Curator extraordinaire Hans Ulrich Obrist may not be the first person you would expect to see blowing up your Instagram feed, but his social media account has a healthy 36K followers and regular uploads. It's also the best example of the art world on Instagram we've seen.
Obrist uses the virtual platform to post pictures of Post-in notes (and other scraps) which artists have inscribed with various sayings, quotes, and drawings. Sometimes they just manipulate the medium into a kind of makeshift sculpture. Everyone from Marina Abramovic to John Baldessari to Zaha Hadid to Kanye West has contributed a note, and Obrist calls his incredible Instagram collection "The Art of Handwriting."
Obrist is Co-director of Exhibitions and Programs and Director of International Projects at the Serpentine Gallery in London, and he has a habit of recording out the fascinating stories of famous artists. For his project "Interviews," which he began publishing in 1996, Obrist taped interviews with artists. Always drawn to documenting and archiving the lives of creatives, for "Do It," Obrist invited 13 artists to give instructions for curators, sets of rules that grew into international exhibitions across the globe. Most recently, Obrist is working on "89plus" with Simon Castets, an initiative focusing on emerging artists born after 1989. We spoke to Obrist about his new project for the digital age in our Interview: Hans Ulrich Obrist Talks His Instagram Project "The Art of Handwriting."
Image via hansulrichobrist on Instagram / Mateo Lopez
I thought it could be really amazing to celebrate handwriting.
In a previous interview in Artsy, you mention that Ryan Trecartin encouraged you to join Instagram. Could you talk about how that developed into this project?
He and Kevin [McGarry] downloaded the Instagram app on my iPhone. It was like being thrown into the water, and I had to swim because I never really thought about what I would do with it. I had photographs of my trips, some things like that, and I needed to come up with an idea or a rule of the game.
It’s got a lot to do with Oulipo, the way I approached it—the French movement or group, Oulipo or Oulipans. It’s still in existence. The most famous is Georges Perec who wrote a whole novel without the letter "e." So it’s about constraints, rules of the game.
I was always thinking also in terms of exhibitions, which are my main activity. One would mainly remember these exhibitions as having invented a new rule of the game that can be a display feature. Or it can be an invention of the display feature that produces memory of an exhibition.
Instagram has this preset as an Oulipian constraint. Within this constraint, could one develop something of that? I was always thinking in terms of curating. I’ve done lots of exhibitions that had to do answering a question—projects like "Do It"—I ask for an instruction, a recipe. It’s become this sprawling exhibition. I was thinking maybe it’s a similar thing that I’d come up on Instagram with this rule of the game. I didn’t really know yet what that rule of the game could be.
And then I spent the holidays with the poet Etel Adnan in France. It was a stormy day, and we were trying to find refuge in a café or a restaurant. During a long conversation, she kept writing these poems on a notepad, and I found it incredibly beautiful: her handwriting, her writing these poems. Then I thought it could be really amazing to celebrate handwriting. We don’t use it so much anymore, but I suppose people born in the '90s who grew up using digital media, they use handwriting much, much less.
Image via hansulrichobrist on Instagram / Marina Abramovic
Do you think that "The Art of Handwriting" is more about the visual aspect of the handwriting, the form, than it is about what the words actually say?
It’s about the message, but it’s also about the fact that two handwritings are never the same. It’s the opposite of when, through globalization, differences can disappear and there is homogenization. Handwriting is the opposite because two people never have the same handwriting. It is an incredible celebration of difference.
It is an incredible celebration of difference.
You see each time how the content and the form go very strongly together because I ask artists not to make it too long. It should be more the length of a tweet. It’s a hybrid of Instagram and Twitter; it’s in text, but it’s visual.
Some of it is highly conceptual. It’s about the length of a page and how the letters are arranged on the page and how maybe they even form a constellation visually. Sometimes it’s highly spontaneous.
Because your project exists in this digital space that everyone has access to, do you think it’s somehow equalizing all these different artists?
Yes, and also it’s still very much about difference. I came across some Post-its and started to realize there are hundreds and hundreds of Post-its around right now: big Post-its and small Post-its, like canvases, Post-its in the shape of a heart, in the shape of flowers, in the form of a duck, also just square Post-its in all different kinds of colors. I started to order all kinds of Post-its and to travel with these Post-its. It became a kind of a kit with which the project happened.
I’m so excited every day to see the next sentence that I can’t really imagine that it will ever stop. But often these projects, they have a kind of lifeline. All of a sudden, one day, it comes to a natural end. One doesn’t know at the beginning. There isn’t a master plan.
It’s also in some way always based on conversations with artists. Without these two conversations with Ryan and Etel, the project would never have been born. It was the coming together, through space and time, of these two conversations that triggered the project.
Interestingly, it was a third also—a triangular constellation. It was the two conversations with Etel and Ryan, and then it was a text I read of Umberto Eco, where Eco laments the disappearance of the art of writing with ink. That disappeared completely in the digital age. We have to go back to classes to re-learn how to write. It’s very unlikely that’s going to happen, but what could happen is that we use handwriting in the digital media and celebrate it and in this way bring it back.
It is the idea of not lamenting handwriting’s disappearance so much as celebrating handwriting with today’s digital tools. A lot does happen on paper, and that’s why I think it will be interesting, in the end, to save it in a book.
It is the idea of not lamenting handwriting’s disappearance so much as celebrating handwriting with today’s digital tools.
A lot of your work has this archival or documentary impulse as in "Do It" and "89plus." Why are you attracted to recording what artists have to say?
When I was 17, I met many artists, and it started to become this conversation with artists out of which all of my exhibitions grew. I had never thought of publishing them, just archiving them, and if I couldn’t remember something, I could go back and research. I could go back to the quote. I thought it would be really nice to have some of the conversations on tape as a protest against forgetting. Then it was only much later, in the 2000s, that different editors and different publishers started to be interested in publishing them.
For me it’s just an impetus to document, and I also believed that it was a history of art. I’ve just been reading the incredible interview with Matisse from the '50s. Matisse wasn’t happy with it, so he forbade for it to be published. And now, because it's so many decades back, it could be published. It’s amazing; it’s as if the voice of the artist is there.
I would say it has to do also with the fact that when you curate exhibitions, they have a very limited life span. They are there for two or three months, and sometimes they tour, and I think what remains is documentation, but what remains is also archives. Not finding many documents about exhibitions from the past, I thought, when always doing exhibitions, it’s important to get the artist’s voice about what they wanted with the exhibition. There is an incredible amnesia of the history of exhibitions because it’s such a fragile medium. Exhibitions usually are not collected; they disperse after they take place.
I think there’s maybe a third aspect, which is the idea that these projects have a long duration. I was very inspired by Fernand Braudel, the French historian who talked about longue durée, the long duration. "Do It" is still ongoing, its been going on for 20 years, and the project I’m doing now with Simon Castets, "89plus," started exactly one year ago at the DLD [the Digital-Life-Design Conference in Munich], so it has only just begun, but we think it's going to go on at least for the next 10 or 20 years. For me it’s always been very essential to work on projects that one can work on almost for their entire life.
Image via hansulrichobrist on Instagram / Kanye West
Kanye told me for his new album he used a lot of images with handwriting, his cover with Yeezus, and it’s an amazing coincidence because I’m doing this project on handwriting on Instagram.
Do you think that having an Instagram is going to be considered part of the role of a curator in the future?
I don’t think that the curator has to be involved, but I think it’s a positive thing. It’s a great opportunity to have another possibility to build bridges. I think curating is about building bridges. Obviously there is the possibility that exhibitions are documented through that and spread and are dispersed and that information gets distributed.
The exciting thing is that there are so many possibilities of how to use these new platforms and how to use social media in terns of curating. One positive is to use this different form to catalogue of an exhibition, and the other possibility is what we talked about before: the Instagram is the exhibition. It's not documenting an exhibition that happens elsewhere. I curate the group show on Instagram.
Can you talk about getting Kanye West’s note?
With Kanye we met with my friend in Basel. We had a long conversation about composing music and the connection to art and his cause and many different things. We talked about handwriting, and he told me for his new album he used a lot of images with handwriting, his cover with Yeezus, and it’s an amazing coincidence because I’m doing this project on handwriting on Instagram. He sent me an email a few minutes after our meeting, and then a few days later he emailed his contribution.
Do you have a favorite note?
I always dreamed of working with Godard, so to have a note from Jean-Luc Godard, that’s my unrealized Instagram project.
Do you see this project as a whole work of art in itself?
I don’t really know yet. It’s definitely going to be a book at the end like with everything I do because I believe, in the digital age, books are so essential, particularly now. Very beautifully made art books are incredibly important for the digital age, and so I know that there will be a book.
It's also an exhibition project in the sense that it’s a group show because I invite artists, but also petitioners, scientists, architects, composers, and novelists to contribute to the handwriting project.
It's difficult to say where a project comes from, and I told you there’s three concrete triggers: the triangle with Eco, Trecartin, and Adnan, but I think one can go back in the early '90s when I met Joseph Grigely, who is an artist who is one of the most fascinating artists working with text. He has very often used little pieces of paper. He very often used to do installations where thousands and thousands of papers have filled a room. In some way that has been a big, big inspiration, that sort of celebration of handwriting, but also that these notes are building up a conversation. They’re building up a text because one can re-read them in different order and connect them in all sorts of different ways.
It’s a group show, it’s a book, but it could also eventually be a room. But there would have to be many, many thousands. It would have to go on for many years, but one could enter a big room and have them all over. And that’s Joseph Grigely’s influence.
Would you imagine them as photographs or as actual tactile pieces of paper?
It would be wonderful to have all the Post-its in the room. We’re in the very early stages of the project. I’m trying out experiments and seeing how it evolves.
What’s interesting with the Instagram project is it needs to be tracked back to my very beginning as a curator. At the beginning I did a show in my kitchen. In ’91, when I was a student, I invited artists into my kitchen and did everything myself. That sort of DIY spirit is what’s amazing about Instagram.
Image via hansulrichobrist on Instagram / Matthew Barney
Image via hansulrichobrist on Instagram / Karl Holmqvist
Image via hansulrichobrist on Instagram / Olafur Eliasson
Image via hansulrichobrist on Instagram / Abraham Cruzvillegas