An interview with Hans Ulrich Obrist


Part II. 

(Read Part I. HERE)

Hans Ulrich Obrist is famed for his undying curiosity, an appetite for knowledge that makes him a familiar figure at obscure exhibitions, conferences and book markets around the world. The conversation has here turned to the limits of knowledge, about the possibility, and desirability, of knowing everything. The White Review has proposed that the role of the curator is comparable to that of the editor, making selections on behalf of their intended audience, and suggested that the curator’s role has become more important with the advent of the digital age and the accompanying proliferation of easily accessible information. -Ben Eastham

Hans Ulrich Obrist: The notion of the curator has changed a lot. When I told my parents I was going to be a curator, they thought I wanted to enter the medical profession. The fact the profession was quite obscure at the time led to A Brief History of Curating [in which Obrist collected together interviews with influential curators], an attempt to discover the history of curating. But the use of the term ‘curator’ has grown exponentially over the past couple of years. It has to do with navigation; we live in an age with an abundance of information and people need guides, editors.

The big question now is how are we going to edit for the digital world? Because there will be a different way of editing, of selecting. With these extraordinary abundances of information how can one make sense of my 2,000 hours of film, without just adding more noise? What could we do with the tapes I made with [influential British architect] Cedric Price? I would always go at 8am to his office, the famous all-white room, and we’d have a whiskey and record the interview. Sometimes he would make a demonstration with umbrellas, or he’d show me his boxes full of drawings, it was really magical. He never wanted to do more than half an hour, so we did twenty sessions of thirty minutes. I have ten hours of tape now, but to just throw them online would be pointless. One possible way around it is by tagging phrases and themes, so that the viewer can skip to them. We started to tag all the material, so now you can type in ‘Fun Palace’ and get the five passages in which he talks about that, or ‘Umbrella’ and see the one moment that Cedric opens his umbrella on a sunny day in his office. And that gives me a lot of hope that I can crack the issue of what to do digitally with these interviews in the long run. If you could tag all the 2,000 hours properly then you create a situation where the living talk to the dead. 

The White Review: This idea of tagging is so interesting because it automatises the method of selection, and in fact removes the curator from the process. To borrow a phrase from Walter Hopps, it frames abundance rather than annihilates it. The viewer is allowed to navigate his or her own course without having it dictated to them. I wonder how that relates to your own practice – the idea of removing yourself from the process of curating?

HUO: It is a huge topic, the notion of self-organisation, and the idea of framing abundances is very beautiful. It has to do with the question of how is it possible eventually, as a curator, to escape the idea that you are a master planner? Historically, the curator was the one who made the checklist, who created the master plan. That notion of self-organisation was actually realised in architecture in the 1950s and 1960s. Cedric Price called it the Non-Plan [in his book of the same name, published 1968]. That was a great inspiration for me.

What I’ve done is relatively simple: I’ve just brought these urbanists’ experience of self-organisation into curating. I made a transfer. At some point I realised, through Alexander Dorner, that if you want to understand the forces that are in effect in art, it is important that you go into other disciplines. And that’s when I started to extend my interview approach into science, into literature, into music.

With regards to exhibitions, I have tried to create ‘temporary autonomous zones’, as we did with Cities on the Move, in which there is space for change and movement that is not premeditated. It has to do with energy: very often when you have an exhibition with a master plan, that master plan is finished five months before the opening. The exhibition opens and it feels dead. I’m obsessed by energy and I always want my exhibitions to have energy and be about energy. This is a self-organisation model: for example, with Cities on the Move, or even with more recent shows like the Lyon Biennale, you bring in new models for different rules of the game. It’s more dynamic then because there are feedback loops, as Cedric would say [Price drew on early cybernetics to theorise a style of architecture that would be flexible, reactive and responsive to the needs of its inhabitants].

TWR: Price promoted dynamic over static systems, which seems to tie in with Alexander Dorner’s maxim that the role of the museum is to build bridges between the arts and other disciplines. It’s noticeable how many of the curators you interviewed in A Brief History of Curating started out in different disciplines and found themselves organising exhibitions almost by accident. That to me seems tremendously important, the fact that people like Lucy Lippard could bring entirely different energies and experiences to the practice. I wonder if you think now, as curation has become this profession that can be studied academically, whether some of that is being lost? Whether the influence of different disciplines is being compromised by curation being professionalised, by its being a career option subject to set texts and established principles?

HUO: That is a risk but at the same time I’m optimistic, because there are so many possibilities. There will be, and there are, curators who find completely new avenues. Look at the internet, for example: there is so much potential there for inventing new shows. The only thing which would worry me is if curating became too disconnected from art. Curating is not an autonomous discipline; it is a profoundly hybrid discipline. It is, by necessity, defined by its relationship to art. Without art there is no curating, and without dialogue there is no curating.

This is a short excerpt – the full interview is available to read in issue number five of The White Review, available here.