Tom Morton: Your film Street Cat Deluxe (2013) is comprised of footage of cats, shot on the streets of the Istanbul. As the cats loll on parked cars, or preen themselves on windowsills, we hear overdubbed accounts of life in the city from what appears to be the cats' perspective. Some of these animals (or rather the city's human residents, who provide their voices) seem to have lived in the city for a long time. Others, like yourself when you made the film, seem to be recent arrivals from elsewhere. What lead you to create a portrait of Istanbul from a feline point of view?
Ovidiu Anton: When you get to Istanbul, one of the first things that you notice in the public space is the presence of street cats. They are everywhere you go, and you get the feeling that you are constantly being surveyed by two cat eyes.
There are stray dogs too, but not so many as cats, and you find them everywhere – in all parts of the city.
I was deeply impressed by how much residents care about these street cats. They provide them with food, water, build them little shelters and sometimes they also let them into their apartments or shops. These animals get a lot of attention, even though they are living on the street. It’s because they are considered very clean animals (in contrast to stray dogs).
Yet this explanation was not sufficient, and I became more and more interested in their coexistence in the public space.
I asked myself, why are there animals living on the street that often get more attention and care than people in need, and I still don’t get it. I’m thinking of the contrast between the rich and the poor that comes together... not only in Istanbul, it’s certainly a phenomenon of many metropolises. In a country like Turkey there are so many multi-layered political and cultural problems that create hegemonic conflicts. Some people have more (or louder) voice than others.
And because I was so much interested in the politics of urban planning and lifestyles in the very posh neighbourhood of Beyoğlu, I let the cats – who have always been there – comment on this long process of gentrification and it’s social impact.
TM: There's a lovely passage in Jorge Luis Borges' short story “The South” (1953), in which he describes a cat as a 'magical animal [that] lives in the present, in the eternity of the instant'. Your cats, however, appear concerned with historical change, for example the Cihnagir neighbourhood's shift from a 1940s “Golden Age”, to decline in the 1970s, to the arrival of contemporary hipsters. A standard cat, of course, is lucky to live into its teens. Can you tell me about your contrasting of human and feline concepts and experiences of time?
OA: In the end of the film there is a cat that answers this question very well, when he comments about humans, saying that: “if you don’t look like doing something, it means that you don’t have any value. So, if you just lay around and think – like I do – it’s like you’re useless...”
I think that one of the reasons why we love to be surrounded by animals like cats is that they show us how to be without neoliberal pressure, or at least we take their behaviour as something like that. Once, somebody told me that “cats are lazy anarchists”. The sentence got stuck into my mind and whenever I see street cats in Istanbul I think about it and about the contemporary anarchist theory and models of utopia. And concerning the lifetime of a cat and the history of the neighbourhood: I leave the word to the cats, because I think that they can talk more credibly and more objectively about what happens and happened in the city.
TM: At one point, a cat confides that “[we] enjoy many benefits: we can go anywhere”. To what degree is the movement of people – opportunistic, and forced – a key concern of this work?
OA: I think that the quote you’re talking about was meant in another way: it says that the cats “enjoy the benefits of going anywhere” in the sense of jumping over fences and barriers in order to go into gardens and other places that are forbidden for most of us (people without access). I think she was talking about this kind of movement in that moment.
But it’s also nice to read it like you do: you refer to people in a much longer span of time, which use the place as a place to work or a place to live or to work and live. And that could have reasons of need or reasons of prestige (forced and opportunistic). Cihangir had both movements in its history and the cats are talking about it.
Gentrification is my main concern in the film. It’s a topic that can be discussed on so many layers. I let local cats talk about it – each one in her/his way of telling the story.
Usually gentrification in Istanbul is something else, what we know from where we live. It’s not so “gentle” like in Berlin or Vienna. There are no art-projects or discussion-evenings about how to deal with rent increasing or other problems…
People are evicted and they don’t have the right or the power to fight against the state. I’m thinking about, what happened in Sulukule, in Tarlabasi or in Okmeydani.
The Deluxe Street Cats talk about the situation of an already gentrified and fancy neighbourhood. One of them – the same that you quote – also finds some nice aspects about the wealth that results from gentrification, and she’s actually glad to find food everywhere and medical care, even if at the same time she feels sorry for the victims of that process.
TM: Were you thinking of the folk art sub-genre of internet cat videos when you made this work? I'm thinking of the likes of “Henri, Le Chat Noir” - a Youtube sensation in which black and white footage of a dolorous cat is captioned with cod-existentialist musings...
OA: Well, yes and no.
I know that these videos have such a huge audience on the internet. It is fascinating that a banal angry or surprised cat can reach more than 80 millions of clicks.
Actually, I’m not such a big fan of this cat internet material. I know some, but not many.
After I finished and presented my film, many people have sent me links with cat videos, comprising those of “Henri, Le Chat Noir”.
Most of these viral stuff is about domesticated animals (at home) who show several emotions that have been captured with the camera by their owners in more or less funny moments.
I tried to create an ambivalent moment, to get these characteristics of cuteness of a cat which generate a state of hypnosis and then making them talk about relatively serious things in a half human–half feline point of view.