how to curate: a guide by fatos ustek

Fatos Ustek is one of the art world’s most exciting curators and art writers. Originally from Turkey, but having been based in London for the past ten years, Fatos has been at the helm of two of the most significant exhibitions the capital has seen in recent years.

Having curated Outset’s Fig 2, a series of 50  week-long residencies at London’s ICA in 2015, Fatos Ustek uncovered the front line of London’s art scene week by week. This year, she’s in charge of Art Night. “We're taking over the city for one night, from 6pm to 5am” she explains, “not only to activate the streets but also the minds”. Ten artists, one club night and an associate program. “We are going to activate 13 different locations from secret places to historic sites or unknown places or take people to intriguing locations and all of them to encounter art.” Fatos' speciality is to open up a city, and allow it’s creativity to take over.

We spoke to Fatos about her six tips for curating a show so boss, it can capture the imagination of an entire city.

Curiosity

There's no one way to becoming a curator. I studied Maths but I was driven by curiosity. In my early years of being a Maths student I worked in festivals in Istanbul for the Biennial’s assistant or theatre festival. I would be a film festival assistant and binge watch the festival films after the festival finished and afterwards I started to work in an archive of the first contemporary art institution in Istanbul.

I started making art and still have horrendous oil paintings in my family home which I really appreciate my parents for keeping but I didn't have the creativity to transform an everyday object into an object of art. I think that is what artists have and that's what differentiates them, but I have a different eye to the world. Curating is a different level of creativity. You have the faculties of loving, engaging and fostering conversation around the art encounter.

Know your history. All the contemporary art or the postmodern discourse claims freedom of history and tradition and heritage, but I think it's so important to have an understanding of what happens when art happens. How art and our understanding of art, our appreciation of art and our values system, our judgement system that evolved throughout centuries and how it is different according to different context and cultural circumstances.

You have to tap into your currency. I subscribe to magazines and I really love receiving them at home. That's the laziest thing, but I really love having my Sunday morning going through magazines I have received from post. I don't do much online reading. If I do look up something online, I have to print it. I am very tactile. I need to draw, I need to make notes and mark things. I also keep attuned and social media these days is a very strong attunement - who you follow and whose inspirations inspire you becomes a way of learning.

Serendipity

I find my artists through coincidences as well as conscious research and I think it's a balance of both. It's not a spiritual, not a physical thing of things come to you when you manifest, but I think it's about the commonality of interests and excitement that draw people together. Like your behaviours, your mannerisms of attending that event instead of the other event makes you meet the artist you might be working with in the future.

So, with Fig 2. For instance, Amy Stephens. I didn't know of her work but we are on the same advisory board for Block Universe. One day when we were having our board meeting at Fig 2 premises, she was just showing me the recent sculpture she made and at the time I was looking for sculpture exhibition. It fitted so well with the line-up I was building and Fig 2 as a whole narrative and it was literally ten days before the show she had.

Or, I met Ann Hardy who is in Art Night at dinner at the fundraiser of Open School East and we just had an amazing chat and we really liked each other. Didn't know her work before and now I’m a great fan and follower.

Concept

I'm a conceptual curator so there are different ways of curating. You can be an essays curator or you can be a period curator where you would know your 80s so well and you could make amazing shows about what happened in the 80s and how it inspired both ways etc. and a concept orientated curator. For me, it's really important to delve into different strengths where I am curating, for who I am curating and what I want to say.

For Art Night, I'm so inspired by the east end. It is a land of narratives and myths, from Jack the Ripper to Rodinsky's Room, to graffiti. There's a lot of narratives happening here, this is a storytelling part of London. From Jewish architecture in the area to the creative feel of Shoreditch, it has layers, different backgrounds, different historical, sensual, psychological, geographical belongings or attributions to itself. I was very much interested in that multiplicity and the fact all these differences makes us together and understand each other.

So, while I was doing this research about the concept - OK - what is a society? Now how do we evolve and change and respond to our environment which is constantly changing and that is another thing that is significant for the east end. The regeneration of the city creeping in, and the whole new phase a skyline is being produced, not only for the east end but for the whole of London. It's important to understand, how do we orientate ourselves in the new real. What is a nation? What is a belonging? Who is in? Who is out?

I was looking into Horizontverschmelzung, this amazing philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer coined the term, meaning “fusion of horizons”. That was like a spark for me, because it's not about a dominant horizon takes over all the horizons available, but it was about active transformation of realities. What he says is when there's a genuine understanding, through dialogue between two people, neither the speaker nor the listener's horizon stays intact because when we understand each other, we add onto their subject of truth.

So, the horizon isn't only the line that separates the sky and the sea and the earth, but it's actually a limit to your aspirations, your dreams, your desires. It is a perspective we need to have in order to see the world, it's also the boundary that allows you to understand the world around you. When you're in conversation with one another, those boundaries are negotiated, hence the fusion.

It’s very current for the east end, or everyone in the world in the wake of Brexit, in the right wing rise, especially the western part of the world. So, I thought it was a crucial concept to bring in. Each Art Night commission deals with this idea of horizon in their own way. Either it is exploring what is belonging, what is home or through the archaeology or through mapping.

Don't control

An important thing to be good curator is having opinions but not being controlling. It's a form of negotiation.

With some artists, I'm engaged in the brainstorming and imagining together and perhaps that imagination comes with how can we activate the work, while the artist can concentrate on the manifestation of form or aesthetics of it.

With Fig 2 I would try to go into the core of the subject, what we are trying to say and possible ways in which we say it and that's how I come in with my opinions. From placing the work to having ideas of about oh, ok, maybe if we have a cameraman, it's three cameramen. Maybe one has to pan so that we have a panoramic shot. It could be something very technical and detailed or it could be something a bit bigger…

I think everyone who is involved is in charge and I like it that way. With whoever I work, my assistants, my interns. Everyone need to be in charge. I like it that way that everyone has an agency and everyone has that ownership of engagement with what we're doing.

I do come across as strong minded and I am, I know but I can listen. It's not ‘giving in’ but I can really change my decisions if the other decision is better. Is more exciting, more viable. So, I don't see a problem in changing my mind.

Risk

I love taking risks. I think it's really my middle name now. And I'm becoming more and more comfortable. I wasn't born like this. I think if you have the ability to cultivate your vision for every project, every engagement. I think that is the first thing to then be able to take risks. My vision allows me to see what is really happening in that picture and then if I believe in that, I would foster it. So, I don't need to know how it will exactly look.

Like at Fig 2  was the epitome of risk taking because I believed in the project and it was ok if I didn't know until Monday morning a few hours before the show opened, how the exhibition would look like in the end. That was totally fine because I believe in what is happening, and I think that is really important. I think that's what we need more and more in this mapped, charted, capitalised art world at the moment.

Many artistic projects are done 2/3 years ahead of time, so it allows less flexibility and less risk taking for institutions. Also, there are so many different regulations which I find painful and it's getting harder and harder to make sure everything is health and safety perfect. There are four reality planes that I was telling you about: The architecture, the support structure, the art and audience engagement. Then there is a fifth dimension which is health and safety. It has to be fireproof and now bomb proof.

Significance

There are now multiple agencies, multiple centres that write history and it's not only west-centric, not only male domination. There are female voices coming in strong positions, directors choosing female artists to be more prominent in their programming. At the same time with social media and internet, there is a decentralisation of knowledge production and that's going to change the whole recourse of history writing.

I think it's important when we do what we do, it's really important that gesture is significant for us. Significant enough that we do it. If we don't find it significant, I would really advise for everyone, just don't do it. Sometimes I also get invitations for some projects I feel oh yeah, I could do that, but if I'm not sparked up, I say no, because I think it's really important to not overdo but do things with meaning, and also that brings that responsibility for the art you're showing. For the audiences, you're engaging and for the history, you're contributing.

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