Fragments of a dialogue — Eva Vaslamatzi on curatorial research
By Christian Oxenius
Dialogue one: when we talked about chance and intuition
It is not often the case that we, as curators, get to reflect on each other’s practice through an open and public conversation. Even less so it happens with someone who, perhaps by mere chance, shares a deep interest (may I dare say love?) for the complex relationship between Greece and Turkey. When I decided to approach Eva Vaslamatsi, emerging curator now based between Athens and Syros after a Parisian experience, maybe I had exactly that idea of chance in mind or rather let’s call it intuition, as this keyword came up multiple times in our dialogue.
Intuition as a method?
Can we go that far? Possibly… Or at least to some extent.
It is certainly a key element of what we do, but what would that actually mean?
Intuition to capture a specific narrative, a tale, written within a space, which needs unearthing? to turn an emotion or a feeling into a complex story? to assemble the thoughts and voices of the artists we encounter into multi-layered discourses?
Each of these elements seem to come together when talking with Eva about her practice.
So, if it’s a method, is it something you learn?
When I ask where this intuition comes from, I am glad to hear that we agree it is not some innate gift but rather a combination of observation skills and attention to details. At this point of our discussion Eva adds that her early passion for photography and moving image, which she developed during her art studies, probably plays a big role as it does train your eye and brain to think through associations, juxtapositions, and synergy or contrast between two images. But what ultimately drew her to pursuing a career in curating is the crucial additional element of the physicality of the works and the ability to respond to a particular space by creating immersive experiences.
Dialogue two: when we talked about curatorial research and how projects start
We started this conversation by chatting about our different academic background soon realising how little this matter in the wider picture but, nevertheless it does give some hints as to how we develop our projects. And in this regard, it was fascinating to hear Eva talk about how, every project starts as an instinctive reaction to a stimulus rather than from a deep and long research into something. This can be a book, a particular space, something suggested, or a fortuitous encounter of works like in her project “La nuit juste avant le forête”. The project, which she developed together with three fellow artists and curators¹ while at Doc! in Paris, was a collective exhibition responding to previous shows in which each curator would bring one work which they had developed a relation to or that they felt would synergize with each other’s sensitivities and interests. Eva described this as just one of those occasions in which intuition guides us to create interesting and unforeseen experiences.
So what if we think of this curiosity, the openness to the world as an additional piece of the “method” puzzle?
Maybe. maybe that is itself our “deep research” in itself…
While I share the fascination for this kind of projects, I do think that this is not a reaction against research-based practices per se but very much the consequence of an overall institutional system which often demands this kind of readiness to react. As a matter of fact her more recent focus on folklore feels like it might just turn into one of those lengthy, complex and rich researches which influences her projects for years to come.
The passion with which she talks about her experience at Doc!, especially considering the more institutional position she held at the time, as assistant curator at Palais de Tokyo, is really telling of her love for hands on projects and for an understanding and care of an exhibition as a collective effort rather than a task to fulfill, something which we both agree sadly is often missing in projects these days.
Dialogue three: on how we talked about Paris and institutions
The time Eva spent in Paris was a big part of our discussion. Having the experience of a professionalized and institutional space such as Palais de Tokyo on the one side, and Doc!, a squat and art space created in 2016 by a group of artists, activists and craftsmen/women on the other. Without a doubt it was this latter which she felt more stimulated and inspired by. It would be hard to pinpoint whether it was the community aspect of it, the care and mutual respect its internal structured demanded by everyone involved or just the freedom of acting outside predefined institutional frameworks, but certainly listening to her words this feels like one of those deep learning experiences that go beyond what any education or internship can give you.
I feel it’s a kind of research that rids itself from academic and institutional burdens.
What matters most is the time we invest, how we perceive and treat the others involved…
It’s a collective effort of us, the artists, the people that help us produce it and the public.
We have an obligation to care for all of these.
But Paris wasn’t all about Doc!. Facing the structures and limitations of a larger institution like Palais de Tokyo is undoubtedly a great training ground to face the reality of our sector. Confronting the expectations and insecurities of artists in the face of institutional responsibility while understanding internal structures of an organization, even when frustrating, can help you manage projects of all sizes and budgets.
Dialogue four: on how we talked about folklore, a larger research, and our shared love for Istanbul
It’s a bright afternoon in May, the sun has just started to find the strength it will need to turn spring into summer. The streets are still unusually empty on the shores of the Bosporus. The few people I see are all still weary of being out after a long winter marked by the virus and its restrictions on our lives. We meet in a square in Besiktas that in my long time in the city I’ve never seen so empty before. We are both foreigners in this land and yet by chance — there it is again — brought Istanbul into our life creating a bond hardly to be broken.
I had to start knowing the city again, seeing it with fresh new eyes, through the words of the artists I met… learning from Istanbul? Too cliché?
Maybe it’s not that far from reality — we both laugh about it.
When we sit down Eva starts telling me about her research, about her passion for Folklore, at least in part born from that first encounter with the subject in her exhibition in Serifos “Fragments of present”². We meander through memories of folk museums, their display of anonymity behind the makers of the objects on display, through the power of museums to elevate everyday objects to historical heritage and the clash this creates given the daily-use value we still connect many of them with. The discussion slowly shifted to her being here, and how spending time in Istanbul, as part of a curatorial fellowship organized by ARTWORKS and SAHA, has given her the opportunity to rethink the exhibition, “I heard it from the valleys”, which elaborates on this subject exactly. While her research for it started months before even knowing about the residency, this opportunity gave her the chance to include some of the brilliant artists she has gotten to know here. I was particularly curious to hear that she found that when talking about folklore artists in Turkey responded with a much greater attention to immaterial culture, to performative elements of folk culture, to rituals and the imaginary. Which contrasted with her research up to that point, as it was objects and handcrafting itself that occupied the discourses raised by artists she had approached till then. Being here though for Eva was not solely about her artistic research as it was an opportunity to understand the city and its complexities in a more nuanced and profound ways beyond her own family history. It was certainly not the first time I heard the stories of those who had to move away, driven by nationalistic madness and the violence it provoked, the same madness that till this day sadly characterizes many of the discussions between the two countries. And yet in her recounting, the feelings of loss and still palpable grief, mixed with a genuine interest and curiosity about how the heritage of all the minorities still forges large parts of the cultural discourses in Istanbul and Turkey. It’s probably only through these attitudes, on both sides of the Aegean that we will eventually reach a different type of relationship between two neighboring countries that share much but hate to admit it…
Much like her show currently on display at HausN in Athens, which she described as a part of the research rather than an outcome, this conversation feels open ended and ready to continue across the narrow sea separating us these days.
Eva Vaslamatzi is a curatorial SNF ARTWORKS Fellow (2019). ARTWORKS is a nonprofit organization exclusively supported by its founding donor, the Stavros Niarchos Foundation. Our aim is to create a fertile and nurturing environment for Greek artists through funding and public engagement opportunities. You can always learn more about our Fellows at www.art-works.gr
Christian Oxenius is a German-Italian independent curator, author and researcher living between Athens and Istanbul. His academic background in sociology and urban studies led him to pursue a PhD at the University of Liverpool on biennials as institutional model, during the course of which he established collaborations with Athens, Liverpool and Istanbul Biennial; during this period, he developed a particular interest in artists’ communities and storytelling. His research into experimental writing on art has resulted in a number of exhibitions and publications of international relevance.
¹ Corentin Canesson, Lucas Erin and Arthur Fouray.
² Co-curated with Danai Giannoglou at the Folklore Museum of Serifos.