Pelin Başaran is a programmer at Contact Manchester, one of the leading theatre and experimental arts venue in the Manchester area. After collaborating to deliver the first performingborders | LIVE event as part of Queer Contact Festival 2019, Pelin talks to curators Alessandra and Xavier about her experience as a curator and producer working in the UK in contrast to her native Turkey.
performingborders (Alessandra & Xavier): This year, you programmed Queer Contact Festival. Well done for putting together such as multifaceted programme! Tell us, how the festival has changed over the years?
Pelin Başaran: In 2019 edition, differently than the previous years, we organized compact festival weekender with performances, open forum, discussions, workshops and came together with our audience, artists and participants to rethink about festival’s new direction. Queer Contact had been initiated and successfully produced by Barry Priest who was also member of Contact’s marketing team, for ten years. In those years, the festival has become one of the most significant cultural events in the city with its programme and support for amazing local and national Queer artists. This year marks a new phase for the festival; we want to bring young people who identify as Queer, into the heart of the festival curation. We will organize focus group meetings with young people to understand how they perceive the festival, and what the future possibilities are. Open Forum was the first step and we already generated some ideas what the future festival would look like. Contact’s building is now under refurbishment and we will open our new building in autumn 2020. For Queer Contact 2021 edition, we are working closely with our young programmers. We’ve been recently at Edinburgh Fringe together and identified some interesting shows for the festival. We are keen to make our programme more diverse, exploring intersectional identities and embracing new debates in the Queer scene as well as presenting work that cuts across different artistic practices.
performingborders (Alessandra & Xavier): Having been working in the UK as a curator / programmer for three years now, what is your understanding of ‘borders’ within this role in the contemporary art scenes and what are the challenges of being a migrant curator in today UK?
Pelin Başaran: Actually, it took me some time to understand that I am experiencing migrant story. When I moved to the UK, I was leading my own organization operating internationally which was focused on research, curation, artist development and presentation in performing arts. I had to close my own organization down due to recent political developments in Turkey. I noticed that I had to rebuild my career here almost from scratch, in a country where my past experiences are not recognized or seen relevant. The system here produce a very specific type of producer/curator in performing arts and a very particular career trajectory. In particular, the scene as a whole is somewhat less engaged with international art scene than I was used to.
Coming from a politically troubled country, being political and being politically active becomes part of your identity. I was politically engaged from very early age regardless of my job. When I first moved here, I would never introduce myself as an activist. I had never thought of building my career in the UK on these political foundations. The artist and artworks excited me as a curator are not necessarily political ones. They are sometimes, but my political tastes are not circumscribed by political agendas. I noticed that there is a kind of expectation from me as a migrant to embody and enact my political positions through my aesthetic and professional choices, which I find problematic. I also find this enthusiasm for the idea of ‘me as activist’ paradoxical when I perceive a relative apathy about political matter in this country.
In Turkey, we have witnessed how alternative approaches to self-organisation in the social, cultural and political sphere can enable people to imagine a more equal society based on solidarity. We have seen how powerful such approaches can be. A political position or agenda in the arts is about the structures and processes through which it happens as well as the subject matter that is represented. I’m interested in all questions, forms, genres and scales that contemporary life brings.
performingborders (Alessandra & Xavier): Before you arrived in the UK, you were already a curator in Turkey. Both are countries that have in recent times struggled with the notions of migration, borders and ‘national identity’. How do you see the two different countries from a curatorial point of view? How do the recent political and social developments in the country play into your understanding of the cultural landscape of each country?
Pelin Başaran: In order to answer this question I must summarise historical and contemporary experiences of migration, borders and national identity in the UK and Turkey, their similarities and differences; the relationship between cultural activity and these questions in each country; social dynamics and discourse with regard to the arts, culture, privilege, otherness, class, economics and representation, my own personal, social and political feelings about these issues, my own curatorial approaches and the connections and tensions between my own personal, social and political feelings about these issues my own curatorial approaches.
Instead, I would like to think about fragility.
Before 2012, Turkey and its cultural scene certainly had its problems. Funding was almost non-existent, there was limited infrastructure, but there was hope and the sense that we could make things happen, both within Turkey and through international partnerships. A group of us were involved in working with Turkish government and the EU to develop a cultural policy for the country. The organization I worked for, garajistanbul, worked with many international artists and partners. Some people, not many, but some, could support themselves with careers in the arts.
Since 2012, much has changed. Turkey has been in a position that I would never have imagined, run by authoritarian government and in the middle of severe economic crisis. The city, Istanbul, was no longer a good place for people to live. One of the most influential leaders in cultural scene, Osman Kavala, has been under arrest for almost two years, accused of playing a significant role in organizing the attempted coup d’etat. I had never thought that I would see what has happened in Turkey.
This situation gave me opportunity to look at this country’s fragility as well. It seems that the sectors of society that engage most frequently with ‘the arts’ were totally bind-sided by the changes that were taking place, by the fragility of democracy, by the polarisation of society, by Brexit and by the fact that everything was not as good for everyone as it was for them. In any country things can change rapidly.
performingborders (Alessandra & Xavier): Tell us a bit about your practice as a curator, how would you define it so far and what do you have planned for the future?
Pelin Başaran: For me, from this fragility, what is left? I look at the ruins and ask what can be made of them. What do I want to take from there? And to where?
For me the experience of audience is very important in my curation. How do we host? How do we care? How do I want audiences to feel? I also look to question these power dynamics. We are guests as well as hosts, and we can learn much from the communities that surround, support and nourish our work. At best, tentatively and when it is possible among the ruins and barriers, my curatorial approach will be constantly made and remade through these interactions.
performingborders | LIVE at Queer Contact 2019 film: Nima Séne + Tuna Erdem
Pelin Başaran is a curator and producer with extensive experience of developing and delivering high-profile contemporary performance projects across Europe. She is currently working as a programmer at Contact, Manchester. She was part of the founding team and senior producer at garajistanbul contemporary performing arts venue in Istanbul. In 2011, she founded and worked as director of PARC which supported artistic creation and the presentation of the contemporary performance in Turkey. She also founded and worked as the researcher and co-director of the project “Siyah Bant-Freedom of Expression in the Arts” in Turkey.