Blind Dates Project


Defne Ayas and Neery Melkonian, Founding co-curators of Blind Dates Project

Prior to assuming her recent post as Director of Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art Defne Ayas was a curator and educator specializing in visual art performance and new media. She worked as a director of programs for Arthub Asia and as an art history professor at New York University in Shanghai, teaching a course on contemporary art and new media in China. Ayas has also been a curator of New York-based biennial PERFORMA since its inception in 2004, where she has managed the programming and curatorial partnerships with a consortium of 60+ cultural institutions across New York City and (co-) organized acclaimed projects with an international roster of artists and curators, including Ahmet Ogut, Yeondoo Jung, Rabih Mroue, Qiu Zhijie, Dexter Sinister, Paul Elliman, Melik Ohanian, Guido van der Werve, Xu Zhen, Carey Young, Sislej Xhafa, Serkan Ozkaya, Long March Project, Khatt Foundation, and Alicia Framis. Ayas supervised Performa’s Writing Live program for emerging art critics, and directed the biennial’s Architecture & City focus. She directed Performa’s Futurism related research seminars on architecture, graphic design, and noise music in China and produced Screenplay by Christian Marclay in Shanghai and Beijing.

Other projects include RMB City Opera, a stage performance by Cao Fei in Turin, Italy, Double Infinity with Van Abbe Museum in Shanghai, The Making of the New Silk Roads a performative symposium that traveled across Asia and Open City- the first exhibition of Yoko Ono in Istanbul. Ayas was a co-curator of Mercury In Retrograde at De Appel in Amsterdam and invited artist Michael Blum to re-stage the Lippmann, Rosenthal & Co., an established Jewish bank turned into a controversial looting institution during WWII in the Netherlands. Prior to joining PERFORMA and Arthub Asia, Ayas coordinated the New Museum of Contemporary Art’s public and new media programming, including its Digital Culture evenings and the exploratory inter-disciplinary roundtables for the Museum as a Hub initiative, with Anne Barlow (2005).

Ayas has served (or continues to serve) as an advisor for a number of high-profile institutions including 8th Gwangju Biennial, 8th Shanghai Biennale, Artissima, Center for Contemporary Art in Kabul, Artist Pension Trust and has lectured throughout Asia including at Asia Art Archive (Hong Kong), Zendai Museum of Modern Art (Shanghai), Rogue Art Asia (Kuala Lumpur), AICA Armenia (Yerevan) and PIST(Istanbul). Ayas’s actions and projects have been reviewed by New York Times, LA Times, Frieze, Art in America, Asia Art Pacific, Yishu Journal, Art in China, and Timeout New York.

Ayas has B.A. in Foreign Affairs, with focus on Middle Eastern and Russian Studies, from Woodrow Wilson Department of Politics at University of Virginia, and a minor in Studio Art. She completed De Appel Curatorial Program in Amsterdam and received her Masters from ITP at NYU.


Neery Melkonian

External Director of the Blind Dates Project, Neery Melkonian is an independent researcher, writer, and educator based in New York City. She also serves as the Founding Curator and Director of Accented Feminism: Armenian Women and Art from Representation to Self-Representation. Launched in 2011, the project aims at locating the topic within and beyond the critical tenets central to feminist movements in the Middle East, Europe, Transcaucasia and the Americas. The current phase of this undertaking involves identifying a team of researchers and conducting peer review-workshops.

Her preliminary inquiry on the topic was resumed at the Summer School for Curators in Yerevan (2007), a version of which was presented during the 2009 Hrant Dink Memorial Workshop in Istanbul and subsequently published:    

Melkonian’s ongoing engagement with aesthetics of diasporic clusters was recently published in

As the former Associate Director of Center for Curatorial Studies Museum at Bard College, and as the Director of Visual Arts programming at Center for Contemporary Arts in Santa Fe, Melkonian has organized over 20 solo exhibitions including works by artists such as: Harmony Hammond, Arturo Herrera, Jim Hodges, Richard Long, James Luna, Celia Alvarez Munoz, Charlene Teeters and Canan Tolon. Traveling group exhibitions she has organized include: “Sniper’s Nest: Art that has Lived with Lucy R. Lippard” and “Amazon of the North: James Bay Revisited”.

Exhibitions she has curated as a freelancer include: Near East/New York, Museum of the City of New York; Welcome a performance piece by Azat Sargsyan, Sao Paolo Contemporary Art Biennial; Memory Recent paintings by Ardash (Iraq/France) at Shidoni Contemporary; Balancing Imbalances New Works by Seta Manoukian (Lebanon/US) at Gallery Casa Sin Nombre, and Painted Sculptures by Zadik Zadikian (Armenia/US) at Holly Street Gallery.

As an art critic she has contributed to Afterimage, AIM, Al-Jadid, ARTS Magazine, Artspace, Art Papers, THE, The New Mexican, AICA Newsletter, Santa Fe Reporter, Sculpture, Visions and to ARARAT Quarterly. She has interviewed a wide range of cultural figures including Christo and Jean Claude, Leo Castelli, Ingrid Sichey, Vasif Kortun, Jenny Holzer and Jaune Quick-To-See Smith.

Catalog essays she has written include Con Mar De Fondo, organized by Rosa Martinez in Valencia, Spain; Turbulent on Shirin Neshat’s video installation at the Whitney Museum of American Art; PERFORMA 5 on Melik Ohanian’s performance called A Moment as an Event. Her writings have also appeared in anthologies such as Strategies for Survival- Now! A Global Perspective on Ethnicity, Body and Breakdown of Artistic Systems (Christian Chambert ed., Sweden).

As a research fellow at NYU’s Center for Near Eastern Studies she furthered her work on Contemporary Art of the Middle Eastern Diaspora(s). Later, and in context of post 9/11, she delivered a related paper on the changing reception of Middle Eastern artists in the West, at a CUNY /YALE conference, a shorter version of which appeared here:

Symposia/Panels she has organized/moderated include: (De)Territorialization and Visual Culture, College Art Association conference in Boston; Culture en Route – a series of four critical dialogs at the New Museum in conjunction with Mona Hatoum’s first survey exhibition in the US. And Speaking Beyond Living Room Walls: The Armenian Diaspora and its Discontents, Columbia University.

Workshops she has participated in include: Sovereignty and Subjectivity, University of Wales School of International Relations; Global Forum – a retreat dedicated to creating linkages between politicians, economists, religious leaders, artists and scientists- at Sundance Institute.

As an art advisor she has worked with artists, art history graduate students, collectors and patrons of art, as well as with non- profit organizations. She was also the founding director of NK Arts, a small non-profit dedicated to stimulating economic growth and social recovery “Livelihood Aesthetics” in the disputed and war torn post Soviet enclave of Nagorno Karabagh.

Born and raised in the Middle East, Melkonian has pursued graduate studies in art history at UCLA and lived in New Mexico for seven years.


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Questions for Defne Ayas by Neery Melkonian

Summer 2009


you and i were introduced to each other by melik ohanian on governors island in nyc while i was working with him on a project on governor’s island during performa05. what intrigued me mostly was that the project was at its nascent stages and its premise, content, and title were yet to be conceived. your invitation was to a dialogue mainly on turkish and armenian artistic production routes, or their absences thereof. i did not think for a second and immediately accepted meeting and talking about initial ideas and together presented them to a group of project facilitators that you had help form a year prior. overall, i was interested as you were, in a process to jumpstart a dictionary that could capture our shared knowledge of the visual arts as well as our capacity to deal with traumatic past(s), be them individual or collective, through the language of contemporary art. i was also interested in starting a working relationship with a curator who was invested not just in identity politics, but also philosophy, history and armenian community life at large, or beyond the united states. we were from different generations, from very different experiences, nevertheless had a shared understanding of the contemporary art world. i knew we were up for a challenge, and we had to conceive it together to make it function for the others who would be involved. i knew this would be a learning curve for all involved.


for me, the primary question was how we would together formulate a language based on experiences and observations around the turkish position on armenia, its community in the diaspora, and its past in the making of the republic. this of course entailed also a close look at the armenian positions towards turkey and its people. the process has involved locating the myths and differing perceptions from both sides, as they relate to first world war and the repercussions of nation-state building – crack them open so to speak, one by one, and we are still trying to get as close as we can. it is almost a phd subject on its own really.

confronted with the challenge of translating this traumatic knot into an exhibition, we jointly conceived the blind dates idea. we agreed that we needed to hear others, talk to others, learn from others and each other. this happened many months after we first got together, and we jointly decided to open the process up to include scholars or non artists, just as the corresponding public programming that precedes the exhibition would inform our curatorial process and allow us to share the process with broader audiences.


formulating a language, deciding on the conceptual and political frameworks. this is an on gong discussion, subject to constant reformulations. yet with a will that is committed to new articulations or artist projects, while also getting to know each other’s strengths and buttons.


this has been largely a new york-based undertaking, with the ambitions to spread its wings to turkey, armenia, and the rest of the usa. the logistics of operating from varied bases, both for the artists and curators, have been a challenge for sure. for instance, when we can individually or jointly be in new york at the same time. though the potential is really thrilling, when far away from each other it gets a bit more challenging. on structural, including financial, front there really is no pre-existing mechanisms that can handle the project’s needs either, so we have to invent and make do as we go.


when we started in 2006, then many artists were not into these explorations. a year later, a critical Armenian-turkish journalist hrant dink was assassinated. this incident moved many artists in turkey to think about their positions on the country’s past in relation to armenians (2007). now we are in 2009, a trade agreement is signed between the countries, and as of this year, the border between the countries are likely to open soon. as the relationship between turkey and armenia started changing, we are up for the challenge to critically reflect on these developments and embrace them into our project. it has been interesting to see the responses of the artists we have selected, how they are approaching relevant topics such as nationalism and trade, be them conceptually or philosophically, which allows us to analyze developments differently or open up the process even more.


it is a challenge for all participants involved, as we all are in it to define or explore new possibilities, and we suspect antagonisms will rise once we go public.


i worked on various political projects including an artistic reconstruction of jewish bank-turn-into-a-looting-institution in amsterdam. another was the long march project’s presence in new york city in 2007, highlighting chinese identity issues in the usa, in a host culture, which also pertained a speculative discussion on cultural activism front between african-american and chinese communities. blind dates is different because it is a long-term engagement, rather than a sprint approach.


the content and its focus is a first. its curatorial strategy of opening the exhibition-making to select minds including non-artists is also a fresh approach.

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