Interview with Artistic Director of the Serpentine Galleries, Hans Ulrich Obrist

Caleb Culverwell, Barclays Private Bank: Could you tell us a bit about yourself?

Hans Ulrich Obrist, Serpentine Galleries: My name is Hans Ulrich Obrist. I’m the Artistic Director of the Serpentine Galleries here in Kensington Gardens, London.

Our programmes involve art, but we also forge many connections with other disciplines. At the Serpentine, we believe that, if you want to understand the forces which are effective in visual arts today, it’s important also to connect it to what’s happening in literature, what’s happening in music, what’s happening in architecture, what’s happening in science.

We also believe that, if we want to address the big themes of the 21st century, it’s necessary to go beyond the fear of pooling knowledge. It’s important to go beyond the ghettos of different disciplines and different fields, make the worlds porous and create more exchange and more dialogue. It’s really bridge-building we’re doing.

CC: You mention exchange and dialogue. How do you feel that Grace Wales Bonner’s exhibition pulls together the different disciplines?

HUO: The Grace Wales Bonner exhibition is a very new experiment here at the gallery. We’ve worked with Grace for almost five years. After having followed her work, we first invited her to the Miracle Marathon, which is our annual knowledge festival.

This brings together practitioners from all disciplines to address a specific theme, and Grace did an amazing performance here with two musicians. It was basically a concert, and, at the same time, the musicians were wearing her clothes, so there was an integration between fashion and art, music and performance.

We were very convinced by that, and also very enthusiastic about her overall practice – you know, the amazing fanzines she does for every show. She does a lot of research and collaborations with artists like Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, the painter who wrote a short story for her – and Eric Mack, the artist who has created the structure behind us out of fabrics. He builds architecture out of fabrics.

And we realised, more and more, that Grace’s mindset is so curatorial, and how amazing it could be to have Grace curate a show of all her inspirations, of all the artists she loves, and for her to make this collage that she makes every day in her work for the viewer in the Serpentine space. And that was the beginning of this show.

CC: As a curator working with someone else who is curating work, what similarities do you see? One of the things we noted in your book is how you define curating as bringing cultures into proximity with each other – almost like a cross-fertilisation or cross-pollination of cultures. Do you think that’s always an important part of what you’re doing here at the Serpentine, and what Grace is doing?

HUO: Yes, absolutely. Your question is, of course, about the bringing together of things. If you talk about this idea of bringing together different worlds, it’s to put worlds into contact with other worlds as much as possible, and that also has to do with junction-making. I think curating also has a lot to do with junction-making.

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As the eminent, legendary English novelist JG Ballard always said: it’s junction-making between objects, because we combine objects in an exhibition. And the history of art from the 19th century to the 1960s – of the 20th century really – is very much a history of objects.

But then, in the 1960s, we had a demilitarisation of art and the evolution of conceptual art. So, all of a sudden, it’s no longer just the making of junctions between objects, but also the non-objects.

Then we have French figures who talk about quasi-objects. Quasi objects are objects that only give meaning when we interact with them. And then there are the hyper objects of author Timothy Morton; objects that are bigger systems, like the climate or the weather.

In a way, we can talk about quasi objects, hyper objects, non-objects, objects… because we are in the digital age. Tim Berners Lee invented the World Wide Web in 1989, so this year is a special year because it’s the 30th anniversary of this amazing invention. We live in the digital age, so we also have digital objects. So, you could say, the curator makes junctions between objects, non-objects, quasi objects, hyper objects and digital objects. And, last but not least, junctions between people.

It’s all about bringing together people; bringing them together here in the exhibition, conceived by Grace Wales Bonner and curated by Claude Adjil and Joseph Constable. We’re bringing together visual artists with poets, with novelists, with architects, with designers. One doesn’t ever want to have a hierarchy; these different art forms should simply coexist. It’s about junction-making, but it’s also about coexisting. Coexisting in a non-hierarchical way.

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For this exhibition, we invited the amazing novelist Ben Okri, known all over the world for The Famished Road and many other books. But we commissioned him not to quote an earlier text but to actually write a new piece of literature.

As you can see here on the wall just in front of us, we have the invocation for the shrine. We have a text by Ben Okri, commissioned specially for the exhibition, which follows the viewer throughout the space. The Ben Okri text is as present as the big installation by Eric Mack behind us or as the sculptures of the legendary David Hammons.

You can see one of them through the hole in Eric Mack’s sculpture, making Eric Mack’s installation a kind of viewing device on David Hammons’ work. The things all relate to each other and there is no hierarchy between the different mediums.

We also have performances in one of the two powder rooms – spaces which were initially used to store munitions during the Napoleonic wars. Therefore, they’re quite literally charged, you know? Powder rooms! Grace has not only installed the textile architecture of Eric Mack but, in the room next to us, she has also invited the multi-instrumentalist, Laraaji, to do a meditation display.

Visitors are invited to meditate in an environment created by this artist, musician and composer. Every now and then Laraaji comes here and activates the space and invites visitors to join a meditation session. So, there is music, there is meditation and there is literature. There is also, of course, visual art with David Hammons, Eric Mack and many others. Then there is photography, there is fashion design… all of these fields are brought together and there is no hierarchy.

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CC: Is there a challenge for the viewer when experiencing these different disciplines alongside each other? Is there a danger that the viewer might be overwhelmed?

HUO: To create an experience that engages the viewer without overwhelming them is the challenge with every exhibition. I think what we’re discussing is the Gesamtkunstwerk, the idea of the total work of art which brings all disciplines together. I think the danger of this is that it can be overwhelming for the viewer. That’s why I think it’s very important in this exhibition, as conceived by Grace, that everything moves in waves – there are intervals, there are pauses, there are silences, and I think there is a lot of space for the viewer to find themselves.

These rooms are not overcrowded, and you have a lots of in-between space. So, it’s not an overpowering Gesamtkunstwerk but somewhere the viewer can find his, her or their place.

CC: And going back to digital art, how do you feel that’s going to start shifting the development of art in the next few years, particularly the works of the artists you work with?

HUO: Well, going back to the 30th anniversary of the World Wide Web, 1989 was a very interesting year. You saw the GPS invented and it was also the year the Berlin Wall fell. As we celebrate this anniversary, we should never forget that we’re also at a moment where net neutrality is very much in danger. Tim Berners Lee said many, many times, that his invention – the World Wide Web – should be for everyone. So, there shouldn’t be a fast internet for those who pay, and a slow internet for those who don’t.

But net neutrality – that is the same World Wide Web for everyone – is something to fight for and here, at the Serpentine Galleries, we very much agree with that. For Yana Peel, myself and our team, it’s absolutely essential that we have free admission; that in a society of inequality, this is for everyone. That we not only have free admission but more than that; that we go with our programmes into the park, into different neighbourhoods in London.

We have a pavilion every summer which has no doors. It’s in the park, so people can just stumble upon it. It can be a chance encounter. At the same time, we believe in working on our education programme; that it’s very important that our exhibitions go to many, many different communities; that it’s not just happening here in Kensington Gardens.

So, as Tim Berners Lee says, this is for everyone. Sondra Perry did an amazing exhibition here of avatars and declared that the entire exhibition should be open-source, again for everyone, so visitors could also access it online for free or experience it here in an amazing multidimensional, multisensory installation done by the artist.

We live in a moment when artists are more interested in experimenting with technology. In the 1960s, Billy Klüver, the Swedish impresario and curator, a junction-maker who lived in the United States, founded and instigated what he called E.A.T, which stands for Experiments in Art and Technology.

His idea was to bring together the leading artists of their time, artists like Frank Stella or Robert Rauschenberg and the very visionary early internet pioneer Lillian Schwartz – who was one of the first artists to make artworks out of technology. With his Experiments in Art and Technology, Billy Klüver would combine these artists with Bell Laboratory scientists. He would even have Bell Laboratory residencies, so that an artist like Lillian Schwartz would have an office and could go to work every day with the scientists at Bell Laboratories.

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Technology and art are something we feel very strongly about at the Serpentine. This is also why Yana and I, two years ago, appointed a chief technology officer, Ben Vickers, who is also an artist and a writer. So, the idea is, very much in the legacy of the John Latham and Barbara Steveni Artist Placement Group, that we should have an artist as our chief technology officer, putting technology centre stage and a very important aspect of our project.

This is why we are now talking about NEAT – EAT has become NEAT – which stands for New Experiments in Art and Technology.

We invite artists like Ian Cheng and Pierre Huyghe to do projects here with artificial intelligence. It’s now the second show in a row at the Serpentine involving AI. With Ian Cheng, it was the invention of a character called Bob. It was the first artwork here at the Serpentine which had a central nervous system.

That leads to a very different experience for visitors with an artwork. I mean, you can see it when you look at the visitor book. Somebody wrote that they came all the way from Birmingham and Bob, the AI character, ignored them. And somebody else came every day because Bob was so nice to them!

So, ultimately it changes the experience because the artwork is alive, which leads to a very different rapport, a very different relationship that the viewer can have with the artwork. We also once received a message in the middle of the night that the gallery had suddenly lit up and the projection had started at 3am, because Bob had decided to wake up at 3am instead of 10am when he was supposed to. That’s kind of what happens when an artwork has a central nervous system.

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Pierre Huyghe’s work is another example of a New Experiment in Art and Technology. We worked with Pierre on this project for many months. He worked with a laboratory in Kyoto where a scientist would look at images he would send. It could be images of animals, of humans, of machines, of artworks – you know, all kinds of different images, and those images would then go directly from the brain of the scientist to the machine.

So, it would be kind of a machine transportation – it would not be photographic. It goes directly from the brain via sensors to the machine, and then the machine basically mirrors a deep neural network.

Let’s say, for example, that the scientist looks at an image of a dog. The machine has millions of images of the dog and starts to search for that image, and you can see in the exhibition at work, these kind of processes of AI. In a way, that’s a very old story because Paul Klee said, in the earlier part of the 20th century, that art can make the invisible visible. And of course, artificial intelligence, as omnipresent as it is in our society today, is still very invisible, like many aspects of technology.

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I think it’s one of the roles, also, of the Serpentine’s New Experiments in Art and Technology to continue this very old tradition of art to make the invisible visible. That’s what an exhibition like Pierre Huyghe’s tries to do.

CC: What’s interesting is that despite all this new technology, there’s still the real impact of being in the gallery space and witnessing this digital art. Do you see these traditional ways of experiencing art still existing in the same way over the next few years?

HUO: So far, we can see with all these new layers of technology, ever-increasing visitor figures. Here at the gallery we have 1.2m visitors every year. Visitor figures are actually progressing, and I think it has a lot to do with the experiences artists give the viewer. That doesn’t mean that it’s all now technology, because we continue to show painting, we continue to show sculpture, drawing – all of these continue to evolve; it’s not that these will disappear.

It’s about parallel realities. It’s almost like quantum physics. We have all these ongoing parallel realities. it’s not because we have artworks with AI that painting or drawing, or sculpture would disappear. On the contrary, it could always reinvent itself. If you think about what it means to see art in the galleries, it’s about an experience you can’t have at home on your own in front of a screen.

If it’s simply the same experience you can have in front of a screen, you wouldn’t necessarily go to the museum for that. There has to be a reason to go, and I think that’s what these installations by artists using technologies bring, because it’s often a multisensory environment.

Margaret Mead, the anthropologist in the 50s, researched why people only spend a few seconds in front of artworks, and there’ve been many statistics since showing that, on average, people spend 10 or 15 seconds. It’s a very, very fast turnaround, and so the question is why don’t people spend more time? I think we all wish people would slow down and visitors would spend more time.

According to Margaret Mead, it has a lot to do with the fact that it’s only the visual sense which is appealed to. Basically, if an exhibition is more multisensory, appealing to other senses as well as the visual sense, then people might spend more time.

Artists are working with such multisensory experiences more and more in these New Experiments in Art and Technology. And using feedback loops, like Pierre Huyghe. Actually, he liberates the moving image from this idea of the loop because, instead of repeating, here it’s a feedback with the viewer – the temperature of the visitors, the interaction with their bodies. There are also the flies: there are 100,000 flies in the exhibition. All of this impacts the image and it means the image is never the same twice.

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That leads us on to our work with VR and AR. We’ve had a couple of experiences now, with the Zaha Hadid exhibition in collaboration with Google, and also with the Christo public commission here – a very big 20m-high mastaba, which could be seen from the bridge connecting the two Serpentines last summer. In both these cases, we created a virtual reality work.

This did not in any way replace the exhibition visit but one of the things it makes clear, particularly if you do it in an exhibition like Zaha, is the moment visitors put on the VR goggles, they are isolated from all the other visitors.

I think what remains very important for an exhibition is that it is seeing something with someone else. You know, you go with someone else to see a show or you meet people in an exhibition or you see other visitors in an exhibition. It’s not a solitary experience. And I think, in the digital age more than ever, we need gathering points.

We need places where we come together, which is the reason why our pavilion is so much a core and a centre stage of our programme. Since 2000, we’ve built a pavilion every summer on the little piece of lawn… and this pavilion is one of the most visited architectural structures in the world, and it can be used in so many different ways.

It’s also been a gathering place. People make appointments there. They go to see it together. It’s a place of exchange, a place of dialogue and I think, alongside the very solitary experience of being alone with a screen, I think that it’s something which the world needs; we will always need such gathering places. That’s why we need exhibitions. And that’s why we fill up our pavilion.

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Last summer, I was dropped by a taxi driver coming back from a trip super-early one morning. I was basically going to the office at 6.30am, so the driver would obviously assume that I work at the gallery because no one would visit the gallery at 6.30am! He said he had this important story he wanted to tell someone who worked at the Serpentine.

He wanted to tell me the story of his daughter: they went for a walk last summer and, all of a sudden, his daughter ran into the pavilion and he had to go and fetch her. They never had the intention of going to see the pavilion, but she ran in because there are no doors – it’s in the middle of the park and it’s open. But there was this amazing thing – his daughter had an epiphany and now wants to study architecture. She wants to become an architect and he wanted to thank us.

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I asked him if he also came to the gallery. It’s a great thing that in London, as opposed to other cities, other countries, you have free admission to many museums – something which is very important in a society of inequality, so everyone can have access to art. It goes back to Tim Berners Lee; this is for everyone.

I said he could visit easily the gallery, but he said he’d never do it, even with free admission. So, I asked why. And then there was a silence and then, all of a sudden, he said he would not have visited because he didn’t believe the gallery was for people like him. So, his daughter would never have had this experience, because he would never have taken her to a museum if we hadn’t created this meeting place in the pavilion. That just shows how urgent that is.

CC: I know that showing artists from diverse backgrounds is a big part of the work you do at the Serpentine. Are there any particular artists that aren’t getting recognised at the moment, that you’d like to shine a light on?

HUO: For us at the Serpentine, it’s very important to show emerging artists and to give a platform to emerging artists of all backgrounds. We believe it’s important to celebrate the polyphony of centres now in the art world. In all continents, there are so many extraordinary art centres, so we do local research and global research. So many places are trying to enable emerging artists, to enable the emergence of new voices, of many different voices.

At the same time, it’s also important that we look back. We live in an age of more and more information; there’s clearly an exponential explosion of information happening on the planet today. But this information age does not necessarily mean we also have more memory. It might very well be that amnesia is somewhere there at the very core of the digital age.

To give you an example. The summer exhibition this year is going to be Faith Ringgold and Luchita Hurtado, two pioneering artists. Faith Ringgold is in her late 80s and Luchita in her late 90s, and we’re going to celebrate these two artists over the summer in their first-ever exhibitions, in London.

In the case of Luchita, who is turning 99 this year, it’s her first museum show ever… She’s been working ever since the 1930s. She has had many, many lives, many identities. She was part of surrealism, she and Wolfgang Paalen went to Mexico and did very important research into indigenous cultures. She was also part of the post-war Avant Garde in San Francisco and then, in the 1960s, she became part of the very dynamic, feminist art scene in Los Angeles. She was also one of the pioneers of the ecological movement, of the environmental movement.

So, Luchita has been part of so many important moments from surrealism to feminism to ecology throughout the 20th century and has painted more than 1,000 paintings. She’s never stopped in her life but yet she’s never had an exhibition. Her work has always been under the radar. We believe it’s very important today to celebrate her practice; her deep connection to nature, to ecology, is very important for now.

The celebration of many identities in her life makes her such a contemporary artist. So, for us, at 99, Luchita is a young artist; and it’s very urgent that her work is seen. It’s also a contribution to protests against forgetting.

Luchita’s summer show will be at the Serpentine from May to September 2019.

CC: A lot of your shows have a global reach. Outside the major cities, what towns and villages are doing unconventional work at the moment?

HUO: I think art has always been in many places. There was a fiction in the 20th century that certain cities would own the Avant Garde. Famously, Paris seemingly ‘lost’ the Avant Garde to New York after the 1940s. I think the truth of the matter is that there was always a polyphony of centres, but people just didn’t look. I think it’s our job to look everywhere, and to look and look again.

For example, I’ve recently been to Santiago in Chile, where there’s an amazing and dynamic art scene that’s not frequently visited from here. There is also a very dynamic architecture scene. We had Chilean architect, Smiljan Radic, here at the Serpentine. So, Santiago is a great example.

Another one would be Accra. We recently visited Accra in Ghana. Our trustee and architectural adviser to the pavilion scheme, David Adjaye, is building many new buildings in Accra, including a new cathedral. The result is a very dynamic art scene of young, emerging artists.

Yes, Santiago and Accra are two great examples of art centres we must definitely visit.

CC: As part of these emerging new scenes, do you see art movements, as we once knew them, still existing? You’ve mentioned this idea that manifestos of art were a 20th- century thing, while now it’s more about exchange and conversation. Do you see any new trends emerging, outside digital art? Or is the very idea of a trend almost old-fashioned?

HUO: I think there are definitely stories. We spoke about the protest against forgetting and that’s a very strong aspect of what we do. We believe that amnesia is at the core of the digital age, and we need to protest against forgetting. But then if you look at emerging artists and the New Experiments in Art and Technology, while I wouldn’t call it a trend, it’s a pattern that connects, which is maybe a better way of saying it. It’s a pattern that connects many different artists. And another very strong aspect is a focus on ecology.

Gustav Metzger told us several years ago that we shouldn’t talk about ecology, we should really talk about extinction because that’s what’s happening. We live in the age of mass extinction. So many things disappear. Our own species is threatened. Many species have already disappeared. Languages disappear. You know, handwriting disappears. My Instagram account is basically devoted to saving handwriting and calligraphy. Every day I ask an artist, an architect or a designer to doodle or handwrite something to celebrate handwriting.

In summary, we can say that a lot of artists in 2019 are addressing the emergency of extinction; the fact that we live in an age of mass extinction when many things are disappearing. Artists are protesting against that and fighting against extinction.

We can also say that, as amnesia might very well be at the core of this digital age, many artists are also protesting against forgetting, finding new ways of using dynamic memory. I think memory is very important. Not static memory. But dynamic memory.

And last but not least, I think – given that we’re living now in the 30th year of the World Wide Web, we can say a lot of artists are working with experiments, with technology; that’s why we proclaim NEAT, the New Experiments in Art and Technology.

These are the three – we’re not calling them trends but patterns. These are the three patterns that connect.

CC: So it’s not just about going back to remember stuff before it gets forgotten but also perhaps about going back to rewrite history?

HUO: Yes, it’s important to look to the future. It’s a negotiation of the future, the present, the past. I think it’s important that the future often flies in under the radar. It’s very difficult to predict the future. Certainly, a curator cannot do this. Artists have antennas, which is why curators follow artists. I think we need to be very humble in that regard. Curators definitely can’t predict the future. Artists often anticipate what might come.

Art history has been very western-centric, and I think it’s very important now not only to work in a more polyphonic way with all the different art centres but also to look back. There have been so many extraordinary pioneers, who just have not been recognised. Many women artists have not had the visibility they should have had. Luchita Hurtado is a great example.

An artist from Venezuela, who worked a lot in Mexico, who made an amazing contribution to the San Francisco and LA art worlds, who is an extraordinary artist, an extraordinary pioneer. And the exhibition here in the summer will be her first museum show. So that is also something to do with correcting art history; things have been overlooked and need to be brought back.

So, it’s not only about writing the next chapter, it’s also about rewriting the past, and making – in that sense – a more diverse history.

CC: Can you tell us a little about the Future Contemporaries event at the Serpentine Galleries?

HUO: We are incredibly grateful to Barclays Private Bank for enabling this new way of working with the Future Contemporaries. This is a very important donor group for us. We’re working a lot with emerging artists and, of course, a lot of that is made possible by the Future Contemporaries. It’s also very exciting to have this dialogue with the great philanthropists of the future; with those who will be the very great philanthropists of the 21st century.