DATE: 8/6/2012 | BY CORY REYNOLDS
In the current issue of JRP | Ringier's excellent print newsletter, publisher Lionel Bovier speaks with renowned curator, critic and art historian Hans Ulrich Obrist about books, music, new technology, and his vision for an "evolving, never-ending, and polyphonic novel of our time."
LIONEL BOVIER: You've often mentioned the importance of different paces within your curatorial and critical work, either slowing down or speeding things up to obtain results that would escape the routine of "usual formats." The least one can say regarding publications is that you've chosen the second option… You've become a true "book-machine"! And we, of course, have added to this with the release of A Brief History of Curating, as it has not only been reprinted regularly, but also translated into Italian, Brazilian, and Czech, and soon into Chinese, Korean, and Russian… I believe that, behind the energy you put into producing the content of this book and your generosity in letting it be published in all kinds of different contexts, lies a profound interest in the question of the dissemination and circulation of ideas. In a way, it connects with projects like Do It…
HANS ULRICH OBRIST: Books have always been an important part of my curatorial activity. It started with the first exhibition in my kitchen, which resulted in a series of artists' books in a box. Ever since, I have been interested in editing artists' books and exhibitions in book form, such as Do It, an anthology of artists' instructions, or the formulas for the 21st century. Besides this are the interview books; I have so far recorded 2,500 hours of interviews and this can lead to all kinds of books. The interviews can be compiled according to geographies—all my London interviews or all my China interviews, etc. Or they can be ordered according to different fields and topics, like all my interviews with composers or architects. The Brief History of Curating book is part of this category. I became interested to find out more about the history of my own field, and who the curators were from previous generations who offer a toolbox for the 21st century. Panofsky once said that we always invent the future from the fragments of the past. Now, to answer your question on speed and slowness, Jean-Philippe Toussaint has just written an amazing new book on urgency and patience; for books we always need both urgency and patience.
LIONEL BOVIER: A Brief History of Curating has been acknowledged as a source book for students and professionals alike; for someone like you, who believes in the importance of "oral history" and alternative methodologies for art history, I think it's an interesting sign of recognition, as well as a meaningful echo of your understanding of the curator as a "passeur" in the Benjaminian sense, a recessive and intermediary figure.
HANS ULRICH OBRIST: I hope that books can be toolboxes. A Brief History of Curating felt very necessary, as many of the pioneering curatorial ideas of previous decades are poorly documented and I felt the urge to follow Eric Hobsbawm's "protest against forgetting" and bring these ideas back to life. The curator is indeed a "passeur" and Benjamin was an influence; but also Robert Walser who taught me that everything is in-between. During my adolescence I read Carl Seelig's book about his famous walks with Robert Walser again and again. It is this book that gave me the idea to start to record and write down the conversations I have with artists. Jonas Mekas gave me the idea to film them, so since 1994 all the interviews exist also in film form.
LIONEL BOVIER: A Brief History of Curating is now, since this year, available as an eBook, on iPad, Kobo, and Kindle formats; how do you envision the importance and the development of these formats in the near future?
HANS ULRICH OBRIST: I am excited that A Brief History exists as an eBook and in other digital formats. I think digital technology will be very useful for making accessible my archive of filmed interviews. We have started a project with the University in Karlsruhe and the Los Angeles-based Institute of the 21st Century to digitize my archive. So all the interviews I did with Cedric Price were tagged and are now online and one can put in keywords like "Fun Palace" and then see all the moments Cedric talks about this visionary and unrealized art center. One can imagine that, in the near future, when the entire archive is tagged, the different protagonists can start to talk to each other and it can all become an evolving, never-ending, and polyphonic novel of our time.
LIONEL BOVIER: The new volume we are working on, A Brief History of New Music, is an anthology of interviews with avant-garde, experimental, and cult composers, tracking the evolution of music from Stockhausen to electro-acoustic, and bringing to the fore figures such as Tony Conrad, Brian Eno, and Kraftwerk. I would say that this interest in music is one of your "horizontal" translations from the field of visual arts to another field, as you did with architecture, for instance. Would you agree?
HANS ULRICH OBRIST: Alexander Dorner, the most visionary museum director of the first half of the 20th century, said in his book "Ways Beyond Art" that if we want to understand the forces effective in visual arts, it is important to understand what is happening in music, in literature, in architecture, in science, etc. After an initial phase focused on art, I started, from 1991 onward, to carry out intense research in science and architecture, which led to projects such as Cities on the Move and Laboratorium. When Rem Koolhaas invited me in 2000 to co-curate with himself, Stefano Boeri, and Sanford Kwinter, the millennium show MUTATIONS, I focused on the invisible city, the rumor city, and the city soundscape. This show triggered an intense research in sound and many interviews with composers. Many of these interviews are now gathered together in this book, such as the conversation that Philippe Parreno and I had with Pierre Boulez about polyphony and scores (and scores of scores). This conversation was itself the trigger for Il Tempo del Postino, the opera Philippe and I co-curated for The Manchester International Festival and Art Basel/Beyeler Foundation at the Stadt Theater in Basel.
LIONEL BOVIER: In general, how would you describe the importance of printed matter in your practice and, specifically, how would you define the relationship between curatorial practice and publishing?
HANS ULRICH OBRIST: An exhibition in printed-matter form is as important as an exhibition in an exhibition space. I have never curated a show that has not produced either a book, an artist's book, or a pamphlet. Curating is like running a book machine; and as Anthony Powell wrote, "books do furnish a room."
A Brief History of Curating
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