We must become idealists to confront this world
Hans Ulrich Obrist: everyone is talking about short-term measures, but it is important to think about the longer-term, and maybe we should analyze what the role of culture can be in the long-term
I thought we’d take the occasion of the world’s circumstances to use this as more than an interview and as a possible manifesto, since we are at a pivot regarding life as we know it. How is the current situation impacting you?
Last night I spoke to the people in Bergamo, via the Gamec, and the question was how we can find a transnational solution, a topic you and I have been speaking about, Stefano.
I started to know about the Coronavirus in January and I closed my office in Shanghai, at the end of the month. And then we followed China from Milan, and we closed in Milan, on February 20. But at the time we closed, no one was seriously thinking about lockdown. My feeling was that what was happening in London, then in the United States, occurred circa twenty days after Italy. So, every day, we had a kind of shift, a new form of global effect. Globalization is not symmetric, but occurs in delays. What happens in one part of the planet is not necessarily happening in other parts of the planet.
It seems difficult today to talk about architecture, as it should be about saving lives, and livelihoods, but when it first started happening, in late January, it was like a Proustian memory trigger, it was something like what the late Helen Levitt said – she was in her 90s when I met her, Helen Levitt told me that she had known Walker Evans, who had spoken about the importance of the WPA movement under President Roosevelt – (the Works Progress Administration was an American New Deal agency, employing millions of job-seekers to carry out public works projects
– editor’s note). To hire artists for murals, and photographers to create records – this is where the Roosevelt administration started to kick in and provide work for unemployed artists. As well as work in other regions, secure public art for federal buildings, decentralize artistic activity, and encourage the emergence of young, unknown talent, increase the general public’s appreciation of culture, and foremost, to promote a closer relation of artists with the a social environment. So the question is, do we need a WPA deal, since at the moment, everyone is talking about short-term measures, but it is important to think about the longer-term, and maybe we should analyze what the role of culture can be longer term. In terms of the virus, it started to become a reality when I started to get all these Google alerts, that’s when I really became hyper-aware of it, starting in February in China, and then March, in Italy. People started to re-interpret my Do It book. What can we do to get away from the screen? people were asking. And Do It, is a book about instruction art, something Cornelia and I have spoken of since the 1990s, about instruction art, certificates of authenticity, how they were used in Fluxus art. One of the questions that comes up today is what we can do for someone else, that is really the question now. How can we enact generosity, how can it be relational? I guess that is how I noticed that something was changing, by the many weeks of upswing in interest in Do It. Long before I had to close exhibitions at the Serpentine, and close the museum.
We have all three staked out political positions in our professional practices, to varying degrees. Both of you work at high levels with politicians, creating a culture and structures that have an impact on a vast scale. Stefano, your project in Tirana, for example, that tackles problems of identity, environment, design, all in one. And Hans Ulrich, you have given London the face that it has, through your activities at the Serpentine. For many people, that is London. One of my fears is the rise in populism, and an attachment to place that will be conservative, xenophobic, and fearful. In America, you can see this by the stockpiling of arms, and in Eastern Europe, these notions of place are being interpreted in a worryingly nationalist way. How do you see the possibilities of art and politics in less democratic societies; do either of you see possible agency for yourselves, and an impact in such societies? I mean, both of you have worked in those countries, and you work on a world level to create cultural bridges.
Let me go with my own experience. We just did an exhibition, Broken Nature, at Triennale curated by Paola Antonelli, in conjunction with MoMA. It brought in 300,000 people. If I look at the catalogue and think about the world since then, it seems like the world has already changed. That exhibition was about restoring a relation to nature. An attempt to show how the design approach – that works at the border of science, art, researchers – looks at what we have destroyed, something that is external to us. Look at what is happening now – it’s basically not about us contaminating nature, it is about nature contaminating us. It is not us that is being objectivated – it is nature that is part of us, that is becoming part of us. It is completely changing the relation between the natural sphere and the human sphere. What I am saying is something that Tzvetan Todorov formulated, in one of his books, that there is a big difference between the themes of you, and the themes of me. The themes of you are related to the topic of language, the discourse, articulating you and me, and about relations and exchanges. The theme of me is more about the theme of the gaze, about redefining me and the world I see. What we are now seeing, is that we are entering a new paradigm. This is something we should be part of, helping the younger generations. This pandemic has to do with other generations, and maybe also accepting that there should be masters, that can help future generations find the way.
It is a Latourian approach, that we cannot see human society in and of itself. Bruno Latour said that this is what we must prepare for, as we prepare for climate change. He said that the classical definition of society makes no sense, and that the state of society depends on the interrelation between many actors. It’s a bit like with the situation of microbes. He made analogies to the experiments of Louis Pasteur, which are relevant now. All of it is interrelated, the virus, the internet, research, logistics of the case, the climate, and it is interesting that it is seen as a health crisis, but it will be an ecological crisis, that comes immediately after – we are already in it now. This pathogen is a result of an ecological crisis. It’s the pathogen that is changing the conditions for virologists, not the other way around. We are the pathogen. Makes me think of Genesis P. Orridge, the visionary artist and musician who passed away last week, and who worked with us at the Serpentine. He said that humanity is a virus. In our current moment of ecological danger, we should always remember Gustav Metzger. I think Gustav Metzger is the grandfather of Greta Thunberg. We need to keep his memory alive, his idea of fighting extinction, and on artistic collaboration. And we need to work, as you say, in a transnational way, connecting all institutions, in a transnational politics. We see institutions, and regions collaborating, but then not governments, something we have been observing for a while. We developed this with the project Migrating Cities, and also with the Responsible Clarity Operation. We need to track how art enters the world, enters society, to bring back the mention of the WPA and Roosevelt. We need artist campaigns during this period, to adopt campaigns, much more important than live streaming. So, instead of adopting escape strategies from the earth, we need to adopt ‘back to the earth’ strategies. What we are seeing now, is a general rehearsal leading us to the main spectacle, which is climate change. Judy Chicago wrote a manifesto where she said we need an art of substance, an art of meaning and substance. It’s not about going back – it’s about changing.
Just twenty years ago, we were both asked by Rem Koolhaas to be part of a research/exhibition called Mutations. It was about the urban condition of cities, and here we are twenty years later, and it’s more about contaminations, something much wider. Not something external to us, but something that happens to us, considering us as a kind of virus. This change of paradigms was necessary.
I guess I will date myself, but I started working with artists you could consider environmental, back in 1980/1. With Joseph Beuys, whom I then visited at Documenta in Kassel and saw his 7,000 Oaks project. With Alan Sonfist, and then, interestingly, I have met or worked with many of the artists today considered ecological. Mark Dion, Christian Philipp Müller, Fritz Haeg, Peter Fend, Alexandra Kehayoglou, Alan Belcher, and others. Who are some of the artists you consider figureheads or capable of making symbols for this new era we are now in?
The 7,000 basalt stones were in exchange for 7,000 oaks. The point is that for me, art is sometimes better when it does not act in a literal way. When it is not simply a question of
mechanical need, but works laterally. I had two emotional moments, not coming from politics, or even from art, or academic culture. The moments I saw as moving ones in my life came from images and the sensual sphere. The first is an image that was so strong – even though I am not a believer, I am referring to the Pope’s Urbis speech in the utterly empty piazza of San Pietro. The other example is a bit profane, but it occurred when I heard the song written by Bob Dylan, Murder Most Foul – about the murder of John F. Kennedy. That song became the soundtrack of the lockdown period. It’s an emotion that goes deeper in our feeling, without mediation. One that only art can and should produce.
This is an answer. Toni Morrison once said, This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no time for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. I couldn’t find better words. There are artists who we can look to today. Earlier, I mentioned Gustav Metzger, who long ago mandated that we take a stand against the erasure of species. He was unequivocal in his held conviction that artists need to take a stand, in a world that is collapsing. He said we must become idealists to confront this world. We are in a time when we are seeing the destruction of the world, when the world is put on the market place. We are facing the collapse of life itself. One needs to become like a swimmer, breathe deeply, go under. Metzger told me many times, one needs to sink into the center of a human being, and from there, take out hope, energy. We can also think of someone like Barbara Steveni, who with John Latham founded the Artist Placement Group, in 1965. The idea was to place artists in organisations, which goes back to what I said about Roosevelt. Imagine if one started working with artists transnationally, and have every organisation, every government, every company, have an artist-in-residence. That would create an amount of jobs for artists. Let’s make it a law! Alexander Kluge talked about that, when private television came out. That would create even more jobs for artists in society than the Roosevelt Plan. The other thing we should not forget is poetry. In this current moment, poetry can save the world. Ann Boyer writes on space, on the kind of space of social distancing. The way social distancing work requires spaces. She writes that we have to see negative space as positive space, to know what we don’t do which is brilliant and full of love, – Cornelia, that is actually where Prini comes back in, to see the negative space as positive space, and what we don’t do, that is brilliant and full of love.
My grandfather could recite reams of Goethe by heart. Poetry has incited people to war. It is strategy and has historically been revered, even at the highest government levels.
The legacy of Gianfranco Baruchello. His agricultural project and social project. He is the reason I became a vegetarian.
You are saying that art should use analogies, not metaphors. That art works should communicate awareness of the present state of things – not quoting what is happening. That is what poetry does. Poetry is not describing things; it is transmitting the perception of things using the words that are not the right words in the order of discourse. That is what you need. Artists become boring when they just describe or represent things that illustrate climate change and the burning of forests.
An artist like Damien Hirst is an ecologist. He has spoken, with his butterfly wings, of the dying of that species, for many years.
Some of those pieces of Damien are relevant. The other thing that Stefano and I are working on is the Enzo Mari series, and it is much more related than you may think to what we are discussing. But now, with the Salone del Mobile closed, Mari’s work seems all the more prophetic. He took aim at the design world with his work. He wanted to get rid of the world of industry, of brand, of profit, of communication. For him, design was a way of communicating knowledge, for everyone; he wanted to get rid of the idea of profit, and he criticized the design world, of industry, brands, communication. He wanted to be there for everyone. I think his form of generosity was positive, also of accessibility for everyone. If you think of the project of autoprogettazione, it really was revolutionary, anticipating my project Do It by many years. In art, you had Fluxus, Yoko Ono, Conceptual art, positing these same do-it-yourself ideas, but in design, you had only Enzo Mari, his ideas are for ecology, today.
Both Hans and I appreciated Zaha Hadid. In a way, Zaha was the beginning of a new perspective between architecture and nature. She was obsessed by the need to sew together the two spheres, to overcome any border between natural and architectural shapes and morphologies – being the first to see the world in this holistic way.
I have this image of Zaha kind of poking out of my bookshelf – her image is like a personal shrine. There should be no end to experimentation. Her ideas of drawing, of calligraphy, of doodling. The art of handwriting, of letter-writing. The dying art of letter-writing; we have sort of forgotten about it.