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.