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Juliette Lewis Future Relic
Juliette Lewis starred in artist Daniel Arsham’s latest installation of his multi-dimensional Future Relic series – which screened at the festival alongside a talk from the pair

What we learned at Istanbul74 this year

The three-day festival gave an in-depth look at our relationships with technology – from Stephen Jones to Juliette Lewis, catch up here

For the fifth edition of Istanbul74, a three-day festival dedicated to ideas, the theme was “Dialogues on realism in arts & culture” and the lineup of participants included Harvey Keitel, Juliette Lewis, Craig McDean, Mike Figgis, Stephen Jones, Waris Ahluwalia and Francesco Carrozzini amongst others. The broad subject matter essentially sparked off discussions on how modern day life influences the way we create and consume culture and how this impacts our relationships with each other and with technology. The overriding message was that we live in a time over-saturated with culture, with designers, with fashion, with art, that no one knows how to tell good from bad anymore. We summed up the best of the very varied insights and moments gleaned from this year’s gathering of great global talents in Istanbul.

MIKE FIGGIS’ APPEAL TO THE INTERNET GENERATION

The Leaving Las Vegas (1995) director’s talk was aimed at knocking common sense into the dreamers amongst us, who wished for a better, sweeter world but felt the odds against them. Addressing the almost tiresome print vs digital debate, Mike Figgis said: “There’s been so much talk in this festival about whether print dead. Of course print’s not dead; Epson makes great printers. If you want to print, go and fucking print! It’s almost as if we’re powerless... We don’t have to do what social media tells us we should do.” 

But still we do – because this generation is hooked onto smartphones and social media. Figgis also blames technology for why we live in times of unoriginal art and flavourless culture. “Why would we want to hang onto our crap in such a way that we didn’t before? The answer of course is technology,” he said. 

Technology, he added, hasn’t created any more geniuses than there were in the past – though it certainly gives us the idea that geniuses abound. How can we create original work with depth if we’re never quite focused and references lose their meaning and provenance? “Everybody talks about how we are living in a multi-tasking environment, we’re not. People are just on their phones all the time, this isn’t multi-tasking,” he said. “That’s being on your phone.” 

“It’s bright, it’s shiny, it’s heroin,” Figgis said, “and you’re all addicted.”  

 And what should you do with addiction, he added? You kick it. 

He capped off all his doomsaying with advice for aspiring filmmakers. “You need a gang. You need a digital social media gang that’s tight, attractive, sexy in a kind of arty way. Which is exactly what Truffant did, what Goddard did, what Nouvelle Vague did... they made a cool gang... That’s the way to have creative power today,” he said. Whether this was meant as clever mockery to expose the fools amongst us is your call.

TREVOR PAGLEN AND THE SECRET WAR OF TODAY

The artist-activist Trevor Paglen brought a somber, chilling tone to the festival with his talk on US surveillance and the issue of privacy. Since Edward Snowden, we have all come closer to understanding the ways in which the data we share or offload onto the Internet are being exploited by governments and corporations. And thanks to Paglen, who also directed the cinematography of Laura Poitra’s documentary on Snowden Citizenfour (2014), we see that the Internet is “not just some cloud, it’s very specific places”. A Paglen image of the bucolic English landscape is not simply that when you understand what else you’re looking at – tapped cables and ground stations. 

Paglen wants to continue to unmask the “secret” or “invisible” global war, one that the general public may understand to be the war on terror or in Iraq but what he says is vaster. “This is the war that’s flood all over the world with things like renditions, things like torture... special forces raids, assassinations, the weaponisation of outer space, the militarisation of the internet, mass surveillance and so on,” he said. Being a classified war, we have little to no images or documentation and that’s dangerous as it perpetuates the furtiveness and keeps the public ignorant, disengaged and paranoid.  

“Much of American politics is animated by a politics of fear. If we don’t surveil everyone in the entire world all the time, then terrorists are going to blow up a gas station in Montana or whatever. (This) inevitably empowers the most reactionary and most totalitarian parts of the state,” he said. Don’t let fear convince you into thinking that all this mass surveillance is necessary, Paglen advised. 

He revealed snippets of a new project that will launch in New York later this year, where he’s engaged a search crew (himself included) to go underwater to find choke points – places there fibre-optic cables carrying data from all over gather – the NSA have tapped into, based on the idea that these cables often come from overseas under the ocean, usually to arrive at coastal points. He wants to show us how the NSA and military see the Internet. “They see cables, geographies, frequencies, very material things. Geopolitics, landscapes... sensors, ground stations,” he said. What is essentially “the construction of a secret United States”.

HARVEY KEITEL SAYS FACE YOUR FEARS

Audiences were treated to what verged on a spiritual session with Harvey Keitel, peppered with brilliant anecdotes from his illustrious career. In a conversation with Istanbul74 co-founder Alphan Eseli, he spoke of his time in the marines as being a “life saving experience”, for it taught the 17-year-old Keitel about mythology and how to literally and figuratively live in darkness. “Fear does exist and you must make it your friend. There’s energy in fear and to be fearless you must know fear,” he said.  

“I can almost in a way, say, forget the talent. It’s getting to your own talent that’s the point... What you have to be is the most you can be of you.” He recalls his early days with other young struggling actors, whose goals were always to “find a moment of truth to bring into the character we portrayed”. How Keitel got to where he is today he puts down to a dedication to increasing his self-awareness. “(This) solves the mystery that no technique will ever answer,” he said. “I would eat Chinese food just to open the fortune cookies hoping it would tell me!”

THE BEST HAT ACCORDING TO STEPHEN JONES

“When hats become too clever, they become less good. What you have to do as a milliner is to have a certain simplicity and clarity in vision,” Stephen Jones revealed in a conversation with Italian editor Gianluco Longo. And what is the most charming hat in the world? Jones said it is “when you pick up a flower and you tuck it behind your ear – that’s the most beautiful thing”.  

As one of Britain’s most revered milliners, Jones most recently created all the headpieces to accompany the dresses for the Costume Institute’s latest exhibition “China: Through the Looking Glass”. He took the festival folk through a digital tour of each headpiece’s inspiration and spoke candidly of his friendly rivalry with Britain’s other top milliner Philip Treacy. Jones said: “I don’t work with McQueen as that’s Philip Treacy’s territory. So it’s quite funny I suddenly had to design for a dress he made. I was trying to imagine what he would want to have in a hat from me. If he were coming to me he’d want something very different to what he has from Phillip. He’d want something lighter, more frivolous and perhaps less sculptural.” 

And on the topic of realism, true to his magician’s manner with hats, he quipped: “The purpose of fashion is to create its own reality.”

DICK KAYEK AND THE TURKISH CULTURE OF ACCEPTANCE

Ece and Ayşe Ege of Paris-based couture label Dice Kayek hosted the festival’s closing dinner party, in an intimate setting on a gulet that sailed the Bosphorus at sunset. The sisters reflected upon their hometown and explained to Dazed why Istanbul has become such an exciting place for the arts world.

“There are so many contrasts alive in Istanbul today, from the many different civilizations that lived here before and left their culture behind. Yet they all exist in harmony, the beliefs, political ideas, the music, the clothes, the people. This makes Istanbul full of surprises,” Ece said.

“Turkish culture is very much about acceptance,” she continued, “I think it’s ingrained from our childhood. I remember we used to have very, very conservative religious neighbours when we were children, yet we would go to each other’s houses to play. Neither party had a problem that the other didn’t share the same belief. It was natural to be friends and accept difference.”

The locality and significance of Istanbul is furthermore emblematic of the symbiosis of Eastern and Western culture today, and more are discovering the city once tainted by Midnight Express. The hot flush of foreigners who are buying property or making Istanbul their new playground does not appear to threaten the question of national identity or raise any fear of gentrification. “(Foreigners) will just make our country more entertaining, more colourful!” Ayşe says. If Britain needs guidance on how to maintain a healthy happy diverse society, this could be a place to look.

THE BIGGEST GIFT ACCORDING TO JULIETTE LEWIS

“I think the best thing about the future is that we arrived. We made it!” Juliette Lewis exclaimed. Following a screening of multi-dimensional artist Daniel Arsham’s latest installation of his Future Relic series starring Lewis (that premiered on NOWNESS), the two took the stage for a talk that revealed what the future means to them, which simply put, is to keep alive what it means to be human today.

The championing of humankind is rare in contemporary films depicting the future, which show technology and artificial intelligence in an all more powerful light. According to the two artists however, keeping in touch with our true emotions and how we feel is what matters most, particularly in times of so much distraction and noise. 

“One of the biggest gifts a person can have is being mystified and curious. So I love that (Lora Rey, the lead in Arsham’s film) is an explorer, and I feel really connected to that. Here in Istanbul, I’m an explorer. In people’s hearts and souls, I’m an explorer. I’m curious, and there can be heart break in that, there can be wonder and innocence,” Lewis said.

“In some films I’ve done, we work long hours, 14 to 16 hour days sometimes, and you could shoot one (two-minute) scene sometimes for three days, so the challenge is how to create each moment like it’s just the first moment. There’s something incredibly difficult but magical about that, and it’s a metaphor for life, of trying to live and breathe in each moment for me.”