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about "Zooming into Focus"

Author: Hans Ulrich Obrist 2002

In trying to imagine the future of the
museum we cannot ignore the past history
of museums and exhibition practices
except at great peril. For museums have
always been paradoxical things: at once
solid, immobile, historically rooted, preoccupied
with the seemingly moribund
acts of collection and preservation, and in
the best of circumstances (as a handful of
visionary curators and museum directors
have shown us over the decades), potential
laboratories for experimentation, bastions
for reflection and change, loci of dynamic memory, and vital archives for the future. Looking
closely at the paradoxes of this institution—which also means countering the prevalent amnesia
about museum and exhibition history—allows us to reconnect the museum’s possible futures to
its past at the threshold of the present.
My own interest in art and artists has developed hand in hand with an interest in the experimental
history of museums. I often mention Alexander Dorner, and I think his example bears repeating—
and repeating again—not only because his writing inspired my own interest in art and exhibitions,
but because Dorner’s work at Hannover Museum in the 1920s suggests that from the very beginning,
museums of modern and contemporary art (they did not bear that name then, but the Hannover
Museum did already show the work of living artists) were places where radical experimentation
was possible, even central. Dorner invented radical display features for the museum, collaborated
with artists such as El Lissitsky and Malevich on exhibition rooms, and also developed extremely
innovative models for mobile exhibitions and exhibitions of facsimiles. The fact that he envisioned
the museum as a place where artists intervened and re-thought the displays was radical for its
time. He defined the museum in terms of the process possible within it; he saw it as laboratory, as
a “Kraftwerk,” and emphasized in his writings The Way Beyond Art that he intended to dynamize
the traditionally static museum and to transform the supposedly “neutral” white cube in order to
help construct a more heterogeneous space.
Collaboration was one of the things Dorner already understood as vital to the museum decades
ago. “We cannot,” as he wrote in The Way Beyond Art, “understand the forces which are effective
in the visual production of today if we do not have a look at other fields of modern life.”His lesson
has not much been heeded in an epoch when the exterior spectacularity of museums (what has
been called the “Bilbao effect”) too often overrides an attention to the more subtle interior
complexity of an exhibition. This interior complexity is the result of different elements, one of
them being the openness to collaboration.
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Hans Ulrich Obrist, “Envisioning the Future of Contemporary Art from Different
‘Glocal’ Positions,” China National Art Academy of Arts, Hangzhou, March 2004. Photo
credit: Zheng Shengtian
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One of the most important possibilities
for the museum today is to think about
how bridges can be made between fields
of knowledge. There is a great deal of
potential, for example, that could be
exploited by linking art institutions at
universities with other fields and other
institutions of learning and research—
including science, architecture, design,
etc.Museums for their part could invite
people from various disciplines to take on
an active role in the museum’s production
of cultural meaning. The enduring impact
of Jean-Fran?ois Lyotard’s exhibition,
Les Immateriaux, is a perfect example of
the potential that lies in such unexpected
curatorial ventures. As another way to
collaborate, the museum could work more
actively with artists to develop exhibitions,
programs, permanent displays, and other
museum structures. Some of the most far
reaching and experimental of exhibitions
of all time were organized by artists,
including Herbert Bayer,Walter Gropius,
Marcel Duchamp, Lazlo Moholy-Nagy,
El Lissitzky, or architects such as Frederic
Kielser,Mies van der Rohe or Lilly Reich.
Dorner saw this potential in the 1920s.More recently, inspired curators and museum directors
including Willem Sandberg, Pontus Hulten,Walter Hopps or Johannes Cladders worked closely
with artists at a moment when museums were otherwise increasingly disconnected from the actual
producers of culture. These curators developed collaborative artistic projects, but also pushed the
exhibition’s form, and made sure that their respective institutions collected some of the most
difficult or thought-provoking works of their contemporary period.
To return to the notion of the museum as paradox that I began with, let me mention that another
way in which museums can attend to the interior complexity of exhibitions is to incorporate
the possibility of change at the very heart of the institution. The museum has indeed been long
defined by its monumental immobility and by its historical roots, but the late visionary architect
and urbanist Cedric Price (from whom I learned much about redefining the museum) offered
another possibility for the institutions of culture. In his Fun Palace project from 1961, he responded
to the necessity of preventing institutions from sitting permanently and concretely in place. He
proposed a building that would, by definition, not last forever—it would disappear after a limited
life span of ten to twenty years. But more than simply disappearing, it was to be a flexible structure
in a large mechanistic shipyard which, according to changing situations, would be continuously
built from above. Radical in its implications, Price’s proposed Fun Palace was a building that could
be responsive, it could be altered whilst it is occupied. Price’s ideas envision a new kind of cultural
centre for the twenty-first century, one that utilizes uncertainty and conscious incompleteness.
Installation view of Cities on the Move at the Vienna Secession, 1997.
Photo credit: Margherita Spiluttini. Courtesy of the Vienna Secession
Museums should consider Price’s urgent message and conceive their exhibitions as complex,
dynamic learning systems with feedback loops, so as to renounce the paralyzing homogeneity of
exhibition master plans. An exhibition thus might be under permanent construction.
Price was extremely present in the concept that I developed with Hou Hanru for Cities on the
Move. Rather than producing a transportable, repeatable exhibition-as-product, we thought of
the exhibition as a process, as a laboratory. The result was what you could call a three-year ongoing
dialogue in the form of a travelling show. The show would not only change in every city it went to
but it learned from every city in which it took place. The show became a procedure of sedimentation:
building up in layers with each edition. It thus resisted the too common tendency to either
send a show to travel exactly the same way no matter its context or, conversely, to put up a show
and then erase it with a tabula rasa once it is over. Here, there was never a fixed artist list, fixed
exhibition architecture, or fixed number or kind of works, so that each version of the show reflected
something of the new situation (cultural, institutional, geographic, social) in which it was presented.
And, little by little, very interesting things started to occur which go beyond the scope of the display
of finished works. Artists involved in the various editions started to collaborate with other artists.
Many projects were triggered that existed beyond the exhibition itself. And the exhibition in this
sense truly became “on the move.” I mention this project just briefly here to underline the lesson
Cities on the Move learned from Cedric Price, which also suggests the radical potential of the
museum: to, in destabilizing itself from within, inspire new artistic practices from without.
To envision the museum of the twenty-first century, we thus must urge it to be less stable, more
open,more collaborative, and less definitive in its articulation of history.We must use different
models and allow disparate conditions to co-exist so that it can, as Price so eloquently said, “thrive
through both protection and exposure.”
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I think a key is the need for several representations of the knowledge,
such that when the system is stuck (using one representation) it can jump
to use another.
Marvin Minsky in an interview with David G. Stork,
published in Hal's Legacy, 2001's Computer as Dream and Reality (1997)
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Installation view of Cities on the Move at the Vienna Secession, 1997. Photo credit: Margherita Spiluttini. Courtesy of the Vienna Secession
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When I try to sum up what, above all else, I have learned from grappling with the sprawling
prolixities of Philippe Parreno’s artwork, what I come up with is that his thought and practice are
precisely impossible to summarize, a resistance to this very act. Perhaps, then, the best way to
introduce Parreno’s exhibition Alien Seasons at the Musée d’Art moderne de la Ville de Paris (ARC),
which I co-curated with Laurence Bosse and Angeline Scherf, is to reflect on its process, to make
it as transparent as possible. Therefore, this introduction echoes conversations I had with
Philippe Parreno, and even if it tries somehow to contextualize different fragments of these
conversations, it does so in a way that approximates a notebook exercise rather than a comprehensive
writing practice.
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In a recent interview, David Lynch said that the only thing he was sure about with Mulholland
Drive was that the film would start with an image of the road sign,“Mulholland Drive,” under the
headlights, and then that a series of small stories would be linked together. So he had no idea of
where the film was headed. “Well, that’s exactly where I am now,” explained Parreno in the early
stages of organizing the exhibition: “I would like this exhibition to be also a set of small bifurcations
that will create in the end a kind of narrative cloud.”1 Parreno’s starting point—this road sign—was
the idea that the exhibition would stem from a book (like in a Walt Disney movie, it always starts
with a picture of a book, then you enter into the page and the animation begins); an exhibition as
a pop-up book. This first implies that the book is the precise place of the monographic, and then,
on a practical level, that the exhibition would evolve out of, and exist almost only on paper.
The press invite, the poster, the catalogue, and probably even the space itself will be on paper.
For Parreno, the idea of the exhibition as a pop-up book seemed to have the potential to resist the
habitual stable framework of the monographic/retrospective exhibition and, more specifically,
the potential to resist the possibility of apprehending his own practice as a definable resolution.
During the preparation of this exhibition, Parreno sought an experimental model which could
offer multiple takes on his work, trigger a variety of links between different issues, and reflect
(not summarize) his non-linear practice.
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“The images are no longer beautiful, but chains are.” This somehow cryptic, yet succinct,
statement—which also popped up during our conversations—was another possible starting point
Philippe Parreno, Alien Seasons, 2002, installation at the Musée d'Art moderne de la Ville de Paris. Courtesy of the artist
on which this monographic exhibition could have been built. In Parenno’s artistic vocabulary,
the chain is the dynamic structure that leads to the production of forms. It is the process that, for
example, in the making of a project (be it a film, a building, or an exhibition), links pre-production
to production to post-production. All too often, the narrative is narrowed down to one of these
sequences, Parreno explains, “however sense and narrative come from the whole series of events
that occur in, and even in-between, these sequences. Sense and narrative come from the whole
continuum of the chain.”
A film does not only tell a story. It is part of a story. Perhaps this is all too obvious but why is it
that we cannot find novels inspired by films? We only find novels based on film scenarios, which is
completely different. Through this example, Parreno expresses his extreme suspicion toward the
idea of the scenario as an object (which can, in some cases, be turned into a book), but also toward
how we apprehend images as objects, as the sole and ultimate result of the production process.
“I don’t believe in a projective model,” Parreno explains. Does everything always start with a
scenario and end up as an object?
In this retrospective exhibition, the different objects Parenno has previously produced are not on
display and can only be seen in the book. In some ways, there are no objects left. Though, with the
metaphor of the chain, it is also possible to rearticulate or to connect the different projects produced
since the early nineties with current ones. From Réflexion sur le Mont Analogue, a project based
on René Daumal’s book, the film rights of which have been temporarily acquired by Parreno,
to El Sueno de una cosa, a one-minute film shot in the North Pole as part of a pseudo-scientific
expedition, most of Parreno’s projects or propositions address these issues in different ways, through
different angles and hypotheses: Bruno Latour speaks about experimental anthropological
expeditions of uncertainty.
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Through collaboration, Parreno seems to have found a means for rendering the chains of production
and moments of irresolution more visible, more legible. “The projects I am interested in are those
that brim over,” he explains, “either because they contain many more ideas than forms, or many
more forms than ideas. These are moments of irresolution, moments of imbalance that continue
to fascinate me. In fact, I am much more interested in proceedings than in resolutions.” For this
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Philippe Parreno, Alien Seasons, 2002, installation at the Musée d'Art moderne de la Ville de Paris. Courtesy of the artist
exhibition, Parreno decided that he wanted to trigger such a proceeding by working with someone
he has never worked with before, and without any pre-established idea of what might come out
of the encounter. He chose to work with Jaron Lanier, who is considered to have coined the concept
of virtual reality. Even if the outcome of this procedure as it pertains to the exhibition is still
not clear at the moment the catalogue goes to print, Lanier and Parreno rapidly found common
ground for discussion in the conflict between resolution and irresolution of images. (PP “No
resolution.” JL “Yeah. Resolution is an idiot's game.”).2
“One of the things I do,” Lanier first said after accepting Parreno’s proposition to collaborate,
“is work with neuroscientists by inventing computer models for how the brain works. Usually
the work takes a long time, and it is very hard to point to anything specific. However, in the last
few years there have been extraordinary advances, such that we are now pretty sure we have come
up with a computer model of how visual memory works.We think we understand the signals
that neurons exchange for creating a new visual memory as well as for recognizing something
seen from an old memory.”3 And, incidentally, during this first conversation they had, Lanier even
produced a statement which corresponds to the loose conceptual structure, or narrative cloud,
Parreno was aiming for during the initial preparations for this exhibition: virtual worlds are shared.
Virtual worlds are the first kind of reality that is both very malleable, and very flexible, like a
dream, but also shared by other people. That is what is so special about it. So, if we had this ability
to quickly create what exists in a virtual world, we could also have the potential for a new form
of communication. I like to call this form of communication “post-symbolic.” This means that
instead of trading symbols that refer to things or evoke things, you would actually make the things.
Instead of using the word house or museum, you could just suddenly make one. You could
imagine this form of communication having some of the qualities of a dream, in that it might be
fantastical, moving through many places and through many associations. But, at the same time,
it would have conversational elements, with multiple people contributing, a back and forth quality
and a collaborative continuity. And obviously it would be under human control, so would not
involve the loss of control like a dream, but would be guided more like a conversation.
Notes
1 All Parreno quotes from interviews between the author and the artist from 1999 to 2004.
2 From conversation recorded by the author.
3 From interview with the author.
Philippe Parreno, Alien Seasons, 2002, installation at the Musée d'Art moderne de la Ville de Paris. Courtesy of the artist

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