Brendan McGetrick
Recent works and current obsessions

Hans Ulrich Obrist, Curator

For the book MAD Dinner, I interviewed Hans Ulrich Obrist, a leading curator, critic, and historian of art. Obrist is a prolific interviewer and researcher. We talked about how these practices influence his curatorial work, the value of non-commercial products and non-applicable models, and the lack of memory among architects.

What is the motivation behind your interviews?

One could say that there are parallel realities: on the one hand there is the curating of exhibitions – my main work is curating – but I’ve always had a sort of parallel activity, which is my research and knowledge production – and that’s the interview project.

The interview project actually predates anything else I’m doing, because everything started out of conversations. Whenever I do exhibitions and books, they are the outcomes of such conversations – conversations with artists, conversations with architects, scientists, all kinds of practitioners. So, one can basically say that the conversations are not conversations for conversation’s sake, but are always working conversations. I’m always working with these artists, architects, or scientists – either on a show or on a conference or a book, and very often the conversation is not only parallel to working on a project, but new projects even grow out of the conversations. So, one can actually call them “production of reality conversations.”

What references or models do you use to process their particular methods of producing reality?

There are different layers to it, I would say. I’ve always been obsessed with art, and my home base is clearly the art world. However, in the early 1990s I started to work with Kasper König at the Städelschule, and at that time in Frankfurt there were architects like Enrique Miralles, Peter Cook, and Cedric Price, and I met Dan Graham who kept telling me that I should read Learning from Las Vegas and Delirious New York. For me, these were the very urgent encounters of that time, because I didn’t really know much about architecture.

In the very beginning, it was also a pragmatic thing. When you’re a curator, it’s interesting to involve architects in the exhibition design, because exhibitions that don’t have an inventive display feature are doomed to oblivion. So, you can either have an artist or an architect invent your display feature, and working with Kasper König, who had done shows like “Westkunst” and “von hier aus,” I was very inspired by the idea that he had often invited an architect to invent the display feature.

That’s why in all my shows from the 1990s – from “Cities on the Move,” which we did with Hou Hanru, where we had first Chang Yung Ho, then Rem Koolhaas, and then Shigeru Ban to shows like “Laboratorium” (co-curated with Barbara Vanderlinden) where we had invited the artist Michel François to do the exhibition design – I’ve always had architects or artists inventing a display feature.

How did your involvement with architects expand from this first, pragmatic layer?

With “Cities on the Move,” it became something else, because, at that moment, we felt it was important to do an exhibition on Asian cities, and we realized it should not be just representing cities, but more like imagining a city as a performative space. The idea was really to develop the exhibition as a city.

So, we invited a lot of architects and artists who are working in these Asian metropolises. In the beginning, the architects sent lots of architecture maquettes, but little by little they realized, because the show was touring, that this is a laboratory and it might be more interesting to actually experiment with the format of the exhibition than to just send a maquette. So, little by little, these laboratories of “Cities on the Move” negotiated a new way of involving architecture in exhibitions, and that was a second layer – the architects’ presence in my exhibitions.

A very close friendship with Rem Koolhaas grew out of “Cities on the Move,” and that was sort of a third layer.Since we began speaking regularly, we realized that, early in his work, Rem also had an interview practice – because he interviewed Constant, Salvador Dalí, and many others. And we thought it might be interesting to do some interviews together.

We started to visit pioneers or architects who were important to my research and who were important for Rem in the 1960s. So we went to see Venturi & Scott- Brown, Philip Johnson, and most recently Christopher Alexander, O.M. Ungers, and all the Metabolists in Japan.

Do you consider the 24-hour-marathon interviews that you’ve been doing with Rem Koolhaas an extension of this?

Within my practice of exhibitions, there is always a way of working with formats, inventing new formats. But conferences usually don’t have that dimension because a conference or symposium is a kind of boring routine: there’s a talk, there’s a panel, a Q & A, then the moderator is running out of time, and then, maybe, a dinner in a restaurant.

The question was really: can my experiences from exhibition-making, which is an obsession with new formats, be transplanted into the world of lectures and symposiums? So we did a marathon [interview] with Rem at the Serpentine Gallery – we interviewed for 24 hours [straight], 70 practitioners and then made a kind of portrait of London. We just did another one in Germany this Sunday [at documenta], and we did one in Cagliari and in Dubai, so it’s become something that Rem and I do together.

That leads us to a fourth dimension, which is obviously the idea of building architecture. That is a more recent experience, because, arriving at the Serpentine last year as co-director of exhibitions and director of international projects, I began working with Julia Peyton-Jones. She, as director of the Serpentine, had initiated a visionary, groundbreaking pavilion concept, where she showed that a small art institution can be an important client for architecture, by building temporary pavilions.

She invited Zaha Hadid in 2000, then Toyo Ito, and Daniel Libeskind, and many others to build a pavilion in the park in front of the gallery. So, when I arrived last year, that was an ongoing project, and Julia and I thought we’d invite Rem (who had never built in the UK before) together with Cecil Balmond to do this pavilion, which really became a structure for conversations. As Rem said, “Buildings without content are meaningless shapes.”

In relation to visiting these pioneers, what do you feel is the importance of memory in your work?

To some extent, within my own field, which is the world of art, there is a very strong emphasis on memory, but not in a static way. As neuroscience shows, memory is a very dynamic process in the brain – and I think [dynamic memory] is a particularly interesting topic in China now.

Given the staggering amnesia in the world, I think the idea of memory as a protest against forgetting is incredibly important. The art world has a mechanism which is quite elaborate that encourages artists to talk about older artists and forgotten artists. Obviously, there are always artists who are forgotten, but in the art world there is a regular re-discovering of artists from the 1960s and 1970s and 1980s. So every ten years, one looks back again, and sees what’s been forgotten.

That works through a mechanism where artists talk about older artists who’ve inspired them and through the multiplicity of museums, because nowadays, every small city has a Kunsthalle and a contemporary art museum. So there are literally hundreds if not thousands of contemporary art museums, and that makes it a given that there is some sort of memory work going on. But coming from art, I was stunned by the lack of memory in the architecture world.

I met people who were for me great inspirations, like Cedric Price, Yona Friedman, and Oskar Hansen, in the 1990s. From them I learned a lot for my own practice as a curator, through their questioning of the master plan ever since the late 1950s. Self-organization is something which curating had never really adopted. In French you even call the curator a commissaire (commissar), which is police vocabulary really, and so you [as a curator] always have this authoritarian role of drafting a checklist – who is in, who is out, and all of that stuff. What I thought was so interesting about Yona Friedman and Cedric was: how can one adopt these almost cybernetic ideas of complex, dynamic systems with feedback loops and self-organization into the context of a larger show?

I tried to do this with almost all my shows in the 1990s – “do it” or “Cities on the Move” or “life/live” or “Utopia Station” more recently all have a high degree of self-organization. And so, being so inspired by people like Cedric Price and Yona Friedman, I was somehow staggered that in the architecture world there are not really these mechanisms of memory. Particularly in the mid 1990s, someone like Yona Friedman was completely forgotten. There was hardly any literature around, and so the art world became a sort of refuge where these pioneering architects could be rediscovered. And so, we’ve organized dozens of exhibitions with all these people. Many other people have done that, I’m not the only one. It’s been a very collective effort.

What accounts for the lack of memory in architecture?

It probably has to do with the fact that there are far fewer good architecture museums than there are art museums.

It’s interesting that it takes a long time until a building becomes a collectible item. Now, people have started to collect buildings for very high amounts of money, but that’s three, four, five decades later. And it’s interesting that at the moment that there’s a booming art market and design market, there is not yet a market for architecture.

People of the generation of Yona Friedman have extraordinary archives, and it’s very difficult to find museums that can actually secure these archives for posterity. So, I think that’s maybe the fifth dimension of my project – the idea of a protest against forgetting.

What other forms of protest does your work involve?

I think the idea of going against the fear of pooling knowledge has always been key for me. Going back to my beginnings when I was working with Kasper König, I had the experience of being in a small school – where an art school and an architecture school were together – and I think it’s a great pity to separate art from architecture schools, because I think these encounters have been most productive.

Had I not been in the Städelschule in 1991, and had I not met Enrique Miralles, I might never have been immersed to this extent in architecture. But you can even go further back in history and take an example like the Black Mountain College, which was key for postwar art in America. There you also had a link between poetry and architecture; and Buckminster Fuller came to do seminars… so for the future of schools, I think it is super important that art and architecture are brought back together.

In the context of advocating a reconnection between art, architecture, and other disciplines in the academic world, what are your thoughts on the way in which architecture has been drawn into a larger concept of “design,” mostly through the intentions and instruments of the free market?

To some extent, what is interesting about these collaborations and dialogues is that they don’t necessarily have to fulfill a demand – that can come in a second stage – but there has to be an inner necessity in order for these dialogues to happen.

At the end of the day, it’s all to do with these sparks that happen in schools as beginnings. If you speak to Brian Eno, he went to art school and got a spark there and then went into music. Things are very often not so linear, and right now schools are becoming so target-oriented – where immediately someone goes into architecture to become an architect. That’s why I believe in the type of school where the unpredictability of non-linearity is allowed to happen.

But I think there is a moment right now where art, architecture … and design have converged. The danger is always that there is a consumerism of difference within them. It’s sort of a nightmare idea that everything will be “design.” So I think it’s extremely important that, within these negotiations and dialogues, difference is maintained.

Édouard Glissant has always emphasized that in our current form of globalization there are very strong forces of homogenization, and the question is how to resist these forces and develop models where difference is maintained and where we can find ways of actually increasing difference within the global dialogue. Not to refuse the global dialogue, which would be local atavism, and, on the other hand, not to embrace globalization blindly, but to negotiate a global dialogue – he calls it mondialité – which produces difference.

That means that there are lots of new regions and new possibilities, but it also means that there is a point of view from which you start. I think it’s extremely important that there is an art world, that there is an architecture world, that there is a design world, and then it becomes more and more possible that these worlds create parallel realities.

But maintaining these differences and constructing these parallel realities would seem to imply actively resisting the expectations of the market and globalization, wouldn’t it?

That’s why I think the idea of non-applicable models remains so important. The danger, obviously, of it all becoming about design is that it all becomes about an applicable model. If you think about Piet Mondrian… [the work of] Piet Mondrian is a non-applicable model, and I think it is incredibly important that, in the 21st century, we continue to strongly investigate non-applicable models.

I’ve always felt that in China today there is a sort of similar situation happening like in the West in the 1950s and 1960s and in Japan before the Osaka World Fair in the late 1960s and early 1970s – there is an incredibly exciting dialogue happening between artists and architects and designers and so on.

For instance, if one looks at the practice of Wang Jianwei – he collaborates with theater people and with architects. Clearly he’s a visual artist, but he makes all forms of bridges. Or if you look at Ai Weiwei and his parallel realities of being one of the leading visual artists, but also a leading architect.

In China, more and more architects and artists are working on buildings together and Ai Weiwei is a driving force behind the fear of pooling knowledge. It’s the west, where the artist is invited at only the very end for a “one percent decoration” of an already existing building. Very often artists are involved very early on in China, and there is a true art-architecture collaboration.

The problem is that it’s become the fashion in Europe to work with China – every museum wants to have a China show – but I think what’s interesting is not that. What I think is interesting is that we have a situation right now – and it’s very much like what Fernand Braudel describes in the 15th and 16th century – when seismic shifts start happening and all of a sudden the centers of gravity are shifting. It’s long-distance running!

The 15th and 16th century marked the shift in gravity from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic. And now it’s definitely these new centers in China, India, and the Middle East which are so powerful. And working in western European institutions, one of the great and urgent things to be done in the early 21st century is to show and map out platforms for these extraordinary seismic shifts which are happening.

The idea of a non-applicable model is interesting in the Chinese context, because often there is a strong sense of practicality and usefulness that can make things more interesting but can also limit non-applicable projects.

To some extent, one of the great strengths of art has been that it proposes that a non-applicable model may be an applicable model in very different times. It’s the idea of, in some way, resisting an immediate consumption and applicability. And I think that’s also why artists with more complex work, usually in the long run, are much more important and have a bigger resonance than artists who propose logos. And, obviously, a lot of Chinese art, ever since the 1990s, has been about providing easily recognizable logos for the western market.

In the long run, more complex artists win. Whenever I’m in China and I speak to the youngest artists, I say, “Who is your hero?” And so many say Huang Yong Ping. But it’s interesting, because Huang Yong Ping is not at all an artist who’s been at the forefront of the auctions where paintings are being sold for millions of dollars. He’s been an artist who has continued to work on very complex, unpredictable content, which will take us another twenty years probably to understand. So, I think he is a great example for those not immediately applicable models which continue to resonate. And the same is actually true for architecture, even more so. And I think there are important examples of that in Chinese art.

In talking about the importance of memory against the forgetfulness of the current moment, many of the forgotten heroes that you mentioned, Cedric Price, Yona Friedman, etc., were masters of the non-applicable model. Do you think there’s a connection between the unwillingness to look at the past and the unwillingness to look at the future in a visionary, non-applicable way?

At a certain moment Cedric Price, in the context of James Lee Byars’s World Question Center, was wondering why it was so difficult in industrial – now post-industrial – western society to make useful mistakes, and, to some extent, as Qingyun Ma pointed out to me, in China the idea of failure has a more positive notion. So perhaps, if it was translated, the writing of Cedric Price could find a great resonance in China.

I think it’s a possibility of an impossibility: on the one hand, to actually build and, on the other hand, to contribute to the history of ideas and change the course of things. That has a lot do with writing and books.

It’s interesting because you’re doing this conversation for a book by an architect who invents the book as a new format. Because this is a very unusual book, it’s an unusual conversation. There are too many coffee table books about architecture. I think, to some extent, a maximum degree of redundancy has been reached. I cannot see any more coffee table books with all the projects of an architect published in it – particularly if they are very heavy. However, what is so fascinating about architecture is that architects sometimes succeed in using the book as a medium of their practice, and that’s something that Corbusier was the master of. The early books of Christopher Alexander are another example of when the book of architecture becomes something not just about the work, but as a medium to enter the history of ideas.

You seem to be identifying two poles – built architecture and theoretical architecture manifest in book form. Are the Serpentine pavilions an attempt at a middle ground, through temporary, experimental architecture?

I think the most underrated aspect of architecture’s presence is two things: pavilions and exhibition design. These are two things that we’ve talked about a lot in this conversation, which are obviously, for me as curator, the two key forms of producing reality in terms of architecture. That doesn’t exclude that in the future it will go elsewhere and beyond, because, being interested in the production of reality, I’m more and more interested in the idea that an exhibition is actually a city. Out of doing “Cities on the Move,” one can imagine curating and urbanism being more intertwined, but that’s the future: building a new city as a curatorial project.

What’s interesting is that these ephemeral, non-permanent architectures throughout history have very often created a lasting effect and contributed to the discourse of architecture. So, it’s not that if a building’s permanent it’s historically more important.

Examples like Alvar Aalto’s pavilion for the [1939] World’s Fair in New York or, obviously, the Barcelona Pavilion of Mies. Beatriz Colomina wrote about the idea of the pavilion of the future. Colomina showed us that Alison and Peter Smithson’s House of the Future, Corbusier’s L’Esprit Nouveau pavilion from 1925, the Parallel of Life and Art exhibition at the ICA in 1953, Bruno Taut’s Glass House from 1914, Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona Pavilion from 1929 or even more recently another great example is Teatro del Mundo of 1979 from Aldo Rossi…

All of these are, as Colomina shows, ephemeral structures that are as much part of the history of architecture as permanent buildings. They become part of the canon and push the envelope of what architecture can be.

I think this idea is also true for exhibitions. Colomina says, “Exhibition pavilions in the 20th century acted as sites for the incubation of new forms of architecture that were sometimes so shockingly original and so new that they were not even recognized as architecture at all.” She refers then to Mies’s Barcelona Pavilion, which is now understood as one of the most influential buildings of the last century, but it was actually seen by hardly anyone.

Recently, I interviewed the visionary Ken Adam, who is one of the key set designers of cinema history. For me, Ken Adam is one of the great architects of the 20th century: he designed many James Bond movies, but he also designed many of the key movies of Stanley Kubrick, such as the famous war room in Dr. Strangelove, a room which is as present in many of our minds as many permanent buildings – probably more present. There’s this famous story that, when Ronald Reagan was elected into the White House, he arrived on the first day and was completely lost because he couldn’t find the war room. He had taken it for real. So, out of this anecdote, we can conclude for sure that Ken Adam has produced some form of reality, and even if that stage set vanished a long time ago, it’s going to exist forever.

Pavilions can also last forever in memory but also because pavilions can be rebuilt. The Barcelona Pavilion is an example. It’s also potentially possible for the Serpentine Pavilions; in the future they could be rebuilt or restaged. However, they are a priori ephemeral.

The most underrated part remains exhibition design, because still you don’t find any books or images in architecture catalogues; economically it is not interesting, it’s not a big industry. Exhibition designs are sites for incubation of new forms of architecture because it is, to some extent, a very low budget operation. Exhibitions usually don’t have big budgets and usually ask for a very high degree of improvisation, but it is in these contexts that very often a great invention is made. If you think about Alvar Aalto’s exhibition for the pavilion of the World’s Fair in New York – he developed this undulating surface. When I saw an Aalto retrospective the other day designed by Shigeru Ban, there was this point that I realized that the idea had influenced so many architects – and it’s just a simple, ephemeral exhibition design that Aalto had invented for an exhibition.

In the virtual world, for example Second Life, people are building their own world and relationships through semi-architectural means. What’s your impression of virtual art and architecture as perhaps an even more ephemeral means of expression?

Rem Koolhaas and I just conducted this interview marathon in Germany, and we interviewed generations of German architects from Gottfried Böhm, who’s in his late 80s, to much younger architects like Jürgen Mayer H. And one of the things which was an umbilical chord throughout these conversations was the idea that it is not a question of either virtual or actual, but how the two are intertwined.

Take the town hall that Jürgen Mayer H. has designed in Germany, for example. All of a sudden the town hall no longer has the functions it used to, because most of it is digital – people vote digitally, people no longer come to the office for all these things, they’ll soon probably order their passports digitally. So, all of a sudden, the whole situation of a town hall completely changes, and one can no longer separate one from the other because there is this huge digital building there, which is a town hall, but then there is also a physically built building.

I think also, to some extent, it is interesting to think about it in relation to television. When television was invented, obviously radio had to be reinvented, but it took a long time from the invention of television until a great artwork had been created with this new medium – probably until Nam June Paik. And now, even if there are very interesting initiatives happening in terms of virtual reality artworks and all of that, I have yet to see the “Nam June Paik of virtual reality.” I’m sure that his or her arrival is imminent – no doubt, whatsoever. But it usually takes a little bit of time from the moment a medium is invented until the moment a great artist or architect makes a great piece with it. Maybe it happens in Second Life! Cao Fei has developed an amazing work called RMB City – a virtual reality city located in Second Life, a city that produces an online art community and platform for production of reality.

Originally published in MAD Dinner (Actar, 2007); republished in Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Curating But Were Afraid to Ask (Sternberg Press, 2011)