Feldstärke International Recap: East Meets West in Istanbul


The Hagia Sophia museum in Istanbul. | Photo: Madjid Tahriri

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This past semester, MFA music composer Ellen Reid and recent Theater School graduate Toussaint Jeanlouis (MFA 10) traveled to Istanbul, Turkey, to participate in the final leg of the Feldstärke International program. Selected by CalArts as the Institute’s participants, Feldstärke offers 50 arts students from all arts disciplines the chance to collaborate with other artists in an international setting. Earlier 2010 Feldstärke residencies took place at  CENTQUATRE (Paris) and PACT Zollverein (in Essen, Germany), the two administrating institutions of the program. (CalArts also hosted the Feldstärke program in Oct. 2009.)

In October, Feldstärke participants traveled to ¨cˇu’m„a*, a nonprofit contemporary art organization in Istanbul, a city where Europe and Asia physically and figuratively meet. Reid’s and Jeanlouis’ final projects reflected the city’s complexities and cultural conflicts.

Exploring Gypsy Life

Reid says that Istanbul was, by far, the Feldstärke residency of most education value for her, largely because she and her group immersed themselves in Gypsy (Roma) culture—exploring the lives of a people often relegated to the fringes of Turkish society.

It was one of the group’s members, Fuat Mete, a Turkish student who was personally curious about the Gypsies living within Istanbul that sparked others’ interest in the project. He served as the group’s translator/guide as well as also participating artist.

“We explored a particular Gypsy neighborhood and tried to figure out how the people ‘fit’ within Turkish society. There was a constantly changing relationship between the Gypsies and the city.”

The group observed and met Gypsy musicians in studying the neighborhood, and eventually invited the musicians to play and dance with the group as a component of their final project, which, in part, recreated a Gypsy home.

The photo gallery above shows scenes around Istanbul and the ‘Lifestyle’ group project.

Questions of Culture

Toussaint Jeanlouis’ time in Istanbul proved to be more introspective. He walked the city’s streets—both alone and with his Feldstärke group—and was immediately drawn to the culture and people.

But he also felt somewhat isolated. “Where were all the black people?” he asked rhetorically during a post-trip interview. “I counted 13 black faces through the whole trip.” This observation led to Jeanlouis’ exploration of Turkish culture, identity and the idea of “home” for both himself and his host country—which is awaiting a decision on its application to the European Union.

“What will happen to Turkey’s people and culture if it becomes part of the EU?” “What would that do to the traditional arts?” Questions such as these guided Jeanlouis’ production of a short film, iN TURKEY i AM BEAUTiFUL, which we’ve posted below. Transportation also became a theme in his personal and group projects since students traveled via various modes—tram, plane, train, walking, bike, ferry, taxi, bus—to reach parts of the city and neighboring islands.

“There’s constipation of traffic in Istanbul,” he said. “So many decisions had to be made about how to travel around the city.”

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  1. Toussaint Jeanlouis // //

    To further clarify where the question “Where are all the black people?” came from, the incident that preceded this thought was during an early morning walk, a man stared me down. I didn’t know why, but I could feel his eyes, and even when I glanced back it seemed more as he did not understand or like my presence here. Why should he?

    As an African-American from the South, I have grown to recognize this “stare”, and in my everyday interactions must dually acknowledge and ignore it. Most times this duality makes it difficult for me to create work because I begin to think how can I avoid this discussion of self and race long enough to hold the attention of an audience. I didn’t go seeking the answer to this question, the question came to me.

    In context, I was the only Black participant out of about 40 students in all three Cities: Essen, Paris, and Istanbul; isolation comes natural when you are the only one. Languages are different, culture is different, and you stick out. Because of my questions of origin (ie French Name, American, African-American), Home is something that came up for me when traveling to Europe. I assumed that because I noticed more Blacks in Paris than Essen, and Turkey was closer (in my mind) to Africa, I might see more Blacks in Turkey. It crossed my mind and left, I wasn’t going on the hunt for Black people abroad.

    So with my solo project, I decided to attack both issues at the same time – that of my concerns about Turkey, it’s Culture, and the EU and my Origins and Present State of Living. What I found more than anything was a Spiritual Birth. When I posted this video on YouTube, I did not want to describe it saying, this isn’t entirely about Me being Black, but being Human. Not many people can look past the facts of color of skin, or language, even music. In the state of America’s Economy, for me it’s about being Human. In Istanbul, I realized I can live on exactly what is necessary by fishing for my food and sleeping on the island.

    There are many that take the fall for the greed of others, do it silently, and it’s done often by the Spiritually blind; I’m not talking Religion. If only I had time and the space to share all of the experiences and things I learned from the people I met through my travels with my group I would continue endlessly. This was a phenomenal experience for me and will keep me inspired for the rest of my life.