Hans Ulrich Obrist: On "Ways of Curating"

02/12/2016 05:08 pm ET Updated Feb 12, 2017

Hans Ulrich Obrist is a curator and writer. He is the co-director of exhibitions and programs and the co-director of international projects at the Serpentine Galleries, London. He is also the author of several books, including Interviews, over forty volumes of conversations with artists, architects, writers, filmmakers, scientists, philosophers, musicians, and performers. Our conversation elaborates on some of the key ideas in Ways of Curating, one of his recent books, a tour de force of insights into curating.

Lilia Ziamou: Talk to us about your role as a curator.

Hans Ulrich Obrist: When I started, in the late 1980s, I had a very strong passion for art and I wanted to be useful to art. I think this is the core of curating. Today, the word curating is used everywhere and what curating entails is still the idea of "curare," of taking care, of the curator being a caretaker. The Latin root of the word is still relevant. Furthermore, the "cur" in curating can obviously be freely associated to curiosity. I believe curiosity is why I am a curator. It is a desire to want to know and to connect what we know. Not only making connections but junctions as well. These lead us to one of my favorite definition of curating, which comes from the English writer J. G. Ballard, who told me in our last conversation, just a few months before he died, "A curator is a junction-maker." He explained that on the few occasions he as a novelist curated exhibitions, he made junctions. The question is obviously, what are these junctions?

Historically, from the 19th century to the 1960s, art history is very much a history of objects. In this case, a curator is a junction-maker of objects. I take objects, I install them in a space and I make a junction. Then, in the 1960s, as Lucy Lippard describes so strikingly in her book The Dematerialization of Art, art went beyond objects. A curator is not only a curator of objects but also a curator of non-objects, of immaterial works. Obviously this didn't mean that we no longer curate objects. Even after the 1960s, art history still has amazing objects. Then, there is a third layer of junctions with quasi-objects. Michel Serres has this very interesting notion of the quasi-object; a kind of a performative object that gains meaning if we interact with it. The fourth category is the idea of hyper objects, which is a notion from Timothy Morton, another philosopher. Hyper objects go beyond our idea of time and space. Climate change, for example, is a hyper object.

So, to expand the Ballardian notion of curating, a curator is a junction-maker of objects, quasi-objects, non-objects, and hyper objects. I would add another element; make junctions between people, because this can have major impact. I grew up as a single child in Switzerland. Not in a big city, it was quite narrow, and you feel quite lonely. So, very early on I developed an extreme desire to bring people together. With my projects, I aim at bringing people together. I bring artists together with architects, curators and scientists, and with all kinds of practitioners. That leads us to what I would call an expanded notion of curating because, in a way, Joseph Beuys in the 1960s talked about an expanded notion of art. When art expands, curating has to expand, because curating follows art, it follows artists. I believe that it is never the other way around.

Lilia Ziamou: In Ways of Curating you talk about the importance of unrealized projects. Why are these important to you as a curator?

Hans Ulrich Obrist: This is actually a recurrent obsession of mine. It's the question I ask when I meet an artist or work with an artist. This was the idea of Alighiero Boetti, the Italian visionary artist. He told me, "You should not mold artists into your mold, but you should listen to artists, to what they really want to do." I think this is my job. To listen to these exciting, unrealized projects. I'm talking to novelists, poets, architects, scientists, and ask them what is their unrealized project. Not only to document it, but also to eventually make some of the most exciting ones happen. So, in 1996 we did a book called Unbuilt Roads where I asked 106 artists to send me their favorite unrealized projects. Since then, we have been able to realize many projects. That leads to the other definition of the curator. I think the curator is also an enabler. Someone who makes seemingly impossible things possible. There are many different types of unrealized projects. Projects that are ahead of their time, when the technology isn't there, yet. Projects that are realizable but there just wasn't enough money, or competitions were lost. Then, there are unrealized projects because artists were too shy to realize them. And there are projects that were censored. And projects that are too small to be realized. These are all projects we need to document. I'm interested in documenting them and in finding great projects that have to be saved for humanity.

Lilia Ziamou: You also talk about experimentation. What are the parallels between experimentation in art and science and the importance of experimenting?

Hans Ulrich Obrist: Yes, I've always believed that the notion of the laboratory, of experimenting is very powerful. In one of my least known exhibitions, but one of my favorite ones, Laboratorium (co-curated with B. Vanderlinden) we attempted to bridge the gap between the vocabulary of science, and the concerns and preconceptions of the audience. We asked questions such as, what is the meaning of laboratories and the meaning of experiments? When do experiments become public? When does an experiment reach public consensus? Artists, scientists and architects, had to think about the place where they work, where they make inventions, how do they make inventions. We asked what is an artist's studio? What is a scientist's laboratory? Bruno Latour's network theory was very relevant because we were wondering how in the digital age, the laboratory becomes a network. This was in 1999, the digital age had started to gain momentum. It was an interesting opportunity at that moment to reflect on, and we gathered a think tank with art historians, science historians, and many artists. Bruno Latour who now is one of the most influential philosophers and historian of science of the 21st century, had never thought about curating an exhibition. He invited scientists and artists to do an experiment in public, like a performance. That took him into the art of exhibition making and he went on to organize three big exhibitions. My work as a curator is not only to do exhibitions. It is also to bring people together. That is one of the things I'm most happy about. When my work goes beyond what I have planned and becomes a catalyst for change, for new adventures, for experimentation. I believe in experiments. We need to make mistakes and learn from these mistakes to make new mistakes. If we stop experimenting, we stop learning.

Lilia Ziamou: What are some traditional understandings that should be challenged?

Hans Ulrich Obrist: The checklist often stands in the way of the laboratory. There is a need for exhibitions as experiments. We often need a checklist 18 months before the exhibition. It is important that all evolves and that we can make changes until the last moment. And that we can even change the exhibition while it is on view. That doesn't mean that everything moves, because in this very accelerated world, we need stillness, silence, and quiet moments. I believe in that. This is not about art being only about movement, but about the diversity of the experience. We need to resist the rigidity of the checklist. I also think, that we always learn from artists, in many different ways. What sometimes stands on the way is that we put artists in a box, that is to say we attribute them to movements. We should never put artists in a box! When you talk to artists, they always say that there's no such thing. To work with artists is a great adventure for me. They take us to places we could never imagine.

The transcribed text has been edited for length and clarity.