Hans Ulrich Obrist on What it Means to Be a Curator in a Time of Rapid Change

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Han Ulrich Obrist

In an age when streaming corporations are creating and exhibiting great films and challenging the idea of what independent film is, when traditional borders between television, film, and art are liquefying, and when the act of creating art is under new consideration thanks to developments in artificial intelligence—what does it mean to be a programmer or curator?

I sat down with some of my favorite programmers and curators for a series of face-to-face interviews to discuss working in a time of great change and innovation. It feels like we programmers are on shifting grounds. The usual parameters that lend meaning to our society and to our work are changing and I wanted to hear how these developments were affecting the world’s best practitioners. I started with Hans Ulrich Obrist, venerated curator of London’s Serpentine Gallery, who’s deep experience in fine arts, film, digital art, and the art of the interview, is expansive. Below, we cover topics like bringing meaning to the everyday, VR and AR, and how email is a fresh kind of hell.

Hussain Currimbhoy: Do you still write handwritten notes to people?

Hans Ulrich Obrist: I do very often [use] handwritten notes. They are more like doodles, drawings, sketches, handwritten letters, and they are being scanned and emailed as an attachment.

HC: That’s a great way of keeping your emails secured.

HUO: That’s a way of surviving correspondence, also making email more bearable. Email is an extremely unattractive medium. Ian Cheng said email has become a defunct medium. I was at a conference in Munich in the 90s, and Bruce Sterling was there (of course Bruce was on the early people to embrace the Internet and one of the first authors of Wired) and he said you should really have an email account. He was on Well.com at that time, one of the early email addresses, so I went to a cyber cafe and opened an email address. And it kind of didn’t work, or I lost it or whatever, and I needed to do a new one. And then the second person who said, “You need to have an email account,” [was] Gerd Lovink, the Dutch media therotian, and that was in Paris. I always remember I went to the George Pompidou, and there was a cyber cafe towards the street, on the back side, and I would basically go to this cyber cafe and open my email account, which was HUO@compuserve at the time.

HC: That’s an attractive email address.

HUO: Which I had for many years. I was one of the last people at the end to move to Gmail. I would do these emails in a cyber cafe, and it was very much like in the beginning of Instagram: you really had to search for people who were on Instagram in the art world. t that time you had to see what friends were on email and there were not that many, and I would send a few emails to those I knew had an email address and that’s more or less 20 years ago.

At the beginning there was this amazing attraction to email. It was a magical medium. And it has turned from something magical to something nightmarish, I think. I went to the Riga Biennial, and there is a great piece by Taus Makhacheva where she had lots of speakers in the space and these speakers all read sentences about apologies [in] email. Because now when you get an email people say, “I’m so, so sorry to answer so late,” because obviously there are too many to answer –it starts with an apology. People say, “Have you received my email?” and send it the second time – so it’s all become negatively connotated or negatively charged.

HC: There is a moment when technology helps your life and then a tipping point, when it makes your life hell.

HUO: I’m getting up to 5000 emails a day.

HC: It's a miracle you got my email.

HUO: In a way to send a handwritten note and scan it is to me a joy I can experience with email. It’s fun to doodle. And then they often answer me with a handwritten note. As Ian Cheng says, its a defunct medium. The question is what replaces it—on our phones we have all these different platforms we are using. I mean, I am very fond of WeChat and WhatsApp because we can leave these voice messages – which is fun because we can leave them in different languages. For me it’s difficult to type in French or in Italian, I mostly type always in English to my German friends... Things like Whatsapp and Wechat with the voice messages, make us again more multilinguist.

HC: I’ve heard of people who only communicate with their parents using emojis. Just through pictures. They are international symbols and get the point across quickly. But the reason I asked you that was because your approach to email, writing it out and scanning it, is the perfect example of how we are trying to find meaning within technology. There is a great quote from Rachel Rosin who said something like: There is a relationship between the real and the virtual worlds. When you are in the virtual world you are looking for the real. When you are in real life you are looking for a virtual reality. I’ve always been fascinated with how she works with VR, and I wanted to know about your relationship with virtual reality art and how much you engage with it. Especially considering your collaborations with Ian Cheng who works with XR. He seems to have amazing clarity on how to make virtual worlds unique, cerebral, but also human in some way.

So what is your relationship to virtual reality right now?

HUO: Of course we have had a lot of interesting experiences with VR and with Zaha Hadid. I was very good friends with Zaha, and Zaha anticipated the digital age with analogue means. I’ve always believed that in a way, Zaha invented the fluidity of how to digitally design with analogue means. It comes, actually, out of Arabic calligraphy. We did an exhibition of these drawings. It became interesting to also extend that space into VR. CEO Yana Peel, CTO Ben Vickers, and I decided to focus at the Serpentine on new experiments. We worked with Google so people could actually experience her drawings physically in the space and through VR goggles. It was a very positive experience and we are grateful to Google for enabling us to do so. We are also working on a VR project with Acute about the Christo project.

I see you, my bookshelves, I see the park, but I could also have one of the previous pavilions pop up while the next pavilion is here. It’s going to be complementary. You will no longer have the isolation of the VR goggles. As you just said, Ian Cheng is interested in this human quality. It’s interesting that in the exhibition here he did not want to use VR goggles. He developed this character ‘Bob’ who lived in the gallery and it was more of a zoo-like situation in the sense that Bob is alive. It has a central nervous system, and Bob was grumpy, Bob ignored some visitors, he was very aggressive to some visitors, or friendly to some visitors, and if you read the guest book it’s really a new experience. It shows you that visitors here have experienced something here they have never experienced before.

At the same time Ian did not want this to be reduced to one device. The device becomes the issue. That’s why it was over an iPhone. You could communicate through the iPhone but also you could see the projections. For those who didn’t have an iphone they could also experience the piece. Or they could just see the video installation. Because very often when you go to a VR installation you queue, you wait for your turn, then you see nothing, until you see everything. Whereas with Ian you saw the show either way. You saw it with or without. There was something for you there anyhow so it was more human.

I think for me it’s all about junction-making. Curating is all about making junctions between people, between objects, quasi-objects. Michel Serres says an iPhone is a quasi-object, like a football: it only gains meaning when we interact with it. Timothy Morton talks about ‘hyper-objects’ like the weather, the climate, bigger systems. So curating is making junctions between objects, quasi-objects, hyper-objects, and then in conceptual art: non-objects. If you think about these junctions between objects, quasi-objects, hyper-objects, non-objects, it is of course also objects between people. Curating, making exhibitions, is bringing people together in a room.

Yana Peel (CEO, Serpentine Galleries) and I have recently done an event with Tim Berners-Lee (inventor of the World Wide Web) and he pointed out very clearly [that the internet] is for everyone. The risk of a loss of net neutrality would of course further inequality in society. The filter bubble takes away the flâneury aspect – we are kind of flâneurs on the Internet, free flâneurs... When we work with technology now we need to save the internet, as Tim Berners-Lee said. That’s why we engage so much with technology here. This is for everyone. This is our motto at the Serpentine. We have free admission. We are art for all. And we want this to be the case for the World Wide Web. We have an artist as our chief technology officer, Ben Vickers.

HC: The paradox is what Edouard Glissant said about the archipelago, and how art has become decentralized, as was the internet when it was born. Now with VR, the streamers, the sources of power becoming condensed – they are becoming one in the same again. How do you think that impacts the live event? The way film festivals show VR work or galleries show AR work?

HUO: We are an exhibition space and I think the medium of the exhibition, it doesn’t really change because the medium of the exhibition is about an extraordinary, multi-sensory experience. That can happen digitally or in analogue. If you think about what Alejandro Iñárritu did with Carne y Arena, you are barefoot on sand, so you were already in a feeling of walking on the rough sand of the desert. You had a backpack. You felt the air from the helicopter and you are actually brought to the point that you literally want to throw yourself on the ground almost as if you had been in that situation in the desert. That needed an exhibition space.

The issue with a film festival, in the 90s a lot of the interesting experiments with the moving image started to happen in a multi-screen environment. Isaac Julien, Agnes Varda, Doug Aitken, these artists started to work with multi-sensory environments and it has further increased since then. In a way, the question is how can a film festival create an experience that is not only a visual experience. Yervant Gianikian and Angela Ricci Lucchi would spread perfume during their screenings so there would be some olfactory dimension.

HC: So did John Waters back in the day.

HUO: So I think this idea of a multi-sensory experience is interesting to things like your festival. Appealing to more senses and multi-screen environments.

HC: We are seeing filmmakers like Iñárritu, artists like Marina Abramovich and Shawn Gladwell, all making VR. Do you think that is a response to the limitations of film and traditional art, and the fact that in VR you are able to make a space exactly as you want it to be? Does it change the relationship between the viewer and the artist? It is again as Ian Cheng said, you can have a subjective view, and objective view, and a relationship between you and a character all at the same time.

HUO: It has to do with time as much as it has to do with space. Historically films have always been in a loop. At a certain moment the film starts again from scratch. You have a screening of 90 minutes, and that’s the standard—film festivals can’t really screen 2-minute movies in the main program. And when it shows in a museum it goes into a loop. With someone like Ian Cheng, the whole idea of AI and live simulation, you can no longer have that limitation to 90 minutes. It’s no longer this idea that people will come to a festival or to a museum space and watch a movie for 90 minutes or 60 minutes. It has to be installed permanently. It’s almost like the future of presentation. I was telling Ian he should do public art. It would be amazing if you were at an airport or railway station and each week you come back and you see the story evolve. You have all these memories over the years at that railway station. That is the biggest shift, the shift that there is no longer a loop. That it’s alive, that it evolves, it changes, and that will lead to a completely different kind of experience. We almost need it permanently installed like a public sculpture in a square. It's almost like a bronze. It’s about longer duration. It makes film more robust. It gives film another kind of presence. Normally film is there and it’s not there. We should never forget that has been the big power of art is that it’s there. A sculpture from Jeff Koons doesn’t go away. Tino Sehgal brought live art up to speed with that—basically you see the live performance there from 10 in the morning until 6 pm. It’s only at nighttime the live sculpture goes home, but in the day it’s as present as a bronze. It’s difficult with a film to create that kind of permanence. A film is always related to a program, it’s being programed. A lot of artists wanted to change that. They wanted to get the film out of the cinema and into the exhibition space. But then do people really spend time in exhibition spaces?

For me one of the most interesting platforms right now is Mubi. Not only are they curating with curators from all over the world and have an amazing selection of cinema, for me it is one of the best film festivals. It lasts all year, it comes to my home, they are curating amazing films, and at the same time I get an alert every day—a film is only there for 30 days, and I get an alert saying to hurry up because that film disappears tomorrow. There’s a count down also that keeps me dynamic. I watch a lot of movies on Mubi. But if you want people to actually go somewhere we have to give them more than just the same thing they can see at home, just projected big. We have to give them a more multisensory environment. Which brings us back to Margaret Mead, to John Waters, to Iñárritu.

HC: It’s great that you mentioned AI. Ian’s work means a lot to me right now. His comments on Joseph Campbell’s ‘hero’ concept and how the hero has to evolve, especially. He asks why does the hero have to evolve? Instead, what happens when the structures around a hero completely collapse, as it feels living in the U.S. right now, what was once reliable is gone, then you are faced with perspectives. Either I stick with my perspective or perish. He said, it puts a hammer to the idea that what happens in the AI world is more or less real than what happens in the world of atoms. And yet AI now makes art, movies, music.

HUO: We did an AI Marathon here at the Serpentine which I curated with Ben Vickers and Claude Adjil. It brought together engineers, artists, activists, filmmakers, to consider the advent of AI on consciousness, inter-species, corporations, machines, transhumanism and non-linear time. Many, many different speakers. One of the things that became very clear is that a lot of the artists want to question the social dimension of AI. The social impact is often blanked out. What is the impact on the future of work, for example. This will be the topic of our next marathon. The reason is to look closely at AI as it one of the most important questions of today, how capacious artificial intelligence will become and what dangers may arise from it. May contemporary artists are following these developments closely at the moment. They are articulating different doubts on the promises of AI and remind us both not to associate the term ‘Artificial Intelligence’ solely with positive notions. The deep connections between science and art were noted by the late Heinz von Foerster, of the architects of Cybernetics. In which the observer is understood as part of the system itself and not an external position. I knew him well and asked him about he viewed on the relation between art and science: “I’ve always perceived art and science as complementary fields.

Today where algorithms of AI are applied in daily tasks, one can ask how the human factor is included in these kids of processes and which role creativity and art could play in relation to them. The artist Paul Klee often talked about art as making the ‘invisible visible’. In computer technology, most algorithms work invisibly in the background; they remain inaccessible in the systems we use daily. But there has been a very interesting comeback of visuality in machine learning. The ways that self-learning algorithms of AI are processing date have been made visible through applications like Google DeepDream, in which the process of computerized pattern-recognition is visualized in real time. The application shows how the algorithm tries to match animal forms with any given input. The difficulty in the general perception of such images in Steyerl’s view that these visual patterns are viewed uncritically as the realistic objective of representation of the machine process. She said: For me this proves that science has become a subgenre of our history we now have lots of abstract computer patterns that might look like a Paul Klee painting or a Helen Frankenthaler or all sorts of other abstractions that we know from our history. The only difference I think is that in current scientific thought they are perceived as representations of reality, almost like documentary images, whereas in art history there a very nuanced understanding of different kinds of abstraction”

Rachel Rose Also talks about the importance of decision-making in her work. For her artistic process and not allow a rational pattern. She explained this by means of a story by the theater director Peter Brook from his book ‘The Empty Space’. When Brook designed a set of his play ‘The Tempest’ he started by making a Japanese garden, but then the design evolved. Becoming a white box, a black box, a realistic set and so on. But in the end he returned to his original idea. This shows that the creative artistic process is done in a succession for each step builds up on the next and then, it comes to conclusion which is unpredictable.

The Kenric McDowell in a conversation with Rachel Rose at Google Cultural Institute added the he also believes there are false expectations around AI. He said: “I’ve Observed that there's a sort of magical quality to the idea of a computer that does all the things that we do is almost as kind of demonic mirror that we look into and we wanted to write a novel we wanted to make a film we want to give that away somehow.” He is working on projects that were the humans are collaborating with the machine. One of the main aspects of resurgent AI is now in this way to find new means of interaction between humans and software. And AI we could say needs to play a key role in that discussion, since it focuses are on our subjectivity and this is what human aspects like empathy and morality.

HC: I have one last question - are you going to collaborate again with Adam Curtis?

HUO: Yes, of course we have a conversation planned in Salzburg at the Convoco Conference with Adam Curtis this summer around the theme of art and power. It will be about the idea of art and power.

Lead photo:

Han Ulrich Obrist