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Open Space 2019: In Conversation with Huma Kabackı

This article was previously published in Issue 20, ISLANDS (March 2019).

Pluto's Kitchen by Işıl Eğrikavuk, Co-commissioned by Block Universe and Open Space (Image: Arron Leppard)

Huma Kabakcı is the Founding Director of Open Space, a charitable arts organisation that seeks to foster experimental art practices and explore the interconnected nature of politics and art. With physical roots predominantly in London with links to Istanbul, Open Space emerges from two diverse cultures with their own artistic, culinary, literary, and political traditions. Open Space doesn’t belong to a particular national identity – it exists within a new kind of territory, an omnipresent virtual space with the capacity to materialise at will. Rather than engaging sight alone, Open Space invades all five senses, maybe more, challenging the term ‘viewer’. One who encounters Open Space is an ‘experiencer’, and as she consumes the work she may feel more with her fingers than she can see with her eyes.

The guiding theme for the Open Space 2019 programme is, fittingly, ‘Space without spaces’. Though it may be divided into four categories, the programme blurs spatial boundaries in its content. Sometimes it rests in the ether, accessible to global readers parsing through the essays commissioned for ‘Writing Space’. At other times, it occupies a physical zone with tangible borders. In March, ‘Forum: Of Hosts & Guests’ will feature a series of artist performances, workshops, interventions, and screenings. From mid-May through June, a roster of international artists will utilise food to engage with viewers’ fingers, taste buds, and odour receptors in the series, ‘Edible Goods: Tender Touches’. And when summer turns to autumn the ‘Open Space Curatorial Residency’ will touch down in Istanbul, providing selected curators the opportunity to curate their own exhibit or discursive event.

I was introduced to Open Space at the organisation’s 2019 programme launch at the Fitzrovia Chapel, which provided a sneak peek of the sights and sounds to come this year. I nibbled on a tower of sticky-sweet pastries created by Inês Neto dos Santos titled ‘Piling Up’ and was mesmerised by the organised cacophony that was Nora Silver’s militaristic performance titled ‘I Never Went’. And then I heard from Kabakcı herself…

The theme of this issue of The Courtauldian is ‘islands’. It seemed quite fitting to me to reach out to you because the Open Space 2019 programme is guided by the concept, ‘Space without spaces’. I detect a lot of parallels between our two themes. Do you see ‘islands’ as a related idea in your curatorial work and in the organization of Open Space?

In light of recent political shifts across the world and with tightening geographical borders making us feel more isolated than ever, there is definitely an urgency to talk about ‘spaces’ and investigate what space can really mean. Taking the name of Open Space as a starting point, we themed the 2019 programme ‘Space without spaces’, which playfully references our model: a young arts organisation operating without a fixed exhibition space, choosing instead to explore multiple and unexpected spaces.

When examining ‘islands’ in a geographical, etymological and sociological context, we can see some parallels between both themes. If we define an island as a tract of land surrounded by water that is smaller than a continent, we can say that it is an isolated space in a way. ‘Space without spaces’ itself reflects our focus on blurred boundaries – whether artistic, political or personal – through an exploration of the multiple meanings of space. Contemporary topography is increasingly defined by the shrinking of public spaces for gathering and discord which can be directly linked to the theme of ‘islands’.

Pluto's Kitchen by Işıl Eğrikavuk, Co-commissioned by Block Universe and Open Space (Image: Arron Leppard)

The interdisciplinary nature of your program is really exciting – it’s what initially drew me to Open Space! How did you come to highlight food-based practice and writing in your roster?

After four years of experimentation with Open Space following my master’s at Royal College of Art in Curating Contemporary Art, I decided to relaunch Open Space as a charitable arts organisation dedicated to supporting emerging artists and curators through an itinerant and international programme.

When we were developing Open Space’s annual programme, I wanted to make sure that it would challenge and interrogate the curatorial and theoretical concept of ‘space’ through different cross-disciplinary frameworks: discursive (Forum), culinary (Edible Goods), educational (the Open Space Curatorial Residency) and literary (Writing Space).

Highlighting food-based art practice isn’t a first for Open Space; in May 2017, we co-commissioned a performative dinner by Işıl Eğrikavuk called  Pluto’s Kitchen,  which took place at the Ned as a part of the Block Universe performance festival in London. Drawing parallels between Pluto’s demotion from the solar system and the UK’s strategy to exit the European Union, this performative dinner aimed to bring audiences and cultures together through [a shared] conceptual menu.

Ever since then – and even earlier – I have been thinking about ways to work with food as an artistic medium in a socially engaging way. My late father was an art collector and a keen cook, and we frequently hosted dinners with artists, so I grew up with the idea of bringing art and food together. I also own an extensive collection of artist cookbooks, from Dalí to Jackson Pollock!  

As for the ‘Writing Space’ project, I noticed that there were a lot of platforms for literary commissions, but that most of them don’t really give writers the opportunity to fully experiment in and explore the digital space. With ‘Writing Space’, all of the writings are commissions and the work will be highlighted through our social media, newsletter and marketing, as well as being presented in an online journal on our website.

Pluto's Kitchen by Işıl Eğrikavuk, Co-commissioned by Block Universe and Open Space (Image: Arron Leppard)

The interdisciplinary nature of the Open Space programme goes beyond representing a diverse array of artistic practices! I think it’s wonderful that Open Space offers opportunities to curators. Have you often encountered a disconnect between art-making and curation in the art world? What inspired the curatorial residency?

I recently completed a curatorial fellowship at an international biennial supported by a prestigious curatorial platform and found that the experience was not as intellectually stimulating or motivational as I had hoped. Until now I have kept my curatorial profession quite separate from the collection that my late father left me to avoid a conflict of interest. However, my team and I came to the realisation that the Huma Kabakcı Collection could be a great resource for research [and] also a means to access and explore Istanbul’s contemporary art scene.

The aim of the ‘Open Space Residency’ is to support one emerging curator each year to further their curatorial practice and expertise by facilitating encounters with Istanbul-based institutions, artists, curators and intellectuals, and allowing them to experience and engage with the city at large. During their eight-week residency, the curators, [to be] selected by an international jury following an open call, will develop a site-responsive project that might take the form of an exhibition, publication, or discursive event, which will then be presented in Istanbul and London.

Curation is also integral to ‘Forum’, the discursive element of your programme. The March Forum seeks to ‘investigate hospitality connected to artistic practice’. What can you tell me about the curator’s vision for this project?

For each annually-recurring ‘Forum’, we will invite one guest-curator to curate a three-day discursive programme. This year Katherine Finerty proposed a forum titled ‘Of Hosts & Guests’ featuring international London-based artists. Taking its title from Albert Camus’s 1957 short story L'Hôte, which translates into both ‘the host’ and ‘the guest’, ‘Of Hosts & Guests’ invites artists and audiences to play with the duality of playing both of these roles. Since the project coincides with the UK’s planned departure from the EU on 29th March, [Finerty] wanted to provoke a dialogue about what hospitality means for contemporary artists living in London.  

Open Space 2019 Programme Launch at Fitzrovia Chapel, London, 5th February 2019 (Image: Ben Peter Catchpole)

Speaking of Brexit, it would be remiss not to discuss political space. As you mentioned in your opening address at the Fitzrovia Chapel, in March, Brexit will be made definite (or not…)  How do you see issues of political space and national borders affecting the art world? Have you noticed artists responding to these highly-charged topics? Or are artists playing it safe – concerned about their livelihoods during this period of turmoil?

In the light of recent political shifts across the world, and with increasing borders both geographically and socially, the role and the position of the art institution is contested even more than before. Commercially speaking, due to political and financial uncertainties, collectors and patrons are more reluctant to support emerging artists, preferring to invest in mid-career to established artists.

Many artists have been responding to current, highly-charged topics – whether through their work or through social media. For instance, Wolfgang Tillmans produced and posted a series of posters on Instagram and Jeremy Deller is also an artist who is quite socially and politically engaging. I wouldn’t necessarily say that some artists are playing it safe. I think it really depends on the concerns of their practice. Some artists are overtly political, and some aren’t. Having said that, it might be that some commercially-driven galleries or art institutions dependent on private funding are more conservative than before.

How are you positioning Open Space as an outlet for artists to respond during these critical months?

At Open Space, we generally work with artists who directly or indirectly respond to global issues and current affairs – but when you are a nomadic arts organisation questioning the concept of space it is impossible not to be political.

Open Space 2019 Programme Launch at Fitzrovia Chapel, London, 5th February 2019 (Image: Ben Peter Catchpole)

The way you are challenging traditional notions of space reminds me of an additional space suggested by your programme – virtual space, which will be utilized by the publication of written work online. What do you think about that? How does virtual space interact with physical space, especially when both are utilized for creative ends? How does Open Space understand the interactions between these spaces?

I think that, in the context of the Internet age and in the era of ‘fake news’, the virtual space is extremely vital and should be explored in addition to physical spaces. ‘Writing Space’, which commissions four interdisciplinary writers each year, aims to explore the theme ‘Space without spaces’ through the digital space. The writers are free to experiment with their writing skills by incorporating digital forms such as videos, GIFs, images and sketches into their work. ‘Writing Space’, in a sense, acts as a site for live ideas, a platform for text-based experiments and processing thoughts that cannot necessarily be explored through the physical space.

The fact that Open Space splits its time between London and Istanbul also points to a less tangible, more conceptual understanding of space. How do you foresee this dual identity affecting the work Open Space produces?

In the early days of Open Space, there was more of a split between London and Istanbul. Now, I am based in London and this city is where the annual programme will be largely based.  For this year at least, the only project that takes part in Istanbul is the curatorial residency, and the city is sure to have a direct impact on the curators’ creative output. Open Space can exist anywhere though and, if it makes sense to do a project in Berlin or Lisbon then I’ll do it. The whole point is that Open Space can exist anywhere.

‘Forum: Of Hosts & Guests’ was held on the 28th of March at Mary Ward House, 29th of March at UCL Wilkins Building, and 30th of March at Pushkin House. For more information on the Open Space 2019 programme visit

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