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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 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

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.
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