José Teunissen

...installing allusions

by Jemma Gray
Professor José Teunissen has always been a multitasker; a necessary thing when you are a freelance curator, publicist and lecturer. She is currently Professor of Film Theory at ArtEZ Institute of the Arts and visiting Professor at London College of Fashion. Teunissen, interested in the medium of film from a young age went onto study Dutch film studies at the University of Amsterdam. As part of her early career she taught film and photography but in the late 90s, she took hiatus from lecturing and migrated into the Fashion world to take the position of head of Fashion Curation at The Centraal Museum in Utrecht. She has written and contributed to a number of publications throughout her diverse career including Fashion Handbook, ‘The Power of Fashion’. Notably, Teunissen curated alongside Judith Clarke the highly successful ‘The Art of Fashion: installing allusions’ at the Boijmans van Beuningen Museum. This exhibition captured designers that have moved away from classical presentations of fashion by successfully exposing the pieces' rich narrative. It is an exhibition that is indicative of the contemporary designer’s aptitude to create alternative methods to the catwalk for showcasing their body of work.

You are a curator, lecturer and writer – from your experience in these roles, which area gives you the most satisfaction?
That is a difficult question. I really enjoy having time to read and research the fashion topics I am interested in. Writing is restful and for me it is also a means to clarify my ideas on fashion. When it is written down I have the feeling that I have understood it myself.
But, on the other hand I really enjoy creating exhibitions. For an exhibition you have to transform the content and ideas into a visual form and that is exciting too. Additionally, the fact that in a museum you always work in a big team – with a scenographist, a producer, a communication department – and collaborating alongside others makes it very special and very much the opposite from writing – exhibiting is also about telling a story, but in a different way.

You lecture at a number of Universities, in both the Netherlands and London. What would you say are the main differences between the higher education systems in these two countries?
In the Netherlands the art/design practice itself is very important. Theoretical reflection is more connected to art practise than in the UK and there is consequently more reflection on the art-process itself. Another difference is that because we are trained in more languages – we use a broader theoretical framework, also influenced by the French and German Scholars. Therefore theory and research are more based on visual culture, semiotics and philosophy and less on social-cultural theory.

Can you tell us about your exhibition ‘The Art of Fashion, installing allusions’ for which you curated alongside Judith Clarke? What was the starting point and were you able to bring all your initial concepts to fruition?
In this exhibition we (Judith Clark, Han Nefkens and I ) would like to illustrate that avant-garde fashion is more and more about exploring its boundaries, using further elements from the field of art. Fashion shows become performances, clothes become non-wearable objects and so on. This is the process we tried to visualise in the exhibition.

'The Art of Fashion' opened at the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in September of 2009 and travelled to Wolfsburg, Germany. What do you envisage for its future? What keeps its momentum going for this long?
The exhibition has recently closed in Wolfsburg. The museum in Koldinge, Denmark showed serious interest in taking it over this summer, but time was too short to realise this. There is a very small chance that they still plan this for next year, but we will wait and see. The most important objects – (the 5 commissions) – are in Boijmans and I think they will travel in the future to other museums in different contexts, but that is fine. The theme is still actual I think.

You are currently working on an exhibition ‘Couturegraphique’, it’s centred around the visual construction of today’s fashion brands and will be uncovering the relationship between fashion and graphics in items such as look books, invitations and websites since the 80s. Do you think that graphics for fashion needs to be addressed independently and how so?
For this exhibition, which will launch in 2012, we are working with a very different scenography. We are trying to collect as much visual material as possible to show how graphic design is woven into a brand, and in which graphic details specifically is the total look of a brand determined. In that sense it will be more didactic and it will show an overload of images/brands and so on, in comparison to the clean, modernistic approach of the Art of Fashion. Couturegraphique will essentially be an overload of imagery. The theme Fashion and Graphics is very interesting, but hardly researched.

Another current project of yours is the H+F ‘Fashion on the Edge’ award. Han Nefkens set up this initiative in 2006 to primarily invest in fashion as Art pieces. You and a distinguished jury will soon be selecting a young designer as the winner. What criteria will you employ to judge this award?
We would like to focus on young fashion designers with a non-western background or from a European second tier nation. The challenge will be in how far on the edge these designers work between fashion and art. Do they have a (different) notion of working in concepts and ideas? This is fundamentally what we are looking for. We will select the winner at the end of November. They will get a small exhibition in Boijmans, Rotterdam September 2012.

Your work focuses much on the dichotomy between fashion and other cultural facets. Are you not so much interested in fashion for fashions sake?
Central to my writing and curatorial activities is that I see fashion as a cultural phenomenon, a form of visual culture that explains to us things about today’s society. This is what makes fashion so interesting, and not so much what the latest trend is and who was on the front row. I am hardly interested in that part of fashion.
However I do have interest in the commercial and industrial side of fashion. I see it as a very important other (opposed to the cultural) side of fashion.

Why does the art world often seem resistant to forging links with the world of fashion while the same is not so true of the reverse? Especially since both can be said to involve consumerist drivers.
I don’t know exactly but I think that for the art world, fashion still links with a superficial and empty world of fashion victims. They often think that fashion designers have started to use elements from the art domain to get more serious attention. It is difficult for them to see this conceptualisation as a result of a developing context of fashion itself.

What do you think makes fashion a great source of communication? Where does it stand in the hierarchy of other creative industries in terms of its capacity to be communicative?
I think that fashion is still one of most essential sources of communication in today’s culture because we express who we are with what we are wearing. Before we have spoken or said something, the person in front of us already has an idea of our personality because he has read (unconsciously) our clothes and the codes that go along with that. Of course, the fashion language is permanently changing and mutating – street wear now is very different from the extravagant street wear in the 1980s – but its strength of communication is still the same.