Hans Ulrich Obrist on Why We Need Artists in Politics

  • Portrait of Hans Ulrich Obrist by Juergen Teller.

    Portrait of Hans Ulrich Obrist by Juergen Teller.

It wasn’t your typical presidential campaign announcement: no flags, no podium, no Make Cuba Great Again baseball caps. The Cuban artist Tania Bruguera, seated in an office chair in an empty room, was speaking with me via videolink during a talk at the Creative Time Summit in October 2016, when she said she would run for president of Cuba in 2018.  

If there was ever a time that the world needed artists, it is now. We need their radical ideas, visions, and perspectives in society. I trace this idea back to the British artist, educator and provocateur John Latham, who dedicated his life to creating a worldview that would unify science and the humanities.

The Future of Art According to Hans Ulrich Obrist

He believed the world could only be changed by those willing and able to conceive of reality in a holistic and intuitive manner. The individual best equipped to do this, Latham suggested, is the artist. To that end, Latham was a co-founding member of the Artist Placement Group (APG) (1966–89), along with Barbara Steveni, Jeffrey Shaw, David Hall, Anna Ridley, and Barry Flanagan, an initiative that was to expand the reach of art and artists into wider society.

Latham’s disregard for disciplinary boundaries was underpinned by “flat time theory,” a philosophy of time that he developed throughout his life. The theory proposed that we shift towards a time-based cosmology—aligning social, economic, political, and aesthetic structures as a sequence of events and recording of knowledge patterns—in place of our sensory and spatially-dominated view of the world. Believing that the linear and accumulative understanding of both time and history was a farce, he proposed an “event structure” which radically reconfigures reality, allowing for an understanding of the universe that encompasses all disciplines together.

I first encountered the brilliance of Latham’s work when Douglas Gordon took me, in person, to Flat Time House, Latham’s then-home in Peckham, South East London, in 1994. Gordon was adamant that this meeting happen—in fact, the recording of this visit which has been discovered in my archive begins with both Gordon and me in a taxi on our way to meeting Latham.

  • John Latham, Five Sisters, 1976, in “A World View: John Latham” at Serpentine Gallery, London (1 March 2017 – 21 May 2017). Image © Luke Hayes. Courtesy of Serpentine Gallery.

    John Latham, Five Sisters, 1976, in “A World View: John Latham” at Serpentine Gallery, London (1 March 2017 – 21 May 2017). Image © Luke Hayes. Courtesy of Serpentine Gallery.

In that conversation, Gordon explains how he was influenced by Latham’s description of the Incidental Person, a figure whose role in society was to develop new ways of thinking, and which underpinned APG’s mission to place artists in influential positions in society. Five Sisters is a display realised in collaboration with Richard Hamilton and Rita Donagh that documents Latham’s APG placement at the Scottish Office, where bings of coal waste were declared as a monument, or indeed, an anti-monument. Latham also suggested that these bings be preserved as such and declared as a site of national heritage. On the occasion of the John Latham exhibition at the Serpentine Galleries we reactivated the APG and invited artist Pedro Reyes to be in dialogue with the different departments of London City Hall.

Gordon was particularly drawn to the implication that social boundaries and designations were fluid, that “none of us are particularly bound to the time or place in which we are now.” This is a radical idea because it illustrates that change is possible, and that it can happen swiftly.

Through his radical legacy, Latham is a proto-artist for our present moment. He thought of the artist as fulfilling a specific role in society, carving out a free space in which radical ideas could be explored.

Latham’s work is in this sense closely related to that of Joseph Beuys. Beuys was similarly committed to the democratization of art, famously stating that EVERYONE IS AN ARTIST, and teaching that art, like politics, is something in which we all participate. Beuys’s “extended definition of art” included the idea of social sculpture as a Gesamtkunstwerk, for which he claimed a creative, participatory role in shaping society and politics. Like Latham, his trajectory was characterized by passionate, even acrimonious public debate. He made his life and work into an open forum for the discussion of radical new ideas. Beuys showed how art could provide society with the space it needs for imagination.

As with Latham, Beuys’s lectures, political activism and action opened up the “agonistic space” recently identified by political theorist Chantal Mouffe as vital to the practice of democracy. Mouffe says that democracy should allow for difference and diversity—which inevitably leads to managed conflict—rather than seek to achieve consensus. This “agonistic” approach encourages rather than suppresses antagonistic debate. It can be related, I think, to Edouard Glissant’s ideas about homogeneity, diversity, and globalization that have been so important to my own thinking. We must acknowledge and encourage difference. Only when we do so is democratic society possible.

Latham and Beuys, among others, taught that art is a space in which real debates can happen, and how that can be translated into political action. Indeed in the course of his life, Beuys founded or co-founded the following political organizations: the German Student Party (1967), the Organization for Direct Democracy Through Referendum (1971), the Free International University for Creativity and Interdisciplinary Research (1974), and most famously the German Green Party (1980). As a teenager, I came across a lecture by Beuys. He talked about the “production of reality,” social sculpture, and founding the Green Party. He called society a “sculptural structure,” one that needs healing from itself. He spoke about how change is by definition a creative action; so any progressive politics requires free thought. In a society that has forgotten how to think creatively, change is impossible. Art, which teaches us to think creatively and to imagine new possibilities, is essential to society and to politics.

  • Installation view of “A World View: John Latham” at Serpentine Gallery, London (1 March 2017 – 21 May 2017). Image © Luke Hayes. Courtesy of Serpentine Gallery.

    Installation view of “A World View: John Latham” at Serpentine Gallery, London (1 March 2017 – 21 May 2017). Image © Luke Hayes. Courtesy of Serpentine Gallery.

Beuys’s and Latham’s vision of the artist as a social actor has been mirrored by many artists over the past 50 years. They are public intellectuals who embedded themselves in the social and political fabric of their societies, conceiving of art that something that takes place within—rather than outside—communal life.

The artist Bruce Conner ran for supervisor of San Francisco in 1967. His legendary campaign, the statement for which was a discourse on light, was a reminder that in a true democracy all voices should be heard, no matter how far they seem from the mainstream. It is interesting that Conner, for all that he was a member of the counterculture, voted in every election and was very critical of friends who didn’t vote. His campaign gave an option to those who were dissatisfied with the status quo. In this way, too, art can be a lightning rod for the large part of our electorates who feel disenfranchised by the options with which they are presented.

Tania Bruguera’s announcement, made in October 2016, that she would run for president of Cuba in 2018. Video via YouTube.

Edi Rama, the current prime minister of Albania, was a painter before he became a politician, and remains a close friend of the artist Anri Sala. We must understand his program in the framework of Beuys’s social sculpture. Art is not separate from politics in this view, but coextensive with it. He is “rethinking democracy,” as Sala said in a conversation with me. When Rama first became Mayor of Tirana, he said that “It’s the most exciting job in the world, because I get to invent and to fight for good causes everyday. Being the mayor of Tirana is the highest form of conceptual art. It’s art in a pure state.” This history deserves a more comprehensive appraisal than I can offer in this short text, because it seems to me integral to our understanding of contemporary art and politics.

Rama followed that statement through with his extraordinary “clean and green project.” In an echo of Beuys’s famous 7,000 Oak Trees project at Documenta in 1980, he organized the planting of 1,800 trees around the city and introduced almost 100,000 square meters of green space. He also ordered the painting of many old buildings in what have come to be known as “Edi Rama” colours, a project recorded in Sala’s extraordinary film Dammi i Colori, a video meandering between documentation and art work. This was a cheap, effective and enormously popular means of improving the urban environment, and changing the dialogue around a city that had experienced a troubled recent past. His understanding of the relationship between art and politics was summed up in a quote that I find extremely inspirational. He said: “Culture is infrastructure, it is not mere surface.”

In this way art and culture is not a luxury, but rather an absolutely essential component in the proper functioning of a society. Art is about communicating, engaging, and interacting, and any organization that does not foster these relationships is inevitably doomed to failure. Speaking about painting the city of Tirana, Rama says:

The interventions in the buildings were not aesthetic interventions, but an attempt to reopen a path of communication between the individual citizen, the environment, and the authorities. Entering into a process of transformation means, first of all, trying to give a sense of community by making signs.

  • Painted buildings in Tirana, Albania. Photo by Magalie L'Abbé, via Flickr.

    Painted buildings in Tirana, Albania. Photo by Magalie L'Abbé, via Flickr.

  • Painted buildings in Tirana, Albania. Photo by David Dufresne, via Flickr.

    Painted buildings in Tirana, Albania. Photo by David Dufresne, via Flickr.

The idea of art as infrastructure, as “social sculpture,” has also been developed in an exemplary way by Theaster Gates, whose expanded practice of art includes the Rebuild Foundation, a nonprofit which seeks to introduce shared spaces and affordable housing initiatives into under-resourced communities in the artist’s native Chicago. He has turned derelict buildings into cultural institutions such as the Archive House, which holds 14,000 architecture books from a closed bookshop, and the Stony Island Savings Bank into the Stony Island Arts Bank, containing the book collection of John H. Johnson, founder of Ebony and Jet magazines, and the record collection of Frankie Knuckles, the godfather of house music, among other things. These are spaces open to the community, in which culture and political action is not only exhibited but enacted, engaged in, and fostered.

Artists’ political interventions can also take the form of provocations. The artist Christian Schlingensief told me shortly before his death how much Beuys meant to him. He witnessed Beuys speak when he was a teenager in 1976. Though he admitted that he did not understand all of it at the time, he remembers Beuys provoking Schlingensief’s father—by predicting that the social system would collapse within seven years. When the seven years had passed, Schlingensief asked his father if he remembered the prediction. “Yes,” said the father, “I put a note in my calendar which has been there for seven years, and now I can say it did not happen.” But the really “exciting and interesting thing,” Schlingensief pointed out, was that Beuys had made his father think about the prospect for seven years. Art cannot predict the future, but it can act upon the way we behave in the present.

Schlingensief’s body of work included a series of actions and provocations intended to jolt German society into recognizing its own flaws. He once famously invited Germany’s unemployed population, which numbered in the millions, to swim in Lake Wolfgang, where Chancellor Helmut Kohl was holidaying. Schlingensief's plan was that these legions of bathers entering the lake would flood Kohl’s nearby holiday home. The project was doomed to failure—only a few dozen people entered the lake—but it attracted enormous media attention, not because it flooded Kohl’s house but because it addressed an issue of national importance in a manner calculated to generate awareness. This is one way in which artists can affect the institutions of power: by organizing actions or interventions that highlight neglected issues. We could also speak of the bravery of Octavio Paz, who spent his life speaking out against totalitarianism and who memorably said that “There can be no society without poetry.”

  • Stony Island Arts Bank. Photo by Tom Harris, © Hedrich Blessing. Courtesy of Rebuild Foundation.

    Stony Island Arts Bank. Photo by Tom Harris, © Hedrich Blessing. Courtesy of Rebuild Foundation.

The poet and novelist Eileen Myles used humor to disrupt the political process. In 1991, she announced that she was standing as the only “openly female” candidate in the U.S. presidential race. Her write-in campaign from the East Village quickly spiraled into a project of national interest, an opportunity for those denied a voice by mainstream politics to make themselves heard. Her participation in the political process was part performance project, part protest, and part joke. Nonetheless, she exhibited more political integrity than anyone else running.

Our project Do It began in Paris in 1993 as a result of a discussion with the artists Christian Boltanski and Bertrand Lavier about how to make exhibitions more flexible and open-ended. The conversation developed into the question of whether a show could be made from ―scores or written instructions by artists, which could then be openly interpreted every time they were presented. How would an artist’s work be transformed if others made the artwork? For the project Eileen wrote a text called “HOW TO RUN FOR PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES.” The text is a reminder that, even in these frightening times, democracy belongs to the people and that art is a means of reclaiming it:

You know, they really can’t stop you. In except for maybe two states, Nevada being one, any citizen can be a written-in candidate. In New York, for instance, you simply need 33 of your friends to sign affidavits saying that if you won they would go to the electoral college. You can just call them from home, and they probably wouldn’t mind bringing the affidavits over. They can get them notarized by a travel agent. No big deal.

This text is an extended version of a talk I gave at the Creative Time Summit when Tania Bruguera announced her candidacy. In a country that has never held a democratic election her statement has taken on renewed significance since the death of former leader Fidel Castro in the month after she made the announcement.

The decision is an extension of her lifelong project to address political and humanitarian issues in Cuba through performances and social movements. Tania practices ‘Arte Útil’—literally, useful art—and has developed long-term projects that include a community center, political party for immigrants, and an institution working towards civic literacy and policy change in Cuba. Bruguera describes ‘Arte Útil’ as follows, and I think it serves as a good introduction to her work:

I really wanted to rethink the role of the art institution in terms of political effectiveness. I kept encountering limitations while doing my work, but in the process, I found a great group of artists and artworks that had already been dealing with the same issues for a long time. I could identify them with what I called Arte Útil because they went beyond complaining about social problems and instead tried to change them by implementing different solutions. They were not only imagining impossible utopian situations (which is what most artists do), but they were also trying to build practical utopias.

Tania founded the Migrant People Party (MPP) in 2006, aiming to create a new form of political organization, and then created the Immigrant Movement International as a long-term art project in the form of a socio-political movement. For the work, the artist spent a year operating a flexible community space in Queens, New York, engaging with local and international communities as well as working with social service organizations, elected officials, and artists focused on immigration reform. Public workshops, events, actions, and partnerships encouraged immigrants to consider the values that they shared and to foster ties within the community. This was politics as art, on the ground, changing lives.

Bruguera also created an institute in Cuba with the aim of fostering civic literacy and advocating policy change. Calling itself a “wish tank,” the institute uses public actions and performances with “cubanos de a pie” (everyday Cubans): from housewives to professionals, from activists to students. “It is about creating bridges of trust where there is no fear of each other, to create a peaceful and considered response where there is violence, to create a place where people from different political views can come together,” she said in a description of the work.

Bruguera’s candidacy is both a culmination of her life’s work as an artist, and a perhaps unintentional homage to the ambitions of the APG, which positioned the artist as an Incidental Person within existing social and political structures to effect change. Tania is among those artists applying the lessons taught by artists such as John Latham to the present moment.


—Hans Ulrich Obrist

Hans Ulrich Obrist is the Artistic Director of the Serpentine Galleries in London. He would like to thank Melissa Blanchflower, Stefano Boeri, Joseph Constable, Ben Eastham, Amira Gad, Laura Norman, Laura Macfarlane, Yana Peel, Max Shackleton, Nato Thompson, and Alexandra Wilk.