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Infinite Conversations

Black and white photograph of recording equipment laid out on a white sheet
  • By Hans Ulrich Obrist
  • Issue 6
  • Essential

Alighiero Boetti died in 1994. I was affected by the immense personal loss of my mentor, but also the loss to the public of an encouraging, stimulating presence. As an artist, he had left behind many works, but he himself as a speaking subject was forever gone. I immediately regretted that all the conversations we had were suddenly no more, that there was no record of his unique way of expressing himself, his ways of making connections. Almost everything I had done was born out of conversations. I started thinking it would be a good idea to create a trace of my core activities. And that’s when I started to make systematic recordings.

When I was a student, I read several very long conversations that have stayed with me ever since. One was between Pierre Cabanne and Marcel Duchamp; another was between David Sylvester and Francis Bacon; a third, between Brassaï and Picasso. I also read many of the interviews with writers in the Paris Review. These three books of interviews, somehow, brought me closer to art—they were like oxygen, and were the first time that the idea of a conversation with an artist as a medium started to intrigue me. They also sparked an interest in the idea of sustained conversations—of conversations recorded over a period of time, perhaps over the course of many years; the Cabanne–Duchamp interviews took place over three long sessions, for example. Sylvester’s book of interviews with Francis Bacon was quite popular when I was a kid. I got a copy of this book when I was about fourteen and I thought it was actually really exciting that an art critic could talk to an artist again and again and create this unbelievably intense dialogue.

Around 1993, when I began to collaborate with the museum in progress in Vienna, I would conduct conversations in television studios with artists such as Vito Acconci and Felix Gonzalez-Torres. However, I soon found it more interesting to record the conversations without dragging people into a studio. From that moment onward I did audio recordings, and then in the mid-1990s digital cameras came onto the market and I used them for about ten years. They have become a research method and the basis for my curatorial practice. I now have an archive of 2,000 filmed conversations, most of which I have only used as text transcriptions and not yet presented as video. I haven’t completely figured out yet what to use.

The more conversations I recorded and filmed, the more important they became. They functioned alongside my other work in the manner of crop rotation in agriculture. Curating large shows is tiring; recording several unrelated conversations every week keeps me from burning out. And because they have no particular deadline, they’re a way of liberating time. Producing exhibitions represents the current crop of a curator’s practice, while writing books is equivalent to preserving the harvest of the past. Conversations, meanwhile, are obviously archival, but they are also a way of creating fertile soil for future projects. For this reason, I began to ask everyone I interviewed the same question: What is your unrealized project, your dream? The answers to this have spurred many new initiatives.

One of the most important concepts underpinning my conversation practice came from the late historian Eric Hobsbawm, whom I interviewed several times, starting in 2006. He spoke about the discipline of history as a “protest against forgetting.” But recollection is a contact zone between past, present, and future. And memory is not a simple record of events but a dynamic process that always transforms what it dredges up from its depths. The conversation has become my way to instigate such a process.

A further development occurred one day when I was with the artist Rosemarie Trockel in her studio in Cologne. Rosemarie told me she knew of my conversation project. “You should really focus,” she said, “on people whose eyes have seen the whole century. You should interview them all, you know, all the great artists and architects.” That day, Rosemarie and I made a list of who some of these ninety- to one-hundred- year-old people might be, including the novelist Nathalie Sarraute, who was still alive then, the philosopher Paul Ricoeur, and the architect Oscar Niemeyer. Ever since, I have continued to add to the list quite systematically. Often it is possible to get a picture of historical figures who we don’t realize are still linked directly to the living present. I interviewed Pierre Klossowski, who had been a friend of both Walter Benjamin and Georges Bataille. Through such conversations I have learned more about some cultural figures from the earlier twentieth century, as told by those with firsthand knowledge of the protagonists.

There’s no master plan. I have conducted conversations in which I would go with an artist to interview his or her mentor. For example, I started to go with Rem Koolhas to see all the architects who inspired him as a student: O. M. Ungers, Robert Venturi, and Denise Scott Brown, and Philip Johnson. And as I began to do this, I started to realize that my own profession had its own pioneering figures whose valuable experience was in danger of being lost.

Curating, after all, produced ephemeral constellations with their own limited career span. There’s relatively little literature on exhibitions, and there is also an extraordinary amnesia about exhibition history. When I started as a curator, we had to gather together various documents; there were no books. Because of this lack of documentation, I started recording an oral history.