Since its founding in 2012, Unseen has moved quickly to define itself in the busy, ever-changing world of contemporary photography. At its inception, it was known as the “photo fair with a festival flair,” a much-needed injection of fun and freshness into the often overly serious and staid circuit of “serious” art fairs. At its core lay the “unseen” concept, which placed great emphasis on showing debut work from emerging talents or never-before-seen pieces from established names.
Now, Unseen is changing again—the annual photo fair will still occur but as part of a year-round platform of programming and opportunities for exposure. Guiding the organization’s artistic direction is the dynamic Emilia van Lynden. In this interview, conducted via email with LensCulture’s managing editor Alexander Strecker, van Lynden discusses the importance of showing new work and the responsibilities that the photography community has towards supporting young artists. Read on for more—
LensCulture: Congratulations on another great edition of Unseen! Every year it feels that people come out of the event feeling refreshed and inspired. Can you talk about the founding of Unseen and what you’ve done to maintain this “fresh” feeling for six years running?
Emilia van Lynden: Unseen was founded in 2012 with the aim of showing the current state of the medium of photography. The founders realised that many of the established photography and fine art fairs were only showing the leading names in the industry (many of whom were dead) and were barely focusing on the work of young practitioners or the newest work by established artists.
Thus, they saw a chance to present artists and works that had not yet been shown to an international audience. In addition to this, they wanted to create an event that was inviting to all who were passionate about photography; a meeting place where the industry could gather to debate and discuss the directions in which photography was moving.
Finally, the hope was to welcome a younger generation of buyers—to show a varied public that photography is a hugely accessible medium and that you don’t need to have a vast amount of wealth to start collecting photographs.
The more visibility the industry is able to give to its artists, the more sustainable these artists will become.
This ethos has never changed. We are still committed to showing what is currently happening in the medium. Unseen is simply the platform hoping to accommodate a large range of artists working within photography. We maintain our “freshness” by virtue of the fact that photography is constantly evolving. Artists have become more diverse in their practices and their approach to photography—something we are keen to showcase. Ultimately, it is the artists that keep Unseen fresh.
LC: Yes, it’s true that the freshness comes from the artists themselves. But you also help by putting such an emphasis on showing “unseen” work. This year seemed to have had more premiering work than ever. Was this concept hard to convey to the participating galleries in the early years, or were they receptive from the beginning to help create a space dedicated to lesser-known/lesser-shown work?
EvL: When we called to life the “Unseen Premieres” in 2014, I must honestly admit that I was skeptical whether galleries would fully embrace the concept. Would galleries really be willing to show such new work, and would artists be able to make new work each year in the lead-up to the fair? I thought that in the first year we would perhaps welcome 10 artists (out of the roughly 160 showing annually) with a premiere. To my huge surprise, we showed 60 premiering artists that first year (and over 90 at this past edition!).
Of course, some galleries expressed that it would be difficult to maintain this concept annually, especially as many artists are not used to creating brand-new work every year. New projects take time, so we had to deal with the fact that artists couldn’t be asked to produce at such a fast pace. This also meant some galleries would have to alter their participation in the fair, showing one year and then taking a gap year to let their artists produce new bodies of work.
Still, the vast majority of our galleries return annually and urge their artists to start thinking of their next project for the succeeding year. Without the dedication of our galleries and their artists, Unseen would never be able to maintain this concept. But we are so pleased by the degree to which they have taken part. The response has been phenomenal.
LC: I know Unseen places great emphasis on creating new collectors and attracting young(er) art buyers. Of course, there are still many people for whom the idea of collecting seems intimidating (or pretentious). What do you say to someone who feels anxious or resistant to the idea of starting “an art collection”?
EvL: I don’t think it’s necessary for people to think from the very beginning that they are “building an art collection.” For those who feel intimidated, I tell them to start as a one-time buyer, and then, if they are inspired and enthused by the work they have purchased, to continue buying over time. In this way, they slowly become acquainted with the idea of building an art collection.
Indeed, many art collections, even large ones, happen organically. The process should feel highly individual and proceed at a comfortable pace. Even if you have the funds, building a thoughtful collection takes time and research. Start looking, figure out what it is you like, speak to experts and eventually you will be equipped with the tools that take away any feeling of anxiety and make collecting an activity that you truly enjoy.
LC: This year, Unseen hosted a fun exhibition/event co-curated by Erik Kessels titled Photo Pleasure Palace and another exhibition featuring work from Daisuke Yokota. Both artists have made work that grapples with the near infinite production of images today. How do you contend with the photograph’s rapidly changing quality as “an art object”? For example—as Instagram has become more popular than ever as a means of consuming photography and discovering artwork, do you have any fear of disseminating a fine art image so widely that the original object loses value, loses its specialness?
EvL: Yes, we are surrounded by a colossal amount of images through the digital channels we use daily. This is the primary motivation for Unseen’s exhibitions and interactive on-site projects—we want the programme to be a place to reflect on this topic and other contemporary concerns in photography.
Traditionally, people have looked to London, Paris or New York, but we believe that Amsterdam is truly becoming a hub for photography
In regards to your question about the photograph’s quality as an “art object”—and its relationship to the overload of images that we have to process—I think that the dissemination of images today doesn’t diminish the power of an individual, physical work. I still very much believe in the physical presence of photographs, in their tactility, in the craftsmanship of the medium. Yes, you might have seen an image before on social media or online but this often does not come close to the experience of seeing an artwork in front of you. There is an unmistakable presence of physical objects.
From my own experience, I get to see most of the images shown at Unseen Amsterdam beforehand, when the galleries or collectives submit the work as digital proposals. Yet there is nothing more spectacular than when I do my first tour of the Gashouder (the Fair) and the Transformatorhuis (CO-OP) and see all the works hanging in the stands. It’s the highlight of the event for me! I am continually astonished by how pieces are exhibited and the power and presence of the work when it’s shown in this context.
LC: Moving forward, how do you conceive of Unseen’s relationship to Amsterdam and the world? It seems all major art events stand as a sort of bridge between their home and the outside—Paris Photo, Photo London, Art Basel, Venice Biennale, Unseen Amsterdam (it’s not an accident that each name has its home city in the title). How do you balance rootedness in the local scene with a wide gaze to what’s happening everywhere else?
EvL: Since Unseen’s inception, we have aimed to be as international as possible, welcoming artists, galleries, publishers, collectives, critics and enthusiasts from all over the world. We wanted to show our audience, which at the beginning was largely Dutch, the wealth and variety of the medium from across the globe. We wanted to create a place where all players, established or emerging, could come together and unite in their passion for photography.
Simultaneously, we also wanted to show the great breadth and diversity of photography within Amsterdam. Traditionally, people looked to London, Paris or New York in regards to photography, but we believe that Amsterdam is truly becoming a hub for photography and that artists working within the Netherlands are approaching the medium in novel and unconventional ways. The Netherlands has fantastic fine art galleries, superb art academies, innovative book-makers and leading art professionals, and this is something that we want to share with the world.
Unseen has never wanted to say, “Hey, look at us here in Amsterdam, we have the best artists working with photography.” Instead, we want to be an event that welcomes the diversity of practitioners working within the medium. We also want to show that artists working in the Netherlands are part of the compelling international dialogue that is happening in photography.
LC: Let’s take a step back and trace Unseen’s development, because I think it says a lot about where photography events are heading. First, it was known as the “photo fair with a festival flair.” Later, the festival broke off and became a parallel, concurrent event next to the fair itself. This year, Unseen has been repositioned as a year-round platform, with Unseen Amsterdam as just one component among many. What were the motivations behind this transformation? As Unseen moves to a year-round model, what’s next?
EvL: We wanted to be able to do more for the artists that we work with within the Fair and CO-OP. We realized that our Unseen team worked for an entire year to present the work of artists for a single, four-day event. We also built relationships with many of our artists through our annual publication, Unseen Magazine. We would spend so much time understanding their process, their passion and their inspiration—and then we would fall silent again until the build-up of the next edition of Unseen Amsterdam. All of our knowledge lay dormant, unused.
We thought this was a huge shame and wanted to address the situation, especially for the benefit of our artists. That is when we saw that we are not just a fair or just a festival—we could become a year-round platform that would be far more facilitating and useful to the artists that we collaborate with. So, we made the decision to change our structure accordingly, to be more inclusive and accommodating, to work on increasing the visibility of our artists throughout the year. The more visibility the industry is able to give to its artists, the more sustainable these artists will become.
LC: Your commitment to supporting artists is very clear. Indeed, when comparing Unseen to other fairs, we see how fairs are such one-off events that the idea of “nurturing” has little to do with their mission. What drives your emphasis on education/support? Why is it important for you?
EvL: Because it’s terrifying to be a young artist! Artists learn through their academies or through teaching themselves how to make work, but not necessarily how to present themselves to an audience, how to kickstart their careers and continue to evolve as creative producers. There is so much competition within the art world, which means we, as an industry, need to make sure that artists feel that they are being supported by the community. If we can create more visibility for artists, advise them when necessary, and introduce them to important players, we can help them develop—something we all benefit from.
As you point out, this concept/structure is quite different than the old relationship between artist and art fair. That is why we wanted to position ourselves as a platform: the annual Unseen Amsterdam has become a multi-faceted event which includes an art fair, but above it there is Unseen, a platform made for its artists. In the months to come, you will be able to see how we intend to increase our artists’ exposure and with that, we hope to be able to make their practice more sustainable.
—Emilia van Lynden, interviewed by Alexander Strecker
Follow Unseen as they begin to roll out an ambitious slate of year-round programming in the months to come.