Fatoş Üstek is a name that is becoming increasingly prevalent in galleries across London. Working as an independent curator Üstek has developed an impressive CV, having curated projects such as fig-2, Art Night 2017, an opera in five acts at DRAF, and a variety of high profile international projects. Late last month we spoke with the Art Night 2017 curator about feminism, curatorial practice, interdisciplinary approaches, and the importance of being 'on the beach'.
Jennifer Shearman: So, I wanted to know more about how you ended up in curation. Particularly after your first degree in mathematics. What was it that led you to where you are now?
Fatoş Üstek: I was a very keen maths student in High School, with much interest in the logic of maths. I used to play chess as well - actually a lot. For me maths is a form of expression. When I started at University what happened was that I needed to expand my domain of possibilities of expressing ideas, feelings, sensitivities and gestures and then I was introduced to arts...I enrolled to Bogazici University, in Istanbul, formerly named as Roberts College and all the education is conducted in English, and moreover the whole educational and social structure is inherently American. So there were many social or cultural clubs. I signed up to eight of them in the first year of my studies, and it was more about seeing the possibility of expressing myself through different means, which kind of lead me to thinking in art. I studied photography and darkroom as I began making photographs. I think for me it was about seeking ways of self-realisation, or means of expressing my ideas and my quest of understanding the world around us. That was my driving force. I’m a very curious person so what happened was that maths kind of degraded its significance for me in time in a way because it's a very specific science and if you really want to specialise then the number of people you can communicate with across the world gets really small. During the college years, I found out that I am a bit more social than what I thought of myself through my teens. I like talking to people from different backgrounds or walks of life and sharing systems of thinking and exploring the vastness of multifarious ways of perceiving the world.
JS: I believe you also did some film studies as well?
FÜ: I was very much interested in everything, if that can be said. As a student, we could take additional courses from different departments as selective courses, so I started taking introduction to philosophy as well as politics and history of architecture and also modern dance. I was lucky that during my student years, a film studies programme opened up, so I also signed up for that certificate programme. Over the years, I got to collect so many credits from the additional courses that I was almost not granted to graduate as I was about to exceed the maximum limit - never thought such a threshold existed!
JS: What interests me in your work is that you’ve got so many subjects that you’re interested in. Do you think you employ quite an interdisciplinary approach to you curatorial practice?
FÜ: I seek to be informed by various approaches and understandings to life as it were, which of course expands its margins from visual arts to humanities and social sciences as well as natural sciences. As I cumulate experiences in doing and making, thing and exploring, seem to find even more connections and the threads crossing through these seemingly dissimilar forms of knowledge production. Studying mathematics was almost like gaining a new language because it’s a form of thinking, it is a mindset. The arts operates with a different terminology, a different language and at times different mindset. My background in science, supports me when I’m curating, writing or lecturing, in proliferating my approach and bringing in positions from a different perspective. Obviously, this also allows me to not only constrain myself within the visual domain, but to gaze at the wider realm of knowledge. I’m not interested in forms of translation but in forms of transmission, because everything is in a way informed, inspired and influenced by one another. But how could we really expand on this, or how can we amplify the fact that science also bases it’s foundations on speculation as well as the arts? So there are many correlations one can draw… The fact that I studied abstract maths, topology and not calculus, also allows me to come up with threads between theories of natural sciences and art.
JS: So very conceptual?
FÜ: Indeed, I am driven by concepts, but try not to be enslaved by them at the same time.
JS: I wanted to ask a few questions about Art Night as well. In the booklet you said that “Art Night 2017 is a festival that celebrates the differences that make us” - do you feel that diversity within your programme is an important element?
FÜ: Thank you for registering this sentence. That’s a very good point. ‘Differences’ is a very charged word and it is evocative of political, social, and emotional nuances. For Art Night 2017, I worked around a theme that connected the festival as a whole. Borrowing the term fusion of horizons from the philosopher of hermeneutics Hans-Georg Gadamer, I constructed the foundation of the festival, to expand upon, inspired by the East End and its inevitable yet observable processual gradual change and the profile of its inhabitants that go along.
The fusion of horizons refers to that, we as individuals have a respective horizon line and that allows us to see but also from an epistemological perspective it allows us to understand; and it stands for not only our limit of perception but also for out limit of aspirations, dreams, desires as well as knowledge. So with fusion of horizons he says that when there is a genuine dialogue or conversation among two parties, two people, two communities followed by a true understanding then there happens a fusion of realities. That means neither my horizon - set of expectations, understanding of the world around me - nor yours would stay intact. I thought that it was a very important term to recall especially in this moment in time where we can talk about global politics, but we can also talk about local realities. For instance, the East End of London have always been marked by differences that shaped its feature and nature of the social realm. Of course for a festival where I am working with contemporary artists and commissioning artworks and let's say venues that have a strong historic past or an iconic value or a secretive nature, then it was really important to bring in this concept of differences or this concept of horizons on all levels. In a sense that through installations and encounters or situations you would physically and sensually experience that shift, and sometimes it could be more subtle and nuanced, very intellectual or operating at a very semantic level.
JS: A good example of that which is quite explicit would be the Lindsay Seers’ new commission in the Masonic Temple at Andaz Hotel, which is a very masculine space juxtaposed with a female artist’s very sexualised, but also empowered video.
FÜ: That’s a very good example because you know I wanted to have works in the festival that were at times site-specific, site-located and Lindsay's work is site-adapted and informed by the history of the venue. The masonic temple is already charged by previous activities and loaded with iconography so my challenge for Art Night, among many, was the fact that the places we worked with were not empty shells, nor existing art venues, but locations that already had a character, a weight within them. So you have to do something beyond mere insertions, you can’t only place an object or a work of art and claim no responsibility. Overall, you are responsible as a curator. What I wanted to do was to have a work of art that is as strong as the venue that can stand out on its own. With Lindsay there was a perfect marriage.Through research, she decided to work on the persona of Aleister Crowley and bring out the dominating forces within the site, through inserting a female position. The fact that you see different narratives overlaid and the perspective of a female in the midst of Crowley’s writings I think was very strong.
JS: Yes that temple is such a weird venue to be in, especially within the Andaz which is a very expensive hotel.
FÜ: Exactly, but the hotel is also a really important one in literature. It’s the former Great Eastern Hotel. In the turn of the century, say in the twenties and thirties,because of it’s close proximity to Liverpool St Station writers, authors, painters, artists would actually hang around in the bar or in the pub of the hotel and drink. There is even a reference in Austerlitz by W. G. Sebald who writes on the reminiscence of a visit at the Masonic Temple. Today, it is a five star hotel and the temple is also open to other functions such as dinners, weddings, film screenings as well as the on-going monthly meetings of the members of the masonic lodge.
JS: It’s oppressive as well that environment. It’s luxurious, but also very dark.
FÜ: Indeed it feels very dark. The history resonates through centuries, where humans charge objects and spaces that we inhabit, reside in.
JS: Art Night is a female-led project and there are a lot of women at the helm of it. How do you think this might influence the project itself? And how do you organise yourselves?
FÜ: It was a very interesting experience actually. The founders are Ksenia Zemtsova and Philippine Nguyen and it’s a woman heavy team. I think we only had two interns this year that were male and of course our head of production is male and the production team is evidently male-oriented although we had amazing strong females in our production team as well. For me what was an important experience and that also coincided with my own work ethic or policy in realising projects is a horizontal structure. Of course, there are different shared responsibilities and due to the difference of the share of responsibilities there is - I wouldn't want to call it a hierarchy - a division of roles and that allocates who makes the final decisions. With the Art Night team, we operated at an almost horizontal constellation, where everyone in the team had agency. I wanted the whole team to feel supported by me and the founders who are also running the project, to initiate their own decisions - and of course always check in with me. We all worked together; from my curatorial assistants to interns, the designers or the fundraisers or the head of the VIP programme or head of communications... It was important that everybody could take a stance to own the project and bring their best to it. I think this can only happen at eye level and perhaps this could be more of a female way of making things happen, rather than a classic establishment of a top down structure that delegates roles and tasks. Of course, I was devising roles and tasks as well as receiving tasks for my role, but it was never a rigid duty nor ‘bureaucratic’ way of reporting back. All os un involved were engaged in sharing back and catching up. I think this also added onto the success of the festival as well because we communicated this approach to everyone we worked with from artists to venue owners.
JS: So quite a collaborative work style, which I do think is quite female. There's been some talk about the fact that there has been a rise in female curators and how the curatorial role really works well with someone who enjoys networking and nurturing relationships which is perhaps a part of the reason why women can really thrive in these kinds of positions.
FÜ: I think it is a really important period in time because we have already in a way passed the female leader profile that mimics a male profile. I feel we are now in a very different genre of social roles because it’s not so gender specific anymore. I also feel very supported by my female colleagues. I mean I’m part of many different women’s organisations and networks, but I also feel that yes we all have different levels of experiences and different ambitions and achievements, but I feel there is a ground for supporting each other. Almost like this clique of leaning in but it’s not only leaning in, it is also about introducing a generosity in your exchange. I have a very un-possessive approach to ideas. I can have a great idea and if you want to go ahead and do something with it, it’s fine. I believe ideas belong to a common domain - they are not owned. Of course you have to own your successes, failures or mistakes and so on, but at the same time if you are doing research on any topic or an artist or a scene I would tell you everything I know.
JS: I think it is very different to just competing with men, it’s now more of a socialist approach and something much more interdisciplinary. Using all these different skills to form a strong leadership that’s almost not a leadership.
FÜ: Exactly, we all lead in the end, there are spokespersons, but everybody leads in the end and I think that’s important. And that everyone feels that they are strong and powerful in that.
JS: Art Night was incredibly busy. What do you attribute the massive success of both your Art Night and the festival in general? As it was massively successful the first time as well.
FÜ: I think there are many things to it. One is when I started working on the second edition, one of my drives was to make it a giant festival. In the sense that my aim was to introduce a festival feel and encourage people to stay out on the streets as long as they want and as long as they can. The second force was that I wanted to bring in new contexts and a new breath of interest into what the East End has to offer also I wanted to make visible what’s already active. Hence the associate programme took place, which added onto the success of the Art Night in the sense that it wasn’t only about “hey, this is a festival we’re bringing in” it was more like “hey, this is our festival, let’s own it, let’s do it together, let’s be part of it.” The other force was that I chose the artists very carefully and the venues. Because almost all the works are new commissions I thought that would bring another level of interest for audiences. So it wasn’t like a work seen somewhere else before and repeated in a different context, but it was actually new manifestations from those artists. And it’s a big spectrum of age and also establishment, you know like the Chapman Brothers who are very famous whereas Lawrence Lek is young and very popular and what he has to say is very interesting as well. I wanted to introduce different dichotomies of interests into the festival and I think that also reflected on the audiences. Some people only came for Lawrence and then they ended up seeing Anne Hardy or they only came for Melanie Manchot and the dance because they knew the dance groups and discovered Lindsay Seers…. There were different audience groups that were activated. I also started talking about Art Night way before its day of inauguration. We had public talks and symposiums. I did workshops with curators from institutions nationwide, and moderated artist talks. All I did worked on to create the anticipation of what the festival could be. To be honest I was also speculating that we would have 50,000 people attending, looking back we received a higher interest hence 75,000 people were out on the streets looking and engaging with art on 1 July.Last year it was 35,000 so it’s a huge rise. We weren’t expecting as many ques. One thing that was fulfilling is that people who were queuing for an hour or two,were still happy with the experience of seeing the works they have awaited for. Especially when you are waiting for something you really want to see and coming out with an exhilarating experience. If it’s something mediocre you would probably feel upset and bitter. That for me is a huge astonishment as a curator and I’m sure for the artists as well.
JS: Yeah of course and it is hard with free things as there is no way of really knowing how many people will show up. But I mean I was very impressed. My friend compared it to being at a festival or going to a club. It’s quite interesting because normally on a Saturday night you have people queuing outside XOYO, but instead you're seeing people queuing outside these other venues it’s quite interesting to have people doing that with their Saturday night. I think it shows what people in London are interested in.
FÜ: Yes that’s very true. I mean we also had some mainstream channels. Time Out did a two page feature and I think it reaches to a different crowd.e also had Frieze Magazine as a media partner that reaches to the art crowd. People queue for art in many other places. I had the Gwangju Biennial experience and the exhibition is visited by millions of people. Schools organise trips, nearby towns come for a visit and they all queue to get in.. There were long queues even for our opening, because we had a very famous super good looking Korean actor coming for the ceremony, so there were girls that arrived the night before and sat on the front seats through the night. It is important to balance the ‘mass’ experience. For instance for me what worked really well in that sense was Anne Hardy. You could only be in there with six or eight other people at a time and so from the buzz of the street you walked into a tranquil space filled with curious forms and sounds. I think that was good, although we could have had a hundred people at a time going through the installation, it wouldn’t have been the same experience.
JS: Yes I went in there myself and you definitely wouldn't want loads of people in there. I think going through that first bit is quite nice as everyone else is already in there and you just have no idea what’s going to meet you. So next I wanted to talk a bit about fig-2 as that’s a really interesting curatorial idea. It sounds intense, so could you tell me a bit more about it?
FÜ: Actually I feel since completing the fig-2 marathon, I carry an invisible badge which reads crazy. fig is a series which was actually initiated by Mark Francis, 18 years ago in 1999 and he came up with the formula of curating 50 exhibitions in 50 weeks and wrote on a napkin. He ended up curating 50 shows, introduced the concept of pop-up, stirred the contemporary art scene introduced the YBA artists and even artists who were not well known, before Tate Modern and Frieze.15 years after it was revised by the forces of Outset which was co-founded by Candida Gertler OBE. She collated the budget with Phillips Auction House, Bicester Village and individual fig-2 patrons, that was needed and also conversed with ICA to become the host of the project so that the project was ready to launch. Then they found me and what was really interesting in retrospect was in the beginning I had that weight on my shoulders to predict the future greats of the London art scene, if not international scenes, and looking back I am very happy with my selections. I was only appointed two and a half months before the inauguration and the opening of the first show and I didn’t know who I was showing. I just wanted to start with a female artist who had never had a solo show in London but whom was known by many people, was from the scene.The first show of fig-1 was of Richard Hamilton and it bookended the series. So I also bookended with Laura Eldret. Overall it was for me an exercise of many things. One thing was that fig-2 was a non-institutional institution. An institution in the sense in which we had a venue and a structure, a vision, a team, and it also existed within an institution, but also it had total freedom and I had a carte blanche to program. That actually allowed me to take a lot of risks and be playful and sometimes I did drive my team crazy. At times also the artists, because I would invite them ten days before the opening of their show -if they agreed, and 4 out of 5 artists that I invited in last-minute promptness, came up with new works and new ideas. It was almost a marathon of curating, myself and with my wonderful team Yves, Jessie and Irene we performed installing and deinstalling a show weekly with 11 hours to turn over. I shall add that I am a bit ambitious in making things happen, especially if it involves dreams and desires. My idea was to pass the carte blanche to the artists, so I asked them “what is your innermost desire, what would you love to do if you had a space, a venue and some budget to make it happen, and it doesn’t have to be what you have done before.” Then artists would get back with some ideas and of course I get very excited and then the ideas grow bigger and the scales go wilder. I also did 30 percent additional fundraising of the overall the budget because of some of the large-scale new commissions.Overall, we had 45 new commissions for 50 shows, so it was a bit insane. Moreover,t it was really important to look into London of 2015 and what it has to offer and to look into the future as well as consider and observe the profiles of the local art institutions. I was given the opportunity to programme a free floating entity for one year, thus it necessitated to respond to the locality. Additionally, I wanted to bring in a wider perspective, looking through glass, fig-2 was set to produce a capturing of the aesthetic and critical currency of our times. What are we looking at? What kind of exhibitions do we need? What kind of art moves us? How are we shaped and formed in our relationship to the world through the art experience?
JS: Would you think as well with your curatorial practice, you know you started it with a female artist, do you think you adopt a feminist practice?
FÜ: I’ve always been a feminist. It’s a given. I never have said that I am - because I have always been. It’s part of my reason of being, an ontological explanation of myself. I come from Turkey, you know at the moment it’s a very delicate political situation, especially for women and self expression it's very problematic. For me, I come from a well educated and open minded family, although growing up in a country where there is a demarcation of female to male, it informs you to become a feminist. So being a feminist was never an objective, it was always in my way of being.
JS: I think it’s quite interesting as well with your background, which is quite broad, and my own vision of feminist curatorial practice is something that diverges a lot from mainstream timelines, mainstream frames of art history and these boxes that have already been created within the art world. So I think by having this quite interdisciplinary practice that is very collaborative is helping to shape these new timelines.
FÜ: I think that’s a very good reading and a very good observation because for instance in fig-2 60% of the artists were female but we didn’t need to announce that. I also wanted to give the solo shows to people who had just had babies - a man or a woman. It’s also important to support that phase of an early family. I’m also not interested in overproducing the mainstream by flagging categorisations, because I don’t believe in amplification of categorisations. Of course categories or formations and classifications can help us in finding out about something, but they should not be fixed. In that regard also my background is really important because when I moved abroad it was really important for me not to be a Turkish curator who works with artists from Turkey or representing a region. Funnily enough, the regional allocation of Turkey changes over short periods of time. In the beginning of 2000’s it was part of South-East europe and now it is regarded as part of the Middle East.
I wouldn’t want to insert a categorical imperative on my ways of thinking and of course I am informed by where I come from, but it doesn’t necessarily need to be the only area where I can be productive. I’m really not interested in slogans in the sense in which it can flatter the context.
JS: Yes and I think as well with so much of this stuff - particularly within the realms of art history - because of whom these labels are put on by it then becomes very exclusive and it leaves out a lot of other people and makers if they don’t fit within certain frames or focuses.
FÜ: Those categorical imperatives - that’s so true. I also run a series of talks at Shoreditch House with a colleague of mine, Louise O’Kelly, and every year in March because it’s Women's History Month we invite female professionals from the arts like Iwona Blazwick or we had Maureen Paley, Caroline Douglas, Catherine Wood, to look at the 90s and revoke what happened in the 90s. As the history of the 90s is not yet written and when it will be, we have to have female voices included. I think it’s a very important sensitivity to have.
JS: Yes - start writing our own histories.
FÜ: Yes! And it is histories. It’s plural.
JS: Do you think working as a curator as well - as a woman - you’ve come up against any barriers because of it?
FÜ: If there has been anything it is still invisible to me. I think what perhaps happens is that there are groups or clans and fans. So of course sometimes without your knowledge your gender might inform your affiliation because you are not attending a male only activity.
JS: I think as well you’re working at a time where there are a lot of women. So I guess as well if you can work within those circles where there is more of a gender balance and there are more women then it’s beneficial. It’s interesting you know with Whitechapel and Tate modern. It’s a very good time for women.
FÜ: It’s very true but also I collaborate with a lot of different people from different generations or countries as well and haven't felt like because I am female I am chosen or because I’m female I’m not chosen.
JS: So now Art Night is over and I assume you’re wrapping that up, what do you think you’re going to do after?
FÜ: I have two exhibitions coming up. I’m going to be working at Art Night until mid September to finish the publication and I’m curating a show in Prague with a co-curator Karina Kottová at the end of September. I am also the chief juror of the Celeste Prize this year, which is an art award for young emerging artists and we are now on the selection process and there will be an exhibition at the Bargehouse in OXO Tower opening on 5th October with the award ceremony during Frieze week. I’m also writing a chapter for a companion to curating for Blackwell.
I don’t have a huge project like Art Night lined up. It is the same as after fig-2, I wish to have at least 5 to 6 months to digest what happened. So that I can revise and renew my knowledge, expand onto my curiosities in order to perform a different project. I don’t want to be a curator who has templates that can be applied in different contexts and travels with her or his group of artists. I’m very much interested in learning and expanding and learning more. Not only through each and every project I do but also in the meantime. Apparently in consultancy it’s called being on the beach - so I’m on the beach. Still working on some projects, but on the beach for a big one.
JS: Yes with something like Art Night or fig-2 there’s so much information and you’re dealing with so many artists you kind of need time to absorb it.
FÜ: Yes! Also time is good to restore, as well as cook new ideas.
Header Image: Lindsay Seers, Mental Metal2, 2017. Installation view at Masonic Temple, Andaz London Liverpool Street. Commissioned by Art Night 2017. Courtesy the artist and Matt’s Gallery, London. Photo by Lindsay Seers.
Image 1: Do Ho Suh, My Home-s, 2014–2017 and Passage-s, 2013–2016. Installation view at Christ Church Spitalfields. Courtesy the artist and Art Night 2017, Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong, and Victoria Miro, London. Photo by Thierry Bal.
Image 2: Lindsay Seers, Mental Metal2, 2017. Installation view at Masonic Temple, Andaz London Liverpool Street. Commissioned by Art Night 2017. Courtesy the artist and Matt’s Gallery, London. Photo by Lindsay Seers.
Image 3: Anne Hardy, Falling and Walking (phhhhhhhhhhh phossshhhhh crrhhhhzzz mn huaooogh), 2017. Co-commissioned by Art Night 2017 and Contemporary Art Society. Courtesy the artist and Maureen Paley, London. Photo by Angus Mill.
Image 4: Melanie Manchot, Dance (All Night, London), 2017. Exchange Square, Broadgate. Commissioned by Art Night 2017, acquired for the Arts Council Collection, made possible by Art Fund. Courtesy the artist and Parafin, London. Photo by Rachel Cherry.
Image 5: Güneş Terkol, Home is my Heart, 2017. Commissioned by Art Night 2017. Courtesy the artist and Krank Art Gallery, Istanbul. Photo by Neil Juggins.