The Artist Walking Between Two Seas in Istanbul

Taycan has mapped out a nearly 40-mile route between the Black Sea and the Marmara Sea that traverses landscapes few locals, and even fewer visitors, ever see. (photo by the author)

Over the past seven years, artist Serkan Taycan has been walking in the western outskirts of Istanbul, documenting a nearly 40-mile route between the Black Sea and the Marmara Sea that traverses landscapes few locals, and even fewer visitors, ever see. A cave inhabited in Paleolithic times that now sits unnoticed above a highway. A rural village where storks have built dozens of nests atop utility poles and fig trees. Ottoman-era stone bridges. Old lignite quarries that have been reclaimed by nature.

All this, and much more, stands to be swept away by a massive shipping canal, dubbed “Kanal İstanbul.” (photo by the author)

All this, and much more, stands to be swept away by a massive shipping canal, dubbed “Kanal İstanbul,” which Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has vowed to build as a new connection between the two bodies of water. An environmental impact assessment report for the canal was approved by his government in January despite serious concerns about the project’s ecological impact.

Though Erdoğan has been talking about the canal since 2011, the details of its location had not yet been announced when Taycan first started mapping his walking route in summer 2013, inspired by the Gezi Park protesters then seizing their right to the city.

“No one knew exactly where the canal would be, so I made my route anticipating its most probable path from an engineering perspective,” Taycan says. (photo by the author)

“No one knew exactly where the canal would be, so I made my route anticipating its most probable path from an engineering perspective,” Taycan says, explaining that he drew on his original training as a civil engineer in surveying, way-marking, and mapping the route. Building on his previous artistic work Shell, a series of images of the large-scale construction projects transforming Istanbul’s periphery, Taycan shot photographs at every kilometer mark of his walk, recording their GPS coordinates as a way of preserving a record of a city in the midst of rapid change.

Taycan first exhibited the map and photos of his walking project, entitled Between Two Seas, at the 13th Istanbul Biennial in fall 2013, when he also began organizing group walks along the route. Since then, he has led hundreds of people over the four-segment walk, in 33 events to date. Using his map as a guide, others have cycled, run, and camped along it independently. As the canal project has become a subject of renewed political controversy in recent months, activists have also begun organizing protest walks along the Between Two Seas route, most recently a seven-mile outing on Sunday, February 2.

Installation view of Between Two Seas at the 13th Istanbul Biennial at the Galata Greek School in 2013 (image courtesy of Serkan Taycan)

That’s all just fine with Taycan, who says he sees his role in the project primarily as a facilitator of creative acts.

Between Two Seas is a participatory public work and mostly intangible; there’s no commodity value, which is very important to me,” he says. “I’ve given an open invitation for people to turn this space into a place through the act of walking. It’s not just about following one particular trail.”

Group walks, Between Two Seas (2013) (images courtesy of Serkan Taycan)

Taycan has been applying related methodologies to projects in new geographies, including workshops in the southeastern Turkish cities of Gaziantep and Diyarbakır that explored their narratives of urban development and transformation through research, walking, and mapping. Hydrolab, his ongoing international nomadic initiative, uses art as a catalyst for multidisciplinary investigations of water-related social, economic, and ecological issues.

The artist also hopes to eventually publish a book of visual materials and writings compiled by participants in the Between Two Seas walks and to update his original map to reflect subsequent changes to the landscape, particularly the huge new Istanbul Airport that opened in October 2018 near the route’s Black Sea terminus.

Between Two Seas Guide Map, 67×97 cm (image courtesy of Serkan Taycan)

Though the canal threatens to wipe away the entire walking route, Taycan says that Between Two Seas itself is neutral about the infrastructure project.

“It doesn’t take a position on the canal; it tries to facilitate discussion and open up possibilities for people to make their own decisions,” he says. “People are still talking about the canal through maps and plans rather than experiencing the reality on the ground. If you give importance to a particular place, you have to set foot on it.”

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