HANS ULRICH OBRIST in conversation with KARIN SANDER
Ulrich Obrist (HUO)
Karin Sander (KS)
HUO: Your most recent
work will be appearing in The New York Times. This places it in the tradition
of artistic projects that are intrinsic to the medium newspaper. For example,
projects by conceptual artists of the sixties come to mind, or works of
Dan Graham’s that were published in newspapers (more on Graham’s project
”Homes for America” here),
or Dieter Roth. What’s essential here is the idea of using the newspaper
as a primary, and not a secondary medium. Could you talk about how you
developed the idea for your New York Times piece?
The Deutsche Bank came up with the idea of having artists develop works
for a short period of time in important cities around the world and presenting
them on location for a ”moment.” The works were supposed to address a temporary
aspect of the city. The intention was not to erect monuments, but to let
the works be present in a place for a limited time. When you hear the key
word ”temporary,” the medium of the newspaper comes to mind, its brief
appearance and its equally swift disappearance. The nature of the newspaper
is to appear for a day and to disappear again that very same day, to be
thrown away. In the New York Times, a considerable part of the newspaper
is taken up by the stock prices. At first glance, these pages with their
columns of numbers are visually very beautiful. And if you don’t understand
the codes, they don’t convey any content, but remain mere patterns of grey.
It’s only after studying the material in depth that the information can
HUO: So on the one hand you can read
the pages in an abstract sense, and on the other you can extract information
KS: Yes. It’s exactly the same with works
of art. There are different ways to read art works. When I was recently
invited to contribute something to Deutsche Bank’s art project, I thought
of the New York Times and had the idea of a translinguistic interview as
a language-based counterpart to the stock prices on the business pages.
I wanted to take one word from each language spoken in New York and to
make a kind of thesaurus out of this. Through the many facets and diversity
of the different languages, the individual words were supposed to arrive
at a meaning, a meaning in the sense that Gertrude Stein meant when she
once said: ”A word has a meaning, but does not tell a story. When you put
two or more words next to each other, they begin to tell a story.” In analogy
to this, these words from different languages briefly write a story, create
a collage – a visual image. In addition, the pages comprise a dictionary
of approximately 220 words, translated into 220 languages, a translinguistic
matrix of significant terms.
HUO: What role does New
York play as a working environment for your art?
In New York, you can sometimes get the impression that everyone you meet
is a foreigner. That’s not the case, of course, although ethnic background
is an important thing to the people living there. New York is marked by
an enormous fluctuation. Everyone is either coming or going, and the constant
motion lends the city its diversity. Countless cultures exist side by side
there, cultures whose members take particular care to preserve. A lot happens
simultaneously in this city without becoming immediately evaluated. There’s
a high degree of tolerance, ignorance, even indifference, and thus a more
or less respectful coexistence.
HUO: Your works are
normally based on what’s already there, whether it be everyday objects
or art objects, public spaces, or, as in your current piece, the polyphony
of the languages spoken in New York.
KS: For wordsearch,
I initially thought of setting up a committee to select the words for the
collection. I finally decided upon the method of letting the languages
speak for themselves, which leads to results that remain unpredictable.
The reason this is so interesting, of course, is that a certain dynamics
arises through the fact that people are constantly asking each other questions.
The group that carried out the questioning began with one person, let’s
say a Mexican, and this person knew someone who spoke Japanese, and the
Japanese had a Korean friend. Each of the participants received the previously
selected words in the respective translation, and was finally asked to
add the next word. As in a game, a chain of words arose that traveled like
a line throughout the city, breaking off again any time the person being
questioned didn’t know someone else who spoke a new language.
I was developing the New York piece, by the way, I initially thought of
conducting the word search worldwide. It became clear, however, that limiting
it to New York City already implied a worldwide search. Because the people
no longer live in the countries in which the languages are spoken, they
have a different relationship to them, I’d almost say a stronger one. In
one case, there was even a person who still spoke a language that had been
banned in his home country for political reasons. Through this translinguistic
interview, many stories arose around the single words that the people were
asked to donate. On the one hand, these stories shed light on political
situations, and on the other they describe an image of a city. Thus, a
diagram of the metropolis is created.
HUO: The project
is currently being documented in the internet, but it isn’t an internet
project in a strict sense. It’s based on a real expedition through the
KS: Exactly. This wandering through the city was
also documented acoustically, in that the spoken words were recorded. The
internet served as a medium for documentation and public presentation.
Through the website, one was able to follow the interviewers and see where
they’d already been and what words they’d collected.
I’d like to come back to the question of how the computer and the internet
changed your way of working.
KS: The computer and the
internet didn’t really change my way of working. I don’t primarily search
for a medium for a work; the concept dictates which medium is most appropriate.
In terms of realizing my ideas, of course, the capacities of the computer
and the internet expanded the possibilities enormously. With the Bodyscans,
for example, I was interested in representing people three-dimensionally
using computers, in making a three-dimensional photograph. I learned of
a 3-D scanner the size of a room that could probe the surfaces of human
bodies. The computer processes the data, which is then entered into a second
system, an extruder that builds up the likeness of the scanned person as
a figure true to scale. This method of scanning is used in the fashion
industry in order to determine clothing sizes; the extruder is used in
the area of design and machine construction to build virtually constructed
prototypes. In order to produce the figure from the collected scanning
data, a program and a working method had to be developed which were used
for the first time in this project. A further development of the 3-D Bodyscan
portraits of living persons will be presented this year at Art Miami.
The New York Times piece reflects the linguistic effects of globalization.
KS: In New York, it was a matter of establishing a rule that opened up
a variety of different conceptual possibilities. The image that arises
out of this is going to be this large page printed with thousands of small
words that contain a wide range of information. Some of the words, for
example ”computer”, are translingual and don’t need to be translated. Others
that carry important social meaning will be different in each language
because they stem from differing historical and cultural contexts. In this
respect, the New York Times piece embodies the exact opposite of globalization.
HUO: Does wordsearch imply a political dimension?
New York is a center of capitalism and the work appears in the business
pages of The New York Times, in the center of the center.
A work of this kind necessarily has a political dimension. Day by day,
the business section of a large newspaper reflects one of the most dynamic
aspects of the globalization process: the movements of capital markets
and capital flow. In a format identical to the business pages, wordsearch
emphasizes an entirely different, much less noticeable aspect of the same
globalization process: the subjective aspect. After all, a significant
part of this process is made up of real persons moving through the world,
and at some point they wind up somewhere, for example New York. These people
are the real carriers of what we call globalization.
How do you fundamentally view the political dimension of art?
A good work has a wide variety of dimensions, including a political one.
It’s hard to plan these dimensions, however. With the New York Times project,
it’s interesting that words can suddenly be found in a place where normally
only numbers appear. In light of the events of the past year, an important
aspect of the piece is that languages can meet and that a translation of
different ideas takes place. Capitalism expresses itself primarily in numbers,
which are globaly consistent.
HUO: When are these pages
going to appear?
KS: On Friday, October 4, 2002, the
word columns will appear on the front and back pages of four double-page
spreads in the business section of The New York Times, between the pages
containing the lists of stock prices. One week earlier, in other words
here and today in this Sunday edition of The New York Times, a documentation
with explanations of the project will be appearing, and so the catalogue
to the work appears, as the work itself does, in the form of a mass medium.
HUO: In this way, you’re pursuing an entirely different
strategy than Alan Kaprow did with his work, which appeared in 1981 in
the weekly newspaper ”Die Zeit” (see an article on ”Museum in Progress”).
Here, it was a matter of a game of perplexity in which photos from a previous
edition were reprinted without bearing any connection to the texts whatsoever.
The reactions varied considerably: some people thought it was an April
Fool’s joke, others assumed it was due to a reduction in costs, a mishap,
or even sabotage.
KS: The pages will be simply inserted,
and people will perhaps wonder about them. Maybe they’ll think it’s nonsense
and throw them away, or they’ll save them. I don’t want to request anything
of the reader in this respect. I’m not making up any rules about how people
should approach these pages. Some people will look at them and want to
find out what it’s all about. The work might succeed in reflecting aspects
of New York’s many linguistic and cultural qualities, in letting linguistic
images arise, and in underscoring the cultural diversity of the city.
You can never predict the reactions.
KS: No, but they
help you judge whether a piece works or not.