Hans Ulrich Obrist: e-mail interview, ars viva, art and science
H.U.O.: Does the medium of an interview play an important role for you?
H/A: It is our own method of working. Before even doing anything at all, we converse a long time – like Vilém Flusser reported, using the example of Vampyrotheutis Infernalis. One of us says something and implants the thought in the other’s brain. It is a phenomenon that even against a certain resistance – when the other’s idea is not to your taste – the idea becomes active anyway and the next day, in a kind of transformation, rises inside of you and is even perhaps taken as your own. This search for counterbalance actually precedes every work, to throw out an idea or to chip away at it until a form is found about which we can say: “Now that’s a starting point, we’ll pursue that.” In Tibetan monasteries there is just such a sort of school for rhetoric. The novices begin with it very early, at the age of 5-6. They hold small pieces of stone in their hand while talking and whenever they have ended an argument, they sling one of them against the wall. On the one hand, it’s a question of repetition and variation of what one’s learned, in this case the basic creed of the monastery, on the other, of playfully taking up opposing positions – which is also an important feature in a dialogue, that you should not take yourself too seriously.
H.U.O.: Where lie the beginnings of your transdisciplinary way of working?
H/A:I am not at all sure if we work in a trans-disciplinary way, but just assume that is the case – I don’t know if this is an answer to the question, but it occurs to me that even when I was studying, I always felt that I was “sitting” between two stools, and that has actually always followed us, of not making “real” art, but also not genuinely anything different, and there are many stools – the “stool” between art and design, between journalism and art, between sociology and art. As far as our mutual work goes, you could say the beginning was the research we did for the ecology art award, where the issue was how much influence corporate businesses had on art through their sponsoring. We studied market strategies so as to be able to communicate with the people we wanted to interview. What does sponsoring mean? What is image-transfer exactly? Research that any journalist has to do when he works on a subject. He must know the conditions of the discipline he is dealing with. Seen as a method, it’s a matter of going away from art in order to observe a certain aspect of artistic work from the outside and through another discipline – an alien discipline, so to speak, as a catalyst. Perhaps the term interdisciplinary hits the mark better; you don’t feel at home in the field you disport yourself in, nor in the one you are reaching out for. We move in an in-between area where we carefully observe rather than act.
H.U.O.: What do you think of the concept of the “third culture” that John Brockman coined in his 1996 book The Third Culture. Beyond the Scientific Revolution? There he postulates a “third space” in which the dichotomy between art and science can disappear.
H/A: Hopes for this third space are again being raised now by “media art”. This has to do with the machine, with the fact that in broad areas of science research is carried out on machines. Simulations, models, evaluations – the computer is the most important tool – as in almost all academic fields, as also in art that uses media. The word “tool” already indicates that only few scientists, artists or computer scientists are constructors of these apparatuses. Most of them are users; users whose thinking have been shaped by this instrument that is nevertheless more than a tool. The computer is an evoking machine, almost a living being, as the partner in the Sherry Turkle interview is recorded as saying, and this machine is now used by society in general. Everything now could move closer together – science, art and society – the grand utopia. But this is perhaps not the way it was ideally imagined.
H.U.O.: From dialogues between James Lee Byars and John Brockman, Byars’ World Question Center arose. Byars asked artists, architects, scientists one question. I suggest that we not only answer questions in this e-mail conversation but also ask questions.
H/A: Are artists and scientists both now in the same boat? (And I would like to ask this question of the public, if it is at all possible.) Or is that at all desirable; does not everyone have a clear picture of what science and art is? Or perhaps after all a very unclear, but an internally fixed one? What we could also ask is: how important is it to people’s daily lives that something is scientifically verifiable? Or are there charlatans in your family? Do you believe in something like non-science? Many complain officially that our world has become so cold and scientific, but, on the other hand, it is a substitute for religion and in a stronger position than the former one. The church can only lose. The blood miracle of Naples is supposed to be investigated – probably a cheap cardsharp trick. The church had the Turin shroud analyzed, since three-dimensionalities were found whose origin can’t be explained. It knew then that the trick was better than the miracle of the blood trick. What questions do we still have? Ah yes, the questions on the para-sciences. What do you think of private scientists? Of private artists? Of private philosophers? A totally skeptical question is natural: Do art and science have anything to do with each other at all? That is the cardinal question from the very beginning. Don’t they basically have other work methods? Shouldn’t one preferably separate the two neatly and properly? Those are the question that have already been touched on in the interview, but that one must also ask the public. Does art become more artistic or more interesting as a result, and does science become more human? And finally, does art become more dangerous?
H.U.O.: You spoke of “sitting between stools”. Peter Cook, co-founder of Archigram, remarked in an interview that “sitting between stools” implied the danger that one could “fall” between stools? What do you think of that remark?
H/A: Beyond the metaphor it’s a question of areas of competence on whose borderlines it is always dangerous and difficult to be active. There where the borders of different areas touch or overlap, maintaining a new area mostly goes beyond the defining force of a single person. The individual areas are, now as ever, restrictive, they move within their orbits of time, as Christoph Keller said, and are altogether much more academic than what is actually being done. Too much of the “non-artistic” can catapult you into nowhere-land. This is no different in science; let’s say speculation or even esoterica, or getting in with the wrong people are also all not conducive to an academic career. Each field has its own codex that must not be dented. The other day we read a book review of Timothy Leary’s “NeuroLogic”: “100 pages of NeuroLogic and not the slightest attempt at a scientific foundation.” That’s out of the question.
H.U.O.: What role does the art context play in your activity in “in-between” fields?
H/A: An important one. We understand the question to apply to what we speak of as the framework, the framework of attention, and not to the interests or the occupation with one theme. The art context is the framework in which we move and where our movements are perceived by the public. Multi-contextuality without the bonus of the exotic would mean being in all contexts equally competent and sought after. A beautiful idea, but as a rule it is not like that.