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Heinz Bude

The Curator as Meta-Artist The case of HUO

Hans-ulrich-obrist Hans-Ulrich Obrist interviewing Cao Fei, The Shop, Bejing 2008

In 2010, a volume titled “A Post-Olympic Beijing Mini-Marathon” hit the book market. [1] Its author, according to the cover, is Hans-Ulrich Obrist. The book can be found in certain museum bookstores, which, in the German-speaking world, are usually operated by Walther König, and in selected art bookstores, next to coffee-table books by Cosima von Bonin, Herzog & de Meuron, or Dan Graham; but also in political bookstores, between tomes by Jacques Rancière, Mike Davis, or Judith Butler. It is designed in a cheap black-and-white aesthetic, was printed, according to the front matter, in China and issued under a renowned imprint in Switzerland, and received funding support from a foundation in that country. In other words, it is apparently a publication with a lot of backers that aims at the intersection between the visual arts, social theory, and urban planning. The back cover introduces Hans-Ulrich Obrist – in the book, he goes only by the almost Chinese-looking acronym HUO – who was born in a small village in the middle of nowhere, Switzerland, in the legendary year 1968, as a curator and critic working in the field of international contemporary art. The Serpentine Gallery, London, is mentioned as the bridgehead for his projects around the world. Okwui Enwezor or Jens Hoffmann might be presented in similar terms.

We are obviously supposed to imagine a nomadic existence tracing the creative flows on the planet from a center of the financial industry and working on the global translation of many individual artistic activities. The identification of curator and critic is supposed to explain the work he does, but it is not self-evident. After all, according to the classical modern view of the art system’s internal differentiation, distinguishing the positions of artist, dealer, collector, curator, and critic, the last two play different roles for the audience. The curator is the pantheon’s administrator, representing the position of the museum, the hierarchy, the tradition. The critic, by contrast, thrives on controversy among the contemporaries; he or she speaks out in newspapers and journals (and now possibly in blogs), stages polemical interventions, and insists on timeliness and topicality. In slightly different terms, we might say that the two stand for an antagonism between the positions of the public institution and the intellectual market. Turning history into tradition is one thing; helping define the direction of the present, another. Someone who would do both must depart from the museum and take the controversy to a different level.

HUO does both. His museum is a peripheral site to which he invites his interlocutors, and his voice is the voice of the others he allows to speak in his interviews. Curating, as he sees it, is a work of seeking out, beckoning forth, and aggregating that takes place anywhere in the world and leaves behind an accumulation of articulations. What sort of tradition the latter manifest, or what sort of path is being cleared, remains of secondary importance: “Let’s talk about the current moment.” Talking is, to him, the activity [2] that is designed to document a discourse of the present.

The book shows how that works. It is a collection of – presumably edited – transcripts of interviews HUO conducted with a number of art producers during a 14-hour marathon of ideas before an audience at a Beijing venue called “Shop” on New Year’s Eve of 2008. The project is based on the definition of an instant in history – HUO calls it the “post-Olympic moment” – in which the city of 14 million people is poised after the Olympic Games are over. A lot has happened in Beijing to demonstrate that China is taking the stage as a future world power, but what that means for the lives of the people in the city and the big country is unclear. So the interviewer defines a “boundary object” [3] for the questions he poses to his interlocutors that is supposed to lend a common direction to what they say. “Are you optimistic for 2009?” is, time and again, the collateral question accompanying his inquiry into the significance of the present moment.

What this aims at is not without pretense. At issue are the city’s livability, the fabrication of realities, and the meaning of vitally important words. The conversations turn to questions such as where the individual has a voice, what a life is worth, and how one can set something in motion. The conjuncture of the moment also includes the 2008 crisis in the financial markets, which had brought capitalism, as a particular political technology of the market, to a precipice. The Chinese had observed the collapse of Lehman Brothers and were incredulous when they learned that one out of three investors in Lehman’s mini-bonds in Singapore and Hong Kong were over the age of 65. So not even they were in a position to just watch from a safe place.

Since the marathon’s public debut in Stuttgart in 2005, HUO has applied its format to a variety of cities and contexts. Based on a model of the artist’s interview exemplified by the conversations between Pierre Cabanne and Marcel Duchamp or between David Sylvester and Francis Bacon, HUO developed the technique of his interview projects, which gave rise to the idea of a never-ending conversation as a distinct practice. It is an original soundtrack, one might say, that emerges from, and accompanies, art. The interview as an art form [4] relies on the insight in hermeneutic philosophy that, as Hans-Georg Gadamer has put it in “Truth and Method”, it is not we who conduct the conversation – the conversation conducts us. So it is incorrect to say that the interviewee discloses something about himself or herself, or that the interviewer ultimately only interviews himself or herself; rather, the conversation emerges as a shared event that brings things to light neither of the interlocutors had in mind beforehand. At the same time, the conversation bears a precise historical and local index that allows the momentary to become essential. Liveliness, happenstance, and interaction between human beings are the methodological marks of a communicative work of art that is open at every moment and yet unfolds compelling step by step, letting silence become manifest in speaking and closure in opening. We might say that presence is made methodical in a way that cannot be reduced to a general message or a generative algorithm.

As an interviewer, however, HUO is not so much a listener and recorder as rather a source of cues and topics. “What might be your manifesto of the twenty-first century?” “What turns you on?” “Any forgotten projects?” These are neither narrative interviews in the style of Studs Terkel nor dilemma interviews à la Lawrence Kohlberg, nor even interviews in the psychoanalytical manner that, as Freud put it, celebrate “evenly suspended attention.” HUO rarely allows something to develop, instead running through a battery of questions, some of which concern motivations, models, inspirations for works, while others call for a contemplation of the current state of global affairs. Virtually no follow-up questions, few digressions, no signals that he is listening.

The selection of interlocutors is illuminating. To examine Beijing’s post-Olympic situation, HUO talks not just to comparatively classical modern artists such as Ai Weiwei, but also to the graphic designer Cao Fei, the sound artist Zafka, the filmmaker Jia Zhangke, the writer Huang Huang, and the fashion designer Zhang Da; his questions make reference to Artists like Rem Koolhaas, urbanists like Stefano Boeri, or cognitive theorists like David Deutsch. He addresses the individual’s singular life as much as the specific features of the social formation. In this manner, the curator HUO pursues an almost Hegelian-looking aesthetic of thought that seeks out interconnections, intersections, correspondences between the things individuals working in very different arts have to say. Art is then the designation for a family resemblance between projects that may be regarded as artistic in one way or another.

The concept of a post-autonomous art HUO implicitly relies on stretches the limits of his object, artistic work, to encompass fashion, everyday speech, and scientific experimentation. Between art, morality, science, law, and politics, boundaries are blurred and the contours of practices emerge. The curator thus becomes the stage manager of a heterogeneous world in which the rise of the epic mode the young Lukács described in his “Theory of the Novel” reaches its conclusion. As Alex Farquharson has pointed out, [5] the transition from the nominal form of the monological, museal, and monumental curator to the verbal form of dialogical, natural, and subjective curating indicates that the curatorial work is becoming thoroughly secular. In this view, it is not a transcendental point of reference, not an ideal of the classical, not a refined White Cube that sustains the curator in art. To the contrary: he becomes an artist in his own right to the extent that he leaves art as the sole and decisive systemic reference behind. The distinctive concept of art has dissolved in a process of social aestheticization into the waning concept of creativity. [6]

The “curator’s moment” [7] arrived with the rise of the biennial as the dominant format of a global exhibition business bringing the periphery to the center (Kassel, Johannesburg, Venice, or Istanbul) [8] and the concomitant pluralization of topics, formats, and media. The complexity of the field called for subjectivity in selection. As the solo show paying homage to an individual artist was superseded by the collective presentation raising issues, a system of star curators moved to the center who made the world more legible for wide public audiences through their “individual mythologies” (Harald Szeemann). Now entire courses of study are devoted to this job profile without a professional ideal. The curator is an anthropologist, a reporter, a sociologist, an epistemologist, an NGO representative, or an observer of the Internet.

Associations with the global themes of “money, music, movies, math, and moral claims” have turned exhibitions and exhibition-like theatrical productions into a central component of the culture industry. In an age when Comme des Garçons sell T-shirts bearing the likeness of Ai Weiwei, when No Logo turns into a global icon, when Rem Koolhaas designs the Prada store in Tokyo, when Jürgen Teller’s “heroin chic” becomes, via Kate Moss, part of the history of Calvin Klein, curating, too, must adopt the concept of a post-autonomous art that spills over into the social and touches upon the political, must conceive itself as part of a general, expanded, value-adding production of significance, on par with non-university research institutes, consulting firms, fashion houses, design studios, knowledge labs, political think tanks, and social networks. That is true not only of images that are seen around the world, but equally of concepts, maxims, and metaphors that seek to grasp the meaning of our time.

The socialization of art this promotes appears to proceed along three paths all charted by art itself. Guy Debord traced the first as early as 1967, in his “Society of the Spectacle”, where he identified the spectacle as a form of the intensification of social life by a regime of heteronomous imagery. The event, the flash mob, the tent camp in the city each define one sudden clearing in the public space that promises a “revolution in the service of poetry.” [9] This is where theatrical productions such as Christo’s wrapping the Reichstag in Berlin, Christoph Schlingensief’s projected opera house in Africa, or Rirkrit Tiravanija’s “mobile home” for Thai food are not far removed from the soccer industry, global tourism, or event gastronomy.

The second avenue is paved by the expansion of the concept of art, which leads toward the inclusive idea of creative work. Art is then not a specific mode of action but merely part of a diffuse activeness that may take place online, in the studio, or in the street. When ethnomethodologists describe the art of walking in the street, [10] theirs is no less a creative activity than Gordon Matta-Clark’s cutting a house in two. Even walking itself might be a natural form of creativity, one that vividly illustrates the union of reproduction and subversion in social practices. The entire difference consists in a reflective act that transforms the natural familiarity with the “things themselves,” as Edmund Husserl writes, into a vision of their methodical production. Proponents of a “relational art” who invoke praxeological theories of the social such as Michel de Certeau’s everyday actions as forms of creative work in their own right.

A third path of the “sublation” of art in society passes under the banner of an economy of self-heightening that can be traced back to Lyotard’s distinction between an existence of intentions and one of intensities. [11] So the distinguishing feature that unites the family of artistic, creative, or transgressive forms of action is that, to sound a little like Theodor Adorno, they break free of the dictate of self-preservation and instead dare to waste, to consume, to transgress themselves. Developing models for such defiance then becomes the task and driving motive of a post-autonomous art. The surplus of art consists in the implicit question concerning the ethical competence in the aesthetic making.

HUO’s interviews may thus be read as public exercises in an existence of passion, of courage, of cunning and calm. In the Beijing interviews, for example, Zafka advocates a “low-intensity, guerrilla style” anyone can adopt in order to release his or her body for experimental self-determinations. Xiao He, on the other hand, outlines an existence of calm defined by the awareness that, in an accelerated society of “moving objects,” a bomb may go off next to anyone at any time. Wang Jianwei feels the temptation to experiment with scientific and political ideologies. Zhang Da is looking for the act of significance that would engender possibilities of being-different; and Kang He would like to draw up the balance of an era that might turn rampant epilepsy into a collective dance. As “meta-artists,” [12] the curators thus become omnivores of scientific, political, and artistic knowledge who cater to a global public with visions of transformative modes, ideas for humane styles, or methods of dangerous encounter. Of course, they do not proffer these products in authorial or dictatorial fashion; they infiltrate them, as proposals or offers, into the capillary of collective life. The new type of curator, who produces books that defy easy categorization, borrows the pathos of leading the way in a world full of seductions, perversions, and entanglements in order to make the “leap into the void” (Yves Klein) imaginable.

The decisive criterion for the evidence of a curatorial project is no longer the authentication or renewal of the canon of important art, but instead the compatibility between an artistic activity and its context. The curator is the omnipresent representative of a permanent reflection on concrete conditions in this time and place, on communications purposefully addressed to powerful people, financial backers, and agents of publicity, on relations to earlier and subsequent projects of a similar nature, on accompanying discourses and offensive remarks. They allow art to emerge into view as something that allows an open-minded audience to see what one might start with, what might be accomplished, and where one might go. A curator is someone who endeavors to facilitate a debate over the epistemological, ethical, political dimensions of art by means of his or her interventions, arrangements, and interpretations so that alternatives become visible, equivalents conceivable, and connections feasible. The curator would then ideally be a critic of the sort Bruno Latour wishes for: [13] one who does not expose but congregates. The point is not to pull the rug out from under the feet of the naïve believers, but to offer arenas for the participants in which they can meet, see each other, and exchange ideas. Who is invited according to which criteria and which forms of speech there are based on which scripts: that remains obscure. What counts is the gesture of switching from hegemony to symmetry, which seeks to lend expression to a networked, articulated, and tentative existence.

(Übersetzung: Gerrit Jackson)


[1]Hans-Ulrich Obrist, A Post-Olympic Beijing Mini-Marathon, Zurich 2010.
[2]Paul O’Neill, “The Curatorial Turn: From Practice to Discourse”, in: Judith Rugg/Michèle Sedgwick (eds.), Issues in Curating Contemporary Art and Performance, Bristol 2007, pp. 13–28.
[3]Susan Leigh Star/James R. Griesemer, “Institutional Ecology.‚Translations‘ and Boundary Objects. Amateurs and Professionals in Berkeley’s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, 1907–39”, in: Social Studies of Science, 19, 1989, pp. 387–420.
[4]Michael Diers, “‘Infinite Conversation’ or the Interview as an Art Form”, in: Hans-Ulrich Obrist, Interviews, vol. 1, Milan 2003, pp. 13–25.
[5]Alex Farquharson, “I curate, you curate, we curate”, in: Art Monthly, 269, 2003, pp. 7–10.
[6]See Andreas Reckwitz, Die Erfindung der Kreativität. Zum Prozess der gesellschaftlichen Ästhetisierung, Berlin 2012.
[7]Michael Brenson, “The Curator’s Moment. Trends in the Field of International Contemporary Art Exhibitions”, in: Art Journal, Winter 1998, pp. 16–27.
[8]See Elena Filipovic/Barbara Vanderlinden (eds.), The Manifesta Decade. Debates on Contemporary Art Exhibitions and Biennials in Post-Wall Europe, Cambridge, Mass. 2005.
[9]Vincent Kaufmann, Guy Debord. Revolution in the Service of Poetry, Minneapolis 2006.
[10]Lincoln Ryave/James Schenkein, “Notes on the Art of Walking”, in: Roy Turner (ed.), Ethnomethodology. Selected Readings, Harmondsworth 1974, pp. 265–74.
[11]Diedrich Diederichsen, “People of Intensity, People of Power. The Nietzsche Economy”, in: Julieta Aranda/Anton Vidokle/Brian Kuan Wood (eds.), Are You Working Too Much? Post-Fordism, Precarity, and the Labor of Art, Berlin 2011, pp. 8–29.
[12]That is the term John Miller has coined to describe the figure of the exhibition organizer in the biennials industry; see John Miller, “The Show You Love to Hate. A Psychology of the Mega-Exhibition”, in: Reesa Greenberg/Bruce W. Ferguson/Sandy Nairne (eds.), Thinking About Exhibitions, London 1996, pp. 269–75.
[13]Bruno Latour, “Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern”, in: Critical Inquiry, 30, 2, Winter 2004, pp. 225–48.