interview by Hans Ulrich Obrist
Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Six AM Wednesday, 2009
Courtesy of Corvi-Mora, London
HANS ULRICH OBRIST In your paintings you have a very clear methodology, which is actually quite conceptual. It sounds like, in a sort of On Kawara way, a painting a day. Can you talk about this? It seems that with a painting, no matter what, you finish it.
LYNETTE YIADOM-BOAKYE Yes, exactly. That started off as being a practical consideration: the way I was initially painting, if I didn’t finish in a day the surface wouldn’t work, it would dry at different times, so it was completely a structural thing. Then I started to realize that the way I was working was as important to the work itself as the finished product, it was about reading between works rather than becoming very precious about one. It’s to do with the way I think: I say it’s a short attention span, but what I mean by that is that it’s one thought and it’s fresh in my mind. It’s about a certain kind of urgency and capturing that time frame. Because if it were dragged out over days I feel like the whole resonance of it would go, it would become a much more labored process and I would personally become too precious. If I get to the end of the day and something hasn’t worked I don’t sleep well. I’d rather destroy it than think about it over night just to come back and try and force myself to like it.
Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Hard Wet Epic, 2010
Courtesy of Corvi-Mora, London
HUO It’s interesting also because you say that you don’t fix the particular narrative behind it. The paintings are like snippets or part of something, it’s almost like the viewer writes the stories. Duchamp said the viewer is half of the work, Dominique Gonzales Foerster says the viewer does at least half of the work. It seems to be the case with you as well.
LYB I give all I can, as I think seduction is very important. I love painting. I love the surface of it. I know how it makes me feel when I see certain works or when I’m in the presence of works that I really admire, and I think the pleasure for the viewer comes out of that kind of feeling, rather than me trying to tell a story. It’s a sensual thing—it’s about a sense of touch and a sensibility. I want it to be that kind of experience as well, which is why I don’t like the idea of giving too much of a story and trying to control that response too much.
HUO You say in all your texts and interviews that you conceive the paintings as groups, and think of how they could work together. Can you tell me a little bit about the main groups in your work?
LYB They develop over a period of time, and relate more or less directly to what I’m thinking about at the time. I try to put as many different things into a group as possible and often things that relate to each other. There are paintings that come in pairs. But I don’t necessarily show them together. There’s a recurring pair that goes into every body of work. When I start a body of work I will do these two paintings and each time there will be a slight variation but essentially it’s the same man. He’s always wearing basically the same thing, always facing in opposite directions, the pose changes and the facial expression changes slightly, so he’ll always come into that group and there’s always a man in a stripy top. In a way they are like an anchorage. Somehow they start the body of work and then from there everything kind of builds around them. It changes each time. More recently I’ve been trying to paint a lot of landscape, and I’m not very good at it. (Laughs.)
Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, From Here Until Never, 2011
Courtesy of Corvi-Mora, London
HUO I wanted to ask you about these two characters. They are larger portraits filling the canvas completely and almost coming out of the wall. You say that they are always there, these figures, one has a stripy top and the other one not. So how did they enter? You have often mentioned that this is a recurring element but I didn’t find any literature on how they entered into your work. How did you have the epiphany? How did these two guys pop up?
LYB They happened quite separately. The really big ones of the man with the white top, the massive ones that always come as a pair, they started of as a very small work. It was a triptych of three of that man and there was something in the facial expression that really captured everything for me, everything that I was trying to do somehow. Really, if I had to choose two pieces that encapsulate the spirit of what I’m trying to do, it’d be him and the stripy man. When I say capture everything I’m trying to do, or the spirit of what I do, I mean the way that I think, the way my sense of humor works. When I start a body of work they are a good reminder, if you like, an anchoring of how I think generally and the reminder of where I am. It is also the sense of getting to know someone better. They have changed a lot since their first incarnations.
HUO And what about the stripy one?
LYB Again it’s like they are opposite poles of the same thing. So there are two emotions there. There’s this calm, sense of something level and almost elegant in the stripy man, and then the white shirt is far more like a sphinx I suppose.
Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Bound Over To Keep The Peace, 2012
Photography by Marcus Leith
Courtesy of Chisenhale Gallery, London
HUO I’d like to talk about the characters that you invent for each of your portraits. Your fictitious characters are all black people, and you have said that that it produces a kind of normality. I wanted to ask you about this, and to what extent you view this as a political gesture.
LYB I think it’s always in some way going to be political. But for me the political is as much in the making of it, in the painting of it, in the fact of doing it, rather than anything very specific about race or even about celebration. I don’t see what I do as at all celebratory, because to me it just is. The fact that they are all black is double edged as well. They’re all black, or what I should say is they are all tinted black or brown—some of them actually have black features, others have completely Caucasian features—but they are still sort of black. For me, that is the normalizing aspect. It’s not normal, because they’re not real people, but at the same time that means also that race is something that I can completely manipulate, or reinvent, or use as I want to. Also, they’re all black because, in my view, if I was painting white people that would be very strange, because I’m not white. This seems to make more sense in terms of a sense of normality. I suppose with anyone doing anything you set yourself certain parameters, it’s not about making a rainbow celebration of all of us being different. It’s never seemed necessary to alter the color of people just for the sake of making that point.
HUO You also say in a statement that you don’t like to paint victims. Jennifer Higgie says it’s a kind of empowerment, kind of power to the people.
LYB Absolutely. I said that many years ago in relation to how I like to think about how I finish a person, how a person should look in a painting, and what I want their expressions to be. One of the things I always destroy in the work is anyone that I think looks passive. In part, this is because they’re black, and in part because I don’t want them to like anyone has taken anything from them. I don’t want them to be victimized basically, or to look that way. It’s as much about avoiding certain tropes in the work as anything else.
Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Fiscal Sweatsuit, 2012
Photography by Marcus Leith
Courtesy of Chisenhale Gallery, London
HUO I would like to ask you about Ghana, as your family comes from there. I was wondering if you have any connections to Ghana or to Africa?
LYB Not very strong ones. I mean, my strongest connection is my parents.
HUO Who live there?
LYB No, they live here in London, and they have for forty years. But just the fact of them having raised me the way that they did, they are my connection. I kind of have an idea of Ghana from them, but I wouldn’t say I have a strong personal connection with it, in that I haven’t been there that much and I certainly never lived there. I wasn’t born there—I was born here, and I was raised here. Really my connection is through my relatives, the people who raised me, and their way of thinking, which to me is very much Ghanaian, and that has obviously effected how I think and what I think about. But it would be disingenuous of me to claim some strong connection with Ghana as a place because I don’t really know it and I wasn’t raised there.
HUO But it’s there through the transmissions of your parents.
LYB Definitely. The way I always put it was that Ghana is present as a way of thinking and a way of seeing, which has influenced me.
› Epiphanies: In Conversation with Hans Ulrich Obrist
Some of Hans’ published works
Hans in conversation with John Baldessari at LACMA last month
Still from The Way Things Go
Still from The Way Things Go
Published to accompany Richter’s 1992 show at Nietzsche’s house in Sils-Maria
Richter’s Swiss mountains
Limited Lifespan of Cities
An interview with architect CEDRIC PRICE on the limited lifespan of cities. By Hans Ulrich Obrist. Issue #02 (summer 2001).
By HANS ULRICH OBRIST
HANS ULRICH OBRIST: One of the reasons your work has been so important to many architects in Asia has a lot to do with the notion of time and the ephemeral, something which is understood better in Asia than in Europe.
CEDRIC PRICE: A short lifespan for a building is not seen as anything very strange in Asia. Angkor Wat in Cambodia is so vast and yet it lasted for less than three hundred years. I liked your dependence on change in the “Cities on the Move” exhibition you curated and I particularly liked the Bangkok exhibition where time was the key element. I see time as the fourth dimension, alongside height, breadth and length. The actual consuming of ideas and images exists in time, so the value of doing the show betrayed an immediacy, an awareness of time that does not exist in somewhere like London or indeed Manhattan. A city that does not change and reinvent itself is a dead city. But I do not know if we should use the word ‘city’ any more; I think it is a questionable term.
What could replace it?
Perhaps a word associated with the human awareness of time, turned into a noun, which relates to space. The paradox is that the city changes all the time, so it would have to be a word in permanent mutation; it could not be a frozen term.
But let’s return to the idea of dead cities, tell me more about why they die!
Cities exist for citizens, and if they do not work for citizens, they die.
Which is interesting because you also talk about the fact that buildings can die.
Yes, the Fun Palace was not planned to last more than ten years. The short life expectancy of the project had an effect on the costs, but not in a limiting, adverse way. No one, including the designers, wanted to spend more money to make it last for fifty years and we had to persuade the generators and operators to be economic in terms of both time and money. The advantage, however, was that the owners, the producers and the operators, through necessity, began to think along the same lines, as the project created the same set of priorities for everyone. That should be one of architecture’s aims; it must create new appetites, rather than solve problems. Architecture is too slow to solve problems. I suppose we should ask what is the purpose of architecture? It used to be a way of imposing order or establishing a belief, which is the purpose of religion to some extent. Architecture does not need that mental imperialism any more. As an architect, I do not want to be involved in creating law and order through fear and misery. I see the creation of a continuous dialogue as both interesting and also perhaps the only reason for architecture. In the sixteenth or seventeenth century, someone defined architecture as “commodity, firmness and delight.” Commodity equates to good housekeeping, particularly in terms of money; firmness is the structure; and the delight factor is the dialogue.
Could you talk a bit about your time-based project in Glasgow and how that opened up a dialogue between the city and its citizens.
The city hall is in the centre of Glasgow. They are very proud of it and people are not allowed in very often, unless they have got a complaint against the city. We decided to improve the lift to the top of the tower – putting a carpet in, installing lovely mirrors, spraying it with perfume – and invited the public in. We did not tell them why; all we said is that they could go to the top of the tower and for free. In the lift was a tape announcing “tonight, all the areas which we think should be saved without question will be floodlighted red.” Only parts of the city were lit up, so their attention was focused. You heard comments like: “Well of course that church should be saved” and “Why keep that slum?” The next night, different areas of the city were flooded green, indicating districts they decided should be improved. On the last day, the floodlights were white. The public was invited to tell the city what they should do with the spaces lit in white. There were no “superiors” involved, no architects with patches on their tweed jackets around for miles. The city was saying, “We’ve thought about it for years and still don’t know what to do with the white areas. You tell us. But don’t tell us next year, tell us within a month, because after that it’s too late. As you go down, pick up a free postcard and mail us your response.”
Sarah Lucas & Hans Ulrich Obrist
The bad-girl artist and the Serpentine curator talk shop
Portrait of Hans Ulrich Obrist by Ian Cheng and Micaela Durand (2013) (all images courtesy Badlands Unlimited)
The celebrity curator may be a phenomenon on the rise, but before Klaus Biesenbach and Paola Antonelli, there was Hans Ulrich Obrist. Obrist, who’s currently the co-director of exhibitions and programs and director of international programs at London’s Serpentine Gallery, has a list of curatorial accomplishments so long, it’s daunting. He started out small enough, organizing a show in his kitchen in 1991 (he was 23) that included contributions from Christian Boltanski and Fischli & Weiss; in the decades since, he’s curated and co-curated more than 250 exhibitions, including the first Berlin Biennale and the first Manifesta. He’s also known for his ongoing conceptual projects, among them do it, a roving show built around artist-given instructions for viewers, and The Interview Project, for which he’s racked up more than 2,000 hours of conversation so far, with artists, writers, philosophers, scientists, and others.
It turns out he’s also been taking notes the whole time — making diagrams and sketches, scribbling down ideas and keywords. And when artist Paul Chan, who’s also the founder and publisher of Badlands Unlimited, found out that these copious notes and drawings existed, he knew he wanted to release them.
“I wanted to publish them because I’m surprised they exist, still,” Chan told Hyperallergic over email. “Badland’s publishing program is mindlessly simple: we publish things that no one knew existed. The poems of Yvonne Rainer, speeches on democracy by Saddam Hussein, afternoon interviews of Marcel Duchamp, and now this. I didn’t know he made them. Did you?”
The resulting book, Think Like Clouds, premieres at the New York Art Book Fair, where Badlands has also mounted a small exhibition of the some of the artworks — or whatever you might call them. “I don’t know if these drawings are important,” Chan said. “I don’t even know if they are in fact drawings. This is to me their appeal.”
Badlands sent us six of Obrist’s sketches specifically related to his curatorial practice:
All drawings untitled, ink on paper, date unknown
And here are a few more from the book:
The New York Art Book Fair opens to the public today and runs through Sunday, September 22, at MoMA PS1 (22-25 Jackson Avenue, Long Island City).
THE TELEGRAPH LONDON
Hans Ulrich Obrist interview for Serpentine Gallery’s Map Marathon
Alastair Smart meets the Serpentine’s revolutionary co-director, officially the most powerful man in art.
Not since Roger Federer has a Swiss reached the top of his profession with quite such speed and humility as Hans Ulrich Obrist, officially the most powerful man in art.
Obrist, 42, has come a long way since staging his first show in the kitchen of his student-flat in St Gallen in the early Nineties. The co-director of London’s Serpentine Gallery since 2006, last year he came No 1 in the annual ‘Power 100′ list published by ArtReview magazine, leaving previous winners – Hirst; Saatchi; Christie’s owner François Pinault; super-dealer Larry Gagosian – trailing in his wake.
Not that he himself paid much heed. Obrist reckons he’s a mere ‘utility’, arguing that ‘it’s not curators or collectors who set the art-world agenda, it’s artists. By definition, without them there would be no art world.’
Fair enough, Hans, but it’s surely no coincidence that Venice Biennale curator Daniel Birnbaum ranked fourth in the Power 100 – behind curator-cum-museum directors Glenn D Lowry (MoMa) and Sir Nicholas Serota (Tate). It seems that while artists’ prices and collectors’ clout have both waned in the global economic downturn, it’s now the moment of the creative curator.
But what sets Obrist apart from the rest? Well, first, a relentless schedule. He juggles day-job commitments at the Serpentine with endless freelance commissions around the world. He is newly returned from talent-spotting at the São Paulo Biennial in Brazil and, ahead of this week’s Frieze Art Fair jamboree in London, he’s just unveiled an exhibition of Anish Kapoor sculptures in Kensington Gardens.
‘The 21st-century curator works in a supremely globalised reality,’ he says. ‘Where once there were just a few centres, now the art world has a polyphony – India, China, Latin America, the Middle East…’ Obrist has done his bit to introduce us to artists from two of those centres, with his Serpentine group shows Indian Highway and China Power Station (held off-site in Battersea Power Station).
Fluent in six languages, with full-time museum jobs in Vienna and Paris behind him, he’s also bombarded with invitations to seminars and symposia, to discuss his trendy ideas about the future of exhibiting. The antithesis of your stereotypical, dusty-old-relic curator who never leaves his museum, Obrist is of a new, go-getting breed of über-curator.
He has long advocated taking art beyond the confines of the gallery –
as well as in kitchens, power stations and Kensington Gardens, Obrist has held shows in a monastery, an aeroplane and even Friedrich Nietzsche’s Alpine home in Sils-Maria.
‘To keep art stimulating, it’s important to open it up to new horizons, which includes showing it in unexpected contexts,’ he says, decrying the normal museum-going experience as ‘like being on a ski piste: go
left, go right… It’s too linear, too homogeneous.’
Traditionalists often call Obrist a charlatan, a celebrity curator intent on stealing the thunder from art and artist. But, in his defence, aren’t we all a bit tired of the diktat that contemporary art must be viewed in crushingly anonymous, white-walled galleries?
Obrist is also a serial interviewer. Down the years, he’s conversed with pretty much everyone in contemporary art – from Robert Crumb to Yoko Ono – recording the results in two 1,000-page volumes called Interviews. His contacts book is duly tome-like, and since 2008 he’s attracted artists in the Richard Prince, Gerhard Richter and Jeff Koons league to show at the humble, one-time tea room we call the Serpentine.
Next weekend he’ll be calling on yet more of his contacts. As his fellow art-world potentates descend on London for Frieze, Obrist will be chairing the latest of his annual ‘Serpentine Marathons’, for which he invites 50 artists, architects and philosophers to give short presentations on a chosen theme.
In 2009, he had them reciting verses (Poetry Marathon); in 2008, they launched manifestos for the future of art and society (Manifesto Marathon); and this year he’s decided on a Map Marathon, with the likes of Gilbert & George and Marina Abramovic each producing and discussing maps.
‘In this new age of GPS, Google Earth and multidimensional digital maps, mapping is suddenly hugely relevant again,’ Obrist says. The Marathon promises a postscript to the British Library’s recent Magnificent Maps exhibition, which held up the Enlightenment as the previous major turning-point in cartographical history: between maps as art and maps as scientific record.
Rather fittingly, this year’s Marathon – the first ever outside the Serpentine – is being held at the Royal Geographic Society, with talks running non-stop through next weekend’s waking hours. Even by Obrist’s standards, it promises to be a busy old week, with ArtReview publishing its new Power 100 list on Thursday. What odds that he’ll continue to dominate the contemporary art mappa mundi?
‘Map Marathon’, Royal Geographical Society, London SW7 (08444 771 000), Oct 16-17
This review also appears in Seven magazine, free with The Sunday Telegraph
Introduction By: John Brockman
These are exhibitions which are not material, but which are more virtual, virtual in the sense of them always being able to be reactualized. They can be revisited and reactualized and updated, and they are also not related to a place. The exhibition can go to where the viewer is. Anybody in the world can download these formulas and pin them on the wall, or they can do their own and trigger their own formulas. We are in the very early days of understanding how the Internet can be used for exhibitions.
15 May – 17 August 2008
Reykjavik Art Museum – Hafnarhús
Curated by Hans Ulrich Obrist
In collaboration with artist Ólafur Elíasson
HANS ULRICH OBRIST, a Swiss curator, is Co-director of Exhibitions and Programmes and Director of International Projects, of the Serpentine Gallery in London.
By John Brockman
Beginning May 15, Edge travels to Iceland for the Reykjavik Arts Festival, which will reprise the Edge Formulae of the 21st Century project, presented last October at the Serpentine Gallery, London, by curator Hans Ulrich Obrist, Co-Director of the Serpentines Exhibitions and Programmes. ThatWorld Question Center project was a response to Obrist’s question: “What Is Your Formula? Your Equation? Your Algorithm?”
One of the highlights of the Reykjavik Arts Festival will be the Experiment Marathon Reykjavík, an exhibition and program of related events organized by the Reykjavík Art Museum and the Serpentine Gallery, London. Lasting from 15 May through August 17, the focus of the project is experimentation. The RAM [Reykjavik Art Museum] will become a laboratory in which leading artists, architects, film-makers, and scientists will create an environment of invention through a series of installations, performances and experimental films.
Additionally, previous related projects will be presented as archives within the exhibition. The exhibition and related events are curated by Hans Ulrich Obrist, Co-Director of Exhibitions and Programmes and Director of International Projects, Serpentine Gallery, London, in collaboration with artist Ólafur Elíasson.
The Experiment Marathon Reykjavík builds on the enormous success of the recent Serpentine Gallery Marathons which have taken place in successive Serpentine Gallery Pavilions, an annual architectural commission conceived in 2000 by Serpentine Gallery Director, Julia Peyton-Jones. In the 2007 Serpentine Gallery Experiment Marathon, which took place in the Pavilion designed by Ólafur Elíasson and Kjetil Thorsen, leading artists, writers and scientists performed a huge variety of experiments, exploring perception, artificial intelligence, the body and language. Participants included John Brockman, Steven Pinker, Marina Abramovic and John Baldessari. The event was collaboration with Thyssen- Bornemisza Art Contemporary. The Serpentine Gallery Marathon series began in 2006 with the 24-hour Interview Marathon conducted by Rem Koolhaas and Hans Ulrich Obrist. A presentation of these previous programs will be shown in the Reykjavik Experiment Marathon in a pavilion of archives designed by Ólafur Elíasson and Einar Þorsteinn. Another collection of archives will refer to Hans Ulrich Obrist’s and Barbara Vanderlinden’s exhibition, Laboratorium, from 1999.
A substantial catalogue will be published on this occasion, documenting the Experiment Marathon Reykjavík together with previous marathons and with textual contributions by Bruno Latour and others.
Obrist and I, as Edge readers may recall, have a mutual connection: we both worked closely with the late James Lee Byars, the conceptual artist who, in 1971, implemented ”The World Question Center” as a work of conceptual art.
As a curator, he is ever curious about the world around him and this includes the latest ideas and developments in science. Obrist interviewed me for Art Orbit in the 90′s. With this Edge feature, I get to ask the questions.
HANS ULRICH OBRIST, a Swiss curator, is Co-director of Exhibitions and Programmes and Director of International Projects, of the Serpentine Gallery in London.
Hans Ulrich Obrist’s Edge Bio Page
A RULE OF THE GAME
One of the questions I started out with, at the beginning, was trying to understand the forces effective in visual art and contemporary art, which is my field as a curator, trying to understand what is necessary in art: Is it necessary to understand the forces effective in other fields of knowledge?, which is a question Alexander Dorner asked early in the 20th century.
He was the great pioneer of experimental 20th century museum studies, he inspired Alfred Barr to do the Museum of Modern Art, and he wrote a very groundbreaking book called Ways Beyond Art, where he really expressed the necessity of going beyond the fear of pooling knowledge. The question of how we can create a pool of knowledge has somehow been at the beginning of my activity.
Another great inspiration was György Kepes, the artist and legendary editor of the Vision + Values book series, which were books introduced to me early by Bruce Mau and which have been instrumental ever since. And that has led to a lot of projects relating art and architecture, art and science, art and literature. And that has been the umbilical cord of a question that I that I’ve always asked while working with artists, and then later with scientists and architects, because I tried to do to curating what happened to art in the ’60s and ’70s when artists expanded what art is. They created an expanded field on an expanded notion of art.
And if you think about an expanded notion of art, it becomes interesting to think about an expanded notion of curating. But I was thinking how it could be an interesting to ask how we could do the same thing to curating as what had happened to art in the ’60s and ’70s, how we could really have an expanded field of curating — curating at large, where there would be curating of art, curating of science, curating of architecture — and about how these things could be brought together.
Now, that obviously always implies a problem, which is the curator defining a “rule of the game.” Every project has a rule of the game. Every exhibition process has a rule of the game. What this means is that the curator sets these rules of the game, but then it might not fit what the art is about, and then it is the art illustrating the curator’s rule of the game, and that is not as interesting. So, from that point of view, I started to think a lot about just starting with artists, and starting with architects and scientists, and above all, listening to them.
One of the key aspects of my trajectory has always been conversations with artists. And this became particularly clear to me in a very early conversation I had, which was an early encounter with an artist that changed the way how I see. I had gone to Rome, and I was told by my friends Peter Fischli and David Weiss, the amazing Swiss artist, who was the first artist I had really long conversations with, that I should visit Alighiero e Boetti there. Mr. Boetti was from the same generation as our mutual friend James Lee Byars. He was a visionary artist who emerged in the ’60s.
I went as a student to his studio, and just paid him a visit. And he told me that there had always been curators and museum people and galleries inviting him to do projects, and it was always the same format — it was museum exhibitions, it was gallery shows, or maybe it was art fairs, maybe biennials. But he said there were all these other things he wanted to do. So, I asked him what he wanted to do. And he said one of his main desires had always been to exhibit in all the airplanes of an airline, to do an airplane exhibition. And within the parameters of the art world, of what is given in the art world, that project would never have been possible. He just was never asked to do it, and never able to do it.
I was 18 or 19 at the time, so really just starting, and he said, “you know, young man, it will be a project for you to actually not squeeze art into your kind of predetermined scheme, but to start to look around and see what great projects artists have and try to make them happen, to produce them as realities.” At the time I went back to Switzerland and I started to work with museum in progress in Vienna, in Austria. But then we approached Austrian Airlines, and three years later we made Boetti’s project happen, so that for a year he had an exhibition on every single airplane of that airline, which was carried all over the world. It not only developed an expanded notion of what an exhibition is, but it also geographically disseminated the exhibition into totally different circuits where art wouldn’t normally go.
More or less at the same time, I spoke to the French artist Christian Boltanski as well as Fischli/Weiss, and they said that it would be interesting to do exhibitions where nobody ever does them. And I said, “Where?” And they said, “In the kitchen. Do it in your kitchen.” They had always thought a kitchen show could be interesting. So, they transformed my kitchen in my apartment into an exhibition space, out of which then grew this idea that maybe exhibitions can also happen in unexpected places. And ever since my beginnings in the early ’90s, that is a question I’ve asked myself, and also the question I’ve asked each of my interlocutors, each of the people I have talked to: What are your unrealized projects? What projects have been too big to be realized? What projects have been too small to be realized? What are sense of projects of yourselves, sense of projects?
Doris Lessing, the Nobel Prize winning author, once told me in a conversation that there are not only the projects which are made impossible by the frames of the contexts we work in, but there are also the projects we just don’t dare to think up. The self-censorship of projects. And there are all the books she hasn’t written because she didn’t dare to write them. So, that is the question that been my umbilical cord, and it’s also the only question that I ask in all of my interviews. What is your unrealized project?
I started out actually studying economics, social science, political science at St Gallen University, but I was always friends with artists. It was almost a sort of parallel reality. I never wanted to study art because curiosity drove me to understand other fields. But from that moment on I was always anchored in the arts, because I knew from the beginning of my early adolescence that somehow I wanted to work with contemporary artists.
In Switzerland there was Harald Szeemann, the legendary curator, so the notion of a curator for me as a kid growing up in Switzerland was already somehow concrete. But I always thought that curiosity drove me to all these other disciplines. And during my studies, when I started to do exhibitions, little by little, I wanted, through the exhibitions, to make these bridges.
First it went from art to architecture. Architecture was the first contact zone. I started to work a lot with architects, and that is obviously also a quite direct contact zone, because when you do exhibitions you have a link to architects, you have exhibition designs, and you involve architects in the exhibition design. So I started a lot of research in that direction. And the history of exhibition design is incredibly interesting, because it has got to do with the invention of new display features.
Exhibitions can push the radical, experimental solutions because they are not permanent. I think that is why very often exhibitions are an interesting “laboratory” for architecture. It is not by coincidence that pavilions and exhibition designs were the contexts for a lot of inventions in architecture, because it is not the rigid thing of a permanent structure, but an ephemeral structure where an architect can really play, and can experiment.
Other exhibition designs are invented by the artists themselves. When you think about Marcel Duchamp and his radical displays for the surrealist exhibitions — which for me were very inspiring — if an exhibition does not really invent a new display, there’s a risk that it is forgotten, because art is not only about the works, but also it’s about a new way of seeing the works.
I always felt that when I went into other disciplines, I learned a lot for my own field. From architecture, I became familiar with the whole critique of the master plan, because, in the late ’50s, there was an increasing critique of the Le Corbusier notion of the master plan, the top-down master plan, and architecture started to look into this idea of self-organization. So, I became very familiar with architects like Yona Friedman, Oskar Hansen and Cedric Price, all of whom very early on thought about how self-organization could be brought into the master plan. This questioning of the master plan I then fed back into curating, and I started to think about how could we do exhibitions which are not just a top-down master plan, but which could grow more organically.
There is the link between art and literature and philosophy. If you look at all the avant-gardes of the 20th century, they have a great link to literature. And that connection goes from the beginning of my work, when I worked with Gerhard Richter on Nietzsche, to a current exhibition, “ever still”, that I have curated at the Lorca House in Spain, which is about the poet and writer Lorca.
Science never really played a role for me at the beginning. I was completely ignorant about science. I didn’t grow up with a scientific background, I didn’t study it, and I didn’t auto-didactically work on it. Then in ’93, I got a phone call from Christa Maar, who at that time was just about to set up the Academy of the Third Millennium with Hubert Burda. She had read an article about my unusual exhibitions on airplanes and in hotel rooms, and she thought it would be interesting to invite me to these meetings.
I went to Munich, and the first couple of times I was completely lost, because I had never met scientists before, I had never read science, and there were people there like Wolf Singer and Ernst Pöppel. After not saying anything during the first meetings, I then started to systemically read. And it was really through these experiences at the Academy of the Third Millennium that I began to build bridges with scientists. In the meantime I had started to work as a curator at the Museum of Modern Art in Paris, and each time a well-known scientist would visit Paris, Christa would ring me, and would say, “Show him your museum.” I started to walk with biologists and neuroscientists through the Mark Rothko exhibition at our museum and that was really the beginning of how this whole bridge with science began.
A very interesting next step somehow happened. In a certain way, all my work in terms of curating, and expanding the notion of curating, has never been a priori defined, because it’s almost like a long walk. It is a sort of a “flânerie,” to use the French term. It is almost like strolling. It is a promenade. And chance plays a very big role. It is a sort of controlled chance, but it is always about how to allow chance to come into the process.
Out of our conversations in ’95, Christa then invited me to do an exhibition for her first big conference in Munich, Mind Revolution, which was about the connection between the computer and the brain, between neuroscience and the computer. Bruce Sterling was there. It was the first time I met Bruce Sterling. A lot of scientists were there, neuroscientists. But I felt intuitively that somehow it would be wrong to get artists to illustrate a scientific conference, and I also felt the conference wouldn’t be the right place for an exhibition to take place, so, instead, I suggested to Christa, and to Ernst Pöppel, that we could invite artists to Ernst Pöppel’s KFA in Jülich, artists from Douglas Gordon to Matt Mullican to Rosemarie Trockel to Carsten Höller.
Ernst was located near Cologne in Jülich, Germany’s biggest science center, which has hundreds of labs. He is a leading neuroscientist who is also part of Edge. We thought we’d do a conference there, but then talking to Ernst, we actually realized that that was again wrong, because to some extent why would we do a conference with artists and scientists who had never met, and who would feel put on the spot. Instead, we decided that the most important thing would be to create a contact zone, which wouldn’t put people on the spot, where something could happen, but nothing had to happen.
I feel very often with my projects that we cannot force things. One cannot engineer human relations. One can set the conditions under which things then happen. For that reason, we decided, a few hours before the event was supposed to take place, to cancel the conference and to just do a “non-conference.” It had all the ingredients of a conference — badges, tee shirts, bags with all the speakers’ CVs, a hotel where all the people would stay, a bus to pick them up in the morning and bring them to the science center, people at the airport picking the guests up, all of the logistics — but the conference no longer was there. It was just a coffee break. It was the invention of this idea that we should just do a coffee break. And it was my first project with art and science.
This came from that observation that obviously at a conference the most important things happen in the coffee break. Why do the rest? We’ll just do the coffee breaks.
The most important things happen in interstitial spaces, they happen in between, and they happen when we least expect it. Incredible things happened. The artists visited the science labs they were interested in. At the end we made a little film, and everybody spoke about his or her impressions. We published a set of postcards. It was the first conference as a coffee break, of which we did many afterwards.
Just as Cedric Price talks about the “non-plan” in urbanism, this was the “non-conference.” That was the inspiration. As a curator, conferences and symposiums are not my main activity. But I felt it was a very interesting thing, because in exhibitions almost every single rule of the game has been invented. The whole 20th century is a permanent invention of new ways of doing exhibitions. Almost every radical gallery gesture has been tested, from the full gallery, to the empty gallery — everything. Yet somehow with conferences and symposiums very little has been shifted in terms of rules of the game. It is always the same kind of protocol: there is the table, there are speakers, there is a speech by everyone, then there is discussion, then there is a Q&A, and then, maybe, there is a dinner. I think there is a huge potential to change the rules of the game.
Then we did Bridge the Gap?, which was in Japan with Akiko Miyake and CCA Kitakyushu, and it was again art and science, and we paid homage to Francisco Varela, who had just passed away.. Varela was a very important person for me, a mentor, a great inspiration in the few meetings we had. We made a homage to him, so we invited a lot of his friends. At the same time, we also had scientists and artists and architects. We thought we’d do it in a remote house, on the outskirts of Kitakyushu. Guests would fly to Tokyo, and then there would be an internal Japanese flight, and then an hour-long car ride. Finally they were brought to this very old Japanese house so remote that once they were there, they couldn’t get away anymore.
The idea was for three days to bring into the house all these incredibly busy people, who would usually immediately run away after their lecture and have meetings. We had rooms that would were for official meetings, and then, inspired by online chat rooms, we had rooms where people could retire and have their own self-organized chats. There were a lot of rooms in the house, rooms for Hosts, Guests and Ghosts to quote Marcel Duchamp.
There were about 30, 40 speakers, all in one big house. There was a a Japanese garden, so people could also stroll outside. And we had all the books by all the speakers inside, so there was a reading room that was a big success. The speakers went from Rem Koolhaas, to Marina Abramovic, to Gregory Chaitin. Anton Zeilinger who came with a little suitcase and made one of his teletransportation experiments.
The whole event was also about what artist Paul Chan calls “delinking.” That was also a conference that had to do with how we can delink very linked people.
Curating is my primary activity, even while experimenting with these different types of conferences, I always wanted to bring it back to the exhibition, which is my main medium. So, even though my whole venture into science actually started out with actually refusing to do an art and science show, I then, in ’99 with Barbara Vanderlinden, brought science back into the exhibition, and we did Laboratorium, which investigated how studios and labs are more and more inter-related. And we investigated the notion of the laboratory in the late 20th, early 21st century. Laboratorium was a transdiciplinary project searching the limits of the places where knowledge and culture are made. It started as a discussion that involved questions such as:
What is the meaning of Laboratorium?
What is the meaning of experiments?
When do experiments become public and when does the result of an experiment reach public consensus?
We installed many laboratories all over the city:
A laboratory of doubt
A cognitive science laboratory
A highway for choreographic investigation
An existing artist studio
The first laboratory of Galileo etc
We invited Bruno Latour to curate the theatre of proof, a series of demonstrations, a lecture series aiming at rendering public what happens in the laboratory. At the same time we declared the whole city of Antwerp a lab. And we found out that actually labs are very often invisible, part of the invisible city. People were saying, “You’re crazy to do a show in Antwerp about labs. There are no labs in Antwerp.” But we had a whole group of researchers mapping every lab, and there were dozens of world-leading labs in Antwerp; people just didn’t know about them. They’re invisible. So, we had an “open lab” day so people could visit the labs throughout the whole city. And then the museum became a place for all the artists’ “labs.”
The city got behind it. And we had the full support from Antwerpen open. It was really about the idea of the citywide lab exhibition, and then the museums.
Laboratorium showed me that the most effective thing for the issue of art and science is really this idea of doing something together to produce reality.
This leads us right away to the Marathons in London last autumn. I moved to the Serpentine London two years ago, and with the Serpentine director Julia Peyton-Jones, we started to think about concentric circles: the gallery, the park, the world. We started the Serpentine International projects with China Power Station and now a big project on India. We also felt it was important to open up in terms of disciplines, and to go beyond the fear of pooling knowledge, so we thought it could be very interesting to connect this to the Pavilion, which Julia Peyton-Jones had invented nine years ago, with an amazing pavilion by Zaha Hadid, which became the Serpentine annual Architecture commission.
We thought it could be interesting to have the content reflected as much as the building. So when Rem Koolhaas and Cecil Balmond did the pavilion in 2006, Julia and I discussed with Rem the idea of conversations. The pavilion became a place for interview marathons It was basically an “infinite conversation” in the Pavilion — an architecture of conversation. It culminated in October ’06, when Rem and I interviewed 70 Londoners from all disciplines in 24 hours, including, for example, Brian Eno or Richard Hamilton. The London Marathon is part of my ongoing project of, so far, 1400 hours of recorded conversations.
Then when Olafur Eliasson, together with Kjetil Thorsen, designed the Pavilion last year, he said he would very much like to continue this idea of a marathon. So, we felt it would be interesting to make it a completely different temporality, a 24-hour non-stop thing, so people can come and they can go, and then they can have dinner, and then they can come back again. And there can also be chance encounters.
Olafur said he would like to do an experiment marathon rather than a conversation marathon. It was very much tied in with what we earlier discussed with Latour, with the tabletop experiments. The idea was that we invited people throughout the summer, and then in autumn, to participate in this marathon. It was an experiment marathon, where we invited practitioners from all kinds of different disciplines to develop a new experiment and to realize it in the pavillion.
The interesting thing was that artists did their experiments, and scientists did their experiments. It wasn’t necessarily about forcing artists and scientists to collaborate. They all did their own thing, but yet it happened in the same space. And there is the possibility that certain encounters happen. What I have experienced is that very often these things take a lot of time. For me, it’s never a question of doing these things in a rush, because very often they trigger something. It is like a butterfly effect. It is maybe five or ten years later, and two of the people who met there are doing a book together.
For me, it is very important to trigger these possible sparks, and it is very organic. Freeman Dyson was saying on Edge that the 21st century will be biological. I think it is also very possible to think about exhibitions and conferences in biological terms, as growing over time, and not just as these sorts of one-off events. We are living in an event culture where we always switch on and off, and it’s very unproductive because we move on to the next thing.
For me, it is very important to work on these things as if it were long distance running, over many years. Little by little, new ramifications happen. So, the answer to your question of how one can bring these things together is by, first of all, not rushing them, and, secondly, not jumping from one project to the next, but instead having sustained projects that evolve over a long time, through different chapters. It’s about making mistakes, learning from those mistakes, and then making new mistakes.
There are a lot of aspects of exhibitions and the world of art that have to do with objects, and that is a very important dimension, but I don’t think it is everything. I think art has many, many dimensions. In this multi-dimensional field of art, I think it is also important to explore all the other possibilities that are not objects: performances, processes, and also non-material exhibitions.
Besides my more “materialized” exhibitions I’ve always been very interested in the idea of the dematerialization of art, which led to new forms of exhibition. In the ’60s, Lucy Lippard wrote the famous book on dematerialization of art. I’ve always been very interested in lists, something we actually share. I think it’s not by coincidence that we somehow directly and indirectly met through James Lee Byars.
And there is this whole idea of exhibitions and lists where one asks the question. I very often just launch the question, “what is your unrealized project? What is your dream project?” I’ve asked hundreds of artists and that’s going to be an online project at the Serpentine. I asked hundreds of artists and architects and scientists, “What is your recipe? Is there a recipe? Is there an instruction?” And that led to Do It, which is my score book based on an idea we developed with Boltanski and Lavier.
I think art can travel in different ways. Art can travel through objects, and great artwork can travel over centuries, and that’s a very valid way for art to travel. But art can also travel through scores, like in music.
Scores was Do It, like musical scores. Or as Pierre Boulez, the French composer, told me, we should think of open scores, of how the scores are actually unfinished. That leads us to Project Tempo del Postino, where Philippe Parreno and I curated for the Manchester Festival a time based group show for an opera house: The group show as an open score. Last but not least there is the Formulae project, where I invited more than a hundred artists to contribute a formula or an equation for the 21st century. These projects arrived in my office, where they are pinned on the wall. Many arrived by email. Many by fax. After about six months, my office wall was completely filled. And there was the day last October when Brian Eno came with you to my office, and that encounter triggered a fantastic Edgeproject where you invited your whole Edge community to develop a formula or an equation for the 21st century.
You could really say these are also exhibitions. These are exhibitions which are not material, but which are more virtual, virtual in the sense of them always being able to be reactualized. They can be revisited and reactualized and updated, and they are also not related to a place. The exhibition can go to where the viewer is. Anybody in the world can download these formulas and pin them on the wall, or they can do their own and trigger their own formulas. We are in the very early days of understanding how the Internet can be used for exhibitions. For instance, there was Do It, where with e-flux.com, we developed an online project, where anybody who sees the instructions online can download them and can then send their feedback. They can send a photograph of their interpretation. And then, all of a sudden, we have many different possible interpretations of an artwork. It is the very early days, but I see a great potential for these digital exhibitions for my curatorial work in the next years.
NEW YORK OBSERVER
The Man Who Made Curating an Art
Hans Ulrich Obrist enjoys a level of prominence in the art world that would have been unimaginable for a curator of contemporary art 20 years ago. Back then, curators didn’t get famous, and though they talked among themselves about their work, no one else cared very much about who they were or how they made their decisions.
People care about Mr. Obrist. At 41, the Swiss-born impresario has spent the past three years as co-director of the Serpentine Gallery in London, and has curated some 150 exhibitions internationally since his early 20s. His reputation is that of a fast-talking, tireless obsessive, and his various activities–which include mounting shows around the world, moderating panels, writing catalog essays, hosting early-morning salons and conducting scores of in-depth interviews with artists and other cultural figures–have made him an improbably influential, globally ubiquitous presence in the art world.
After making his first bit of noise as a curator in 1991 with a group show in his kitchen that featured, among others, Christian Boltanski and the duo Fischli/Weiss, Mr. Obrist quickly made a name for himself as a self-consciously innovative exhibition-maker interested in working closely with artists and mounting shows in unconventional spaces.
“There’s a certain kind of curator who is really down with the artists, and Hans Ulrich is definitely down with the artists,” said the downtown gallerist Jeffrey Deitch. “There are many other curators who keep their distance, simply because it’s their personality or their background or because they think that’s what one should do. They’re not on the scene. You’re not going to see them at a party at 1 a.m., deep in discussion.”
The interviews Mr. Obrist has conducted over the years currently add up to some 2,000 hours’ worth of tape. A fraction of them have been published in books and magazines, but the vast majority remain in Mr. Obrist’s personal archive. Through these interviews, Mr. Obrist has established himself as the unofficial secretary of the contemporary art world. “The way we might read Vasari for primary information on the Italian Renaissance,” said Mr. Deitch, “people will be looking at the archive of Hans Ulrich’s interviews to construct the art history of this era.”
For all that, Mr. Obrist remains all but unknown to the general public.
“Sometimes people who are a little bit below the popular radar are actually more powerful than people everyone knows about,” said Paula Marincola of the PEW Center’s Philadelphia Exhibitions Initiative, who edited a 2006 collection of essays on curatorial practice. “In our field, he’s kind of a rock star.”
In that capacity, Mr. Obrist has functioned as a “catalyst,” according to the artist, critic, and White Columns director Matthew Higgs, but at some point during his career, “this other thing happened, which is that this character emerged, ‘Hans Ulrich Obrist,’ who is clearly at the center now of all this activity and is as well known as a lot of the subjects of his interviews, exhibitions, and research.”
Earlier this fall, Mr. Obrist was named the most powerful person in the art world by the British magazine ArtReview, bumping the fellow who topped last year’s list, Damien Hirst, down to No. 48. The U.K.’s Independent wrote at the time that Mr. Obrist’s placement was evidence that “it is curators rather than artists who are now regarded as the real movers and shakers of the art world.”
THOUGH HE GRADUATED with a degree in economics and social science, Mr. Obrist was set on being involved with art from the time he was a teenager, and made himself known in the art world at a young age.
“He was this enthusiast, you know? This kind of genius thinker who was very hyperactive,” said gallerist Barbara Gladstone of Mr. Obrist’s first few years on the scene. “He read voraciously-he’d wake himself up in the middle of the night to read. He had this huge library in Switzerland, which wasn’t so much where he slept as where he kept his books.”
At this early point in Mr. Obrist’s career, no critic or scholar had thought to study the role of curators in art history, and while there was plenty of secondary literature on museums as institutions, there was no book one could read to learn about milestone exhibitions or the history of curatorial practice. Mr. Obrist was surprised to discover this state of affairs when he resolved, in his early 20s, to learn everything he could about his chosen line of work.
“At a certain moment, when I started doing my own shows, I felt it would be really interesting to know what is the history of my profession,” Mr. Obrist said in a phone interview last week. “I realized that there was no book, which was kind of a shock.”
Mr. Obrist was not the only one who had this experience. In New York City, a young gallery director named Bruce Altshuler found himself in the same position, and in 1989 quit his job to research a book on the history of exhibitions that became 1994′s The Avant Garde in Exhibition.
“I was working in a commercial gallery, so I was seeing the role that exhibitions played all over New York in terms of the functioning of this overall system,” said Mr. Altshuler, now the director of the museum studies program at N.Y.U. “Art history tended to be written monographically: most of the effort in the discipline had gone into studying individuals and their works, rather than looking at the system of display and distribution of those works.”
Mr. Altshuler’s book was followed two years later by another milestone text, Thinking About Exhibitions, this one an anthology of essays on exhibition practices edited by the independent curator Bruce Ferguson, the art historian Reesa Greenberg, and British museum professional Sandy Nairne.
This flurry of scholarly interest in the work of curators and the history of exhibitions–now a burgeoning field within art history–came as a result of several factors, starting in the 1980s with the emergence of a class of independent curators who saw the exhibition as a medium unto itself and were driven to experiment with it.
These curators collaborated more with artists than traditional museum curators ever had. They weren’t merely taking care of collections, but commissioning original work and organizing group shows around sophisticated themes. As the contemporary art world exploded in size during the 1990s, international biennales proliferated–there are now more than 150–and became platforms for ambitious emerging curators who wanted to showcase their curatorial voice and vision. Curatorial-studies programs, where students learned the trade and thought critically about the practice, popped up all over the country.
“In many ways, curators took on the role of what we might have once thought of as a role of the critic,” said Tom Eccles, the executive director of the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College. “Someone like Clement Greenberg was able to codify moments in art and promote individual artists into groups, and say, ‘This is what is significant in our time.’ I think there’s a moment in the ’80s when that transfers over to curators.”
BY THE TIME Mr. Obrist read Mr. Altshuler’s book and the Thinking anthology, he had already begun making his own contribution to the field by interviewing the generation of ’60s curators–men his grandfather’s age, like Walter Hopps, Pontus Hultén and Harald Szeemann–who had inspired him.
“Exhibitions are kind of ephemeral moments, sometimes magic moments, and when they’re gone, they’re gone,” said Mr. Obrist. “I wanted to find a way of recording this. And since there weren’t any books, I thought a good way would be to do an oral history, to start to speak with all these pioneers who had been somehow forgotten. … It was the last moment when one could get a really firsthand account of the history of curating in the 20th century.”
Starting in 1996, some of the interviews started appearing in ArtForum, and this fall, 11 of them were collected in a book called A Brief History of Curating. It is Mr. Obrist’s third collection of interviews–the other two are with artists–and an informal survey this week made it seem like basically every curator of contemporary art in New York is either currently reading it or already has. Though it is hardly the first time someone has published a collection of extensive conversations with curators–see Carolee Thea’s 2001 book Foci and her recently published follow-up, On Curating–Mr. Obrist’s book is nevertheless being called a landmark work, in part because so many of the people in it have passed away in recent years.
Norton Batkin, the founding director of the curatorial-studies program at Bard, called it an “invaluable contribution,” and praised Mr. Obrist for getting his subjects on tape while they were still alive. “Other people didn’t think of interviewing curators,” Mr. Batkin said. “It’s a history that in some sense wasn’t there before.”
And yet, Mr. Obrist is decidedly not a historian. Rather than synthesizing primary-source material and making arguments about what it means, he merely generates that material and moves on, hoping others will pick up the ball. Throughout his career, he has made little of his own views on art, asserting his taste through exhibitions, to be sure, but only occasionally writing argumentative essays of the sort one might expect from a man famous for his rigorous engagement with ideas. In effect, Mr. Obrist functions as something like a neutral mediator–a listener who asks questions of others and provokes them to explain themselves while keeping his own beliefs to himself.
That he has managed to become as famous and influential as he is in spite of that role is what makes him a singular figure in the art world, and a poster boy for how much that world has changed since the days when curating was considered just a job.
“Anybody who pumps a lot of energy into a situation, anybody who expresses interest in other people and brings good things out of them … is bound to be a player of a special variety,” said Robert Storr, the curator, critic and current dean of the Yale School of Art. “The ability to generate excitement, to focus attention and to stir things up in a positive way is a particular skill, you know, and it is not to be taken lightly. We need animators. We have too many of them who have no seriousness and no curiosity, who are just making events and spectacles. He’s an animator who actually creates interesting situations.”
Hans-Ulrich Obrist interviews Matthew Stone
April 2009 London
Hans-Ulrich Obrist: To begin with the beginning, I’d like to ask you how it all started, where are your beginnings? In terms of feeling your way around, in terms of becoming an artist.
Matthew Stone: I have always been aware that you can be an artist. There is a history of going to art school in my family. Very few people are taught that it is a job, or even a way of being, so I’m lucky. But essentially I’ve always known that it was something I would do.
HUO: I was wondering if there was some kind of an epiphany, you know, some sort of a revelation or epiphany.
MS: I don’t know about one particular event, I think about the role of the artist in relation to that of the shaman, within a Beuysian tradition. I remember lying in bed when I was a kid playing with balls of invisible energy in my hands and then bouncing them off the walls. What I am doing now feels the same as that, so… I guess it has always been there.
HUO: That’s interesting, because during my childhood in the late 70’s and in the early 80’s, Beuys was really like God. He came to Switzerland and gave a lecture and he was somehow, the most important living artist, it was his aura… And strangely when he died, somehow his influence diminished considerably and throughout the 90’s and the 00’s, Warhol became much more of a greater influence. What is interesting is that I have a feeling that in the last couple of years there’s been sort of…
MS: … A renewed interest. Well I’ve always made a comparison between Warhol and Beuys. I wrote my dissertation at college on the spiritual content of Warhol’s work, arguing that he recognized an inherent religiosity to post-war America. They had very similar messages, but they explained themselves in very different ways. These differing ways were relevant to their specific socio-political environments at that time. Andy Warhol took the everyday and turned it into art, whereas Beuys wanted our everyday lives to become art. It’s almost the same statement and surely the same sentiment, but superficially inverted. I think that Warhol, to all appearances, didn’t state his true intent and that’s one way to be very powerful as an artist.
HUO: So they were different sides of the same coin or something like that.
MS: Exactly, and I think that finding this spiritual aspect in Warhol is an idea that runs completely against the grain of most people’s approach to his work. It’s too easy to read his work in an overly simplistic way. I think that if you really listen to what he said, you find the depth he spoke of when he said “deeply superficial”.
HUO: I was very curious how you reconnect to a kind of unmediated experience. I think that after 2000, there seems to be a reconnection to unmediated experience, and also performance comes back and that obviously ties in with Beuys, who was involved with all of these performances and political activities, which were at the moment he died, kind of forgotten.
MS: I think the main thing that was forgotten about Beuys, was the seriousness of his intent to reform society. I think that in the 90’s, that was something that disappeared, replaced by a fetishization of nihilism, which is a dead-end ideology.
HUO: So one can say that clearly you are part of a new generation. Are you younger than Jesus?
MS: I’m under 33, yes. I think it’s interesting, because a “generation” is a myth, but one that we can in certain ways use. In a sense definitions can become a death to possibility. As soon as you define something, you limit what else it can be or become. So in that sense, the idea of a generation or of a singular movement is perhaps limiting. However if it can be used in a playful or more fluid sense, then it can become something that is empowering, not only in terms of comprehension for the audience that encounter it, but also for the community of artists who are linked to it.
HUO: So then it’s positive.
MS: It can be positive, but you must be aware of its potential to create elitist structures rather quickly.
HUO: We met in a group context on the roof of Hannah Barry’s Gallery, about a year ago, you were a part of Bold Tendencies II. You have developed an artist-run space in London, you have weekly salons. You are involved with a lot of collectives. You are not identified with one context.
MS: I hope that the current level of activity promotes further diversity. Art must fight for freedom but if it can only light one path to freedom, it returns to oppression. But to retrace your initial question, which I feel described my extended sense of community… This is something central to my work. Whether conscious or not, collaboration is inherent to every human process. I think that often for artists there is a fear to expose where somebody helps them. What I tried to focus on was crediting my creative interactions. It was quite a frightening thing to do, because you have to give up on the myth of being a solo operating genius. It’s very seductive this myth of the artist working alone, misunderstood by everyone else. When I exposed this level of constant collaboration, the work developed a much wider meaning, and became stronger. As I tried to destroy myself (by recognizing other people), my individual identity actually became stronger. For me it really exposed a rational argument for altruism.
I think a lot of the ideals, which Joseph Beuys upheld and supported very sincerely, have sadly been seen as irrelevant hippie liberalism, unfounded in any intellectual structure. But there is a real context to find and reactivate the initiatives that were started in the sixties. They were dialogues that aimed to do more than just passively comment on the nature of society, they were to truly transform it. For example the Art into Society – Society into Art show at the ICA [Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, 1974].
HUO: That’s an exhibition, featuring Gustav Metzger, Hans Haacke, Joseph Beuys…
MS: I’ve have the catalogue.
HUO: So that’s a reference for you.
I was part of this community in 2004-2005 in Peckham, we were a squat-based collective that involved not only artists, but fashion designers, writers and musicians. We squatted an old 7,000 sq ft, Co-op department store and maybe ten of us lived there. At that time, it felt that there was no identifiable young art collective in London. We were doing ambitious exhibitions and throwing huge after-parties with performances involved. We ended up with 2,000 people in this old ballroom.
HUO: So that was before you had an identifiable art structure?
MS: Yes, but we had our own structure and organized a series of artist-run shows in different buildings.
HUO: Can you tell me about these shows?
MS: There was one that was called Rising Tendencies Toward the United States of Mind, and there was Optimism as Cultural Rebellion…
HUO: So optimism started there?
MS: Yes, in 2004 I wrote “The Manifestation”, which was a manifesto that didn’t seek to dictate a specific course of action. It was a call to self-manifest. In a way I returned to it when I wrote the introduction to the book for Optimism – The Art of Our Time show at Hannah Barry’s, and then that text was included as part of your Manifesto Marathon event.
HUO: Exactly, and obviously we’re now curious to know more about this manifesto about optimism, because I’ve always thought we needed new optimism and then we see here that in 2004 you became interested in optimism.
MS: Well it takes a few years for a new century to start. When cultural movements occur, artists pay attention to one specific aspect from what is a wide spectrum of art-making, this is because a previous generation seems to have neglected that specific aspect. This is why movements aren’t forever and they shouldn’t be. Movements exist to momentarily remind us to question the fluidity of what we collectively assume is solid.
In a sense I think all art is optimistic. My optimism is not necessarily about happy art or cheap positivity, Optimism is the vital force that entangles itself with, and then shapes the future. So for me it’s a dynamic stance rather than a belief that everything will be OK, it’s not a naive hope. Optimism is about actively commandeering reality, and shaping the future. I am an optimist, and always have been. At first formulating this approach to art and idea of optimism really felt like the antithesis of cultural credibility.
HUO: So this is a kind of a counter reaction?
MS: Well, my blog is “Optimism as Cultural Rebellion”…
HUO: So your blog is a kind of daily practice of rebellion!
MS: Well, I think optimism itself is still a rebellion. But at that time, it really felt that there was no space in art for a sincere discussion relating to optimism. Back then I was thinking about blind optimism, that to seek utopian ideals or even to speak the language of those kinds of manifestos was a necessary cultural rebellion. I was thinking less about the real consequences of that, just that it needed to happen.
You manifest the full intensity of an idea to understand it. This is part of the process of creating visions of the future. But once you have this vision of the future, you have to step back to understand how and to what extent you are going to work towards realizing it. Like the Dogma films, at the beginning they made and stuck to the rules, but afterwards were still influenced by the most useful parts of what they had established. I think that’s the way that movements should operate. I think Beuys said that inside every human, there’s all of the past, but there is also visions of the future.
HUO: Panofsky said that if we want to be the future, it’s out of fragments of the past.
MS: Within shamanic logic, there exists a non-linear sense of time and a relation to history that is impossibly intertwined with all the potential futures. History cannot and should not be forgotten. But also if we only think of the past there is a danger that we will forget to design the future. In your interview with Ballard, he says “We now live in the present, unconsciously uneasy at the future, and this short-term viewpoint does have dangers. We know that, as human beings, we are all deeply flawed and dangerous, but this self-knowledge can act as a brake on hope and idealism.”
HUO: Talk more about your exhibition, “Interconnected Echoes”, in Paris.
MS: In that show there is a series of digital collages, one drawing and also a photographic billboard work that is installed sculpturally. The billboard is sunk into the walls of the gallery. Similarly, the collages appear to show cubes that have sunk into each other. The show is called Interconnected echoes, which is also the official title of my salon and an interview-based blog that I run. “Interconnected”, is a term that relates to this advanced idea of community that we spoke about earlier. The collages emerged from designs for my sculptures which you saw on the roof in Peckham.
HUO: These are photographic sculptures, kind of performative photography, fragments of bodies blown up, it’s quite monumental.
MS: I was thinking about creating 3D Venn diagrams which evidence shared space. But in my sculptures these solid and geometric cubes somehow go off the grid and sink into each other. The Venn diagram moves into the next dimension, from the second into the third. I was wondering whether this sense of multidimensionality could move from the formal perspectives that cubism challenged into the conceptual realm. We can project ideas into multiple dimensions, and then maintain a multitude of perspectives on those ideas.
HUO: … It’s multidimensional.
MS: Marina Abramovic and I talked about multidimensionality in terms of travelling between worlds, and from the shamanic perspective, that’s always been possible. We can all perceive these things directly, but you need to shift your consciousness slightly in order to experience them. They don’t happen in the same way as placing a cup on a table does.
But going back to the cubes with bodies on them, they have become a way of proposing the coexistence of uncompromised visions. An illustration of shared spaces that should be read as being both physical and conceptual.
HUO: You use these multidimensional constructions with photography, putting them in a-perspective constellations. Where is the source of this material, because we see these entangled and disentangled bodies in fragmentary poses and oppositions. Are these coming from live performances? Do you have some kind of an archive?
MS: They are staged images, I regularly shoot in my studio and there’s a small group of people that I work with. I have an archive, and use the images at different times. I use the ones that stand out to me visually. I can’t make any claim to understand beauty other than when I see it. I think this is difficult for some people when they approach the work. If the images are beautiful, it’s in quite a traditional sense. I struggle at times with the pressure of beauty being contextualized.
HUO: So that might lead the next step then? What are your unrealised projects?
MS: I want to write an opera that describes the shamanic journey. The opera would describe and also engage the audience in the journeying process. It wouldn’t be an artwork that you engage with just by viewing or listening to; it’s something that the audience would interact with on a very personal level.
HUO: So it’s a collective decision. The engagement will produce reality in some ways…
MS: Or realities, collectively personal realities.
HUO: Talking about parallel realities, it’s kind of an issue which independent of generations seems more and more relevant. You are an artist, but you run a salon, numerous spaces that are parallel realities, you might want to enter into politics. So these ideas of identity or citizenship become a sort of “perceptive band”, as Stefano Boeri says.
MS: I think that this complexity you describe is the gift of post-modernity that will stay.
HUO: And you don’t seem to be against that?
MS: I’m not. I think there is a danger that people are tempted to try to introduce a re-modernism of sorts. There is no Golden age. The artistic movements that have looked back only ever occupy footnotes in History. Whilst there was a period of what could be described as a “conceptual baroque”, the complexity of meaning and understanding is vital to promote diversity and tolerance thereof.
The true death of post-modernism will not be described in relation to it. Before post-modernism, there was this idea that if you knew the name of a god, you had power over him. Post-modernism became a god if you knew its name and it then had power over you. This was the imbalance that led to the collective power loss we see now. We need to talk about it now, because it’s a type of exorcism of old ideas. But it will seem absurd soon. Any idea applied in totality leads to absurdity, whether capitalism, socialism… Or postmodernism. So we must look head forth into the abyss and stare at the future. The future is the unknown, and all fear comes from a fear of the unknown. Artists must be fearless.
HUO: We haven’t spoken yet about your influences. We spoke about Joseph Beuys in connection to Andy Warhol, as if they were one, as two sides of a coin. But we haven’t really spoken about your English influences. John Latham was described in the 70’s in Germany, as a kind of English Beuys, with his Artist Placement Group, and his political dimension which he ran in tandem with his art projects. He used to be your neighbour. I knew him very well. I was wondering about John Latham, who was also a hero in the early 90’s because of his introduction of time…
MS: I am very interested in his work and considering I spent so much time in Peckham while he was alive, it’s sad I never met him. In terms of other English influences I can clearly identify Derek Jarman as a mentor. His extended practice, priestly nature and role as a facilitator of others has influenced me. His open and unashamed romanticism is also something I relate to very directly. I mentioned earlier Louwrien Wijers who in 1990 organised Art meets Science, and Spirituality in a Changing Economy. That project and accompanying book is heroic. She conducted the longest ever interview with Warhol. We are back to Warhol and Beuys again! She asked Beuys ten questions, who sent her to Warhol with the same questions. Warhol then suggested she take the questions onwards to the Dalaï Lama. Isn’t that incredible? This perfect triangle of Beuys, Warhol and the Dalaï-lama, three men working in different ways, on different continents and yet all suggesting the same things. Warhol sticks out, he’s like “um, well I mean, gosh, sure, uh…” But he also speaks very clearly about the future of religion, in which he talks about big rock concerts where everybody is singing the same song. He also says that anyone can be an artist, like Beuys.
I see that pyramid of interviews as Louwrien’s perfect artwork and social sculpture; she created and facilitated a wider vision. This vision is not only the people she gave a voice to, but the collective voice that she identified. Which brings us back to opera, the beauty of different people singing at the same time. This was an example that Norman Rosenthal gave and I thought: “Oh my God, that’s it!”
Hans Ulrich Obrist,Interviews: volume 1, Milan, Charta, 2003
Hans Ulrich Obrist Issue (7)
To talk to the man who talks to everyone you want to talk to.
There was a surprising dearth in the history of art curation, until Hans Ulrich Obrist, specifically surrounding the curatorial pioneers perspective. It was because of this Hans began a series of relentless interviews to create an intimate documentation of this turning point in art history, collected in A Brief History of Curating (2008). Since his mid twenties he has been single-handedly documenting a first hand take on art history through conversations with some of the most interesting artists, writers, curators and thinkers of the 20th century.
This interview was a cold call, we didn’t get to sit before hand and compare the wear on each other’s shoes. However it was setup by a mutual friend, so the pressure was slightly off.
Adam O’Reilly: Have you ever been intimidated by anyone you’ve interviewed?
Hans Ulrich Obrist: It’s an interesting question because I don’t think that intimidation necessarily occurred, but I started to be in awe, you know, great artists or philosophers whom I had never met before. I would not meet someone and then immediately interview him or her. So you know very often the interview only happens when there is a relationship, a dialogue, and after many meetings there is a moment I start to record. There is a curiosity for me. The curiosity is kind of stronger than the intimidation, maybe?
A: I only asked that, because I was a bit intimidated to interview the interviewer. Interviews have always interested me, I like that they generally begin a little one sided, a linear prompt that triggers a non-linear response and then they have a life of their own. How do you go about preparing for an interview?
H: I usually read as much as I can on the work. In the case of a writer I read the novels, and I look at as many possible shows of an artist, and I read lots of interviews they have given in the past. Here to give you an example, with one of the greatest living artists, Gerhard Richter, at some point I realized he had never been interviewed about his relationship to architecture, so we did this interview and that was published in Domus, the architecture and design magazine about his relationships with architects like the late Oswald Mathias Ungers, an architect he was friendly with, the design of his own studio he built for himself, his architecture models he inserted in his early paintings, the unrealized projects that were meant to be unrealized, was a topic I mentioned. That became because I read so much, met him so many times, so I found this loophole that had never been done. Very often it’s that, so that the preparation leads to something, which maybe hasn’t been discussed. Also, for my influence to work I have to be very prepared in order for then in the interview to be free to improvise. And I very often have a pile with lot of notes, I have a lot of questions, I have researchers helping me to make research, obviously it’s changed a lot with the Internet, because now Google plays also a big role, so books and Google, and then at some point during the interview I very often throw overboard a lot of the preparations and go into freestyle, but I can do it because I’m prepared and if I don’t prepare I don’t have the confidence to do that, so I need to over prepare to then be free.
A: Actually, I am glad you brought up Gerhard Richter, I wanted to ask about your conversations with him, they are beautiful documents. It’s also interesting to see you both grow in your respected disciplines through them. How have your conversations with him progressed through the years?
H: It’s interesting to talk about the Richter conversations, because it was one of the first, he’s one of the first artists I met and when I was a teenager, I was 18, and that was definitely a great inspiration for me to realize that that was what I wanted to do in life is to work with artists. We then, after initial conversation, started to work on projects together, and I think the dialogue has always circled around the reality we produced together, so I invited Gerhard Richter to do a show at the Nietzsche House in Sils-Maria then I started to collaborate with Kasper König, out of that grew the painting exhibition, The Broken Mirror, which is my first large-scale exhibition I worked with, and König had invited me to do this with him. That was when I was 24. Then for the catalogue, we decided we wanted the artists’ own words, so we asked them for their own writings, and I realized how amazing that fragment of Richter was, so I became curious and I started to research and I saw that there were all these amazing writings he had done, and there was never a book, so the third project we did after the Nietzsche house and the group show in Vienna, The Broken Mirror, was I started to edit, over years, a book of his collected writings, which came out, and has now come out in an augmented edition, a second edition, co-edited together with Dietmar Elger, and is now double the size of the one from fifteen years ago, and then, so it’s always been approached in working on another exhibition together. Ever since we’ve always worked on books really, lots of artist books.
A: A cyclical relationship, the interviews become a by-product of working together?
H: Yeah, or the other way around. It’s either a by-product, or you could say the conversation produces the project, so it can be both ways, right? At the moment I am reading a long new interview with Gerhard Richter on his artists books.
A: The interview you did with Julian Assange, (e-flux journal 25, May 2011) was really revealing. With an interview like that, you’re changing a public perception of a person, in this case someone shrouded in a lot of controversy. Is it important to you to give them a candid place to talk?
H: Yeah, there has always been a situation with the interviews. My interviews are supposed to have a lot to do with empathy, creating an empathic situation.
A: Empathy is rare to find in the art world,
H: And, I think if you want to understand the forces which are effective in art it’s important to understand what’s happening in other disciplines.
A: Of course, and you have that attachment coming from the art world.
H: The art world is my home, and I am based in the art world, so why would I interview Julian Assange? I mean I’m very interested in how Wikileaks had an impact on events over the last twelve months. But the main reason, is that artists kept telling me how much they are interested in Julian Assange, they’ve got questions for Julian Assange. At a certain moment I felt, as in conversations with Anton Vidokle, Julieta Aranda and Brian Kuan Wood from e-Flux, you know it could be great to do this as a polyphonic interview, and get artists, through me, to ask him the questions they always wanted to ask him.
A: I thought that interview was very on point. Many artists that I talk to, are trying to think of ways to use Wikileaks or just trying to figure out the impact it is having on everyone. Assange’s approach is so selfless and impressive. Documents like that have the power to challenge popular positions and perspectives. In A Brief History of Curating, you went about it retroactively, how did that change project start?
H: I think the book came out of the feeling that something is missing, it’s driven by curiosity, I mean, I came into the art world being very close to artists, I obviously realized when I started to curate that… at the very beginning I was very naïve and came out of a desire to do an exhibition in my kitchen and then on a mountain peak and then I realized, you know what, there has actually been a history of that and a lot of people have been doing that beforehand and then I realized this sort of history hasn’t really been written, why hasn’t it been written, and then you know, like always, when I see an exhibition that hasn’t been done and I want to see it, I do it, and when there is a book which hasn’t been written, and I want to read it, then I realize I have to do it. I just started to do this, not for a publisher, just out of my own interest and curiosity, and then at some point, I spoke to Jack Bankowsky, the then editor of Artforum, and he thought that was interesting, he said, “you know, why don’t we do a series for Art Forum so we can do it more systematically?” He commissioned me to do Walter Hopps, Harald Szeemann, and Pontus Hulten so that added three more to the mix, and then ever since I just continued to do them. I think now that many people know I’m doing these recordings, there is a lot of collective thinking about it in the sense that it’s no longer just me sitting in the office and thinking, “Whom could I interview next?” But there are lots of people who Email me and say, “Why have you never interviewed this person?” Every day I get an Email or a phone call and somebody says, “It’s very urgent that you interview this person. By the way, if you have any ideas for pioneers in Vancouver, I’m most curious.
A: I know pioneers in Nova Scotia, which is where I am right now, Gary Neil Kennedy is really fantastic, he gave a lot of early conceptual artists space and time to make new work.
H: Yes, Kasper König often talked about him. I saw a show of his at Portikus. Great, the next time I’m nearby I should interview Mr. Kennedy. That’s a great idea.
A: It is a pretty fascinating history, his push to start the NSCAD Press with König and Benjamin Buchloh. Those books are such great primary resources for early conceptual work.
H: Then obviously you know there is a link to Nova Scotia because I was very inspired by the NSCAD books. I mean the whole NSCAD book series was, for me, a great inspiration to start to make books with artists, and I’m a fan that the medium of the book as a medium, so that books aren’t a secondary reality. Michael Snow’s Nova Scotia book, and the great books by Gerhard Richter, Dan Graham or Dara Birnbaum. It’s interesting you mention Halifax, I was learning from Halifax, definitely. Also, I was always very inspired by David Askevold. He was a part of my “Do It” project, and sadly we had planned an interview with him, and then he died. But at least we could collaborate on Do It and he made marvelous texts for me for the Do It Books, and I think a lot of it has to do with his protests against forgetting and trying to remember, and I think the art world is quite good at this, and I think it’s a collective activity. You know, it’s not you or me, but it’s many, many people in the art world collectively trying to remember and I think that’s what is so interesting that this interview approach a very collective project, a lot of people thinking together whom we could remember, whom we could visit, and sometimes it’s like a lot of people are telling me that I should visit someone or interview someone. It gives a lot of people the idea to revisit your conversations and it has a very positive, hopefully, impact on the process of remembering, and that’s really what happened with these curators, because this curatorial history was partially forgotten or only very patchy and then at some point started. We thought we could bring all of these interviews I had with curators together and make the book. It wasn’t like a priori, it came a posteriori, no? After me having done so many interviews, obviously within the archives I’ve got a lot of potential books, or websites, or things I can now extract. It’s 2,200 hours, so someone could classify them according to geography, like all the China interviews we did with Phil Tinari or I could do all the London interviews, all the New York interviews according to the cities I have lived or spent time, all the Paris interviews. So one could do them according to disciplines like all the artist interviews, all the architect interviews, brief history of architecture, brief history of music, of sound, because we did lots of sonic inventors.
A: How do you go about putting together group exhibits?
H: I think it’s very much inspired by John Cage. Cage said that during a period of time he doesn’t just make music, but he also writes texts, he makes etchings, and a whole list of other things, and he does them in a different way so it’s not a linear situation, and I think with me it’s also overlapping a lot of layers. I’m not just a curator of exhibitions, but I write texts, I make interviews, I do films, I organize panels, and symposiums, and conferences, and research, so it’s a lot of parallel realities. It’s very non linear and then within these overlapping layers all of a sudden things emerge. And mostly it starts with a conversation with an artist. If there is an umbilical cord, it’s because I’ve got a very strong proximity to artists and that’s how ideas pop out.
A: I find it easy to get both optimistic and pessimistic when in conversation with artists about the role of art in a time when it is so easily absorbed into popular culture. It is a very exciting time to be making work because of unstable political climates, new technology, and a welcoming public. What sort of subversive role can art take in this?
H: Yeah, I think that’s a complex question, which I think is difficult to answer quickly, but I think when there is no more priests and philosophers says Gerhard Richter, the artists will be the most important people in the world. I have always felt it’s a very important moment where the art world is magnetic and there is a lot of other disciplines that are interested in the art world, I think it has a lot to do with the former. There is I think within the art world, a high degree of flexibility also of the formats and the possibility to invent new rules of the game, new formats. I very often think through the medium of exhibition we can show artists, architects, scientists, philosophers and all kinds of practitioners, it would be very difficult to do this in another field right now, so I think there is a great possibility right now to bring the different disciplines together in the art world as the formats are open. Obviously the art world has gained a lot of territory, and I think in this sense, it’s much broader than it used to be and much bigger. Maria Merz is always telling me that he loves this quote by General Giap who said, “When you gain territory, you lose concentration and when you gain concentration you lose territory”, and obviously the challenge right now is how the art world doesn’t lose the concentration, so for me it’s important to always not forget that, so every now and then, besides the big exhibitions I put on, I do very intimate, small exhibitions which are really concentrated moments with artists, they are focused shows a bit like the Kitchen. The Kitchen always stayed with me and it was the poet Cavafy who said, “the city you are born with, you always carry it with you wherever you go” and for me there is always the Kitchen in St. Gallen, Switzerland, where I grew up and studied and this kitchen is always with me, and so like besides all the very public shows in the big museums and biennales and stuff I always very regularly find a little exhibition like in the Barragan House in Mexico or now soon in Brazil or in the Sir John Soane’s Museum in London about ten years ago, these sort of house museum exhibitions in very intimate small houses concentrate and develop projects that are important, so I hope it’s both, it’s both trying to reach out and bridge the gap between other disciplines, but also remain concentrated.
A: Thanks Hans
H: Pleasure to talk to you.
A: Yes, you too.
Interview: Adam O’Reilly
Photos: Jonnie Craig
At the age of 23, Hans Ulrich Obrist curated his first exhibition in his kitchen; it included the work of artists including Christian Boltanski and Richard Wentworth. He is now Co-Director, Exhibitions and Programmes, and Director of International Projects at the Serpentine Gallery in London. Since the early 1990s, Obrist has mounted 150-plus exhibitions around the world, hosted The Brutally Early Club (a breakfast salon before the sun has risen), written catalogue essays and published numerous books. Obrist is the author of The Interview Project, an extensive ongoing anthology of more than 2,000 hours of interviews with artists, architects, scientists, writers and engineers.
Clo’e Floirat: I am interested in the form and the concept of the interview itself, rather than an isolated interview about an artist, a designer or an architect’s work. What is its role when it transcends the traditional answer and question structure? A form of art criticism? May it become an art form?
HUO: This is a very important question. Obviously interviews played an important role in art history, at least since Vasari. Vasari was a great influence for me, because I was always thinking: what will we know about the art of our time if we look back in some century? Warhol too was an influence, because to record everything at a certain moment is like creating a time capsule. I would say the third historic influence on me was David Sylvester. He did this wonderful book of interviews with Francis Bacon, which is one of my favourite interviews book ever. You have a very rare in-depth situation because Sylvester has interviewed Bacon again and again, and all over again, throughout his life. The other influential character was Jonas Mekas. I think without Jonas Mekas I would not have started to film my interviews.
CF: Did you initiate your first questions with the plan of making a collection of interviews? Was The Interview Project premeditated?
HUO: I have always done this as a curator; I talk to artists. Little by little the interviews were published and now there are artists holding seminars about The Interview Project. It was not premeditated, there was never a strategy behind it at all, it was never a conscious idea of ‘now I want to write the history of my time!’ That sort of grand gesture was not there. For me, it was to be in the middle of things and in the centre of nothing. There was no master plan and still there is not. It is more that, all of a sudden, there is an occasion or a desire to interview someone; little by little there a system develops. But the system comes a posteriori, not a priori.
CF: What does that system look like?
HUO: If this is the art world, [draws a square in the centre of white page, and illustrates artists with dots inside that ‘art-world square’], I have interviewed many great protagonists. First the artists I met when I was a student, Alighiero Boetti… I did not record these first conversations sadly. Everything between 1986 and 1991, the first five years are lost. From 1991, I started to record. Because I was a curator, I also wanted to know where curating comes from, so I started more systematically to interview curators, like Pontus Hultén. But if you want to understand the forces in art you need to understand what is happening in other fields. From art I went into science; from art I went into music; from art I went into literature; from art I went into architecture. And gradually it is like a concentric circle, it goes from the art world to all these other worlds, and then, from there, it goes into the multitude.
CF: In the first volume of your Interviews, what is the reason of listing the interviews in an alphabetic order? Not chronological? Is it to emphasize the manual aspect that the volume eventually provides?
HUO: There are lots of different books from The Interview Project, and, each time, there is a different rule. When you have a big archive of interviews, you can start to edit in different ways. One is according to cities, for example we have the ‘Beijing Marathon’ and the ‘London Marathon’. David Sylvester’s interviews were published according to geography: his London interviews, and his New York interviews. I can have them according to professions; I can have all the curators’ interviews, like in A Brief History of Curating. Or I can have them according to one artist, which is Sylvester’s model for Bacon: all the interviews I have ever done with Gerhard Richter or Olafur Eliasson, for example. Or there is the Conversations Series with Walther Koenig Books: 21 books of in-depth interviews.
In Volume 2, the editors – Karen Marta, Shumon Basar and Charles Arsène-Henry – wanted to show, as well the in-depth model, the broad spectrum of The Interview Project. In Volume 1, the order is according to the alphabet, and then for Volume 2 the three editors decided to do it according to birthdays so highlighting the five generations occupied by the interviewees. But who knows? We have to find out our own rules of the game, how to classify the material. It is a very big body of texts. A great-unrealized project is to do something online with it; that will be the next step.
CF: Do you consider yourself as an art historian?
HUO: I never studied art history; I studied social science and politics. I am curator foremost, I am curator of science, a curator of music, a curator of literature, a curator of architecture, but also I work as a critic.
CF: Of the different roles you play which one of them do you assume when you interview someone?
HUO: When I am interviewing, I am just learning.
CF: A listener?
HUO: Yes and I am like a student, I want to be a student all my life. I think the best thing in life is to be a student. When one stops learning it is terrible, particularly when you develop a trajectory, then you start to become more and more busy, and stop reading. And for me The Interview Project is to be an eternal student. I still function like a student, with hundred of books at home. When I do an interview I need to read all night long to prepare it, so it is the same intensity as when I had seminar as a student. And usually that goes away in life, but The Interview Project keeps me alive like a student.
CF: Robert Storr has said that you are an animator, but an interesting one. At first I found it rather derogative, perhaps too connected to talk-show culture. But then I appreciated that it was, in fact, a very accurate portrayal of your purpose if one reflects on the word ‘animator’ in terms of the one who animates situations, conversations and his ability to generate attention, just like a motivator or a generator even.
HUO: Animator is one of my many roles, I am a researcher, I am a fundraiser, I am a museum director, and I am definitely an interviewer. These are just aspects of a generalist profession. I think in the idea of ‘animating’, there is obviously a little bit of a negative connotation, because it has so much to do with events culture and all that, so I preferred the definition of the ‘junction maker’. What J.G. Ballard taught me is to make junctions and build bridges. I think we live in a world where we have objects, quasi-objects, non-objects. It is important also to have inter-subjective situations. I think my role of curator is not just in the exhibitions I install in spaces like in the Serpentine, or the exhibitions I install in time like ‘Il Tempo del Postino’ and the ‘Marathons’. But it is also in the projects that bring people together, and I see this as a very important part of my curation. I want my work to be useful for the world; I want it to be a toolbox. I do not want things that close down. I was never interested in occupying territories. I want to liberate.
CF: You question artists about their references, their influences, who from the past have inspired them. By stimulating the past, and the forgotten practitioners, it generates a mise en abîme in producing art history. It generates some kind of family tree. Is it a way to keep the past present?
HUO: It is clearly an aspect of what I often call ‘the protest about forgetting’. Obviously, I have a lot of questions; I learn from an interview what it is very interesting to ask the next person about. As Philippe Parreno says la chaîne est belle; it’s a kind of chain reaction. I observed, for example, that if on Monday I interview a film director, on Tuesday I interview an artist, on Wednesday I interview an architect – which is very often my week – then, by the end of the week, what the architect told me connects to what the artist told me, connects to what the film director told me. There is a kind of strange morphogenetic field, as Rupert Sheldrake calls it, different disciplines are interested in similar things. So then I started to think, I have a quite extreme schedule, if I push it even further then I could do the ‘Marathon’: 50 interviews in one day. We did the ‘Marathon’ for the first time in 2005, in Stuttgart, and then in London with Rem Koolhaas, and since then we have done it many times. I have lots of papers like this, thousand of these papers, and if I do an interview I take some of them. I do not script it in a linear way, for me it never works if I have a list with all the questions. While people talk to me – and actually sometimes people become confused because they think I am not listening to them – I am actually looking what could be a great link to the next question. Suddenly it is like a card game.
CF: You frequently question the existence of unrealized projects. Is this a method to stimulate lost, forgotten or misunderstood projects from the past? From that they are too often unreported propositions and solutions for the art world and its future?
HUO: It is actually my most frequent question. The second most frequent is: what advice to a young artist? And, finally, the question about the epiphany. How did Benoit Mandelbrot discover fractal geometry? How did Gerhard Richter discover over-painted photographs? But there is a reason that the most recurrent question is on unrealized projects. I believe that we know very little about them.
CF: They could still play a valuable purpose for the future? Like in architecture, models and projects submitted for competition remain unrealized, yet when they are not published they stands on every architect’s website as visions.
HUO: That is right, but, for example, we do not know about the unrealised projects of filmmakers, of scientists, and of artists, even less.
CF: If the California artist Amy Alexander would invited you to ‘self-interview’, what would be the answer to your own question about the unrealized project?
HUO: In 1986, when I was 18 years old, Alighiero Boetti told me this could be my life. I really did think artists were the most important people on the planet, and I wanted to be helpful and useful for artists. He said I could get all of these unrealized projects and try to make them happen, to produce them as realities. And so the irony is that I have been gathering thousand of unrealized projects, but whenever I want to do my big exhibition on unrealized projects it fails. So my unrealized project is to do a big exhibition on unrealized projects. And maybe even more to build a palace of unrealized project.
CF: Today is it still you chasing artists for interviews, or is your prey lying in wait to be captured in their interview by Hans Ulrich Obrist? To be part of his oral history?
HUO: Very often the desire has to come from me in the first place. Because it is my way of questioning the world so it has to come from my desire to understand the world. As much as it is a personal system within which it is about this desire, there is also a certain degree of objectivity and also collectively. The Interview Project now is a more collective project, it is more known that it used to be. People know that I have done many interviews so they say: ‘have you ever interviewed this great 80-year-old composer? Or this wonderful scientist? It could be nice to add it to your project’. It is very generous, and very wonderful that is has become a feedback loop. And the Marathon obviously is a very new form of producing interviews. Each time it produces a micro-archive in itself, and these interviews can then be published again in magazines. But what is very important, what I said in the beginning, there is not a master plan. It is very ‘rhizomatic’, it is a very Deleuzian thing.
What is also very important is that The Interview Project was always almost like a broke heaven, it’s a zero-sum calculation; I never made any money with it. But the money I make from publishing in magazines, catalogues and books pays for the editing, the PhD students from different countries that work on those transcriptions. But what I always did from the beginning and what is very important is that I can keep the rights with the artist so that later I can publish it again in any anthologies. There is always the thought about the archives.
CF: Your interviews are by-products of other events. You use every occasion to conduct them. In the most unexpected situation, you always take out your video camera to record any exchange of ideas. Is it also the case when you are being interviewed? Do you record and collect those conversations too?
HUO: When I was a student I travelled in night trains and had my ‘grand tour’, and after that I was really prepared. At 23, I did my first kitchen exhibition; from then everything went pretty fast. I got a grant from Cartier Fondation in Paris, I was invited to the Museum d’Art Modern de Paris to do ‘Migrateurs’, I was invited to work with Kaspar König. So between 1992 and 1993 my activity went from this strange obscure Swiss student travelling around in night trains to see artists, to the most public voice of new curating. But because it was like this that I had to go out in public, I think The Interview Project was very important, otherwise one would burn out very quickly.
CF: I met Markus Miessen two weeks ago in Berlin. He mentioned The Archive as a Productive Space of Conflict project in which you are involved. How is this project connected to your Interview Archive project?
HUO: With Markus Miessen I have been discussing how we use the archives digitally. There is obviously the whole tagging technology, so we worked together with Armin Linke and the Institute for the 21st Century, founded by Karen Marta and Bettina Korek. And the Institute tries to help The Interview Project, we get support to try to archive and keep it together. With Miessen, Linke and the Institute we developed this tagging site for Cedric Price. The beautiful thing about the tagging system – we showed at the Venice Biennale – is that you can just click in ‘Fun Palace’ and there everything that has ever been said about the Fun Palace comes. So you could imagine once my all archives are there, you could type colour red or colour blue, and then everything an artist or an architect who ever mentioned something about the colour red would start to speak. So you can actually make the living and the dead speak to each other.
Hans Ulrich Obrist: Interview
A new role at the Serpentine Gallery is the latest chapter in Hans Ulrich Obrist‘s love-affair with London. Time Out finds out why he keeps coming back for more
Posted: Mon Apr 24 2006
- As guest curator at the Serpentine Gallery in 1995, Swiss-born Hans Ulrich Obrist mounted ‘Take Me I’m Yours’, a show that was more like a jumble sale than an exhibition. Gilbert and George gave away badges and Christian Boltanski invited people to fill a carrier bag with second-hand clothes for a pound. The following year he presented ‘Life/Live’, a survey of artist-run spaces in Britain, at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. In 1999 he stayed at the John Soane Museum while curating ‘Retrace Your Steps: Remember Tomorrow’, for which he invited artists like Steve McQueen and Cerith Wyn Evans to respond to the collection. Now, after being involved in curating some 90 major exhibitions, including ‘Cities on the Move’ that came to the Hayward in 1999, he takes up a post created specially for him: Co-director of Exhibitions and Programmes and Director of International Projects at the Serpentine Gallery.‘For ten years I was working freelance and travelling non-stop’, he tells me.‘But since 2000 I’ve been based in Paris at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville, curating the programme there. Internationally, it’s a very open situation that goes beyond national boundaries; directors and curators move from one country to another, which has opened up the museum landscape.’ Isn’t there a danger, though, with curators moving from one country to another, that museum programmes become the same the world over? ‘It’s essential that there’s a strong local ingredient,’ he argues. ‘You have to have a mixture of protagonists from inside and outside to create a dialogue – a negotiation between the local and the global – otherwise institutions become homogenised.’ Hasn’t he chosen the wrong time to move here, just when the London art scene has lost its creative edge? ‘It’s very exciting to be here again,’ he insists, ‘because London keeps reinventing itself. There’s a new generation of artists’ spaces and galleries and London is an amazing laboratory for new architecture and design.’With Tate Modern dominating the scene, how does he see the role of public galleries like the Serpentine? ‘The question is more about relevance and vision. This has nothing to do with scale; it would be much simpler if it did. For the last year Julia [Peyton-Jones] and I have been discussing what an institution of the twenty-first century should be. It’s not about filling spaces, but intuiting what’s necessary and urgent.At a time when other museums are building new wings, we are building a new image; our extension will be through programming in concentric circles: the Serpentine, the park, the world. The gallery offers a very specific experience, because it’s a world within a world – a lofty space, which you walk to through the park. The change of momentum from slow to fast, and from noisy to as silent as a chapel is important; it works especially well for monographic exhibitions.’ I’m told that persuading artists to show in smaller public galleries can be difficult, because they are hoping to exhibit at Tate Modern. ‘You have to propose something that is context-specific,’ he explains. ‘At a certain time an artist needs a big retrospective, at other times they need a more focused exhibition. It’s a different story each time; it’s about establishing a dialogue. Flexibility is essential, otherwise everything becomes predictable; planning too far in advance is potentially deadly: it can make the programme very stiff.’He won’t divulge details, because the programme will be announced in the summer, but the first project is a pavilion with an inflatable canopy by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas and Cecil Balmond which will stay on the lawn through the autumn. ‘There’ll be debates, performances, screenings and 24-hour interview marathons as well as a café,’ says Obrist, ‘to build bridges between art, architecture and design.’A Royal College graduate compared curating to writing an essay with artworks. How does he preceive the role? ‘I see a curator as a catalyst, generator and motivator – a sparring partner, accompanying the artist while they build a show, and a bridge builder, creating a bridge to the public. Jacques Derrida and Julia Kristeva proved that essay shows can be successful, but they have to be brilliant, otherwise they are in danger of using art to illustrate a text. You have to avoid a pre-written scenario. Great group shows are journeys that get written along the way; you don’t know the end point. ’How does the London art world compare with that of, say, Berlin? ‘The scene is no longer centred in one place, as it was in the past,’ says Obrist. ‘There’s a polyphony of centres and London plays a crucial role. Most cities have a centre surrounded by suburbs, but London has numerous centres: it’s the model of a twenty-first century metropolis.’
- MORE INTELLIGENT LIFE
THE Q&A: HANS ULRICH OBRIST, CURATOR
In November Art Review magazine named Hans Ulrich Obrist the number-one most influential person in the art world. But according to Obrist, the excitement hasn’t interrupted activities at London’s Serpentine Gallery, where he is co-director of exhibitions and programmes and director of international projects. For decades, Obrist has authored analytical commentaries on contemporary art, while simultaneously redefining its presentation at renowned institutions such as the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris.
Obrist also conducts interviews. In the past few years he has released two 1,000-page volumes of his collected conversations with the most talented artists, architects, scientists, engineers and thinkers living today. Most recently he interviewed Jeff Koons for the artist’s new book “Hulk Elvis“, which features works from the series of the same name.
It could be intimidating to interview someone with a C.V. like Obrist’s, but the man at the other end of the telephone line is disarming and reassuringly self-possessed. He draws his interlocutor into a cocoon of seemingly all-encompassing knowledge about everything involving aesthetics. Obrist speaks incredibly fast, and crams in so many snippets of insight that it would be impossible to relay them all in one pass. Here we present the highlights, including his thoughts on the trouble with meetings, the world’s most exciting new art scene and why it is vital to consider posterity.
More Intelligent Life: What did you eat for breakfast this morning?
Hans Ulrich Obrist: I always have coffee and porridge for breakfast. My breakfast happens very early, at 6.30am, because I wake up early. I founded a club, which is called the Brutally Early Club. It’s basically a breakfast salon for the 21st century where art meets science meets architecture meets literature. The reason why I decided to do my club at 6.30am in different cafés, which are open so early, is because in 21st-century cities it’s become very difficult to improvise. Everybody has a schedule and it becomes really difficult to decide from one day to the next to gather for a meeting. You have to plan it weeks and weeks in advance. It’s so important to have improvisation in cities. Most people are free at 6.30, so that’s the idea of the Brutally Early Club and I have done it ever since I moved to London.
MIL: At this point in your career it seems that you could curate at any museum or gallery of your choosing, but you’ve been with Serpentine for quite a bit. What’s special to you about working there?
HUO: It’s a very exciting collaboration with Julia Peyton-Jones, the director [of the gallery]. I am the co-director and we began working together in 2006. That collaboration is one aspect, and another is obviously the park. It’s the gallery, the park, the world, and it’s in Kensington Gardens. Artists really love the location because it’s completely a world in its own. There’s nothing else there. When they have an exhibition it is really their world with art in the park. Another thing that is special is that admission is free, so it’s art for all.
MIL: And it’s in London, which is a city that you love and a perfect place for your open-ended model of curation that doesn’t rely on a city or a locale. You seem to have settled down from your constant travels in the ’90s. It’s like you’ve reversed the process and are making the work you want to see come to you now.
HUO: From 1991 to 2000 I was totally nomadic. I was travelling 300 days a year and building out my research. These were a bit like my learning and migrating years, so to say. Goethe called it lehr und wanderjahre, this sort of idea of having these years where one would learn and migrate.
In 2000 a new decade started, and it was sort of my second professional decade. I felt that it would be important to somehow have a place that was more grounded and with regular exhibition activity. It would also allow feedback. Otherwise you just book the show and you are already at the next one, and you never hear or feel what happens with the show. When I began this work the art world was still limited to art centres mostly in the West, but today the art world is totally global, particularly in the non-Western world like China, India, and so on. For me, the most exciting experience the last couple of years has been the Brazilian art scene. Brazil is completely exploding with an extraordinary optimism and an extraordinary energy. One cannot just sit in one place because you miss out on the extraordinary historical circumstances with so many new centres.
MIL: You’re also a big proponent of research and ensuring art from different cultures is documented for history’s sake.
HUO: As Larry Halprin says, it’s a protest against forgetting. That means not only looking at younger and emerging artists, which is obviously a main focus of my work, but also to look into positions from the past and pioneers and artists who are maybe forgotten but need to be remembered. It’s key to see that there are not all of a sudden all these great artists, but there have been very interesting artists throughout the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. It’s important to make this archaeological investigation.
MIL: You seem to be embracing a sort of globalisation of the art world.
HUO: It’s interesting because in some way the forces of globalisation, so to say, have always been a part of every society, and it’s not the first time that we have experienced globalisation. But in our time we’re being exposed to a particularly strong or extreme form of globalisation and I think that these forces are not only effective in society at large but also effective in the world of art. To some extent the question is always how to work within globalisation.
MIL: I’d like to switch gears for my last question. You’ve interviewed Jeff Koons many times and one of the interviews is included in the new “Hulk Elvis” book, which was just released. He is primarily an object-based artist, which seems to be far away from the non-object-based art you’re so interested in at the moment. But I have a feeling you can easily connect these two types of work. How do you reconcile these different mediums?
HUO: As you say I’ve interviewed Jeff Koons many times, and we are actually working on a book right now where all these interviews I’ve done with him are going to be gathered together. I’ve done about eight interviews with him and then two interviews with him and Rem Koolhaas about architecture and art. Mr Koons’s work has always inspired architects, which I think is very interesting. I think he is an artist who has reinvented himself so many times and reinvented so many different series. Earlier this year we had a big exhibition that Julia Peyton-Jones and I organised at the Serpentine Gallery—the Popeye exhibition. He is clearly an artist who inspires a younger generation of artists. For example, [he has influenced] Tino Sehgal, the German artist who is going to do a big solo project at the Guggenheim Museum in New York [opening on January 29th]. He is one of the youngest artists ever to get the whole Guggenheim to himself. He’s also an artist that never works with objects. He basically works with situations. It’s a non-mediated experience and so in this sense it’s completely and totally different from Jeff Koons. Therefore it’s very interesting that Mr Sehgal has what he calls the “Koons test”.
MIL: I’ve heard of this. He says if they someone dislikes Koons then he doesn’t want to work with him or her.
HUO: Exactly. And he’s an artist in his early 30s. So it all shows how Koons’s work resonates with a young generation of artists and I think that’s always very important—how art travels and if a new generation artists connects to a practice. That is super relevant.
~ ROCCO CASTORO
Image credit: Hans Ulrich Obrist on Myspace