The Dreaming Machine is honored to be part of The Creative Process, an exhibition and international educational initiative traveling to leading universities. As part of the exhibition, portraits and interviews with writers, artists, and creative thinkers are being published across a network of university and international literary/arts magazines. The Creative Process is including work by The Dreaming Machine’s contributors in the projection elements of the traveling exhibition.
Interviewed by Mia Funk
Hans-Ulrich Obrist is Artistic Director of the Serpentine Galleries in London, and Senior Artistic Advisor of The Shed in New York. Prior to this, he was the Curator of the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. Obrist has curated more than 300 exhibitions and lectured internationally at academic and art institutions. He is a co-editor of Cahiers d’Art and a contributing editor to Artforum, AnOther Magazine, 032C and writes columns for Das Magazin and Weltkunst. He received the CCS Bard Award for Curatorial Excellence and the International Folkwang Prize. His recent publications include Mondialité, Conversations in Mexico, Ways of Curating, Lives of The Artists, and Lives of The Architects.
THE CREATIVE PROCESS
Hans-Ulrich Obrist, welcome to The Creative Process. It’s a pleasure to see you here at the Café Flore.
Thank you very much. I did the majority of my meetings here at the Café de Flore during the 14 years I lived in Paris. It was almost like my second office.
THE CREATIVE PROCESS
The last time we met was during Paris Photo. I remember over dinner someone said how you’re forever sharing ideas and connecting people to one another. In a way, it’s like curation.
I’ve always thought that curating has to do with junction making, which is what J.G. Ballard defined it as when I met him. And I’m always thinking of ways to bring people together and make connections between different worlds. I think, if we want to address the big questions or challenges of the 21st century, it’s very important that we go beyond the fear of pooling knowledge and move beyond these silos of knowledge to bring the different disciplines together. With exhibitions, for example, I make junctions between artworks, artists, art, and different disciplines because we live in a society where there are a lot of silos with very different specialized worlds.
THE CREATIVE PROCESS
I know rituals are important for you. Having interviewed thousands of people and curated over 300 exhibitions, what rituals have you observed in artists and very talented people which you’ve found helpful?
DaVinci had this rhythm where he would only sleep for 15 minutes every three hours. As an experiment, I did this for almost a year. It’s how I wrote my first books. Now I sleep much more because it wasn’t fully sustainable. I think the idea of the ritual is interesting because, of course, it involves a certain repetition, a certain stability, even if they’re different each time. Today we live in a situation where we have a lot of communication which lacks community. These devices can be quite isolating. I’ve always had an inclination to introduce rituals to my life. For example, I buy a book every day. Another ritual is the night train.
I started my whole trajectory by using night trains when I was a student in the late 80s, early 90s. In those days, you could go to the railway station at midnight and arrive in any city in Europe. Today, many of these trains have disappeared, and I see it as an incredible necessity to bring them back with artists, architects, and designers and develop a new presence of night trains because they were one of my most important rituals. So it’s not so much about traveling less, but traveling differently. And I think we need to have that possibility of moving slower again, right?
Another ritual for me is reading Édouard Glissant every morning. Glissant very early on understood that the homogenizing forces are at stake also in the world of culture and that this is not the first time we experienced globalization, but it is suddenly, without a doubt, the most vehement moment of globalization we have experienced. And I think it’s important we resist that because homogenized globalization leads to extinction, leads to a disappearance of species, but also disappearance of cultural phenomena. We are losing many languages which are disappearing at a faster speed than ever before.
At the same time, cultural phenomena such as handwriting are disappearing. I dedicate my Instagram, as you might know, to doodling and hand-writing. So every day, I post a handwritten note. “You’re a tree” by Koo Jeong A or Anarchic Gaudí Calligraphy by Claudia Pagès Rabal. So I will post every day a calligraphy or handwritten doodle or note to protest against the disappearance of handwriting.
So, as Édouard Glissant says, “We need to resist homogenized globalization and what disappears with it.” At the same time, Glissant understood early on that there is a counter-reaction at stake and that that counter-reaction to globalization can also be called antiglobalization that will actually lead to the disappearance of tolerance. It will lead to a kind of antiglobalization through nationalism and localisms. And he said we need to resist that as much. We need to vehemently resist these new forms of lack of solidarity. So he said we need to both resist globalization and resist its counter-reaction.
A day for me is very long. If I look at today, for example, it was very intense. When we can make a day into a week or a week into a month, we can stretch time or liberate time. For me, I feel the older one becomes, the faster time passes. With every year advancing, time goes by faster. So I think it’s important that we liberate time. Otherwise, we are somehow imprisoned in our own system of being busy. We need to be able to experiment. So, in that sense, for me it’s about liberating time.
Today I saw Etel Adnan, the great poet, artist, activist, architect, and visionary writer. She always gives me so much courage. I think we live in a world where we need immense courage to function and even more courage, not only to function every day and get out of bed, but we need immense courage to make a contribution to society. So I hope that with my work I can somehow create that. I have a lot of mentors and artists from whom I got advice on how to do it, but I think hopefully it’s a toolbox. I hope that my evocative, sprawling, evolving exhibitions, in a similar way, can be a toolbox for people.
THE CREATIVE PROCESS
I’ve experienced only a small slice of your immense work and, as I listen to you speak, I think that you have a very pure relationship to art. There’s a lot of cynicism that other people have about monetary values attached to art. Sometimes it’s seen either as decorative or having monetary value. Is that disappointing to you? To me, you seem such a contrast to this.
I grew up in a small town in Switzerland called Weinfelden. It’s near the Lake of Constance where three countries meet. Growing up in this village, I would read the village newspaper when I came home from school. There were all these articles about Joseph Beuys having founded the Green Party. The idea of the Green Party and ecology was already there. There was Andy Warhol doing The Last Supper in Milan. These things made me dream. I wanted to be part of the art world and started to visit artists and so on.
I left Switzerland quite early. Before that, I studied economy and ecology with Professor Hans-Christoph Binswanger. Then I got a grant. When I was 22 and a student, I did an exhibition called The Kitchen Show in my kitchen with Peter Fischli and David Weiss from Zürich, Christian Boltanski from Paris, Frédéric Bruly Bouabré from Abidjan. This exhibition had only 29 visitors but became a rumor. People who saw it saw something they had never experienced, a show in a kitchen. And they told their friends, and we did a book, and it became a rumor.
So in a very do-it-yourself way, I had somehow started to work. The show had a budget of 300 Swiss francs. Then I very soon got the grant to go to Paris and became a resident of the Cartier Foundation. Then I met my mentor Suzanne Pagé, who I actually saw today, who now runs the Fondation Louis Vuitton, and she was at the time the director of the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. She gave me my first job. She asked me to write for her Giacometti catalog and interview all the artists who had known Alberto Giacometti, which was an amazing project for a 22-year-old curator to do because I could see Matta. I could go and see Cartier-Bresson, Mario Merz, Franz West… They were all still alive, these historic figures. Then basically I became part of the Musée d’Art Moderne. Suzanne realized that I was more like a free spirit. So she invented this formula migrateur where little exhibitions could happen anywhere in the museum.
So, I had left Switzerland for good. l have a lot of friends there, and I have a show there again called It’s urgent at the Luma Westbau, but I’ve not been based in Switzerland since I was 23. I stopped my studies and went abroad and worked for the Musée d’Art Moderne. My mother, as a kind of a Christmas present at the end of the year, would always give me an envelope with all the articles which had reached the Swiss village from our artf world. Whenever there was an article about contemporary art in the village newspaper she would cut it out and put it in the envelope. Through my mother’s summary of what reaches that little village from our world, I realized how drastically the art world had changed because when I was a kid, it was all about big ideas and changing the world. And little by little, it was no longer about that. What reached the village in Switzerland were auction records.
I’m interviewed almost every day for newspapers or magazines. I’m very regularly asked to comment on the art market. I always say, you’ve got the wrong guy because I know nothing about it. I don’t know about the art market. I mean, it’s not my job. I bring art into the public sector. I work with artists. I write books. I try to curate very public exhibitions. We have more than a million visitors a year at the Serpentine. It’s a very public work, but it has nothing to do with the art market.
I’ve never had a problem with the fact that there is an art market where artists can make a living, but what is an issue is that that becomes the main thing from our world which goes into society because it then replaces the strong ideas. I think today we have a situation where extraordinary artists like the Sondra Perrys and the Ian Chengs and Precious Okoyomon.
And we basically need to find a way that the village newspaper will write again about these ideas and not just about auction records. I think today we must do new experiments in art and technology, which is why at the Serpentine we’ve appointed Chief Technology Officer Ben Vickers. Museums usually don’t have a CTO. We’ve made technology and science central aspects of our organization. Science, research, development, and technology. And so with Ben, we initially started to do commissions, but now we’ve actually made it part of exhibitions, for example, with the Cao Fei exhibition. We’re having her first VR and AR commission with Acute Art. And there’s going to be a kitchen like in my Kitchen Show with a VR kitchen. So 30 years later, we’re now having another kitchen show. We’ve had Hito Steyerl with special apps in the park, an Inequality Walk, and also her imagining Kensington Gardens almost like a sci-fi scenario 40 years into the future.
We have Jakob Kudsk Steensen, that’s a collaboration with BTS, the K-pop band. That’s, of course, also crossing audiences. This is the world of K-pop and this is the world of museums. [Now Obrist picks up a pen and begins sketching on some paper that he constantly has on hand.] There is an overlapping entity, but it’s great if all of a sudden, you bring these two worlds together, then everybody who comes from K-pop also sees Jakob Kudsk Steensen and vice versa. So basically you merge the fields. I think that they can learn a lot from each other. First of all, it’s a crossing of audience, and I’m very glad that all these teenage fans of BTS come to the Serpentine and encounter contemporary art because I believe that contemporary art has a transformative power. It had an incredibly transformative power on me.
I know a lot of people who have these incredibly transformative experiences with art and architecture. A taxi driver told me the other day when he dropped me off at the Serpentine, he asked me if I worked there. He wanted to thank us because last summer his daughter had an epiphany running into the Pavilion that all of a sudden she wanted to become an architect. To encounter art, architecture, or design can have an incredible impact on us, our lives, and be a life-changing positive force. So, I want as many people as possible to have access to that.
This interview was conducted by Mia Funk with the participation of collaborating universities and students. Associate Interviews Producer on this podcast was Ally Chou. Digital Media Coordinator was Yu Young Lee. If you would like to participate in The Creative Process exhibition, podcasts or submit your creative works, just drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.