Travelling Eye

Conversation with Hans-Ulrich Obrist on "Travelling Eye"

Hans Ulrich Obrist: This discussion focuses on the concept of an exhibition in terms of regular events in various printed media – much like what, for the past several years, we have been doing together with the museum in progress in the daily "Der Standard" and are currently putting into practice in a weekly, in the form of the "Travelling Eye" exhibition in the "profil" magazine. We have found out that it didn't take very long at all for the open terrain represented by these artist's pages to become part of the choreography of a magazine, respectively a newspaper. And that without them something, an integral part of the paper or magazine itself, would be missing.

Stella Rollig: To me, what matters is the creation of a kind of curiosity, similar in its appeal to that associated with "news" in the sense of political or economic, in other words, event-related information, that the same kind of interest might be directed towards artistic statements. That is to say, that you don't just take in what is happening in the world, what various politicians said, but that you develop a comparable interest in the work of an artist.

HUO: It's already happening. Plenty of people told me that the first thing they look for on Monday mornings is the new double page spread in the profil. What these exhibitions in print are also about is the constant effort to go against the indifferent tide of onlookers. Ever since the 60ies, when people like Dan Graham, Joseph Kosuth or Jef Geys first started to experiment with such exhibitions in print, the attempt to shake this indifference has been a recurring theme. What also comes to mind in this context is Dieter Roth's excellent work in the "Luzerner Generalanzeiger" where, for some years, he kept placing classified ads. Or projects from the 60ies and 70ies which were never realized, such as Hans-Peter Feldmann's pieces for the printed media where he proposed to publish pictures without captions, something no paper or periodical ever seems to have wanted to get involved in. In my opinion, the important thing is that, right now, these concepts have a chance of developing into daily practice.

SR: I'm also convinced that our various projects show that we have at our disposal a wide spectrum of artistic methods to go against the indifferent tide of onlookers, as you just called it. In the case of the interventions in the Standard the element of surprise plays an important part. You can never be sure when they'll appear or where they'll be placed, on what scale, nor if they will be immediately recognizable as art. In the profil, our approach is totally different. Here, the location remains fixed, you can head straight for it. Both ways of placing the pieces offer various possibilities to disrupt the indifference of consumerism. Some people have criticized that for something always to appear in the same place is boring. But when I turn on the news at half past seven I'm still curious, even though I know the news will be next.

HUO: People keep referring to the new media – video etc Video art has been around for more than 30 years. The same is true for art in a newspaper. Art in the newspaper isn't something we are making up, it's been done ever since the 60ies. The real difference is that, as I said earlier, it's in the process of becoming daily practice, a fact which allows an increasingly sophisticated treatment of the medium. At the same time, we are dealing with the idea of the coup: provocation remains an option, and may even be the appropriate one, but on the other hand you've also got the opposite model. I'm referring to the excellent work of Felix Gonzalez-Torres, his black-and-white photographs of vultures in Miami. Felix Gonzalez-Torres once told me that in the mass media environment, governed by editorial decisions but, above all, dominated by advertising, he has found increasing use for black-and-white, in other words, worked with a deliberate deficit. This also raises the question of the empty space as such, the problem posed by the empty page. In the Standard, Heimo Zobernig once presented a completely empty page. With Felix Gonzalez-Torres it's these vultures in the skies of Miami, which seem to disappear, to dissolve into the grayness of the page.

SR: Or the overlapping images of John Baldessari, where parts of the page are left deliberately empty so that you start to ask yourself where does the picture actually end. Where carefully selected segments are surrounded by a mostly empty page.

HUO: Fragments are presented as such. It's not about trying to do one better than the language of advertising, as some artists are already so successful in doing. I'm convinced that leaving something out can be easily as efficient and that beyond that there are, without doubt, countless other strategies available. For example the unspectacular photographs of Bernhard Fuchs, cars parked in Austrian forests, where the unspectacular is suddenly seen in a dramatic context. What the various works of the artists in the Standard and the profil have in common is that they take place within the context of the guidelines of their chosen medium and that, ideally, they are able to alter them.

SR: This strikes me as a rather optimistic expectation. Aren't you overestimating the limits of the art work, in other words, wouldn't a project which really started to tamper with the basic mechanisms of the medium in question invariably face the opposition of the editor-in-chief or the publishers?

HUO: The conventional relationships between various departments, between texts and images, are slowly starting to shift. It might also be worthwhile to reconsider the problem of the coup. For one of the strategies that offers an alternative to the media coup is precisely that slow modification of the existing rules through daily practice. In the Standard, the manifestations are constantly changing. One day it's a column, another time an entire page, and yet a third time small ads that border on the invisible. In the profil, on the other hand, it is invariably a double page spread always appearing in the same location. This exhibition always takes place in the same predefined setting.

SR: In my opinion this is presently one of the most successful strategies of great art: this shift, the almost unnoticeable incongruence, alteration and redefinition. We have this ongoing discussion if it is necessary to designate the space in the newspaper in some obvious way. I was always in favour of referring to it as a museum space because I believe that the cursory quality of perception which troubles the mass media lends such small clues, like signs pointing to the museum in progress, a particular importance. The public needs to gain more information about what the interior of a museum space may look like today, that it might contain something completely unexpected. And while location and content may have changed, at least you still know where you are. Otherwise, I think you'd run the risk of viewers giving up too quickly, telling themselves: I'm lost, I'd better leave the way I came in.

HUO: Indeed, there has to be somebody, something you can interact with. We need transparency. This isn't about some kind of deception but about the ability to respond to these things. Musil once said that where there is art it frequently appears where we would least expect it. The traditional concept of the museum – and I'm not referring to the "traditional" traditional concept of the museum as it applied in past centuries, when the museum represented a heteroclite reality and when it housed many different cultural activities at the same time – rather, the traditional concept of the museum as it was understood in the 19th century when it became the highly specialized domain of art and art history; it allowed to go to waste the huge potential of those who had a basic interest in the subject but never dared cross the threshold of the museum. The potential Musil is referring to in his statement about the unexpected encounter, or of the shock of difference as defined by Victor Segalen. On the other hand, the whole thing shouldn't be presented in too didactic a manner. It is crucial that, in the final analysis, the observer also contributes part of the effort.

SR: Particularly in regard to the photographic works we selected for the profil an accompanying text offering some sort of explanation would make even less sense, since the general public is highly familiar with photographic practice. This also provides an important link between the visitor and the museum, that the problem as to what is actually shown is also addressed. What kind of pictures can be found in the enveloping publication? And, on the other hand: What kind of pictures do I myself take? For in our society, practically everybody is a photographer.

HUO: A producer of images.

SR: Precisely. That's what's so fascinating about photography. David Wojnarowicz once said: "The creative act is alienated in our society". But while the idea of creativity is loosing ground, or at least becoming highly defamiliarized as well as being limited to a specific purpose, photography can help to reintroduce a creative, formative element almost on the level of everyday practice. In this respect, statements like when somebody tells me: Look, these pictures are out of focus, or jokingly says: I also remember throwing out pictures that were blurred, can also be interesting. They address a certain aspect of communication because this is precisely where you can link up with the personal practice of the viewer. To me, this, too, represents a promising opportunity.

HUO: This leads us to the theme of our present exhibition "Travelling Eye". Over the course of one year 12 international artists will each devise double page spreads, once per week, four times running, a single artist per month. The basis of this "Travelling Eye" exhibition might be summed up in a single striking phrase .

SR:. Photography, not as a means to distance oneself from the world but – and, in my opinion, the English expression is particularly apt: To get connected.

HUO: It calls to mind the concept of sequentiality. The series of pictures is closely tied to this practice of "getting connected". After all, it isn't just the idea of the picture taken by itself but of the preceding one as well as of the one following it. Serge Daney has provided us with an apt description of this effect. In Fellini's case, for instance, there is always the shabby picture before and the shabby picture after. The singular picture of bravura is gone. In addition, this sequencing of images obviously shares certain traits with the succession of individual frames in film. This year, the issue of the correlations between fine arts and film was addressed and portrayed in remarkably many places, take Los Angeles, for instance, with its "Mirror, Art and Film since 1945". The works of Roni Horn and Richard Hoeck also, in their way, represent the cinematic gaze: Horn's zoom shots, and his extreme close-ups, respectively, the tendency to circle around an "image", to slowly approach a single motif – the workers in the trees lining the avenue – in the case of Hoeck. Much like Gonzalez-Torres, Horn, too, plays with the limits of invisibility against the backdrop of hypervisibility provided by a colour news magazine.

SR: For some time now, both of us have wanted to organize an exhibition that would address this phenomenon of "getting connected". I, for one, never did because I felt that to hang a few photos on a wall, to isolate them, would provide the wrong kind of context. The magazine, however, as was pointed out earlier, conforms to a certain dramaturgy which governs the way in which one image follows another, and the way images and texts are intended to relate to one another. It is, therefore, of crucial importance that this exhibition, insofar as it addresses the problem of sequentiality, the sequence of images, takes place in a printed medium, a weekly – so much for the question of immanence. Viewed in isolation, pictures and objects have a tendency to turn into a fetish. Only by putting them in sequence can this aspect be avoided. Some artists in particular show a heavy reliance on this cinematic concept of sequentiality, the French artist Jean-Luc Moulène, to name just one. In a similar context one might also mention Godard who always held that: Tout est entre, everything is in-between.

HUO: For many of the artists taking part, such as Nan Goldin, Nobuyoshi Araki, or Jack Pierson, this element of "getting connected" also has an added autobiographic dimension, since they depict the context of their personal lives. Nan Goldin once said that she had always thought that she would never lose people she'd taken pictures of, until she had to realize that this can still happen – mainly through deaths due to AIDS. She keeps referring to the fact that her pictures show her own, very personal world, in particular her friends, her milieu. I think she's using photography to combat this pain of having-to-let-go. With others, the opposite may be true. They try to establish a link: the lens acting as a kind of sucker.

SR: At the same time, magazines and newspapers contribute to a dispersal of images. This form of "distribution" brings us to the concept of art proposed by William Morris and the Arts and Crafts Movement in Britain. He was the one who originated the idea of "art for all", which, during the 60ies, Gilbert & George took up again and systematically expanded. The artists Gilbert & George might well be considered father figures for the profil exhibition, since they were the ones who came up with the concept of the magazine sculpture in the 60ies. During that period, Gilbert & George went for strolls in Hyde Park and elsewhere which led to these pictures of their strolls as well as other, related pieces with a temporal theme. This is how their first works for magazines came about; when they were able to convince some of the major English-language weeklies to put at their disposal the space they needed for their exhibitions, where'd they then pose as "living sculptures" on a double page. What does it signify for art to appear in such a public context? It has to be said that, apart from everything else, exhibitions in the printed media are visited by more people than any exhibition taking place within the walls of an actual museum. Over the course of a year, there are literally millions of visitors. It shows a way out of the ghettos.

HUO: And it also shows us new ways of dealing with art. In my opinion, these projects have a very emancipatory quality, insofar as the exact nature of their response is left to the viewers. Anything from complete negation, simply flicking through, to tearing them out. You can pull the pages out of the newspaper and put them up above your bed. I, for one, am somebody who likes to put up pictures torn from the papers so I can change them every few weeks. I no longer believe in buying or collecting art but rather that in our lives art has a predominantly periodic significance. As Rudolf Burger has pointed out, we are today mainly concerned with a provisional kind of morality, we no longer have generally binding principles, every situation has to be judged individually. In a similar vein, the significance of art for our own lives has become subject to constant modification and reevaluation. Which is precisely why I consider it so appropriate to pull out a picture and put it up above my desk using Sellotape where it can prove easily as effective as a 100.000-DM painting.

SR: I wonder if the one will replace the other. Two years ago Bruce Sterling and I discussed whether in the era of the Internet the printed media will disappear. Do we still need the printed page? Interestingly enough, the book sales of Sterling and other authors whose work is available via the Net have gone up. The increase in virtuality seems to be accompanied by a growing demand for actual reality. When television was invented, radio broadcasting renewed itself. In my point of view, we have to concentrate on the important element of complementarity. Not in the sense of "neither – nor", or even "either – or", but rather in the sense of "as well as". Once more and more art starts to take place in the mass media, neither the museum nor the gallery will become superfluous. What they will really have to do is redefine themselves.

(25 March 1996)