Hans Ulrich Obrist – The Contemporary Artworld’s Curatorial King

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ARCHIVE

LYNETTE YIADOM–BOAKYE
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.

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HOMEBLOG › Epiphanies: In Conversation with Hans Ulrich Obrist
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Some of Hans’ published works Hans in conversation with John Baldessari at LACMA last month Giacometti 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
Epiphanies: In Conversation with Hans Ulrich Obrist
by Yanyan Huang
Arts contributor Yanyan Huang travels the world in search of big game. In her first blog post with OC she interviews contemporary art curator Hans Ulrich Obrist.An anomaly within the art world, Hans Ulrich Obrist operates as an auteur who takes ideas from the past, present, and future and stitches them together to provide a well-founded framework. Hans’ approach to his work is organic: ideas come from conversations and spill over to provide the fuel for the next project, ad infinitum.Of course, there can be no reaction without a preceding action, and Hans has had incredible luck in finding the right mentors to fuel his imagination. In a conversation with him after one of his public talks at LACMA last month, he cites the generosity of these “artist-teachers” who provided the inspiration and set him along on his artistic trajectory.Yanyan Huang: During tonight’s talk you asked John Baldessari about the epiphanies he’s experienced throughout his life and career. He mentioned: “conceptual art is pointing at things,” “talent is cheap,” and “be in the right place at the right time.” Have you ever had such epiphanies?
Hans Ulrich Obrist: One of the first epiphanies that triggered my obsession for art was the Giacometti collection at Kunsthalle Zürich. I was 12 years old and would visit the gallery after school.

The second was when I began to meet artists: it was like I was reborn. At the age of 17, I visited the studio of Peter Fischli and David Weiss. At this time (1985), they were just about to work on an amazing film called The Way Things Go, a film of chain reactions. I decided I wanted to be a curator after visiting their studios and speaking with them. Out of this grew one of my first exhibitions held in my kitchen and in a hotel room.

A few months later I met Gerhard Richter, prompting another development. He had a big show in 1986 in Switzerland and invited me to his studio. This is a dialogue that has continued ever since. We collaborated in 1992, at Nietzsche’s house in Sils-Maria (where Nietzsche wrote Thus Spoke Zarathustra). I organized Gerhard’s work, particularly photographs he did of the Swiss mountains. All my early shows had to do with this idea that art can happen unexpectedly in unexpected locations.

Fischli and Weiss suggested I go to Rome to meet with Alighiero Boetti. I spent a day with him where we discussed the concept that artists should be involved in a global dialogue. This triggered in me a whole other way of working. From then on, I never stopped. I had infinite conversations and these conversations led to more epiphanies or moments of insight. It’s always a dialogue. I started thinking about how I could expand the notion of curating. How could I curate science, literature, and music? I started exploring these fields.

YH: You realized it was important to contextualize your ideas within other fields of study?
HUO: I thought it could be interesting to curate in different fields: to curate in science and literature museums and in the context of architecture. This led to Cities on the Move and other museum mutations.

YH: Have you found similar themes underlying the different fields of art, architecture, and science?
HUO: There’s not one thing that connects everything together, but many. I’ve been working with the Institute of the 21st Century to archive my conversations. Within the digital interview archives there are a lot of recurring conversations, so we did tagging. Whenever someone speaks about museums, that’s a tag, and so on. Eventually, we tagged different conversations between different fields and different practitioners. It will make the interviews more accessible in the future. The idea is that this archive could be a “book machine.”

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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.”

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Sarah Lucas & Hans Ulrich Obrist

The bad-girl artist and the Serpentine curator talk shop

Bruno Serralongue 1_web

Twenty years ago, Sarah Lucas and Tracey Emin set up The Shop in a former doctor’s surgery on Bethnal Green Road, east London, selling handcrafted art and knick-knacks like badges, t-shirts, keyrings and wire penises. Their DIY enterprise stayed open for six months while they got pissed in front of their David Hockney altar and used their aquarium as a moneybox. Meanwhile, budding curator Hans Ulrich Obrist was initiating his project do it, conceived with artists Christian Boltanski and Bertrand Lavier, which invites artists to invent sets of handwritten instructions, or “scores”. do it has now grown to include Ai Weiwei’s instructions on how to make a spray device to block a surveillance camera, Gilbert & George’s “Ten Commandments for Gilbert and George” and Theaster Gates’ “How to Catch the Holy Ghost in a Shopping Mall”.

For the new do it 2013 exhibition at this month’s Manchester International Festival, Lucas has created a homage to Franz West using instructions from the do it back catalogue and Emin has paid tribute to the late Louise Bourgeois. The ideas, DIY attitude and “just do it” spirit of 1993 are still going strong.

The Shop

Hans Ulrich Obrist: It’s not that in 1993 all of these things were invented. The spirit – the genesis of it – started much earlier. But maybe in 1993 it all came together. 1993 was the year of The Shop, it was the year when do it happened, it was the year of Aperto ‘93 in Venice, where a lot of artists from our generation met for the first time. A lot of things crystallised.

Sarah Lucas: It wasn’t one thing or one person; so many people kept the whole scene buoyant. We were our own audience and we liked it. It generated a lot of energy but
I don’t think you can bring it down to one moment.

HUO: I remember the first time I visited your studio. A DIY spirit was very much in the air. What was the epiphany behind The Shop? Do you remember the day you and Tracey had the idea?

SL: Yeah, I think we were sitting in a restaurant in Brick Lane. I was previously at a studio with Gary Hume. Tracey was mostly writing then, she wasn’t making much art… And we came up with the idea of getting a shop. Just doing it, I suppose. There was this particular shop that was empty and I contacted the estate agent. We rented it for six months and paid in advance. We thought we’d just start turning up there and make it up as we went along. Looking back on it, Tracey really did have this entrepreneurial flair. We used to make these t-shirts, and Tracey would say, ‘When we sell the first one it’s a fiver, we make another it’s a tenner and then the next one, £20.’ We did a lot of drinking at The Shop until the late hours. I can always remember swinging in this hammock we had and falling out on many occasions. We used to spend a lot of time in the pub next door. When someone came in and bought a badge they’d pay 50p. We’d go next door to the pub and buy two halves of Guinness because they were 25p a half. We did actually get by from what we made at The Shop.

(The YBAs) were largely our own audience, but other people came along because we were having such a huge party. So in the end, we decided what art was legitimate

HUO: You invented The Shop in an Indian restaurant in London with Tracey, and I had coffee and breakfast with Boltanski in Paris maybe about the same month and conceived do it. It was also about the promiscuity of collaboration. For me, do it was almost open source. It was the beginning of things becoming more global. It was a moment of intense travelling, taking night trains all over Europe. You know, ‘How can I make things that globally make sense, have a show that travels in a different way?’ For my Hotel show (Hotel Carlton Palace: Chambre 763, 1993) I was basically in the hotel room for 24 hours and anybody could come in at three or six in the morning. It was non-stop. It was a similar feeling to The Shop – your dialogue with Tracey was also non-stop.

SL: Certainly on Saturday nights, we were open all night on purpose. It was a good area to be, just off Brick Lane. There were bagel shops open all night. We were absolutely knackered at the end of the six months. We went from nothing to having half the world coming through the door. I look back on it all fondly. I’m one of these people who are very fond of their own work. They’re sort of like friends to me.

HUO: I remember I basically had no money, but I bought this cigarette package from The Shop, a ready-made one. I remember a conversation we had then about the use of cigarettes and you said something I never forgot. I was wondering if it was about death and you told me, ‘Only if we think about such distractions that make us think about life,’ something like that. So that was already all there, no?


Sarah Lucas at The Shop
Courtesy of Sadie Coles HQ

SL: Yeah. It’s amazing, making things, how often you realise that something was there very much earlier. Really, things started happening for me in early 1992. I did ‘Two Fried Eggs and a Kebab’ and I had my first one-person show at City Racing, which was where I met Tracey. You could even say it started before that, being part of the Goldsmiths group. The Shop was about using premises that nobody else was using at the time. It was a social necessity (to adopt the bad-girl image) in those days, living in squats and co-ops in rundown areas of London. I didn’t have that much money so I was either cycling, walking or taking the nightbus. I found it useful to have a good pair of boots on and look a bit tough. It was a way of not getting picked on. Now I live in the countryside and don’t feel a great necessity for that. I mean, there are similarities in my appearance now in the sense that I’m still in old jeans and jumpers with black hair, but that toughness was rather integral to the reality of living in that situation.

New generations have to reinvent this for themselves, not that it really went away. It is continuous. There’s just that feeling that the energy has to come again.

HUO: It’s interesting that you mentioned City Racing. When you talk about the DIY spirit, the artist-run spaces were very important in early 90s London.

SL: City Racing was an old betting shop, and ‘Two Fried Eggs and a Kebab’ was in a shop in Kingly Street, which funnily enough is where Sadie Coles is opening her new gallery. So that’s kind of gone full circle, back in Kingly Street where it all started for me.

HUO: When I came to London in the late 80s, early 90s, there was a whole map of these artist-run spaces, which is quite difficult to imagine now because it was obviously before rent was expensive. Now most of those spaces are public spaces and commercial galleries. Back then, none of these spaces were really commercial – they were self-organised, artist-run spaces that worked on a shoestring budget. Gilbert & George were a great inspiration for me, that idea of art for all. I remember as a teenager I went to see them and they explained about that famous 1969 show When Attitudes Become Form at the ICA. Gilbert & George were devastated as young artists not to be invited, so they just went to the opening as living sculptures, and that’s obviously what got the most attention. That was a great inspiration, to see that one doesn’t have to wait for an entitlement.

SL: It’s also who decides what’s legitimate art. In terms of the huge bunch of artists that we became (and it seems to be continually expanding), it was like a sort of ongoing party. We were largely our own audience, but other people came along because we were having such a huge party. So in the end we decided what was legitimate.

 The Shop

HUO: Robert Musil said in his great novel The Man Without Qualities that art can happen when we expect it least. That’s why my first show in ’91 was The Kitchen Show. When your show Penis Nailed to a Board happened, it happened in a shop. After that I invited you to my Hotel exhibition because that was another model of an exhibition that was more in the context of life.

SL: New generations have to reinvent this for themselves, not that it really went away. It is continuous. There’s just that feeling that the energy has to come again.

HUO: One of the reasons we did the new do it book is that there are so many younger artists reconnecting to that DIY spirit. There is also the idea of the rumour. In 1993 I lived between Switzerland and Paris and heard rumours about The Shop and came to London to see it. A similar thing had happened with my shows – there wasn’t really any advertising, so it became a rumour. People came to the hotel room and there were queues outside. Richard Wentworth said one of the ways an exhibition travels is in these concentric circles through rumour. The same for 60s performances which only seven people saw but then became very well known.

SL: And some things, because of the rumour, continued to grow after they opened, even when they had technically finished. The rumour keeps it going.

Until September 22, DO IT 20 13, Manchester International Festival, Manchester Art Gallery.mif.co.uk. manchestergalleries.org

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ARTSPACE

Art 101

8 Super-Curators You Need to Know, From Massimiliano to HUO

By Alex Allenchey

May 30, 2013

8 Super-Curators You Need to Know, From Massimiliano to HUO

Massimilano Gioni at the Cinema Manzoni (Photo by Marco Di Scalzi)

As today’s art world continues to expand at an exponential rate, with new museums, exhibitions, and biennials popping up seemingly by the minute, contemporary curators are increasingly expected to be up-to-date and knowledgeable about all the goings on around the globe. Only a select few “super” curators have the drive and the wherewithal to handle the mounting responsibilities required to stage today’s monumental shows. We’ve compiled a list of eight of these exceptional gatekeepers, who also happen to be some of the most influential and important people around.


Name:
Hans Ulrich Obrist
Affiliation: Serpentine Gallery in London (Co-Director, Exhibitions and Programs, and Director of International Projects)
Known For: Being everywhere at once, writing a Brief History of Curating.
Curatorial Approach: Interdisciplinarily-inclined advocate for evolving and participatory exhibitions, Obrist’s curatorial reach knows no limits.
Most Notable Exhibition: “do it,” a still-ongoing project begun in 1993 consisting of a set of instructional works—contributed by artists including Rirkrit Tiravanija, Marina Abramović, Christian Marclay, and Olafur Eliasson, among many others—that anyone can follow to create an open exhibition in any location.
Weirdest Exhibition: Beginning with an “Interview Marathon” in 2006, Obrist has conducted a series of 24-hour cultural endurance tests, with themes ranging from “Experiments” to “Manifesto” and “Poetry.”
Sartorial Flourish: Blazer, no tie.

 

Name: Okwui Enwezor
Affiliation: Haus der Kunst in Munich (Director)
Known For: As a writer, critic, and editor, as well as a curator, Enzewor serves on numerous curatorial teams and advisory boards.
Curatorial Approach: Enwezor’s exhibition topics focus primarily on post-colonial art and political activism.
Most Notable Exhibition: In Enwezor’s case, it’s a tie: As the artistic director of the second (and final) Johannesburg Biennale, Enwezor’s “Trade Routes: History and Geography” is largely credited as an important moment for African art on an international scale. As curator of Documenta 11 in 2002, he made the exhibition truly international, conceiving it as a series of decentralized “platforms” located in Vienna, Berlin, New Delhi, St. Lucia, and Lagos, as well as the main event in Kassel.
Weirdest Exhibition: Not so much weird as revolutionary, “In/Sight,” an 1996 exhibition of African photographers at the Guggenheim helped challenge visual stereotypes of African representation.
Sartorial Flourish: The man can rock an ascot.


Name:
Massimilliano Gioni
Affiliation: The New Museum in New York (Associate Director and Director of Special Exhibitions); the Nicola Trussardi Foundation in Milan (Artistic Director)
Known For: Being the Wall Street Journal-annointed “crown prince” of the art world.
Curatorial Approach: Gioni frequently pulls together art regardless of genre classification, creating generally pleasant and thought-provoking juxtapositions.
Most Notable Exhibition: His “Younger Than Jesus” exhibition, the first iteration of the New Museum’s triennial, which he co-curated with Lauren Cornell and Laura Hoptman, reads like a “who’s who” list of hot young artists, from Cory Arcangel and Tauba Auerbach to Elad Lassry and Adam Pendleton.
Weirdest Exhibition: His exhibition for the Venice Biennale sports the theme “The Encyclopedic Palace,” based on an outsider artist’s theoretical museum, and contains a bizarre assemblage of art, including “anonymous tantric paintings” alongside work by Robert Crumb and James Castle.
Sartorial Flourish: No blazer, no tie.


Name:
Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev
Affiliation: Independent
Known For: Being the first woman to reach #1 on Art Review‘s annual “Power 100” list.
Curatorial Approach: The American writer and art historian often takes a step back curatorially and lets the potentially-drawn associations between her disparately gathered artworks do the talking.
Most Notable Exhibition: Under her curatorial guidance, Documenta 13 in 2012 was a smashing success, drawing over 100,000 more visitors than its previous edition in 2007 and being an impressive feat of organization, as it spread beyond the usual location of Kassel, Germany to Kabul, Banff, and Cairo.
Weirdest Exhibition: Serving as the senior curator at MoMA PS1 in 2000, Christov-Bakargiev helped mount the first edition of the quinquennial “Greater New York” exhibition, which spotlights the very diverse (and very weird) art being made throughout New York City.
Sartorial Flourish: Scarves and those glasses.


Name:
Klaus Biesenbach
Affiliation: MoMA PS1 (Director) and MoMA (Chief Curator-at-Large)
Known For: His ascetic lifestyle, not having any furniture in his apartment.
Curatorial Approach: Ideas for Biesenbach’s exhibitions tend to derive from his own personal taste, which is excellent.
Most Notable Exhibition: While his retrospective for (former flame) Marina Abramović in 2010 deserves mention, “Any Ever,” the New York debut of innovative video artist Ryan Trecartin in 2011 probably takes the cake.
Weirdest Exhibition: In 2006, Biesenbach curated the group exhibition “Into Me/Out of Me” at PS1, which focused on the act of “passing into, through, and out of the human body.”
Sartorial Flourish: Tailored Terminator.


Name:
Thelma Golden
Affiliation: The Studio Museum in Harlem (Director and Chief Curator)
Known For: Championing early career artists.
Curatorial Approach: Golden’s exhibitions tend to focus on emerging African American artists, considering their work within nuanced conceptual and theoretical groupings.
Most Notable Exhibition: Shortly after joining the Studio Museum in 2000, Golden curated “Freestyle” (2001), a widely lauded exhibition of 28 emerging artists of African descent. Golden’s catalogue essay for the show introduced the concept of “post black,” a term coined by Golden that “identified a generation of black artists who felt free to abandon or confront the label of ‘black artist,’ preferring to be understood as individuals with complex investigations of blackness in their work.”
Weirdest Exhibition: Golden was on the curatorial staff at the Whitney when they launched their infamous “Identity Politics” biennial in 1993 that forever altered the course of contemporary art.
Sartorial Flourish: Bold patterns.


Name:
RoseLee Goldberg
Affiliation: Performa (Founding Director and Curator)
Known For: Writing the definitive tome Performance Art: From Futurism to the Present.
Curatorial Approach: As the driving force behind the Performa biennial, Goldberg is known for being on the cutting edge of performance art.
Most Notable Exhibition: Performa 2012 included commissioned work by a laundry list of art stars, including Elmgreen & Dragset, Ragnar Kjartansson, Liz Magic Laser, Laurel Nakadate and James Franco, Shirin Neshat, and Frances Stark.
Weirdest Exhibition: David Salle‘s first solo exhibition “Bearding the Lion in His Den” at the Kitchen in 1977, which featured ten high intensity light bulbs flashing at random while Tim Buckley’s “Song for the Siren” plays.
Sartorial Flourish: Killer bangs.


Name:
Paul Schimmel
Affiliation: It was recently announced that Schimmel will be joining the blue-chip gallery Hauser & Wirth as a partner in a new Los Angeles space, Hauser Wirth & Schimmel, which is set to open in 2015.
Known For: Putting on critically acclaimed exhibitions year after year and getting unceremoniously fired for it.
Curatorial Approach: His vision is expansive and his exhibitions are often grand in scale, though they have often tended to focus on L.A.-based artists.
Most Notable Exhibition: Schimmel set the bar high with “Helter Skelter: L.A. Art in the 1990s” (1992), his first exhibition as chief curator at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, which sought to upset stereotypes about West Coast art and challenge the assumed superiority of the New York art scene.
Weirdest Exhibition: His (probably) once-in-lifetime show “Robert Rauschenberg: Combines” at LA MOCA (2005), which traveled to the Metropolitan Museum of Art the following year, a collection of over 50 of the postwar artist’s rare and fragile collages.
Sartorial Flourish: Cosby sweaters.

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An Interview

Hans Ulrich Obrist and Damien Hirst 2007

‘Away from the Flock’ (1994). Photographed by Prudence Cuming Associates © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved, DACS 2012

Hans Ulrich Obrist  You often work in series.

Damien Hirst  I’ve always liked series. I remember looking at Robert Motherwell’s painting when I was young. Do you know ‘Splashes by the Sea’? I thought that was great.

You get some sort of security from the repetition of a series. If you say something twice, it’s pretty convincing. It’s more convincing than if you say it once. [Laughs].

I think it’s also an implication of endlessness, which kind of theoretically helps you avoid death. I’ve thought quite a lot about it. In a way, that’s why smoking is so sexy. Apart from the addiction, the attraction is that there’s nothing certain in life and things change all the time, but you can always rely on something like a cigarette – which punctuates your whole existence time and time again – to be the same. It’s almost like you’re cheating death. But it’s killing you, so then, smoking becomes even sexier. People are afraid of change, so you create a kind of belief for them through repetition. It’s like breathing. So I’ve always been drawn to series and pairs. A unique thing is quite a frightening object.

HUO  A sort of umbilical cord in your work, which is more than a series, is the idea of the aquarium. You’ve spoken about that in many interviews before, but I thought it would be interesting if we could touch on it briefly. It revisits Minimalism but recharges it with a very different content. So how did this aquarium idea start?

DH  I’ve always had a thing about glass. I had a magic mushroom experience very early on where I got a bit freaked out about being symmetrical. I imagined I had a sheet of glass running right through me. Glass became quite frightening. I think glass is quite a frightening substance. I always try and use it. I love going around aquariums, where you get a jumping reflection so that the things inside the tank move; glass becomes something that holds you back and lets you in at the same time. Its’ an amazing material; it’s something solid yet ephemeral. It’s dangerous as well. I just love glass. And it’s a way to separate people but engage them. You can invite them in and keep them away at the same time. It’s probably my favourite material, glass. And water. No, my favourite material is water and then glass. But glass and water are very similar. Glass in water is amazing; glass disappears if you put it in water.

HUO  And there’s the series of animals in formaldehyde.

DH   ‘Natural History’ that was called. I just imagined a zoo of dead animals. I keep thinking that I’m done with that, but then I recently had the idea for the crucifixions, which I think are fucking brilliant; I have to do that. I think there’s a narrative within those now. I was also thinking about doing the Stations of the Cross as fourteen cabinet pieces. I don’t really think they’re a series. I’m not sure.

HUO  If one thinks about all the different series, one can see your whole work as a sort of open system from which new series start and others stop.

DH  I think they’re aspects of personality. It’s shit to go on the wall at the end of the day. You’re decorating apartments a lot of the time; it’s something to go over the sofa. I remember my friend Joe Strummer said to me that a long time ago, cavemen used to go out and smash buffalo over the head and bring them back and cook them and eat them. Then at some point there were are a couple of guys who got their hands in the blood and put something on the cave wall. It was just about making the cave nice. Art came out of the desire to make your habitat more interesting. I love that. Or even music – the guy who started banging bones together and the other guys said, ‘We like the sound of that and we like the way the walls look. Why don’t you guys stay her and we’ll get the meat for you, so at least when we get back to eat the meat we’ll be in a cool place?’ So I’ve always loved that kind of view of art: that art is a reflection of life. I think there’s an infinite number of ways to get to the same point. Every artwork is fundamentally the same thing.

HUO  Some of your work links to display features in science museums, and other works have more to do with scientific formulas. I’m interested in this relationship to science. Can you talk about that?

DH  I just hitched a ride on science – or not really science – it was medicine. It’s just collage, isn’t it? Art is always very simple, or good art is always very simple. I took science in the way that Picasso took the bike seat and the handlebars and made the bull’s head. I mean, there’s nothing complicated about it. Science seemed to be getting people’s attention and art didn’t, so I hitched a ride on that. Or people were believing in science and questioning art, so I just took it very directly and used the science. It’s been a very rich vein for me. It also partly came from David Cronenberg’s film ‘Dead Ringers’.

HUO  ‘Dead Ringers’ was the original of all the ‘Medicine Cabinet’ works?

DH  Yes. Jeremy Irons as a gynaecologist, in the red fucking robes, and those weird gynaecological instruments that were like art. It was that real high-end medical stuff. And I saw some dark, smoked cabinets in there and I thought, ‘Fucking hell. They look great.’ And so I made some myself. That, combined with seeing Jeff Koons’ Hoovers, and all that Neo-Geo stuff and Kurt Schwitters. I was thinking, ‘What would Kurt Schwitters be doing if he was alive today?’ Bless him, he’d be down the pub. He’d be a priest.

HUO  I think he might just have continued his Merzbau.

DH  Yes. He’d have finished it.

HUO  Because nothing could really stop him from doing it.

DH  Only one thing.

HUO  Death.

DH  Death, yes. Don’t you hate that guy?

HUO  Schwitters?

DH  Death. No, I like Schwitters. I just fucking hate death. He’s such a dumb guy.

HUO  It’s a dull fact. Leon Golub called death, ‘A dull fact’.

DH  If it’s true. I don’t know if it’s true. [Pause] Come on, it can’t be true!

HUO  It’s a rumour.

DH  Elvis is still around. And sex doesn’t really make babies. How the fuck could that work?

HUO  Another rumour.

DH  Yes, it’s a rumour. It’s bullshit. I heard a great quote by George Burns, the American comedian. Somebody asked him in an interview when he was about 96, ‘What do you think about death?’ And he said, ‘It’s been done’. [Laughs].

HUO   [Laughs] Great! We were talking about science.

DH  Yes, the whole story of it, alchemy and everything; it’s fantastic. Trying to understand the world, looking for the keys to understanding: that’s what artists do as well in some ways. It’s like God should be, the way they sell you the pills, the forms, the utopia, the hope, the cure. We’ve come a long way since quack doctors.

HUO  Were you inspired by science museums?

DH  Yes. I love them: science museums, natural history museums, anything that takes your mind off death, really, or focuses your mind on it. I love all that hands-on stuff. It’s great when you feel that you’re being entertained and also educated. I’ve always felt if you could do that with art it would be great.

HUO  I’m interested in finding out more about how you work, in terms of the collection, archives and studios. Picasso said one should never give up a studio: you should shut the door and take a new one and forget about it and accumulate more studios. Each time we’ve met, you’ve mentioned another place and it seems as if you’ve got lots of studios all over the world.

DH  I think you should definitely shut them down. Somebody once said to me, ‘Which bit do you like the most? You must love it when you’ve got all these big machines and tanks and people and they’re all in the gallery piling stuff in and there’s all this chaos.’ I said, ‘No. I fucking hate it.’ I like it when it’s all one and there’s just a perfect exhibition at the end. Picasso was obsessed with fame, he wasn’t he? He thought every time he wiped his ass people would find it important. I’m more convinced by the Beatles than Picasso these days.

HUO  Why the Beatles more than Picasso?

DH  They had much more influence on the people around them at the time, and they were struggling with truth in a much deeper way. They grew up in public and they went through so many changes. Picasso is brilliant, don’t get me wrong, especially the late Picasso. Maybe it’s because I’m an artist… When I was a kid, I just loved the Beatles. I think I wanted to be the Beatles or something. It’s funny because I was from a different generation. I wasn’t around when the Beatles were around. I was born in 1965, so I witnessed it second hand, in the same way, I suppose, that you witness Picasso second hand. And then I was too young to be a punk. A lot of our generation missed the punk thing that really split everything wide open; we came in the wake of it. We were like punk artists. Some of us have a lot of the attitude. I always thought; especially when you look at the Beatles and the artists who were around at the time – Richard Hamilton and Peter Blake – that the Beatles really made a different. The artists, especially compared to the Americans, didn’t really.

HUO  Warhol made a difference.

DH  Yes, it was Warhol and the Beatles. With Picasso, maybe the talent is a little too apparent. I don’t know. Picasso became his own idea of himself; he created a persona and he lived it, whereas the Beatles split at the height of their fucking success, which is a phenomenal thing to do. They just got sick of it; they said, ‘We’re not going on tour any more.’ They were never just going to take the money. Which is great for people from a working-class background.

HUO  Warhol is in your collection. Can you talk a little bit about him?

DH  Warhol’s great. You can’t argue with it. It’s simple, isn’t it? And visually great. It’s easy, cheap, simple. He certainly doesn’t over-complicate things. I think that’s good. And in terms of consumerism and all that sort of stuff, art has been in a constant battle for hundreds of years with every other kind of image-making. We’re fighting it today. The paintings that I’m doing now are about that battle. The paintings came out of the time when the newspapers went colour. When newspapers go colour, it’s almost like you get information overload and image overload. Newspapers are about facts and truth, and you believe you get a true view of the world from these images when you don’t: they’re completely fake.

HUO  Which paintings are you referring to?

DH  The realistic ones I’ve been doing. Like the ones in the Gagosian show this autumn. It’s like taking one of those images and trying to make it into a painting, because paintings you believe and images you don’t, so you want to throw away the images. What’s happened though, is that we believe in images.

HUO  How are these paintings made? Are they done by people who work with you, like in Warhol’s Factory?

DH  For two years I worked with a sculptor called Nick Lumb. I was giving him these little photographic images and saying, ‘I want it to look like that.’ But I didn’t really know what I wanted. We didn’t get any results – well, we did, but they were horrible. We were trying to do it with airbrushing. I kept going back to these paintings and hating them. And after all the airbrushing, after two or three years, we just went back to oil paint. When you’ve learnt all that discipline, the oil paint really cracks back in. They’re still not there, but all I know is they’re getting better. They’re getting closer to what I want. I’ve been setting up my own photographs. I’ve taken photographs of diamonds. I’ve been doing photographs of the Beatles; just creating this mass of images that keep piling up. But it’s real chaos because I don’t know what I want. I keep stopping and starting. I keep thinking about Goya and Soutine, and I sort of imagine that at the end of my life I’ll just fucking paint. I’ll be fucking sat in a tiny little room with one light bulb doing self-portraits on my own. There’s a lot of complications with what I do now. You have to be young, you have to be fit, to run the operation that I run, and I certainly don’t think I can get old running an operation like this.

HUO  So the operation will have to reduce?

DH  Yes. It will have to. If you’ve got people working for you, and they’re getting older and you keep replacing them with younger people, and you’re getting old too, it’s going to be mental. But if you keep everybody working for you and they get old, eventually they’re not going to be able to move big things around. So instead of getting rid of them younger, why not make the works smaller? You could make smaller things that they can carry. You’d end up with this fucking studio of old people carrying little things around – ‘Can you make it in wood, please? I can’t carry the steel.’ It would be good if you could do that. I love the idea of a company, an old-fashioned company. I’m just an old-fashioned boy at heart, really.

HUO  In some ways it does feel like a new model of Warhol’s Factory. But this idea of revisiting painting is interesting. You could get rid of all these structures without concentrating on painting. Why painting?

DH  It’s like, ‘Why books?’ It’s just a great way to convey a message. It’s a brilliant illusion. It’s very simple; the illusion that something two-dimensional is three-dimensional evokes emotions in people.

HUO  You mentioned that you’re doing a new show and a book of the drawings in New York.

DH  It’s called ‘CorpusI’ve just sent 300 drawings over to Larry Gagosian, so it’s kind of everything I’ve done. When I started doing the drawings, I didn’t really want anybody to see them. But as I’ve been doing it for longer and have got older, I think maybe it’s good to see them.

HUO  Is there a daily practice of drawing?

DH  Yes, it’s the first point of call, isn’t it? You have an idea, and when it gets too complicated to hold in your head, it’s a great way to visualise it. It’s a very cheap and effective way to visualise it. I love that. You can work out what size it needs to be. You can imagine it. So I’ve always done that. I can work out in a few lines with a pencil on a piece of paper how big I need to make a tank. That way, you don’t make expensive mistakes.

HUO  Peter Fleissig showed me the drawing of the shark.

DH  That was done after the fact. Peter said he wanted a drawing of the shark, so I did one. I think you can tell if they’re done afterwards because you can see they’re drawn from a photograph of the piece.

HUO  Are the drawings after the fact rare, or are there lots of them?

DH  I think as long as you don’t pretend that they’re done before, it’s OK. If someone said to me, ‘Can you do me a drawing of the shark?’ I don’t mind doing that. But the ones done before are more interesting, because you’re trying out different possibilities and you can see the progress of how you got to the actual shark.

HUO  Are there a lot of unknown drawings in the show that nobody has ever seen before?

DH  Yes, there are lots. There are some drawings of horrible sculptures that never got made. There’s one called ‘Lambie Loves Snoodle’. It’s got a pram in it and a baby monitor with a skull; it’s the very stupid idea of death talking to birth on a baby walkie-talkie or a mobile phone. The title was from a Lonely Hearts column.

HUO  That piece was never made?

DH  No. I don’t think it ever will be. There are lots like that. Loads. When you have an idea for an animal in formaldehyde, you do drawings for every animal. I was going to do a big Raft of the Medusa with dead animals and meat and big butchers’ tables, but I never made it. There’s a great one of a butterfly made out of two pigs sewn together ass to ass; you cut the back end off it and then four sides of beef make the wings. It’s a huge thing, like a butterfly of death, which I never made. You do drawings very quickly, and that’s easy, but then you work out how much it’s going to cost to make it and it becomes a ridiculous amount of money.

HUO  There was this whole debate in the press the other day. People were asking about the shark: how will it be in the future? Does it matter if it’s a different shark? Does it matter whether or not you, as the artist, choose the shark? Can someone else make it?

DH  The idea of replacing the shark is a bit of a difficult one. The original shark (in ‘The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living‘) was done badly – that’s the problem. With the other ones, you probably won’t replace them. Everything is replaceable in my mind, but then, I’m not the person who’s going to decide that, because it happens when you’re gone. But I feel pretty bad about the way the shark was looking, because it’s deteriorated. A shark has got to look fierce. So I think it really had stopped doing what I wanted it to do. The problem with the shark was that it was done with MoMA and it was done with Charles Saatchi; there were too many people doing it and they all got involved with the commission. Different people advised them that there was no need to inject the shark. I wanted to inject the shark, they didn’t want to inject it – Charles can be a bit bullish – and they pushed me into not injecting it. So in the end, it didn’t get injected, and it was the only thing that didn’t get injected. Then we had all the stories that it had started floating; it completely rotted insider, and we had some real problems with it. In the end, Charles went off on his own and had it gutted and skinned and stretched over a fibreglass mould, so it wasn’t a real shark after a while, and it just started to be totally wrong: it was the wrong shape, it just didn’t look frightening, didn’t look dangerous, didn’t look like a shark. So for me to get involved at this point now, knowing what I know, I can go back in and get a new shark and make it look exactly like I wanted it to look originally because I’m still alive, so I think that’s good. But that’s an example of an artwork being handled really badly. It’s not like the ‘Venus de Milo’. The arm is missing – it looks great. With old art you’ve got to use a lot of imagination. In a way there’s a big joy in looking at things and reconstructing their past lives. I mean, every day you have to deal with your own mortality, so a good way of doing that without too much fear is to deal with the mortality of an object.

HUO  Some artists in the 1960s tried to make contracts stating that a work had to be dealt with in a particular way. That was another part of my question: how do you feel about that difficult business?

DH  I don’t mind. There are two things in an artwork, aren’t there? There’s a visual thing and there’s a cerebral thing; there’s a mind thing and an eye thing going on. And then mind thing is always secondary; no matter how great or important conceptual art is, at the end of the day, it’s secondary to the eye thing. If it looks fucking good on the wall, none of that matters; it’s really not important. But I think you’ve got to be careful. When you’re making an artwork, there’s an idea and you play around with it and then it comes to life. But you can have an idea and put things together, and then it doesn’t work. So I suppose if things can come to life then they can also die. You can create an artwork, and it comes to life, but then maybe 500 years later it dies. I’ve never really thought about that. It’s a weird thought; a good thought.

HUO  A limited lifespan? Like buildings.

DH  Yes, like everything else. In my mind I think that art’s immortal, but maybe it has a limited lifespan. All these Old Masters are falling apart, and we’re clinging onto them through preservation. It’s like in that film of HG Wells’ ‘The Time Machine’, when the books fall apart in his hands. You’ll get that happening with art, I guess. With a Jackson Pollock painting that’s going to happen eventually. Or is it? You can create it digitally. Maybe art is like true love; maybe it never dies. That’s my hope, anyway. But it will die with the world. If we do nothing, the earth is going to smash into the sun, so we’re fucked really.

 

‘An Interview’ constitutes excerpts from an interview (with permission from the artist and the interviewer) which took place in connection with the exhibition ‘In the darkest hour there may be light. Works from the Damien Hirst murderme collection’ at Serpentine Gallery, London.

Copyright © Hans Ulrich Obrist/Damien Hirst, 2008.

Hans Ulrich Obrist — A Biography

Hans Ulrich Obrist is Co-director of the Serpentine Gallery, London. He has served as curator of the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris and has curated 250 exhibitions worldwide.

Obrist’s recent publications include A Brief History of Curating and The Conversation Series (Vol. 1-20.)

In 2011, Obrist has been awarded the Bard College Award for Curatorial Excellence and the Swiss Institute Honoree Award 2011.

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Artfacts.Net Interview with Hans-Ulrich Obrist


Hans-Ulrich Obrist and Marek Claassen
Hans-Ulrich Obrist is one of the most prestigious curators of contemporary art. Currently he serves as a Co-director of Exhibitions and Programmes, and Director of International Projects at the Serpentine Gallery in London.

AfN: Hello Mr. Obrist

HUO: Hello. Good morning.

AfN: Rather randomly I browsed to a web site called www.edge.org. A website where usually scientists publish their very personal opinion, for example their dangerous idea. Now it’s you the curator asking about the formula of life. When did your connection to the world of science occur?

HUO: My connection to science started a long time ago in Germany. When I was a young curator, I started to work with Kasper König in Frankfurt. He was at Portikus, at Städelschule in the early 90s. We were working in ’91 on a book called “The Public View”, my first book, and then on a big painting show called “Der zerbrochene Spiegel” [The broken mirror], in ’93 in Vienna. I was contacted by Christa Maar who runs the Academy of the Third Millenium which brought people like Ernst Pöppel, Wolf Singer, two German neurologists, together with architects and scholars from all disciplines and artists.

In ’93, they had invited me to come to the Academy meetings. For me, it was really a revelation because it was the first time I met scientists. I had never met scientists before in my life, I was always with art and architecture. I had long conversations with Ernst Pöppel and others. And that really triggered a relation to science. I would show Semir Zeki a Mark Rothko exhibition, and he would tell me about neuroscientific issues, about what happens in our brain when we see a Mark Rothko painting.

So little by little, I began to think that it could be very interesting to connect artists with these scientists and develop an approach. And one of the first approaches was called “Art & Brain” which we did in a science centre in Germany where we basically had an extended coffee break. Carsten Höller was there, Rosemarie Trockel, Douglas Gordon and many others. And then, after that extended coffee break, we did another project called “Bridge the gap?”, and another one called “Laboratorium” which then became a bigger project.
I started this thing at a certain moment when I thought it could be interesting not only to do conferences but also bring that science link into the medium of the exhibition which is my primary medium. I basically worked on these different things and on conferences like the 24-hour marathon here in London. That obviously shifts the rule of the game of what a conference is.

But for me, the main medium remains the exhibition. And the question was how to bring science into an exhibition, and this was the primary focus for “Laboratorium” in ’99 – the show which Barbara Vanderlinden curated, where we invited scientists and artists to talk about the laboratorium, about their studio, about their science lab. Different labs have happened in Antwerpen. Rosemarie Trockel did her sleeping lab; Jonas Mekas revisited Andy Warhol‘s factory, and wondered what happened to the factory later on, what it became; we had Luc Steels developing colour recognition experiments and robots; we had basically Panamarenko defining his laboratory, his studio to be close to the public; it was a secret place; and we invited also the eminent Bruno Latour to actually curate a show within the show, and he came up with this idea of the table top experiments. So he curated a series of public lectures and demonstrations where scientists, artists and architects would publicly present either a new or an old experiment. So that’s the first time in ’99 where we – the science investigation – reached a critical mass. We really developed a larger scale exhibition.

Then it moved on with conferences again like “Bridge the gap?” with Akiko Miyake where we invited – for a week – scientists, artists and architects to Japan, and had a sort of a think tank where art meets science meets architecture in a different environment. In this case it was a house on the outskirts of Kitakyushu, very remote.

Then, I moved to London last year, and we started with Julia Peyton-Jones to welcome these different projects of the Serpentine Gallery: education and public programmes, exhibition, and architecture which are the three main strings. Obviously, the question was also: how can the pavilion be a “content-machine”? And Julia had initiated and invented in 2000 this pavilion scheme with world leading architects doing a temporary pavilion every year. Together, we invited Rem Koolhaas and Cecil Balmond to design the pavilion, and we spoke with them about his idea that it could also be a forum, an agora for conversation. We had a very intense summer of conversation last year which culminated in the marathon, and Rem said, architecture without content is meaningless shape. So when this year, we approached Olafur Eliasson and Kjetil Thorsen, they immediately picked up on this idea as well but pushed it further, and Olafur agreed to be involved. Olafur was here most of the weeks; there was a colour experiment, there was an experiment of models; there was another one about sound. The pavilion became a musical instrument.
Olafur and I had been through “Bridge the gap?”, but also through an event in Eidar, in Iceland which was another interdisciplinary think tank. So it’s a really long story. We’re working a lot on these art-science-relationship. So we felt it could be interesting that the pavilion becomes really a place where a marathon of experiments could take place. And Olafur thought that maybe last year, there have been enough conversations, and it could be interesting to, this year, really not talk but ask people to do something, to do an experiment in the pavilion. There have been up to 60 experiments on the Frieze weekend in October, ten days ago, where artists, scientists did an experiment. The results are on www.serpentinegallery.org.

Hans-Ulrich Olbrist during the interview in the streets of London

AfN: And is this your formula of life?

HUO: Yes, that brings us to the question about the formula. Besides the exhibitions, the conference season, the symposium, I have always had this other type of projects, more immaterial exhibitions which are basically “Do it”, a book made out of recipes, or also “The future will be” where I had asked artists to define the future, and my most recent project of such an immaterial exhibition is “Formulas for the 21st Century”.

So in the last 18 months, I started to ask artists from all over the world to send a formula for the 21st century. It was triggered by an interview I made with the great inventor Albert Hofmann. At the end of the interview, he drew on a piece of paper the formula of LSD. It was an incredibly simple formula, and I just thought “wow, it could be interesting to ask 100 artists to email their formula!”. My projects are kind of a flanerie. Out of this flanerie, things very often – also by chance – develop. It’s not a masterplan. These things, these projects just happen. Little by little, whenever the artists email a formula, I put it on the wall of my office. At the beginning, when I started to work here, my office was empty, there were just three formulas on the wall, and then, the office became more and more full with these formulas which had been faxed or emailed. After about the year, the whole office was full with these formulas.

One night, when we had an opening, Brian Eno who is my neighbour here in Notting Hill and who obviously had been one of the world’s great pioneers to bring music in relation to science, he came with John Brockman to one of our openings. John Brockman is the founder of “Edge”. He saw all these formulas on the wall at my office, got really excited and said “this is an ‘Edge’ project! We should do something together!”. I had known John Brockman for almost 10 years, through James Lee Byars and many other common friends, but we never had collaborated directly. I contributed to some of his online-things but we have never done a big project together. He said: “You do it with artists but I could ask the ‘Edge’ list to contribute”. John Brockman asked all the scientists of his mailing list to send a formula; so in some kind of way, he had quite a parallel way of working. He took my idea, obviously with my acquaintance, and asked his mailing list to send a formula which we then presented as part of the science marathon we did here. We invited John Brockman not only to do this formula but we also thought it could be interesting that John Brockman actually does a section of the marathon. Brockman invited about 10 scientists to do an experiment, so there was an ‘Edge’ sequence. Projects of this sort are not developed in one masterplan. It’s an archipel-like model of different islands which we then connect in many different ways. So there was a John Brockman island, there was a Israel Rosenfield and Luc Steels island;…. On the website, you can see an image of each experiment.

What happened is that suddenly this immaterial exhibition of formulas has, by being on ‘Edge’, reached a completely other context. Suddenly we ended up on top of Boing Boing which is the biggest blog on the planet, and hundreds of thousands of people all over the world would visit it. To some extent, that obviously is very important for us because it is not only about bridging the gap between disciplines, but it’s also about reaching art and building bridges to other visitors who usually would not come to an art gallery, and we have 800,000 visitors p.a. Admission is free. So this kind of way is also an interesting link to the internet. You go to “Edge”, it’s free. You come to the Serpentine, it’s free.

Serpentine Gallery Pavilion 2007 by Olafur Eliasson and Kjetil Thorsen

AfN: ‘Edge’ always asks these interviews “What is your question?” with a question mark. And you have a website called “Point d’ironie”, and there is also a question mark but it’s turned upside down. So I asked myself how these things are linked with each other? It has nothing to do with irony, right?

HUO: No, artists like James Lee Byars or Alighiero Boetti have been immensely influential for me when I started in the late 80ies, early 90ies to work as a curator. James Lee Byars had in ’71 this wonderful project called “The World Question Center”. It was a huge inspiration for me, but it was also an inspiration for Brockman who has seen Byars earlier than me because he started earlier than me. But we both, being from different generations, were equally inspired by James Lee Byars, and we kind of met through this inspiration by James Lee Byars‘ “World Question Center”. And he asked as an artist all the eminent people like Freeman Dyson, the Dalai Lama among others, to ask one question. He’d ring them, and the moment, he had that question, he’d hang up the phone. So the World Question Center was certainly a trigger.

The “point d’ironie” leads us to another project; it is related in a sense that we disseminate art broader than just in the conventional way, and it’s got to do with this idea of inventing other circuits of disseminating art. The “point d’ironie” was really a discussion between Christian Boltanski, the French artist, Agnes B., the French designer, publisher, and collector, and myself. About ten years ago, we were thinking, it could be nice to do two-folded posters that would be a magazine and a poster in one. We had printed hundreds of thousands of copies and distributed them for free all over the world. If you go the “point d’ironie”-website, you will see that it’s been going on now for ten years. Jonas Mekas did the first issue; the most recent ones were done by Damien Hirst and also by Richard Prince and Hreinn Fridfinnsson. What is interesting is that each time, it’s also a different circuit because we print about a hundred thousand copies and distribute it globally, obviously through Agnes B.’s channels, then through the mailing list of museums, but each time also, through where the artist wants it to travel. So the artist brings each time his or her mailing list. I think, to some extent, that’s the core of this project.

Currently, we have all these forces of globalisation, and obviously, they lead to a danger because sometimes the danger is that in my world of exhibition, they can lead to a homogenising force. The difference disappears. I believe in this idea that we use the forces of globalisation because they are an opportunity, a possibility to stimulate and trigger more global dialogue but that we, at the same time, resist those homogenising forces so that we define models which are actually a difference producing globalisation.

AfN: We are sitting here in this wonderful pavilion designed by Olafur Eliasson and Kjetil Thorson. It’s a temporary installation. This pavilion will be replaced by another one. Isn’t this sad, don’t you want to keep it. What’s your relationship to possession?

HUO: Interesting question. I mean, to some extent, exhibitions are temporary mediums that is so much related to possession. In the art world, there is a strong art market; there is galleries, there is collections, and I think that’s incredibly important. I am very much convinced that there is a necessity for that because it helps to create sustainable, long-term presence of art and of architecture.

However, parallel to that, it is very important that we have laboratories, that we have experiments which not necessarily last, which are temporary because they allow to test things, they allow to test ideas, they allow new things to emerge, and I have always seen my role rather on that end to basically develop experimental situations where temporary constellations can be tested and can be invented. The exhibition is very much a temporary medium; exhibitions are temporary constellations of objects, of quasi objects, of processes which, after the exhibition, dissolve again. You have a book, you have a website, sometimes you have a lot of interviews and conversations, you have a memory, you have a documentation, you have archives, you produce archives but not necessarily permanent objects. With architecture it is similar because we are not producing permanent situations but we basically produce temporary architecture, temporary buildings which are pavilions. And this project initiated by Julia Peyton-Jones has actually developed a very very global visibility for architecture because it is visited by hundreds of thousands of people, it is published all over the world. However, it is not creating a lasting building here. First of all, we are not allowed to do it because this is “Royal Parks”, and it can only have temporary things but beyond that, it is also carried by the belief that temporary architecture sometimes produces the most innovative architecture. If you look at the history, there have been a lot of incredible inventions of architecture done by pavilions. If you think for example of the Mies van der Rohe pavilion in Barcelona…

Buckminster Fuller once said that maybe we can own cars or buildings, but we can also consider cars or buildings to be a service which means we only have the building when we need it. We only have a car when we need it. We do not necessarily have to own a car. […]
However, I do believe that there is a place and a necessity for such experiments which are not necessarily gone by thinking. Somebody builds a building, and it has got to last; he builds that building with a different spirit than if he builds a building for two or three months. So it gives the freedom to the architect to really test something maybe more daring, more extreme than he or she would if it was a permanent building. He would build a different pavillion. […]

AfN: You are known a somebody who breaks the custom habits of viewing (e.g. Hotel Carlton Palace, Cloaca Maxima, Take me (I’m yours)) or the casual ways of presenting art (e.g. Biennale Lyon). Your putting the things in a different context or adding a layer. It’s like reminding the people: Hey, this is art, it’s here and there it’s everywhere. Do you consider yourself as somebody appointed to train our senses?

HUO: I think it grew out of a necessity of conversations with artists. […] Alighiero Boetti once told me that, as an artist, he was always asked to do the same thing. You are asked to do gallery shows, you are asked to do museum shows, you are asked to do these very repetitive things, and it is unbelievably limited and restraining. […] [An art project and its realisation] are very much driven by discussions where one thinks about how to produce reality, how to make things happen which very often prove to be possible. […] It has to do with making things happen but it has also to do with the fact that when you ask an artist to do things which are not a routine but which are slightly different, he produces sometimes very very different work. […] It is the drive or necessity to produce new experiences

AfN: Another thing, something that striked me by reading one of the many interviews you did was that there was quite a lot of traveling involved. But not in the sense of just visiting some other place more in the sense of the German word “Wanderjahre” (journeyman). Where one to be considered professional has to gain knowledge by working and learning through emigration. Is this physical emigration obligatory if someone wants to succeed in the art world?

HUO: […] Since last year, I spend my week, from Monday to Friday, in London. Then I started to always travel from Friday night to Monday morning, each time to another continent. So I do my China research, the India research, and then my New York research – I changed my rhythm, and I began to do more short journeys. […] In 2000, at a certain moment, I chose not to travel at all, to stay for three years at one place. […] There are so many professions in history where it was not necessary to travel at all, and the idea that it becomes an obligation, in the worst case, even to do travelling without it being a necessity or a pleasure or a conviction, is not beneficial. It cannot be an obligation. Everybody travels, and it is certainly good that there is a lot of travelling going on but then, at the same time, maybe it is not important for every practice. Whenever I write a book, I cannot travel. Then I have – for several weeks – to stay somewhere. So to some point of vue, it is about rhythms, waves with intervals, pauses, silences.

I mean, sometimes it is very interesting not to go somewhere but to imagine a journey; if you think for example of Robert Walser’s fictitious Gazettes Parisiennes or Joseph Cornell’s European Grand Tour that never took place. It happened in the imagination.
And particularly in terms of exhibitions, it is sometimes not necessary to travel, sometimes it is more important to do a local research. One of my most interesting experiences was for example when I did the first Berlin Biennale with Nancy Spector and Klaus Biesenbach, and we decided “let’s just look at Berlin!” [for the selection of artists]. So we did not proceed like curators who travel all over the world to catch artists for a biennale but we just stayed in Berlin and looked at all the artists who live and work in Berlin. And it was really a very interesting experience. […] I prefer to focus on a few places and to dig deep. The cities where I live are obviously the cities where I research more deeply what is going on. […]

AfN: I always had the feeling that there are three different layers in the profession of an artist. You either are a teacher, or an installation artist in shows or you produce for the art fairs. And some of them serve every layer. Do you think that this trichotomy exists?

HUO: The big danger is that there is a pressure to homogenise practices, and that the difference disappears. It is interesting, to some extent, to resist this whole organisation and to be different. […] Everbody doing the same leads to an impoverishment, and in some kind of way, it is all about how – in a context where the homogenising forces are at stake – to produced a difference. That’s why there cannot be a prescription which says “It has got to be this way. An artist has to be like this”. It is something which has really to do with finding out one’s own projectory.
It has a lot to do with “Spaziergangswissenschaften” (Lucius Burckhardt). There are so many different ways of navigating the world.

AfN: But the artists you choose, do you meet them by wandering around?

HUO: It is also systematic. As John Cage said, it is chance but it is very controlled chance. […] I have been very inspired by Cage’s idea of the musical score and analogue the curatorial masterplan being too policing; maybe we should allow more chance in it, we should allow more improvisation, and that is something that you have in urbanism, in music a lot.
[…] At the same time, you have Yona Friedman or Oskar Hansen and Cedric Price in urbanism who, since the 60s, have talked about how to question the masterplan.
If you look for example at these people over there at the bus stop, we do not know whether they are going to take the bus or to change their mind, maybe they are going to walk… there is a lot of unpredictability, and how can we actually bring what urbanism and music have done since the 60s about questioning the masterplan, to curating. In terms of curating, it is very much about the masterplan. The curator makes the list of artists. In France, you even call the curator a “commissaire” which is police vocabulary. I found it very inspiring: music and urbanism, and how I can bring that into curating and develop self-organisation, develop models where controlled chance can enter.

AfN: Is this habit you have “quality”? – In the art world everybody speaks about “quality”. But when you talk, I get the impression that this is the quality of an artist – to jump in, to build a pavilion, to do something completely different. Would you call this quality in terms of an art work?

HUO: It’s also to change what we expect from art. I think, great artists always change what we expect from art.
And then there is the famous “étonnez-moi”. In the conversation with Cocteau and Diaghilev and the Ballets russes which was a great moment where art met theatre, and there was this famous explanation, and they said “étonnez-moi” (surprise me).

AfN: Dear Mr. Obrist, thank you for the interview

============

MAP

Hans Ulrich Obrist interviews Emily Wardill

Curator Hans Ulrich Obrist talks to Emily Wardill about her enigmatic film work

'Sick Serena and Dregs and Wreck and Wreck', 2007, 16mm film. Courtesy Fortescue Avenue London. Photo Polly Braden

‘Sick Serena and Dregs and Wreck and Wreck’, 2007, 16mm film. Courtesy Fortescue Avenue London. Photo Polly Braden

Hans Ulrich Obrist: It’s the first month, the 10th year, the first decade, the third millennium and we’re in London — Deleuze wrote about repetition and difference…


Emily Wardill:
Yes, I was thinking about him, because I was thinking about windows.


Obrist:
Windows?


Wardill:
Throwing a body through a frame. You couldn’t really throw yourself out of that window.


Obrist:
No, I couldn’t throw myself out of the window. But why do you think about windows this morning?


Wardill:
Partly because I’m working on a catalogue at the moment and trying to organise everything under ideas of theatre and the object in the window, and I had heard that Deleuze, when he threw himself out of the window, did it because he was trying to get air into his lungs.


Obrist:
Christian Boltanski told me that in an artist’s life there are a couple of inventions, great inventions, just as in a scientist’s life. Benoît Mandelbrot still remembers the day he discovered fractals. When was the first time you had an awakening epiphany?


Wardill:
I think art made sense of the feeling that some things make sense and some things don’t. Maybe it was more accumulative than an epiphany.


Obrist:
Do you remember the first piece you were happy with?


Wardill:
I was really into editing and filmmaking — it was a performance piece (a re-enactment of Joris-Karl Huysmans’ black dinner from À rebours, 1884), ‘The Feast Against Nature’, 2005. When I was making sense of that vast project — two years of trying to work out the voices and how they came together — I realised that something happens when you edit, you can make connections that are not expected. It was an important piece of work also because it was made as a collective.

'Sick Serena and Dregs and Wreck and Wreck', 2007, 16mm film. Courtesy Fortescue Avenue London. Photo Polly Braden

‘Sick Serena and Dregs and Wreck and Wreck’, 2007, 16mm film. Courtesy Fortescue Avenue London. Photo Polly Braden


Obrist:
So it was a performance in which, for the first time, things came together. What was your inspiration?


Wardill:
I remember being struck by Des Esseintes’ temporary loss of virility and that this gigantic black feast would then be something ridiculous and grand at the same time. And also the idea of decadence — decadence in the sense of the late 19th century word, but also the American contemporary version of decadence, which relates to its original meaning — a kind of moral decay (in relation to Gary Indiana). It was just before Bush was re-elected, so that feeling was really present in people’s minds in New York. In England this decadence came across as a much more romantic sort of dandy-esque embodiment.


Obrist:
And did you see a link to ‘happenings’?


Wardill:
Yes, people had this pathological relationship to the thing they were talking about instead of having an academic one, and I think that that was something, as I understand the ‘happenings’, that happened to the participants; that you would kind of play through your roles, be it gender roles or societal structures.


Obrist:
Etel Adnan, the seminal poet and painter from Lebanon, says that identity is shifty, identity is a choice.


Wardill:
That you perform it? Yes, and also that you can have stories you hold onto, that you carry along with you as ‘being’, as opposed to being therapy which demands you search for answers and origins. Adam Phillips talks about this.


Obrist:
Cerith Wyn Evans was telling me the other day that when he was a student Peter Gidal told him to read Proust and Beckett and that had completely changed his life — have any books changed your life?


Wardill:
A Fire On The Moon by Norman Mailer. He was commissioned by the American government to write about the moon landing and it got really slated by the critics. So he took out an ad in the New York Times which published all the criticism from Moby Dick when that first came out. Hilarious. The thing I liked about it was it was constructed like Moby Dick, so it had this big sort of technological expansion in the middle of it, but also right in the beginning he puts himself in it. Even though it’s about a grand world event, he’s always there. He always places himself there so you have this thing that’s both expansive and grounded in autobiography — everything that is wrong with him, all his vices, all his insecurities and passions and posturing become part of this world event — when you hold a lens up to something it makes it big but you’re aware of it being small and you’re aware of the mechanics of that sort of magnification as well.

'Game Keepers Without Game', 2009, video. Courtesy Fortescue Avenue London. Photo Polly Braden

‘Game Keepers Without Game’, 2009, video. Courtesy Fortescue Avenue London. Photo Polly Braden

Obrist: Any other books which are oxygen?


Wardill:
I’ve been reading Carlo Ginzburg’s essay ‘Making It Strange’ (from Nine Reflections on Distance). He’s talking about Tolstoy’s writing, which he wrote from the perspective of a horse, and this idea of changing perspective in order to point out how strange common sense is. And then, Love is Colder than Death, the Fassbinder book. I love where he talks about his films being like the walls of his house. So he never needs a house because he’s constantly making films. That’s his stability. The thing I like about it is that it can’t just belong to him.


Obrist:
After that you made your first solo show, the legendary Reader’s Wife at Fortescue Avenue.


Wardill:
The Reader’s Wife was an expansion of the Smithson example of the boy running around in a sand pit that’s half black sand and half white sand. If he runs around clockwise it turns grey and if he turns around anti-clockwise it doesn’t go back into its two distinct halves. I was really interested in how that stage towards understanding could become a kind of theatrical stage and how you could then re-complicate it and make new connections from it. So in terms of fictionalising significant spaces, it was a kind of an epiphany. I’m using your word now. I’m not sure if I like the word.


Obrist:
What does London mean to you as a kind of context where you work?


Wardill:
I keep on getting out of London and then coming back and really liking it a lot more than when I left. But I think what’s hard about London to leave is that it’s full of people that I love and respect and it’s full of a kind of energy which is special.


Obrist
: So cities are people?


Wardill:
Yeah, but when I went to Marseilles last year I really liked it better then any other city. That was a different thing, because in Marseilles it feels like everyone is outside and swarming around each other. The beaches in the city are all rocky with graffiti and people go swimming as the sun sets. Everyone is in on it — grandmas, kids, groups of teenagers playing guitar, army men, inflatable aeroplanes…

'Game Keepers Without Game', 2009, video. Courtesy Fortescue Avenue London. Photo Polly Braden

‘Game Keepers Without Game’, 2009, video. Courtesy Fortescue Avenue London. Photo Polly Braden

Obrist: In 2006 you did the exhibition Basking In What Feels Like An Ocean Of Grace, I Soon Realized That I’m Not Looking At It, But Rather, That I Am It Recognizing Myself. Titles seem important to your work. Sometimes you have verylong titles. What’s their role?


Wardill:
Well that one was because the film was based around a soundtrack I wrote which reflects in on itself. So if you look at sheet music, it’s like you’re holding a mirror down the middle of it and then you play the music backwards. But I didn’t want to actually play it backwards, because I thought it would have allusions to Satanism and I didn’t want that. So the title becomes a thing that’s almost semi-therapeutic — it has to do the same thing that the work is doing.


Obrist:
What role does chance play in your work?


Wardill:
It helps. [laughter] It’s dangerous but it helps.


Obrist:
Is music important to you?


Wardill:
Definitely. Because it does this thing where it bypasses your brain. I’ve been thinking about dub a lot for the new film, because of this relationship of sort of talking to people who are dead and on repetitions. But I also like what Marguerite Duras said when she was making ‘India Song’— that she played music to the actors so they would relax and could do nothing without feeling.


Obrist:
You’ve got a lot of soundtracks to your films.


Wardill:
Well in something like Basking In What Feels Like An Ocean Of Grace, I Soon Realized That I’m Not Looking At It, But Rather, That I Am It Recognizing Myself, the music gives it structure, becomes this cage. But with something like BornWinged Animals and Honey Gathers the Soul, [2005], the music is much more like an image. The next film was called ‘Ben’ [2005], and I quite like the fact that that title was so surly in relationship to the earlier title. It was shot on a set built to look like it was black and white but is in colour and has two stories about Ben. Ben becomes an object halfway through — I was thinking about case studies, and how they take ostensibly casual situations and expand out to reach giant conclusions and patterns which can be applied to other situations. Because one of the case studies is about a person suffering from paranoia, I tried to make the film paranoid. It’s like when you can’t disconnect the idea from the form.

'Game Keepers Without Game', 2009, video. Courtesy Fortescue Avenue London. Photo Polly Braden

‘Game Keepers Without Game’, 2009, video. Courtesy Fortescue Avenue London. Photo Polly Braden

Obrist: What about the sound of ‘Ben’?


Wardill:
The sound is two voices and one of them one is the voice of a girl — Keisha Sandy Wellington. She’s reading the case study about the man Ben. The other is the voice of a hypnotist — he lulls you into feeling you can trust him. He’s like the voice of God as voice-over. She’s a much more faltering, fragile voice.


Obrist:
Which film followed Ben?


Wardill:
After ‘Ben’, I made a film called ‘Sick Serena and Dregs and Wreck and Wreck’, [ICA, 2007]. It was a kind of playlet based on ideas from British stained glass. I was trying to shoot it in such a way that it looked like the colours were really saturated but also, as with stained glass, things are framed in a really illogical and fragmented and, it seems, in very contemporary way. The stuff I was looking at was medieval English — you have faces with eyes and noses lobbed off and all these kind of strange framings. The film is framed in a similar way, but it was the beginning of an interest in the way in which stained glass windows were used to communicate to a largely illiterate public. I was trying to make this connection between that and the way Karl Rove had woven religion into the republican party discourse. So that then leads on to the film ‘Sea Oak/The Diamond (Descartes’ Daughter)’ which was a much more pedagogical way of thinking about that.


Obrist:
Why Descartes’ Daughter?


Wardill:
Because there’s a famous story about him being summoned by Queen Christina to be part of her court and he doesn’t want to go because he is scared his thoughts will freeze over like the water in Sweden. He was right because that was when he died.


Obrist:
And so his intuition was right?


Wardill:
Yeah. His daughter had died when she was five, of scarlet fever and it was the big sorrow in his life that he carried around. He booked into this journey on a ship with his daughter but they never saw her with him. There was a huge storm and in the midst of it the sailors went to look for Descartes. There was no one in his quarters but they found a box with a little automaton that he built that moved just like a little girl. They were shocked by this and thought she had cursed the journey. So they threw her overboard. So he loses his daughter twice, but the second time he loses her she’s a strange embodiment of all his rational ideas taken to the point of irrationality. I thought that this was amazing.

'Game Keepers Without Game', 2009, video. Courtesy Fortescue Avenue London. Photo Polly Braden

‘Game Keepers Without Game’, 2009, video. Courtesy Fortescue Avenue London. Photo Polly Braden

Obrist: Your work has a lot to do with the digital relating to the physical.


Wardill:
Often the way I make a film is to start it as a performance. Similarly with ‘Gamekeepers Without Game’— the performance ‘Life is a Dream’, at the Serptentine, helped me to think through the film.


Obrist:
So the performance triggers the film, the film triggers performance? It’s kind of a communicating vessel maybe?


Wardill:
Yes, but I’m also quite slow, my brain works quite slowly. Which is why I’m not very good at keeping up with these ideas of epiphanies. But that being so, it helps me to think through what the film is going to become.


Obrist:
Can you tell me about this performance you did in Reykjavik [relates to ‘Sea Oak/The Diamond (Descartes’ Daughter)’]?


Wardill:
It was about this imagining of me, trying to remember this scene from a film where there’s a diamond in a room protected by lasers, but also, the search for that scene. So I re-created the scene and then I had a girl dressed up as one of the subjects that Etienne Jules-Marey used to use when he was conducting chromophotography. She’s playing on a Nintendo Wii under a strobe light, so she’s a physical version of his photography. I was trying to think of a contemporary movement that was like sport: playing tennis with the television seemed to be the closest thing, using stunted mechanical movements particular to the present. With the voiceover I wanted to make the connection between this and the fact that his photography was really important in relation to proving the efficiency and productivity of the labour force in America. So there was a relationship between what this original and rationality, and a way of living that is like a machine.


Obrist:
Do you make drawings?


Wardill:
I have big sketch books full of things, full of workings through ideas and then I have photography and drawings.


Obrist:
Are they like storyboards?


Wardill:
Some are like storyboards. Some are like costume design — similar to things I’ve seen. Some are credits.

'Game Keepers Without Game', 2009, video. Courtesy Fortescue Avenue London. Photo Polly Braden

‘Game Keepers Without Game’, 2009, video. Courtesy Fortescue Avenue London. Photo Polly Braden

Obrist: 2010 has been a really active year because of the show at De Appel. But you also had a solo show called Solo Show?


Wardill:
Imaginatively! At Spacex. That was the same film I was showing at The Showroom in London — ‘Gamekeepers Without Game’.


Obrist:
Can you tell me more about that film and how it works?


Wardill:
Well, I wrote a script for a future film because I became interested in adopting modes of communication that are really familiar to explore ideas that are difficult. This script has everything you would have in a conventional melodrama: an introduction, a violent scene, a sex scene, a death scene. Everything’s told through objects that go from being status symbols, to evidence of crime, to theatrical props… and there are acted scenes you get dropped into, where people are acting very realistically, but not touching each other. It looks a bit like airline food, so you kind of have this separation, but it’s all brought together under the rubric of a script. There’s also a drumming soundtrack that’s in 5.1 that runs all the way through. So you have again this feeling of a house being built, but are aware of it being built through individual elements. It’s like individual drums become the bricks. It carries you through pathologically too. At one point, the younger son has a panic attack and you become anxious because the drums are fast. As he calms down they slow and you can relax.


Obrist:
It reminds me of the Fassbinder story of the house. You’re back to that idea — it seems recurrent.


Wardill:
Definitely.


Obrist:
There’s also the house of the Winchester Widow, where the widow of the man who invented the Winchester rifle builds room after room after room.


Wardill:
My next film, ‘Full Firearms’, is based on that story of Sarah Winchester — she had upset the spirits and they were hounding her, so she builds a house to accommodate them all. She was trying to disorientate them so they would leave her in peace. As a story it’s really intriguing but when you actually see the house, it’s kind of ‘wacky’ in a really tinny way.

'Game Keepers Without Game', 2009, video. Courtesy Fortescue Avenue London. Photo Polly Braden

‘Game Keepers Without Game’, 2009, video. Courtesy Fortescue Avenue London. Photo Polly Braden

Obrist: I’m wondering what your unrealised projects, dreams, utopias, projects, the projects you don’t dare do (as Doris Lessing pointed out to me recently were so important) might be?


Wardill:
I’m 32 so I hope I still have some unrealised projects! One of the things I really want to do, but probably won’t until I’m Doris Lessing’s age is to set up a film school/production company.


Obrist:
Your own structure?


Wardill:
Yes. And then have a group of people that you have a sense of responsibility towards.


Obrist:
Do you have a motto?


Wardill:
A motto?


Obrist:
Hans-Peter Feldman answered the question with an image — a photograph of a boy in front of a closed wooden door, next to a brick wall.


Wardill:
I like that. I like answering a question with an image, but I can’t do that here.


Obrist:
What’s your connection to science?


Wardill:
Science is massive, how am I supposed to answer that?


Obrist:
Duchamp was inspired by Poincaré.


Wardill:
Well, Marey was a scientist — I was really interested and still am in how those documents which are essentially scientific become influential outside their original intent… the Robert Smithson example as well is, obviously, an example which relates to entropy, I suppose. There’s a way in which science adopts the material in order to clarify its ideas that I find interesting.


Obrist:
What ought to change?


Wardill:
The people who are in power ought to change, the reliance of government on business, this ought to change, education should be more elliptical to the economy. Lots of things ought to change.


Obrist:
Are you a situationist?


Wardill:
The inheritance from the situationists is that spectacle is inherently suspect — I have a real problem with that. Though I obviously have a lot of respect for its history. I think a lot of art people have inherited this attitude, which is really problematic — it relates to a kind of inheritance from fascism, that spectacle in itself, is evil.

'Game Keepers Without Game', 2009, video. Courtesy Fortescue Avenue London. Photo Polly Braden

‘Game Keepers Without Game’, 2009, video. Courtesy Fortescue Avenue London. Photo Polly Braden

Obrist: What role does the computer play in your work. Paul Chan says, ‘Linking is beautiful and de-linking is sublime’.


Wardill:
De-linking is sublime?


Obrist:
There are moments when it is important to disconnect.


Wardill:
You know, I was in Chicago giving a lecture and I showed ‘Gamekeepers Without Game’ and a student asked me, ‘What’s the relationship between the white space and me and how am I supposed to enter this white space of your film’? I had to keep on asking him what he meant because I didn’t really understand. In the end, it seemed to me that it was a kind of compression: the film gets compressed and then de-compressed in your head. I think there’s something about what the computer does that has completely changed the way we think about that idea of what images can become and then how they come back to us. Also, it offers up the democratic promise of linking people up, but actually, what you’re doing is looking at a screen and it becomes a different matter. It has the potential to be so much, but that potential very often seems unrealised.


Obrist:
It’s a ‘spectacle of’ unrealised projects.


Wardill:
[laughs] Maybe so.


Obrist:
What’s your favourite mistake? In our western society, it has become very difficult to make use of mistakes.


Wardill:
I like when you make mistakes in bookshops and in record shops. When you go to buy something but buy something else. Or, I like it when people read things wrongly.


Obrist:
What was the new work you created yesterday?


Wardill:
[laughs] What I did yesterday was try to think about a compilation tape I made for a friend when I was a teenager. It had a picture of a woman on it and her spine was the spine of the cassette and I was thinking about how books become bodies.

'Game Keepers Without Game', 2009, video. Courtesy Fortescue Avenue London. Photo Polly Braden

‘Game Keepers Without Game’, 2009, video. Courtesy Fortescue Avenue London. Photo Polly Braden

Obrist: What’s your favourite sport?


Wardill:
Curling. Because it makes art look less ridiculous.


Obrist:
What’s time?


Wardill:
Can I answer that with a quote?


Obrist:
Yes of course.


Wardill:
‘The hands of the clock must know where they stand. Otherwise, neither is a watch but only a white face and a trick moustache.’


Obrist:
Beautiful. Who said that?


Wardill:
Nabokov.


Obrist:
What have you forgotten?


Wardill:
So many things. [laughs]


Obrist:
Do you have dreams?


Wardill:
I have really good dreams. I often have dreams where I’m being chased by a faceless predator around a multi-story car park. I have better dreams than that but that’s a re-occurring one.


Obrist:
Please tell me about an exhibition that has inspired you?


Wardill:
An Anselm Franke one in Antwerp, Animism. It was very atmospheric but also intelligent. It didn’t make this strange disconnection between being emotional or intelligent. It was both things at the same time. Also, I really loved the Richard Wentworth at Lisson about a year ago. You saw all these objects from very different artists, from very different points in their career, but that didn’t matter; they were not named. You looked at them for what they were. You didn’t really understand it but then you saw the film about Rem Koolhaas’ house, shot from the perspective of the cleaner, and you realised in this generous and slow way —‘ah!, that’s it’ — it’s about seeing privilege from another position where it becomes almost comical.


Obrist:
What is energy?


Wardill:
Is it something to do with the present? I wonder if it is, I wonder if that’s why the present is so scary — why people are constantly deferring it. I mean that’s what money does isn’t it — it defers the present to what it might become.


Obrist:
Do you have nightmares?


Wardill:
I had a nightmare the night before the Haswell and Hecker laser show at Conway Hall. It haunted me for a long time. There was an old woman lying on top of me, scratching at me. She was still there when I was awake and I had to leave that show— the show was aggressive attacking.

Obrist: Jeannette Laverriere, an extraordinary one hundred-year-old designer in Paris, asks visitors, ‘Are you political?’, and if you say no she doesn’t see you. So are you political or do you think art is political?


Wardill:
I think politics has become this difficult thing now — I had a meeting the other day with the poet JH Prynne and he said to me. ‘I think artists are parasitical’, and I said parasitical in what way? I think there’s been this thing that politics has done very slowly, which is to create the idea that art is somehow parasitical and kind of dangerous. That it’s sort of fluffy. That it’s a useless thing and has been replaced by a weird sort of rationality, which is all to do with the way we spend and the way we serve and what we conserve. The government somehow doesn’t allow any sense of responsibility for that and I find that really terrifying and think it’s going to get worse. So, yes I’m political. It’s completely necessary to be political right now.


Obrist:
And the future is?


Wardill:
I’m not a predictor. I thought that’s what you do.


Obrist:
I listen to artists. I’m not predicting anything. Last question: what kind of cameras do you use?


Wardill:
I use everything, everything’s a technology. A lot of the time I’ve used an old Bolex camera, but then the last thing I shot was on HD with 35 mm lenses.


Obrist:
Do you have collections? Do you collect art or found objects?


Wardill:
I collect cassettes and records, CDs and sort of collect books. I’d like to collect art but can’t afford the art I’d like to collect.


Obrist:
What would you like to collect?


Wardill:
I’d collect Rembrandt’s ‘Abduction of Proserpina’, Hans-Peter Feldmann’s ‘All The Clothes of A Woman’, Hollis Frampton’s ‘Nostalgia’. Oh, lots of things. Actually, I was sort of inspired by the way that you ask questions, to go around asking people if they could collect ten things, what would it be? It’s a nice question to ask people.


Obrist:
And you’ve got already some answers?


Wardill:
Yeah, lots of people have different answers, and lots of people say they wouldn’t collect anything. They don’t feel like they should.


Hans Ulrich Obrist is co-director of exhibitions and programmes and director of international projects at the Serpentine Gallery, London

=======

HYPERALLERGIC

Photo Essays

Inside the Mind of Hans Ulrich Obrist

Portrait of Hans Ulrich Obrist by Ian Cheng and Micaela Durand (2013) (all images courtesy Badlands Unlimited)

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

All drawings untitled, ink on paper, date unknown

huo2

huo3

huo4

huo5

huo6

And here are a few more from the book:

Huo7

Huo8

Huo9

Huo10

Huo11

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.

Marathon man: Hans Ulrich Obrist

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

=====

To arrive at the edge of the world’s knowledge, seek out the most complex and sophisticated minds, put them in a room together, and have them ask each other the questions they are asking themselves.

A RULE OF THE GAME

Hans Ulrich Obrist [5.5.08]

Topic:

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

Experiment
Marathon
Reykjavík

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.

Introduction

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.

-JB

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.

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NEW YORK OBSERVER

The Man Who Made Curating an Art

%name The Man Who Made Curating an ArtHans 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.”

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MATTHEW STONE.COM

Hans-Ulrich Obrist interviews Matthew Stone

April 2009 London

Hans-Ulrich Obrist: To begin with the beginning, Id 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: Thats interesting, because during my childhood in the late 70s and in the early 80s, 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 90s and the 00s, Warhol became much more of a greater influence. What is interesting is that I have a feeling that in the last couple of years theres 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 its 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 Barrys 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: Thats an exhibition, featuring Gustav Metzger, Hans Haacke, Joseph Beuys…

MS: I’ve have the catalogue.

HUO: So thats a reference for you.

MS: Definitely.

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 were now curious to know more about this manifesto about optimism, because Ive 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, its 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.”1

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, its 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: … Its 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 its a collective decision. The engagement will produce reality in some ways…

MS: Or realities, collectively personal realities.

HUO: Talking about parallel realities, its 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 dont 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 havent really spoken about your English influences. John Latham was described in the 70s 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 90s 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!”

1Hans Ulrich Obrist,Interviews: volume 1, Milan, Charta, 2003

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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

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FRIEZE BLOG

Interviewing the Interviewer: A Conversation with Hans Ulrich Obrist

December 06, 2011 by Clo’e Floirat

Hans Ulrich Obrist © Yang Fudong, Shanghai (2009)

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.

About the author

  • Clo’e Floirat's photoClo’e Floirat is a critic and cartoonist, based in Berlin and currently a student on the Critical Writing in Art and Design MA programme at the Royal College of Art, London.

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TIMEOUT LONDON

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

  • 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.’
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  • MORE INTELLIGENT LIFE
  • THE Q&A: HANS ULRICH OBRIST, CURATOR

    Hans Ulrich ObristIn 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

One thought on “Hans Ulrich Obrist – The Contemporary Artworld’s Curatorial King

  1. Pingback: Hans Ulrich Obrist: The Contemporary Artworld’s Curatorial King | fireplace chats

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