An experimental conversation with Hans-Ulrich Obrist (Chapter 1/7)
Conversation transcription below
Tiziana Casapietra: You are the author of hundreds of interviews. How do you feel when you are interviewed yourself?
Hans-Ulrich Obrist: Hi Tiziana, buonasera, I hope you’re very well, great to see you, hello! Regarding the question about the interviews, yes, I’ve always given a lot of interviews about exhibitions of course — whenever I curate exhibitions — they have all been gathered in a book – “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Curating But Were Afraid to Ask” (Sternberg Press 2011).
I find it also a very useful way for writing about exhibitions. Very often, obviously within an exhibition, there is a preface, there is an a priori statement, which happens in the process of making a show and of publishing a catalogue. But very often the writing happens before the show. So interviews are a great possibility to reflect upon the exhibition. And particularly with exhibitions like “Cities on the Move”, or more recently “A Stroll Through A Fun Palace” in the Swiss pavilion in Venice, which are laboratory exhibitions, exhibitions which evolve, exhibitions which change.
Obviously we can only say very few things at the beginning, and the main things happen actually during the exhibition. So yes, interviews have always been a possibility to actually reflect upon exhibitions and further continue to write them.
TC: Years ago I remember you referring to the “fly-in fly-out” opportunity granted by globalization and low cost flights. Artists and curators felt all electrified by the possibility to curate exhibitions and present their works globally. Finally we seemed to have reached the possibility to handle the complexity of the world.
Now we are not that excited any more. We are now aware that in order to deeply understand a culture, a country, the 2 or 3 days of an exhibition opening are not sufficient. We also know that it is not possible to handle the multitude of the globe, to grab it onto our hands. The world has revealed itself to be much bigger and complex than we could ever imagine. In recent years, even the word “international” has been often replaced by “transcultural”. How has your profession changed in the course of the years in the light of this awareness?
HUO: I have never really used this notion of “fly-in fly-out” in curating as something positive. I’ve actually always and really often thought and felt that it is a huge problem, with curating. It is a problem if there is not a sustained kind of presence of an exhibition. So I would say that I’ve always believed that the exhibition, it’s something I believe more than ever before, is something connected to what Fernand Broudel calls “Le Longue Durée”. It’s about how we can actually do exhibitions which evolve over a long time.
When you write a novel it can take long time. It takes many years to write a novel. Very often time-frames that are given to do exhibitions are very short, six months or a year to do a biennale or to do a large scale exhibition. It is nothing compared to do research, and what it takes. This is why I came out with this methodology; one can say that very often I work over a “don’t stop, don’t stop, don’t stop” principle. Exhibitions, which start, which are complex systems, which evolve in an almost cybernetic way, with feedback loops, exhibitions which learn, with new learning systems.
“Do it” for sample has been going on for 21 years, and it has been happening in more than 100 cities. It is an exhibition which each time writes another chapter and each time learns from the contest where it takes place. I would say in this sense, what suddenly has become more important over the last years, is also this idea of creating a connection, because obviously what lacks in a kind of “fly-in fly-out” situation is the connection.
Dorothea Von Hantelmann has just written this wonderful book “The Exhibition as a Ritual” which was presented as part of this year’s Venice Architecture Biennale in the Swiss Pavilion in the “Stroll Through a Fun Palace” project on Cedric Price and Lucius Burckhardt; and Dorothea presented, everyday, during the opening days, vignettes, chapters out of this book.
One point which I thought was particularly interesting was a reference to Margaret Mead, the great American anthropologist. Margaret Mead always lamented this lack of exhibitions in term of a connection; she says that the exhibitions only appeal to the visual sense. In particular, if you compare them to the rituals as they happen in Bali or even in Medieval Masses, rituals which appeal to all the senses, the exhibition is really in deficit.
Now obviously the exhibition brings a lot of advantages, the exhibition is ultimately a very liberal ritual. It’s a format which allows to be visited for a minute or for a year. You can decide how much time you can spend with the exhibition, we can return also to the exhibition. One thing which I think is also important is that it is a realistic ritual. It is not this idea that basically we have one person communicating to the masses, it’s a more individual situation, for everyone we can have a one-to-one relationship to the work.
But obviously that doesn’t necessarily mean connection, as Margaret Mead shows, the fact that she actually visits and spends a very short time, a very little time, in front of an artwork, an average of 10/15 seconds, shows us that she is right with this lack of connection. I think it is interesting to reflect on how we can make more local connections, and more global connections.
And I think the great writer for this, the great inspiration, is Édouard Glissant, a writer who unfortunately still has not been translated into English, Italian, Spanish, all languages of the world, sufficiently. Because he should be translated in every languages of the world, he is a writer from Martinique who lived and worked between geographies. He spent the last years of his life mainly between Paris and New York City, and of course he very regularly stayed in Martinique.
And for Édouard Glissant this idea of blending culture has not only been instrumental, this idea of Creolization which is such an important notion for the 21st century, but he also coined such notion of archipelago, the importance that we get away from this homogenizing continental logic and sort of embrace this idea of the archipelago.
There is a great quote by Édouard Glissant which I often quote. “The American archipelagos are extremely important because it was in these islands that the idea of Creolization, that is the blend of cultures, was most brilliantly fulfilled. Continents reject mixing whereas archipelagos thought makes it possible to say that neither each person’s identity, nor a collective identity, are fixed and established once and for all. I can change through exchange with the other without losing or diluting my sense of self.”*
And this is actually, as Glissant says, what the archipelagos thought, and the archipelagos principle of islands teaches, as opposed to the continental logic.
Glissant also coined another very important term which is Mondialité which I think is particularly important in relation to your question of an ever increasing part of the local, and of the notion of connection. With this idea of Mondialité in “La Cohée du Lamentin” he describes his connection to a rock of his childhood, and that is something which Constantine P. Cavafy always said in a wonderful way.
We would always carry the places of our childhood with us, he would always carry Alexandria with him. So I think, in a way, Glissant “La Cohée du Lamentin” is exactly the same.
In Mondialité he shows us that we live in a situation of globalization. This is not the first time that the world is in a situation of globalization: we have globalization during the time of the Romans, we have globalization in all kinds of earlier millennium centuries.
This 21st century is certainly one of the most extreme, if not violent, moment of globalization and at the end it leads to many changes. One obviously is that there is a danger: in this extreme form of globalization, homogenizing forces lead to the disappearance of differences. That would mean that the world gets poorer and leads to extinction. We are working with Gustav Metzger, I will also talk about this later, on the “Extinction Marathon” for the Serpentine Gallery, this leads to the disappearance of diversity on this planet. Obviously as Glissant says, it needs to be rejected, it needs to be resisted, we need to resist the homogenizing forces of globalization, which result from us embracing this thought of a globalization too blindly.
To the other end, there is another danger: the danger is not only to blindly embrace these forces of globalization, but to actually categorically reject them. Which leads us to new forms of nationalism, new forms of refusal of the global dialogue, nationalism has become observed right now in a very threatening way in big parts of Europe.
So Glissant says that neither of these two parties are the solution, neither the blind embracing of globalization and homogenization, nor this absolute rejection of a global dialogue. He says, in his reference to the island, “I can change through the exchange with the other without losing or diluting my sense of self” and that is what leads to Mondialité, a word which is difficult to translate into English, maybe we can call it globality.
It differs widely from globalization because this idea of globality or Mondialité is a dialogue which enters the global, it is not a refusal, it is actually engaging with the global dialogue, but always in a way that produces a difference. It’s a global dialogue which resists an alienation of difference, this is for me the key question as a curator everyday: how can we do exhibitions, exhibitions of Mondialité, exhibitions which enhance and produce differences and this is one of my many rituals. I believe what Andrei Tarkovsky says: “We need more rituals in the 21st century”.
And one of my many rituals is to read Édouard Glissant every morning for fifteen minutes, I will never start a day without Édouard Glissant.
*Hans Ulrich Obrist, Ways of Curating, Penguin UK, 2014.