An experimental conversation with Hans-Ulrich Obrist (Chapter 2/7)
Conversation transcription below
Tiziana Casapietra: I suppose the intention to handle and understand the multitude of the world has led you to always be interested in different disciplines. You have conducted interviews with scientists, architects, philosophers,… Can you tell me more about your interest in different disciplines other than contemporary art?
Hans-Ulrich Obrist: We’re having a conversation here for, with Tiziana Casapietra on the ninth day, of the tenth month, of the fourteenth year, of the second decade, of the first century, of the third millennium, between London and Milan, as Alighiero Boetti would have said. In that way, this is an homage also to Alighiero Boetti.
Regarding your question about the different disciplines, one of the first conversation I had when I visited, as a teenager, Alighiero Boetti and also Michelangelo Pistoletto, is that they both told me how important it is, if you want to understand art, to also understand forces in the other disciplines.
Later I read the book by Alexander Dorner, still as a teenager, a book which Dorner wrote during his exile in the United States. The great visionary director of the Landesmuseum in Hanover, Dorner is founder and inventor, together with El Lissitzky, of the “abstract cabinet.” Inspired by the theories of John Dewey, Dorner always said that the museum is a laboratory and that in a museum we can understand the forces which are effective in art, only if we understand what is happening in science, in music, in literature. For me, besides Dorner and his visionary museum of the early 20th century which inspired the laboratories of MoMa and many other things, the second great inspiration for this idea of “pooling knowledge” was the vision and various series of György Kepes. Avant-garde educated the artist, and throughout his life, Kepes proclaimed his idea of going beyond the fear of “pooling knowledge.” The third inspiration came from the Black Mountain College. I have always thought that what we are seeing today is a sort of Black Mountain Collage.
Very often we look at such magical moments in history, they are always moments of confluence, not of segregation, moments when disciplines come together. It was out of this lack that when I grew up as a teenager in the 80s, I somehow felt what I was missing. I always had this desire of bringing disciplines together. I suppose it has also to do with Athanasius Kircher because when I grew up, very near my home-town, in St. Gallen, there was a famous monastery-library. As a child, when I was 9, 10, 11 years old, I was always going to this monastery-library and looked at medieval books, at the codex. Somehow I saw how, in this monastery, all the knowledge from the world was brought together; later on, I got interested in Athanasius Kircher and his idea of connecting to all the disciplines. It is something which has always been there.
I think it is important as a curator to not only curate art but to curate science, to curate music, to curate literature and, of course, maintain a very close dialogue with artists. In the 1960s, Joseph Beuys talked about the “expanded notion of art,” the Erweiterten Kunstbegriff. The idea is that curating always follows art. I never believed that art follows curating, I think it would be an awful idea. Artists first, then curating in dialogue with the art. This is how new exhibition formats develop. After many years of an “expanded notion of art,” it is obviously important that we have an “expanded notion of curating,” and an expanded notion of curating for me includes all the disciplines. The first exhibition where we tried to bring all of this together was in 1999 when we did “Laboratorium.” It was an exhibition in Antwerp, curated with Barbara Vanderlinden, where we worked with the city as a laboratory and we brought together practitioners such as Bruno Latour with “The Theatre of Proof,” artists such as Carsten Höller who developed a “Theater of Doubt,” a “Laboratory of Doubt,” Rosemarie Trockel who injected a “Laboratory of Sleep,”…
But yet at the same time we worked also on the idea of scientific laboratories, because very often we don’t know anything where are the sciences left. The idea was to invite visitors to visit the scientific laboratories of Antwerp and it became a kind of a journey. Armin Linke photographed all of these adventures and it became a kind of a journey into this invisible city, as Italo Calvino calls it La Città Invisibile. These laboratories are part of “The Invisible City” because if they are invisible we don’t know where they are. I would say that the “Laboratorium” in 1999, where Xavier Leroy did a choreography lab, was a first attempt, a sort of sketch, to bring these disciplines together.
The Swiss Pavilion at the 2014 Architecture Biennale, was an homage to two truly trans-disciplinary figures, Lucius Burckhardt and Cedric Price, who both – without building – managed to really change architecture. This was again an attempt of bringing the disciplines together in an exhibition, in the format of a laboratory. But all of these exhibitions are sketches for an institution which I still think is unrealized and which I hope we can build in the 21st century.
We worked very close to it in Venice at the Swiss Pavilion with Herzog & de Meuron on the architecture, with Mirko Zardini of the CCA in Canada on the Cedric Price curation and with, of course, Lucius Burckhardt’s archive. And again with Herzog & de Meuron not only for the exhibition design but also for the curating of Lucius Burckhardt’s archive and then with artists… actually maybe we should quickly look at this booklet…
Here we have the booklet of “A Stroll Through a Fun Palace” and so, together with the architects Herzog & de Meuron, myself as the curator, and of course Lorenza Baroncelli the scientific director, there was a very close collaboration with the artists – Liam Gillick, Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, Philippe Parreno, Tino Sehgal – all of them found the core-group. With Tino and the producer Asad Raza a choreography was developed, where the pavilion is initially empty and then these trolleys are built-out and when visitors enter the conversations start. Each of the participating architects, artists, students were always there for all the six months of the exhibition to engage visitors in conversations. The more visitors there are, the more trolleys come out. And all of the sudden the space goes dark because Philippe Parreno installed the blinds. We had these two installations by Gillick and by Gonzalez-Foerster; and throughout the time of the exhibition we had the opening of these vignettes by Dorothea Von Hantelmann who basically wrote a book about the exhibition as ritual in public. We had the atelier Bow-Wow, the Japanese architects who developed an aviary. Cedric Price developed this beautiful project of an aviary for the London Zoo which moves in the wind according to the mood of the birds. And obviously his dream was always that the birds should always feel free to fly out of the zoo and that’s what Bow-Wow did. They opened the aviary and we can actually experience the voice, the sound, it is like a “messianic moment.” We can see the music of the birds in the tree above the Swiss Pavilion and there is no more cage, the aviary in this sense is open, is gone. We had a Summer Academy with Stefano Boeri and Lorenza Baroncelli. We had, every week, another group of students, architects, and artists taking over the Swiss Pavilion, adding a completely other layer.
So we got the organized part. It is something which is very important in all my projects. There is always this idea of learning from Cedric Price where we have organization, but we also have self-organization. So that there is always a mix of these two things. An exhibition is not just a top-down master-plan, in an authoritarian way. There is always this idea that curating is just a check-list, is just a master-plan. No, it is an evolutive system where actually a lot of self-organized energies are allowed. It’s something which is also very important in relation to what I have learned from Gerhard Richter. Gerhard Richter’s entire œuvre is about this idea, is between control and chance, and to find the negotiation is key with every exhibition to sort of make that happen.
And obviously also contemporary models of the “Fun Palace” were presented. Elizabeth Diller for example presented a project of a mobile, flexible Kunsthalle for the 21th century. Olafur Eliasson had a piece which got activated over time. So that we can imagine, little by little different pieces were activated in the space. It is an archival program; where the exhibition is a time program. For example, Dan Graham at his first ever presentation at an Architecture Biennale, Koo Jeong A built a magnet city revisiting Cedric Price’s idea of the magnet. For him we don’t necessarily have to add infrastructure to a city, but we can actually re-use the existing infrastructures by adding something, it’s almost like magnet healing in Korea, that we add these magnets to the city. Carsten Höller developed something about the smell of Cedric Price related to a tree. Rirkrit Tiravanija worked on the text, on this idea of making the exhibition mobile, carrying it outside the giardini. And of course the whole scientific collaboration including the whole think-tank, the co-curation of Cedric Price’s part by Mirko Zardini; Samantha Hardingham who does the catalogue raisonné of Cedric Price; Eleanor Bron, Cedric’s partner and great actress. So it was a real, and still is a real “collaboratorium” which will continue to grow, but it also was about this idea of a sketch as a work such as the “Fun Palace” actually be. It was not about visiting this as that project from the 60s, but about thinking what it does really mean for the 21th century.