Archive as Pulp: In and through Kağıthane

Merve Ünsal, Outside Instead of Before, 2018. Two single-channel HD videos, 17’ each. Videos by Emin Yu.
Merve Ünsal explores the neighborhood of Kagithane (House of Paper) in Istanbul, Turkey, which was formerly a hub of paper production. Ünsal examines the paper supply crisis in Turkey through the rapidly gentrifying neighborhood, which is home to the Ottoman state archives.
[Ed. note: this article is part of a Dossier on “Scarcity and the Supply Chain Crisis in Media and Urban Culture.”]

On February 24, 2022, the weekly humor magazine Leman tweeted: “Perhaps we won’t be able to publish next week. We can’t find paper.”1 Three days later, they issued an update: “We were able to source the paper for this week’s issue. Went to press yesterday. We print tomorrow. Paper supplier friends intervened, which made a difference. We apologize for having bothered you and we are grateful for the support messages. Those who had rejoiced, that’s also OK.”2 The director of the magazine, Tuncay Akgün, said that regular distribution was becoming impossible as the Publishers’ Association of Turkey [Türkiye Yayıncılar Birliği] warned that the paper crisis could last until June of this year.3Ukrayna’daki Türkler: Tahliyede Geç Mi Kalındı? YouTube, 2022. According to data from the Statistics Institute of Turkey [Türkiye İstatistik Kurumu (TÜİK)], the domestic production index showed an annual increase of 105 percent in February 2022, with the increase in the cost of paper at a high point of 168 percent.

While the global supply chain has been disrupted during the pandemic for many reasons that I will not go into here, the crisis of paper prices and the scarcity of paper in Turkey is first and foremost due to Turkey not producing its own paper. After the Republic of Turkey was founded in 1923, Mehmet Ali Kağıtçı supervised the building of the first paper factory in 1934 as part of the industrialization effort of the new Republic.4Kağıtçı can be literally translated as paper-maker. The legislation that mandated the use of last names in Turkey only took effect in 1935 and most family names were based on vocations. As the need for paper grew, production efforts accelerated and Celluloid and Paper Factories Corporation [Türkiye Selüloz ve Kağıt Fabrikaları İşletmesi (SEKA)] was established in 1955. SEKA was privatized in 1998 and it ceased to exist in 2004.5 Since 2004, Turkey has been importing all its paper. Prior to the privatization, SEKA was the supplier of cellulose, protecting against fluctuations in prices of this critical raw material.6Erinç Yeldan, Assessing the Privatization Experience in Turkey: Implementation, Politics and Performance Results (Economic Policy Center, 2005), 23. The process of privatization reveals that the closure of the factories was not informed by technical assessments and future planning for the growing needs of Turkey, but rather anchored in the belief that the state should not be involved in public enterprises.7Ibid., 24

As the Turkish Lira rapidly lost value against foreign currencies due to state policies informed by President Erdoğan’s unorthodox economic views, the skyrocketing costs of paper and other raw materials have caused many magazines and newspapers to increase their prices just to keep up.8Susan Fraser. “EXPLAINER: Are Turkey’s efforts to fix the economy working?,” AP, January 19, 2022, When I recently asked the price of a book at a local bookstore in Istanbul, the cashier threw his hands in the air, exasperated, saying he didn’t know. Numerous publishing houses suspended their operations, while even everyday consumer items such as notebooks have become prohibitively expensive.9Barış Soydan. “SEKA özelleştirmesi: Kitapların köprülere kurban edilmesinin öyküsü,” T24, September 6, 2018,,20383.

One of the impacts of the closure of the paper factories was that paper could no longer be recycled. Previously, state institutions sent unneeded documents to SEKA for recycling.10Rıfat N. Bali. Bir Kıyımın, Bir Talanın Öyküsü: Hurdaya (s)Atılan Matbu Ve Yazma Eserler, Evrâk- ı Metrûkeler, Arşivler (Ii). Istanbul: Libra, 2020. After the factories closed in 2004, the discarded papers that could no longer be recycled triggered a wave of “garbage activism” as people reclaimed documents from the refuse. Of note were the documents from Ankara’s first conservatory, Musiki Muallim Cemiyeti.11e-mail correspondence with Ege Berensel, February 21, 2022.The use of archives as raw material for paper factories leads me to ask: As the protocols of what is kept and what is eliminated from the archives are already fraught with traumas, cracks, and tears,12Achille Mbembe. Essay. In Necropolitics, 172–73. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2019. what do recycling and reusing archival materials to produce paper imply? Do these actions embody the beginnings of states better than a document in an archive ever could? Such acts of elimination underscore the incompleteness and the creative nature of building an archive, as opposed to the fact-conserving role that the custodians of state archives claim. As Achille Mbembe points out, “For an incomplete archive to speak with the fullness of a voice, it has to be created, not out of nothing but out of the debris of information, on the very site of ruins, the remains, and traces left behind by those who passed away.”13Ibid., 161-162. The constant speaking with and through archives is embodied in the recycled archives of Turkey. The debris of information through which archives are produced can be traced to the microcosm of the Istanbul neighborhood of Kağıthane, where former paper factory sites are transformed into gentrified housing projects and (what remains of) the Ottoman state archives are currently hosted, an intersection of a state policy that supports rapid and minimally controlled gentrification and cultural heritage as a proponent and supporter of that gentrification.

Outside Instead of Before, 2018. Two single-channel HD videos, 17′ each. Installation view from The Universe Flickers at SALT Beyoglu, Istanbul, September 2018. Photo by Mustafa Hazneci.

The Kağıthane [House of Paper] river, which was a subject for Evliya Çelebi’s writing and appears in the work of many Diwan poets as a site of entertainment and repose in nature, was polluted by industrial development, which led to the reconstruction of the riverbed with cement blocks.( Evliya Çelebi. An Ottoman Traveller: Selections from The Book of Travels of Evliya Çelebi, edited by Robert Dankoff and Sooyong Kim, 23–25. London: Eland, 2011.)) The industry that had developed around this waterway had been a defining characteristic of the neighborhood as its name was based on a paper mill that had been present when the Ottomans first arrived. The 2013 relocation of the Ottoman State archives to this area was criticized for the flooding risk,14“Osmanlı Arşivleri binası otel oldu, yeni bina dere yatağına yapıldı,” T24, December 8, 2014.,279773. The full name of this location is Türkiye Cumhuriyeti Cumhurbaşkanlığı Devlet Arşivleri Başkanlığı Osmanlı Arşivi Külliyesi. which was exacerbated by the very cement blocks that had been necessitated by the industrialization that gave the neighborhood its name. Many questioned whether there was any need to move the archives at all, but as can be seen from a video published by the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality in 2017, the renovation and restoration of this area not only had aspirations of urban renewal but also confirmed an identity entrenched in the Ottoman past when Kağıthane was an area of recreation and relaxation for the Ottoman court. While the vision represented in the video is partially realized through high-rise, private gated communities populating the riverbed, the metropolitan municipality has been run by the main opposition party in Turkey since the local elections in 2019, which might have contributed to the shift or postponement of agendas. Time will tell.

The relocation of the archives was justified through the rebranding (or branding-once-again) of the Kağıthane neighborhood as it shifted from being an industrial hub to a recreational and cultural hub. But the physical circumstances produced a hostile environment for the archives. The set of buildings that the archives are hosted in having a water problem is well-established, while resentful jokes of hair dryers being handed out to the researchers with the wet documents circulate.15Murat Utku, “Osmanlı Arşivi’ne nem kontrolü takviyesi,” Aljazeera Turk, April 7, 2015, Such images of flooding in post-industrial, post-gentrification cities are now extremely familiar as we are further pulled into the climate emergency.16Caroline Haskins, “Climate Change Could Erase Human History. These Archivists Are Trying to Save It,” Vice, September 17, 2019, The archives are under the threat of repulpification by and through water that has been displaced by the rapid urban growth in the area, further exacerbated by the cement blocks used to reset the riverbed. In other words, while the recycling of the archive for pulp has stopped due to the changing priorities of the government in terms of production, a material reclamation by and through the water that inundates the archive due to human-driven environmental change is now taking place.

Merve Ünsal, Outside Instead of Before, 2018. Two single-channel HD videos, 17’ each. Videos by Emin Yu.

The link between paper and urban gentrification is more obviously manifest in other places. One of the former SEKA factory sites in Giresun has been transformed by the Housing Development Administration [Toplu Konut İdaresi Başkanlığı (TOKI)] into an apartment complex that includes a soccer stadium.17Beşire Korkmaz, “5 milyon TL’ye özelleştirilen Giresun SEKA’nın 68 milyona geri alındığı iddiası,” teyit, September 25, 2020, A former SEKA site transformed into a housing complex and the relocation of the Ottoman archives at a site of urban gentrification stem from a similar impetus that is at the heart of formerly industrial sites such as Kağıthane: to begin and to begin better than in the past. Edward Said’s situating beginnings as equidistant from intention and method is pertinent here as the ways in which cities begin and fail to be sustained are embedded in (collapsed) intentions and (askew) methods. Said writes, “The problem of beginnings is one of those problems that, if allowed to, will confront one with equal intensity on a practical and on a theoretical level.”18Edward Said, in Beginnings: Intention and Method. New York, NY: Colombia University Press, 2004, 3. The gentrification of cities of different scales—Istanbul or Giresun— is charged with a sense of producing a new beginning that is not too different from the archival papers being recycled to make new paper. The problems that led to the destruction and a desire to start anew are sustained and come back, I would argue, precisely because of the mislaid intentions. In other words, the destruction of these restorations is embedded in the misunderstanding of why that restoration is needed and instead focuses on the what of the thing being remade, reconstructed, and reproduced, thus precipitating a false method. The intention and the method could approach a more precise and truly restorative effort only through recognizing what has led to the need for the restoration, which has not been a priority in the rapidly growing metropolis of Istanbul.

I imagine the water reclaiming the materiality of the archives to transform the archive into pulp, a testament to the origins of not only the neighborhood but of a tendency to record, to dilapidate, and to restore, whimsically and catastrophically, exposing the unspokens in the archives as a scarcity itself. The potential repulpification of documents by inundation in the archive can thus pose this question: how much were the documents in the archives allowed to speak before the flooding, if ever? The repulpification of the archives by the waters of a cement-reinforced riverbed could signal the state of destruction that is more direct than anything else that the official state narratives propose. That inundation of the archive as a material and constant state of the world today is the translation of all that has been built up over time, replacing ruptures in history with an explosive yet gnawing, eroding, all-encompassing sense of overwhelm and death. As the temporality of catastrophe is overturned, thresholds dissipate.19Soyoung Kim, “Post-Contact Zones: (En)Countering Covid-19,” Inter-Asia Cultural Studies 21, no. 4 (January 2020): pp. 557-565, In the microcosm of Kağıthane, the archive that was once pulp becomes pulp again, entangled with the narratives of production, erasure, destruction, and reconstruction that buries, reclaims, and, sometimes, restores.


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