Hans Ulrich Obrist on Experiment Marathons

By his own accounting, the internationally renowned curator Hans Ulrich Obrist has organized more than 150 exhibitions across the world since 1991, including the first Berlin Biennale, Manifesta 1 in Rotterdam, the first Moscow Triennale, and the second Guangzhou Biennale. The Swiss-born impresario, now 40, is probably as close as to a rock star as a curator can be. Currently at London’s Serpentine Gallery and before that at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris (2000–06) and Vienna’s museum in progress (1993–2000), he has turned himself into an art world brand — known foremost for his prolificacy and ubiquity, but also, some would say, for the abstruse, almost oracular quality of his writings.

On the opening weekend of the Reykjavik Arts Festival in Iceland, May 16–18, Obrist staged the latest of his “experiment marathons” in collaboration with the artist Olafur Eliasson. The event provided the basis for one of the main exhibitions of the festival (which concluded June 5) and is the principal summer attraction at the Reykjavik Art Museum (through August 24), in a show that combines documentation of this year’s experiments with installations related to those of past years. According to press materials put out by the festival, “among the presenters [in the marathon] were artists Marina Abramovic, Jonas Mekas, Fia Backström, Carolee Schneemann, Pedro Reyes, Carlos Cruz-Diez, and Jimmie Durham; scientists Israel Rosenfield and Luc Steels; architects Neri Oxman and David Adjaye; musician Brian Eno; cultural impresario John Brockman; psychosexual therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer; and arts patron Francesca von Habsburg.”

Sounds exciting, but what exactly is an experiment marathon? In Reykjavik, at any rate, artists and experts took turns in front of a seated audience, each offering their own interpretation of “experiment.” Some chose to talk, discussing the idea of experimentation in their work or elsewhere, while others took more active approaches. Eno led the audience in a group rendition of “Can’t Help Falling in Love”; Dr. Ruth sent the men in the audience home to admire their penises and the women to do Kegel exercises and wink at car drivers; and Schneemann may have stolen the show by having a naked woman ride a white horse into the space.

At the event’s conclusion, ARTINFO asked Obrist a few questions over e-mail to learn more about it.

Hans Ulrich, can you explain how curating an experiment marathon differs from curating an art exhibition or performance event?

There are many similarities between curating a marathon and a big exhibition — in both cases you work very closely with artists on their projects. The difference is the length of time between the production [of the projects] and their reception.

How does the exhibition that continues at the Reykjavik Art Museum relate to the initial marathon weekend?

When we did the first experiment marathon, we discussed the question of an archive a great deal, so the idea came up that at every new marathon we would show the archive of all the previous marathons. We also wanted to show the archive of “Laboratorium,” a show Barbara Vanderlinden and I curated in Belgium in 1999. The primary focus of “Laboratorium” was how to bring science into an exhibition. Artists and scientists were invited to talk about the laboratorium, about their studios, about their science labs. Examples of different labs that had happened in Antwerp included Rosemarie Trockel with her sleeping lab, Jonas Mekas revisiting Andy Warhol’s factory, and Luc Steels developing color recognition experiments and robots.

Speaking of the marathons’ history, the marathon in Reykjavik was the third event with this title — following marathons at the Serpentine in 2006 and 2007 — and a number of the same individuals were involved. Is it possible to talk about the cumulative progress that the marathons have made?

Well, as Philippe Parreno puts it, “La chaine est belle [roughly: “A series is a beautiful thing.”] The marathon idea started when I was invited to do a project for the Theatre Festival of Europe in Stuttgart. I suggested interviewing 24 people from Stuttgart for 24 hours; this was the first marathon. A year later, [Serpentine Director] Julia Peyton-Jones and I invited Rem Koolhaas and Cecil Balmond to design the annual architecture commission, the Serpentine Pavilion. Koolhaas wanted the pavilion to be a “content machine,” so we decided to do a new interview marathon together, focusing on London. A year later we invited Olafur Eliasson and Kjetil Thorsen to design the 2007 pavilion. Olafur was enthusiastic to continue the content machine idea, but to push it on from conversations into experiments. After discussions with Olafur, we decided that it would be good to continue the marathon as a series of public experiments involving practitioners from all disciplines. We invited Israel Rosenfield to curate a series of science experiments.

You brought artists together with “renowned scientists, architects, and thinkers.” Do you believe that the possibilities of art are greater than have been previously imagined?   

As Alexander Dorner, the visionary director of the Hanover Museum, showed as long ago as the 1920s and 1930s, in order to understand the forces that function within the visual arts, we must look into other fields of knowledge.

So what are these possibilities for art?

As Leon Golub once told me: “Art is a gate to possibility.” I feel a necessity to go beyond the fear of pooling knowledge. I feel an urgent need to produce communities.

Could you suggest an experiment that ARTINFO readers could participate in?

This question leads on to another project of mine, “DoIt,” where we invited more than 100 artists to make an instructional piece for a museum. This was followed by “DoIt (Home Version),” where we asked artists to make a similar piece to be realized at home. This led to “Formulae for the 21st Century,” a book project where I asked different practitioners to submit their formulae or equations. For ARTINFO, I suggest the following experiments from “DoIt (Home Version)”:

From Marina Abramovic:

“Mix Fresh Milk From The Breast
With Fresh Milk of the Sperm
Drink on Earthquake Nights

“On Your Knees, Clean The Floor
With Your Breath
Inhale The Dust

“Wash Your Bedsheets In Lemon Juice
Cover The Pillow With Sage Leaves

“With A Sharp Knife
Cut Deeply Into The
Middle Finger Of The Left Hand
Eat The Pain

“Facing The Wall
Eat Nine Red Hot Peppers

“Take Uncut 13 Leaves Of Green Cabbage
With 13,000 Grammes of Jealousy
Steam For Long Time In Deep Iron Pot
Till All Water Evaporates
Eat It Just Before Attack

“Fresh Morning Urine
Sprinkle Over Nightmare Dreams”

And, from Jonas Mekas

“Do it …
move your finger
up and down for one
minute every morning”