Hans Ulrich Obrist is a curator at the Serpentine, a gallery in London’s Kensington Gardens that was once a teahouse and is now firmly established as a center for contemporary art. A few years ago, ArtReview named him the most powerful figure in the field, but Obrist, a forty-six-year-old Swiss, seems less to stand atop the art world than to race around, up, over, and through it. On weekdays, he works at the Serpentine offices; there are meetings over budgets and fund-raising, and Obrist, with his fellow-director, Julia Peyton-Jones, selects artists to exhibit and helps them shape their shows. When I visited him in London in late August, two exhibitions that he had organized were up: “512 hours,” a “durational performance” piece by Marina Abramović, and a show of computer-generated video art by Ed Atkins. But on weekends Obrist becomes who he truly is: a traveller. By his count, he has made roughly two thousand trips in the past twenty years, and while in London I discovered that he had been away fifty of the previous fifty-two weekends. He goes to meet emerging artists and check in with old ones, to see shows small and large. The kind of culture he cares about is mobile and far-flung and can be grasped better on the move. He likes to quote J. G. Ballard’s claim that the most beautiful building in London is the Hilton Hotel at Heathrow Airport, and the postcolonial scholar Homi Bhabha’s observation that “in-betweenness is a fundamental condition of our times.” Obrist is enormously fond of quoting.
On the twelve weekends before I saw him in London, H.U.O., as Obrist is known, had been in Basel, for the art fair; Ronchamp, France, for a wedding, in the chapel designed by Le Corbusier; Munich, for a talk with Matthew Barney; Berlin, where he maintains an apartment primarily to house ten thousand books, for an interview with Rosemarie Trockel; Frankfurt, for a panel with Peter Fischli; Arles, where he is helping to design a new museum; Singapore, to meet emerging artists; Munich again, to interview the young Estonian artist Katja Novitskova; Los Angeles, for a panel on art and Instagram; Vienna, to guest-curate an exhibit of unrealized design projects; Majorca, to see Miquel Barceló’s ceramic murals in the cathedral; Edinburgh, where Obrist’s new memoir, “Ways of Curating,” was featured at the book fair; and Vancouver, where he appeared onstage with the novelist and futurist Douglas Coupland. In all these locales, he saw as much art as he could, but he also visited scientists and historians. He believes that, because culture is becoming more interconnected across geography and across disciplines, his knowledge must expand far beyond the visual arts: to technology, literature, anthropology, cultural criticism, philosophy. These disciplines, in turn, become tools in Obrist’s attempt to fertilize the arts with fresh ideas.
Another thing that Obrist loves to do is talk. His favorite word is “urgent,” to which he gives an elongated Mitteleuropean pronunciation. His words come out in an almost comical torrent, citations bobbing up and ideas colliding. Again quoting Ballard, he describes his curatorial work as “junction-making”—between objects, between people, and between people and objects. Words help Obrist process what he’s seeing, and he often channels this energy into interviews with artists and cultural figures, which he calls “salons of the twenty-first century.” He has conducted twenty-four hundred hours of interviews to date, talking to artists in their studios, on planes, or as they walk. Ideally, he records them using three digital recorders, to make sure that nothing gets lost.
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In interviews, Obrist’s volubility is paired with a deep deference. The architect Rem Koolhaas, in a preface to the Obrist compendium “dontstopdontstopdontstop,” writes, “Usually those afflicted with logorrhea do not stimulate others to communicate; in his case, he rushes to let others do the talking.” Obrist respects the art-world compact that though the work may be shocking, the conversation should be supportive. His questions are rarely personal, and when he is being interviewed himself he is similarly guarded: at one point, when I asked him to explain his manic personality, he said, “Maybe I’m in a permanent state of Pessoa’s intranquillity.” The interviews, over time, become books. He has published forty volumes of them, records of interactions with everyone from Doris Lessing to the video artist Ryan Trecartin. In all, they represent Obrist’s best claim to being an artist in his own right. He likes to say that he models himself on the impresario Sergei Diaghilev.
Obrist is not interested in all art equally. He can be skeptical about painting, because at this point, he told me, it’s difficult to do meaningful work in that medium. For him, art, even old art, must be speaking to something current. “I don’t wake up in the morning and think about Franz Kline,” he said. The art he is most passionate about doesn’t hang on walls and often doesn’t have a permanent emanation. It can take the form of a dance or a game or a science experiment, and often leaves nothing behind but memories and an exhibition catalogue. (Obrist has published more than two hundred catalogues.) He looks for work that responds to the current moment or anticipates the moment after this one—Obrist is obsessed with the not-yet-done. His favorite question is “Do you have any unfinished or unrealized projects?”
Much of the work that fits Obrist’s ephemeral aesthetic could be called relational art, a term coined by the Parisian curator Nicolas Bourriaud in the nineteen-nineties to describe work whose content cannot be separated from its communal reception. (Obrist avoids using the term “relational” himself, in part because the artists never used it.) Abramović’s “512 hours” is a good example of relational art. There were few props, no script, and no installation; patrons were asked simply to join Abramović in an unadorned gallery space and conjoin their psychic energy. Another example of Obrist’s taste is a work by Olafur Eliasson, the Danish-Icelandic artist, whom Obrist helped discover. Obrist was one of a team of curators who invited Eliasson to contribute to a multi-authored opera called “Il Tempo del Postino,” first staged at the Manchester International Festival, in 2007. Eliasson created a piece, “Echo House,” in which a reflective curtain dropped in front of the audience, showing audience members their every gesture. Each sound they made—from coughs to claps—was mimicked sonically by the orchestra. Soon the audience took the lead, improvising a score of shouts and ring tones.
These works feel modern, in part, because they mirror the group decision-making found online; at the same time, they foster interactivity without leaving people isolated in front of screens. The Internet is always on Obrist’s mind, as he scans for signs of cultural shifts. Although his shows often playfully elevate the non-artistic to the curatorial—Duchamp is a key figure—they also have a sadness to them. He clearly believes that art offers a refuge at a time when dark beasts, from capitalism to climate change, roam the earth. His friend the artist Liam Gillick sees Obrist’s taste in art as made up in equal measure of “the melancholic sublime and the idea of the productive machine.”
Obrist, for his part, notes that his exhibits often demonstrate what he has called a “quality of unfinishedness and incompleteness.” He doesn’t like art to have temporal, spatial, or intellectual limits. The white cube of the gallery irks him; closing dates bother him. He prefers to think of exhibitions as seeds that can grow. For one of Obrist’s early shows, “do it,” which débuted in Klagenfurt, Austria, in 1994, twelve artists created “instructions” rather than finished work. Alison Knowles, a New York artist associated with the Fluxus movement, invited visitors to bring something red and fill one of dozens of squares in the gallery space with it. The exhibition never looked the same from day to day. Other venues soon took it on, and, over the years, artists have dropped in and the instructions have changed. The exhibition, which just celebrated its twentieth anniversary, is one of the most widely produced art shows in the world. “Do it” is the signature effort of a curator who has followed his own algorithm: see art, meet the artists, produce their shows, use these shows to meet more artists, produce their shows in turn. (In “Ways of Curating,” Obrist calls social interactions “the lifeblood of any curator’s metabolism.”)
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Every year, the Serpentine holds a Marathon—a festival that coalesces what Obrist has learned from his travels and his reading and his interviewing. It is a combination of exhibitions, performances, and panels, with writers, visual artists, and cultural historians mixed in freely. The first Marathon, in 2006, was a twenty-four-hour rolling interview session that Obrist co-hosted with Koolhaas. Afterward, Obrist was so exhausted that he had to check himself into the hospital. Koolhaas, who was then sixty-one, did not. “He was better trained, because he did a lot of sports,” Obrist remembered. (Obrist now jogs every morning in Hyde Park.)
Last year’s Marathon, which Obrist conceived with the French curator Simon Castets, was called “89plus,” and focussed on people born that year or later. Obrist explained, “1989 was the year the Berlin Wall came down, and it was the year Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web. This is the first generation to live its life entirely on the Internet.” Ryan Trecartin and some sixty others participated. Of course, two days were not enough to explore such a subject, and in Obrist’s mind the exhibit never really ended. He and Castets are now planning an “89plus” event, dedicated to poetry, in Stockholm next year. In October, Obrist travelled to New York, and while he was there he held a planning meeting about “89plus” at a café in Greenwich Village. Surrounded by young poets and editors of alternative presses, he asked, “Do you know any poets who use Snapchat?” His voice was full of hope—what poetry could be more to Obrist’s liking than poetry that vanishes?
Afterward, we toured art galleries. Obrist was in and out remarkably quickly, like a man with a plane to catch. If a gallery representative took more than twenty seconds to explain a work, Obrist turned his attention to his iPhone. Though he likes to learn, he doesn’t like to be told what to pay attention to. But when he saw something he really liked he paused, and a light smile crossed his lips. This happened at the New Museum, which had on display the Lebanese artist Etel Adnan’s quietly bold abstract landscape paintings, along with a typescript of her book-length poem “The Arab Apocalypse.” He said, “This has something of the Gesamtkunstwerk”—a complete, or all-encompassing, art work. The term is often associated with the sprawling operas of Richard Wagner, but for Obrist it can be something much more nimble—a protean creation that is remade over time, absorbing fresh influences from people who engage with it. Something, in other words, much like himself.
Obrist was born in Zurich and grew up in a small town near Lake Constance. His father was a comptroller in the construction industry, his mother a grade-school teacher. An only child, he found school “too slow,” and other Swiss found his vitality off-putting. “People would always say that I should go to Germany,” he remembered. His parents were not particularly interested in art, but on several occasions they took him to a monastery library in the nearby city of St. Gallen. He admired the antiquity of the books, the silence, the felt shoes. “You could make an appointment and, with white cloths, touch the books,” he said. “That’s one of my deepest childhood memories.”
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When he was around twelve, he took the train to Zurich, where he fell in love with “the long thin figures” at a Giacometti exhibition. Soon he was collecting postcards of famous paintings—“my musée imaginaire,” he calls it. “I would organize them according to criteria: by period, by style, by color.” One day, when he was seventeen, he went to see a show by the artists Peter Fischli and David Weiss at a Basel museum. He was engrossed by their “Equilibrium” sculptures—delicately balanced metal-and-rubber constructions. He had been reading Vasari’s biographical sketches of the artists of the Renaissance, and it struck Obrist that he could try to meet creators, too. He reached out to Fischli and Weiss with this rap: “I’m a high-school pupil and I’m really, really obsessed by your work and I’d love to visit you.” He told me, “I really didn’t know what I wanted. It was just this desire to find out more.” Fischli and Weiss were amused by the precocious Obrist, and welcomed him to their Zurich studio. They were filming their now famous short film “The Way Things Go,” in which an old tire rolls down a ramp, knocking over a ladder and setting off a chain reaction. On his visit, Obrist discovered a sheet of brown wrapping paper on the floor with the entire Rube Goldberg schema drawn on it. “It was almost like a mind map,” he said.
Soon afterward, Obrist was entranced by a Gerhard Richter exhibition in Bern, and asked Richter if he could visit his studio, in Cologne. “That took courage,” he said. He travelled on the night train from Zurich. “When I arrived, he was working on one of his amazing cycles of abstract paintings,” Obrist said. They talked for ninety minutes. Richter was astonished by Obrist’s passion: “ ‘Possessed’ is the word for Hans Ulrich,” he told me. Richter recommended the music of John Cage. “We discussed chance in paintings and he said he liked playing boules,” Obrist recalled. A few months later, Obrist was in a Cologne park, playing boules with Richter and his friends.
Obrist doggedly arranged to meet other artists whose work he admired. He went to see Alighiero Boetti in Rome. The feverish Boetti may be the only person ever to complain that Obrist didn’t talk fast enough. (In his new book, Obrist writes with delight, “Here was someone with whom I had to struggle to keep up.”) When Obrist asked him how he could be “useful to art,” Boetti pointed out the obvious: that he was born to be a curator.
Obrist wasn’t sure what the job entailed, but he was intuitively drawn to the power of organizing art. As a teen-ager, he visited an exhibition at the Kunsthaus in Zurich: “Der Hang zum Gesamtkunstwerk,” or “Tendency Toward the Total Work of Art.” It highlighted four selections from the past hundred years of modernism: Duchamp’s enigmatic glass construction “The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even,” and one painting each by Kandinsky, Mondrian, and Malevich. The works had been placed at the center of the Kunsthaus, heightening their effect. Obrist was struck by the intelligence of the man who had organized it: Harald Szeemann. Also a Swiss, Szeemann was one of several curators who had begun to bring a new inventiveness to the age-old job of selecting art to illustrate a theme. Obrist saw the show forty-one times. (Later, of course, he interviewed Szeemann.)
Obrist did not yet feel qualified to put his stamp on the art world. He had the autodidact’s anxiety about not knowing enough. For all his energy, he was not a revolutionary; he was an accumulator of information. But how to find out what artists were doing? “There wasn’t then a place to study,” he said. “I knew of no curator schools.” So he designed his own education. He enrolled at the University of St. Gallen, and majored in economics and social sciences. When not in class, he set out to see as many shows as he could.
Switzerland is well situated if you want to make impulsive trips around Europe. Obrist spoke five languages: German, French, Italian, Spanish, and English. (His English was given a boost by Roget’s Thesaurus, and he still keeps a vocabulary list in a blue notebook that he takes with him—among the latest words are “forage” and “hue.”) He took the night train to avoid hotel bills and arrived in a city the next morning. “I would go to every museum and look and look again,” he remembered. Then he visited local artists. He found that he could improve his welcome if he brought news of what he had seen, plus other artists’ gossip and opinions. “I would go from one city to the next, inspired by the monks in the Middle Ages, who would carry knowledge from one monastery to the next monastery,” he said. At Boetti’s suggestion, he also inquired about unrealized projects, as every artist had some and felt passionate about them. Above all, he listened. “I was what the French call être à l’écoute,” he told me. His youthful intensity sometimes raised concern. Louise Bourgeois, after meeting the teen-age Hans Ulrich, sleep-deprived and suffering from a cold, called his mother in Switzerland and urged her to take better care of her son.
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In 1991, Obrist, in his early twenties, finally felt ready. By then, he estimates, he had visited tens of thousands of exhibitions and knew more artists than most professional curators. He chose to hold his first show in the kitchen of his student apartment. “The kitchen was just another place I kept stacks of books and papers,” he recalled. The minimalist gesture seemed appropriate, both as a reaction to the engorged art market of the eighties and as a reflection of the economic slump across Europe. It was also a playful homage: Harald Szeemann had done an exhibit in an apartment.
The idea of the show was to suggest that the most ordinary spaces of human life, cleverly curated, could be made special. Among the friends he included was the French painter and sculptor Christian Boltanski. Under the sink, Boltanski projected a film of a lit candle; the flickering could be seen through the gap in the cabinet doors. “It was like a little miracle where you expect it least,” Obrist remembered. He publicized the exhibit through small cards and word of mouth; still, he was relieved that only thirty people came over the three months it was open. “I was still studying and couldn’t have coped with much more,” he said. Among those attending was a curator from the Cartier Foundation, a contemporary-art museum in Paris. Soon afterward, Cartier offered Obrist a three-month fellowship. Obrist took it, leaving Switzerland for good.
Obrist quickly became a figure on the European art circuit. He was a clearing house for news and relationships, and he was generous—no sooner had he met someone than he helped that person connect with others in his widening circle. If he stayed in a hotel, he cleaned out the postcards in the lobby and mailed them to everyone he could think of. “He had these big plastic bags,” Marina Abramović, who met him in Hamburg in 1993, recalled. “I always wanted him to empty them and list all that was inside. . . . He would have information of every single human being—every artist living in a favela!” She remembered him as astonishingly innocent, an adjective that many still use for him. Many artists saw his unchecked commitment as a counterpart to their own. The French artist Philippe Parreno said, “For me, there is no difference between talking to him and talking to other artists. I am engaged at the same level.” Obrist once conducted an interview with Parreno while driving him from the Dublin airport to Connemara, and became so deeply absorbed that he didn’t realize he was on the wrong side of the street.
Obrist continued to set up shows in unusual locations. He put on an exhibit of Richter’s paintings in the country house where Nietzsche wrote part of “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” and a show in a hotel restaurant where Robert Walser, the Swiss writer, used to stop during long walks through the mountains. A third took place in Room 763 at the Hotel Carlton Palace, in Paris, where Obrist was then staying. In one part of the exhibit, called “The Armoire Show,” nine artists created clothes for the closet. With Fischli and Weiss, he toured the Zurich sewer museum. “They had toilets and urinals on plinths and had never heard of Duchamp,” he marvelled. This inspired him to put together “Cloaca Maxima,” which featured art about lavatories and digestion. The show opened in 1994, in and around the Zurich sewers.
During much of the nineties, Obrist held a part-time position at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. He was the museum’s “head of Migratory Curation”—a whimsical title that was, essentially, an invitation to travel and find new talent. In 1995, Julia Peyton-Jones, the director of the Serpentine, invited Obrist to put on a show there. He proposed an exhibition called “Take Me (I’m Yours),” in which visitors were asked to leave with an object from the exhibit. It was a huge success, and many felt that Obrist had subverted the passive expectations of a museum visit: fill up on culture and leave. He had injected a note of interactivity into staid Britain. (Frieze was less impressed: “The viewers’ participation is rewarded with some worthless gesture or rubbish souvenir.”)
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While working on the Serpentine show, Obrist rented a three-bedroom flat on Crampton Street in Elephant and Castle, then a marginal neighborhood. He had fifty copies of his house keys made and handed them out to artists and curators passing through London. Conversations with his guests often lasted through the night; then, at six in the morning, Obrist went with whoever was still awake to a nearby McDonald’s—the only place around that was open at that hour. Klaus Biesenbach, who is now the director of moma PS 1, in Queens, stayed with Obrist for a time. One day, Biesenbach told me, a Korean artist named Koo Jeong-A arrived. Koo, then in her mid-twenties, made delicate installations: heaps of domestic dust, an arrangement of leaves, piles of coins. Her work was ephemeral, and she hated to be interviewed. Obrist had shown some of her efforts in Paris and had invited her to set up an installation in the Crampton Street flat. In the morning, the three would meet for discussions, Biesenbach recalled. “And one morning, I remember, they came out of one room. Wow, I thought, they must have had a meeting before. Why didn’t they invite me to the meeting? And the next morning they came again out of the room.” Obrist and Koo have been together ever since.
The sharp-tongued English press continued to poke at Obrist. Adrian Searle, an art critic for the Guardian, wrote in 1999 that he often found Obrist’s curating “deeply irritating.” But Obrist’s coterie is less reviewers than artists, collectors, and other curators, who are almost always interested in his projects. Perhaps his greatest triumph was “Cities on the Move,” a collaboration with the Chinese curator Hou Hanru, which débuted in Vienna in 1997. It was a timely exploration of the artistic and demographic landscape of Asia—a look at what Koolhaas, a participant, called “cities of exacerbated difference.” Scaffolding permeated the installation; there were rickshaw taxis festooned with fabulous colors. Conventional art work peeked out from corners. In a 1999 London incarnation of the show, Koo set up a bedroom in the gallery while finishing an installation; visitors got to see the blankets and clothes that she had left behind. This time, Searle praised Obrist: “His strengths as a kind of cross-disciplinary impresario have found their subject. He knows not only how to create chaos, but also how to curate it.”
In 2000, Obrist began to tire. He and Koo wanted a more stable base for their lives and he wanted to curate solo shows. “There is nothing deeper than to work for a year with the same artist,” he said. So he accepted an offer from the Musée de la Ville de Paris to be a full-time curator. He remained in France until 2006, when Julia Peyton-Jones made him her co-director at the Serpentine. Koo and Obrist now share a small apartment in Kensington, near the gallery. When I visited Obrist there, the closest thing to food in the kitchen was Diet Coke. The walls were almost bare. Fluorescent lights drenched a living room filled with books arranged on industrial shelving. Among the titles were Ben Lerner’s metafictional novel “10:04” and Jacques Derrida’s monograph on “the sense of touch.” I was bemused that a person who lived by his eyes lived in such a nondescript place, but Obrist’s interest in anything outside high culture is fitful. I never heard him talk about sports or favorite restaurants or how much something costs. He has never made a cup of coffee, and tried cooking only once; the phone rang and he forgot the saucepan, which caught fire.
Sleep has always seemed extraneous to Obrist. During the early nineties, he tried Balzac’s caffeine regime, drinking dozens of cups of coffee a day. Then he switched to the Da Vinci method, limiting himself to a fifteen-minute nap every three hours. Now he tries to get four or five hours every night. He has an assistant who comes to his apartment at midnight to help him with his interviews and books. “That way, when I’m out, I know it’s time to go home,” he said. Obrist sleeps while the assistant works, then wakes up and takes over. He still likes to meet people at dawn for conversation: in 2006, he founded the Brutally Early Club, which meets at 6:30 a.m., at various sites around London. (Another of Obrist’s conceits is that modern life is characterized by a decline in ritual. He ascribes the idea to Margaret Mead.)
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Obrist first appeared on ArtReview’s most-powerful list in 2002, and by 2009 he had risen to the top. His rolling-suitcase approach to life seemed to reflect signal changes in the art world, which was becoming faster, bigger, and vastly more international. London alone has about eight times as many galleries as it had in 1980, and Beijing and Baku and Mexico City compete for attention with Paris and New York. Increasingly, the most powerful curators are those who have the stamina (and the budget) to see enormous amounts of art and distill it into themes and movements. Among the frequent fliers are Biesenbach, of PS 1; Daniel Birnbaum, of the Moderna Museet, in Stockholm; and Massimiliano Gioni, of the New Museum, in New York. Obrist and Biesenbach first met, by chance, on a night train to Venice in 1993, on the way to the Biennale. Biesenbach, who was putting on shows in Berlin, was trying to sleep, and Obrist plunged into his compartment and kept him up the whole night. “We discussed how it’s urgent to capture the Berlin moment,” Obrist recalled. Five years later, they helped put together the first Berlin Biennial, and they have been close collaborators ever since. Birnbaum, who started out as a critic and then became a dean at an art academy, was spurred to become the sort of roving international curator Obrist is after years of conversation with him. “Hans is enthusiastic, and somehow he can make other people enthusiastic,” Birnbaum said. Obrist was also one of Gioni’s original guideposts. As a university student at Bologna, Gioni began a correspondence with Obrist that informed his practice when he entered the art world. “He really established curating as a term, a discipline, an M.O.” Gioni said, adding, “The Dadaists had Tzara, the Surrealists Breton, the futurists Marinetti, and now the international global art world has Hans Ulrich Obrist.”
In many ways, an Obrist generation is running the nonprofit art world. In 2010, Jens Hoffmann, the top curator at the Jewish Museum, who considers Obrist his mentor, wrote in the magazine Mousse: “Almost all of the innovative work done by exhibition makers in mainstream art institutions over the last decade owes much to ideas that Obrist first introduced.” Not everyone considers this a good thing. Claire Bishop, an art historian at CUNY, told me, “The world of contemporary art is fast-moving and superficial and demands constant feeding, and he’s a prime example.”
Though Obrist is often assumed to be the kind of megalomaniac who is more prominent than the artists he shows—and who is willing to crush the heterogeneity of artists’ work in order to extract coherent themes—that assumption doesn’t properly capture him. He seems as egoless as he is guileless and stateless. Liam Gillick said, “When you work with him, he absolutely protects you and creates enormous space for what you need to do—and yet no one knows he’s done it.” Indeed, it’s hard to reconcile the idea that Obrist is a domineering superstar with the fact that nearly all his shows are collaborations with other curators. As Gillick puts it, “He stands against a certain sort of very assertive, very authored curating that was prominent when we were young. He has a real anti-authoritarian streak.”
I first met Obrist in Los Angeles, in July. He was there to conduct one of his periodic checks on the city’s art galleries. He also planned to visit the studios of John Baldessari, Ed Ruscha, and Chris Burden, and attend the L.A. Biennial, at the Hammer Museum. Finally, there was the panel on Instagram to host. Obrist is an avid user of the medium, and has more than a hundred thousand followers.
The story of how he discovered Instagram is typical. During a breakfast in 2012 with Ryan Trecartin, the video artist downloaded the app onto Obrist’s phone (without asking). Next, Trecartin posted to his Instagram followers that H.U.O. had signed up. Obrist was curious, but he wondered what to do with the new tool. Inspiration was sparked by other well-known friends. On a visit to Normandy, he went for a walk with Etel Adnan, the Lebanese artist. During a rainstorm, they stopped at a café, and she wrote him a poem, by hand. This made Obrist remember Umberto Eco’s comments on how handwriting was vanishing; he also thought of marvellous faxes he had received, all handwritten, from J. G. Ballard, when he interviewed him, in 2003. Adnan’s handwritten poem became one of Obrist’s first Instagram posts. Soon afterward, he remembered that another friend, the artist Joseph Grigely, who is deaf, uses Post-It notes to communicate; they are often incorporated into his art. H.U.O. began asking dozens of artists to write something on a Post-It. He posted the scrawlings on Instagram. Yoko Ono wrote, in soft black ink, “Time to Tell your love.” Richter filled a dun-colored Post-It in his jagged hand: “Art as part of our insane capacity for hope makes it possible that we cope with our permanent madness and our boundless brutality.” Obrist just surpassed eight hundred posts. “Maybe the iPhone is the new nanomuseum,” he told me, hopefully.
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Obrist’s first stop in L.A. was at Baldessari’s studio, in Venice. He arrived there at one o’clock, in a black S.U.V. with a driver. He was wearing a three-button suit, a white shirt, and blue tennis sneakers. An old photograph of Obrist, which can be found on the Internet, shows a vigorous young man with tousled hair and intense eyes, but the Da Vinci regimen and air travel have been punishing. He is now nearly bald, and the remaining tufts of hair are white. He had chosen not to sleep the previous night in London, so that he could sleep on the flight. That, in tandem with a hood that he puts on for quick naps at his office, is his current sleep-minimizing technique. He had with him two enormously heavy pieces of luggage. “It is my exercise,” he explained. The suitcases were filled mostly with his publications, which he planned to hand out.
We entered the studio through a gate. “Every visit to Los Angeles begins with John, and has for twenty years,” Obrist told me. Baldessari, eighty-three, tall and shambly, greeted us. Baldessari has contributed work to various Obrist exhibitions, and would happily do so again. “He’s like a good mom,” he told me. “ ‘Everything my son has done is good.’ ” He took us to a room where new work lined the walls. The Städel Museum, in Frankfurt, had commissioned him to reinterpret paintings from its collection; he had responded by creating large panels that juxtaposed fragments of text from screenplays with visual details scanned from works at the Städel. In one panel, movie dialogue in which two lovers discuss money was paired with a gorgeous closeup of a leg from Cranach the Elder’s 1532 painting “Venus.” Did the words and image create a plot? Or had Baldessari merely made a surreal juxtaposition? The ambiguity delighted Obrist, who pointed out that Baldessari had restored context that Cranach had deliberately stripped out. “When you have a Venus, you usually have a Cupid,” he explained. He told Baldessari, “This is amazing. So exciting!” He drew out the syllables: eg-zi-tink! Obrist has a gummy, soft smile, and a Brunelleschi dome of a forehead. He carries his shoulders back when he stands, and the effect is to shorten his arms, making him look like a boy.
Afterward, we sat in Baldessari’s study, amid tables on casters stacked neatly with art magazines. “Well, that’s what I’ve been up to,” Baldessari said.
“Congratulations,” Obrist said. “None of this work was here six months ago!”
Soon, Obrist was back in the S.U.V. Baldessari’s work had prompted an idea: it was wise not to “isolate contemporary art” but to “create a continuum with history.” Baldessari’s project not only enlisted the spectator in making meaning; it created a junction between the living and the dead. Just as old art must look forward, new art should look back.
Obrist’s next visit was to Ruscha, whose studio is a low unmarked building in Culver City, five miles away. Baldessari and Obrist have a rapport: they are both impersonally personable. Ruscha has a cooler nature, and though he recognizes Obrist’s centrality in the art world—“I see his name pretty much constantly”—he is also skeptical of him. “His telephone is continually tinging and leaving twicks and tweets and all that,” he told me, adding, “I’m like one little fragment of his interest.”
Ruscha took Obrist out back to an open-air studio to show him new works in his “Psycho Spaghetti Western” series, which was inspired by roadside debris. Ruscha did not seem like Obrist’s kind of artist: his paintings have a deeply American irony that seemed destined to elude the earnest Swiss. But Obrist sought, as always, to make a connection. The strewn objects on Ruscha’s canvases, he declared, reminded him of “In the Country of Last Things,” a dystopian novel by Paul Auster.
The tour finished. Ruscha took a seat behind a cherrywood desk, and fixed Obrist with his blue eyes, a dog at his feet. Obrist asked where the new paintings would be exhibited, but it was not as easy to gain traction with Ruscha as it had been with Baldessari.
“In Rome. At the Gagosian gallery.”
Obrist, name-dropping, said that he’d once visited Cy Twombly at his studio in Rome. Ruscha didn’t seem to care. Obrist then expressed admiration for “Guacamole Airlines,” a book of drawings that Ruscha had made.
“That was forty years ago,” Ruscha said.
This must have been what it was like when Obrist was a youth, surrounded by taciturn Swiss. Obrist’s arms tend to go into motion when there is silence. He asked Ruscha about a show the artist had organized at Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum, in 2012. “What did you do, exactly?” Obrist asked.
Ruscha said that he had taken some “meteorites and stuffed animals and some Old Masters” and put them on display. He had included one of his own paintings.
Cartoon“I’d like you to meet my pillows.”October 2, 2006Buy the print »
“One no longer isolates so much of contemporary art,” Obrist said, sharing his latest epiphany. “The contemporary is now connected to the historical.”
Ruscha continued to smile. Eventually, he said, “They told me not to go throwing that word ‘curator’ around. I was told I was just assembling an exhibit.”
“Maybe we need a new word,” Obrist said.
“I don’t want to take more of your time,” Obrist said, after a moment.
On his way out, Obrist asked Ruscha to contribute to his Instagram project. Ruscha told me later, “I gave him something that said, ‘On the bag before the tag.’ Some baseball announcer said that.” He added that he had no idea what Instagram was. Obrist, in turn, didn’t catch the baseball reference.
The next day, Obrist went to visit Burden, who lives in Topanga Canyon, north of the city. He was excited: Burden was an important performance artist in the seventies, and Obrist admires the installations that he has been making in recent years. Outside the Los Angeles County Museum of Art*, Burden created a dense plot of refurbished lampposts—a glowing garden that has become an actual junction for nighttime visitors. Burden also creates elaborate toys and contraptions that speak to the geeky side of Obrist, as Fischli and Weiss did long ago.
After climbing a rugged road, we arrived at the top of a small mountain. Burden met us at the door. Squat and muscular, he looked as if he had been lifting weights and was still mad at them. “I can give you a tour,” he said. “Or maybe you have something to tell me.” He didn’t want photographs taken of his hangarlike studio. “Next thing you know, they’re on your Web site,” he said. Obrist put his recorder away. But he is adept at winning over artists. After touring the studio, they went outside, past rows of lampposts, ordnance shells, and mermaid caryatids. Soon they were clambering around on a forty-foot steel tower Burden had built, like two boys with a giant erector set.
Back inside, Obrist asked him about unrealized projects.
“I had a dream of building this city called Xanadu,” Burden said. He showed Obrist some drawings.
“That is a huge unrealized project!” Obrist said. He clapped his hands with pleasure.
“A real city that no one lives in.”
“That’s awfully exciting. I had no idea about this!” He promised to visit Burden again on his next trip. As the S.U.V. careered down the hill, Obrist checked his e-mails and texts and pronounced the visit “super-super-productive.”
In mid-October, Obrist put on the Serpentine’s ninth annual Marathon, in Hyde Park. The press had framed the show, “Extinction: Visions of the Future,” as a depressing alternative to the ebullient Frieze Art Fair taking place in Regent’s Park. Nevertheless, the Serpentine event drew a crowd, with more than four thousand attendees. It had a carnival feel, underscored by three big Mylar balloons, spelling out “HUO,” that were tethered to a tent where the speakers gathered. When I arrived, Obrist, wearing a blue single-breasted suit, was making rapid-fire introductions among the gathered artists, ecologists, writers, researchers, activists, sages, and prognosticators. He seemed to be going slightly mad.
Obrist told me that his own unrealized project is to found a new version of Black Mountain College, the defunct North Carolina retreat where, sixty years ago, top practitioners in the arts, culture, and the sciences taught and exchanged ideas. That ambition, combined with his admiration for Diaghilev, had shaped the Serpentine event. The guiding presence was the eighty-eight-year-old artist Gustav Metzger, who had sat through the entire first Marathon. Although he is ailing and in a wheelchair, he attended nearly all of this year’s proceedings. Obrist, in his opening remarks, declared that Metzger—a longtime environmental activist—had helped inspire the theme of “Extinction.” Julia Peyton-Jones, who sometimes plays the goof to Obrist’s Luftmensch, dedicated the Marathon to the pangolin—an adorable, endangered mammal that looks like an anteater.
Cartoon“Now that the kids are in jail maybe we can take that vacation we always wanted to take.”September 23, 2002Buy the print »
The performances and the talks took place on a small stage with a backdrop of an oversized hand pointing at black trash bags. To begin, several scientists delivered bad news. At least eight hundred and seventy species had been wiped out in the past four hundred years. Jonathan Baillie, of the London Zoological Society, noted that, of the seven remaining northern-white rhinos, one had died the previous day, in Kenya. Jennifer Jacquet, an environmental social scientist at New York University, spoke about the decimation of the Steller’s sea cow, which was hunted for sport—and for its blubber—in the eighteenth century.
Suddenly, Gilbert & George, the painting duo known for cheeky irony, came onstage, in bespoke nibbed suits and bright-colored ties. They unfurled spray-painted posters. “BURN THAT BOOK,” Gilbert’s said. “FUCK THE PLANET,” George’s said. They were lampooning the ignorance of climate-change deniers, but the audience wasn’t sure what to make of them. After a few more speakers, Obrist stood up. “Coffee breaks are urgent!” he said.
Later in the day, Stewart Brand, who created the “Whole Earth Catalog,” amused the crowd when he took a showy tumble off the stage, to impersonate the death of a lemming. Brand then spoke about efforts to clone extinct species. Passenger pigeons would come first, he promised, then mammoths. The more excited Brand got, the more uncomfortable the audience seemed.
Obrist informed me that his friend John Brockman, a science impresario and literary agent, had selected most of the scientists. “We don’t know the important scientists, and they don’t know the good artists,” Obrist explained. Perhaps as a result, the science had an austere implacability to it, and the art often seemed to aestheticize tragedy. Benedict Drew, a young English artist, created a hectic digital montage that included a disembodied head and images of a garbage dump intercut with ominous messages. (“We are done for.”) The piece, weighed down with sinister synthesizer music, was called “Not Happy.” When the words “Why you so happy Pharrell” flashed, the audience laughed in relief.
At times, the worlds of science and art came together: an oddly moving presentation by Trevor Paglen focussed on communication satellites that will circle the earth for billions of years after humans are extinct. But most of the time the scientists conveyed the information and the artists the hurt. A bewildering variety of extinctions were invoked: of plants, of gays, of languages, of books on paper, of celluloid film. Obrist, surrounded by half-drunk cups of coffee, got up to introduce presenters and then sat back down in the front row, where he and Peyton-Jones, who sat by his side, passed notes to each other and to their assistants, who sat behind them.
The Marathon ended with a new participatory piece by Yoko Ono that was read aloud by Lily Cole, a model and environmental activist, for which the audience was given small bells to ring.
“Don’t try to change the world, that’s a concept floating on our horizon,” Cole read. “Just use your wits and change your heads.” On a large screen by the stage, the words “Surrender to Peace” appeared. In the audience, bells prettily chimed.
The message seemed at odds with much of the Marathon. Wasn’t changing the world the point? Then again, there was not a single policy official among the eighty participants. The real goal, it seemed, was to conjure a sense of community. “It was quite magical,” Obrist said of the chorus of bells. “The participants did at least fifty per cent of the work.” He added that “smaller actions can lead to bigger actions.”
Obrist had brought together an eye-catching roster of participants, but epic conversation was not well suited to addressing the urgent topic of extinction. It sometimes seems that Obrist doesn’t care so much what people say, as long as they keep talking. In 2003, Hal Foster, an art historian at Princeton, published an essay that touched on Obrist’s first collection of interviews. “Formlessness in society might be a condition to contest rather than to celebrate in art,” Foster pointed out. Nothing at the Marathon was as strong as a Metzger work titled “Flailing Trees”: twenty-one willows planted upside down in concrete. The installation was first displayed in 2009, at the Manchester International Festival. Metzger had been included in that festival at Obrist’s suggestion, and it had been a smart one: “Flailing Trees” is rigorous, beautiful, sad.
Cartoon“Load the holiday catalogues.”December 1, 2008Buy the print »
After the Marathon, Obrist told me that the performance artist Tino Seghal had watched a live stream of the Marathon and had especially enjoyed a talk by Elizabeth Povinelli, an anthropologist at Columbia. “Tino’s reading her book now!” Obrist said. Who knew what collaborations might result? This was a different sort of Gesamtkunstwerk, he said—“one more in time than in space.” As the crowd dispersed, H.U.O. posed in front of the balloons with his initials. “This topic isn’t going to be solved in a night,” he said. “I see the ‘Extinction’ Marathon as a movement.” Then he noted, “I have a five-forty train in the morning. The Eurostar to Paris.” ♦
*An earlier version of this article misstated the name of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.