Hans-Ulrich Obrist, Serpentine Galleries, London (Chapter 5/7)

An experimental conversation with Hans-Ulrich Obrist (Chapter 5/7)

Conversation in-progress…

Conversation transcription below

Tiziana Casapietra: In order to participate in the Creative Europe 2014-2020 calls for proposals, it is asked to work in the direction of involving different audiences and to reach people not that familiar with the cultural world. What do you think about it?
Hans-Ulrich Obrist: Yes, absolutely, your question about involving different audiences. We are just going to the Marathon next week, it is the ninth Marathon. When I joined the Serpentine Gallery in 2006, and Julia Peyton-Jones, the director, and I, as the co-director, started our collaboration. One of the first thing we came about, was to combine the Pavilion and the Marathons. Julia invented in 2000 this idea of a Pavilion, this idea of bringing architects into the context of an art institution, inviting them every year to design a Pavilion in front of the Serpentine, on this small piece of land, and completely reinvent it every year.
It’s almost like building a new wing every year, it is actually more than that, it is like building a new institution every year, adding a new Serpentine every year, for the summer months from June to October, and defining the content, all the meaning and the necessity, of what such a new institution means. It is not just like when you have runs every ten or twenty years, an expansion or change the architecture; it’s an annual rotation, it’s an annual invention. I came up with this idea of the Marathon, which has to do a lot with your previous question of how we can avoid that the art world only looks on itself, how we can keep it more open, and how we can create a sort of an environment where all the fields connect. The Marathon, as a format, was originally a knowledge festival.
I came to this idea in 2005 in Stuttgart, in the Theater der Welt festival there, with Marie Zimmermann and Christine Peter who invited me to experiment in a theater festival with time. I said, you know I do this conversations, maybe we could do a non-stop conversation, and I would sort of try to make a portrait of a city, and it’s almost impossible to make a synthetic portrait of the city.

Extinction Marathon, 2014. Courtesy Serpentine Galleries, London.

Extinction Marathon, 2014. Courtesy Serpentine Galleries, London.

Oskar Kokoschka, the Austrian painter, already talked about this early in the 20th century, when he said that “whenever you paint a city, the moment it is painted on the canvas, the city has already changed.” So it is almost impossible to actually have the complexity of the city, he is almost like forbidding this idea of a synthetic image of a city.
It’s very interesting to think how we could do a very polyphonic portrait of a city like Stuttgart, that’s where it started, in 2005, by bringing all these different disciplines, experiences, intensities, and protagonists together and starting a conversation. When then in 2006, we started the Serpentine collaboration, Julia and I invited Rem Koolhaas to do the Pavilion, he developed it as a Speech Bubble as Cedric Price, in a almost like new form of aviary, because the Pavilion could actually fly potentially out of the park, could let-in fresh air, it could go up and down, on sunny days it could go up, then it could be a shelter. And in this sort of “speech bubble conversation architecture,” we developed the first Marathon in London in 2006.
It was actually an infinite conversation that we made through 72 interviews, the portrait of London was thus ended up after 24 hours, with Doris Lessing who told us about the world being at the precipice, it was incredibly moving, and it also became then a book, the idea of what would be London in 2006.
The next year we had Olafur Eliasson who designed the Pavilion with Snøhetta, Kjetil Thorsen. He felt that we have talked enough and it would be the moment to do things. In a follow-up to “Laboratorium,” he proposed that we do the “Experiment Marathon” so we invited about sixty practitioners to do an experiment in public. So there, something interesting happened, because the Marathon in a way became a group-show as well, it was no longer just a conference, or a symposium, or an interview marathon, but it became, as one could say, a group-show where every artist, scientist has 15 minutes instead of space… Normally with a group show you give an artist walls and space, here we gave the artist time and it led to this series of performances and experiments made in public collaboration also with edge.org.
All of these Pavilions then evolve, and all of these Marathons evolve, and now we are at year 9. It is the ninth Marathon. For this Pavilion, it’s the Pavilion of Smiljan Radić of Chile and, in this context, there will be the Marathon with Gustav Metzger, so we again collaborate with an artist. Gustav Metzger who says that extinction is really a very urgent topic because we have more species which disappear. Obviously the focus goes on the very well-known examples like the panda, but there are so many other species. A.S. Byatt asked the other day, when have we last seen a centipede? I think that it is a very interesting question to everyone who would watch this interview. When have you seen the last time a centipede? It’s the question of A.S. Byatt. There are many many smaller organisms which disappear, and it is not only species, it is also cultures, it is languages. We can for example also see hand-writing: hand-writing is on the brink of extinction.
Less and less people use hand-writing and there is a whole generation growing up with the internet and, obviously, this generation which we are mapping with Simon Castets in the 89plus research is an extraordinary generation. It is a whole new generation of artists, poets, technologists emerging now, born after 89, and to look at their work is very very exciting, we try to gather it on the website through conferences, through events, and exhibitions. What we can see is that for a generation who grew up with internet, hand-writing plays a less big role. And it is even more so for children now who barely use hand-writing. Umberto Eco wrote a text some years ago saying that hand-writing is at risk and that we have to do something about it. So I felt that it could be great to not only talk about it in the contest of the Extinction Marathon where Gustav Metzger developed an extinction hand-writing, a very specific type of hand-writing. But I also thought it would be interesting to kind of do a movement on Instagram and Twitter where I would post, every day, an hand-written sentence by an artist, a scientist, or an architect, to celebrate the diversity of hand-writing. The fact is that your hand-writing, my hand-writing is never the same, two people never have the same hand-writing: if you take a thousand people there are a thousand different forms of hand-writing. But that is only one aspect of this topic of extinction. There is also the disappearance of languages, the disappearance of cultures, and that will be all discussed in these two days of the Extinction Marathon.
To come back to your question, what does it all mean in relation to different audiences? So obviously when you have an architecture conference, you have got mostly the architecture crowd who would come, when you have an art lecture talk the art world would come, for science it is the science community. And I think it’s very important to mix it, to completely mix it.
The Marathons are kind of a way to mix it all, because you have got a scientist to speak, an artist to speak, and we are not creating this knowledge ghettos, we are basically mixing all the different fields. The result is that very often visitors, audience who come to see a performance by an artist would stay then for the presentation of a mathematician, who then stay for a talk by a technologist. So, little by little, it’s not only bring together, making junctions between these different practitioners, but it is also making junctions between all these different audiences. Building more of these passerelles.
I think it was Félix Fénéon who talked about this idea. Félix Fénéon the french anarchist friend of Georges Seurat and Toulouse-Lautrec, a great writer. He wrote – and this was a great inspiration also for my idea of curating – Fénéon wrote about this idea of the passerelles, we have to build passerelles, we have to build many many passerelles. And that is obviously also true for exhibitions. I believe a lot in this idea of Gilbert & George of “Art for All,” indeed we have free admission at the Serpentine. It is very important that no one is excluded and in this sense even more bridges are built.
This idea also of connecting… It’s again also the question of how can curating be urbanism, how can it connect to the city, how can it bring things together in a city. Some years ago at the Serpentine with Julia Peyton-Jones and Sally Talant, our then head of programs, and our teams, it was about 6-7 years ago, we realized that there was no connection between the Serpentine, Kensigton Gardens and the very nearby Edgware road which is only a few minutes away.

Extinction Marathon, 2014. Courtesy Serpentine Galleries, London.

Marcus de Sautoy at the Extinction Marathon, 2014. Courtesy Serpentine Galleries, London.

And the Edgware road has an extraordinary history of the middle-east, there are many many layers… It is very much what Édouard Glissant describes, it’s many archipelagos, it’s an incredible complex urban tissue, history of many communities. And we felt that it would have been very interesting to kind of, all of the sudden, in the context of the Serpentine, create an awareness for this Edgware road, but also in the Edgware road have residencies and use the street as a Serpentine project.
So the Edgware road’s project has now been developing with residences for artists from Beirut and Cairo, and at the same time bringing artists from London to Beirut and Cairo. In a way it’s again, as initially discussed, it’s a project which now took 6-7 years. These things are slow, they take time, it is the opposite of the “Fly-in, Fly-out” curating, it’s how can we create connection.

All images have been kindly provided by Hans-Ulrich Obrist. For the Extinction Marathon’s pics click here for full credits.

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Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3 

Chapter 4

Chapter 5 

Chapter 6 

Chapter 7