Speech Bubble

Claire Bishop on the Serpentine Gallery's twenty-four-hour interview marathon


Left: Architect Rem Koolhaas and curator Hans Ulrich Obrist. (Photo: Sarah Thornton) Right: The Serpentine pavilion lights up. (Photo: Claire Bishop)

In the UK, Channel 4 television is broadcasting a masturbate-a-thon for charity. Some people have drawn unkind parallels between this event and the twenty-four-hour interview marathon hosted by Hans Ulrich Obrist and Rem Koolhaas at the Serpentine Gallery last Friday and Saturday. Sixty-four luminaries were lined up to chew the fat inside the distinguished Dutch architect’s pavilion—a clear display of the duo's pulling prowess and a flamboyant declaration of Obrist’s arrival in London.

The event was broken into eight three-hour slots priced at £15 each. I skipped the first to catch Roman Ondák’s opening at Tate Modern. There I was surprised to find no one willing to join me on the trek to Kensington Gardens. Indeed, I encountered overt skepticism. Many perceived the marathon to be an act of shameless Serpentine PR, Rolodex curating, and territorial aggression toward other London institutions that do serious, in-depth talks. I couldn’t wait to check it out.

As I entered the Koolhaas bubble—aglow in the dying sunset—first impressions did not disappoint. Around a hundred punters were half-listening to artist Susan Hiller holding forth on the topic of London, while the interviewers looked disengaged and tense. Happily, Hiller is one of those speakers who can rattle on and on once you’ve pressed the “play” button. When she finally drew to a halt, there was an agonizing silence until Obrist muttered, “It is too dark and I cannot see my notes!” Penumbral gloom filled the bubble. There was only one way out. Obrist asked the question we would learn to love and loathe in equal measure, the one that would signal the impending termination of every interview over the next twenty hours: “Have you any unrealized dreams or projects?”

Left: Artist Louise Wilson and Serpentine director Julia Peyton-Jones. (Photo: Claire Bishop) Right: Fashion designer Hussein Chalayan. (Photo: Sarah Thornton)

Many others were keen to pontificate on the theme of London: a politico for culture and the Olympics, a criminologist, the editor of Time Out, and a cultural-studies guru. Outside the bubble, the atmosphere was less chat show and more Glastonbury: People were strewn on the lawn watching the big screen, enjoying the way that the cameramen spiced up duller talks by zooming in on bored audience members. Intellectually, it was just not happening.

Like trying to watch all five Cremaster films in one go, there eventually came a breakthrough when the experience was no longer painful. Mine arrived when I realized that our interviewers were suffering, too. Koolhaas’s opening gambit to laidback design legend Ron Arad couldn’t conceal his resignation: “I have always felt sympathy and respect for you, but never the inclination to talk to you. Now I have to ask you questions.” Despite his apparent disinterest in many guests, Koolhaas was sporadically capable of fantastic curveball questions. He asked choreographer Michael Clark, for example, “Have bodies changed since you began dancing in the 1980s?”

Midnight saw an influx of people from the Ondák party and a night session dominated by artists. Cerith Wyn Evans was reliably majesterial. Releasing the inner bard, he recited a Robert Frost poem and denounced Guy Debord. To the inevitable question about unrealized projects, he announced in his stately Welsh accent: “I am a fan of Orlan, so it would be great if you had a sex change, Hans Ulrich.”

Left: Fashion designer Giles Deacon. (Photo: Claire Bishop) Right: Artist Gustav Metzger. (Photo: Sarah Thornton)

The graveyard slot that followed (3–6 AM) was a little thin on speakers. My bed beckoned—but only for three hours. I was back by 9 AM, tuning in to comic actress Eleanor Bron—dignified by a pink visor and pom-pom earrings—entertaining the audience while Koolhaas and Obrist faded. Despite this, the morning session was fantastic—as full of inspirational content as the previous evening had been wanting. The speakers were intellectual heavyweights, and the sparsely populated pavilion lent the proceedings the air of a free university seminar. Top geographer Doreen Massey was electric, questioning the marathon’s celebration of the capital: London is a propagator of deregulation and privatization, she argued. We have to take responsibility for our dependence on third-world and Eastern European labor.

Venerable eighty-six-year-old philosopher Mary Midgley followed Massey and spoke with staggering lucidity and energy about Gaia, creationism, and the city as parasite. Architectural theorist Mark Cousins then challenged Obrist’s “campaign against forgetting” by arguing that one can remember too much, and topped this with a Nietzschean appeal for negativity, the ugly, and the undeveloped. “Where in this city,” he asked, “is the nonimproved to be?”

I was addicted. The final sessions were consistently good, and, for the closing hours, the pavilion returned to maximum capacity. Gustav Metzger (bright-eyed despite having stayed up all night to hear the entire marathon) launched his campaign for the art world to fly less. The final speaker, octogenarian author Doris Lessing, spoke with quiet and moving precision. The entire bubble was rapt. “We are a calamitously stupid species,” she said of the global ecological crisis, before moving onto foundational religious texts: “If you read them all one after each other you realize they’re all the same, but nobody wants to know that.” It was the perfect finale.

Left: Writer Doris Lessing. (Photo: Sarah Thornton) Right: Rem Koolhaas. (Photo: Claire Bishop)

In conclusion: The marathon was amazing, uplifting, life affirming. But it was not without its exasperations. Aside from the prohibitively expensive tickets—which precluded a truly collective experience of the marathon—the interviewers were embarrassingly underprepared for a substantial number of speakers. Like Obrist’s exhibitions “Utopia Station” and “Cities on the Move,” the event got where it did through sheer relentless overload. The incessant production of talks and symposia is undoubtedly the new performance art. Authenticity, presence, consciousness raising—all of the attributes of '70s performance—now attach themselves to discussion. In this environment, it would seem that Obrist and Koolhaas are the new Ulay and Abramovic.

Left: Artist Damien Hirst. (Photo: Serpentine Gallery) Right: Architect Zaha Hadid. (Photo: Sarah Thornton)

Left: Philosopher Mary Midgley. (Photo: Claire Bishop) Right: Artist Yinka Shonibare and Maxa Zoller. (Photo: Sarah Thornton)

Left: Geographer Doreen Massey. (Photo: Claire Bishop) Right: Film designer Sir Kenneth Adam. (Photo: Sarah Thornton)

Left: Artists Pablo Bronstein and Olivia Plender. Right: Architect Peter Cook. (Photos: Claire Bishop)