A meeting of minds on the Bosphorus

Istancool brings stars from across the globe together in intimate salon style. It's the future of festivals, says Harriet Walker

Attending the Istancool festival is a little like one of those conversations in which each person nominates their dream dinner party guest.

Kirsten Dunst chats to Michael Stipe and Terry Gilliam over a Bellini on the terrace, while actress Tilda Swinton twirls fashion designer Haider Ackermann around the dance-floor, and photographer Ryan McGinley lends a hand to DJ and magazine mogul Jefferson Hack. Later on, Courtney Love arrives to perform an intimate set, in which she covers Madonna's "Like a Prayer" and dedicates a new song to Stipe. Who rushes right over to give her a hug.

Overwhelming? Slightly. Surreal? Certainly. But Istancool, now in its second year, is a festival unlike any other – and that is both its goal and its USP. And it carries it off. Far from being an exclusive celebrity smug-in, this fledgling event is a weekend of carefully curated panel discussions, screenings and audience-led Q&As, all of which are open to the public and free to attend.

There's an air of informality which permeates both talent and hangers-on alike, so that the discussions take on a more relaxed feel: the speakers are more likely to respond without being frosty, and audiences do not feel the need to grill them. "It's like a school trip" says Tilda Swinton, when she takes to the stage to be questioned alongside Turkish actor Serra Yilmaz.

Events range from set pieces, such as interviews and screenings, to more spontaneous round-tables and amenable chats stage-managed with alacrity by Jefferson Hack, whose magazine AnOther is media partner to the event. These types of conversatione hark back to a salon tradition with which the event very strongly identifies. The discussion of art and the role of the artist is difficult in a culture which immediately classes such dialogue as self-conscious, and pretentiously so. But when those discussing it are old friends, such as McGinley and fellow New York artist Dan Colen, the result is so genuinely warm and engaging that all else evaporates. "I wouldn't call myself a street artist," McGinley tells Hack at one point, "but I have sat on a lot of pavements."

Istancool also hosted the world premiere of a series of music videos created for REM's new album, Collapse Into Now, by Sam Taylor-Wood and Sophie Calle. One depicts Taylor-Wood's husband, actor Aaron Johnson, dancing and cavorting with lamp-posts in East London.

"It comes from our ritual of 'morning dancing'," explains Taylor-Wood, winking at Johnson, who is squirming in the audience. These are the moments that make Istancool different from, say, Hay or Port Eliot – there is always a proximity, everyone is interlinked. There is little difference between those involved and those participating. So much so that Courtney Love turned parts of her Q & A on her audience, interested to find out how her music had inspired them. During Dunst's talk (she arrived fresh from victory and ignominy at Cannes for her role in Melancholia) there is discussion of little other than her director Lars von Trier's slip-up, but Dunst answers gamely.

"He says dumb stuff sometimes," she admits. "He was trying to make people laugh by telling the story of his life, but it was not the right audience for it."

The spontaneity that drives Istancool comes, in large part, from organisers Pablo Ganguli and Demet Muftuoglu. "The aim is to connect minds together for people all over the world", explains Ganguli, who founded his company Liberatum in 2001, aged just 17, with the intention of staging events around the world. "To give people who don't normally have it a chance to interact."

Hence Istanbul. After a stint as European Capital of Culture last year (which saw Liberatum's inaugural event there), Ganguli wants the spotlight of the world to remain firmly on the city that, literally, bridges Europe and Asia. And he has plenty more ideas to come.

"I'm talking to Angelina [Jolie]'s manager at the moment," he says. "Let's say I could bring her to give a talk with Sean Penn on the Balkans or Haiti. And I want an opera curated by Lady Gaga. Istancool will be bigger than Venice!"

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