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Ibraaz Talks: Global Art Forum 8

Hans Ulrich Obrist: in conversation with Omar Kholeif

007 / 29 July 2014

In March 2014, Ibraaz and the Kamel Lazaar Foundation launched an online media partnership with Art Dubai 2014 for the eighth iteration of the Global Art Forum.


In this exclusive interview from Art Dubai, Ibraaz Senior Editor Omar Kholeif talks to Hans Ulrich Obrist, co-director of Serpentine Gallery, London, memory, digital lives, and using artists to transcend time.





Omar Kholeif: My name is Omar Kholeif, Senior Editor of Ibraaz and I am here with Hans Ulrich Obrist, who is the co-director of the Serpentine Gallery in London and also interlocutor extraordinaire, so it's interesting to be interviewing an interlocutor, one of the most significant, I think. First of all, I want to ask a question that ties in with the theme of the Global Art Forum. The title of the forum, which came from Sophia Al-Maria, is 'Meanwhile…History' and I have been thinking very much about this idea of history over the last coupled of days, and how the digital environment that we live in has created a different kind of relationship to history, and I think that very often we tend to be in a position where we are constantly being asked to foretell the future and to imagine what the future might look like. And I was wondering what your relationship is and what your take is on this urgency to foretell the future?


Hans Ulrich Obrist: I've always thought that as a curator one is often asked to foretell the future of art and obviously that is impossible – only artists could ever talk about this, curating follows art. This is why the moment I started this exhibition project I asked many artists to tell us about the future. So to cut a long story short, I don't believe that curators should talk about the future of art, they should talk about the present of art, about working with artists; it's about the past also – but it's very important that it's not just about the past but also about the recent past. Something that is very often neglected is the recent past – we often look back to previous centuries, but the recent past can easily fall into oblivion. One thing that I think is very interesting about your question is that I think curating is very much a negotiation always, between the past, present and the future.


However I think memory is a very urgent thing for our twenty-first century – and paradoxically so – because if you think about it in the information age there is this exponentially growing information where we produce more information now than in the entire history that has passed. Nevertheless, it may very well be that amnesia, as Rem Koolhaas once told me, is actually at the very of core of the digital age and I remember when we worked at the Serpentine Gallery with the late Eric Hobsbawm on the Memory Marathon (2012) he talked about the protest against forgetting and I think that plays a large role in the work of many artists now. With the question of memory, and I had a long conversation about this with Israel Rosenfield many years ago, if you look into neuroscience there is no storage space for memory in the brain. The neuroscience description of memory is a very dynamic one – memory is a dynamic process which is always reconstituted in the present. I think that the idea of memory being dynamic and not static is very important.


The other thing is that, in terms of exhibitions and exhibition making, it is extraordinary how we can always revisit the past through a new generation of artists. I will never forget when I worked at Musée d'Art Moderne in Paris – we were with Cerith Wyn Evans working on a show and Cerith took me to the basement of our museum and made us read his cover and showed us an amazing collection that we had at the museum of Brion Gysin that hadn't been shown in decades. Of course now Brion Gysin inspires generations of artists but it needed Cerith to somehow guide us to it. So I believe in the idea that we can revisit the past and find something new.


OK: This is an interesting point because the fair this year is looking at ideas of modernism, and especially Arab modernism, and how they become represented or rearticulated in this particular moment. But as you say, we are in an era where our information and access to art and cultural production – the stream as it were – is much more filled with content and it is much more complex to sift through that. So I wondered what role you think curators should be playing in terms of sifting through that agenda and reawakening things and bringing them back out of the archive and activating them in the present? We have seen in the last few years a real focus on regionalism – this real interest in, for example, North Africa and the Middle East and, this year in the fair, this focus on the Caucasus and Central Asia. How those priorities are negotiated is always a question for contention and I wondered if you, as a curator, could locate the methodology or rationale perhaps about how these historical figures or artists might come back into the present?


HUO: Yes, it's interesting to have this question here in Dubai because I remember when I came for the first time for the first year of Art Dubai and I did what I always do, which is part of my methodology, and had conversations with artists. Obviously, here in Dubai it is a gathering of many artists from all over the Middle East but also India and all over the world – a gathering point. I asked several artists who their inspirations were, who were the newest bourgeois of the region. And it is really through this question that I came to discover the work of Etel Adnan the very first time I came here and also Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian who are both great pioneers with whom I have worked on many book projects, exhibitions, marathons and different projects and who inspire me every day.


I think in some ways very often the art world has this great mechanism where art travels through a new generation of artists being inspired and I think that is the greatest thing that can happen. It's also a wonderful way that art travels because it's meaningful – it's a tool box for the future. When I published a long interview with Richard Hamilton a couple of years ago many young artists told me that listening to him reading inspires them to do work, books and art. And looking at Hamilton in the context here, as well as Etel Adnan and Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian, it is this question of being a tool box for new generations. So it's not just about looking back – although it is that as well because a lot of young artist do not get the recognition they deserved because of the fact that they weren't well connected earlier on – that's urgent. But what is also urgent is that their work continues to inspire.


OK: It's very interesting that you are pushing the baton back into the field of artists, which, for me, suggests that for artists in particular territories or regions (where the history is not always visible in a space and where there is traditionally a western or north American arch) there is an onus on the them to articulate the historical trajectory which they may have been inspired by or come from. I think that is an interesting thing in a region where there isn't a history of art criticism and no articulation of it in the Arabic language, and where there are no written histories of exhibitions or curatorial histories. I am reminded of a publication that Dina Ramadan talks about which is from the 1950s called Sawt al-Fanan, about how it was Egyptian artists that were formative in brokering taste in Egypt of Egyptian modernism in that period. The question here is do you think structuring curatorial practice is urgent or necessary in this region or do you think that we should be investing much more in artistic practices and using them as the barometers of taste and formation?


HUO: I think it is always both. I think the other is polyphony. Of course, artists are always in the centre -–there would be no art without artists. Curating and all the other aspects follow art. But it is important that there is a strong curatorial discourse, critical discourse and that there is publishing. It is interesting because we are about to launch the new book with Susan Hefuna here later today and she is the one who said I should really look into Monir. And when I met Monir I realised that she is this extraordinary artist who lives in Tehran and has almost seven decades of work and yet there isn't really a big monograph of the works. I think it was Ernst Bloch who once said that when something is missing we should do it. And I thought that this should be an exhibition or a book and this is how the monograph with Monir happened. There are many rooms in her house where she's a poet, or a leading philosopher, or a novelist, or an amazing visual artist, a painter – she has all these parallel realities and they had never been brought together in a big exhibition. This is the exhibition that opened a few days ago. And I think that that is something that is urgent now because there have been many survey exhibitions and exhibitions that ended in formation and that showed these artists somehow, but I think it is important now that there are in depth monographs, books and solo shows for them too as there would be for western artists.


OK: It's an interesting point that you're making about print culture and material form and cultures of exhibition-making but I am also wondering about the idea of being dislocated or geographically located in a particular space and how the digital sphere can open up different possibilities. You were showing your Instagram earlier of an image from CAMP, and I was wondering what possibilities you think there are for art, criticism and practice to form and proliferate and be distributed more globally through these platforms?


HUO: Yes, the CAMP example is interesting because CAMP came from the Serpentine Gallery's Edgware Road project which we launched in 2009 and our team – Julia Peyton-Jones, Sally Tallant, Janna Graham, Amal Khalaf and, more recently, our new head of programmes Jochen Volz – invited artists to take part in the residency. The idea was to bring artists to London over time, so it's not something that is fast but rather a long duration project. It is also very physical, the idea that the artists really come to London and spend time in Edgware Road. It ties in with your first question about memory – it's extraordinary that there are these layers of history in Edgware Road that are largely forgotten and the artists spent time there making so many discoveries, which made us discover all these things, too. CAMP were involved in our Indian Highway exhibition (2008) and then they came back and got very involved with the Edgware Road Project and we also developed an archive project with them, which has now become a book.


So it's both – I don't think that it is a question of either or – do we work digitally do we work physically; it's always both. I think in some ways obviously a book is very different – there used be a need for fast books and this idea of the paperback and so on to make the books more accessible, but we no longer need that because we can download it on the Kindle or read it online. A book is a thing which is done with a lot of time, focus and attention. There is this book here that we did in collaboration with Brownbook as a real artist book – they were very involved from the very beginning in the design and every page is an artwork and you can choose the paper, the object, the way it's wrapped, all of that – it's a mobile exhibition and that becomes much more important. It's something that Cy Twombly always told me about these books – wonderful collaborations that there were between poets and artists where one really had the book as a fetish. That is incredibly important; that physicality, that tactile notion in the digital age. However, I do think there are lots of possibilities for how we can curate digitally.


When I started to do my first exhibitions in the early 90s it was in the fax age and I remember these endless tens of metres of faxes when I came back from a trip and it was a very different way of organizing a show, which now goes with thousands of emails. However, the meeting with the artist – the studio visit – was never replaced, as important as it was the first day, as a teenager I visited Fischli and Weiss. It's as important in 2014 as then. It is the essence, the key thing of all the work.


However, there are indeed new ways of working that are made of a very different type of method of work. For me it has always been a question of could one curate exhibitions online? Then at a certain moment when I was on social media a year ago and I visited Ryan Trecartin, who is so instrumental in a whole new generation of artists working with the digital. In a way his house is one of the great factories of our time. He and Kevin McGarry, the great writer and critic, and I had breakfast and Ryan just took my mobile phone and downloaded all the software for Instagram and said: you are going to join Instagram now. And then he took a photograph and he posted it to all his friends and said Hans Ulrich joined Instagram – it was like being thrown into the water and then having to swim. And then I didn't actually know at all what I would do with it – I knew I wouldn't photograph my dinner and breakfasts and that I wouldn't want it to be anecdotal but I thought about what could be an exhibition. It was almost like going back to the beginnings of a curatorial activity like when I was on night trains and I would keep thinking and I had no clue what to do and then I suddenly had an idea to do a show in my kitchen. It came suddenly. And it was the same thing for weeks, I was puzzled and I didn't really know what to do with Instagram. I made one photograph in Ryan's studio because I thought his calendar was very beautiful – he always writes over things in pen to say what's done and what's not done and it was like a hand drawing. I posted that and it was my first Instagram ever.


But then I wasn't really sure how to do it each time and I started to get artists to do something for Instagram but then it didn't really work. Then all of a sudden, Etel Adnan – it all leads back to Etel Adnan, one of our great visionaries of our time – and the great Simone Fattal in France and it was winter and very stormy and were at the Britannia and walked on the beach and then we went for a coffee. Then Etel wrote something on a piece of paper and I thought her handwriting was so beautiful and it reminded me of something Umberto Eco had said about how handwriting disappears – many teenagers now don't use handwriting, it's all digital. And he said we should somehow revert that, but I was thinking it was difficult to revert things because we are in this digital age which has huge advantages. However, I thought about how we could bring handwriting back into that digital age. I've always hand written letters and then I scan and email them, but then I thought maybe we could use social media for that same purpose – use Instagram and tweet, because twitter is about short texts.  So we could Instagram and tweet these sentences but they would be handwritten and celebrate handwriting. At the beginning it was an art project and then gradually it became a movement against the disappearance of handwriting and I post a sentence from an artist, architect or a scientist every day – so here today, from Dubai, on the occasion of the launch of the CAMP-Serpentine-Brownbook publication I have posted two post-its from CAMP.


OK: That's brilliant because you are bringing digital back to this idea of never forgetting and how we can continue to reinvigorate and bring different historical moments, trajectories and forms back. I think that's a very nice way to end this conversation here. Thank you so much Hans Ulrich Obrist.


HUO: It's such a pleasure, thank you.

About the author

Omar Kholeif

Omar Kholeif is a curator, writer, editor and sometime producer. He is the Manilow Senior Curator at the MCA Chicago. Previously he was Curator at the Whitechapel Gallery, London, Senior Visiting Curator at Cornerhouse and HOME, Manchester and Senior Editor at Ibraaz. The author of over a dozen books, he also writes widely for the international press and was a founding editor of Portal 9, an Arabic-English journal of urbanism and architecture. His publications include, Vision, Memory and Media (2010),  Far and Wide: Nam June Paik (2013), You Are Here: Art After the Internet (2014), Jeddah Childhood circa 1994 (2014), Before History (2015), Two Days After Forever: A Reader (2015) and Moving Image (2015). Follow Omar on Twitter: @everythingOK.



Chapters in this series