Seeing Hans Ulrich Obrist sitting in an office chair, almost getting crushed by a bunch of silver air cushions by Andy Warhol leftover from the previous exhibition, we cannot help but notice something Warholian about him – his particular mannerisms and slightly impersonal stance, his friendly yet mechanical gestures. The Swiss star curator fires information at an incredible speed, along with a good deal of name-dropping. One can only wonder where he gets his energy. Perhaps it’s due to his much talked about da Vinci rhythm – sleeping for 15 minutes every four hours – or perhaps it’s something else. It must be said that he sniffles quite often during the interview. We try to find this out as we slide our recorder under his nose. When Obrist himself interviews artists, architects, and thinkers, as he constantly does, he uses three such recorders per person. “I have digital paranoia”, he says of this obsession. “It was the filmmaker Jonas Mekas who coined that term, referring to the fear of always losing something through digital technology.”

DAMN°: So how do you keep up this crazy pace?

HUO with Gilbert & George at Take Me (I’m Yours), 1995 Serpentine Gallery, London. Photo: Armin Linke
Hans Ulrich Obrist: Curiosity and art give me energy. I’ve tried a lot of different rhythms. I tried sleeping very little, and after that I followed the da Vinci rhythm. Over the last 10 years, I’ve had a sustainable rhythm. It is very important not to travel for too long. I used to be away for weeks at a time. That was very tiresome. Now I only travel for two or three days, mostly during the weekends. And I am doing sport regularly, which is important when you travel. I learned this from architects who travel a lot, like my friend Rem Koolhaas, someone I have done a lot of projects with. He goes swimming every day, so I started running. I also have this amazing assistant who does not want to work during the day so I hired him as a night assistant. He works from midnight until 6:00 am. I drop-by daily, from 11:00 pm to midnight. That has two advantages: I no longer hangout in bars and openings until late, as I have an appointment with him to go through the work. And in the morning, when I arrive in the office, he has done all the Google searches, transcriptions, and editing. That makes it sustainable.

DAMN°: Why this constant racing around? Are you trying to challenge mortality or time?

Hans Ulrich Obrist at the opening of the Mondialité exhibition, 2017 Villa Empain, Brussels
HUO: My desire to ‘know’ has always driven me. I need to see and read many things. I want to connect people with each other and make exhibitions. As an independent curator, I wanted to have a more sustained presence, so I started working in a museum. First it was Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, and then the Serpentine Galleries in London. But if you only work in institutions, the energy from the trips and from all the learning gets lost. That’s when I came up with this system of doing trips every weekend. I learned from Harald Szeemann how to be both a curator attached to a museum and to maintain the work of an independent curator. During the weekends, I do shows. Last weekend, I opened an exhibition by Maria Lassnig in Athens; this weekend, I am preparing the show in Brussels; next weekend, I’m giving a lecture. That creates a parallel reality that has proven to be very complementary. It is not only about productivity but also about freedom. However, over the next 10 years I might follow another rhythm. Like Pierre Huyghe and Philippe Parreno, who set up an association of liberating time [L’association Des Temps Libérés]. And this ties in with Glissant, who did not believe in a homogenous notion of time where everybody has to follow the same schedule.

DAMN°: What is Glissant’s biggest legacy, according to you?

DO IT. Photo: Bruno Serralongue
HUO: I read him every morning for 15 minutes. It is a ritual. His work is not theory, but rather an app or a toolbox, with a lot of useful concepts like ‘creolisation’ and the ‘archipelago’. I love this idea of the archipelago, where an exhibition could consist of different islands that influence each other and don’t lose their identity, becoming more rich and diverse through interaction. The most important theory – and the one I think of every day – is ‘mondialité’, as it really defines the moment we are living in. You have an extreme form of globalisation that leads to homogenising forces, resulting in the disappearance of languages and cultures. Yet, at the same time, it also gives us the possibility of an unforeseen potential for global dialogue. It’s all about resisting homogenising forces and finding a global dialogue that produces difference and is sensitive to the local context. For me, as a curator, that is very important. I want my exhibitions to be about mondialité and not about globalisation. Otherwise, we get the wrong end of the stick. Glissant also predicted that there would be a backlash against these homogeneous forces, leading to a lack of tolerance, new forms of racism. All the things we are now observing in Europe, the US, and also in India with Narendra Modi.

DAMN°: You must love making an exhibition at Villa Empain, as you’re known for curating shows in unusual venues, including the hotel restaurant where Robert Walser used to come.

HUO: Well, I work at the Serpentine, which was a former teahouse. My first exhibition took place in my kitchen. I have worked in all kinds of spaces. But I like doing exhibitions in houses because they have a human scale. There is something more intimate about them. I have done shows in the houses of Lina Bo Bardi, Federico García Lorca, et al. In big museums, people don’t dare to speak. I like the idea of Villa Empain as a conversation piece, where you can come and read – there will be plenty of books by Glissant in the living room. And there is a bedroom, an installation by Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, where you could have a nap.

DAMN°: In the 1990s, everybody wanted to be a DJ; in the 2000s, a curator. Curating is getting more and more attention, while the word was barely known when you first started. You have now achieved the title of star curator. What difference do you see with the curators you admire from the previous generation, like Harald Szeemann and Jan Hoet?

HUO: The initial notion of a curator refers to curare, taking care of. When I told my parents I wanted to become a curator, they were reassured because they thought I was going to work in the medical field. Today, the word has lost a lot of its meaning – it is used for flower shops, and politicians curate countries, ... We need a new word for this because it has become meaningless. Before they used to call it exhibition maker. Maybe that is a better term. Unlike the previous generation of curators, I never made a distinction between the humanities and the sciences. I work with scientists, philosophers, architects, ... I feel close to Diaghilev, who was a bit constrained about art and did the Ballets Russes, inviting artists, composers, choreographers, ... That is what we also tried to do with the Manchester International Festival, the Serpentine Marathon, and the Serpentine Pavilion that is designed by another architect each time. Another big difference with the previous generations is that they didn’t work in this climate of extreme globalisation. They were less pushed to address the notion of mondalité. It was before the Internet, which has profoundly changed the way we work.

DAMN°: But isn’t the focus on the curator getting a bit out of hand? Sometimes you see three curators’ names in a solo show.

HUO: I’ve always thought of the curator as being the trigger, the catalyst or facilitator who should not stand in the way. Central in what I do is the conversation with the artists. Everything grows out of that. It is not good to have a premise and then squeeze the artist into that vessel. I abhor the idea of the curator instrumentalising the artist. It should be the other way round. That is why we always have artists involved at all levels in the show. For my exhibition on Lassnig, we decided not to write ‘curated by’ but ‘based on a proposal by’. I have made a lot of solo shows, also at the Serpentine, as I think it is interesting to go in-depth with artists. It’s a very complex endeavour and it is normal that several curators can work on such a project. You also have many people involved in making a film. For exhibitions, we need a system of credits similar to that of films. Many people work on an exhibition; it’s not just the curator.

The Shanghai Project – Chapter 2 exhibition Seeds of Time, curated by Yongwoo Lee & Hans Ulrich Obrist, is at multiple venues in Shanghai, until 30 July 2017.

Mondialité is at Villa Empain in Brussels, until 27 August 2017.

This article appeared in DAM62. Order your personal copy.
Ombre Indigène, 2017. Edith Dekyndt. Mondialité: Villa Empain – Fondation Boghossian
Weight, 2016. Steve McQueen
Le droit à l’opacité, 2017. Philippe Parreno
Mondialité, 2017, Villa Empain – Fondation Boghossian
Untitled, 2017, Daniel Boyd, Mondialité: Villa Empain - Fondation Boghossian