Almanac of Contemporary Aesthetics
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Inspired by Edouard Glissant’s archipelagic thinking, Hans Ulrich Obrist has spent decades doing studio visits and interviews and “learning from artists.” In the past year, the epitome of the globetrotting curator has learnt from the pandemic how to keep doing just that without traveling at all, by prioritizing research and a decentralized approach.

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ALESSIO ASCARIThe recent pandemic has triggered an unprecedented shift of behavioral patterns and has had a massive impact on everyone’s workflow. I’m curious what effect did it have on your daily routine?
HANS ULRICH OBRISTI spent the majority of 2020 in London, mostly working from home. The UK lockdown started when I returned to Switzerland for Christmas, so I ended up staying in Zurich through March. But now I’m back in London. I’ve always had many rituals in my daily routine. Every morning when I wake up, I read fifteen minutes of .douard Glissant. He was my mentor. His idea of “archipelagic thinking” is at the core of every project I do. Since he passed away, I’ve communicated with him through his work. Then, I go jogging in the park. I’ve been working in the park for many years, as the Serpentine Galleries are located in Kensington Gardens. But I never really spent any time in it because I’d always be rushing to the office. During lockdown, I really started experiencing the park as a public space.
AAThere were also some new rituals: you started to record conversations with animals on TikTok?
HUOYes. It was inspired by Vinciane Despret, who’s a great philosopher. She wrote the book What Would Animals Say If We Asked the Right Questions? Through my dialogue with Despret, I also became increasingly interested in studies around the intelligence and the interconnectedness of the living world.
AAIt seems for you the pandemic has triggered a closer attention to our natural environment, which has been true for many people in different ways. Almost all of us have taken a break from traveling, when it isn’t banned altogether. To me, you have been the epitome of the globetrotting curator who used to constantly fly from city to city for exhibitions, biennials, art fairs etc. Even before the pandemic you wanted to cut back on flying to reduce your carbon footprint, but I imagine the change has been radically accelerated now …

If the office is prescriptive and disposable, the home-office can be a “fortress of solitude” and trigger inequalities.

HUOI worked a lot with the visionary artist Gustav Metzger. It’s because of him that we put ecology at the center of the Serpentine’s programming. We started with the “Extinction Marathon,” followed by “Remember Nature,” and “Back to Earth.” Metzger spoke of reducing air travel, and traveling by train as much as possible. By the way, we should fight to bring back the night trains that used to connect European cities back in the day! I used to live on those trains. During lockdown, I started to rethink my working process. My entire work is based on studio visits, and for the first couple of weeks, I didn’t know how to research. Then I realized that I could do studio visits on Zoom. Even though Zoom can never replace the physical, in-person experience, it does allow for a much more decentralized approach, and incentivizes studio visits outside of big cities, in remote areas of the world or smaller towns that wouldn’t normally be on my trajectory. For example, I’d always dreamt of visiting Jae and Wadsworth Jarrell—founding members of the legendary Chicago artists’ group AfriCOBRA (African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists)—but they live in Cleveland, and I never got a chance to go. I finally visited them this year on Zoom. Throughout 2020 I’ve done approximately two hundred Zoom studio visits on all continents. I’ve never done more research without traveling at all.
AAI love the train idea. It reminds me of Steve Reich’s amazing album, Different Trains. We should use it as a soundtrack for a campaign to bring trains back as an environmentally friendly form of traveling across Europe! Anyway, I imagine that a lot of these studio visits were actually not studio visits, but home-studio visits, as all of these artists were probably working from home? What is your take on the “home office,” both in terms of design and the work/leisure dichotomy?
HUOIn 2018, we organized the “Serpentine Work Marathon,” at the Royal Geographical Society in London, co-curated with philosopher Bernard Steigler (who died tragically last year) and myself, and our Serpentine team—Claude Adjil, Ben Vickers, Lucia Pietroiusti, Kostas Stasinopoulos, and Kay Watson. We do these “knowledge festivals” where we bring together practitioners from different cultural fields—David Adjaye for architecture; Beatriz Colomina, who talked about the bed as a place of work; and artists like Precious Okoyomon, Patrick Staff, Oscar Murillo, Pedro Reyes, Anne Imhof, Aria Dean, Emily Segal, amongst others. In 2017 we did an “AI Marathon” called “GUEST, GHOST, HOST: MACHINE!” that addressed things like the relationship between machines and the human spirit, the ethics of the machine, whether the future belongs to non-human entities, whether an existential threat is real, etc. This led us to automation and the future of work. So after that we did the “Work Marathon.” We talked a lot about the merging of home and work. It’s interesting that pre-industrial revolution, the majority of people worked from home and it was only in the 20th century that resistance to home-based work increased. Though, there are dangers with working from home as research shows that people who regularly work from home, work more overtime hours, compared to those who work in an office. Another danger is that it can become what Simone Niquille & Space Caviar call a “fortress of solitude.” I think that has a lot to do with design and architecture, because the majority of buildings are quite isolating: they’re not designed as a collective structure. In The Death and Life of Great American Cities, from 1961, Jane Jacobs argued that a neighborhood needs multiple uses to function 24 hours a day. It would be interesting to use that as a starting point for a reconsideration of the office. Certainly, people will continue to work from home after the pandemic, they might only go back to offices to gather and meet. But, before the pandemic, a lot of offices were empty most of the time as they were only used during the day. I think we have an opportunity to change that, to design and build mixed-use buildings that are less prescriptive. But we have to use resources responsibly, so that these spaces will last for generations.

I think it’s essential to delink. I always get up very early, and for the first couple of hours after reading and jogging, I hand-write ideas in my notebook, offline.

AAIt’s interesting that you mention resources. It brings to mind a recent project of yours—the exhibition “Cambio” by the design duo Formafantasma.
HUOYes, that project at The Serpentine looked specifically at the timber industry, not only from our perspective, but also from the perspective of a tree. The idea is that we have to extend the life span the resources that we use. If we make a chair, we need to keep it for 70, or 80 years—only then would it legitimize the use of this wood.
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AAAnother urgent social issue that this pandemic has brought to our attention is the digital divide. I was reading that in Italy, there is a large percentage of kids who are not able to participate in online schooling because they don’t have the technology. So we should also be rethinking democracy around these new platforms that we are using to interact, work, and to create.
HUOYes, that’s very important. Elderly people are also very often isolated. But then there is the surveillance aspect. I think Paul B. Preciado was one of the first to write about how COVID has provided an opportunity to extend surveillance and control. One of the fundamental changes is that the domestic space now appears as the new center of production, consumption and also political control.
AAYes, you’re right. I feel that the younger generations are more conscious about the question of surveillance, also in relation to social media. You’re very active on Instagram, where you invite artists, thinkers, and creators to share handwritten notes …
HUOI remember when Ryan Trecartin downloaded the app on my phone. He was one of the first artists to have a lot of followers, and he sent them all this message that I’d joined. So I was thrown into the water. I recalled of a conversation I had years earlier with the philosopher Villém Flusser, who said that we could use these technologies in a way that’s almost the opposite of what the inventor intended. I also remembered Umberto Eco, telling me about the necessity of saving handwriting from disappearing in the digital age. That's how my Instagram project was born, basically.
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AASabotaging Instagram from the inside! I recently read Futurability by Italian theorist Franco Bifo Berardi, which is all about digital platforms and the importance of reminding younger audiences that these platforms are not neutral—they’re private spaces owned by corporations. Artists such as Simon Denny, Ryan Trecartin or DIS, involved in the so-called “corporate aesthetics” or “post-Internet” generation, had already shed some light on these topics ten, fifteen years ago. I guess the difference is that the dystopia they were imagining has now become a reality.
HUOWe did a show with Simon Denny at the Serpentine a few years ago. He looked at the digital age and how it changed the office. By considering tech companies like Zappos and Apple, alongside government headquarters and organizations, he revealed that similar managerial models are used within these structures. He showed the ways in which different models can result in organizational strategies, scrutinizing the impact on daily life. It’s important to look at the various effects of the internet, and how it’s changed over time as misinformation continues to spread. Tim Berners-Lee always wanted the World Wide Web to be a democratic space, accessible to all beyond inequalities. But as it has become more and more centralized, and succumbed to a few monopolies. The blockchain could actually reset that.
AAThere’s a lot of talk around this idea of “decolonizing” the Internet, and reappropriating it as a free, utopian landscape.
HUOYes. The question is also how to remove the paywalls of the hortus conclusus, and how we can use these technologies not to isolate, but to create togetherness. A great example of this is the practice of Sondra Perry who’s committed to net neutrality, ideas of collective production, action using open-source software, and making her videos available for free online. When Perry makes a piece, she wants people to have space and agency. She said “I'm interested in thinking about how blackness shifts, morphs, and can embody technology to combat oppression and surveillance throughout the diaspora.” I think we have an opportunity to do this now. One of Roland Barthes’ last seminars was titled “How to Live Together,” and he talked about the top form of cohabitation, that he calls “idiorhythmy”, in which each subject lives according to their own rhythm and harmony. That also seems to be an interesting idea for the future of office space.
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AAMaybe, as you're suggesting, we should reverse the question and talk about co-living rather than co-working.
HUOAlso delinking. I think it's essential to delink. I always get up very early, and for the first couple of hours after reading and jogging, I hand-write ideas in my notebook, offline. That’s something I learned from Paul Chan. I always learn from artists.
AAReferring to learning from artists, I would love to mention Martine Syms. Most artists call their working space a “studio.” Fashion designers often call it an “atelier.” But the term “office” itself is rarely used in creative fields, as opposed to the corporate world. Martine describes herself as a “conceptual entrepreneur,” highlighting a different approach to creative labor by adopting an “office mode.”
HUOYes, Syms works with video and performance, but also with language, graphic design, books, and publishing. She works for brands such as Prada and Yeezy, and teaches at the California Institute for the Arts, working as a history and cinema researcher. She says, “History bleeds out of everything.” So there are so many dimensions to her practice, stretching far beyond the art world. There’s always an idea of self-determination at its core.
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AAIn a way that’s linked to “How to Work Better,” the manifesto by Swiss artist duo Fischli and Weiss that you show off in one of the pictures we did for this issue.
HUO“How to Work Better” is actually a ready-made they appropriated from a ceramic factory in Thailand exactly 30 years ago, in 1991. They blew it up from a postcard, into a gigantic facade on an office building in Oerlikon, near Zurich. You can see it from the train. It became something of a cult image that so many artists have in their studio. It goes back to your question of why artists call their workplace a studio and not an office. I think an office is about production, whereas a studio is about practice. I wish I’d asked Enzo Mari to do a list. I very much regret that he passed away.
AAThis was my next question actually. The Triennale Design Museum in Milan is currently showing a retrospective you curated of over 60 years of Mari’s work. He is responsible for some iconic design objects for the office space, and was a radical thinker. Unfortunately, he passed away last year. Did you ever discuss the topic of the office with him, or his ideas around work?
HUOWork played such a central role for Mari. He wanted to create objects that would not only be usable and accessible, but would also be models of unalienated work for a different society. He wanted to make those doing alienating work aware of the possibility of transformative work. Utopia was an ethical handrail for him. He wanted to create models for society, for producing, and living differently. He strove for an era of collective thought. That's why he did the “Autoprogettazione” series, to encourage people to understand and make their own designs. He felt strongly about the absurdity and inhumanity of individuals working in factories just to earn enough money to buy the consumer goods that they’re producing, thus “becom[ing] the tools of [their] own oppression.” He called it “well-being for a cyborg.”
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AAOver a decade ago, I collaborated with Enzo on an exhibition and book titled The Intellectual Work, which was his collection of paperweights. It was a very special project … So, we discussed many ideas in relation to other artists and visionaries that you collaborated with, but this next question is more about you. This summer, the LUMA Foundation will inaugurate a new building designed by Frank Gehry in Arles. From my understanding, the museum will host the Hans Ulrich Obrist Archive. Can you tell me more about this project? The archive is another key element of the office space and obviously very relevant to your practice.
HUOFor many years, my archive was in Berlin, and now it’s in Arles. There are of course books, exhibition posters, and instruction manuals. But the central node in this network is my archived conversations, which I’ve been recording for decades. I started to record them in the early 1990s thanks to Jonas Mekas, who once told me, “You meet so many artists. You should just buy a little camera and film all of these conversations.” I’ve probably got about 4,000 hours of recordings now. Initially it was all with these Mini-DV cassettes. The last six or seven years have obviously been iPhone recordings. Finally, 2020 was all Zoom videos. Maja Hoffmann invited me to present a room screening all the interviews I did with my mentor Edouard Glissant for the opening of LUMA Arles. These interviews will be presented in a display case designed by Kazuyo Sejima, alongside drawings and books by Glissant.

The question is how we can use these new technologies that we have not to isolate but to create togetherness.

AAUsually at the end of your interviews, you ask about unrealized projects. Can you think of any utopian design ideas that are relevant to the current rethinking of the office space? What will the office look like in the future? Right now, more than than 50% of corporate office buildings around the world have been vacant for over a year. What will happen to them, if they are not reoccupied post-pandemic?
HUOThe important thing about utopia is that it should be dynamic. Classical utopias like Plato’s Republic or Thomas Moore’s Utopia were conceived as static systems. That’s where Glissant’s utopia is more interesting, because it’s a utopia conceived as a continuous dialogue. It’s quivering and trembling, because it transcends established systems of fixed thought and imperial thought. When it comes to those vacant office buildings, I think there’s a lot of possibility there. Firstly, we should face the housing crisis and use those buildings to accommodate people who need housing. Also, I wrote about the New Deal, and this art program that the US government promoted during the 1930s to support public art. We could imagine a kind of new New Deal, where these empty buildings are used as studios for artists. Or they could become sites for what Glissant called “All World Institutes”— new institutions of togetherness where all of the world’s cultures can meet and listen to one another.
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Hans Ulrich Obrist (Swiss, b. 1968) is a curator, critic and art historian. He is the co-director of exhibitions and programs at the Serpentine Galleries, London. Since his first show, “World Soup,” which he curated in his kitchen in 1991 when he was twentythree years old, he has staged more than three hundred exhibitions internationally. He is the author of several books including Ways of Curating; A Brief History of Curating; A Brief History of New Music; Everything You Always Wanted to Ask About Curating But Were Afraid to Ask; and nearly thirty volumes of his “Conversation Series” of interviews with contemporary artists.

Alessio Ascari is KALEIDOSCOPE’s Publisher and Creative Director. Since 2017, he curates the programming of exhibitions and events at Spazio Maiocchi, Milan.





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