#ListeAsks Övül Ö. Durmusoglu, Curator, Writer, Educator, Berlin University of the Arts and Braunschweig University of Arts, Co-curator, 3rd Autostrada Biennial, Prizren, Co-curator RCO Madrid 2021 Opening Section, Madrid
As you won’t be in Basel this June, what are you doing instead?
The lockdown has made me more focused on the mentoring and teaching side of my curatorial practice. I have held many online teaching sessions and reading groups during this period.
When not in Basel, I will be working on the pre-selection of the 2021–2023 graduate school fellows at Berlin University of the Arts and my Art in Discourse classes at the Braunschweig University of Arts. Additionally, another hat that I wear is as the co-curator for the Opening sector at ARCO Madrid and Basel week is always the most crucial place to discover inspiring young galleries and their presentations.
What is something that you never thought would happen but that has now happened as a result of the lockdown?
From an overarching perspective, it was amazing to see that it is actually possible, in just a few weeks, to put an economic system on hold everywhere in the world—a system that we were told many times was impossible to slow down or redirect. Every time an ecologist mentioned changing our ways of life, there was another expert telling us how impossible it was to stop the system. Yet it stopped, it had to. I believe if certain warnings had been followed before, the world wouldn't have arrived at this stage. We as humans certainly need to constructively change our ways of existence to enjoy a more harmonious cohabitation with other lives on this planet. And in the contemporary art sector, we need to rethink our structures of production and presentation more wisely.
In what ways has the current state of uncertainty and unpredictability changed your attitude or approach towards curating?
To follow from the previous question, I'd never thought I'd be able to realise an initiative in public space with fifty artists in two weeks that would resonate throughout the world. During Easter weekend in lockdown, I co-curated “Die Balkone: Life, art, pandemic and proximity” with my colleague Joanna Warsza. The exhibition resulted from an on-the-spot intuitive decision and it took place on the balconies and in the windows of apartments in Prenzlauerberg, our neighbourhood in Berlin. Our intuition was certainly at the right place, as the project went viral in a short time, receiving coverage by local and international press, from the US to Indonesia.
In such a time, independent curating can react faster and on a different frequency than most institutions can. The whole process of “Die Balkone” made us see what kind of changes can take place in curatorial attitudes, because unchanging conditions changed our roles and the conversations to make such a necessary project possible. We didn't commission projects, we didn't have an opening. We visited our artists from their balconies and windows from safe distances. Our call was about sending smoke signals to each other to show that we are alive and present, that we haven't left our streets. This was welcomed by artists living in the neighbourhood, who did it with accessible materials they had on hand, whether at home or in the studio. The initiative grew very quickly and the different presentations brought “a breath of fresh air”—there was lots of good energy and important questions were triggered with regard to which structures we should carry forward and which ones we need to leave behind.
What kinds of actions do you think are most needed and/or most effective in supporting young artists during the current situation?
There have been many different private and, in Germany's case, public funds devoted to artists affected by the pandemic, which have been very life-saving for many. The Turner Prize and Visible Award transforming their awards into financial support structures is a very meaningful gesture. In Turkey, a new support structure, Omuz, was established to match projects with donations up to 1,000 Turkish Liras. Every small step helps. But we also need to think further on how to sustain our community in order for it to survive and even flourish in difficult times, and this is only possible when important resolutions and practical support plans are maintained even when the pandemic is over. Alongside funding, young artists need good conversations to fuel and encourage their practices at the moment. Therefore, free access to more stable mentoring, care and conversation structures outside the school system should be established for the younger generation of artists. And more intergenerational conversations should take place: We can only survive this moment through mutual learning.
How can younger and less established galleries that are representing emerging and yet-to-be-discovered artists approach you as a curator in a time of online-only exhibitions, fairs, etc.?
I have enjoyed gallery communications, especially those that have focused on the artists’ universes and references, sharing their different materials and inspirations. Younger galleries with open minds and non-conformist approaches are the future of a healthy art market. My experience with younger and less established galleries as a co-curator for ARCO Madrid's Opening section taught me that curatorial work in this setting is also a thorough work of care to sustain the future of our artistic community. In Raoul Peck's powerful film on James Baldwin, I Am Not Your Negro (2016), Baldwin says, “Not everything that is faced can be changed but nothing can be changed until it’s faced.” It is time to turn faces, rather than backs, to bring long term solutions to existing problems, to care more for each other.
Have you discovered any new artist during the lockdown?
Yes, thanks to “Die Balkone” I discovered artists living in my neighbourhood who I hadn't met before. Raul Walch, Antonia Low, Jose Delano and the Kap Hoorn initiative are good examples. The whole process made me realise that because I was always travelling a lot for my work, I've never had enough time to discover artists living in my city. Alongside international projects, I think it is important to reconnect with local networks and be more present and active in the places we are living.
Can you tell us about one of the very first artists you discovered at Liste and how they’ve become important to or played a role in your curatorial practice?
I have been going to Liste regularly since 2015 and I have seen many inspiring young artists. I have also had the opportunity to create long-term relationships with certain galleries such as Dan Gunn. Last year, I discovered the work of the Paris-based Argentinian artist Liv Schulman at her gallery Piedras. Her work was part of Opening at ARCO Madrid this year and we have established a rich and engaging conversation with a promising future.
I am coming to Liste more regularly since 2015 and I have seen many inspiring young artists. In the meantime I also have had the opportunity to create long term conversations with certain galleries such as Dan Gunn. Last year, I discovered the work of Paris based Argentinian artist Liv Schulman's work in her gallery Piedras. She presented her work also as part of Opening section in Arco Madrid 2020 and it has been a rich and engaged conversation with a promising future.