My interest, as an artist, is to think about long-term development

Hans Ulrich Obrist in conversation with Tino Sehgal
Introduction: Daiga Rudzāte


While viewing Tino Sehgal’s mega-exhibition at the Palais Tokyo last autumn, I completely unexpectedly ran into the artist himself. had been trying to book an interview with Sehgal for quite some time, so I didn’t hesitate to take advantage of the situation and went right up to him and introduced myself. Unfortunately, Sehgal confirmed earlier-heard reports that he now tends to avoid so-called “question-and-answer” interviews. He did mention, however, that in the Hans Ulrich Obrist archives one can find several as-yet-unpublished conversations that he and Obrist have held over the years. Perhaps would be interested in one of those...?

Luckily, Obrist consented to the idea and allowed us to choose one of eleven interviews that had been recorded over a span of several years. would like to express its joyful gratitude to both Tino Sehgal and Hans Ulrich Obrist for giving us this opportunity.

To begin with the beginning, both you and I, from early in our lives, have been interested in economy. You’re an economist, and I’m an economist, so this would be an interesting place to start. What brought you into economics and political science?

I think what is difficult is to find some kind of intellectual orientation – a mode of thought or a school of thought that can cut through contemporary society. Classically, western society and western elites have looked towards philosophy, towards literate people – people who are writers in, say, a social-science mode. I felt that we were in a world that is dominated by economics, and that in such a world one needs to understand economics.

At a certain moment you decided to leave the field of political science and economics and to go into dance, and then, in turn, to leave the field of dance, and to go into art. Do you remember specifically what happened, and why you took these decisions, were there any epiphanies? 

I was a part of a lobbying initiative, which was for better public transport in the Stuttgart region. One of my teachers was very active in this, and had asked me to go to some hearing at the ministry of transportation. I was sitting there, and I had been to events like this but I suppose that a quasi-epiphanic moment was when I was watching this minister hover, orientating his own position  in relation to the distribution of political positions and values in the room I could sense  that he was not really powerful..

The power to effect change is elsewhere.

Yes, he was basically administering cultural values, and I thought that the real site of politics was in this value creation. I was never so concerned with what’s happening in day-to-day politics.

My interests as an artist is to think about long-term development. And the reason why cultural work is central, is because there’s a conglomeration of value systems focusing around labor, consumption, and economic growth. There’s a cluster of economic mechanisms that we would have difficulty undoing, but I think that the only way in which to understand the way economy operates, is to understand that it grows. But how should it grow if we already have everything? A saturation point has been reached, where people understand that they’re not sure anymore what they might want. Surely, this is an overly broad perspective but what I wanted to advocate is a kind of qualitative growth – through my work – a slow, qualitative growth. Growth can happen, economic activity can happen, but it doesn’t have to be material, it has to be detached from more material throughput. Up to now, this doesn’t appear to have been the case. Material throughput has continued to rise.

And what about the change from dance into art?

I guess this also relates to things that I’m very interested in nowadays – Jan Fabre, who did a work that Bill Forsythe invited him to do, The Sound of One Hand Clapping, this ballet where they do very basic movements very slowly, and a group of people around Xavier Le Roy and Jérôme Bel, which I was a part of, were obsessed with an art ambition, and would read everything about visual art. Then I was working with a dance company in Ghent, and we were asked to do something in the museum, but nobody was interested. Intuitively, I realized that I definitely wanted to do something because the museum was an interesting place, on the one hand because of the art ambition, and on the other hand, because it was this temple of objects. When I showed my first work, Instead of allowing some thing to rise up to your face dancing bruce and dan and other things, I was standing there watching the piece from afar, and I realized how people were shocked that there was a person. But why would you be shocked that there was a person? Why would you think that a person was an object? This materially oriented bourgeois society that we’re a part of was condensed in this moment and it was explicitly clear for me that what I was trying to do was to exhibit the medium of dance as a mode of production, but to do that in a theatre was too twisted, while in a museum, it was the first thing that hit people. It was so direct.

You witness a minister, and you think that the power is not there, and then you go into dance, and you see that the power is not there either. Here we are, in the early twenty-first century, and you’ve realized that it is with the museum that one can change the world more.

The museum is a place of legitimation and political power, and it’s the central ritual of our time, and yet there is a lack. No culture which is a human culture – a culture of people dealing with other people, which culture always is – can have an object as the centre of their ritual, in the long run. We are humans and we want to understand what being human is. Being human in our society may be attached to dealing with objects, but it’s not the same. The ritual of the museum is still a people-event. And the question is how can you craft this, how can we craft the human, and human relations and reflect upon that?

Not through performance art. Felix Gonzalez-Torres said that you don’t have to have a cast of a body to talk about the body. An object, a passport might be more related to it.

Yes, there is a relation between him and me in this approach to the body, or rather non-approach to the body. But I would say that he’s somebody who constructs situations, and quite successfully. The candy spills don’t need an explanation. They work as situations which are always the same, I would say. Can I take this and what consequences does it have in relation to authority? Am I allowed to do this, in relation to the further existence of this particular candy spill? This kind of questioning happens, and that’s where the work of Felix Gonzalez-Torres resides. I see him as part of my tradition.

And who else?

At the moment, Daniel Buren and Marcel Broodthaers are for me becoming more and more important because they are the only artists who understand that visual art essentially is décor. When I look at installation art, I feel it’s like a set design where something could have or should have happened – a set design without the sociality taking place. Of course, you can go against what I’ve just said, and say that the exhibition and the installation are related to a liberal society where the sociality of the exhibition is that between you and your fellow visitor. I would say, the exhibition comes from one aristocrat taking another aristocrat into the Wunderkammer and saying ‘look what I’ve got!’, and these objects can become a stimulus for our conversation. So there is sociality, but today I think we want to construct sociality, and not just have it in a readymade way. It’s much more interesting to actually experience a specific scenario, and maybe even to be part of a scenario.

Let’s talk about a scenario: Your 2007 piece, This Situation, very much brought into focus your attachment to the world of ideas and theory. Could you talk a little bit about that?

This Situation is one of my most personal pieces. I discovered the idea of ‘technologies of the self’ - Michel Foucault, the idea that, in contrast to the psychoanalysis of Jacques Lacan, you can work on yourself through repetition. Through hard work, you can change yourself and your mode of being. This whole idea of crafting oneself is something that corresponded with my intuition because I advocate a self-confident subject, which does take the agency that it has very seriously, and tries to make the most out of it. It’s a subject that, even if it’s part of a complex web of relations, tries to make use of this increased power that it has in an affluent society. That’s what my pieces always invoke. In This Situation, they’re talking about four-hundred years of cultural history through one hundred quotes. The three topics are the notion of the situation, the transition from a society of lack to a society of affluence, and technologies of the self. They are talking about this, and then at one moment they ask, ‘what do you think?’ Just this simple question is something that I’ve used a lot in my work. At a very basic level, it means that you as a visitor are powerful, that this whole place of legitimated and official culture is now revolving around you, and what you think.

The Situation had a complexity to the casting. It was almost like putting together, not a salon, but a group of people, thinkers, philosophers, intellectuals.

We often say ‘salon’ because it’s quite close to a salon. And in 2007, I’m not sure that I did much more than try to find the people for This Situation. We want to have experts on the themes that I’m interested in, people who had invested a lot of time in the history of thinking, because they had to match the depth of the quotes that are the beginning of every discussion. With This Situation, I really felt like I hit some kind of boundary at first. I was giving the players so much freedom in this piece, and the more freedom I gave them, the more I had to be sure that they were really brilliant people. But to explain to people who are professional thinkers, as I like to call them, that now they are supposed to move slowly in a gallery, and move inside a rule structure was quite hard at the beginning.

I think This Situation anticipates the Guggenheim piece. There’s a lot there, in germ form…

I think you’re intuition is quite right. When we started engaging with them for the Guggenheim, I realized that the structure of This Progress is very open, and we also need someone who has a very wide range of topics that he can speak about.

I was very curious to hear about the process, using the Guggenheim show as an example: Could you tell me about the genesis of it? When did the idea come to you? How did it then evolve?

When I was first invited to do a solo show, in 2004 at the Van Abbemuseum, I had four to eight rooms at my disposal, and I was dramaturgically concerned about ‘one piece after another’. I thought: ‘Well, they could probably pay for four or five people, I have four or five spaces… Why don’t I make a piece that travels through these spaces? Another seed is what we talked about – and this is probably the most important thing – the technologies of the self, and the idea that the whole way our economy and our society works is through technological progress. That’s why the piece is called This Progress. It itself is a way of putting a new product into the world, a product that might be part of some growth, from which income can be derived, but which isn’t necessarily resource-based. Another seed is that, I am steeped in modernity. It’s deeply ingrained in my subjectivity. It’s very difficult to think outside of a kind of linear progression, out of a development and some kind of accumulation.

One thing that happened with the Guggenheim show, and is now happening with Documenta and in the future with the Turbine Hall, is that it clearly topped anything you had done before in terms of outreach. People who are not in the art world talked about it. It had a huge audience, and created the idea of the exhibition as a mass medium.

The question is how can you still keep a certain quality? Something that I’m touched by in western culture is the fact that you have these monumental places. Any culture has them, and the Guggenheim and the Turbine Hall are definitely part of this. You could compare them to a cathedral or the Eiffel Tower as a monument to industrialization. But at the core of these monumental museum spaces is a kind of void. There’s no fixed cosmological order inscribed to them, rather, subjectivity is placed at its centre. Individuals have power in our society, especially at the solo show, but we can never expect an individual to take a permanent position of power. What we cherish in democratic societies is individuals as individuals. The solo show becomes a very interesting moment, because it’s filled with my subjectivity and the visitors’. It’s a kind of ballet of subjectivities. But the fact that society gives an individual - via processes of selection and control - , which you are a master of, and an important gateway into - like me the power  to take up this position is unusual in terms of the history of civilzation.. It’s a position of quite high political power, and in that sense, in terms of my initial ambitions, it’s probably a bigger success that I could have imagined.

Then, my last question is: What are the projects that have been too big to be realized, or too small to be realized?

It’s funny because in our first interview, I answered this as you, Hans Ulrich Obrist, interviewed me without a camera. Something that I realized, maybe in 2009, when we met, you would always say, ‘we need to interview this’. I don’t know exactly what it is but you were addicted to this Warholian moment of recording. It seemed logical to you that you had to record everything that was important. But now you never mention that anymore.

No, we have defined a rule of the game: one interview every three years, a rule that you set by the way!

Yes, because I felt that thought processes and personality processes are organic processes too – that I could point out today what I didn’t point out three years ago. But to answer your question: I think that my interest has always been in reconfiguring the ritual of the exhibition. When I did my first piece, I didn’t think, ‘I want to make a nice dance’, I rather wanted to insert a dancing body into this ritual, which is so focused on objects, and subvert it. Then, the next phase is when you realize that you are not somebody who is subverting this format, but that you are actually one of its protagonists, a collaborator , and that you even get the opportunity to shape whole institutions. So the idea would be to somehow construct an institution that would grow more in a direction that I think is appropriate to art today. Nowadays, something is art when it happens in the realm of visual art, and of museums. There’s a lot of truth to that, but the question is if we can expand this, and if we can leave this field, which is related to the craftsmanship of decoration. In an attention economy, where time is a bigger factor than space, it has to be something in a medium that actually deals with sociality, is a little bit more dynamic, and unfolds in time. That’s why Philippe Parreno, Anri Sala and Pierre Hughye are doing these kinds of things. Why are they doing these things? Somebody will need to research this, but there’s some urgent need to do something that explicitly develops in time.

That’s a great conclusion, thank you very much.