Let’s start our discussion about storage by talking about objects. Are you a collector of objects yourself?
No, I’m a curator, not a collector. I curate objects, but I also curate quasi-objects, non-objects and hyper-objects. The history of art from the nineteenth century to the 1960s is above all a history of objects, but since the 1960s, thinking of Lucy Lippard’s landmark book The Dematerialization of Art, we also have a history of non-objects. And we have Michel Serres’ theory of the quasi-object, an object which only gains significance when interacted with. And now, living in the Anthropocene, we know that everything is interdependent, and that leads us to a history of hyper-objects, as Timothy Morton calls them.
It’s not that objects are now obsolete; on the contrary, but they’re only one aspect, one possibility. Thinking about archiving and storage in the twenty-first century, we need to take into account these many dimensions.
The word “curate” stems from the latin word curare meaning to cure medically, or to care for, as in tending a sacred space. But there are many other meanings to curation: sorting, connecting, selecting, displaying. Would you say you are more concerned with these other aspects of curation than with caretaking or preservation?
The Latin root of curare is very interesting because as you say, caring about the artwork and the artists is part of curating. Another interesting [linguistic] similarity is curiosity. I think curiosity is something of an engine, a drive, to the profession of curating. In a way a curator is a generalist: there are many aspects of what one does, and caretaking is certainly an important part, but it’s not only the caretaking of an object.
JG Ballard once told me that curating, for him, was about making junctions. You can think of junctions between objects, between non-objects, quasi-objects, hyper-objects – and of course between people. Curating is also about bringing people together.
Could you describe an exhibition of yours where junctions were made between the archive and the contemporary?
In Design Real at the Serpentine in 2009, the German designer Konstantin Grcic exhibited a series of design objects that were not luxury or elitist products but great design for all, like an airplane seat. All these objects were crated, brought to London and displayed on plinths.
In the central room was each object’s history, giving its context, its ramifications… almost like Bruno Latour’s Actor-Network-Theory applied to curating.
One of the first museum projects where storage wasn’t marginalised but given centre stage, was Rem Koolhaas’ unrealised project for MoMA called Charette. It’s a very interesting proposal in which he’s saying that it’s important we think about storage because it’s the unknown, the invisible. Italo Calvino talks about the Invisible City – you could say storage is the invisible museum. Ninety-nine percent of museum archives are part of this invisible realm inaccessible to the visitor. The visitor has to wait until the curator decides to make the art accessible.
A different way of addressing the archive is in the new Broad Museum by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, which I just visited. In the stairway there’s a sudden unexpected appearance of a window giving you free view into the storage area. It’s something you usually don’t see.
I’ve always thought of you as a collector of interactions, of junctions, as you say. With your ongoing conversations, your interviews with artists and others, you’re effectively building an archive of artists and their work through documentation rather than artefact. Is this an archive or is it a collection?
I’ve always thought curating had more to do with archives than collections, having been inspired by Harald Szeeman, who was an incredible archivist. The collector’s endeavour is often to think of “what’s missing” [from the collection], with me, the archive comes out of research. It’s not the by-product of curating, but something done in tandem with the exhibition. There’s a reciprocal relationship between my activity as author and curator and the archive.
Of course deciding what to archive, or store, is to decide how you want to remember things. You’re looking backwards with an archive, but you’re also deciding what will matter in the future.
One exhibition where we tried to bring all this thinking together was for the Swiss Pavilion at the 2014 Venice Architecture Biennale. We wanted to pay tribute to Cedric Price and Lucius Burckhardt. Cedric was very interested in this relation to the archive – he resisted objects, resisted the freezing of his work. How could we archive someone who didn’t want to be archived? How could we do a dynamic kind of archive?
I asked Herzog & de Meuron to work on this storage-archive project because with their design for the Schaulager in Basel they’d already addressed this idea of visitor as active participant in an archive process – and they’d been Lucius’ pupils.
Hans Ulrich Obrist (b. 1968, Zurich, Switzerland) is Co-Director of the Serpentine Galleries, London. Prior to this, he was the Curator of the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. Since his first exhibition World Soup (The Kitchen Show) in 1991 he has curated more than 250 shows.
Obrist’s recent publications include Lives of Artists, Lives of Architects, Ways of Curating, A Brief History of Curating, Do It: The Compendium, and The Age of Earthquakes with Douglas Coupland and Shumon Basar.
I was also inspired by the Living Theater of Julian Beck, which removed the wall between actor and spectator. This led to the idea of getting the artist Tino Seghal involved, and we started to develop this dynamic archive together. We had a storage facility in the centre, with all these archive boxes, and as soon a visitor entered, a trolley with an archive box would be pushed towards them by an architecture student who would talk to them about it. So the visitor would discover the archive’s contents through dialogue. The more people came, the more trolleys were rolled out. We tried to make the storage the key protagonist: it was a sketch for how an archive could work every day.
What’s interesting is that the way institutions are beginning to engage questions of storage, through revealing mechanisms of art storage and display, mirrors original strategies of institutional critique. Has the job of institutional critique, of examining archival policies, now become the job of the museum itself?
I think it’s vital for the twenty-first century museum to find ways for archives to be alive‚ to no longer be secondary. There are so many extraordinary archives in the world that are dormant. The dynamic engagement with archives is an important part of the necessary and urgent “protest against forgetting”! There isn’t necessarily more memory within the current explosion of information – amnesia might be at the core of the digital age, which makes the quest of the archive more important. I