OXFORDSHIRE, United Kingdom — Hans Ulrich Obrist has a tendency to move quickly through dense ideas. Today at VOICES was no different. The curator and artistic director of the Serpentine Galleries took to the stage to deliver a 15-minute sprint through what he believes could be solutions to the big problems facing humanity — extinction and inequality — as technology and globalisation unleash waves of populist tumult around the world.
Obrist began by invoking Édouard Glissant, the Martinique-born French poet and philosopher, whose work he called an “extraordinary toolbox.” Long before Brexit and Trump, Glissant, who died in 2011, predicted the rise of a nationalist, racist counter-current to globalisation and argued for a softer “mondialité” — or globality — where local and global identities could coexist, inspired by the creolisation of his homeland in the archipelago of the Antilles.
“Archipelic [sic] thought makes it possible to say that neither each person's identity, nor a collective identity, are fixed and established once and for all. I can change through exchange with the other without losing or deluding my sense of self,” Glissant wrote in a 1981 collection of essays. “The world needs greater togetherness, not isolation,” explained Obrist. “We must resist the homogenising forces of globalisation. Cultural colonisers crush the richness of differences.”
Obrist believes that artists have a critical role to play in breaking down borders, creating global dialogue and cross-pollinating culture. “Art must contribute to the exchange of ideas across cultural boundaries. While politicians exploit the return to an idealised world that never existed, artists must work towards a new future.”
Art must contribute to the exchange of ideas across cultural boundaries.
But this requires a new approach, he believes. “We need a new manifesto,” said Obrist. “Not a declaration of intent, but a manifesto of listening.” Here, he encouraged artists to develop projects that transcend the traditional template of traveling exhibitions and, instead, provide “instructions” that can be interpreted differently by locals as they traverse the world, breaking outside of the traditional museum contexts and into underprivileged areas. “You cannot just expect people to come to you. You need to go to different neighbourhoods, different people.”
Obrist also called upon artists to engage with practitioners in disciplines from historians to scientists. “There are no boundaries between art, politics, sociology,” he said. In the process, the curator believes, art’s mission becomes less about producing work and more about producing reality: effecting social change to resist inequality and defy the threat of extinction.
In conclusion, he suggested that companies and governments should engage more forcefully with artists, citing the example of graphic designer Peter Saville, who for many years was the creative director of Manchester, giving birth to the Manchester International Festival. “Every company should have an artist on the board.”
To learn more about VOICES, BoF's annual gathering for big thinkers, visit our VOICES website, where you can find all the details on our invitation-only global gathering.