In June 2015, the Hayward Gallery will host 'Decision', the UK’s first major survey of the scientist-turned-artist Carsten Höller. Since the 1990s, Stockholm-based Höller has created participatory installations and immersive environments that set out to challenge audiences and question the experience of art using physical intervention.
Believing that ‘People are often more powerful than artworks’, Höller sees his work as completed by participation and user experience. At the time of writing, Höller’s work is being installed at (in and on) the Gallery. The works crawl, sprawl and spiral around the concrete parapets of the Hayward’s interior and exterior, promising playful interactivity – and yes, even thrills, both real and vicarious.
The show occupies the Southbank spaces with breath-taking slides, mirrored objects, giant fungi and a larger-than-life perforated dice; the show presents varying challenges for audiences, ranging from the conceptual to the physical, and the viewers’ choice of route and interaction determines the nature of their unique experience of the show.
But this is not an exhibition (p)review, nor is it pre-publicity for what will no doubt, be a major stopping-off point for those on any arts pilgrimage to the UK’s capital; instead I chose to investigate what – and who – it took, to nurture such an audacious art and architectural magnum opus.
Below, in a rare interview, I ask the formidable Ralph Rugoff – the curatorial mastermind behind ‘Decision’ and Director of the Hayward Gallery, London: Why?
(NP): So Ralph, first a few things about your history which might help contextualise this show ‘Decision’: I know you have previously dealt with extraordinary collisions of culture in ‘Circus Americanus’1, ‘Psycho Buildings’2, invisible art3 and other work that appears to be loosely connected by a particular sensibility. Do you think that your grounding in semiotics makes you a different kind of curator – or different from other curators?
(RR): Well I hope we [curators] are all different from each other (laughs); but semiotics was a good analytical training where you could look at different types of sign systems, from cinema to kinship systems while trying to understand something of the underlying structures that make communication possible. Communication obviously involves differences and that we recognise those differences as adding up to meaningful patterns and symbols, but it was a very broad semiotics programme at Brown4, it wasn’t Eastern European semiotics; it really was a lot of French theory, so you know, the Bible for us was Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus5. I was much more focused on film and literature - and I just happened to have a lot of friends who were artists, partly because Brown was next to RISD6 and I liked art a lot, but I didn’t know that much about contemporary art at that point.
(NP): So was this grounding an advantage?
(RR): Maybe, but then I think artists became very interested in this kind of theory and so people started asking me to write catalogue essays for little shows they were having and that’s how I gradually got involved in art, but perhaps semiotics also had the effect of making me realise that different types of sign systems sometimes share certain qualities… semiotics removed the idea of looking at things from within a cultural hierarchy, where ‘this’ is more valuable than ‘that’ system … so when I wrote the book Circus Americanus it was really a collection of articles looking at different cultural phenomena that, to me, had almost the same value as art works - about half of the subjects in that book were places that artists had told me about. So really I was just looking at the things artists were looking at and then writing about them as if they were art. It’s always interested me that artists, besides making things, are also seeing lots of interesting things out there that most of us don’t necessarily look at in the same way.
(NP): So valuing the quality of the perception of artists then?
(RR): Yes, definitely.
(NP): In terms of that perspective, and when you talk about ‘cultural hierarchy’, do you think there is any implied criticism of a certain ‘type’ of classic curator background?
(RR): No, it’s just a different way of working that suited me personally. I have a lot of respect for scholarly curators who really get into very detailed analysis, say, of one artist’s development… some very interesting things get uncovered in that way; I am just personally someone who is more oriented towards, and more engaged by, works that engage the world around us…
(NP): You are reported as having said things about some museum collections being, I think the word you used was ‘dead’7. You have also spoken in this way about the irrelevant end of academic curation.
(RR): Even a contemporary art museum can present art in a way that makes the work lifeless, I think that happens all the time. Museums are a really tricky technology that we don’t always know how to use; I also think that as curators, we often have this less-mediated experience where we go and visit an artist’s studio and see the work in the context in which it is being made and it doesn’t have the whole formal rhetoric that a museum brings to presenting a work – which can isolate us from works in a way. Giving a sense of that first encounter to audiences is getting trickier and trickier as more people go to museums, and the visitors’ experience is shaped by the logistics of crowd control and traffic management.
(NP): On that subject, museum footfall is now a crucial metric in measuring curatorial success it seems, and alongside this you have to demonstrate the impact of outreach, interpretation and engagement with new and diverse audiences. Do you think that such measures of gallery and museum performance work counter to curatorial quality?
(RR): Well, the most common metric is how many visitors you have per year, but an alternative metric could be how many visitor hours do you have per year, because you could have an exhibition that people spend twenty minutes with and a hundred thousand people go and so you end up with say, two million visitor minutes; or you could have an exhibition that people spend two hours with and you only get twenty thousand people there, but you end up almost with the same number of visitor minutes. Perhaps the show that people spend two hours with may be more transformative in terms of what they take away; it might permeate their thinking and that could then ripple out through talking about the show, spreading those ideas to other people. In general, we don’t look nearly enough at quality of experience.
(NP): That takes us quite neatly to the Hayward, and for me, entering the Southbank Centre always feels like I am negotiating an Escher8 drawing made real. It’s a fascinating space and place, but the potential of Carsten Höller’s work in this context is really intriguing; Höller’s work demonstrates a particular appetite for risk, and from the proposals it looks like he will do some incredible things in relation to the architecture here. Is the work going to disrupt audience expectations, or will this be seen as simply an adventure playground for intellectuals and their offspring?
(RR) The interesting thing about Carsten’s work is that it’s really conceived so that you can experience it in many different ways and many different types of people can respond to it. There is a new work in the show that resembles a giant dice with holes in it and small people can squeeze through the holes into the interior (which is a dark sphere), and then pop out. Children immediately see this thing and run to it and start climbing and playing on it, but for adults it looks like something very different, something that children disappear into and then unexpectedly pop out again. Carsten compared it to ’…maggots coming out of a Swiss cheese,’ [laughs]. I think that he really is one of the few artists I know who can make work that can appeal to children and adults at the same time, as well as to art connoisseurs and people who have no knowledge of contemporary art whatsoever.
You can get a physical thrill from some of his work or a very unusual, visceral-physical-perceptual experience, but then there is also usually some very strong conceptual underpinning to it, which always takes it a little further. Something that I hope we are able to do with this show is let people know that a slide is not always just a slide. Carsten as an artist is also quite aware of the kind of critiques that have been made of interactive or experiential art and that at this point in time it is something museums often draw on to create ‘blockbuster’ shows in a manner that treats it as a kind of innocuous family entertainment. But unlike most artists Carsten is not someone who thinks entertainment is a dirty word, he is very up front in that he wants to make work that’s entertaining but that’s also intelligent and challenging - he really feels that we shouldn’t leave entertainment only in the hands of producers of commercial culture… Of course there seem to be a lot of people in the art world who appear very happy to do just that.
(NP): Carsten views sliding as the corollary of, or metaphor for, something deep and primitive within the human psyche. Sliding is a state we don’t often find ourselves in unless we are falling over, but as an audience we find ourselves transported or falling through his work - and he references people like Nietzsche in terms of the human condition.
(RR): I have got this quote from Carsten that describes the slides right here on my wall because I like it so much: a slide, he says, is “a device for experiencing an emotional state somewhere between delight and madness.” On one level it’s a device that requires you to let go and surrender… of course the outcome is fairly predictable, but there is a point of pure abandonment. It’s not an experience you typically have in a museum - or in your everyday life. One of the things that got him interested in doing this in the first place was that he was interested in looking at mood and works that could synchronise the mood of an audience; he was fascinated by this phenomenon where you see people, say, coming out of a movie theatre and they have all just seen the latest blockbuster movie and they all have the same expression on their face and there is this uncanny sensation that maybe they are all one linked organism, unified by shared experience.
(NP): Orchestrating the audience then?
(RR): Yes, he has found that the slide was the most successful synchronising device he could come up with…he says that he had never seen someone come down a slide who wasn’t smiling…
(NP): How much do you think risk and chance play a part in this, because you mentioned the dice sculpture - which really looks like a dice – but it does have a kind of double entendre, doesn’t it? For a parent or carer it represents the mild anxiety that their children might not re-emerge from this thing, and his mirrored carousel and slides, they are disorientating and more than a little scary...
(RR): Even just getting to the slide, which will involve climbing up a temporary staircase and going through the roof of the Hayward, will be a slightly scary experience that not everyone will want to experience. I think that’s fine, though, because one thing that Carsten is also very clear about is that most of his work is designed so that you can enjoy it without having to directly participate… you can also just watch other people activating it. And from outside the building these two coiling slides going down the Hayward are an interesting architectural intervention, like some kind of abstract brush stroke against the concrete mass and strangely playful. At the same time the slides are also functional as they provide an actual exit from the Gallery. So this is a work that is functioning on many levels.
To give another example, on the Hayward’s sculpture terrace that overlooks Waterloo Bridge there will be Two Flying Machines, a work that rotates a suspended visitor (wearing a harness) in the air.
It’s like some kind of strange amusement park ride or testing device but Carsten has found that it actually produces a very meditative experience; At the same time people also look slightly ridiculous up there, so that’s another dimension of this work for Carsten, because he is always thinking about including the visitors to the exhibition as elements in the exhibition…so everyone who is using a work, in a way, ends up being a volunteer demonstrator that other people are looking at. Most people visiting the exhibition won’t end up on Two Flying Machines, but they can enjoy watching other people going around on it, it’s basically a kinetic sculpture that requires participants to activate.
(NP): Without wishing to sound derogatory, do the slides have something of the feel and appearance of builders’ rubble chutes?
(RR): They will look like very elegant rubble chutes, perhaps, but they have small windows so you will see people sliding down. I think he is also just interested in how, when you come out of that slide - do you then look at things a little differently? Will the experience you’ve just had make you remember the exhibition a little differently?
(NP): This strikes me as a very different kind of gallery experience and curator expectation; with some shows there are indicated or preferred routes with arrows and captions to indicate the way and order of works, you know, “exhibition continues” signage. As a punter one walks around and the curator’s preferential way-finding system shows you how. Carsten’s show appears really different. This is curation out of control isn’t it? Between you, you’re presenting the audience with a different set of demands, and there seems to be no linear narrative or chronology. With many exhibitions you get to the end of the sequence and you have accumulated the desired appreciation of the developmental or other relationship between works X, Y and Z and you declare: “Hey I got it!”, but this concept seems remote from what you describe.
(RR): Sometimes the most important act of curating is simply choosing the artist to work with. Carsten is an artist who works in this ‘other, non-linear’ fashion that you have just described, but there are also many clear connections between the different works in the exhibition. A really crucial point for me is that while many artists don’t really take on board what their audience’s experience is going to be, (they are very involved in their own mission and their own concerns), Carsten says that his principal artistic material is the experience of the people who come to the show, that’s the experience he is trying to shape, that’s his medium, to a certain extent: people’s experience.
The Hayward show is called “Decision”: at the start you encounter two different doors and you have to decide which one to go through, and depending on which one you choose you will end up in a different corridor that will sometimes go above, or sometimes go below the other corridor before eventually depositing you in another part of the gallery. It will be quite disorienting and even uncomfortable because it will be dark in places; it’s basically a large metal air duct that you are walking inside, you will hear the sound of people below and above you. Carsten describes this work Dual Entry Corridor as almost being like a form of punishment [laughs].
(NP): From what I have seen of his work and understand of the show it seems psychedelic or even hallucinogenic. Do you think that’s a fair description?
(RR): Well it will be disorienting and destabilising in terms of unsettling one’s normal sense of orientation. Normally we walk into a gallery, we get a first view of everything and we form an initial first impression of what’s on offer. Carsten’s Corridors will totally disrupt that conventional process because for your first three or four minutes in the Gallery you will be meandering in this unpredictable way across the space. This is the first series of decisions that you make. I think it’s interesting that Carsten came up with the title “Decision” - his previous large show was called “Experience”, which is what you would associate much more immediately with his work - and he says that for himself the ultimate luxury would be never having to make a decision!
For me, being in the show reflects and provokes the state you are in when you are pondering a decision, but you haven’t made it yet, and you are still weighing these different ideas in your head, uncertain about which way you are going to go. I think that’s the state of mind that the work in the show can lead people to. Obviously some people associate that kind of indecisiveness or uncertainty with anxiety – but it’s also a state of mind where we can be open to all kinds of new possibilities.
(NP): When you decided to work with Carsten on this project, how was your proposal received by the Hayward team - I guess it would look pretty terrifying just from a logistical point of view?
(RR): Yes, I don't think anybody knew quite how challenging it was going to be! Particularly because there are so many new commissions in the show, big new works that no one has ever seen before and of course there is no tested handbook on how to install them.
(NP): Finally, Ralph, from a curator’s point of view, how will you gauge the success or otherwise of ‘Decision’?
(RR): On one hand, you look at the reviews and the footfall, but for me it tends to be things that happen on a more anecdotal level, particularly overhearing conversations in the gallery. I will spend a lot of time in the Gallery during the course of a show; sometimes you are there for different purposes but you are always observing what’s going on, and you can see how people are interacting with the work and whether it’s inspiring them to talk about it.
I’m really trying to get people to understand the different ways they can use Carsten’s work, because it does have multiple layers to it. So instead of having guided tours of the show, which is something we usually do, we are actually going to have discussion groups where people who have been through the exhibition can further explore their experience with their fellow visitors. I will be interested to see how this works out and, again, it stresses the fact that it’s actually each visitor’s experience that’s the focus of the show. You can’t really give someone a tour of their own experience, but you can ask them to share that experience with other people, and then get a more complete sense of being able to see different ways of engaging with this work. It’s very exciting.
Carsten Höller’s ‘Decision’ show is on at the Hayward Gallery, London, Wednesday 10 June 2015 - Sunday 6 September 2015.
1 Rugoff, R. (1995) Circus Americanus (The Haymarket Series) Verso, USA.
2 Rugoff, R. (2008) Psycho Buildings: Artists Take On Architecture, Hayward Gallery, London, UK.
3 Rugoff, R. (2012) Invisible: Art about the Unseen, 1957-2012, Hayward Gallery, London, UK.
4 Brown University, Providence Rhode Island, USA.
5 Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (French: L'anti-Oedipe) is a 1972 book by philosopher Gilles Deleuze and psychoanalyst Félix Guattari. It is the first volume of Capitalism and Schizophrenia, the second being A Thousand Plateaus (1980).
6 Rhode Island School of Design, Providence, Rhode Island, USA.
7 Sooke, A. (2013) Ralph Rugoff: Tate Modern is like the Bluewater Shopping Centre', The Telegraph, London.
8 Maurits Cornelis Escher: 1898 – 1972, Dutch graphic artist whose works are illusionistic, unviable expressions of architectural conundrums.