BY Jennifer Allen in Opinion | 09 SEP 08
Featured in
Issue 117

Marathon Men

John Cage, Hans Ulrich Obrist and their relationship to time

BY Jennifer Allen in Opinion | 09 SEP 08

Hans Ulrich Obrist at the opening of the exhibition 'Everstill/siempretodavia', at La Fundacion Federico Garcia Lorca, Granada, 2008

I attended two marathons this summer, one right after the other. I’d like to say I ran in races against time, but, alas, these marathons were attempts to take up as much time as possible – a combination of endurance and duration. On 5 July, I travelled to the German town of Halberstadt to hear a sluggish rendition of John Cage’s composition ORGAN2/ASLSP (As Slow As Possible) (1987) in the Saint Burchardi Church. The following day, I attended one of Hans Ulrich Obrist’s by-now famous interview marathons at the new Berlin branch of the Walther König bookstore.

I arrived late for both marathons and finished neither. I couldn’t have heard the entire Cage piece even if I had wanted to: the Halberstadt locals are taking Cage’s direction ‘as slow as possible’ as literally as possible. While the composition is usually played in 30 minutes, this rendition will play its final note in the year 2639, with the help of sacks of sand weighing down the organ pedals. The performance began in 2001, and I caught only the sixth and seventh notes. The total duration – 639 years – measures the time between 1361, when the world’s first organ with a twelve-note keyboard was built in the Halberstadt cathedral, and the millennial year of 2000. The duration is also based upon the estimated lifespan of the new organ built to play ORGAN2/ASLAP in the Saint Burchardi Church. Just as dog years go by faster than human years, an organ’s life goes by much slower.

At first glance, the Cage musical marathon appears to be longer than Obrist’s interview marathon, which lasted from noon to six pm. What’s six hours against 639 years? And yet, Obrist’s name is sure to resonate for centuries to come, just as the coming notes in Cage’s score. How so? After all, exhibitions cannot be repeated like musical compositions. No one will be ‘replaying’ the many shows Obrist curated in the past at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris and is curating now at London’s Serpentine Gallery – let alone his stints as a moonlighting curator for innumerable projects. Obrist accumulates time in a different way. Take his interviews with artists and others. Since an interview is considered a prime historical resource, Obrist is sure to be cited in connection with every future art historical study of the current period. Giorgio Vasari’s name still rings a bell not because of his life, but because of his Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects (first published in 1550), which chronicles the biographies of some two hundred Renaissance figures.

To grasp Obrist’s unique use of time, the best place to start is not history, nor Heathrow, but Le Bescherelle 1: L’art de conjuguer (The Bescherelle 1: The Art of Conjugating), a slim French grammar book named after the 19th-century lexicographer brothers Louis Nicolas and Henri Bescherelle. Every Francophone has a Bescherelle, which transforms the confusion of conjugating verbs into one easy chart. Obrist has mastered the art of conjugating his projects with the Bescherelle system: indicative statements, imperative commands, subjunctive wishes, conditional clauses. His ongoing Internet project and series of volumes ‘Do It’ – a how-to compendium of artist proposals – covers the imperative present tense as well as the indicative future (when some soul decides that he will do one of the proposals) and the indicative anterior future (when the project will have been done). With ‘Do It’, Obrist curates the future by proxy.

His brilliance lies in manipulating the past tenses. To make up for bygone childhood years and beyond, Obrist, who turned 40 last May, captures the work of historical curators with the indicative past tense (citing what Alexander Dorner did at the Hannover Museum in the 1920s). But his real masterpiece is the Agency for Unrealised Projects, which he co-directs with Julia Peyton-Jones at the Serpentine Gallery. The unrealised artist project gets hold of the slippery conditional past tense: an event that did not actually occur but could have taken place. By presenting these unrealised projects, Obrist curates both past and future by proxy.

Conjugating more than curating, Obrist thrives in multiple times. How will he tackle Bescherelle’s subjunctive pluperfect and conditional second past tenses, which don’t even exist in English? For the time being, I’d like to offer him a belated birthday gift in the guise of a new denomination: Hans-Ulrich-Obrist years. These last even longer than those Halberstadt organ years. Your name gets an extra year of longevity per project; two years per exhibition; five per publication; seven per interview, and 50 for every Bescherelle tense beyond the indicative present. In human years, Obrist just turned 40; if he were a dog, he’d be around seven; as an organ, he’s about 320; but in Hans-Ulrich-Obrist years … why, he’s pushing 12,367! By writing about Obrist, I picked up a few HUO-years myself, the goal of any go-getter. Yet looking good is more interesting than longevity to me. If I could get HUO-years in a facial cream, I’d celebrate his birthday every minute of every day. Long live Obrist!

Jennifer Allen is a writer and critic based in Berlin.