Representing the creative future

Marketa Uhlirova: The co-founder of Fashion in Film Festival shares her advice for aspiring fashion researchers

What does a curator do and how can you progress in the tough world of fashion research and archiving?

The world of curating, research, and writing appeals to many, but its door seems hard to reach. At a time when the word “curator” is spotted in many project descriptions, what are the elements that define the profession, and how can one make it in the sphere of fashion research?

Marketa Uhlirova sculpted her own career within fashion research and curation. Starting out as an art history student in Prague, she ended up working with fashion by chance. Inspired by the possibility of bringing together fashion and film as two distinct art forms and industries, she co-created “Fashion in Film ” with Christel Tsilibaris in 2006. Based at Central Saint Martins, Fashion in Film soon received support from major institutions such as the ICA, the BFI, Tate Modern, and the Museum of Moving Image in New York establishing its biennial festival as one of the leading global archival and scholarly projects that explore the common ground between fashion and film.

Seven festival seasons, plus exhibitions, symposiums, and numerous publications later, Marketa Uhlirova spoke to us about how she navigated her career and shared her tips for aspiring fashion and film researchers.

Could you explain your work in a few words? 

My work over the past 10-15 years has almost exclusively focused on various intersections between fashion, clothing and cinema. I have explored this through curated film seasons, exhibitions and various scholarly publications. I never planned to be this focused… but the format of the Fashion in Film Festival pretty much dictated that most of my energy was channelled towards this. And yet, it hasn’t felt like a limitation at all. In fact, the scope and range of what the festival has covered are very broad. I mean, dress is a prominent feature – player, even – in such a wide range of cinemas that you could endlessly develop ideas within this seemingly small parameter. If I was to define my work, I’d say I have always tried to draw attention to the expressive, poetic and magical possibilities of dress in the cinema where others have mostly focused on narrative and semiotic interpretations.

“As a student, I assisted at a large Kunsthalle-type gallery in Prague, Galerie Rudolfinum, which was showing seminal international artists such as Francesc Torres, Cindy Sherman, Bruce Nauman, Ann Hamilton, Mona Hatoum, and Nan Goldin. (..) At the time I was barely 20. It was a thrown-in-at-the-deep-end situation, and all felt very intense.” – Marketa Uhlirova

How did you start your career?

I studied art history at Charles University in Prague. It was in the late-1990s, which was a period of intense national self-reflection (following 40 years of Soviet rule). I remember a lot of debates about the East versus the West, centre versus periphery. I studied at a pretty conservative department where everything was conducted with a hangover of 19th century positivism. A lot of emphasis on encyclopaedic knowledge! I was exclusively taught by male professors, many of them rather authoritarian figures.

I always had an affinity for modern art, and eventually began focusing on the contemporary era. As a student, I assisted at a large Kunsthalle-type gallery in Prague, Galerie Rudolfinum, which was showing seminal international artists such as Francesc Torres, Cindy Sherman, Bruce Nauman, Ann Hamilton, Mona Hatoum, and Nan Goldin. I got to meet and entertain some of these artists. I also interpreted a number of their interviews with Czech journalists and art critics. At the time I was barely 20. It was a thrown-in-at-the-deep-end situation, and all felt very intense.

At Rudolfinum I also met the curator Amada Cruz (we wrote some of our very first emails to each other…) who made me apply to the MA curating course at CCS, Bard in New York. CCS was one of the earliest curatorial programmes at university level and it was a truly stimulating place to be. I am not sure how much I learnt about the craft of exhibition curating but the level of debate about contemporary art was really high. On reflection, what was very important to me personally was the opportunity to interact with people from all around the world – and I gravitated especially to classmates and faculty from Latin and South America (including critics and curators such as Cuauhtémoc Medina and Gabriela Rangel). In the meantime, I also met my partner, Joe Hunter of Vexed Generation, and through him and his business partner Adam Thorpe started paying attention to contemporary fashion. In fact, I proposed my final exhibition at Bard to be about fashion, and got absolutely slaughtered for it… looking back, I think including ‘culture industries’ in an art exhibition was seen as a transgression!

Billboard at the Design District in Miami in the run-up to the Fashion and Film festival.

So how did you develop an interest in such a niche area as fashion in film? Could you take us through your journey?

When I came to London I briefly interned at Gagosian Gallery, an experience I intensely disliked. Luckily, I was then introduced to Andrew Bolton at the V&A, and had a chance to briefly work for him. So I guess I moved into fashion by accident more than by design. That said, it felt like a breath of fresh air. Fashion seemed to me more straightforward and, as a system, less phoney than the art world. When my time at the V&A was up, Andrew pretty much packed me away and sent me on to Caroline Evans at CSM who was looking for a coordinator on a large research project. Lucky me because Caroline became an important mentor and a good friend, and we have also worked on several projects since then, including a season on the French filmmaker Marcel L’Herbier. Later, through an exhibition project at the Museum of London, I met Roger K. Burton of the Horse Hospital and also became close. It was with Roger and Christel Tsilibaris, a classmate from Bard, that we started the festival in 2005.

The festival was originally meant to be a one-off film season for the Horse Hospital but it grew into a much bigger and regular festival – partly because we had unleashed a lot of questions and amassed a lot of material in our research. It all happened very organically. As venues such as the ICA, the BFI, and the Tate became interested, we realised we had something pretty unique. We came to understand that fashion has an enormous popular appeal and can engage practitioners and audiences from across many different disciplines, cultures, and communities.

“When I was studying curating in the early 2000s, we often joked about the fact that the words ‘curate’ and ‘curatorial’ were not recognised by Microsoft Word’s dictionary. They came underlined in red! 20 years on, we seem to have gone to the other extreme” – Marketa Uhlirova

What do a curator and an art historian do? 

When I was studying curating in the early 2000s, we often joked about the fact that the words ‘curate’ and ‘curatorial’ were not recognised by Microsoft Word’s dictionary. They came underlined in red! 20 years on, we seem to have gone to the other extreme – not only are there curatorial superstars and prestigious awards to celebrate them, but you can also curate flowers in a vase, a brand’s identity, or weekly briefings of news stories and nobody will bat an eyeeven art critics’ diatribes against this outrage seem to have subsided, haven’t they?

A curator (as exhibition-maker) is someone who creates a new framework around the works they exhibit – be they objects or non-object-based expressions. Curators essentially mediate between these works and an audience, enabling new connections, realisations, and discoveries. Intentionally or not, they set into motion multiple layers of interpretation. This happens through selecting works and putting them into specific constellations, through decisions about exhibition design, publications, and lots more. What makes a good curator, I think, is the ability to constantly question one’s own position, processes, and formulae, with a sensitivity towards the changing world we live in.

What does an art historian do? It seems to me that some of the most interesting art historians have also challenged and revised their own discipline, pushing it to new territories. I have always liked art historians who looked beyond fine art, to other cultural and media forms and opened up new avenues of inquiry that way. That said, a grounding in a particular discipline inevitably leaves its mark on you. I partly blame my interests in artist moving image (to use the broadest category) and in problems of film style on my training. I guess I am a very different product from a film historian or a film studies scholar in that regard.

What led you to write and publish your book “Birds of Paradise: Costume and Cinematic Spectacle”? 

I love books – a constant source of struggle in our small-ish London flat! From the very first [Fashion in film] festival, I wanted to have publications to accompany the events. Writing to me has always been entangled with curating. It’s a means of going deeper on ideas – a space to think and to reflect on the more intuitive curation process.

Birds of Paradise became a more ambitious project, and came with a three-year gap from the festival. The film programme raised important questions about the role of costume in cinema, and I felt they deserved proper analysis. But this analysis was not done through text alone, it was also advanced visually. I wanted the book to celebrate the artistry of the films under scrutiny and the costumes within them. I mean, I wanted to highlight the incredible textural and colour quality of many of the films, and zoom in on the movements and mutations of the costumes at different moments. The point was to show how costume and film come together in the construction of images, that in some scenes they have a fundamentally symbiotic bond. Ultimately though, the book is what it is through the immense contribution by its designer Laurenz Brunner.

“The festival doesn’t aim to promote the discipline of costume design – we do that too but it is more of a by-product. Rather, it seeks to spotlight interesting problems that may stem from all types of moving image cultures, and the ways in which they operate and interconnect.” – Marketa Uhlirova

You are the co-founder and director of Fashion in Film; can you explain what the project is and what its aims are?

I think of the festival as one voice (or a background chatter maybe?) in the ever-evolving fashion and media cultures out there. Its mission is simple – to stir up interesting conversations about a whole range of ideas while at the same time encouraging greater appreciation for fashion, film and art. The festival doesn’t aim to promote the discipline of costume design – we do that too but it is more of a by-product. Rather, it seeks to spotlight interesting problems that may stem from all types of moving image cultures, and the ways in which they operate and interconnect. In practice, the festival shows films that are in some way exceptional or remarkable (though, I emphasise, not necessarily ‘good’), with each season’s curators sharing what they see with an audience.

Since our launch in 2006, Fashion in Film has turned into a regular project. We have organised about seven major seasons, many of which mutated as they toured. There have also been one-off exhibitions, conferences and symposia, and various new commissions and special projects. We have had long-term collaborations with the Museum of the Moving Image in New York, or the Arnhem Mode Biennale, for example, and it was often these smaller projects that helped the festival survive financially and to grow. Probably the most important ‘smaller project’ for me has been the live film performance The Inferno Unseen (2017) with Rollo Smallcombe, MUBI and Lobster Films, which re-assembled unseen screen tests from Henri-Georges Clouzot’s unfinished film L’Enfer (1964).

“Research and thinking are increasingly being measured for productivity and impact, variously quantified, timetabled, squeezed into recognised formats and formulae. In such a regime it’s easy to lose touch with why you do what you do, and who you are addressing when you write and speak.” – Marketa Uhlirova

"Birds of Paradise: Costume and Cinematic Spectacle" , images taken from Swiss Culture Awards Federal Office of Culture

 

Do you have any advice for anyone who would want to pursue a career in fashion research?

  1. Read widely. Develop interests in ideas beyond fashion to sustain yourself.
  2. Find a mentor. Ask someone you look up to but please know that this is not a one-way street and that you have much to offer to them in return.
  3. Find a good reader – someone who will read and critique your work, which hopefully you can reciprocate.
  4. Oh, and try not to get swallowed up by the bureaucracy and the ceaselessly numbing administrative tasks that come with big institutions. UK universities are much harsher places for young people to enter into today than they were for my generation. Research and thinking are increasingly being measured for productivity and impact, variously quantified, timetabled, squeezed into recognised formats and formulae. In such a regime it’s easy to lose touch with why you do what you do, and who you are addressing when you write and speak. So I see it as absolutely vital to find strategies of carving out space for intellectual and creative work that is free from all this.

 

How do you approach any topic that you focus your research on? Do you discover something interesting and then you exhaust its research or do you start from a theme/wave and then focus on a piece of work?

It depends. I usually start with one or two films that have captivated me, or that can help me understand something. But it can also be a series of questions I want to pursue. Or it can be a more abstract idea, or even a person I admire. My curatorial process is basically about finding ways into and around a subject, and about letting the films show the way. It’s a process of discovery – not only in the sense of finding new films but also in terms of finding different ways to show them. A big part of the process of curation for me has always been conversations with others – other curators, film and fashion scholars, image-makers, artists, designers. I cherish the medium of conversation. I always learn enormously from it.

“Going beyond fashion film, a knowledge of how cinema has mobilised fashion and dress can of course be enormously enriching for image-makers working now.” – Marketa Uhlirova

Do you consider the study of fashion in film essential knowledge for any aspiring fashion professional? 

Fashion film is a really important expression of today’s digital culture. It’s important not only to be fashion film-literate, but also to think about fashion film in terms of what it is and what (other possible) roles it could play within the industry. It’s important to think critically about who is making these films and why, who is paying, what structures are in place and what different parties are involved in the production. And then – who and what is shown in these films, and what ‘stories’ are being told. These films often utilise new technologies and enable unique modes of creativity. But they may also help highlight under-represented aspects of fashion that are otherwise invisible.

Going beyond fashion film, a knowledge of how cinema has mobilised fashion and dress can of course be enormously enriching for image-makers working now. Like books, cinema is a great teacher. But I also understand and respect those fashion image-makers who expressly turn away from cinematic imagery in a bid to invent their own forms of moving image. That’s what experimental filmmakers did in the 1920s and ’30s, and that’s what video artists did in the 1970s.

Marketa Uhlirova’s must-watch film:

Daisies / Sedmikrásky (1966)

“A fantastic collaboration between the Czech director Vera Chytilova, the cinematographer Jaroslav Kucera (who also co-designed the colour scheme), and the costume designer Ester Krumbachova (who also co-wrote the script). The film is an allegory of indifference and destruction, and is as mischievous as it is deadly serious. Krumbachova referred to the two protagonists’ costumes as ‘phantoms’, presumably because they acted more like masks than costumes that ‘serve’ their characters.”

Follow Fashion in Film here.

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