Conversation between Seth Siegelaub and Hans Ulrich Obrist


Published In TRANS> #6, 1999

My first question concerns your most recent activity. Could you tell me about this special issue of Art Press called the “The Context of Art/The Art of Context” published in October 1996?

For a number of years now, there’s been a certain amount of interest in the art made during the late 1960s – perhaps for reasons of nostalgia or a return to the “good old days”, who knows? – and as part of this interest, over the few years I have been approached by a number of people to do an exhibition of “concept art” and I have always refused, as I try to avoid repeating myself. But in 1990, when I was approached by Marion and Roswitha Fricke, who have a gallery and bookshop in Dusseldorf with the same request, I suggested doing a project which would try to deal with how and why people are looking at this period, and thus, ask some questions about how art history in general is made. To do this, I thought the most interesting thing to do would be to ask the artists themselves who were active during the late 1960s and have lived through the past last twenty-five years, to give their thoughts and opinions about the art world; how (or if) it had changed, how their life had changed, etc. The Frickes were interested in the project, and together we began to organize it.

We began by asking artists to send us a written reply to our questions, but as not many of them had the time or interest to do this, we only had a few replies at first. Then, we began to contact the artists more actively, and Marion and Roswitha Fricke began to do taped interviews with those who didn’t reply in writing, and these written replies along with the transcripts of the taped inter-views, a total of about 70 replies, are what has been published in Art Press.

To select the artists, I picked five exhibitions which were held in 1969 – perhaps an arbitrary or personal selection, which finally is maybe not all that arbitrary – and all the artists who were in those five exhibitions were asked to reply; that is, all the artists who are still alive, about 110. What I like about the project is that we didn’t just go after the artists who have been successful, we were also – maybe even, especially – interested in the people who had not been successful, who were left by the wayside for one rea-son or another, or changed profession, etc. Thus, in this respect the replies are a more representative reflection of the period arid the peopie who lived it, than if we only asked the famous artists to give their opinion, which is what is normally done; the way art his-tory is traditionally written, i.e. through the eyes of those who have been most successful. Although I must say the replies were very uneven in the level of their reflection, ideas or critical spirit, etc. – which had nothing whatsoever to do with who was success-ful or not – and the project just became a wide range of answers running from the highly intelligent to the somewhat less intelligent.

HUO: You also said it’s about how the art world changed. Maybe this is linked to what we discussed earlier, you suggested that at that time, art was not necessarily work made for a general public, but more like a gang of friends.

SS: It was a much more limited framework, in any case, a much smaller group of people; even just in terms of numbers, even before one speaks in terms of money or power or anything like that. The artist – I could say most other people in the art world too – had an entirely different relationship with the world around them, which seems to me to be very different from what I see happening today; that’s all. So I wanted to know how – or if – the artists felt this change. Very few of them seemed to notice these differences, if I understand the replies correctly. It seems like the same old thing to many of them. Perhaps much of their formative ideas are still rooted in the 1960s? In any case, it is all there in their words

HUO: It’s interesting in terms of new structures, in the early 20th century, Alexander Dorner defined a new museum in Hannover, he defined the museum as a virtual Kraftwerk, a power plant, and he had all these ideas for permanent transfor-mation of the space and so on, and at the same time this remained a very solitary or singular experiment. How do you relate to the museum?

SS: The way I have been involved with structures is by trying to avoid them, cutting across them, or at least by trying to avoid sta-tic structures, or trying to create flexible structures that correspond to the real needs. In a certain way, in my specific case, this is related, on the one hand, to the type of art I was interested in, and on the other, to my personal economic situation, and my take, my analysis, of the art world. In particular, one can say that I was influenced by “guerrilla” activity, not that my activity was “guerrilla” activity in the military sense, but rather the mobility of changing situations, the possibility of freedom from a fixed location. As I have mentioned on a number of occasions, going to look at art in New York – and I would imagine this was also the case in other places – meant going to consecrated or sacred gallery or museum “art” spaces, where you would visit more-or-less automatically. For openings one would walk down the street and visit spaces expecting to see art; it was very much like a routine; it was like taking the dog for a walk, except you were the dog.

I, as well as many other people, would do this regularly, and in the 1960s I was struck by how much these spaces had to do with what you saw, or especially, what you expected to see. Art reality was sort of framed by galleries which were rich and famous, or were poor, artists cooperatives, which were upstairs or downstairs, uptown or downtown. This type of experience, along with that of having a gallery myself for about 18 months or so from the Fall 1964 to Spring 1966, led me to think about other possibilities,

HUO: You were talking about the routine thing…

SS: From a personal point of view, I was describing looking at art as a spectator the way many other people, including critics or artists do, but also from the point of view of having had a gallery. After a brief experience of 18 or 20 months of running a gallery, which I did not find very interesting, it appeared to me that it was not possible to have a schedule of 8 or 10 shows a year and get them all, or even most of them, right. The rhythm of production, the art exhibition assembly line so to speak, was much too fast and regular. Hardly anytime to think and play, which for me is very very important. It seemed there must be a better way of doing exhibitions when you wanted to do it, without having all the continuing overheads, such as rents, lights, telephones, secretary (which I, in fact, never had); all the fixed expenses needed to maintain a per-manent space. That is, to try to separate the administrative and organizational constraints of space from the possible art aspects of the space. In a certain way, the gallery “tail” was wagging the “art” dog. These types of limitations are even more exaggerated with museum exhibitions, not just because of its very heavy administrative structures, but especially because the “authority” of museum spaces makes everything so “museum-like”. This was the case, for example, of the exhibition “L’art conceptuel, une perspective” organized by Claude Gintz at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, the first institutional look at the period. No fault of his, but it really looked dead. But isn’t this one of the more important functions of museums, to kill things, to finish them off, to give them the authority and thus distance from people by taking out of their real everyday context? Even over and above the will of the actors involved with any given museum, I think the structure of museums tend towards this kind of activity: historization. It is sort of a cemetery for art – I think I must have heard this somewhere – the heaven for dead useless objects.

HUO: You formulated new forms of exhibitions, and a contract to change the relationship between artists, galleries and collectors. Have you ever been interested in formulating a new structure for the museum?

SS: Nope. Museums were never a problem for me, as I have had very little contact with them. The problem of the museum is structural in the sense of its relationship to ruling power in society and their interests. Thus a museum without this authority and its subservience to power, could be very interesting, imaginative and even spontaneous, but to the degree it achieves this authority, it loses these possibilities. This, obviously, is true of many other institutions and people in an alienated society, including artists. I suppose if enough creative people gave enough thought to the type of exhibitions that were done there, one could probably formulate some ideas how possibly a museum could function in another way. But one has to first understand the contradictions here; to keep in mind that museums, more than ever, are directly dependent on larger interests, and regardless if you or I came up with some hot ideas about changing some aspects of museums (the social dimension of museums have changed in certain areas such as decentralization, interest in local communities, the art of minorities, etc.), the fundamental needs of the museum have very little to do with us; they have their own internal logic. And the margin for manoeuvre within this structure is probably less today than it was yesterday; or at least, the contradictions are different. So it’s very difficult for me, here sitting on the outside, to imagine what a museum could be other than what it is, perhaps a few little touches here or there, maybe free coffee for artists every Tuesday, etc. But perhaps the real question is, why should I be interested in changing the museum?

HUO: In 1968, you curated the “Xerox book” project? Was this a “group show” in bookform?

SS: Yes, the first “big” group show, if you like. This project evolved in the same way as most of my projects, in collaboration with the artists I worked with. We would sit around discussing the different ways and possibilities to show art, different contexts and environments in which art could be shown, indoors, outdoors, books, etc. The “Xerox book” – I now would prefer to call it the “Photocopy book”, so that no one gets the mistaken impression that the project has something to do with Xerox – was perhaps one of the most interesting because it was the first where I proposed a series of “requirements” for the project, concerning the use of a standard size paper and the amount of pages the “container” within which the artist was asked to work. What I was trying to do was standardize the conditions of exhibition with the idea that the resulting differences in each artist’s project or work, would be precisely what the artist’s work was about.

It was an attempt to consciously standardize, in terms of an exhibition, book, or project, the conditions of production underlying the exhibition process. It was the first exhibition in fact where I asked the artists to do something, and it was probably somewhat less collaborative than I am now making it sound. But I do have the impression that the close working relationship with the artist was an important factor of all the projects, even when I was not particularly close to an artist, as for example, Bob Morris. (participating artists in the Xerox book were Carl Andre, Robert Barry, Douglas Huebler, Joseph Kosuth, Sol LeWitt, Robert Morris and Lawrence Weiner)

HUO: There is this “enlarging” from one exhibition to the next; as I go through the list of all your publications, there is this continuity with many artists. I think with curating there are these two poles, on one hand, family curators who show the same artists for twenty years and it becomes predictable, and on the other there is “what’s happening”, “hot” artists movement. It is interesting how you have acted in-between.

SS: Yeah, maybe. But I don’t think you can have the “in-between” because, sooner rather than later, again it gets back to the business of success, too. When you lived a personally satisfying moment in your life, it is only natural that you look back favorably on that period. If I was still involved in the art world, I probably would still have some kind of working contact with those artists from the 1960s. I do not find that a problem. However, on the other hand, these comfortable, “good-old-days”-relationships can lose their meaning over a period of time as people change, and for my part, I try to avoid these comfortable, often un-critical situations by transforming my interests and work every 10 or 15 years. But concerning the art world, I have a greater problem with people who look at art with their ears, to see what’s happening, which has little or nothing to do with these kinds of close relationships; this I find far worse.

I think the question of personal renewal, keeping up the excitement, is a very real problem everyone has, but if you stay in the same profession, in the same job, in the same environment, with the same people, etc, I do not think one gets many different chances.

HUO: Felix Fénéon is an interesting example, who like you, changed professions. He was friend with Mallarmé, Georges Seurat, Toulouse-Lautrec, etc., and then he became a news reporter for a daily newspaper. Later, he worked in a Ministry, and he organized the anarchist movement, and then he sort of disappeared in the 1920s.

SS: I’m not familiar with this man’s life except for what you’re telling me, but keeping the adrenaline and excitement flowing is a very very serious problem in everyone’s life, and not just in the art world. I think I have arrived at a modus vivendi to try to keep the juices flowing by “shifting over” every ten to fifteen years. From the exterior, it may seem like a dramatic shift, but for me, it is a very logical and gradual one. If I were to have stayed in the art world, I would have become trapped in it, a caricature of my own existence.

HUO: A danger for many artists is to have their work become a cliché.

SS: A parody of itself. And I think one can say that, even concerning people I know and respect, they get into a situation or are forced into a situation by a certain lifestyle, with a certain related conservatism.

HUO: They are expected to always do the same thing.

SS: By society, and also by standards of living, getting older, expecting success and being the grand old man or the grand old lady. I cannot speak for anybody but myself, but I do find it to be a very serious problem in one’s life to be interested in something and really approach it in a critical new way, which I have always tried to do, whether with political publishing, left media research or textile history. I am currently working on a bibliography of textile history, and I have asked myself many times why this project has not been done by a museum many years ago.

HUO: What is the reason it has not been done?

SS: I am not quite sure. The literature on the subject is very diverse and broken up; there’s

the art literature of textiles, the political and economic literature of textiles, there is a literature about beautiful patterns, and all of these are very disparate and have not been brought together. The literature history is composed of many strands; you have books about linen, about tapestries, rugs, clothing, silk textile, quilts, embroidery, printed textiles, tents, etc, but there is no unified field of historic textiles. My working on a bibliography is an attempt to unify this literature and it is a political project as well, because textiles are an art, handicraft and a business too, the first big capitalist industry, in fact. There is also the idea of a craft in a certain type of society, and the historical and social development from an “applied art” into a “fine art” in another form of society. The reason why I ask so many questions about the subject, is because I try to approach the subject with a critical, fresh eye.

In the art world, Harold Szeemann is a good example of someone who is conscious of the problem of not trying to repeat himself.

HUO: The excitement of the first time.

SS: Yes, even if it is only every ten or fifteen years in my work, as it takes several years just to get to understand a project and its particular history and problems. If one is involved with the art world and you are not an artist, such as organizer like yourself (or even a dealer), it basically means finding young artists whom you work with successfully, and then either continuing your successful project with them, or trying to do it again with another group of young artists, based on your experiences and especially, the contacts you made the first time. Having done that once, for me, it didn’t seem interesting to do it again then, in 1972, and certainly not today. What one is left with is doing “conceptual art” shows or appearing on discussion panels talking about the good old days, becoming a sort of professional “art personality” or something, etc., and that is not something I care to do for my daily bread. Occasionally, O.K.

HUO: Is that why you refuse to repeat these exhibitions?

SS: Yes, it’s really silly, it is becoming a parody as we spoke about before.

HUO: Gilles Deleuze says that if there is such a thing as art, it is always a critique of clichés.

SS: Exactly, or even I once said I think: art is a change from what you expect from it. But speaking historically, one should also never forget that today’s critique is tomorrow’s cliché.

HUO: Let’s talk about the social-economic side of art. Getting away from the object as a fetish would also mean putting an end to the economics involved with the fetish which would have to be replaced by another economy. This is a whole complex set of questions concerning the new economics and also this transition to a service economy that you mentioned before, which is implicit in the 1960’s exhibitions, and very relevant to many artists of the nineties. Raising the question of art as a service or non service, in 1971 you worked with Bob Projansky on the Artists’ Contract [“The Artists’ Reserved Rights Transfer and Sale Agreement”]. How did you conceive the “Artists’ Contract”?

SS: The ”Artists’ Contract” is a much more modest project than you suggest by your question. Its intention was just to first, articulate the kind of interests existing in a work of art, and then, to shift the relative power relationships concerning these interests more in favor of the artist. In no way was it intended to be a radical act; it was intended to be a practical real-life, hands-on, easy to-use, no-bullshit solution to a series of problems concerning artist’s control over their work; it wasn’t proposing to do away with the art object, it was just proposing a simple way that the artist could have more control over his or her artwork once it left their studio. Period. But the broader social-economic questions of the changing role and function of art in society, the possibility of alter native ways of art making or the support of the existence of the artist; all these important questions are not addressed here. As a practical solution, the contract did not question the limits of capitalism and its private property; it just shifted the balance of power in favor of the artist over some aspects of a work of art once it was sold.

HUO: It would be about protecting the artist within the existing system.

SS: Right. The problem of art as private (capitalist) property, of the uniqueness of objects, this was certainly a problem in the air during the 1960s and behind certain art making projects. But it wasn’t just a theoretical-political problem, in the context of art making at the time it was also a practical problem, in that the selling of ideas or projects was something that the art world had never come up against before on any generalized scale. This has to do more with questions of how to transfer property ownership of an art work, and these questions were ” more-or-less” resolved by treating them in a way similar to the rights and interests given to authors or composers.

HUO: Or musicians? Whenever a piece of music is played in public the author gets a royalty on it. We could apply this to publications and exhibition. But, of course, there is the problem that it will never be popular enough for the royalties to be significant.

SS: Yes; and that was precisely the problem at the beginning, because the catalogues were barely sold, or sold for $2 or something. The idea of royalties of 20 cents for four people on a book, added to the fact that there were not that many people interested to begin with, makes for very little real money. But the idea or pos-sibility is still very important. This may change of Course if there is more interest or if the prices become expensive enough to make royalties. For myself, it was only with the “Photocopy book” the possibility of royalties was really there, because it was sold for $20.00, but even here, with a 1,000-copy edition you are talking about $20,000 – a lot of money at the time – with royalties normally around 6-7%, this still only means $1,400.00 for seven artists, over say, five years, that is, $200.00 per artist (or $40.00 per artist per year). This was the intention, but it was never realized.

HUO: But it also depends on how it is organized. Whenever a pop star’s song is played on television it goes into a fund. To me, it seems the traditional art world is focused on objects. It’s never been organized.

SS: But it is not quite true for traditional art images, because there are number of artists’ societies in Europe, within UNESCO, for example, and SPADEM, who do look after these types of interest, especially the reproduction of images. Occasionally there are even some very heavy lawsuits that come up. The heart of the problem is that concerning new art making practices, there is usually not enough money generated by the sale of these projects to amount to a hill of beans. For example, if I organized or published ten books a year and took all of the profits for myself, I would make, say, $200.00 a year per book, which would make a maximum of $2,000.00, if all the books were selling, if I was getting paid; etc. Perhaps for the late 1960s, this is O.K., I personally could get by with that; but if you divide it by 25 artists in a catalogue, it just doesn’t work. I don’t know if the numbers – i.e. the public interest – has changed that dramatically to make it any different today.

HUO: Did the number of people really increase?

SS: I don’t know. But it seems to me that many of the people who walk around on a Saturday afternoon looking at art, could also possibly spend ten dollars for a “avant garde” book. Maybe there isn’t any relationship between those people and these books, yet nevertheless there are places like Printed Matter that sell a certain amount of books. I am told that the amount of people who collect artists’ books has increased substantially. In the 1960s when I was active there were virtually none whatsoever, and I did my own distribution for my own publications, as well as some for Ed Ruscha and some others.

HUO: That leads to the book space. You said you really believe in the text and in the book space.

SS: Yes, especially as a possibility in the context of artmaking in the 1960s. But this doesn’t preclude selling a book.

HUO: Have you ever been interested in exhibitions in printed mass media such as the “Museum in progress” in Vienna that organizes exhibitions in newspapers?

SS: It is certainly another possibility; why not? It is probably closer to a mass-market type of activity, inasmuch at it is directed to a far greater audience than is really interested, perhaps reaching out to people who would never come to an artwork otherwise. It is like jumping into the middle of the main train station and doing your theater piece, or putting a poster up on a very public wall as they did in China during the cultural revolution. These are all perfectly valid means to reach out into the world, and I am sure there are many others. Now the Internet is hot; why not?

HUO: As Broodthaers said, “Every exhibition is one possibility surrounded by many other possibilities which are worth being explored”.

SS: True enough. That is the one way I look upon my own organizing and exhibition projects; as so many different ways, different possibilities, different aspects, of investigating the production of exhibitions. For the exhibition I did in Simon Fraser University in Canada in May-June 1969, at the instigation of N.E. Thing Co, we only published a catalogue after the exhibition was over. The exhibition took place all around the University, but unless you were aware that it was going on you just wouldn’t know it existed; it was only afterward – if you saw the catalogue – that you realized you were in the middle of an exhibition during that period. But there was no formal indication that the exhibition was taking place at the time.

HUO: Just the very opposite of the phenomenon of people buying the catalogue beforehand.

SS: Exactly; just another possibility. I am sure there are thousands of other possibilities I haven’t even dreamt about. I am sure you doing things with your “Do It” project here that never even entered my mind, which are perfectly valid in the context of the present moment, as well as perhaps opening on to other interesting possibilities in the future.

HUO: Can you talk about the show you co-organized with Michel Claura, the “18.PARISVI.70” exhibition that took place in Paris in April 1970?

SS: One should view the exhibitions I did as series which moved from a specific limited interest in a few artists to a more general interest in art and its processes. The exhibition with Michel Claura was one in which he in fact was the brains and organizer of the exhibition, and I was just the back-up support; the practical, money, publishing and organizational side. In this sense it was similar to the “July/August Exhibition” project I did with Studio International slightly later in 1970, when I asked six art critics (David Antin, Charles Harrison, Lucy Lippard, Michel Claura, Germano Celant and Hans Strelow) to each edit an 8-page section, which took me still further away from the selection and promotion of specific artists.

HUO: The curator disappears in a sense?

SS: In a way, yes, but it is a false disappearance. I think in retrospect perhaps what I was doing had to do with making the role of the curator less hidden, less transparent, more clear, more open and more aware of his or her responsibility in the art process. Although since then, I have heard curators have become very important, and are even spoken of as being “painters” using the artists they show as form of “paint”.

HUO: What was the role of the curator in your projects?

SS: One aspect of our project had to do with clarifying and changing the role of the curator, and perhaps also that of the critic and even, the collector. Before, the curator was someone, somehow, who determined and rewarded artistic genius. He (or she) may have been a great writer, catalogue maker or builder of great col-lections, but this role was never asserted as a clear force. They were certainly powerful – but only within the context of some greater institutional power – and their job was to select “great artists” and be the voice of the gods, or of “quality” and correct art values. I think our problem in the area of curatorship was to become aware that this person – in this case me – was an actor in this process, and that he or she had an effect on what was shown; and being aware of this was part of looking at art and understanding how art choices were made. This is also the case for role of the collector, and the effect he has on what art is made by encouraging this and not that. How to make these hidden private decisions more visible, how to make this dimension behind the public art exhibition and selection process more visible, was in part what I and others were thinking about.

HUO: A de-mythologization?

SS: Exactly; but the key word at the time was “de-mystification”. A process in which we attempted to understand and be conscious of our actions; to make clear what we and others were doing, so you have to deal with it consciously as part of the art exhibiting process, for good or bad. You have to understand what the curator does to understand in part what you are looking at in an exhibition. Why does this artist has three rooms and the other has one room; why this one is on the cover of the catalogue and the other is not? You have to try to understand all of these decisions that create the context of the art experience, both for looking at it, but also making it, as the “consumers” are also the “producers”.

HUO: And question of feedback?

SS: Yes, people who are looking at art are also the very same people who are producing art; i.e. other artists. These questions are even more important for them than for the general public. This is especially the case between different generations of artists.

HUO: Are there any young artists of the 1990s that you are interested in?

SS: No. But to be honest, I do not follow the contemporary art world very closely; I could maybe cite a name or two, but it would just be pure chance, because I don’t look that seriously. Looking at art is a full-time job; one really can’t look at one isolated work without knowing about many other works. Even more so today because there is far more work to be seen. To be able to understand and evaluate what you’re looking at, you really have to be around, and that takes lots of time, not to speak of interest, and mine is elsewhere, at least for the moment…

Published In TRANS> #6, 1999
copyright TRANS>
Pages # 51 – 63