oil rig disaster in the Gulf Coast of USA, island disputes between China and Japan, the Boxing Day Tsunami of 2004 and the opening of the northern sea route are examples that we all follow with curiosity.

Sea of Marble: A Navigational Convergence project is conceived in three parts. First, xurban_collective’s exhibition is based on the visual research in cities including Athens, Marseille, Istanbul, Izmir and New York. Second, a symposium will take place on December 4th, 2010 at Antrepo No:5, an old warehouse in Istanbul port. Participants of this symposium include Ursula Biemann (Zurich) and Shuruq A. M. Harb (Ramallah), TJ Demos (London), John Palmesino (London), Vyjayanthi Rao (New York), Alex Villar (New York) and Relli De Vries (Tel Aviv). xurban_collective and their project partners will take the role of moderators and respondents for each presentation along with Aslihan Demirtas (New York). The third part of the project is a book and the website which will gather and archive the project’s visual materials, presentations and discussions in a unified format.


Port cities such as Marseille, Athens, Istanbul, New York, Shanghai, Buenos Aires, and Bangkok are the main hubs within their national territories, connected via highways and railway tracks to other smaller cities on their periphery. In addition to people from different localities and cultures, the constant flow of ships, trucks, cars and goods represent a heterogeneous set of activities. Ports offer a sea of opportunities for newcomers and a healthy flow of foreigners keeps their cities culturally and economically alive, relevant and interesting, creating a direct anti-thesis of provincialism(s). The technical viability of these ports within the global economy is ensured via the standardization of shipping operations and through their carefully planned infrastructures but more importantly through a legislative framework, qualified human resources and support industries. In appearance, ports depict a rational cut in the landscape. The terrain where the land and sea meet is transformed into a free zone of commercial activity. It is a temporary transitional district where various flows are merged, organized and distributed. In between, thousands of containers are waiting for their turns to be filled, lifted, carried and shipped. The constant beeping sound of the surrounding machinery is an indicator of a high alert zone and immanent danger.

When we look to the contemporary condition of these port cities, we may recognize an urban pattern characterized by large-scale commercial and residential developments currently under construction. Old and new commercial ports, city centers, shopping areas and old buildings are being rebuilt and packaged to cope with the transformation of the global economy. On the one hand, these cities — all situated next to the sea — try to establish their unique and important position within the global marketplace, and on the other, their governing bodies together with investors/developers tend to ignore the livelihood of their residents by specifically excluding the poor, immigrants and everyone else who cannot afford to be the part of the new panorama. Corporate managers, lawyers, city officials, architects, designers and the police collaborate in meticulous gentrification projects and announce these plans with architectural renderings.

As part of the second leg of the Sea of Marble project, we had the chance to conduct research in the port of Marseille and its surroundings. For the exhibition that we realized at Sextant et Plus, La Friche, we choose the title La Ville Blanc from a graffiti tagged on such an architectural rendering of a development project to be realized within the city center of Marseille. It seems that the term La Ville Blanc characterizes an imminent mistake, which is not directly translatable to Turkish or English. The gendered disposition of language underlines the patrimonial politics of development and gentrification. La ville, a feminine word is accompanied by a masculine term, blanc (instead of blanche). This at first appears to be a mistake, a grammatical error clearly indicating that the owner of the graffiti is not language proficient. However, ‘blanc’, the masculine form of a city, located on a development plan for a new corporate trade center initiates a very precise critique. When walking in Marseille, we came upon this billboard as a vision of things to come and realized the similarities between other images in different cities of the world: an affluent “all-white” imagining of an exclusive urban life, from New York, Istanbul, Izmir to New Orleans. Here our aim is not to make an ethno-racial claim, yet it is important to identify the overlapping class dispositions on the racial, gendered articulation of bodies in the neo-liberal re-imagination of cities. This conservative re-imagination is mostly articulated by high-end design which functions as a form of neo-liberal packaging. In fact the de-facto failure of these projects lie just on the surface of these architectural renderings that simply ignore and exclude. It seems that the strategy of the new bourgeoisie is more ‘efficient’ and rather violent than direct antagonistic racist encounters—compared to fascist violence that constantly happens in various parts of Europe— which can be easily identified and fought against. In fact, condemning Nazis is a politically correct thing to do for a neo-conservative camp who has already perfected its ability to use extreme strength without weapons, to colonize without an army and to exploit without a factory.

Mediterranean port cities share a common fate throughout history, best explained by historians like Fernand Braudel: there are times of economic boom and periods of decline, and then again a surge in activities which necessitates the expansion of the commercial port and its relocation further out of the city center. In most of them, including Istanbul, the evacuated waterfront property is the prize of the neo-liberal governments, opportunistic developers and investors. While the containers full of merchandise, the crude oil, the tuna stocks and other fish and tourism roam the sea, the continents are interconnected via underwater power and network cables and by various pipelines. Within this intense flow on, under and around the Mare Nostrum, European cities still resist an influx of unwanted races, and zones of exclusion are on the rise in France, Germany, Italy and other countries.

Many of today’s global issues surface in Europe, and they are especially more significant when looking at Western Europe from Anatolia. Not since the specific instances of Carthage, Andalusia and the later Ottomans has the fear of the invading enemy been on the rise as today in Europe. The exploitation of the fear from the ‘other’ (read Muslims, Africans, Asians) plays into the hands of the far right, as well as of big business and its collaborators in the conservative political spectrum. Throughout the 20th century Europe there has been repeated hatred directed and channeled towards the ‘suspect race’ during times of economic downturn.

What is new is that the democratic-egalitarian discourse claimed by the modern European state since the Second World War openly contradicts itself when equal rights for all citizens are concerned. The farce of a representative democracy is that the majority crushes the rights of non-citizens. In this instance, mainstream politics openly endorse the ‘sensitivities’ of the majority (as it happens in Turkey against Kurdish population) who claim to be the ‘real’ owners of the country. The prospect of ‘being offended’ (from symbolic gestures, symbolic gear, traditions, lores and a foreign language) is manipulated not only by the European right wing, but by the majority of political actors in order to give political leverage. Meanwhile, the ‘defensive’ reflex of the European Islamic communities left to their fundamentalist wings sharpens a conflict that is spiraling out of control.

On the other hand, the procedures of unified Europe distribute this conflict evenly across national borders, setting examples and precedents. While European national borders disappear, xenophobia roams free. The question at the end of the decade of the identity of Europe and its subjects is haunted by the minarets that try to spring up in the old continent. This propagated annoyance appears to be directed towards a ‘symbolic formalism’, but inversely, it dwells on the formalism of ‘values’, that old term brought out from the extreme depths of the history of civilization The vagueness of ‘values’ apparently is of no concern to policy makers, who consider European values to be crystal clear and, importantly, not compatible with other cultures.

Meanwhile since Marx, the thinker of ‘Old Europe’, we should assume that the poor and the working class share the same fate, conditions, ideals and ultimately values, regardless of their religion, race and nationality. If there is a real ‘value’ to Western civilization, it has suffered most from the abandoned belief in the universal brotherhood of the proletariat, whereas the monotheistic god of the globalized world is employed for segregation along the lines. This is where we are left at the turn of the first decade of the 21st century, at the tragic crossroads where capital is diffused globally, labor is still being exploited shamelessly, and the masses are complicit in a sedated delusion of consumption and its mirage on the horizon. The so called social state is fast becoming a non-actor in the just distribution of wealth, in the meantime losing its role in the arbitration of disputes (i.e. among different faith) and in handling dissent. The first is left to the free market economics, and the second to the almost equally privatized policing. The hybrid private/state security complex is what keeps the white cities in Istanbul, in Paris, London and elsewhere well-guarded, clean and uncontaminated. The gated communities and residential complexes in world cities today are designed to keep racial and ethnic confrontation out of the premises and to insure homogeneity among its inhabitants. In a sense, they are the extensions of private schooling into adult life, sealed from unwanted mixtures. Even the architectural layouts bear resemblances, offering a number of extracurricular activities to an otherwise monotonous dwelling in one place. Looking closely to these renderings once again, one can recognize the fact that the cut-up faces, bodies, flowers and cars are mostly gathered from stock images sold online. In order to sell these images, stock photography companies trim, clean, package and identify them with metadata. They represent ideal cosmopolitan types suited for the new global order, a perfect coupling with the standardized design and production of shopping malls, office spaces, and business centers.

Finally, the new social-scape, which is miserable enough, is not to be left in the hands of politicians, social reformers, technocrats and other actors directly bound to the neo-liberal (and conservative) mindset, offering solutions only from within the conformist order of socio-economic models. The new occurrences of resistance gives us indications that the fissures are not only along ethnic lines, but there is a nonconforming culture of youth regardless of race and with enough rage to paralyze the city. A similar frustration can be extended to include the underprivileged citizens and non-citizens of Europe, as seen in various cities such as Paris, Athens and Istanbul. Meanwhile the artistic gesture, as in this youthful energy, leads to an opening where habits are suspended, to a moment of reckoning when business is no more. One should hope that all the accumulated dissent will lead to a qualitative change in the dialectic order of things. For now we are looking out to the sea, knowing from experience that its serenity is suspect and its rage is beyond imagination.

xurban_collective, 2010

(*) Fernand Braudel, Memory and the Mediterranean. Vintage Books: New York, 2002.


xurban_collective is an international art collective founded in 2000 by Guven Incirlioglu (Izmir) and Hakan Topal (New York) as a transatlantic collaboration. Members include Mahir Yavuz (Linz) and Atif Akin (Istanbul). xurban_collective’s mission is to instigate the questioning, examination, and discussion of contemporary politics, theory, and ideology, utilizing documentary research and take the form of media projects, installations and texts. The collective focuses specifically on areas of regional conflicts, military spatial confinement, urban segregation, nationalist and neo-liberal exclusion strategies.

xurban_collective exhibited internationally including projects in institutions such as the 49th Venice Biennial (2001), the 8th International Istanbul Biennial, PS1/MoMA, Apexart, Exitart (2005) and ZKM – Center for Art and Media, Karlsruhe. For more information;

Güven İncirlioğlu studied architecture (B.Arch); photography (MFA) and art theory (Ph.D.) and has exhibited since the 1980s in group shows and has held one person exhibitions in New York, Ankara, Istanbul, Sarajevo, Sofia and other locations working mostly with photography, photo-mechanical materials and new media. Since 1990, he was a lecturer in art and design in various schools in Turkey, including Bilkent University, Ankara, and Istanbul Bilgi University and is currently a faculty member at Economy University’s Faculty of Art and Design in Izmir.

Hakan Topal is an artist, writer, designer living and working in New York. He studied engineering, gender and women studies and sociology. He has had one-person exhibitions, performances, video projects and photo-essays in addition to publishing works in various journals and catalogs. Topal worked as a researcher at GISAM, Audio Visual Research Center at METU, Ankara, and New Media Projects Manager at the New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York and as technical director at the Prospect New Orleans biennial. He recently finished a documentary film project on a major late 18th-century Austro-Bavarian sculptor, Franz Xaver Messerschmidt, commissioned by Neue Galerie New York

Mahir M. Yavuz is a designer and instructor. He received his BA and MFA degrees in Visual Communication Design at Istanbul Bilgi University. He participated in a number of major design projects in Istanbul between 1998-2006. Besides working as an art director, he was a full time instructor at the Department of Visual Communication Design, Istanbul Bilgi University between 2003-2006. In September 2006, Yavuz moved to Linz, Austria. He is currently engaged in doctoral studies at Kunstuniversität Linz and works as a senior researcher on ınformatıon design at the Ars Electronica Futurelab.

Ahmet Atıf Akın is a media artist and lecturer living and working in Istanbul. He studied engineering (B.S.), Industrial Design (MSc.). He has produced videos, media installations and photography projects in addition to publishing articles in various catalogs and periodicals. Currently he is teaching digital media and aesthetics in the context of visual communication design at Istanbul Bilgi University.