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Interview with Hans Ulrich Obrist

Hans Ulrich Obrist is a compulsive note taker. For the duration of our interview one hand twitches a pen across a scrap of paper before him on the table, while the other frenetically twists it clockwise and anticlockwise against the horizontal. The extent of twitching and twisting increases in direct equivalence to Obrist’s mounting exhilaration at the development of a scheme of thought, becoming most frenzied when patterns emerge, when one idea reveals its correspondence with another. On those not infrequent occasions that Obrist’s hands are called up to add gestural emphasis to his speech I am allowed a glimpse of the leaf of paper, which over the course of our time together becomes clogged with intersecting lines, marks, scrabbles and symbols, like an elementary geometry lesson rendered by Cy Twombly.

 

This cryptic log of our meeting is symptomatic of the mania to record and preserve that has led Hans Ulrich Obrist, the pre-eminent curator of his generation, to record hundreds of interviews with the world’s most significant artists, scientists, writers, architects, philosophers and filmmakers over the past twenty years. A casual cross-reference of The White Review’s all-time fantasy list of interviewees against Obrist’s résumé has these names, among others, in common:  Czesław Miłosz; Michel Houllebecq; Merce Cunningham; Benoît Mandelbrot; Marina Abramović; J.G. Ballard; Gerhard Richter; John Baldessari; Eric Hobsbawm; Ai Weiwei; Studs Terkel; Doris Lessing; Edouard Glissant. Which makes the prospect of interviewing him quite nerve-wracking, even before he starts taking notes.

 

It is, nonetheless, for his work as a curator of exhibitions that Obrist is most widely revered. He held his first show in his kitchen in 1991 at the age of 23, famously convincing Christian Boltanski and Hans-Peter Feldmann to contribute site-specific installations. In 1993 he founded the Museum Robert Walser and began work as a curator at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, since when he has organised over 250 exhibitions across the world. He became famous for his promotion of an open-ended curatorial practice that prioritises participation and flexibility. Do it, a project he inaugurated in 1997, perfectly exemplifies his preoccupations. Consisting of a set of artist’s instructions, the touring exhibition allowed for those directives to be interpreted differently at each venue that it visited, creating a model of curation that encourages diversity and freedom.  In 2006 he joined the Serpentine Gallery, London, as co-director of exhibitions and programmes with Julia Peyton-Jones, and in 2009 he was named by ArtReview as the most powerful person in the art world.

 

We met at Obrist’s office near the Serpentine Gallery, in west London, at the relatively civilised hour of 9am (the curator is notorious for his Brutally Early Breakfast Club – a roving salon that commences at 6.30am). We drank more coffee than can be healthy over the course of a morning in which I was able to experience first-hand the infectiousness of Obrist’s energy and enthusiasm, as well as his ability to fit more words into a minute than one would think possible.

 

The following is a short excerpt from the conversation, at a point where discussion had turned to the art of interviewing and memory:

 

Q

The White Review

— You’ve said previously that ‘memory is very radical right now’ – could you expand upon that?

A

Hans Ulrich Obrist

— I suppose it has to do with something Rem Koolhaas once said. He thinks information doesn’t necessarily produce memory, that maybe amnesia is widespread in the digital age. It also arose from a conversation I had with Rosemarie Trockel, who said that I should go and interview really old people, those who have seen the most. Since that conversation I’ve visited thirty-eight people who are either centenarians or in their mid-to-late nineties, including Albert Hoffman and Nathalie Sarraute, someone who has been too widely forgotten. The more of these interviews I did, the more I realised that these people don’t have so much presence online, which is equivalent now to a kind of collective amnesia. The interview project, like curating, is a way of working on memory, a protest against forgetting.

Q

The White Review

— There’s a Calvino quote, ‘a world without forgetting is hell’. We’re particularly conscious now of this constant push and pull between the necessity to forget things, to move on, and the importance of memory if we’re to achieve any kind of progress. You talked before about the creative block that can come with the awareness of so many things having been achieved, and the feeling that there is nothing new left to do: is that problem likely to become more prevalent with the availability of information, of documentation now?

A

Hans Ulrich Obrist

— I’ve observed that my activity is often about oxymorons. This whole conversation has had a lot to do with oxymorons. We’ve talked about self-organisation: to talk about curation and self-organisation is itself an oxymoron, because curating is about selecting, about deciding. I think, to use another oxymoron, that you have to remember things before you can forget them.

Curating is full of these oxymorons, if that’s the word, I’m not sure. These tensions. Another sort of oxymoron is broad depth, or deep breadth. I’ve worked with Gerhard Richter for twenty-five years, but I also try always to open up to new generations. In this sense my practice is both a continuation of one relationship, and an open system.

Q

The White Review

— There is this recurring idea of the curatorial process being the creation of a framework within which things can happen freely. If we can return to another oxymoron: we live in an increasingly globalised world, but globalisation has this tendency toward homogenisation. Your work, both as a curator and interviewer, has this enormous scope, reaching across generations and cultures: how do you use that form to encourage difference and variety rather then discourage it? How can you use your work to promote difference, or to preserve it?

 

 

 

A

Hans Ulrich Obrist

— Edouard Glissant gives me courage that one can actually enter into a global dialogue without erasing difference. The forces of globalisation are very much in effect in the world of exhibitions. The way that shows tour is evidence of that – our Serpentine exhibition, Indian Highway, has now been through six cities and is on its way to its seventh, in China. The important thing is that the show is defined not as a created, boxed exhibition which goes from A to B to C to D without changing, which would be an expression of that homogenising globalisation, but instead that wherever it goes it enters into a dialogue with the local community. In each case the show changes: there is each time a new artist who organises another artist-run exhibition. We’ve defined the rules of the game, but not the outcome. Perec is always with me!

 

 


ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR


Ben Eastham is co-founder and editor of The White Review


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