In Studio with Hans Ulrich Obrist (Part 2)

(Continued from Part 1)

SO: On that note of globalization, and being engaged in the local context in each region, how do you feel about the role of artists today in, this dialogue that we’re having on topics. Recently, in the political climate, we have the crisis in Syria, of course the whole Donald Trump fiasco, climate change, Brexit, there is a shift, there is a constant shift that we can feel in terms of how there is the balance of power, but also in terms of how things are aligned politically. How do you feel about the role artists can play in this conversation?

HUO: Art is a form of hope which can lead to that togetherness, common future, and love. It’s why we need art. It’s a very difficult moment in the world, because we see a backlash against globalization. Of course Glissant predicted it all, because he says the downside of globalization are these homogenizing forces. We all agree they exist and ought to be resisted because they lead to extinction, with the disappearance of difference. The counter reaction against globalization is even worse, because it leads to as Etel Adnan says, ‘separation, suspicion, isolation, hatred,’ all of these things we can now observe in many parts of the world, which of course, Trump is an important part. As Glissant said, we need to embrace the global dialogue and do it in a way that avoids the homogenizing force. It creates what he calls the mondialite, so a global dialogue produces ‘togetherness, love, common future’. I think that’s what art can help us to do.

Screenshot from Hans Ulrich Obrist's instagram page @hansulrichobrist

Screenshot from Hans Ulrich Obrist's instagram page @hansulrichobrist


SO: Let’s talk about the role of the internet. First we’ll talk about your Instagram account, where you have a collection of pictures of Post-It notes, written by artists? Am I correct? Tell me more about how you came about this idea, and what you’re finding from this process of curating this internet exhibition.

HUO: I had this conversation with the late Umberto Eco, the great Italian writer, he lamented about the disappearance of calligraphy and handwriting. He said we should re-introduce handwriting courses in schools. So I thought about the fact that teenagers no longer develop handwriting.

I thought calligraphy courses are maybe not the answer, so we should celebrate handwriting on the internet. I never felt comfortable with Facebook and Twitter - we can see now that both Facebook and Twitter really contribute to the ‘filter bubble’. With Instagram, I liked it much more when it was in chronology, now it arrives in the order of your own pre-selection, so it’s also the danger of the filter bubble.

With Instagram, you can follow artists and it’s basically the platform that is most connected to curating, because you can see into artists’ studios, into exhibitions, and conceptual instagram accounts. Jennifer Higgie posts everyday about forgotten women artists as a protest against forgetting. Alice Rawsthorn does a design course with weekly design tutorials. It’s the most interesting social media platform there is, but I didn’t know what to do with it. So these guys downloaded the app, and posted that I had joined, and all of a sudden I had followers, I had to do something.


SO: laughs

HUO: And then I had this idea of Umberto Eco, the handwriting thing. I had the new app, the app on my phone, the pressure to come up with something, I knew I wouldn’t want to post my food, because that would not interest anyone.


SO: laughs

HUO: I knew I wouldn’t post photos of my friends, because these things are private, and artists don’t often have their studios published. So I was sort of stuck with what to do. Later on, I was in a cafe with Etel Adnan - the same poet that you have the text behind you - and she wrote this beautiful poem. It was raining outside, we were on a walk, I was on my iPhone typing, she wrote a poem on a piece of paper, and I photographed it and posted it, just a few lines, and of a sudden, I realized, “that’s it”. I was going to stop when it got boring, but then it never became boring because I still meet artists everyday and it’s fascinating to see what they have to say. Then it became a little bit too limited, so I had this idea, of working with two or three artists at the same time. We fold the piece of paper in three parts, and then it’s two or three people doing it together.


SO: On the point of the internet and art, there’s a quote where you said that ‘art is for the masses, and the internet hasn’t killed art. It has increased the interest in art.’

HUO: That’s right, because we have never had more visitors before at the Serpentine - more than a million visitors a year, which for two small galleries in the park is quite a lot, and the figures are increasing. There is this idea of people experiencing (in person) what they can’t experience on the screen. If you look at our current exhibitions of the amazing work of Zaha Hadid, yes you can see it in VR through Google Art, but you can see the original paintings with texture in its physicality. For all our exhibitions, there is something that appeals to all the senses, and the more time people spend time on a screen, the more they have a desire to go to a live concert, that’s why concerts are more important, or to go see an exhibition. So it’s not just about the visual sense, but creating a multi-sensory environment.


SO: Let’s talk more about your programming here at Serpentine, what is your general objective in terms of how you select artists to feature here? In terms of your annual program?

HUO: We want to show artists who make a difference, and whose work is paradigm changing, which we feel is urgent for people to see. Of course, the program is always balanced, for different generations, and different geographies. We also feel the urgency of moments, which is why we don’t plan too long in advance. So for example, we are working now on a retrospective of the late John Latham who lived until about ten years ago. He died in 2006 and invented a type of social sculpture a la Joseph Beuys, but he came after the stability of the artist placement group. He was also very interested in what role could art play, which he was so ambitious that he wanted to connect art to science, music, and literature. The world needs John Latham so that’s why we show him.

Then of course, we want to show how art connects to participants. You can’t understand the forces that are effective in art, if you don’t understand what is happening in architecture, in science, in literature. So that’s why we show art in its connection to architecture, through the Pavilions, and to all the disciplines through the marathons.

89 plus via Serpentine Gallery

89 plus via Serpentine Gallery

SO: You mentioned young artists, the new generation coming up. What excites you the most about what you’re seeing that is being created by young artists?

HUO: We started mapping with Simon Castets, in the ‘89 plus’ initiative, and we have more than 7,000 artists on that database. That’s simply the first generation who grew up with the internet, 1989 was the year when Tim Banus invested the world wide web. With these artists, we are starting to see patterns.

We see how many of these artists connect with poetry, I find this immensely exciting - Younger artists in their 20s who connect to poetry, rectify the wrong cliche that in the Twitter, Instagram, Facebook age people no longer write. There’s actually an amazing polyphony of writing, exciting writing going on right now.

The second ‘89 plus’ project had to do with the filter bubble - many of the artists, reflect the possibilities of technology and the lock in syndrome, in which we are confronted with only things we agree with. The (social media system) excludes contrary opinions and that is very dangerous because it locks us in. Another pattern is a growing consciousness that we are facing a limit of resources, and we need to rethink the limits of growth within the economy and ecology, with the looming spectrum of extinction. All of these are issues which matter to this generation.

(At Serpentine Gallery), we think it’s not only important to have exhibitions but to support artists in their 20s through residencies. We’ve just had these residencies at the Google Institute where we had the great Elisabeth Sutherland, who you know.


SO: Yea, close friend!

HUO: ...from Accra, she was there, together with two of her colleagues. So we also continue to support this generation not only through exhibitions but through residencies.


SO: Amazing! Thank you Hans Ulrich.

HUO: No problem, thanks for your questions!

Sharon Obuobi