Ustek Talks about a High-Achieving, Kind, and All-Encompassing Curatorial Practice that is Taking Our Breath Away
Full circle. I didn’t grow up around people who were interested in art, my family was very much working class. But I remember when I was around 16, we were living in Izmir on the West coast of Turkey, I visited Yapi Kredi Sanat Galerisi, an art gallery supported by a bank—many in the ‘90s were supported by banks—and I saw the works of Ergin Inan. I was so inspired by his paintings, his delicate style and inquiry in the essence of human that I used my pocket money to buy the catalogue of the exhibition. Coincidentally, years later, while we were looking to buy an edition for the 60th birthday of my partner’s aunt, with all the cousins together, I did a wide research and found the edition that is now hanging on the wall behind me. This is not the piece we bought for our aunt, but I felt this was a calling for me, I needed to reconnect with my teen-self and with the practice of Ergin Inan. He is very much inspired by Rumi’s Masnavi and this is also what I started reading last year.
Self-exploration. I come from a family of high achievers and from my parent’s perspective, I was to become a computer engineer or work in a bank to secure my future. So until the age of 18, when I started university, I didn’t really have the possibility of questioning that I could choose a different area of work. I went to an Anatolian high school (that was what they were called back then) and all education was given in English, this was followed by Bogazici University (formerly Robert College) in Istanbul. Prior to starting my degree in Maths, I wanted to take an extra year for my proficiency in English. I already had good English levels, hence I was given half a term off by the school before starting my term as a regular student. With that time at hand to roam freely—I signed up to eight different social clubs like fine arts, photography, theatre, mountaineering, etc. And that’s how my inquiry into myself started, finding myself, my voice. And it’s still going on.
It was artist Halil Altindere who told me “you should be a curator”. And I was like, “Okay, I have no idea what that is. But I’ll explore it”. I was a university student whilst I worked as an assistant for the Istanbul Biennial and all the Istanbul cultural festivals. I was hard working, running around and getting lots of things done. I met Halil at an art fair through Ali Akay, a professor of sociology and curator, whom I met while I was assisting a commercial gallery at a fair stand. It evolved very organically while I was trying to engage people with the works on display and seeking to collect their contacts for the gallery. We started having a conversation and he was very supportive of me and my interests, I knew that I was not an artist, because I explored that during my initial years at university, but it was him who suggested going into curatorship.
As a curator I am interested in making ideas happen. I don’t really have a public focus as a curator, my priority is the arts, and the public mission comes along. My mission is to support the artwork in expanding ways in which it becomes public. Art brings an open field of possibilities. I’m excited about supporting artists and realising their ideas and I’m also interested in exploring pluralistic ways of producing knowledge, thinking and inquiring around an art encounter, which can manifest itself as an exhibition, a book or a series of public programmes. In more philosophical terms, an art encounter is a “marked” event that happens to you and through you, and in contact with other bodies. So an art encounter for me, is meeting a work of art with the potential of it becoming an event.
A private square that becomes public overnight. Art moves me, and what drives me is to share this experience and pass it on to others who can then experience it for themselves. Sometimes it can be an intimate encounter with one object or one body/person. Sometimes it can be hundreds of bodies—the levels of intimacy and the numbers of bodies in the place of art encounter is irrelevant. As an example I can think of two different commissions made for Art Night in 2017, a one night only festival all over East London, which included extraordinary, historically significant venues like the Tower Bridge, or a hidden Masonic Temple in a five star hotel, or a privately owned square. Anne Hardy realised an installation in one of the largest (now demolished) warehouses in Shoreditch. In her “Field work”, a sculptural sonic landscape, only six people were allowed at a given time. It was quite a journey to walk through it and the sound acted as a trigger taking you into a new reality. But while this was happening, literally across the road, Melanie Manchot’s Dance All Night (London) activated a privately owned public square—Exchange Square in Broadgate, involving ten different amateur dance schools from East London. We created a dance floor overlooking Liverpool Street Station where everyone was invited to dance along a choreography of their choice wearing wireless headphones—like in a silent disco—and we had 8,000 people dancing through the night, to three different dance classes at any given time from Ceilidh to Afro Cuban, Swing to Tango from 9PM until 4AM the next day. That privately owned square became public overnight.
Abundance. In exhibition making, scenography is important but it shouldn’t be strict and dictating people how to behave while they’re relating to the artworks. It’s about how you open the space so that people from different backgrounds and varied interests can access the artwork. For fig-2, 50 Exhibitions in 50 Weeks, at the ICA London, I studied various exhibition architectures, and in order to make 50 different exhibitions I decided on modular display units. My team and I performed installing and de-installing on a weekly basis, which involved moving walls. Our office was in the same room as the exhibitions. So sometimes we had to squeeze ourselves behind the walls, other times we were needed to be part of the exhibition. For me, it is very important that a show has multiple access points, thus multifarious components, such as performances, screenings, talks, lecture programmes, and workshops. It’s about how we expand and unpack the work and proliferate contexts for its reception.
I’m very practical and I love problem solving. I studied abstract maths with a focus in topology. And I think that’s how I could make the jump into art theory. In topology, you create systems in an imaginary field, and then you test them, so that you can bring it back to applicable maths. Studying maths has an imprint on my body and in my thinking. And it also gives me the skills to think outside the box. I’m a 360 degree thinker in production, pre-production and post-production. I like big picture thinking and for me it is important to always ensure my awareness of what is going on and how interconnections among all components are soundly put together. It’s like working on five questions at the same time, but it is not multitasking.
Strong support and a temporary work becomes permanent. In all my projects, I visualise exhibitions in my head beforehand. I study artists’ practices in depth and familiarise myself with their language, their vocabulary and their thinking. Doing so allows me to work with new commissions and take risks with the artists. I can relate to their ideas and conceptual approaches and understand their artistic process. Also, I can practically offer ideas. When I work with artists I get involved in deeper conversations with them. Sometimes we exchange books and articles, sometimes we go see shows together. It’s about creating a dialogue that leads to further alignment. Sometimes, working with artists is about supporting them where they need the most support. For instance with Nathan Coley’s commission in Liverpool, which was planned as a temporary commission but honoured the City Council so much that they acquired the work to make it a permanent piece on Liverpool’s waterfront. My contribution to his commission was providing context, angles, and ways in which he could be supported in order to come up with the work that he came up with. One thing that is very important for me however, ethically, is to never cross the threshold of intervening or informing the work. It’s the artists’ privacy if I could say it that way.
I love teasing. For instance for fig-2 I gave the artists carte blanche and asked them what is your innermost desire? And I would tease them to think bigger, to think wilder. It was so rewarding, but also crazy for me and my team to take over such responsibility of handing over complete freedom to artists. I fundraised and quadrupled the production budget as all projects wanted to strike an ambitious chord, while I kept on curating the series of 50 exhibitions. I get excited about ideas and with artists I think trigger to get even more excited. At the end, we end up with bigger than life ideas. Most of the artists I work with, have done their largest scale commissions with me, it pushes them and pushes their practice, and then it’s more satisfying for me.
I used to be a perfectionist, but I no longer am. I’m a progress-oriented person now, since progress is always possible.
I was a lone worker for the first 10 years of my career, I’ve worked with different organisations, and different themes, but I was always the one pushing things. But now I love working with teams. Over the last 10 years, I had the pleasure and the privilege of working with different teams at various scales, from the Gwangju Biennial, with hundreds of people to the Liverpool Biennial with 20 people. There is an incredible potential of working with others, where you can really achieve something more than on your own. I also run a contemporary art magazine for four years, Nowiswere with artist Veronika Hauer. I couldn’t have done it on my own at the same level and at the same complexity as I could with her. With teams, alignment and clarity of expectations, roles, and responsibilities is very important. I’m not interested in making all the decisions, but I’m interested in contributing to a culture of decision making, a culture of values, ethics, how we work as a team, and how we work with artists. I think of it as concentric circles.
I meditate. And I exercise every day. Sometimes I do high intensity classes, like circuits, where after one hour you are flat on the floor, but you are so happy, your whole body is covered with serotonin and you feel like singing on your way home. And I do yoga regularly.
I am very interested in self growth. I’m a very reflective person. I want to understand what happens when things go right, what happens when things go wrong. I check in with myself regularly, and with my relationships too.
Maths is a language that I acquired during my studies. Writing is a language, and curating is another. Each brings different forms of thinking. I am not a curator who writes and I’m not a writer who curates, I really do both and attend to them as different mediums. I’ve written survey books, academic articles, exhibition catalogues, critical writing, but I also do creative writing.
If I were to give advice for when you are stuck, I’d suggest that you take a step back and try to be present. If it involves other people, then reach out to listen to them, and dissociate your ego. It is important to cumulate different viewpoints. For me, I try to analyse the situation and the event while I address the sphere of expectations, roles, and responsibilities. And sometimes things just don’t work out. Then it’s important to take two steps back. To resolve the situation it’s better not to focus on being right or wrong, but about what needs to happen to say “yes” together.
The best advice I got in that regard was a supporting comment from my partner when I was feeling really down about something. He reminded me that I wasn’t going to feel the same way in the near future. And that was conciliating to hear.
The worst advice I received for when I was stuck was to make it the problem of others.
The book that resonates with me is “Folktales of Iraq” by E.S. Stevens, written in 1934 by the wife of a British expat working there. She collected stories from women, Bedouin tribes, and Iraqi tribes, and some of the stories resonated with my childhood stories where supernatural phenomena are used to scare kids. I received this book through an Instagram book exchange prompt. During the lockdown this was one of my highlights and I am truly indebted to all 36 people who shared their best reads with me and I have to confess I am still getting through them. It is not easy to balance fiction when you need to read a lot in your area of practice I would say, but it really expanded my horizons and introduced me new writers. In a way it allowed me to step outside my echo chamber. I am tempted to initiate another book exchange soon.
When I was five, I wanted to go to outer space and be an astronaut. But then when I was 12, I started wearing spectacles and that was not the possibility anymore. Curating allows me to be free in my thinking. I feel I am free when I’m coming up with ideas, when I’m curating a project, when I’m working with artists. I’m very interested in pushing myself and I don’t like to repeat myself in my projects. I don’t have a template of artists or ideas that I keep applying. I feel my breath when I am running at a high speed—literally and metaphorically. You would find me engaged in multiple projects at the same time. I always have a writing assignment, a public event scheduled while I work on research, building ideas and projects. If I were to do something else it would need to be something that gives me that kind of great potential to be prolific and productive.
Fatoş Üstek is a curator and writer, working internationally with large scale organizations, biennials and festivals, as well as commissioning in the public realm for over two decades. She is Chair of New Contemporaries, UK; advisory board member at Urbane Kunste Ruhr, Germany; Jan van Eyck Academie, Netherlands and serves on the editorial board of Extra Extra Magazine. She has previously run the Liverpool Biennial and Roberts Institute of Art in the UK. She is a member of the International Association of Art Critics AICA UK; ICI Alumni and founding member of the Association of Women in the Arts (AWITA). She sits on selection and award committees for Scotland and Dutch Pavilions at Venice and was a judge on Turner Prize 2020. She writes regularly for academic publications, art magazines, artist monographs, and exhibition catalogues.
She is the curator of Do Ho Suh’s largest UK commission (2018-2020) co-commissioned by Art Night and Sculpture in the City. Ustek curated miart Talks 2018; Art Night, East London, 2017 and fig-2 50 exhibitions in 50 weeks, ICA, 2015. She acted as Associate Curator for the 10th Gwangju Biennale, 2014. She writes for art publications, exhibition catalogues; lectures at Graduate and Postgraduate Programmes; and sits on selection and nomination committees for various national and international prizes.acted as an external member of the acquisitions committee for the Arts Council Collection (2018-2020). She nominates for the Fourth Plinth, the Jarman Award, alongside the Arts Foundation Futures Award and international awards and residencies.
Fatoş Üstek is listed in the celebratory Apollo 40 under 40 Thinkers section in 2018; included in Evening Standard’s Progress 1000 London’s most influential people in 2018 and 2017; Artlyst Power 100 list 2021, 2019, 2018, and 2017; Artsy The Top 20 Most Influential Young Curators in Europe and nominated for ICI Gerrit Lansing Independent Curatorial Vision Award in 2016.
Üstek received her M.A. at the Contemporary Art Theory Department at Goldsmiths College London, after completing her BA in Mathematics at Bogazici University, Istanbul. Additionally, where she also acquired a degree from Film Studies.
Fatos Ustek is currently writing a book on new institutionalism, curating a series of exhibitions online and commissions in the public realm in London. Furthermore she is working on launching FRANK, a new alliance for artist fair pay in the arts initiated with artists Anne Hardy and Lindsay Seers.