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Q&A featuring Hans-Ulrich Obrist

Sep 06, 2018 - Simon Karlstetter


Tell us about your most recent projects, whether an exhibition or other output.


We’ve just opened a tech-season at the Serpentine with Ian Cheng and Sondra Perry on Net Neutrality it’s also on open source include her avatars, which is very political and her work uses technology in a very political way. Ian Cheng developed a character called Bob, which is a character of Artificial Intelligence, the first artwork you can say, which has a central nervous system, one of the first times visitors can really experience AI in the context of a museum, Bob is alive and is basically evolving as we speak and there is also the Emissary Trilogy and you know these artworks are alive, which means they are never twice the same and it’s for us really a new experience to have this tech season. Then, of course, we have the new Serpentine Pavilion designed by Frida Escobedo, the youngest architect we’ve ever had and in the summer we have Christo and Tomma Abts, so that’s what happening at the Serpentine. And in New York City I’ve been collaborating on the prelude for the show for The Shed, it’s the institution Liz Diller and also and it’s an interdisciplinary organisation which is bringing all the disciplines together and we decided to do a prelude for that and on our way to the site, so we’re walking from DLD, the Frank Gehry building, up to West 31st Street and we are going to experience that prelude with you of the completely flexible architectural structure by Kunlé Adeyemi, who works closely with artist Tino Sehgal.

Serpentine Pavilion 2018, designed by Frida Escobedo, Serpentine Gallery, London (15 June – 7 October 2018) © Frida Escobedo, Taller de Arquitectura, Photography © 2018 Iwan Baan
Serpentine Pavilion 2018, designed by Frida Escobedo, Serpentine Gallery, London (15 June – 7 October 2018) © Frida Escobedo, Taller de Arquitectura, Photography © 2018 Iwan Baan
Tomma Abts, Installation view, Serpentine Sackler Gallery, London (7 June– 9 September 2018) © 2018 readsreads.info
Christo, The Mastaba (Project for London, Hyde Park, Serpentine Lake), Collage 2018: 43.1 x 55.9, Pencil, wax crayon, enamel paint, colour photograph by Wolfgang Volz, map, technical data, mylar and tape, Photo: André Grossmann © Christo 2018

How is your work influenced by or subject to technological changes, advances or either online or otherwise?


Yes, with this tech season we’ve been bringing it into the gallery space, Artificial Intelligence, avatars we’re bringing a manifesto for net neutrality into the gallery and, of course, these are experiences you cannot make in front of a screen, that’s what marks this sensory experience in the gallery. Yet at the same time, of course we also need to enable online experiences which are complementary to the visitors of the exhibitions, so that’s of course through social media, through Instagram through our digital commissions which I showed today at DLD, like the Bad Corgy or also James Bridle has just written an extraordinary book on a New Dark Age where he takes a very critical stance to many phenomena in which we live, you know, the lack of transparency but also the issues we have with technology right now which people just don’t understand and that allows for corporations to manipulate people and also the phenomenon of the filter bubble, initially when Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web the idea was that it would be a kind of a flanerie, that we would be the information-flâneurs and we realised little by little that we’re actually locked into the filter bubble, that there is a kind of lock-in syndrome and the question of course is how can exhibitions beak through this filter bubble and recreate flâneurs for the 21st century and we can do this through online experiences but we can also do this through exhibition experiences. What’s important is that the online experiences aren’t replacing the exhibitions, they’re bringing more visitors to the exhibitions. We now have 1.2 million visitors at the Serpentine which is a record for us –  showing there is a desire for people to have these experiences. If you think about video and moving image in galleries – it’s often a loop; whilst actually now through works like those of Ian Cheng, we no longer have this loop as these simulations continue, as long as there’s electricity, they continue to evolve and of course they create new possibilities for repeated encounters so imagine you have them in your living room, you go on holiday and when you return the piece has evolved – or you have them in a public space and you take the train every day. If you that, in a railway station or in an airport, or a museum as a matter of fact, because museums are of course public spaces, we show a digital artwork à la Ian Cheng, like the way we’ve installed it now at the Serpentine on screens, the work could be permanently installed for the next 10, 50, 100 years, you can always revisit these public spaces and see the work which has evolved, it’s like a pet – and I think that’s what will completely change the way that moving image is going to be used at home and in public space.

Sondra Perry, Installation view, Typhoon coming on, Serpentine Sackler Gallery, London (6 March – 20 May 2018) © 2018 Mike Din

Do you have a favourite device/gadget/ or machine you work with? 


Yeah, I mean it’s definitely the iPhone because I have a lot of conversations on my phone, I do my Instagram on my phone, I love WeChat, I have WhatsApp, I have Telegram, I do less e-mail now, I think e-mail is becoming a more and more defunct medium, I do Instagram direct message and definitely a lot of things happen on the phone – so it’s definitely my favourite but then I also have a very old device, which is this little voice recorder because I often record on the iPhone, but this is the iPhone’s great fault for someone like me who really records his time, I have thousands of hours of conversations so my life is dependent on recording devices – my life needs endless recording devices in a somewhat Warholean sense and so the iPhone has this downside and you have to put it on Airplane mode because if you receive a call while recording it interrupts your recording. So I can’t always be on Airplane mode because I might be expecting messages or want to do a  search during the interview or whatever, so, for this reason, I still have these very old-fashioned voice recorders which are completely offline. I always have three of these voice recorders because if you have one, it can always die, and then you lose your recording, if you have have two, one might die and then you have only one to replace it so it has to be three voice recorders so you just forget all about them and do your interview.


How often does your work have to do with travel?


Always and never – it’s a permanent condition of being on the move and it’s from Robert Walser to do walks and then move between cities – I am more sedentary now than I used to be because I spend 3-5 days a week in London but then I travel weekly. I don’t think the theme as such is present explicitly, I think it’s more implicit and it’s just how I go from city to city and I somehow see myself as a kind of pilgrim and Chris Marker always said that my work is to be the ultimate pilgrim and so as a pilgrim it’s almost like when the monks who went from one monastery to another, I go from city to city and I carry my experiences and knowledge and I meet people, there’s always a lot of chance involved like now we’re in New York City and we’re meeting Alvaro Barrington or Oscar Murillo by chance in the street and that creates a conversation so it’s a kind of flânerie and through this flânerie we’re creating junctions and connections which are an essential part of my work. If I don’t move, if I just stay at home, these junctions or synapses don’t happen. So it’s almost like a physical internet.


Ian Cheng, Emissary Sunsets The Self live simulation and story, infinite duration, sound 2017 Courtesy of the artist, Pilar Corrias London, Gladstone Gallery, Standard (Oslo)


Our research is centred around the intersections of editing, re and decontextualising images and of course technology, perhaps you can talk a little bit about the editing process in your work?


It’s always about reducing because there is so much and so much information and editing is reducing and I think that reducing is a very essential part of what we do. So yes, I think there’s a very important part of editing in curating but it’s important not only to edit but that curiosity leads to expansion so that there are two forces at stake. There’s the force of selection and editing things down and then there’s the force of expansion and curiosity and it’s always an oscillation between these two forces.


Describe how you collaborate with others in your work, what role does collaboration play in your work?


For me there’s a kind of permanent state of collaborations because that’s what curating is, so curating is making junctions not only between objects, quasi-objects and non-objects but curating is also to make junctions between people – so as a junction-maker, J.G. Ballard called this work junction-making, it would always bring people in contact with each other, and all my shows are collaborations because of course collaborations are the essence of what we do, especially as we work with artists so if I curate a group or a solo show, these are collaborations with artists and I very often work with other curators, curators from unexpected fields such as science, music, literature and so there is a never-ending collaboration. My work doesn’t happen by sitting alone in a room.



Ian Cheng, Installation view, Serpentine Gallery, London (6 March – 28 May 2018) © 2018 Hugo Glendinning

What image distribution systems are most relevant to you or used in your work?


I suppose that there are permanently new elements added to the mix, it started off with exhibitions, I did an exhibition in my kitchen – the exhibitions were always accompanied by books and that still is relevant. Books haven’t disappeared, we still make a lot of books. But then there are permanently new elements added to the mix so it’s growing, so of course in the last five, five-and-a-half years Instagram came into play and with quite a central role. Through Instagram, my handwriting project acts as a very big group show I do every day where I upload post-it notes – and yet there are more platforms to come. So it’s going to be interesting, we see that the old platforms don’t disappear but new ones are continuously added. And then even within Instagram, they’ve now added Stories and then Instagram Live, so like yesterday, we did an Instagram Live with Abra from The Shed.  My Instagram is being archived, my interviews are being archived, my exhibitions are being archived, it’s a never-ending, expanding archive and it exists in analogue form in multiple apartments, in Berlin, soon in Arles, in London, it exists in the Cloud it exists in the books that I publish it exists also on many peoples’ websites so I would say there is not one single archive (yet!) – but nothing is ever lost, there could at a certain moment be a time when we pull it all together, but that hasn’t been the main priority so far. Because for me the archive is not so much about looking back but it’s always about looking towards the next chapter, looking forward, looking into the future, so it’s not about nostalgia, it’s not about the past.

Ian Cheng, Installation view, Serpentine Gallery, London (6 March – 28 May 2018) © 2018 Hugo Glendinning


How do you currently view the fractures or paradoxes within the art world and global politics at large, do you see this climate of uncertainty as a cyclical event?


I think we live in a world of uncertainty and unpredictability and at the same time, I think there is so much to do. The work with art and culture at large has never been more urgent so I think it’s in this sense a moment where we, as Tony Morrison said, we have to go to work. We have to work more. It’s not at a moment of crisis in the world that this necessarily has to mean that it has a paralysing impact. On the contrary, that’s when we need to come into action and do a lot of things. We live in a moment where we can only address the big topics of the 21st century, like climate change, and others – if you really pull all the systems of knowledge and really go beyond the fear of ‘pooling’/pulling knowledge; which brings us back to DLD and Steffi Czerny in her belief that we need, for the 21st century, all fields together and this is why I feel so comfortable at DLD because it feels like home in a way. DLD represents many of the values in terms of this resolute interdisciplinarity, it represents many of the things I believe we need to do today.


How is the role of the art institution changing?


We can take this from the talk today (At DLD New York, Hans Ulrich Obrist had a talk with the newly-appointed director of the MET, Max Hollein, entitled: Art Institutions In The Digital Age: Two Visions). It’s the creation of new jobs in the digital age. We have a Chief technology officer now at the Serpentine. We hired Ben Vickers, an artist, to be our Chief Technology Officer. It of course also means that the art institution is not only waiting until people visit, but is actually carrying something into society so that we see artists placement groups bring art into society. The art institution’s role is no longer only about archiving, but about accessibility in relation with new technological changes. Wanting to mirror something online that is available in the physical space is not the point, it’s really about creating experiences for visitors on- and offline that are engaging and add value to the exhibition or project shown. That means an art institution needs not only to adapt to technological changes but also to actively create environments that use technology intelligently and add value for the visitors and thus bring it into society by giving positive examples.


Thank you so much, Hans-Ulrich!

Sondra Perry, Installation view, Typhoon coming on, Serpentine Sackler Gallery, London (6 March – 20 May 2018) © 2018 Mike Din

This interview began at DLD Munich in January and was concluded at DLD New York on the streets of Manhattan between Simon Karlstetter and Hans-Ulrich Obrist with questions provided by Gita Cooper-van Ingen. It is the result of a collaboration between DLD and Der Greif. The audio material captures the various coincidences and situations in between the interview questions. This interview is published in relation with DLD Brussels (September 5, 2018) and DLD Tel Aviv (September 5-6, 2018).


Hans-Ulrich Obrist (born 1968) is an art curator, critic and historian of art. He is artistic director at the Serpentine Galleries, London. Obrist is the author of The Interview Project, an extensive ongoing project of interviews. He is also co-editor of the Cahiers d’art revue. Prior to this, he was the Curator of the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. Since his first show World Soup (The Kitchen Show) in 1991, he has curated more than 250 shows and written and contributed to more than 100 books.


DLD stands for Digital, Life, Design and explores how the digital age fundamentally changes our life, society and business. Since its inception in 2005 it has developed into an interdisciplinary, internationally connected platform for people who have changed or will change the world – with their creativity, their business model, their research findings or their personal involvement in a cause close to their heart. DLD is Europe’s hottest digital innovation conference and has been named ‘one of the two most important innovation conferences in Europe’ by The Economist. Guests and speakers have previously included Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg, Eric Schmidt, Arianna Huffington or Lawrence Lessig, curators Hans Ulrich Obrist and Chris Dercon, architects Zaha Hadid, Rem Koolhaas and Norman Foster, artists like Ai Weiwei, Yoko Ono, Olafur Eliasson and Taryn Simon.


Many thanks to Steffi Czerny (Founder and Managing Director, DLD) & Max Shackleton (Producer to Hans-Ulrich Obrist).