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The interview with the interviewer: Hans-Ulrich Obrist

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I’m due to interview Hans-Ulrich Obrist on a late October evening, in a building overlooking the river. It’s a mild night in London, with clear skies, but the sitting room where we meet is strange, dark and ominous. I’m not allowed to say much more about this place: within these walls editors are at work on the post-production of one of the most ambitious films ever made. I’ve had to swear to complete secrecy, to merely come in the proximity of this monstrous, utopian masterpiece. Strange as it may seem as a choice of setting for interviews, it isn’t quite so surprising, when we consider the figure of Hans Ulrich Obrist. This is exactly the kind of thing he’s known to get up to in his time off, when he isn’t involved in the art system in his official capacity.

Hans’ internal compass has always pointed him in the direction of all things extraordinary and unusual. Wherever anything exciting happens, you’ll find him there: spinning the cogs, bringing together distant skills and landscapes. He likes ideas that build new bridges, across water or land, or magically suspended in thin air. Ideas that, combined with one another, give birth to wholly new philosophies, soaring upwards through the layers of knowledge, like a system of pulleys. In an enormously intricate world of minute, inscrutable connections, Hans-Ulrich Obrist shines a guiding light, helps us to discern the new from the derivative. 

The annual ‘interview marathon’ at the Serpentine has just come to an end. It was one of the most interesting ones to date – on the subject of transformation. Many other institutions have followed suit, organizing long sessions of talks inspired by your marathons. Do you think the format is starting to grow stale?
I don’t think so. It is certainly important to take a chance at finding new formats, but I believe the marathon idea is still relevant. Deleuze famously said that it’s important to find difference in repetition. Today, we organise marathons all over the world. Each one has its own characteristics and its own specific identity, determined by the context and the location it takes place in, and thanks to research carried out locally. It’s a non-static format, like the interview itself: it is a complex system. Right now, it’s still exciting. When it’ll no longer be exciting, we’ll stop organising the marathons.

After launching the 89Plus project, you started an Instagram account that hosts a ‘post-it museum’: what’s the deal with online-based art exhibition?
As well as the two projects you mentioned, which are constantly evolving, I’d like to connect online curating practices to my early experimentations with the digital magazine e-flux. Increasingly, the marathons draw on the subject of technology, too, and take place across public technological platforms. Internet produces reality by means of formulas. More and more often, obviously, my exhibitions take place on the Internet, thanks to the kind of digital infrastructure 89Plus is an example of. 

On the matter of 21-Century art institutions: what can be done to keep them intriguing and exciting right now, and in the near future?
In the near future, the most interesting international art institutions will be the ones that succeed in making a stand against the homogenising stances of globalisation, building discourse around local culture and genius. Everyone should read the work of my great friend Eduard Glissànt, who sadly passed away too soon. He came up with the notion of mondialité: a way of resisting the homogenisation of the globalised era, whilst remaining open to dialogue with the whole world.

As we talk, other guests come and go. It suits the purpose: Hans-Ulrich Obrist’s life is like a dazzling salon of which he is the main conversational centre. Soon, we are interrupted. Hans just got back from Paris, where he was attending the FIAC art fair, one of the key events pencilled into any curator’s diary. 

When we resume our interview we talk at length about many different things: arts, history, contemporary art, books, the idea of becoming a creative book machine, cross-disciplinary tension as a moral imperative, the artist Vasari, and much, much more. It’s hard to fit it all in one short article. But since I’m writing this in the aftermath of the Paris shootings at the Bataclan, on November 13th, 2015, I find it hardest to forget the subject of the interruption. It wasn’t a typical art world conversation between friends or colleagues, updating each other on their travels, mutual acquaintances and projects. No: the subject was the war; the subject was Paris. We talked about the destiny of Europe, the impending war and its consequences. 

I remember what Hans said clearly: I know him well, and know he uses different voices, to match the different registers in his speech. Among them all, this time he picked his serious voice. ‘There will be a war in Europe, it cannot be avoided.’ He spoke gravely, nothing like his usual quickfire intonations, revealing a deep-seated, irrational unease (through I have always known him as a sensitive, rational mind). I quickly ascribed his statement to the context: just another of Hans’ hyperboles, I thought. ‘A war, in Paris: a real war.’ Sometimes the best way to reach for the truth in conversation is to lose track of the initial question. And Hans was speaking the truth.

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