A Conversation with Hans Ulrich Obrist

Recently appointed co-director of exhibitions and programs, and director of international projects, at the Serpentine Gallery, Hans Ulrich Obrist, perhaps the most prolific curator of his generation, has recently arrived in London. A significant activity in his practice has been, and continues to be, the interview. His Interviews Volume 1 was published in 2003, a prodigious five hundred-page publication that gives a sense of the scope of ambition of his ongoing project. On the eve of the first 24 Hour Interview Marathon — an event Obrist initiated with architect Rem Koolhaas — Nav Haq caught up with him to discuss his ideas about interviews as a research methodology, how they have played an inherent role in his curatorial practice and why he believes they can generate cross-disciplinary dialogue.

Nav Haq: My understanding is that you have been conducting interviews from a very young age, perhaps even since your teenage years. Can you recall how you first became interested in giving interviews?

Hans Ulrich Obrist: My curatorial work has come directly out of conversations. When I was a kid, perhaps sixteen or seventeen, I went to see Fischli & Weiss, and they said I should go see Boetti. And so I watched artists such as these working directly, which was important as my first contact with art. I visited many artists regularly, but Fischli & Weiss were the ones I visited the most. I watched them work on their film The Way Things Go. I was born in the studio of Fischli & Weiss. I was born in ‘68 but was then “reborn,” if you like, in their studio. I did my research into visual art throughout the eighties, but then in ‘91 I thought it was time to begin working more directly with visual art and to present work in a domestic setting. So I did my Kitchen show. I thought it would be interesting to do something unspectacular, something just in my kitchen. I invited six or seven artists to participate,and the show was seen by around thirty people. People from the Cartier foundation came to see it, and they found it somehow special, after which they gave me a grant. This was to visit Paris, live there and work as a curator. Out of this I then had a very intense dialogue with France. I conducted many studio visits with artists and conducted lots of interviews. Around ‘93 I was in touch with Museum in Progress in Vienna, a very interesting initiative that I collaborated with throughout the Nineties. The initiative often conducted interviews, and I would conduct interviews with artists in TV studios — with artists such as Vito Acconci and Felix Gonzales-Torres. However I found it more interesting to conduct interviews in a more informal setting like over a coffee or in a taxi, and I thought it would be interesting to find a way to record the interviews without dragging people into a recording studio. From that moment onwards I did audio recordings, and then in the mid-nineties they brought the digital camera onto the market, which I then started to use. It has become a research method and the basis for my curatorial practice over the last eleven or twelve years. I have an archive of 1,600 filmed conversations, most of which I have only used as text transcriptions, and not yet presented as video. I haven’t figured out yet completely what to use. Most get transcribed. The whole project is a complex dynamic system with feedback loops — a learning system.

NH: You have conducted a vast number of interviews, as your recent publication Interviews Volume 1 demonstrates, with many practitioners — artists, architects, theorists, even scientists. To what extent do you consider this a part of your role as a curator?

HUO: At the same time as when I went to the studio of Fischli & Wiess, in a thrift store I found a book by Alexander Dorner, who ran the Hannover Museum in the twenties, and then went to the United States. The book became my guide. It’s not only about the museum but looks at object and process, and discusses the museum as being an environment of uncertainty. It was very visionary. He had one thing in this book that he emphasized, which was that in order to understand the forces effective in the art world, it is important to look at the other fields of knowledge. I am based in the art world, and from there I make these excursions into other fields. It was Francois Julien who once said that as a European philosopher he didn’t go to China to be exotic, but he works in China in order to understand European philosophy. For me it’s not been about leaving the art world, nor to consume differences, but I try to go into architecture and venture into other fields. My projects have started to work in relation to these other fields, and with architecture it has become particularly intense. Along this process I’ve interviewed many architects in order to understand that field better. I go with the idea that exhibitions are knowledge production and should be closely linked with memory. Discussions with artists and architects of an older generation allow a dialogue with practitioners of the current generation through my projects. I think we should have a movement against forgetting, and I hope to be able to contribute towards that movement.

NH: Besides convergence, is it also for you a case of leaving something in order to reflect back on that thing you have left?

HUO: This is very interesting. Initially it was always one person going to see another person — this is the normal interview setting. As one says in English, two’s company, but three is a crowd. At a certain moment about six or seven years ago, I started to go to see people with other people. For example, I started with Rem Koolhaas, who has become a very good friend, to go see people who were very important to him when he was a young architect, such as Philip Johnson or Venturi Scott Brown. I went to see with Dominique Gonzales-Foerster and also Philippe Parreno a lot of people who have been influential to them, such as an Argentine novelist who is influential to Dominique, Edgardo Cozarinsky. This method allows for a lot of different formats and different ways of approaching particular elements of a person’s practice. There are different formats that have evolved. It’s almost like context has allowed for all kinds of interview subcategories. I tried to write down the other day the different kinds of interview categories that exist, and there are eight or nine different categories of interviews. In the beginning, I did art interviews, science interviews, architecture interviews,but it just “happened” to become interviewing with three people in this way. This is a form that can lead to convergence that comes out of mutual curiosity. At certain times, in ‘93, ‘96, ‘98, I thought about leaving the art world, as I thought it was too narrow, but the art world allows these different contexts to happen; it’s the most interesting field. This is to do with going beyond the fear of pooling knowledge. I do think the different fields are quite segregated. If an architect speaks, it’s architects who go to listen. If an artist speaks then it is the art world that goes to listen. I always believed in aiming for moments of change, and my sixty-four interview project has to do with desire, and because cross-fertilization between fields is missing.

NH: How do you decide who to interview? Are the discussions always intended for publication?

HUO: I just always do them anyhow. Maybe only ten percent have been published, with hundreds unpublished. I believe that one part of your activity as a curator is not necessarily public. I think it is interesting to have unrealized projects.

NH: When an interview is published it presents a certain transparency around your own practice as a curator. What do you believe that this transparency has to offer an audience?

HUO: Hopefully it can be a toolbox that encourages the production of reality. When I started to read about art it started with David Sylvester. I read his interviews with Francis Bacon which were very long conversations. And also I started to read a book by Pierre Cabanne on Marcel Duchamp. It is three very long texts where he interviewed Duchamp in three very long sessions. For me these two interviews are key because they are long-term interviews series. If you sit down again and again with someone, things start to happen that may be interesting for someone to read. So far I have maybe not yet conducted a very long interview that is as good as these interviews with Bacon and Duchamp, but I try. I try to give an unprecedented insight into works over sustained periods of time, and it’s an accelerated activity that I have. Unlike exhibitions where you have deadlines, conversations are where I can forget about time, or even liberate time.

NH: There has been much discussion lately around curatorial practice and how the role of the curator has, to a great extent, taken over a function traditionally held by critics, partly because curators have taken over the mantle of discussing artistic production. Do you believe that conducting interviews also visibly allows for your practice to extend into the spaces normally occupied by critics?

HUO: For me it is interesting to read artists’ writing. I have edited Gerhard Richter’s writing, for example. I don’t think that curators writing criticism, or publishing interviews replaces traditional criticism but I think both curating and criticism are today in a rather fragile position. The market is unbelievably strong and has a bigger effect on the ground than curators and critics. Young emerging curators do not get enough support. I do feel that criticism and curating should be strengthened. How curators can be involved in the diversity of the art world is really important. There are curators, artists, critics, gallerists and collectors, all of whom are forces.The art world in the best case is a polyphony of these different forces. As the visionary poet and philosopher Edouard Glissant says, the homogenizing forces of globalization also have an impact on the art world. Glissant’s talked of mondialité, which is the chance for increased global dialogue but at the risk of a loss of diversity and complexity.

NH: Presently the main complaint about art criticism is that it is too detached from the production of art and exhibitions. Do you believe the presence of curators such as yourself who are up to speed with artistic production, particularly through conducting interviews, is a way for art criticism to advance?

HUO: Hopefully, the whole knowledge-production side of artwork is getting stronger. Curating is very paradoxical because you could say, on the one hand, there is a lot of discussion around curating. There are symposiums, platforms for exchange and also a lot of texts published on the subject. But it could be said that there’s a whole missing exhibitions literature. I think it is astonishing that we have curatorial schools, but we have no literature on the history of exhibition curating.What is missing are key texts. Dorner is still not in reprint, Pontus Hulten, or Seth Sieglaub or W Sandberg are not in print. Obviously it is a new field, but there is a whole history of exhibitions missing. People always say to me, “Are you the grandson of Harald Szeemann?” He’s one of my mentors, and obviously when I was a kid he was an incredibly important figure of reference in Switzerland. But the story of curating is much longer than that. I am interested in the pioneers from the early twentieth century, such as Felix Feneon, Dorner or Harry Graf Kessler.

NH: Of course, there is always a discrepancy between an actual interview conversation and what eventually appears in printed form. This is most often due to the editing process in between. Do you edit your own interview texts?

HUO: It’s always a very multi-linguistic thing. When I grew up in Switzerland, there was no big city, but one thing I could do there was learn a lot of languages. There are a lot of Italian interviews, Spanish interviews, and Russian; a lot in French and many in English, German and Chinese. Editors transcribe them and do a pre-edit, and then I do an edit. It can be published immediately or even ten years later, or go into the archive, where there are even interviews in languages I cannot speak. Especially funny was the interview with Oscar Niemeyer in Portuguese, and also interviews in Chinese. Niemeyer refused to answer questions in French and spoke in Portuguese. When the interview was transcribed it really wasn’t very coherent. It was like a cadavre exquis.

NH: I find interviews interesting because they take on a form that both is and isn’t temporal.The actual interview discussion itself possesses temporality, yet when it exists in printed form, it can take a shape that continues to have significance for different reasons at other times. Everybody has a different “critical metabolism.” Have you had the experience of revisiting one of your own previous interviews and developing a different understanding of an artist’s practice?

HUO: This happens super frequently. I met Gustav Metzger yesterday for a long interview.I’ve had discussions with him before, in ‘96, ‘87, then I’ve been out of contact, and ten years later we connected again with some questions but a lot had changed. You revisit questions you raised ten years previous and your perceptions change. It happens a lot. Interviews happen in strange situations. For example, with Anri Sala, we travel a lot in airplanes, in taxis, and cars. Whenever we have a minute we record things, and make what you might describe as “interviews on the move.” It is a very physical activity and a collective project.

It’s interesting you talk of “metabolism” because metabolism is quoted by a lot of architects now, referring to biology, ideas of urban development, and industrial design. It’s about movement in relation to the city. Last year we developed an interview series in Tokyo with all the members of the Metabolist movement of the Sixties. The idea for the interview marathon here at the Serpentine started out in the city of Stuttgart, and we thought we could develop a stage where we could set it up to last twenty-four hours. We had twenty-four completely amazing people and drafted a kind of fragmentary project. This was the point of departure for the interview marathon in London (when Rem Koolhaas and I interviewed sixty different practitioners about their work and the London of the future, and many other issues) — to attempt to engage with a complex city and develop a fragmented portrait of the city and its mutation.