Hans Ulrich Obrist interview with Howard Becker
[This interview was conducted at the Hotel de la Perle in Paris, October 20, 2004. It is published as part of the catalogue of “The Welfare Show,” Ariane Beyn, editor, published by Elmgreen & Dragset and a list of others in 2005. Hans Ulrich Obrist is Curator Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, and an author and editor, who has published HuO: Hans-Ulrich Obrist: Interviews and Do It.]
HUO The first question I wanted to ask you is about interviews, as I am recording this ‘infinite conversation’ with philosophers and architects and artists – so far 900 hours. When I researched your interviews, I found a few interviews but I found a lot of literature on you and interviews and the use of interviews in your work. So I wanted in the first chapter of this interview to interview you about your interviews! Could tell me a little about how you use interviews in your work and the importance of interviews?
HB I use interviews for lack of something better. Something better would be to see it myself. If I can’t be there, if I want to know about something that happened to you five years ago or yesterday or sometime when I wasn’t there, then I would have to talk to you. What I really want to find out is how people organise themselves to get something done. What I have been thinking about now for many years is how people organise themselves to get a work of art done: everybody who is involved, how they co-operate. The best way to do that is to be there, to watch them do it, to watch the false starts, the mistakes.
HUO To be in the studio?
HB Yes. You see, I am a piano-player originally; my original trade was playing the piano, playing jazz, and I played in bars and nightclubs, in striptease joints, for weddings and bar mitzvahs and company parties, all of that, for many years. So when I was doing that I was there. I saw exactly, as best I could, what happened, who did what, how people responded to various pressures, and that’s what I want to know about when I investigate something. If I can’t be there, then I have to talk to people and say, ‘What happened? I wasn’t here’. So in a piece I did fifty years ago I was interested in how people learned to smoke marijuana. I couldn’t be there when they all learned, so I interviewed them and said to them, ‘How did you first happen to smoke marijuana? Who introduced you to it? What did you think about it and when you first lit up a joint what did you do? And then what happened?’ My favourite style of interviewing is [the style I used when] I did a study of actors and theatre people some years ago. They all claimed that they were very busy and they didn’t have a lot of time to talk to me but they would make an hour. When I sat down with them they almost always asked me, ‘How long is this going to take? I am very busy’. So I said, ‘I’ve only got maybe two questions: the first one is, “How did you get into it?” and, “Then what happened?”’ So they laughed and then they started talking and they talked for maybe two or three hours! I only asked questions to clarify things. So that is what the interviews are for. I don’t think of it as a very complex or complicated thing to do; it’s really just a conversation. You are sitting next to somebody on an aeroplane and you start talking to them: ‘What kind of work do you do? Oh, you are an art curator. How did you get started doing that?’ I mean it’s just that kind of conversation.
HUO Beginnings often, questions about the beginnings.
HB Very often. Or another kind of question that I use a lot is to ask about problems, trouble: ‘You are an art curator. What do you have trouble with as an art curator?’ It’s a question that everyone has an answer for. So it’s not an interview in the survey meaning of interview. I don’t ask, ‘What do you think about this: a, b, c, or d?’ I ask. ‘What happened?’ ‘What did you do?’ Something that is open and that you can respond to in a way that makes sense to you.
HUO Do you have an archive? I recently visited Studs Terkel.
HB Studs has an archive.
HUO He showed me his archive and we had a great time. It was about a year ago, in Chicago. I went to Chicago to interview him and he gave me a lot of advice on how to do a good interview. One of the things he said is that one has to be a little bit technically unskilled; his interviewees often helped him to fix his machine!
HUO That was one trick.
HB The thing that Studs does – I know Studs a little bit.
HUO You’ve met him also?
HB Yes. I’m from Chicago, so I listened to him and I worked in Chicago for many years. Studs’ greatest trick is that he keeps quiet, he doesn’t talk a lot, he doesn’t give you his opinions, he wants to know what you’re thinking about. That’s the big trick of interviewing: to listen. It’s surprising how many people want to interview somebody and then they talk all the time.
HUO Long questions usually make a bad interview, is that so?
HB Right. I knew somebody who interviewed women psychoanalysts in the States. She was interested because she said, ‘Psychoanalysis’, – you can imagine – ‘Psychoanalysis is essentially a patriarchal practice, so how can you as an educated woman participate in this?’ Most of the women she interviewed were European, mostly refugees. They didn’t understand her question; there was no problem. She had talked herself into that it was a big problem and they should recognise that it’s a problem. She said ‘You know, you have your family and all that, and then you have your work. Isn’t there a conflict?’ And they said, ‘No. Certainly not’. She said it took her ten interviews or more before she realised what she was seeing, which was these women lived this kind of Middle European bourgeois life. There was no problem: There were people who took care of the children. They brought the children in to say goodnight. The interviewer said the analyst would say, ‘Oh yes, I spend a half hour every day with my children’. She finally realised she was asking the wrong question and she wasn’t listening.
HUO Do you have interviews which are unrealised? Did it ever happen that you could not get it done? Have people refused? Are there unrealised interviews?
HB Oh sure! People always say no. It is not important to me to interview this particular person. I am interested really in – let’s say I’m interested in jazz players. OK if I can’t interview this one, I interview that one and the other one and I ask about what they do and I ask about him, you know, the one who wouldn’t talk to me. So I am interested in uncovering a connected world of people and one person more or less doesn’t make any difference.
Do you have something in mind?
HUO No, no. It’s a very open question. I am trying to figure it out. I am curious how interviews work for you. It is a tool, somehow. For you the interview is not an art form, it’s a tool.
HB Well, on the other hand it’s a habit. When I was in school and learning all this, I was also playing the piano in Chicago. Like most Chicagoans at that time, I didn’t have an automobile. I was playing in bars all over the city so I would take public transportation home. We worked very late, so often at 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning I would be the only person on the streetcar or the bus, and I would talk to the driver. Why not? So I learned a lot about the business of bus driving – how they arranged their schedules, what they liked about their work, what they tried to avoid. It was kind of interesting because what they really didn’t like was passengers. They didn’t like to have a bus full of passengers.
HUO They wanted it empty?
HB Yes. Empty would be perfect. But of course they can’t have it empty most of the time, but not too many, and people who know how to ride them, who don’t make trouble.
HUO Were you recording those interviews?
HB When I started interviewing there wasn’t much recording.
HUO In the ‘50s?
HB 1949 that was. I think they were just beginning to have wire recorders, but no, I just remembered what they said. It’s the thing that Truman Capote claimed he did for In Cold Blood: he just remembered it and wrote it down afterwards.
HUO So you didn’t even take notes?
HB Sometimes. Usually afterward, immediately.
HUO Not during?
HB No because a lot of my interviews were done not as interviews; I didn’t call someone and say, ‘I am going to interview you, can we meet? We’ll meet at the Hotel de la Perle’. There were interviews that were conducted; like my master’s thesis was about musicians so I was playing some place, we get off the stand, we get a beer and we start talking. That counted as an interview for me; I am asking questions. I don’t say to the guy, ‘I am interviewing you now. Now we are in a different relationship’. We were just chatting, talking about things that had happened: did you hear about this, do you know what happened to George? I think we can get a job in this bar so we don’t have to work here any more, etc. So those were, you know, it’s not an interview in the classical sense of an interview, but I was asking questions and getting answers and it would be completely inappropriate to pull out a notepad and start taking notes or pull out my tape-recorder. People do that, they hide the tape recorder.
But you know, you must have a nice budget to transcribe all this stuff, because transcribing interviews is not a lot of fun.
HUO It’s expensive, yes.
HB It takes a long time, it’s expensive and then there are lots of mistakes. I am sure there will be – I don’t know who will transcribe this for you, but if they are not expert in the Chicago dialect they may have a problem. So it’s often not worth the trouble because that last little perfection of transcription is not worth it; you don’t use it, you have no use for it – at least I don’t.
HUO Can you talk a little bit more about the beginnings of the interviews in ‘49? I read in some discussions you said that it had to do with immersion: you somehow immersed yourself in those fields. You even took drugs in order to understand. That’s what I read.
HB Where did you read that?
HUO In a sociological paper. It’s not true?
HB I didn’t take drugs in order to understand. I took drugs, I smoked dope, and I used what I learned doing that to understand. I took advantage of what my life gave me. I was a musician, so I was immersed in it before I ever thought of being a sociologist. A lot of the work I did relied on what is called participant observation, that is to say, you get involved in the life of people you are studying. I studied medical students for three years. I didn’t pretend I was a medical student. So, ‘Here I am, I’m a sociologist, I’m going to be around here for the next couple of years so get used to me’. I just went everywhere, watched what they did; it was immersion in that sense, being there a lot, being there all the time. When you interview people they tell you about things they think are important, but they don’t tell you everything because that would be James Joyce doing Dublin for a day. They don’t tell you everything, they tell you what they think you want. I don’t mean that they mean to please you, they are just trying to be helpful. But if you are there you can see all the things that happen and it gives you something concrete to attach your questions to. You don’t say to a medical student, ‘What do you think about patients in general?’ You say, ‘That guy in the bed there that we just talked about with the teacher, what do you think about him?’ So you get something very specific, which is always a more accurate reflection of what those people are doing than a generalised answer.
HUO This notion of participant observation, which indeed interests a lot of artists, in your work. Can you talk a bit more about the definition of this participant observation and how it relates, for example, to Outsiders, your seminal book?
HB The empirical part of Outsiders was done that way, pretty much. The marijuana part was done by interviews, for the most part. But, I don’t know. You asked me the kind of question that I never ask myself. This is not a well-thought out, theoretically based, philosophically cogent method. It’s more like Studs: this is what I did, this is what worked, I’ve done it for a long time. So I know to watch people, I know to listen. I have all kinds of tricks. I wrote a book called Tricks of the Trade.
HUO Tricks of the Trade.
HUO I will have to find that. It is still in print?
HB Oh yes. It sells very well. It’s tricks like this, tricks of thinking; for example, here’s an obvious one: never ask somebody, ‘Why did you do that?’ Always ask them, ‘How did that happen?’ Well, that’s a trick, but in fact it has a strong theoretical background, which is that people don’t do things for reasons; they do things because they are in a situation, something happens, they have to react, something else happens, somebody says something, and what they do is build up what they do, over a period of time, as a response to everything that is going on around them. So if you say to them, ‘Why did you do that?’ you are essentially asking them to justify what they did. It’s almost an accusation: ‘why did you do that?’ It’s like a parent would ask a child and they always respond defensively and tell you that, yes, they did have a good reason. But if you say to them, ‘How did that happen?’ then they give you a much more detailed and realistic account. If I said to someone, ‘Why did you smoke marijuana?’ what kind of answer am I going to get? They don’t know why they did it. They did it. If I say, ‘How did it happen?’ ‘Well, I met this guy, we got to be friends, he said, “Hey, do you want to try marijuana?” I said, “Gee, I don’t know”. He said, “Well you know, it’s nothing terrible like what you’ve heard about, etc., etc.” and finally it happened.’
HUO I think it’s Whistler who said ‘art happens’.
HB [Laughs] Well, everything happens! Yes, the playwright David Mamet has a wonderful thing – I can’t find it but I know I read it somewhere – he says everybody who is in a scene in a play has a reason to be there, there is something they want, or something they have to do, or should do, otherwise they wouldn’t be there. Everybody has their own end they are pursuing in the scene. But everybody else there is pursuing their own end, so nobody can do what they want, they all have to respond to everybody else and the result, the end of the scene, is something none of them wanted and none of them anticipated. That’s sort of my view of social life, and so the method of interviewing or observing is to get as close to that as you can in order to see that happening. It sounds so hard. There’s a book that I refer to quite often. It’s by a journalist and it’s called The Making of the Wizard of Oz. Her mother was one of the seamstresses, one of the people who sewed the costumes for that movie, and the daughter became a film critic. She found everybody who was still alive who had been involved in making the movie and asked all of them, ‘What did you do? What was it like? What happened?’
HUO Like a puzzle of some sort.
HB Yes. And she put it all together. She discovered really interesting things. The only people who were there from beginning to end – not the director because there were four directors before they were through; this was Hollywood in the ‘30s – were the composer, Harold Arlen. . . .
HUO Still around?
HB Yes, he was still around, he was very active when she did this. And E. Y. Harburg, who was the lyricist; they remained throughout the making of the movie. As she found out, they were responsible for one of the big decisions, which was to make the film, all the time that Dorothy is in Kansas, in black and white and when she arrives in Oz it’s colour. It’s a fantastic effect and a wonderful idea and it was the guy who wrote the music who thought of it.
HUO So that is a book you think is exemplary in that kind of way.
HB Yes. There are lots of exemplary works like that which describe the actual co-operation that produces a work of art. I should tell you about the book that I just edited with some friends.
HUO Is it out already?
HB It will be out next fall from the University of Chicago Press. It’s called Art from Start to Finish [since published] and what it’s about is how art works get finished. The basic idea is one that I had written earlier. It might be in this book you have. It’s essentially that – there is an old saying that I’ve heard about movies and other things. A friend of mine who makes films says ‘No film is ever finished, it’s just abandoned’ and in a way that is true of every work of art.
HB Yes. People just stop or something makes them stop. Imagine art students, who are constantly – they’ve got a nice painting and then they keep going and they ruin it so their teachers are always telling them, ‘Stop. No more, that’s it’. ‘No, no.’ ‘Stop.’ So you could say that the teacher in that case becomes part of the making of the art work, but there are lots of people who say ‘Stop’. Publishers say ‘Stop’ to their authors, studio heads say ‘Stop’ to the film maker.
HUO The producer to the musician.
HB Producers to the musicians, musicians to each other. The question of when it’s finished becomes – you could say even when it leaves the artist’s hands it is still not finished. The most obvious thing is that people respond to it and in doing that they finish it and that becomes a very important part of the work. Some people build that in to what they do.
HUO And the book you are doing?
HB It’s a collection of papers by twelve different people in fields like ethnomusicology, musicology, art history, literature, economics, you know. The main thing is they are all friends of mine! [Laughs] This was one of those things where the Social Science Research Council in New York had some money to have a conference, and I know that most conferences are a waste of time, so I said, ‘Will you do it this way? I am going to invite these people, they will prepare a paper well before the conference, they will circulate the papers to each other, everybody will read everything. Then we’ll have a meeting. We’ll talk, everybody knows what everybody is doing so the talk will be interesting. Then everyone will go home and re-do their paper.’ I, with two other people who were there, decided we would write a long introduction based on the discussion we had and that was the book, so we didn’t have to wait for someone to finish the paper that they hadn’t written yet, or any of that. It’s quite coherent.
HUO Agreement of the conference as a medium of some sort; it’s a desperate medium, the conference, a desperate medium. Are there conferences that you have participated in in terms of changing those desperate rules of the game, which have been interesting? Are there rules of the game?
HB Mainly what happens with conferences is that people are trying to do four things at once: they are trying to invite all the people they feel they should invite and right there is the death of the thing; they hope they can make a book out of it; they want to make a public event that they can invite the public to so that their university will feel that the money isn’t wasted. There’s all these things of that kind. I know that the way to do it is to make one thing the most important and in this case it was the book we were going to create and then it’s not a problem. Including that I tell people, ‘Well, if you don’t get your paper in a month earlier, then we won’t pay for your plane ticket’. So that’s that. And since I do this only with my friends, they all know me and they understand.
HUO As I am in the monde de l’art, am part of the monde de l’art to some extent, I am obviously very interested in this book Les mondes de l’art [(Art Worlds)]. Could you tell me a little about this book which has always seemed—because in the monde de l’art, particularly in Paris, there has been a big influence of Bourdieu, but your book seems to me to be a very different notion of the monde de l’art than Bourdieu’s.
HB Yes, or of the common use of that term. When people talk about the art world we generally mean the artists and all the people who are involved in the business.
HB The collectors, the curators, the dealers, and so on. I am using it in a kind of technical, sociological sense: everybody who has anything to do with the making of the work. So not just the painter but the people who produce the paint, the people who produce the canvas the painter paints on; not just the composer of the opera and the singers and the conductor but the people who take the tickets, the people who make the costumes, the stage hands, all of those people, they all make a contribution. And they make a contribution in the sense that if they didn’t do what they do, the opera wouldn’t be the same opera, it would be different. There is a wonderful movie that I cannot remember the name of but it’s about a conductor who comes to Paris to conduct an opera. The leading female singer is a former lover of his, so there is some tension, and it is all about the love story between the two of them and the professional tensions. Then the opening night comes and the man who raises the curtain refuses to raise the curtain. It’s something with the syndicat; he won’t do it. And everybody else, this being Paris, they are not going to have a problem with the union, so nobody will raise the curtain. But the opera goes on because they do the opera in front of the curtain and the actors and the chorus come in from the back of the house and all that and it’s a very different experience for the audience because now, instead of looking at a stage, it’s all around them. Right?
HB Only because this one humble person, the guy who raises the curtain, wouldn’t do his job. That is I think a very good metaphor for what I am talking about. So he’s part of that world.
HUO Very interesting. That is very much about this cascade I wanted to ask you about. Philippe Parreno says ‘La chaine est belle’ and here it is some form of cascade. One of the things that is different to Bourdieu is that you look less at these power relations within a field but you look at any kind of form of interaction which constitutes a field, so in this sense not so much the histories of those people with power, but more those cascades. Could you tell me more about those cascades?
HB It’s not that I don’t look at power, it’s obvious it’s there: some people can tell other people, ‘Do this’. But--it’s not the only thing. There’s all kinds of relationships of equality, inequality. The formative experience of my life was the music business; jazz is a very egalitarian enterprise, people don’t exist in relations of power – I mean, yes, the boss, the guy who owns the club tells you what to do, there are a lot of people telling you what to do, but in the interior of that world where the musicians are playing it’s extremely egalitarian. And that’s what gets the work done. Even in the relations of force there is a negotiation because in Bourdieu’s scheme the man who lifts the curtain has no power: he is nobody, he has no cultural capital, he has no capital of any kind, he is the most humble person in the whole place and yet he has the power to bring everything to a stop. That is what I want to take account of. Not just that but one of the cases I cite in Art Worlds comes from a book by one of Picasso’s wives. She is telling about Picasso when he was making ceramics. Because he didn’t make ceramics, he painted on ceramics. He wanted to do something (I forget what it was) and the man who did the ceramics said, ‘This is impossible. It can’t be done’. Well, Picasso could not execute his idea; he didn’t know how to do that kind of technical stuff, but you know he was a shrewd guy so he said, ‘Hello Monsieur whatever his name was, I thought surely that a man of your experience and your expertise could do this, but perhaps I’m wrong’. And the man’s pride was wounded and he said, ‘Yes, I can do it’. And he did it. I think to talk about power relations in that kind of situation is confusing: you don’t see everything.
The other thing is it seemed to me always that Bourdieu, his real interest in art was the idea of cultural capital, where knowledge of art could be used to help your class position. There is no doubt that something like that happens from time to time but that’s a long way from what’s going on in the making of art works. Also I was very disappointed; in one of his interviews in Chose Dit he says (I think I remember this correctly), he says of course no-one really likes contemporary classical music because there is nothing to like but they pretend to because this gives them cultural capital. So I won’t comment on that; just let it stand! [Laughs]
HUO Another question, maybe, to see your position, obviously a very different position here in France, the position of Bruno Latour too and his kind of theories and also Luc Boltanski. How do you stand in relation to that?
HB OK. Latour and I, as far as I am concerned, Bruno and I are like twin souls. It’s the same way of thinking. He came to it from a different start, from a different place. He developed his ideas in relation to science, which is a different kind of activity, so there are a lot of differences but the basic idea – he uses more the term ‘network’, but it is the same thing. I don’t know if Bruno would accept that but he and I are old friends, so if he doesn’t accept it, he should! [Laughs]
HUO So he uses ‘network’; what would you use?
HB But it’s the same emphasis on everybody who is involved, the same emphasis on how they get it together, how they actually co-ordinate their activities, and all of that. He says in Science in Action that the fate of a scientific finding is in the hands of the people who pick it up afterwards. It’s true of an art work as well in my way of thinking; it’s exactly the same. Boltanski, I don’t know. Luc has not written about art yet.
HUO There is a great book out now which I started to read last week on abortion. He wrote a sociology of abortion.
HB But that is not about art.
HUO It is not about art.
HB No, he told me about that. So it’s out?
HUO Yes, just out.
HB Actually, what I am really interested in is Christian Boltanski.
HUO Can you tell me about this?
HB Well, they are just remarkable works. I have seen a lot of his work over the years and they are just remarkable for how much he achieves with so little, you know, and he does it because he uses what we have and what we will do and how we will respond. The work itself is nothing, there is nothing there, but it plays on everything that is in us to produce these marvellous effects.
The book you have in your hand, of course, the thing I am most happy about with this book – do you want to show it?—is this.
HUO The CD.
HB The CD. This is due to a friend of mine in Grenoble, Alain Pessin. Some years ago he arranged for me to receive a Doctor Honoris Causa at Grenoble. Since then every year when we are in France he says, ‘Since you have this degree you are a member of our faculty so you must come and give a conference for us’. So every Spring I go to Grenoble and give a conference – and play the piano, because on the occasion of the degree he asked if I would play the piano and I said, ‘Yes, but you must find a bass player for me’. And they did, they found a remarkably good bass player, Benoit Cancoin. So Benoit and I met on that occasion and we played and every year I go and he and I play a forty-five minute concert. The last time Alain suggested that we make a recording and he arranged for the Grande Salle of the Conservatoire and a very good recording engineer, and this is the result.
HUO It’s great.
HB Oh, it’s marvellous because I haven’t played professionally for quite a long time, but I still play.
HUO Before we move on to urbanism and Calvino, I wanted to ask you more about these cascades. (It is usually so silent, but suddenly today it is kind of noisy, but it should be alright with the microphone.) The notion of the cascade which constitutes the field. Can you tell me a bit more about that?
HB I don’t think I use that expression, that’s Latour’s expression, the cascades, because he is talking about something that happens in science in a way that it doesn’t quite in art. You don’t have this kind of building-on. So I don’t have anything to say about that.
HUO Maybe to move on with urbanism (I am also working in the urbanist field a lot with Domus) one of my main references is Italo Calvino talking about the invisible city. I was interested if you could tell me a little bit about the methodology of Calvino, which is a chapter in his book, and how you came to know Calvino and how that entered your work, and how you see the parallels between your work and what Calvino did.
HB I have been reading Calvino forever. Some years ago I came across Oulipo, the literary group Calvino belonged to in Paris, and I had began to read Georges Perec, another member of that group, who is not very well known in the United States. Calvino is very well known everywhere. So I knew the book for a long time and I don’t actually work in the field of urban sociology; it’s a whole field and I don’t work in that. But I have a very strong interest in discovering all the ways of telling about society: this is a book I mean to write one of these days.
HUO Telling about society?
HB All the ways of doing that. We think we know something, how can we tell other people about it? One way is the classic social science journal article, that’s a form. Another way is a documentary film. Another way is an anthropological analysis, an ethnography. Another way is a fiction film. Another way is a roman, [novel] etc. One of the ones that interests me a lot is statistical tables, another one is photography. I became a photographer about thirty-plus years ago.
HUO So you make photos.
HB Yes, I make photos. Not so much lately. Since Dianne, who is a photographer, and I got married I don’t do it so much, but I think about it a lot because of her work. When I learned photography I immediately saw that what the documentary photographers did was a version of what I did: you know, it’s another way. So I became curious. The biggest method I use is comparison: I do it this way, they do it that way, what is there in common, what are the differences, how do they propose a generalisation, for example. How does a photographer like Robert Frank or Walker Evans propose a generalisation? They don’t say it but they do. Or an artist like Hans Haacke. I ran across Haacke because, when I was teaching at Northwestern University, Jack Burnham, a sculptor in the art history department came to see me one day and said, ‘I am making a book about this conceptual artist, Hans Haacke. Do you know his work?’ I had seen the Guggenheim piece, so I said, ‘Yes’. He said, ‘Well, everybody in the art world complains that he is not an artist, he is a sociologist. So we would like, for this book, to have a sociologist evaluate his work as sociology’. A friend of mine, John Walton, was an expert on the power structure of American cities and Hans’ work is about the power structure of the art business, so John and I agreed to do it. We met Haacke and got to know his work very well. I was interested. That piece leads anybody who goes through it from beginning to end to a definite conclusion: that the Guggenheim Museum of Art is built on the sweat of labourers in Chile and Angola and other places around the world. He never says that, but it’s there; everybody sees it and of course he does too. So that’s a way of doing things that’s very different from the classic scientific model of ‘here’s a hypothesis, here’s my evidence, QED’.
HUO You have ten more minutes?
HB Ten more minutes. I do have to go because we have an eight o’clock dinner engagement.
HUO I am interested in the question of documentary because I have to interview Robert Frank next week, so I am very interested in this idea of the generalisation.
HB Interview who?
HUO Robert Frank, in London at the Tate; he has a retrospective. So I was curious if you could tell me a little bit more about this Robert Frank documentary, you and documentary, generalisations.
HB I studied photography because I was starting Art Worlds; I had decided I was going to do this. So I knew a lot about music from my own experience, I knew about the theatre from some other connections I had; the one thing I did not feel comfortable with was visual art because I had never done it myself because I can’t draw. It’s a much smaller disability than not being able to sing, for instance, but it is a failing. I was in San Francisco and I thought I would take a class in some kind of visual art. I lived just across the street from the San Francisco Art Institute, which is an art school, so I went over there and signed up for photography, which doesn’t require drawing. I learned to make photographs, I became acquainted with the photographic community in San Francisco, which was very active and lively. I learned about the literature of photography, so I began to see all these books and study them carefully. For a sociologist or anybody getting into photography in 1970, The Americans is a book you have to know. I studied that book very intensively and I could see that he’s like a lot of photographers, he denies having any sociological intention: ‘No, I didn’t say that. I don’t have anything to do with that’, but it’s obvious that he had many things to say about class, race, gender, age, patriotism, all of those topics, religion. They are all there in that book in a very economical and powerful way. So I said to myself, this guy is doing something not so different from what I do.
HUO It’s a parallel.
HB Yes. It’s the same thing. Just as Haacke is doing the same thing. You have to get pretty abstract to see the connections. So Calvino is doing the same thing. Some people want to treat Calvino’s book in very formalistic terms, but it is clear to me that this is a book about cities. He means it to be about cities, he has something to say about cities, and every one of those imaginary cities, his invisible cities, is an aspect of urban life. In a way it’s not dissimilar – do you know Latour’s book Paris: ville invisible [Paris: Invisible City]
HB In a way it’s the same topic, they’re talking about the same thing. Did you know that I appear in Ville invisible?
HB You have to look carefully. There’s the section on a young woman named Alice and her participation in voting in an election. Alice is in the Café de la Flore and an American couple come in. Latour says the man in this couple is a sociologist and his wife is a photographer, and there is a picture of us lurking in the background.
HUO I will check this out.
HB He doesn’t identify me or Dianne by name in the text but there is a footnote at the back of the book that says who we are. So there is a picture of us photographing Alice and her boyfriend because the sociologist says, ‘Oh, look! Such a Parisian moment!’ because they are looking in each other’s eyes.
HUO I will check this tonight.
HB So he arranged for us to come down to the Café de la Flore. That book is, of course, a marvellous use of photography.
HUO Two last questions. Maybe the last question first and then the second last question. You already talked a little about unrealised interviews; I am generally very interested in unrealised projects of artists, writers, researchers; projects which were too big to be realised, projects which were censored, projects which were too small to be realised, forgotten projects. What are your ‘unbuilt roads’?
HB That’s a good question. Well mainly, since I retired I have so much more time to work so there is much less of that. The biggest one is the book about ‘telling about society’, which I began thinking about a long time ago and I still want to finish it. Before I stopped teaching I taught a seminar on that subject twice and I just have a lot of wonderful stuff that I’d like to do. Another thing is some years ago I began a project with some other people in three different cities. We each did our own city and I interviewed—it must be sixty or seventy—people in the theatre in San Francisco and I have never written that material up and it’s a shame because they were wonderful interviews. Those are the two biggest.
I would like to play the piano better than I do, so I have begun practising a lot. I am in the middle of a project now with a good friend of mine, Robert Faulkner. We are studying the jazz repertoire, all the stuff that jazz players know that lets four people who don’t know each other come together and at nine o’clock start playing and not have any problems. This turns out to be a very complex question; it’s really interesting. But that’s in progress and that I know will get finished.
And the next to last question?
HUO There was one question within this question, because you did answer one of my questions earlier, which is about your archive. I am really curious about your archive, even if you didn’t record your early interviews, because it was too early, there must be notes.
HB There are written-down interviews. When I left Northwestern University in 1990 I had all my interviews with musicians, with schoolteachers, with medical students, all this stuff. I hadn’t looked at any of it in many, many years so I went to the librarian in charge of special collections and said, ‘Russell, so you want this because I have no use for it? I am not going to look at it again, maybe somebody will want to look at it some day but there are a lot of individuals’ names and we can’t let it be published for a long time.’ He went like this, you know he was very happy to accept all this paper, so he took it all. I learned since that they can’t find it now.
HUO It’s lost!
HB Well it’s in there somewhere, which I think is a perfect Perec ending to the story. [In fact, as I learned later, they have found it after all.]
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