In Depth

Text=Tomoya Iwata


Interview with Hans Ulrich Obrist

Curator’s Foreword: Tomoya Iwata

As part of the catalogue of “Alter-narratives”, in which we pursue the discussion on the potential of online exhibitions from a broader perspective, I had the privilege of interviewing Mr. Hans Ulrich Obrist, the director of the Serpentine Galleries in London. I hope to introduce his ideas on curating online through the following dialogue, as he is a curator that expands the definition of exhibition through his interdisciplinary practices, having conducted a number of digital programmes.



――Could you please share your opinion in general on the so-called online exhibition or the curatorial practices in the digital sphere?


Our last conversation happened in January in Tokyo and since then the situation has changed. That has given me a lot of time to reflect on what it means to curate digitally. One thing which I think has become clear is that we clearly miss art, and that we miss the idea of experiencing art. We have been thinking about the fact that people spend so much time in front of the two-dimensions of screens, and obviously it is important to think about how we can use technology to go beyond them. I think that is possible with Augmented Reality (AR), as I will explain later. That is related to a lot of aspects of your questions, and it is also possible with online exhibitions which lead us to actions.
For example, when the lockdown happened initially in China in January, and subsequently in Italy in February to March, many people who had the “do it” [1] book realized its instructions at their home. This was very fascinating and was, in a sense, a lockdown exhibition. Then we reactivated “do it” with ICI (Independent Curators International), and you can also see Kaldor Public Art Projects [2] in Australia, which organizes Australian version of “do it.” Meanwhile, we are also working on an Indian and a Singaporean “do it,” while the Serpentine with Google have rebuilt the website for “do it (home),” which people can do artists’ instructions at home. That was an online exhibition that got us audiences beyond the screen, because we can on the one hand realize a sculpture by Franz West, and on the other hand smile at a stranger, obviously from the distance in this age of social distancing, which is a piece by Louise Bourgeois.
It is important for all of us to do something for someone else in a moment of great, precarious economic crisis, as in the 1930s during the Roosevelt years when the great depression happened in America. So that is an example of online exhibition as “do it” is an online exhibition in an open-source way, and it can go beyond the idea of the two-dimensions of the screen.



do it Moscow, installation view: Bernadette Corporation instruction interpreted by Tatiana Dospehova, Garage Museum of Contemporary Art, Moscow, May 17, 2014. Photo: Anton Silenin © Garage Museum of Contemporary Art and Independent Curators International (ICI)


Another example is the project which celebrated Serpentine’s 50th anniversary by doing a 50-artist campaign for the environment and extinction. It is interesting, because in January we announced that we would slow down the programs, would do less traveling, and that we would do ecological campaigns; and it has become more relevant in the last three months. So we have launched many of these online campaigns that encourage actions and activisms, and in that sense it is not something passive, because there is a big danger of online exhibition to do with consumerism and consuming of technology, almost like an entertainment.


This is what Nam Jun Paik realized very early on; that we needed to liberate the poetic potential of technology and intercultural capacity to go beyond the technology as a mere fun of entertainment. So we need to think about how we can go beyond the passive consumption, and that is what we did with the Serpentine’s “Back to Earth” [3] project. For example, with Jane Fonda, Judy Chicago and Swoon, we created an initiative called “create art for earth” which, during and beyond the lockdown throughout 2020, invited artists to do environmental work, and more than 9000 artists have so far participated. You can check all of the artworks with the hashtag “#CreateArtforEarth,” and Judy Chicago has curated a show with some of the artists from this campaign.


As the idea of arts campaign would never have happened without technology, it helped us facilitate and reach out to over 9000 artists, who have participated in the program. And in a similar way, we did a project with Olafur Eliasson for Earth Day in April, in which you could download an image that created an after-image of burning planet when you look at an empty wall after staring at the digital image. Through this he gets us away from the screen [4]. As such, we have been doing quite a lot of online projects, trying to take to heart what Nam June Paik told us.


Olafur Eliasson, Earth perspectives, 2020, The Earth viewed over the Great Barrier Reef, Australia.


――Could you tell me more about the “poetic aspect of technology”?


Nam June Paik looked in how we could turn technological function into poetry, and it was almost like a question of the Situationists’ “Détournement” [6], which goes back to the conversation I had with Vilém Flusser [5], a media philosopher, and Fischli and Weiss in the 1990s. We talked about technology, and he told us about the idea of “Détournement”; that we need to use technology in a way that subverts what those who invented these devices had thought we could use them for. Nam June Paik applied this idea to cameras in the 1980s or 1990s, because he thought that the potential of art is to do something with these devices, which the person who invented them or programmed them did not expect. To liberate poetic potential of technological function thus means to go beyond the logic of what the function could be.


――The examples you showed me seem to connect what is developed online to the real world. What do you think about the possibility of providing artworks or artwork experiences online?


I find it difficult to answer it in general terms because it depends from situation to situation. I looked at the Art Basel online fair, and found it really interesting that Art Basel gave access of many videos this time, because very often when you visit these art fairs, especially in the past couple of years, there have been less videos and more paintings instead. I am positively surprised by how much videos were on this online art fair.


And yesterday afternoon, I watched Mark Leckey’s film called Under the Bridge, and a 1980s film by John Akomfrah which is about the demonstration in England in the 1980s against racism, and that of course resonates with what is happening right now. So I was really grateful to see those two movies yesterday and to rethink that it is possible for moving image works to be seen in that way.


It is, on the other hand, difficult for multi-sensory environment of the exhibitions to apply various different senses of visual, tactile, smell, and else online. For example, you cannot ever see works by Koo Jeong A online, as they consist of installation with all dimensions such as the smell of trees or subway station’s perfume, and that is the limit of technology when it comes to a multi-sensory environment.


Last year I went to see Alejandro González Iñárritu, a Mexican movie director, and he did a Virtual Reality (VR) piece [7] for Fondazione Prada, which then also traveled to LACMA in LA. In the artwork, the audience would basically get a backpack, remove their shoes, and walk on the sand, which provides them with physical interactions. And then all of a sudden you have the VR with a group of migrants crossing the border line between Mexico and the United States, a police helicopter approaching you, and as a visitor seeing yourself on the floor.


As such, even though it is a digital installation, it appeals to all of your senses with physical interaction with the artwork. On the other hand, to experience artworks on video or on an online exhibition at home would be difficult. So I think we should not forget that when artists work with technologies in exhibitions, they work with immersive multi-sensory installations, and that again is very difficult to replicate.


I do however believe that there is a potential for Mixed Reality in the future and found Iñárritu’s piece interesting because it was you being in the same situation as these refugees or migrants, and that gives you a great sense of empathy. Meanwhile, it is said that often with virtual reality, the goggle in an exhibition takes it away from this multi-sensory space and isolates you from all the other people. This is why I think AR has a bigger potential.


Alejandro González Iñárritu, Carne Y Arena, 2017. A user in the experience. Photo credit: Emmanuel Lubezki. Courtesy Fondazione Prada.


Now I am in the park and we have this AR piece in Kensington Garden by Jakob Kudsk Steensen. So I see flowers, trees, the sky, people walking, and at the same time I can see virtual butterflies on my phone in 3D, virtual architecture, by turning on my phone and activating the Serpentine AR production, which we did with Google. This adds another layer to the experience of the park, and I do think that there is a great curatorial potential for AR. It will not however replace exhibitions, and I do not think that the exhibition experience will ever be replaced by what we can experience at home in front of the two-dimensions of the computer.


Jakob Kudsk Steensen, The Deep Listener, 2019. AR Visualization. Courtesy the artist.


――Do you think there is any particular way of experiencing artworks, such as paintings or sculptures, instead of multi-sensory experience through online?


I think we should multiply the possibilities, and it is not an “either or” for me. I am really interested in this great book by Legacy Russell about Glitch Feminism [8], and this is the most interesting book of this year for me. It is about going beyond all binaries, and there is this idea that technology and art is a binary, like when we think about exhibitions we tend to assume either physical or virtual exhibition. I think at the moment in this age of fluidity, we will go more and more beyond these binaries in terms of exhibition making as well and that is where the great potential is. It is within this fluid constellation that we can have a “both and” instead of an “either or”.


If you think about what we have explored so far at the Serpentine, it gets so diverse each time and you can see a variety of possibilities. For example, if you think about Ian Cheng’s BOB (Bag of Beliefs), which is an artwork which is basically created with artificial intelligence. It was the first artwork we ever did which had a consciousness, and visitors had this interesting experience where the artwork was alive, and the art was not just there at their service but the BOB was a reactive organ. So it was more like going to a zoo than going to a museum, in a way that you interacted with a living being. But still it had a lot to do with a ritual, a visitors’ gathering in a space with each other, using the devices and then interacting with BOB in the gallery space.


There is another example of the experiments, which we did with Hito Steyerl, that brought us back again to the park where she did an app [9]. She saw the inequality of the neighborhoods in London when the tragedy of Grenfell Tower fire happened; some people owned a lot of the social housing, while there were a lot of difficult living circumstances next door. I suppose every global city, similar in Tokyo, has an extreme inequality. She critically made us aware of this extreme inequality in the city, and used technology to make that visible. That is interesting because Paul Klee already said in the 1920s that art can make the invisible visible. In the case of Steyerl, she thus made this invisible inequality in the city visible. So that is another thing technology can do.


Another aspect of technology is, needless to say, documentation. When I interviewed Christo about ten days before he died, we talked about his AR piece. The Mastaba, a big sculpture in the Kensington Garden, was a public monument with thousands of stacked barrels placed for a few months two years ago. Christo, in the last conversation we had, allowed us to show the AR documentation of the piece this summer. Now Christo is no longer here since he passed away, and so is his piece, because it had to be taken down after a certain period, but the memory is here, and it is like a magic if people in the park would be able under their devices to have 3D renderings and AR versions of Christo’s piece. So you can say it is also another layer of what technology can do; a documentation.


There is an interesting example from 2019, when we had Jakob Kudsk Steensen’s AR and the physical pavilion by Junya Ishigami. Thanks to this fluid transition, visitors had the experience of the physical pavilion made out of stone as well as digital pavilion in the park with virtual butterflies on their phones. For me, it is very much about going beyond “either or,” and AR has an important potential to go beyond this binary because there is a binary mode with VR.

You can think, for example, about Zaha Hadid’s show of her drawings I curated [10], which was a tribute to her because she passed away after the exhibition in 2016. Hadid’s dream was always to have a virtual reality commission of her drawings so we exhibited them as a VR piece with Google. There was a strange “binary switch” because people came to see the exhibition, looked at the drawings at the archive, then got a goggle sitting on a chair, and then suddenly switched into the virtual reality space. Therefore, either in a physical show or in a virtual show, I like this idea of working with AR because we can have both.



――It is interesting to think that AR can function to connect with both the real and virtual world on the same horizon.


And the exhibition never stops. In this age of technology identity never stops, and that is also the key point to everything, which is why I am quite positive towards the potential of technology. I do believe that it will not replace the exhibition, but that it has a great potential. In a way, an artwork, at a certain moment in history, was a finite object; for instance a movie, which is a finalized product, can be looped, and it always comes back to this idea. The same thing is true with a sculpture, a painting, and a photograph. It is true to say that these new digital artworks with AI or AR are not finished project and the identity is always shifting.


Identity shifts, destroys, evolves, and they will never repeat, and it also goes back to Eduard Glissant [11]. Glissant said that an identity is nothing static and is a dynamic process, and artworks historically had a very static identity in that sense. And I think the idea of Glitch Feminism by Legacy Russel describes very well artists like Sandra Perry, Ian Cheng or many of the artists we have mentioned or actually worked with.




――I would like to talk about your idea of the relationship between global and local, based on Edouard Glissant’s idea. Liberated from topological idea in a physical sense, I think an online platform as a non-place would provide experiences that an audience connects respectively to their own local context within the same format. (I think “do it” realizes this idea both in physical and online). May I hear your opinion on that?


It goes directly to the question of identity as we have talked in terms of the artwork not having a fixed identity and continuing to evolve and change, being almost like a living being, and speaking in that manner, an artwork is alive. And Glissant had talked a lot about that because basically he is originally from an island in Martinique, coming from the archipelago of this Caribbean islands where the identity has never been fixed, as the identity is changing all the time in dialogue with other islands. It does not necessarily mean that the identity is lost, the identity on the contrary becomes richer or more complex.


This also has to do with local and global because Glissant talked about the idea of living in the age of homogenized globalization against which we need to resist. At the same time, he says there is a danger of counter reaction to this homogenized globalization, which we need to also resist against, such as new forms of racism, nationalism, and localism. However, what he talks about is his idea of “mondialité” [12] and that is in part related to your question of technology, because technology is at the very core of this homogenized globalization, and in a way accelerates this process. This is not the first time for world to experience globalization but the acceleration of technology is the most extreme form of globalization of all we have experienced. It is thus very important when we work with technology never to forget Glissant’s idea of mondialité so that we use this technology to have a global dialogue to resist to new forms of nationalism, localism, and so on.


Further, the mondialité is a wonderful concept because in a way it resists against both the homogenized globalization with technology and the counter reaction at the same time. So it is important to think, whenever we work with this technology, how we can use this technology to produce mondialité, neither localisms or homogenized globalization. The idea by Glissant is relevant for technology as seen here.



A drawing by Edouard Glissant


Another important aspect is that we always have to think about inclusivity. It is important, even though Tim Berners-Lee conceived WWW (world wide web) as something being there for everyone, that we should not forget that not everyone has access to WWW, as not everyone has a smartphone or a device. This also leads us to think that not everyone has the access to museums, and thus we always need to think how we make our exhibitions accessible to those who do not have access to this technology. We at the Serpentine lend devices to people as well as provide an app so that each audience can download it on their own device. Particularly at this moment in time, what will happen with this lockdown is that the social distancing has to be maintained even if museums open, and people will avoid touching things in museums, like screens, headphones, VR headsets and goggles. This will make people use their own devices more, and people will opt for better, perhaps more expensive technologies. But we should not forget that there are old visitors or those who cannot afford it, and to lend them the devices so as not to exclude anyone.


――As you mentioned, now we can see that nationalism is revitalized and transnational connections or solidarity is in crisis partly due to the COVID-19, which we have to resist. Within this current situation, do you think it is still possible to develop international exhibitions such as biennials/triennials in the same way as before? How do you think those transnational exhibitions could contribute to this situation? Or what do you think about the role that online platform can play in this context?


In a way, art has always been about having a dialogue which can go beyond the boundaries. Artists often live between or belong to different geographies, so art in that sense has always been contrary to nationalism. It is important to continue to find ways of maintaining such a transnational dialogue, and I think “do it” is an example. All these “do it” versions have been local, one happened in Australia, one in Singapore, one is happening in England and the U.S. So it happens in different places all over the world, and at the same time they are connected. While it is a global dialogue, artworks do not necessarily have to be transported and they can be locally realized with locally found resources, and we need to find more models like that.


I also curate a poster project called It’s Urgent!, which opens at LUMA foundation with more than 130 posters. It will travel to many cities, and each time local artists add posters. While it is an economical exhibition, since artworks are locally printed out, these posters react to the political circumstances which are urgent in the world right now. So you can say “It’s Urgent!” is a local project because each time it articulates itself locally but at the same time it is ever-growing, does not waste resources, and visitors can download the posters on their phone and print them out at home, so the exhibition can happen in an apartment. It is again the “and”, instead of the “either or”, because it is both physical and digital.


In my opinion, it is too early to say what will happen with biennales or large scaled exhibitions, but air travel will certainly be reduced because of environmental impact, and instead people might travel more by train, so we may need to think more about regional audiences. Less people from all over the world will fly for biennales and a local audience will become more important with an increase in negotiations in local and global. I believe that there will be more regional audiences for those large scaled exhibitions who might come by train.



It’s Urgent! – Part III, Installation view: Curated by Hans Ulrich Obrist. Luma Westbau, Zurich, 2019 Photo: Stefan Altenburger, Zurich


―― What do you think art will look like after corona (post-corona), or with corona?


I think public art will become more important. In the time of social distancing, people are more comfortable outdoors. As a matter of fact, they spend a lot of time in outdoor spaces so I think that will lead to increased importance of public art. These days, there are also a lot of discussions on monuments and a critique or attack against many problematic monuments that still exist, like the ones related to colonial states which are now taken down. So now is an interesting moment to think about what would be the public art for our time, what would be the new monuments for our time, or maybe it is not monument but anti-monument. I assume the idea of public art will become important.


The other thing about post-corona is related to the text I wrote about New Deal [13]. In this extremely precarious economic situation, we need generosity, and it is important to think about what the new form of generosity would be, in terms of art, or art thoughts. In that sense, again “do it” and “Take Me (I’m Yours)” [14] are both open-source and I think we need more of such models. I would like to think more models about how art can be generous, and how museums and exhibitions can be too. And the other thing is how we can bring art into a society beyond having exhibitions at museums.


Furthermore, we also need to think more about inclusivity, which is a key point. The corona crisis even more so exacerbated inequality in our society so we need to think about models of art being more inclusive in every way.



――That is an interesting idea, that there might be an increase in number of outdoor exhibitions after this situation.


Yes, that is what I think. I spend a lot of time in the park right now and the park even becomes my office, as a matter of fact this interview is from the park.


――As we wrap up this interview: you kindly shared with me your own unrealized projects in the previous interview. I would like to ask you, this time, about your unrealized projects in digital sphere or online.


That is interesting. We now have unrealized online biennial with Daniel Birnbaum. Birnbaum, is now the artistic director of Acute Art, and we collaborated on a project with Cao Fei. I did a project of Cao Fei with Birnbaum at the Serpentine with a VR component and a sci-fi movie. And with Birnbaum, we imagined to do a digital biennial which could be at many different places at the same time; we will work on it this summer. So that is an unrealized project: to do a big group show with AR, in a sense of an AR biennial, and you could experience it in many different parks all over the world.


Cao Fei, Blueprints (Installation view, Serpentine Gallery, 4 March – 17 May 2020) Photo credit: Gautier Deblonde


―― That project connects all the ideas you shared with me today and I am so looking forward to experiencing that digital biennial. Thank you so much for the interview today.


You are welcome.



[1]  “Do it” is a project which Hans Ulrich Obrist has organized since 1993 and have been presented in more than 165 cities. It is an exhibition with “DIY” instructions created by artists.


[2] Kaldor Public Art Projects is an Australian private organization for public art, involving international artists. Active since the 1960s, the organization was founded by John Kaldor.


[3]  “Back to Earth” is a project that consists of experts in multi-disciplinary fields including artists, thinkers, and scientists, aimed to implement artist-led campaigns in response to the environmental crisis.


[4]  “Earth Perspectives” is an online project by Olafur Eliasson published on Serpentine Galleries’ website.


[5] Détournement is an artistic practice conceived by the Situationists for transforming artworks by creatively disfiguring them. (“détournement,” Oxford Reference, accessed September 10, 2020,


[6]  Vilém Flusser (1920-1991) was a Czech-born philosopher, who analyzed new media and its influence on society.


[7] “CARNE y ARENA” by Alejandro González Iñárritu.


[8]  “Glitch Feminism” is scheduled to be published on 29 September, 2020. Writer, curator and artist Legacy Russell proposes the concept of Glitched bodies within the concept of feminism, referring to blurry bodies existing in a space between online and offline. This argument is based on the critique of “digital dualism,” a notion coined by sociologist and social media theorist Nathan Jurgenson that distinguishes online selfdom from one in real life. The book advocates the use of terminology AFK (“Away From Keyboard”) in lieu of IRL (“In Real Life”) to signify a continuous progression of the self rather than two separated modes of it.


[9]  “Actual RealityOS” is an open source digital tool for data visualization that brings together augmented reality, immersive audio and strategies of data collection and mapping for mobile devices.


[10]  “Zaha Hadid: Early Paintings and Drawings” (2016-2017)


[11] Edouard Glissant (1928-2011) was a French Caribbean poet and literary critic from Martinique. Informed by his background of living in an archipelago, he proposed a vision of the world with cultural diversity centered around the concept of “mondialité”. Hans Ulrich Obrist has been largely influenced by his ideas: “I have a ritual of reading in Glissant’s books for fifteen minutes every morning. His poems, novels, plays, and theoretical essays are a toolbox I use every day.” (Obrist, Hans-Ulrich. Ways of Curating. Penguin, 2015, p.14.)


[12] Mondialité is an idea suggested by Edouard Glissant, which avoids seeing differences as divisions and instead recognizes them as what connects us. In the concept of mondialité, we are enmeshed in “the poetics of relation,” a network of connections, spreading in all directions, that relates others to others.


[13]  “New New Deal: Toward a New Era of Social Imagination,” on artnet news, 5 May, 2020.


[14] “Take Me (I’m Yours)” is a series of exhibitions since 1995 in which visitors can touch or even take away and bring back artworks to their home.