Hysteria Station. Hans Ulrich Obrist, the curator as networker03/04/2007
Hysteria Station. Hans Ulrich Obrist, the curator as networker *
Since two decades the international artworld has witnessed a remarkable burgeoning of artistic epicentres and manifestations. Lively art scenes are not only to be found in traditional art metropolises such as London, New York, and Berlin, but also in Glasgow, Ljubljana, Beijing, and Dakar, while the established 'Grand Shows' such as Documenta and the Venice Biennale have to compete with events that cropped up in Lyon, Johannesburg, Tirana, Gwangju, Sao Paolo, and Istanbul. Globalisation has transformed the contemporary artworld into an extensive network of production and presentation platforms with political, cultural, and geographic specificity. This fragmentation has undermined the traditional curatorial agenda of large-scale exhibitions. How to present the current state of the arts, if the traditional 'overview' is no longer valid? Whereas the last generation of curators still had recourse to a particular theme, a personal story, or even an individual mythology, that avenue now seems a complete dead end.
For Documenta 11, Okwui Enwezor opted for the strategy of dispersal. In the preliminaries to the actual show, Enwezor organised a series of platforms - multidisciplinary conferences and lectures - on different locations around the globe. The show in Kassel was merely a single stage in an ongoing process of reflection and creation with worldwide ramifications. Francesco Bonami, the director of the fiftieth Venice Biennale, went for diversification. He kept the spatial and temporal framework of the exhibition, but delegated curatorial responsibility to eleven colleagues, who set up exhibitions in the Giardini, the Arsenale, and the Museo Correr. The resulting thematic and spatial differentiation - Bonami spoke about eleven separate 'time zones' - was supposed to cancel the intrusive curatorial interference of monolithic shows and lead to a more intimate and human experience of the artworks. At last, the tyranny of the curator would make place for a 'dictatorship of the viewer.' But after finishing the tiresome parcours throughout the different venues, many wondered what kind of alternative was being offered. There was hardly a surprise on Bonami's list of co-curators. Gabriel Orozco, Rirkrit Tirivanija, Hans Ulrich Obrist, Daniel Birnbaum, Hou Hanru, and Catherine David are all curatorial heavy-weights. Paradoxically enough, nearly all of them presented art from a particular continent or a specific region, from Africa over Asia and South America to Arabia. A walk through the Arsenale inadvertently reminded viewers of the geographical division of a classic World Fair.(1) Moreover, the co-curators had simply stuffed their allocated space with their own selection, without coordination or mutual consultation, which often resulted in an annoying visual and auditory cacophony. The ensuing bafflement of the visitors was afterwards explained by Bonami as the great merit of the exhibition. He called it a successful reflection on 'the general perplexity by our contemporary, fragmented culture.'(2) In that respect, one section in particular stole the show: Utopia Station, the ambitious project curated by Molly Nesbit, Hans Ulrich Obrist, and Rirkrit Tirivanija. At the far end of the Arsenale, Utopia Station presented a veritable jumble of projects and constructions that dealt with the current meaning of the concept of utopia and had been left behind by a heterogeneous and inordinately large group of artists, architects, dancers, writers, musicians, and theorists.
Utopia Station bore the unmistakable signature of Hans Ulrich Obrist.(3) In the last ten years, this Swiss curator has built up an impressive record of achievements. He has curated dozens of art shows, published several books about and with artists, organised a host of 'interdisciplinary' events, set up an archive of contemporary art, and interviewed more than four hundred people - a great diversity of artists, scientists, architects, and philosophers. His unflagging zeal and record output have gained Obrist a legendary reputation and an almost unassailable position.(4) The funds and resources he manages to mobilise each time, the leading personalities he succeeds in gathering around his person, the sheer scale and number of the events he is involved in, and the high pace of his activities, all seem to prevent people in the artworld from putting Obrist and his actions within a critical perspective. His practice has a self-legitimating effect. A show like Utopia Station generally elicits two extreme responses: either blind enthusiasm or scornful indifference. Both attitudes, however, reveal intellectual laziness: the first, opportunistic, the second, supercilious. While the first group want to ride on the Obrist carrousel, and so applaud his every move, the second do not even deign to consider why they scoff at his work. However, it is precisely the gap between these two forms of intellectual indolence that makes up Obrist's playground, all his to manipulate with his proliferating enterprise and whirling discourse.
In the early nineties, Obrist causes a furore with a few small-scale shows in unconventional locations, such as his own kitchen (World Soup, 1991), a monastery library (Les Archives de Christian Boltanski 1969-1991, 1991), and a hotel room in Paris (Hotel Carlton Palace - Chambre 763, 1993). They formulate a reaction to the critical failure of personalised and stage-managed mega exhibitions such as Bilderstreit (1989) or Magiciens de la terre (1989) at the end of the 1980s. Obrist does not present himself as an author, a director, or a scenographer, but as a partner and accomplice of the artist. An exhibition can only offer the necessary context and the right condition for the production and presentation of artworks if it is the result of a dialogue with the artists involved. Moreover, Obrist was one of the first curators to gear the structure of his activities to the shifts in the global artistic landscape. His response to the worldwide explosion of art centres is a nomadic practice of continuous research and movement. He borrows from Deleuze & Guattari - pretty much the obligatory philosophers in the artistic circles of the nineties - and describes his method as a 'rhizomatic work process.'(5) That process results in shows that have no finality and are in constant evolution, both in form and in content, across the traditional boundaries of time and space. The show is part of a hybrid process that is supposed to lead to a 'collective form of intelligence.' Obrist does not use artworks to tell a story or illustrate a theory. All he wants, is to install a 'mobile platform', where the most varied practices can meet, cross, and interconnect. This exhibition model brings together a multidisciplinary collective and offers opportunities for artistic collaboration and intellectual exchange. Obrist assigns himself a subservient role, that of a mediator who merely installs production structures and interweaves artistic practices. His function is much like that of a network manager, coordinating behind the scenes. Art institutions and events act as relays, spots where connections can be made. In other words, institutional frameworks are no longer to be fought or avoided; on the contrary, they are to be prepared for 'hosting' dynamic exhibition events.
For Utopia Station, the mobile platform was installed at the Venice Biennale. The show was only one stop within an ongoing project that manifests itself on different locations, at different times, and at varying speeds. Utopia Station is a multifaceted 'project in progress' that aims to transcend mere presentation and focus on the encounter. This can occur under the format of meetings, seminars, books, or exhibitions. The impression that the project will assume a final or fixed form is studiously avoided: 'Utopia Stations do not require architecture for their existence, only a meeting, a gathering.'(6) The project kicked off with a seminar at Venice University and continued in the form of meetings that were held in Poughkeepsie, New York, Paris, Frankfurt, and Berlin.(7) The show in Venice was the first 'physical' station. Obviously, it was not presented as a genuine exhibition, but as a dynamic platform for research and dialogue. According to Obrist, it provided a solution to the problem that dominated this Biennale: to define the critical potential of large-scale art shows with regard to the fragmentation and globalisation of the contemporary art world. The strategy was evolution. By continuously changing its form, its participants, and its contents, the project clearly dissociated itself from the format of the package exhibition that is paradigmatic of the homogenising effect of globalisation. As Utopia Station knows no finality, it resists the fly-in, fly-out exhibition industry.(8) In Venice, about sixty artists and architects were invited to present a project on the subject of utopia and more than 160 artists were asked to design a poster to be posted in the city of Venice and put on-line. A varied programme of lectures, concerts, performances, meetings, film screenings, and parties was intended to liven things up all through the summer. But little came of these ambitious plans. Visitors who arrived at Utopia Station after the opening weekend no longer had any opportunity to partake in the promised 'interaction' and 'exchange.' The lectures, performances, discussions, and meetings that were meant to transform that section of the Biennale into an interactive 'way station', or at least, into more than a conventional exhibition, had simply all been and gone. All that remained was a great clutter of installations, posters, videos, and various residues of past performances. It looked like an abandoned campsite, half boy scouts, half ageing hippies, with a dash of evangelical fervour thrown in. The vestiges of their visit consisted of flags, banners, totems, signs, makeshift huts, and even organic toilets, delivered by handyman Joep van Lieshout. The majority of the posters for Utopia Station demonstrated immature naivety, and the bulk of the projects suffered from pompous and misguided engagement. For the ordinary visitor, Utopia Station was no more than a heap of trivial and pathetic relics of what must have been quite a cheerful artistic jamboree. The compact, non-hierarchical structure of rooms, platforms, stages, and seating areas - designed by Rirkrit Tirivanija and Liam Gillick - did not improve matters. It had to create the impression that it was the result of spontaneous collaboration between the various participants, whereas, of course, the whole thing had obviously been staged. Utopia Station simulated an activity that had, in fact, never taken place. The experiment of the evolving exhibition yielded a megalomaniac and incestuous form of artistic Spielerei. The result was nothing but a moribund ruin, an aestheticised installation of artistic mass hysteria.
In Utopia Station, Obrist's evolutionary exhibition model and rhizomatic curatorial practice assumed hysterical proportions. His network, that initially encompassed only a close group of artist friends, has become so vast that it has turned into an image in its own right.(9) From Laboratorium (1999) over Traversées (2000) and Cities on the Move (2001) to Utopia Station (2003), the publicity is dominated by a seemingly endless, alphabetically ordered list of contributors. The programme of interdisciplinary teamwork is reduced to the gimmick of an all-star bill. Naturally, the reputation of his intellectual friends, such as Rem Koolhaas, Stefano Boeri, Bruno Latour, or Boris Groys, reflects on Obrist and his exploits. The very fact that they have agreed to contribute is generally taken as a guarantee of solemn content and critical mass; merely Obrist's success in rallying them or catching them for an interview is already counted to his intellectual credit. Whether those big names actually contribute anything worthwhile is secondary. Already in 1971, Les Levine remarked that a show with works by more than 80 artists only puts one person in the spotlights: the curator. (10)
In Utopia Station, the overkill and chaos led to a complete negation and banalisation of art. The most discomforting effect was the evaporation of any critical and meaningful output. Artistic and intellectual questions were reduced to sterile signs. The names of the artists, architects, scientists, or intellectuals that accompanied the proliferation of videos, posters, scale models, and sketches functioned merely as emblems of criticality.(11) The ambition of bringing together so many different artistic and intellectual practices in one single non-hierarchical structure did not yield a pluralistic and multifarious whole, but had the effect of systematically smoothing out differences. In Utopia Station, the reflection on 'multiplicity, diversity and contradiction' advocated by Bonami arrived at its final implosion.
Obrist's shows suffer from exactly the same malady they profess to counteract: homogenisation. The works of art are mixed up and blended to an undifferentiated mush. They no longer illustrate the curator's theme, but are smothered under the indifferent weight of artistic and discursive mass. Excessive quantity and the rhetoric of selfless mediation seem to have released Obrist from the critical responsibility - toward both artists and public - to posit comprehensible statements that can then be critically discussed. His aversion to synthetic presentation seems to be prompted by the mistaken assumption that a focused curatorial programme always has a levelling effect. What's more, Obrist seems to take the fragmentation and diversity of the global art world as a licence to refuse to articulate differences. It is incontestable that much contemporary art is marked by the condition of global disintegration and reflects on that fate or instrumentalises it. But that does not imply that all artworks embody that condition, or, in other words, that they themselves are fragmented, disjointed, or unspecific. It certainly does not follow that they deserve to be presented as such. Obrist's exhibition model no longer starts from the specificity of the contemporary art production, but from a general status questionis of the contemporary art world. That is precisely the reason why his role as a curator-networker could emancipate to the point that his actual projects are merely the narcissistic reflection of his curatorial mediation an sich. The emphasis is no longer on the nature and qualities of the art being shown, but has shifted to the process of how that art came into being under his auspices. Consequently there is precious little to be learned in Obrist's exhibition experiments, and hardly anything to be seen. He does not develop any fundamental insights or new exhibition formats, but merely toys with spatial and temporal conventions. The game is even abandoned halfway, witness the fortunes of the dynamic platform within Utopia Station. The party was already over after the opening weekend. Doesn't the Biennale run for four months? If Obrist and his colleagues had been consistent in using the Biennale as a temporary platform for their experiments, they better had tidied away the mess the day after the opening.
So what is the secret of his success? Why do people jump at any opportunity to join his network? 'Obrist' is a brand, a ticket to the global art circuit, a label that confers status in artistic circles. The mere fact of being included in his network is more important than the actual intellectual investment in or profit from it. This becomes all the more problematic when historical practices, figures, or oeuvres are integrated. Obrist likes to surround himself not just with young artists, but also with older celebrities, with a preference for people who made their name in the 1960s. Utopia Station, for instance, included works by the filmmaker Jonas Mekas and the architects Cedric Price, Lucien Kroll, and Yona Friedman. Obrist transfers these figures straight to the present, and simply drops their work amidst that of contemporary artists. Even though the oeuvres of Price, Kroll, and Friedman are certainly still fresh and meaningful, an appreciation of their contemporary significance calls for historical contextualization. Otherwise they risk to be reduced to a fetish of historical depth.
Obrist likes to claim that he wants to help art in what Deleuze and Guattari have called the never-ending 'fight against clichés of opinion.'(12) But he himself delivers one avant-garde cliché after another. In his discourse, Obrist is as much of a mist machine. Following the example of his great idol, Alexander Dorner, the director of the Provinzial Museum in Hannover and the first curator to invite artists to work in his museum, Obrist keeps on rehashing the idea of the museum as a workplace or a laboratory. Dorner's writings are still relevant, but only within the right perspective. The museum project started by Dorner at the beginning of the twentieth century no longer needs to be completed.(13) Museums have never been as accommodating to artists as they are today. At the same time, flexibility and mobility have become standard for museums, rendering Dorner's demand unproductive and meaningless. The pontificating whirlwind Obrist is an exponent of this exhibition machinery in overdrive. He represents an accelerated attention regime that is no longer capable of focusing, let alone of analysing or producing insights. Hans Ulrich Obrist may well be the James Brown of the artworld, better known as 'the hardest working man on earth', his activities are affected by an entropy that is directly proportional to the amount of energy and resources they exhaust. It is hard to feel any enthusiasm about such a loss-making operation, and even harder to remain indifferent to it.
* This is a translated and revised version of an article that was originally published in Dutch in De Witte Raaf (vol. 19, nr.109, 2004, pp. 14-15). Translation by Audrey Van Tuyckom.
(1) Scott Rothkopf, In the Bag. Pictures of an Exhibition, in: Artforum-International 42, nr. 1, September 2003, p. 174.
(2) Francesco Bonami, in: Tim Griffin and James Meyer, Global Tendencies: Globalism and the Large-Scale Exhibition, in: Artforum 42, no. 3, November 2003, p. 157. For a general description of the concept of the fiftieth Biennale of Venice, see Francesco Bonami, I have a Dream, in: Francesco Bonami (ed.), Dreams and Conflicts - The Dictatorship of the Viewer. La Biennale di Venezia, 50th International Art Exhibition (cat.), Venezia, Marsilio/La Biennale di Venezia, 2003, pp. xxi-xxiii.
(3) I do not want to belittle the fact that Utopia Station is the product of a joint curatorial effort nor negate the contribution of Molly Nesbit and Rirkrit Tirivanija. My principal aim is to read the project as a clear exponent of the curatorial practice of Hans Ulrich Obrist.
(4) After only a few years, the curator Obrist was already being hailed as a 'phenomenon', for instance by Jan Winkelmann in: Het fenomeen. Een portret van de jonge Zwitserse tentoonstellingsmaker Hans Ulrich Obrist, in: Metropolis M 17, no. 1, 1996, pp. 28-32.
(5) Robert Fleck, If it's Tuesday. Curator interview. Robert Fleck talks with Hans Ulrich Obrist, in: Artforum 33, no. 9, May 1995, pp. 23-24 and 112. For my description of Obrist's early curatorial strategies, I drew mainly from the following interviews: Hou Hanru, Hans Ulrich Obrist. Art Critic and Curator, in: Flash-Art, no. 67, November-December 1992, p. 128; Marius Babias, Der Kurator muss verschwinden, in: Kunstforum International, no. 125, January-February, 1994, pp. 391-393; Marius Babias, Mobile Plattformen fur das Umsetzen von Obsessionen schaffen, in: Kunstforum International, no. 132, November 1995, pp. 408-410; and Jan Winkelmann, Ein Gespräch mit Hans Ulrich Obrist, in: Kunstbulletin, July-August 1996. For a definition of the evolutionary exhibition model, see Hans Ulrich Obrist, Evolutional Exhibitions on: www.attese.it/article13. For an overview of the exhibitions realised by Obrist, see e.g. Hans Ulrich Obrist, In the Midst of Things, at the Centre of Nothing, in: Art and Design 12, 1997, no. 52, pp. 86-90; and Hans Ulrich Obrist, Installations Are the Answer, What Is the Question?, in: Oxford Art Journal 24, 2001, no. 2, pp. 93-101. Another major source of Obrist's ideas, but then as an interviewer, is Hans Ulrich Obrist and Thomas Boutoux (eds.), Hans Ulrich Obrist. Interviews Volume I, Milan, Charta, 2003.
(6) Molly Nesbit, Hans Ulrich Obrist, and Rirkrit Tirivanija, What is a Station, in: Bonami (ed.), op. cit. (note 1), p. 331. For the digital section of Utopia Station, surf to www.e-flux.com/projects/utopia/index.html.
(7) Meanwhile, Utopia Station descended on the Munich Haus der Kunst (from September to November 2003). The show DasTAT/Bockenheimer Depot is on in Frankfurt am Main from February to May 2004.
(8) Hans Ulrich Obrist, in: Griffin and Meyer, op. cit. (note 1), p. 159.
(9) The press release of Utopia Station did not even try to name all the participants: 'To list every participant is not possible here. Let us say that it is a large, and growing, group. In alphabetical order it would begin with A12 and end with Andrea Zittel.'
(10) Les Levine, The Information Fall Out, in: Studio International 181, 1971, no. 934, pp. 265-266.
(11) This was already noted by Alison M. Gingeras as the devastating effect of the exhibition Laboratorium in the Antwerp Photography Museum in 1999, see: Gingeras, Laboratorium: Provincaal Museum Voor Fotografie, Anvers, in: Art-Press 252, December 1999, pp. 76-8.
(12) Hans Ulrich Obrist in: Hanru, op. cit. (note 3), p. 128.
(13) Stéphanie Jeanjean, Musées en Mouvement. Interview avec Hans Ulrich Obrist, in: Hors d'œuvre no. 2, 1998; perso.wanadoo.fr/interface.art/hors%20d%27oeuvre/HO2/HANS.html. Obrist frequently refers to the book The way beyond 'art.' The work of Herbert Bayer (New York, Wittenborn, Schultz, inc., 1947) by Alexander Dorner, in which the author characterises the museum of the future as a workplace (p. 232): 'The new type of art museum must not only be not an "art" museum in the traditional sense but, strictly speaking, not a "museum" at all. [...] the new type would be a kind of powerhouse, a producer of new energies.'