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Independent Contemporary Art Curating: (Hans Ulrich Obrist)

Abstract This paper aims to consider and examine the curatorial practice of Hans Ulrich Obrist, a Swiss curator who can be identified as modern day trickster, coyote, a middleman, provocateur in the contemporary artworld. His practice and indeed his lifestyle seemed to start out as a freewheeling traveller with no fixed abode to institutional manager and a much feted and powerful figure in contemporary curating worldwide. By analysing his trajectory from his initial encounters and opportunities for curating projects to significant player in the history of curating, an important model for curating can be identified.

"The new type of art institute cannot merely be an art museum as it has been until now, but no museum at all. The new type will be more like a power station, a producer of new energy." Alexander Dorner (1893 - 1957)

The current term of producer for the maker of art events and experiences could be employed on Hans Ulrich Obrist, he makes things happen, he has ideas for new forms of production, he collaborates, his productions are successful, ground braking, exciting and are evolving the notion of the art exhibition in many ways. But this term seems too literal, it deals with health and safety, budget, interpretation and audience, it deals with the authorities and communicates with the detractors and the not convinced, so his work, or his art is something else, something more than. Obrist to me has a constant appetite for ideas in curating. He improvises with the context of curating, building up his appetite to do one more version, possibility and experience of curating. The trickster has a constant appetite, although he does not always eat what he cooks as the appetite is continual. If he eats, he will be satisfied and no longer need to look for his next meal. Perhaps the idea of comfort and contentment leads to lack of newness and creativity. Tricksters make themselves hungry by tightening their belt, removing their intestines, vomiting up their last meal so that no meat will satisfy its stomach. This might be a heavily metaphorical way of illustrating Obrists work, but he does seem to continually look for the next opportunity, constantly moving on

testing, trying out, making a statement, standing against but for the work he is drawn to, but in a positive manner, not competitive or territorial, but open democratic and inclusive. In June 1995, the CCA, in Glasgow was a venue for the exhibition, Do it! This was curated by Obrist. Nicola White, who was the exhibitions director at the time, had pursued Obrist to secure the exhibition. We met him in Venice at the Biennial of 1995, where we met him in the hotel which dickens and Byron used to hang out in. We met him for coffee in the foyer; Yoko Ono came over and said hi to him. Once the meeting was over he suggested that we just got up and left without paying for the coffee, as the hotel wouldnt make a fuss over the price of 3 coffees, so we just walked out. This is what he would do; use the foyer as his office. We then tracked him down to an exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery in London, called Take Me Im Yours (whether this was named after the old Squeeze punk hit I wonder), but I didnt go in as Nicola was on the mission to secure the show, so just hung about outside and spoke to Cathy de Monchaux, as I didnt have the appetite at that time. Although, we did end up in a small bar in North London, where the artists and hangers on got together, inc Gilbert and George. The elder statesmen of Brit art were being feted and probably enjoying themselves. Demonstrating our interest and determination, but also that we were a gallery in Glasgow, and at the time Obrist saw the activity of Gordon, et all we were the second venue to carry out the Do It exhibition. Even at this time, early 1990s Obrist was playing with the possibilities of the exhibition and curating. Do It consisted of a list of selected artists, who composed a manual of instructions to make the work for the exhibition. The artists never needed to get involved with the making of the work. The exhibition included Christian Boltanski, Maria Eichhorn, Hans-Peter Feldmann, Paul-Armand Gette, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Fabrice Hybert, Ilya Kabakov, Mike Kelley, Alison Knowles, Bertrand Lavier, Jean-Jacques Rullier and Rirkrit Tiravanija. The artists did not involve themselves in the making of the work, this was done by the staff of the gallery, although Maria Eichhorn came into the gallery while we were making her work, and told us that this was not what she meant or wanted as her work! We had carried out her instructions to lose a silver ring in the city, but we also photographed it, by Simon Starling and showed the photos, in retrospect I know understand what she meant.). We made the photos, built the structures did the drawings, made the humus and recorded the white noise of the local ghostly projectionist. Mike Kellys instructions were for us to find a local venue where a ghost or spirit was thought to be and record the sound of the space. Therefore, we went to the ABC cinema next to the CCA on Sauchiehall Street and asked

about possible ghostly movement and there was indeed a projectionist who had committed suicide in the projection booth one Christmas party in the 80s. The cleaners were sure that they felt a presence and tales of the doors opening the wrong way and a chill in the air, made us think this was our source. Therefore, we were nstructed to construct a padded box, which the microphone sat in, and it was to be connected to a speed variable reel-to-reel tape recorder. The recorder would be recording a t a faster speed that the playback. This we did. The recording was then played back at a slow speed and high volume. The sound was of screeching white noise, but in the cacophony, we believed that there was talking, spooky. It felt like a Kelly work, I had seen things in catalogues like this that he had done with old spirit hunting techniques and images with ectoplasm, so this seemed to fit, but where was the author in this. Instructions in art making were nothing new, Sol Lewitt, etc, but it did cross a boundary in terms of curating and exhibition making. Curating became a process, as opposed to a historical marking of achievment and status in much the way that contemporary art in the late 1960s did, and in the Szeeman exhibition When attitudes become form. At this earlier time critics began to define curators activities in these changing times as the Curator became the creator1 and (Lucy Lippard) is in fact the artist andher medium is other artists2. So was it new or just the time was right to appropriate a previous model, for exhibition making at the time. It fitted with his globetrotting image, where he mysteriously only had n email address as a contact, no one knew where he stayed. When Obrist turned up at our Do It opening, he had a very quick look in the door of the gallery then asked to use the office phone. He had already moved on and was organising the next project. Obrist speaks of, when he was eighteen years old had was helping out at the Kunstverin Museum in Geneva, and saw all the artists coming in and making their exhibitions in the tried and well-tested context of the museum and white space. He started to think about where the artists would really like to show their work. So he asked the artists when they cam to the museum. He talks of asking Alighiero e Boetti, as he was bored with the museum, the gallery the art fair, why are we only ever asked to show in these spaces. His vision would be for his art to reach around the world and travel ion aeroplanes to all corners of the earth so that the world could experience it. Therefore, if you can arrange this, Hans I will do it with you. So Obrist did, even though it was just Swiss air, he negotiated to
1

Althuser, B. The Avant-Garde in Exhibition: New art in the 20 th Century, Harry N Abrams,

New York, 1994 p 236


2

Lippard L Lucy, ed, Six Years: The Dematerialisation of the Art world from 1966 to 1972,

New York; Praeger, 1973 p111

have Boettis work on the planes to fly around the world. This shows at an early age that he could ask questions, although not have the answer and make something of it happen and give the concept a reality. At age 18 Obrist may well have just been highly influenced by the avant-garde art making and its associated curatorial practice, as it was 1986, the year that Jan Hoet curated the seminal non white space gallery exhibition, Chambre dAmis in Ghent, Dan Camerons Art and its Double at the Fundacio caixa de pensions, Barcelona, 1987 Skulptur Projetk, Munster, Szeemanns 1985 New Aperto at Venice. If the curator had now become an artist whose medium was other artists, everyone involved seemed happy to participate.

Obrists career may well be seen as a free spirit and independent but he too, like Szeemann, had an umbilical cord attached to the failsafe art institutions in one way or another. He was the curator of the Muse dArt Moderne de la Ville de Paris since 1993, as well as curator of museum in progress, Vienna, from 19932000. He has curated over 150 exhibitions internationally since 1991, including do it (CCA 1995), Take Me, Im Yours (Serpentine Gallery March 1995), Cities on the Move (Hayward Sept 1999), Live/Life (Paris 1996), Nuit Blanche, 1st Berlin Biennale, Manifesta 1, and more recently Uncertain States of America, 1st Moscow Triennale and 2nd Guangzhou Biennale (Canton China), Il Tempo del Postino with Philippe Parreno for the Manchester International Festival 2007 lecturer at Facolta delle Arti, IUAV in Venice since 2001 and since 2006 is the Codirector of exhibitions and programmes and Director of International Projects at the Serpentine Gallery, London