October 2007, Whitehot Interview with Soraya Rodriguez Director, Zoo Art Fair

October 2007, Whitehot  Interview with Soraya Rodriguez Director, Zoo Art Fair
Simon & Tom Bloor, Untitled (Prototype Poster),Courtesy MOT, London

Zoo Art Fair began in 2004 as a platform for showcasing London’s emerging spaces. The Fair has since grown to exhibit a range of the most innovative international art organisations spanning galleries, project spaces, curatorial groups, artist collectives and publications. I spoke to the Fair Director Soraya Rodriguez about the history of the Fair and her plans for the event this year.

Can you give me some background on how Zoo Art Fair began and what led you to establish the Fair? Did you feel that there was something lacking in the scene at the time that made you want to do your own thing?

Essentially Frieze had happened and Frieze opened up this amazing calendar moment. People had been coming through the 90s to see what was going on but they came at different points and one of the things that Frieze did was to bring everybody at the same time. Frieze almost re-scheduled everything that happened in London and everyone fixes this as a really key moment that allowed for other things to take place.

We realised that what was missing was a platform for emerging spaces in London. In the first year we showed under three year old London-based commercial and non-commercial organisations, so project spaces as well as galleries and artist collectives. There was quite a good crop of people who had started up around the millennium and obviously with Frieze’s focus mainly being an international set of people, I think they had maybe 10% of UK exhibitors, so there wasn’t really a platform for the younger lot to be seen. It seemed to make sense that if there was anything that would happen alongside Frieze it would be that. I always thought that Frieze was so amazing that I certainly wasn’t stupid enough to think that I could ever compete. It would always be something symbiotic with Frieze that would add to the phenomena. Rather than thinking ‘what can we get out of that?’ we were thinking ‘what can we add to that?’ or ‘what can we put into London to make it more exciting?’

In the second year we wanted to keep the same people we had exhibited to grow with them so we exhibited under four year old. In the third year we branched out again and made it under five year old and showed 46 exhibitors, 15 of which were chosen from Mexico, Los Angeles and Berlin. This year we’ve extended the remit to 61 exhibitors that are under six from anywhere basically, so we’ve internationalised the thing whilst keeping a core focus. Now that we’ve got to under six we’ll cap it at that otherwise it’s not going to be so emergent!

In recent years you’ve had this amazing location at the London Zoo. I’m interested to know how this came about. Was this always the idea or did it happen by accident?

At the time we knew that if the Fair was going to exist alongside Frieze ideally it would have to be either near it or we’d have to be in the centre of town (which ironically is where we’re moving to now). So what we did was we went and sat on the patch where Frieze had been the year before and sat and chatted for a bit and pointed in a direction and went for a walk! Just from walking around that area we saw various spaces and we just ended up by the zoo not really knowing how we’d got there. Fortunately the night before I’d bumped into a friend who’d told me that another friend of mine thought about getting married at the zoo because they have quite big rooms to hire so that we should definitely check it out, but I just sort of dismissed it thinking they wouldn’t have room. We ended up there though and I thought we might as well try it so we rang this funny door bell and this person came down and showed us around the two rooms they did have and we just started laughing because it was exactly the right size and it was just hilarious and this is of course where we got the name. Like the best things in life it just happened through synchronicity and through an internal organic things just came together.

You’re moving to the Royal Academy of Arts this year, is this just because things have got bigger?

We’ve got bigger but as I said in the first year it was for under three year old people and now it’s for under six so we’re reaching mid-career stage and there are different sets of needs for everyone. We need more space and we need to grow a bit, but I think after 61 we don’t want to be much bigger! I also think that when you start something off it’s good to change every three years and re-brand in order to keep the momentum going. I’m really sad to leave the animals and the zoo and such a funny, brilliant location but I also think the Fair has to grow up. It has grown up and now it’s the beginning of the next three years rather than being the fourth.

The Museum of Mankind space was always one of my favourite Museums when I was growing up with these weird, fantastic ethnic objects and so much more interesting than some of the more classical places. So I’ve got lots of lovely memories there and it just seems to make sense.

Can you talk more about the kind of projects and spaces the Fair is interested in promoting?

We platform and exhibit non-commercial and commercial. So you can have an organisation that can follow the more normal route of setting up a gallery to represent a number of artists but you also have project spaces run by completely mad people who just want to do their own thing. So every show is completely different: they work with different artists and sometimes they start off showing in their front rooms and end up vacating their entire house and squidging themselves into tiny living areas so they can make better exhibitions. I think Dicksmith and Museum 52 definitely started out like that. Then there are also artist collectives where people come out of college and get together needing studio space and think lets build some studio space and build an exhibition space and again they show their friends’ work or curate exhibitions.

The idea was always that if the Fair was to support emergent art then it shouldn’t favour one model of how art could be shown because often people start off with a project space and end up having a gallery or start up as a gallery and end up being a critic. The idea was to support all of those professionals not just the artists but the curators, the gallerists, the dealers, the critics and the whole shebang. Even if a space opens up and does something brilliant for a year and then closes down that won’t stop me from considering them for the Fair because as long as they are doing things well I know they will pop up somewhere else and be doing good things and that’s what we want to support.

I’m interested in how you see Zoo Art Fair co-existing with Frieze. The Fair is scheduled on the same weekend as Frieze and in recent years you’ve been in close proximity in Regent’s Park so that you can view both Fairs in an afternoon if you’re feeling ambitious and yet the ambiences of these two events couldn’t be more different.

I think we just wanted to add to what Frieze was doing. Frieze are incredibly immaculate and professional. Everything they do is top notch. Zoo is still trying things out and we get some things wrong! Our core is to do something supportive and healthy and about being part of a landscape; almost like being a surgical implant into London which really supports.

I think part of the reason that there are different atmospheres is just the size of Frieze but also a lot of people doing Frieze are really established and dealing with much bigger figures. At Zoo everything is in its nascence. A lot of people come and they don’t have anything to loose because they don’t have anything yet and their databases aren’t that big so they have everything to gain. Also they aren’t so experienced with each other so they still borrow drills and make friends and I know that a lot of exhibitors in Frieze were the same at that point. Certainly all of the London people like Jay, Maureen and Sadie were all mates largely through having to share things or support each other but I think when it gets to the level of Frieze, where there is so much more at stake, things do just change. Like I say I don’t see it so much as an alternative to Frieze I see it more as happening alongside just from a different age group.

It seems to be an exciting time now with the scene around Vyner Street and new spaces popping up. Do you think that the artworld is genuinely changing and that people are more curious about hunting out independent projects?

Yeah definitely. It’s quite weird that Vyner Street gets like 300 people down there over a weekend when even five years ago that would have been unheard of. Nicholas Logsdail and Norman Rosenthal have said before that they find it weird when people talk about the ‘artworld’ because when they started out the ‘artworld’ was basically three mates! Now it’s like this incredible thing that’s attracting a lot of the general public and not just the specialists. Traditionally it was largely built up by the specialists and now it’s attracting more thoughtful attention which is fantastic. Also the level where the general public would just go to Museums or public galleries whereas now they are seeking out these new places that are in the middle of nowhere and quite tucked away and that’s really good. I also think that’s definitely something to be proud of in London because it’s not something that’s come easily, it’s the fruit of people slogging their guts out and sticking to their guns for quite a number of years, actually you can probably trace it back to the 60s and Cork Street and then through the 90s and now into this millennium phenomena. I think it’s great.

That’s quite a positive picture isn’t it? One does get the sense that art fairs are getting bigger and bigger and that this might eventually blow everything else out of the water. What do you think about the future?

I get a bit worried about art fairs in that way. I don’t especially like art fairs. I don’t think one should run one if one likes or believes in the model! They are brilliant things but they’re also very flawed mechanisms. It’s not the best place to be introduced to art as an experience. A fair in its best capacity is a bit like a library where you can go and research stuff but it shouldn’t stop you from going to the country you’re researching, you’ll never understand Egypt from just a book and I think art fairs are a bit flatpack in that way. It’s a good reference point and it’s good to go round and get an indication but you then have to go and see these galleries and the nature of these things are often very idiosyncratic, so if you don’t see that you’re missing out hugely. The art fair isn’t the point it’s just a means to an end.

I do get worried that increasingly when there are big fairs in a town there are all these satellite fairs that come and I know all the big collectors get really pissed off with it and feel defeated because they know they’ll never get round them all. So I do worry about that especially when the other things aren’t adding to that they are just setting up the typical fair model and not really selecting galleries well or offering a variety. Things do have their own organic and who knows where things will end up but I’m sure art will take care of itself in a way.

What excites you about Zoo Art Fair this year?

From the 61 exhibitors I’m very excited about some of the young spaces that are popping up that are artist-led and quite alternative and just quite mad. I’m also excited to see how the atmosphere transforms in a new space and how we might maintain that lively, humour aspect as well as getting a job done. At the same time we’ve got the Champagne Perrier-Jouét Prize for Best Artist at Zoo Art Fair and we’re doing an exhibition of last year’s winner Jason Fox. Then we’ve got the John Jones Art on Paper Acquisition and Award, David Lock was the winner last year and we’re also showcasing them as well as selecting winners for this year.

We’ve also partnered up with a few people like Anita Zabludowicz who is very critical to the Fair and very supportive from the beginning and she’s opening a new exciting project space called Project 176 so she’ll have an exhibition of what’s going on in her space. Then Saatchi is going to be exhibiting some of the artists from his online gallery that have been selected by a panel of judges and they are unknown artists so I’m quite excited about those different partner exhibitions. Like I said it’s very hard to see art in its proper glory at an art fair, for that you need a proper exhibition, so I’m hoping these things will bring that curatorial, contemplative aspect.

Then I’m just hoping that the Private View works out well and that we have a lot of fun. I’m definitely looking forward to the Perrier-Jouët!

Zoo Art Fair took place from 12 to 15th October 2007 at
Royal Academy of Arts, 6 Burlington Gardens, London W1S 3EX
Tamsin Clark, 2007
whitehot gallery images, click a thumbnail.