A RULE OF THE GAME
One of the questions I started out with, at the beginning, was trying to understand the forces effective in visual art and contemporary art, which is my field as a curator, trying to understand what is necessary in art: Is it necessary to understand the forces effective in other fields of knowledge?, which is a question Alexander Dorner asked early in the 20th century.
He was the great pioneer of experimental 20th century museum studies, he inspired Alfred Barr to do the Museum of Modern Art, and he wrote a very groundbreaking book called Ways Beyond Art, where he really expressed the necessity of going beyond the fear of pooling knowledge. The question of how we can create a pool of knowledge has somehow been at the beginning of my activity.
Another great inspiration was György Kepes, the artist and legendary editor of the Vision + Values book series, which were books introduced to me early by Bruce Mau and which have been instrumental ever since. And that has led to a lot of projects relating art and architecture, art and science, art and literature. And that has been the umbilical cord of a question that I that I've always asked while working with artists, and then later with scientists and architects, because I tried to do to curating what happened to art in the '60s and '70s when artists expanded what art is. They created an expanded field on an expanded notion of art.
And if you think about an expanded notion of art, it becomes interesting to think about an expanded notion of curating. But I was thinking how it could be an interesting to ask how we could do the same thing to curating as what had happened to art in the '60s and '70s, how we could really have an expanded field of curating — curating at large, where there would be curating of art, curating of science, curating of architecture — and about how these things could be brought together.
Now, that obviously always implies a problem, which is the curator defining a "rule of the game." Every project has a rule of the game. Every exhibition process has a rule of the game. What this means is that the curator sets these rules of the game, but then it might not fit what the art is about, and then it is the art illustrating the curator's rule of the game, and that is not as interesting. So, from that point of view, I started to think a lot about just starting with artists, and starting with architects and scientists, and above all, listening to them.
One of the key aspects of my trajectory has always been conversations with artists. And this became particularly clear to me in a very early conversation I had, which was an early encounter with an artist that changed the way how I see. I had gone to Rome, and I was told by my friends Peter Fischli and David Weiss, the amazing Swiss artist, who was the first artist I had really long conversations with, that I should visit Alighiero e Boetti there. Mr. Boetti was from the same generation as our mutual friend James Lee Byars. He was a visionary artist who emerged in the '60s.
I went as a student to his studio, and just paid him a visit. And he told me that there had always been curators and museum people and galleries inviting him to do projects, and it was always the same format — it was museum exhibitions, it was gallery shows, or maybe it was art fairs, maybe biennials. But he said there were all these other things he wanted to do. So, I asked him what he wanted to do. And he said one of his main desires had always been to exhibit in all the airplanes of an airline, to do an airplane exhibition. And within the parameters of the art world, of what is given in the art world, that project would never have been possible. He just was never asked to do it, and never able to do it.
I was 18 or 19 at the time, so really just starting, and he said, "you know, young man, it will be a project for you to actually not squeeze art into your kind of predetermined scheme, but to start to look around and see what great projects artists have and try to make them happen, to produce them as realities." At the time I went back to Switzerland and I started to work with museum in progress in Vienna, in Austria. But then we approached Austrian Airlines, and three years later we made Boetti's project happen, so that for a year he had an exhibition on every single airplane of that airline, which was carried all over the world. It not only developed an expanded notion of what an exhibition is, but it also geographically disseminated the exhibition into totally different circuits where art wouldn't normally go.
More or less at the same time, I spoke to the French artist Christian Boltanski as well as Fischli/Weiss, and they said that it would be interesting to do exhibitions where nobody ever does them. And I said, "Where?" And they said, "In the kitchen. Do it in your kitchen." They had always thought a kitchen show could be interesting. So, they transformed my kitchen in my apartment into an exhibition space, out of which then grew this idea that maybe exhibitions can also happen in unexpected places. And ever since my beginnings in the early '90s, that is a question I've asked myself, and also the question I've asked each of my interlocutors, each of the people I have talked to: What are your unrealized projects? What projects have been too big to be realized? What projects have been too small to be realized? What are sense of projects of yourselves, sense of projects?
Doris Lessing, the Nobel Prize winning author, once told me in a conversation that there are not only the projects which are made impossible by the frames of the contexts we work in, but there are also the projects we just don't dare to think up. The self-censorship of projects. And there are all the books she hasn't written because she didn't dare to write them. So, that is the question that been my umbilical cord, and it's also the only question that I ask in all of my interviews. What is your unrealized project?
I started out actually studying economics, social science, political science at St Gallen University, but I was always friends with artists. It was almost a sort of parallel reality. I never wanted to study art because curiosity drove me to understand other fields. But from that moment on I was always anchored in the arts, because I knew from the beginning of my early adolescence that somehow I wanted to work with contemporary artists.
In Switzerland there was Harald Szeemann, the legendary curator, so the notion of a curator for me as a kid growing up in Switzerland was already somehow concrete. But I always thought that curiosity drove me to all these other disciplines. And during my studies, when I started to do exhibitions, little by little, I wanted, through the exhibitions, to make these bridges.
First it went from art to architecture. Architecture was the first contact zone. I started to work a lot with architects, and that is obviously also a quite direct contact zone, because when you do exhibitions you have a link to architects, you have exhibition designs, and you involve architects in the exhibition design. So I started a lot of research in that direction. And the history of exhibition design is incredibly interesting, because it has got to do with the invention of new display features.
Exhibitions can push the radical, experimental solutions because they are not permanent. I think that is why very often exhibitions are an interesting "laboratory" for architecture. It is not by coincidence that pavilions and exhibition designs were the contexts for a lot of inventions in architecture, because it is not the rigid thing of a permanent structure, but an ephemeral structure where an architect can really play, and can experiment.
Other exhibition designs are invented by the artists themselves. When you think about Marcel Duchamp and his radical displays for the surrealist exhibitions — which for me were very inspiring — if an exhibition does not really invent a new display, there's a risk that it is forgotten, because art is not only about the works, but also it's about a new way of seeing the works.
I always felt that when I went into other disciplines, I learned a lot for my own field. From architecture, I became familiar with the whole critique of the master plan, because, in the late '50s, there was an increasing critique of the Le Corbusier notion of the master plan, the top-down master plan, and architecture started to look into this idea of self-organization. So, I became very familiar with architects like Yona Friedman, Oskar Hansen and Cedric Price, all of whom very early on thought about how self-organization could be brought into the master plan. This questioning of the master plan I then fed back into curating, and I started to think about how could we do exhibitions which are not just a top-down master plan, but which could grow more organically.
There is the link between art and literature and philosophy. If you look at all the avant-gardes of the 20th century, they have a great link to literature. And that connection goes from the beginning of my work, when I worked with Gerhard Richter on Nietzsche, to a current exhibition, “ever still”, that I have curated at the Lorca House in Spain, which is about the poet and writer Lorca.
Science never really played a role for me at the beginning. I was completely ignorant about science. I didn't grow up with a scientific background, I didn't study it, and I didn't auto-didactically work on it. Then in '93, I got a phone call from Christa Maar, who at that time was just about to set up the Academy of the Third Millennium with Hubert Burda. She had read an article about my unusual exhibitions on airplanes and in hotel rooms, and she thought it would be interesting to invite me to these meetings.
I went to Munich, and the first couple of times I was completely lost, because I had never met scientists before, I had never read science, and there were people there like Wolf Singer and Ernst Pöppel. After not saying anything during the first meetings, I then started to systemically read. And it was really through these experiences at the Academy of the Third Millennium that I began to build bridges with scientists. In the meantime I had started to work as a curator at the Museum of Modern Art in Paris, and each time a well-known scientist would visit Paris, Christa would ring me, and would say, "Show him your museum." I started to walk with biologists and neuroscientists through the Mark Rothko exhibition at our museum and that was really the beginning of how this whole bridge with science began.
A very interesting next step somehow happened. In a certain way, all my work in terms of curating, and expanding the notion of curating, has never been a priori defined, because it's almost like a long walk. It is a sort of a "flânerie," to use the French term. It is almost like strolling. It is a promenade. And chance plays a very big role. It is a sort of controlled chance, but it is always about how to allow chance to come into the process.
Out of our conversations in '95, Christa then invited me to do an exhibition for her first big conference in Munich, Mind Revolution, which was about the connection between the computer and the brain, between neuroscience and the computer. Bruce Sterling was there. It was the first time I met Bruce Sterling. A lot of scientists were there, neuroscientists. But I felt intuitively that somehow it would be wrong to get artists to illustrate a scientific conference, and I also felt the conference wouldn't be the right place for an exhibition to take place, so, instead, I suggested to Christa, and to Ernst Pöppel, that we could invite artists to Ernst Pöppel's KFA in Jülich, artists from Douglas Gordon to Matt Mullican to Rosemarie Trockel to Carsten Höller.
Ernst was located near Cologne in Jülich, Germany's biggest science center, which has hundreds of labs. He is a leading neuroscientist who is also part of Edge. We thought we'd do a conference there, but then talking to Ernst, we actually realized that that was again wrong, because to some extent why would we do a conference with artists and scientists who had never met, and who would feel put on the spot. Instead, we decided that the most important thing would be to create a contact zone, which wouldn't put people on the spot, where something could happen, but nothing had to happen.
I feel very often with my projects that we cannot force things. One cannot engineer human relations. One can set the conditions under which things then happen. For that reason, we decided, a few hours before the event was supposed to take place, to cancel the conference and to just do a "non-conference." It had all the ingredients of a conference — badges, tee shirts, bags with all the speakers' CVs, a hotel where all the people would stay, a bus to pick them up in the morning and bring them to the science center, people at the airport picking the guests up, all of the logistics — but the conference no longer was there. It was just a coffee break. It was the invention of this idea that we should just do a coffee break. And it was my first project with art and science.
This came from that observation that obviously at a conference the most important things happen in the coffee break. Why do the rest? We'll just do the coffee breaks.
The most important things happen in interstitial spaces, they happen in between, and they happen when we least expect it. Incredible things happened. The artists visited the science labs they were interested in. At the end we made a little film, and everybody spoke about his or her impressions. We published a set of postcards. It was the first conference as a coffee break, of which we did many afterwards.
Just as Cedric Price talks about the "non-plan" in urbanism, this was the "non-conference." That was the inspiration. As a curator, conferences and symposiums are not my main activity. But I felt it was a very interesting thing, because in exhibitions almost every single rule of the game has been invented. The whole 20th century is a permanent invention of new ways of doing exhibitions. Almost every radical gallery gesture has been tested, from the full gallery, to the empty gallery — everything. Yet somehow with conferences and symposiums very little has been shifted in terms of rules of the game. It is always the same kind of protocol: there is the table, there are speakers, there is a speech by everyone, then there is discussion, then there is a Q&A, and then, maybe, there is a dinner. I think there is a huge potential to change the rules of the game.
Then we did Bridge the Gap?, which was in Japan with Akiko Miyake and CCA Kitakyushu, and it was again art and science, and we paid homage to Francisco Varela, who had just passed away.. Varela was a very important person for me, a mentor, a great inspiration in the few meetings we had. We made a homage to him, so we invited a lot of his friends. At the same time, we also had scientists and artists and architects. We thought we'd do it in a remote house, on the outskirts of Kitakyushu. Guests would fly to Tokyo, and then there would be an internal Japanese flight, and then an hour-long car ride. Finally they were brought to this very old Japanese house so remote that once they were there, they couldn't get away anymore.
The idea was for three days to bring into the house all these incredibly busy people, who would usually immediately run away after their lecture and have meetings. We had rooms that would were for official meetings, and then, inspired by online chat rooms, we had rooms where people could retire and have their own self-organized chats. There were a lot of rooms in the house, rooms for Hosts, Guests and Ghosts to quote Marcel Duchamp.
There were about 30, 40 speakers, all in one big house. There was a a Japanese garden, so people could also stroll outside. And we had all the books by all the speakers inside, so there was a reading room that was a big success. The speakers went from Rem Koolhaas, to Marina Abramovic, to Gregory Chaitin. Anton Zeilinger who came with a little suitcase and made one of his teletransportation experiments.
The whole event was also about what artist Paul Chan calls "delinking." That was also a conference that had to do with how we can delink very linked people.
Curating is my primary activity, even while experimenting with these different types of conferences, I always wanted to bring it back to the exhibition, which is my main medium. So, even though my whole venture into science actually started out with actually refusing to do an art and science show, I then, in '99 with Barbara Vanderlinden, brought science back into the exhibition, and we did Laboratorium, which investigated how studios and labs are more and more inter-related. And we investigated the notion of the laboratory in the late 20th, early 21st century. Laboratorium was a transdiciplinary project searching the limits of the places where knowledge and culture are made. It started as a discussion that involved questions such as:
What is the meaning of Laboratorium?
What is the meaning of experiments?
When do experiments become public and when does the result of an experiment reach public consensus?
We installed many laboratories all over the city:
A laboratory of doubt
A cognitive science laboratory
A highway for choreographic investigation
An existing artist studio
The first laboratory of Galileo etc
We invited Bruno Latour to curate the theatre of proof, a series of demonstrations, a lecture series aiming at rendering public what happens in the laboratory. At the same time we declared the whole city of Antwerp a lab. And we found out that actually labs are very often invisible, part of the invisible city. People were saying, "You're crazy to do a show in Antwerp about labs. There are no labs in Antwerp." But we had a whole group of researchers mapping every lab, and there were dozens of world-leading labs in Antwerp; people just didn't know about them. They're invisible. So, we had an "open lab" day so people could visit the labs throughout the whole city. And then the museum became a place for all the artists' "labs."
The city got behind it. And we had the full support from Antwerpen open. It was really about the idea of the citywide lab exhibition, and then the museums.
Laboratorium showed me that the most effective thing for the issue of art and science is really this idea of doing something together to produce reality.
This leads us right away to the Marathons in London last autumn. I moved to the Serpentine London two years ago, and with the Serpentine director Julia Peyton-Jones, we started to think about concentric circles: the gallery, the park, the world. We started the Serpentine International projects with China Power Station and now a big project on India. We also felt it was important to open up in terms of disciplines, and to go beyond the fear of pooling knowledge, so we thought it could be very interesting to connect this to the Pavilion, which Julia Peyton-Jones had invented nine years ago, with an amazing pavilion by Zaha Hadid, which became the Serpentine annual Architecture commission.
We thought it could be interesting to have the content reflected as much as the building. So when Rem Koolhaas and Cecil Balmond did the pavilion in 2006, Julia and I discussed with Rem the idea of conversations. The pavilion became a place for interview marathons It was basically an "infinite conversation" in the Pavilion — an architecture of conversation. It culminated in October ’06, when Rem and I interviewed 70 Londoners from all disciplines in 24 hours, including, for example, Brian Eno or Richard Hamilton. The London Marathon is part of my ongoing project of, so far, 1400 hours of recorded conversations.
Then when Olafur Eliasson, together with Kjetil Thorsen, designed the Pavilion last year, he said he would very much like to continue this idea of a marathon. So, we felt it would be interesting to make it a completely different temporality, a 24-hour non-stop thing, so people can come and they can go, and then they can have dinner, and then they can come back again. And there can also be chance encounters.
Olafur said he would like to do an experiment marathon rather than a conversation marathon. It was very much tied in with what we earlier discussed with Latour, with the tabletop experiments. The idea was that we invited people throughout the summer, and then in autumn, to participate in this marathon. It was an experiment marathon, where we invited practitioners from all kinds of different disciplines to develop a new experiment and to realize it in the pavillion.
The interesting thing was that artists did their experiments, and scientists did their experiments. It wasn't necessarily about forcing artists and scientists to collaborate. They all did their own thing, but yet it happened in the same space. And there is the possibility that certain encounters happen. What I have experienced is that very often these things take a lot of time. For me, it's never a question of doing these things in a rush, because very often they trigger something. It is like a butterfly effect. It is maybe five or ten years later, and two of the people who met there are doing a book together.
For me, it is very important to trigger these possible sparks, and it is very organic. Freeman Dyson was saying on Edge that the 21st century will be biological. I think it is also very possible to think about exhibitions and conferences in biological terms, as growing over time, and not just as these sorts of one-off events. We are living in an event culture where we always switch on and off, and it's very unproductive because we move on to the next thing.
For me, it is very important to work on these things as if it were long distance running, over many years. Little by little, new ramifications happen. So, the answer to your question of how one can bring these things together is by, first of all, not rushing them, and, secondly, not jumping from one project to the next, but instead having sustained projects that evolve over a long time, through different chapters. It's about making mistakes, learning from those mistakes, and then making new mistakes.
There are a lot of aspects of exhibitions and the world of art that have to do with objects, and that is a very important dimension, but I don't think it is everything. I think art has many, many dimensions. In this multi-dimensional field of art, I think it is also important to explore all the other possibilities that are not objects: performances, processes, and also non-material exhibitions.
Besides my more “materialized” exhibitions I've always been very interested in the idea of the dematerialization of art, which led to new forms of exhibition. In the '60s, Lucy Lippard wrote the famous book on dematerialization of art. I've always been very interested in lists, something we actually share. I think it's not by coincidence that we somehow directly and indirectly met through James Lee Byars.
And there is this whole idea of exhibitions and lists where one asks the question. I very often just launch the question, "what is your unrealized project? What is your dream project?" I've asked hundreds of artists and that's going to be an online project at the Serpentine. I asked hundreds of artists and architects and scientists, "What is your recipe? Is there a recipe? Is there an instruction?" And that led to Do It, which is my score book based on an idea we developed with Boltanski and Lavier.
I think art can travel in different ways. Art can travel through objects, and great artwork can travel over centuries, and that's a very valid way for art to travel. But art can also travel through scores, like in music.
Scores was Do It, like musical scores. Or as Pierre Boulez, the French composer, told me, we should think of open scores, of how the scores are actually unfinished. That leads us to Project Tempo del Postino, where Philippe Parreno and I curated for the Manchester Festival a time based group show for an opera house: The group show as an open score. Last but not least there is the Formulae project, where I invited more than a hundred artists to contribute a formula or an equation for the 21st century. These projects arrived in my office, where they are pinned on the wall. Many arrived by email. Many by fax. After about six months, my office wall was completely filled. And there was the day last October when Brian Eno came with you to my office, and that encounter triggered a fantastic Edgeproject where you invited your whole Edge community to develop a formula or an equation for the 21st century.
You could really say these are also exhibitions. These are exhibitions which are not material, but which are more virtual, virtual in the sense of them always being able to be reactualized. They can be revisited and reactualized and updated, and they are also not related to a place. The exhibition can go to where the viewer is. Anybody in the world can download these formulas and pin them on the wall, or they can do their own and trigger their own formulas. We are in the very early days of understanding how the Internet can be used for exhibitions. For instance, there was Do It, where with e-flux.com, we developed an online project, where anybody who sees the instructions online can download them and can then send their feedback. They can send a photograph of their interpretation. And then, all of a sudden, we have many different possible interpretations of an artwork. It is the very early days, but I see a great potential for these digital exhibitions for my curatorial work in the next years.