Beginnings, Beginnings, Beginnings: A Letter

On December 8, 2011 by admin

A letter from Hans Ulrich Obrist to Hou Hanru

Dear Hanru,

Thanks so much for your message and many congratulations on your Lyon Biennale. This is an occasion to think about the Internet and John Brockman’s annual Edge question, which this year asks, “How has the Internet changed the way you think?” Some thoughts about this in order to resume our exchange, which I have tried to summarize in an incomplete A to Z PARS PRO TOTO ever PARS PRO TOTO.

C is for Curating the World
The Internet made me think towards a more expanded notion of curating. Stemming from the Latin word “curare,” the word “curating” originally meant “to take care of objects in museums.” Curation has long since evolved. Just as art is no longer limited to traditional genres, curating is no longer confined to the gallery or museum, but has expanded across all boundaries. The rather obscure and very specialized notion of curating has become much more publicly used since one now talks about the curating of websites and this marks a very good moment to rediscover the pioneering history of art curating as a toolbox for 21st-century society at large.

D is for Delinking
In the years before being online, I remember that there were many interruptions by phone and fax day and night. The reality of being permanently linked to the Internet triggered my increasing awareness of the importance of moments of concentration – moments without interruption that require me to be completely unreachable. I no longer answer the phone at home and I only answer my mobile phone in the case of fixed telephone appointments. “To link is beautiful. To delink is sublime.” (Paul Chan)

D is for Disrupted narrative continuity
Forms of film montage, as the disruption of narrative and the disruption of spatial and temporal continuity, have been a staple tactic of the avant-garde from Cubism and Eisenstein, through Brecht to Kluge or Godard. For avant-gardism as a whole, it was essential that these tactics were recognized (experienced) as a disruption. The Internet has made disruption and montage the operative bases of everyday experience. Today, these forms of disruption can be harnessed and poeticized. They can foster new connections, new relationships, new productions of reality: reality as life-montage / life as reality-disruption? Not one story but many stories………

D is for Doubt
A certain unreliability of technical and material information on the Internet brings us to the notion of doubt. I feel that doubt has become more pervasive. The artist Carsten Höller has invented the Laboratory of Doubt, which is opposed to mere representation. As he told me, “Doubt and perplexity … are unsightly states of mind we’d rather keep under lock and key because we associate them with uneasiness, with a failure of values.” Höller’s credo is not to do, not to intervene. To exist is to do and not to do is a way of doing. “Doubt is alive; it paralyzes certainty.” (Carsten Höller)

E is for Evolutive exhibitions
The Internet makes me think more about non-final exhibitions and exhibitions in a state of becoming. When conceiving exhibitions, I sometimes like to think of randomized algorithms, access, transmission, mutation, infiltration, circulation (and the list goes on). The Internet makes me think less of exhibitions as top-down masterplans, but rather as bottom-up processes of self-organization like “do it” or “Cities on the Move”.

F is for Forgetting
The ever-growing, ever-pervasive records that the Internet produces make me think sometimes about the virtues of forgetting. Is a limited-life space of certain information and data becoming more urgent?

H is for Handwriting (and Drawing ever Drawing) 
The Internet has made me aware of the importance of handwriting and drawing. Personally, I typed all my early texts, but the more the Internet has become all-encompassing, the more I have felt that something went missing. Hence the idea to reintroduce handwriting. I do more and more of my correspondence as handwritten letters scanned and sent by email. On a professional note, I observe, as a curator, the importance of drawing in current art production. One can also see it in art schools: a moment when drawing is an incredibly fertile zone.

I is for Identity
“Identity is shifty, identity is a choice.” (Etel Adnan)

M is for Maps
The Internet has increased the presence of maps in my thinking. It’s become easier to make maps, to change them, and also to work on them collaboratively and collectively and share them (eg, Google Maps and Google Earth). After the focus on social networks of the last couple of years, I have come to see the focus on location as a key dimension.

N is for New geographies
The Internet has fuelled (and been fuelled by) a relentless economic and cultural globalization, with all its positive and negative aspects. On the one hand, there is the danger of homogenizing forces, which is also at stake in the world of the arts. On the other hand, there are unprecedented possibilities for difference-enhancing global dialogues. In the long duration there have been seismic shifts, like that in the 16th century when the paradigm shifted from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic. We are living through a period in which the center of gravity is transferring to new centers. The early 21st century is seeing the growth of a polyphony of art centers in the East and West, in the North and South.

N is for Non-mediated experiences. N is for the New Live
I feel an increased desire for non-mediated experiences. Depending on one’s point of view, the virtual may be a new and liberating prosthesis of the body or it may threaten the body. Many visual artists today negotiate and mediate between these two, staging encounters of non-mediated intersubjectivity. In the field of music, the crisis of the record industry goes hand in hand with an increased importance of live concerts.

P is for Parallel realities
The Internet creates and fosters new constituencies, new micro-communities. As a system that infinitely breeds new realities, it is predisposed to reproduce itself in a proliferating series of ever more functionally differentiated subsystems. As such, it makes my thinking go towards the production of parallel realities, bearing witness to the multiverse, as the physicist David Deutsch might say, and for better or worse, the Internet allows that which is already latent in the fabric of reality to unravel itself and expand in all directions.

P is for Protest against forgetting
Over the past several years I’ve felt an increasing urgency to do more and more interviews, to make an effort to preserve traces of intelligence from past decades. One particularly urgent part of this is the testimonies of the 20th-century pioneers who are in their 80s or 90s or older, whom I regularly interview, testimonies of a century from those who are not online and who very often fall into oblivion. This protest might, as Rem Koolhaas told me, act as “a hedge against the systematic forgetting that hides at the core of the information age and which may in fact be its secret agenda.”

S is for Salon of the 21st century
The Internet has made me think more about whom I would like to introduce to whom; to cyberintroduce people as a daily practice or to introduce people in person through actual salons for the 21st century (see the Brutally Early Club).

U is for Untimely meditations
The future is always built out of fragments of the past. The Internet has brought thinking more into the present tense, raising questions of what it means to be contemporary. Recently, Giorgio Agamben revisited Nietzsche’s Untimely Meditations, arguing that the one who belongs to his or her own time is the one who does not coincide perfectly with it. It is because of this shift, this anachronism, that he or she is more apt than others to perceive and to catch his or her time. Agamben follows this observation with his second definition of contemporaneity: the contemporary is the one who is able to perceive obscurity, who is not blinded by the lights of his or her time or century. This leads us, interestingly enough, to the importance of astrophysics in explaining the relevance of obscurity for contemporaneity. The seeming obscurity in the sky is the light that travels to us at full speed but can’t reach us because the galaxies from which it originates are ceaselessly moving away from us at a speed superior to that of light. The Internet and a certain resistance to its present tense have made me increasingly aware that there is an urgent call to be contemporary. To be contemporary means to perpetually come back to a present where we have never yet been. To be contemporary means to resist the homogenization of time, through ruptures and discontinuities.

Last but not least is the response of David Weiss who answers this year’s Edge question with a new question asking if our thinking can influence the Internet.

I am now working on a project about Maps for the 21st century and will tell you more about it in the next letter.

I am very curious to know more about your new projects.

Yours ever,
Hans Ulrich

[This Letter first appeared in Art It, No. 15.  Hans Ulrich Obrist is a contemporary art curator, critic and historian of art. He is currently Co-director of Exhibitions and Programmes and Director of International Projects at the Serpentine Gallery, London. Hou Hanru is a Chinese art curator and critic who works at San Francisco Art Institute as Director of Exhibitions and Public Program and Chair of Exhibition and Museum Studies.]

One Response to “Beginnings, Beginnings, Beginnings: A Letter”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *