Art & Design

Curator Hans Ulrich Obrist on When Video Needs Exhibition Space, and Not YouTube


When Hans Ulrich Obrist thought as a teenager that he might want to work as an art curator, he knew of no schools that offered a straightforward curriculum on the subject. Undeterred, he designed his own, majoring in economics and social sciences, and when not in class, seeing as many shows as possible. The latter piece of his education continues today, though he's since taken an interdisciplinary approach, fueled by a belief that one must understand different aspects of contemporary life to know what's relevant in contemporary art.

One of the fields regularly explored by Obrist is technology, which is often the subject of pieces on display at the Serpentine Gallery in London, where Obrist is curator and co-director.

On 16 October, Obrist will serve as host for a DLD networking breakfast at the gallery. We caught up with him last week to discuss a new gallery exhibit featuring the work of American video artist Rachel Rose, and how art is — and should be — experienced in our multi-screen world. Here are excerpts from that conversation:

DLD: The Serpentine this fall is featuring two videos from Rachel Rose, who takes seemingly unrelated clips and fuses them together to create works that are altogether new. What makes her work with video, which includes clips from YouTube, particularly relevant today?

Obrist: Rachel is one of the great voices of art in the 21st century. I met her when she was still a student and followed from the beginning her amazing art of editing, her extraordinary way of weaving in digital and analog technology, her way of bringing in sound and image. We live in a world where there are more and more exhibitions, and obviously the exhibitions are an extraordinary ritual. It's not like the cinema, that there is a time that it begins and it ends. [With exhibitions] you are free to choose. Normally, you come and go. You interact with the work, or you engage, to use a better word, you engage with the work individually, on a one-to-one basis. However, there are limits to this medium, particularly in its constraint or in its confinement to the visual primacy. Rachel Rose, in our time, finds a way of actually developing installations with sound and moving image which really go far beyond the visual primacy. People can actually engage with the architecture, sit in the space, spend time in the space. Sometimes the sound takes over, sometimes the moving image takes over. It's a truly extraordinary experience which we wanted visitors to be able to experience here in London.

DLD: The Internet is being increasingly consumed by screens that are shrinking in size. We have our smartphones and now we have smartwatches. What effect if any will this have on contemporary art — that we're experiencing life on smaller and smaller screens?

Obrist: I think it's interesting in a way that the ubiquity of the moving image leads to the fact that we can experience art in not only exhibition spaces, but we can experience it wherever we go. In this world of ubiquity, where everything is available at all times, anywhere, there is also an increased desire for experiences that you can only make in one place. You can see it also with music, there is desire for the live experience. So clearly, people have a desire for the live in the digital age. That's why people want to go to the opera. That's why they want to see exhibitions — because that's an experience you can't make on a screen.

This whole idea of what you describe actually is great because it creates a lot of possibility. It's wonderful if, all of the sudden, in a very unexpected context, that art can appear. But it is very, very important that there are these situations that you can only experience in one place, which is almost like a sensual pilgrimage. The more digital [technology] advances, the more there is a desire for that.

DLD: A recent New Yorker profile described you as a globetrotter. You're often taking trips to meet new artists and see exhibitions. This is interesting in an age when technology is making distance less relevant: people can witness and experience through technology. But what you seem to be saying is that art should be experienced in its proper context, in the way the artist meant it to be.

Obrist: Of course, that will always be the case.

I think it's great that we have all these other possibilities now. Artists can do an exhibition on Instagram. They can do an exhibition which pops up on millions of little screens on iPhones all over the world. Artists can today work in so many different ways. They don't have to wait until they have an exhibition somewhere. They can just do it themselves — a DIY thing. But what I think is important is that it doesn't replace [other ways that art is experienced]. When television was invented, radio was reinvented. And radio is more invigorating and stimulating to me than ever before.