Hans Ulrich Obrist

PARIS — It probably weighs in at a kilo, or 2.2 pounds, and contains as many words as Samuel Richardson’s inconceivably long 18th-century epistolary novel, “Clarissa.” Yet, alarmingly, Swiss curator Hans Ulrich Obrist calls his...

PARIS — It probably weighs in at a kilo, or 2.2 pounds, and contains as many words as Samuel Richardson’s inconceivably long 18th-century epistolary novel, “Clarissa.” Yet, alarmingly, Swiss curator Hans Ulrich Obrist calls his opus, “Interviews, Volume 1,” just the beginning.

This story first appeared in the November 18, 2003 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

It is the first phase of a sprawling project that its creator calls “an infinite conversation.” “There are probably 4,000 pages of interview transcripts,” says the fast-talking Obrist, curator at the Musée d’art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. He continues to gather more weekly, as each interview, he says, “triggers” the inspiration for more. Undertaken as a sideline to his primary activity of curating and teaching, “Interviews” is a compendium of the “daily conversations” he has had with friends and collaborators over the past decade.

His interviewees include, naturally enough, famous contemporary artists Matthew Barney, Gilbert & George and Maurizio Cattelan, as well as trend-setting architects Rem Koolhaas and Zaha Hadid. But among the dozens of other alphabetized entries are influential artists from previous generations, such as Vito Acconci, and esoteric European intellectuals.

Who in the wider world knew, for example, that the 1968 Milan Triennial organized by Giancarlo De Carlo, “Large Numbers,” was a legendary moment for contemporary thinkers about architecture and urbanism? Well, it was. An interview with Italian architect Stefano Boeri, the recently appointed editor in chief of Domus, signals the event’s importance. An interested reader can then go to Obrist’s interview with De Carlo to find him talking about his inspiration, Japanese architect Arata Isozaki, who is also interviewed in volume 1.

The book functions as an unstructured but complex research archive that lets readers “click” through relevant “links” from chapter to chapter, surfing through post-war intellectual history.

“Everyone can choose his or her own path through the book,” explains Obrist. “The connections between people are not drafted. You don’t read it in a linear way.”

It’s doubtful that many could, given Obrist’s intellectual breadth. After all, he is the one commonality, like a human search engine uniquely able to navigate the entire Web.

When Obrist began recording these conversations in coffee shops, restaurants, planes, trains and automobiles, he didn’t plan to publish the interviews. A decade into the project, he realized their potential value.

“The question was what to do with the interviews,” says Obrist, adding that Francesco Bonami, curator of the last Venice Biennale (another collaborator and interviewee) connected him with Pitti Immagine, who funded the publication of volume 1. “We decided to publish the interviews as they were recorded.”

The book is a long way from the art history tomes of old-fashioned curators, but it accurately demonstrates the role Obrist sees for himself in today’s art world. “J.G. Ballard [the novelist who is yet another interviewee] defined a curator as a junction-maker,” says Obrist. “It’s about triggering dialogues and collaborations — building communities.”

Obrist’s New York community will turn out for him today when Pitti Immagine launches his book at the Dia Center for Contemporary Art. Matthew Barney will introduce the happening, which also includes a “conversation” between two puppets representing artists Philippe Parreno and Rirkrit Tiravanija, yet more interviewees and collaborators.

What finally sets “Interviews” apart from standard journalistic interviews is the depth of Obrist’s relationship with his subjects. He talked to Mexican artist Gabriel Orozco for 10 years, for example, before they finally arrived at the all-important interview. Previous attempts to record or film a dialogue failed, recalls Obrist, because the artist was never comfortable with having his voice mechanically reproduced.

Finally, Obrist began scribbling notes, which magically allowed the elusive interview to occur.

“That gave it exactly the right pace,” says Obrist. “I’m not working on a deadline. This is more about pastime than deadline. It’s about waiting for the right moment.”

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