Hans Ulrich Obrist is Artistic Director at the Serpentine Galleries in London. His Instagram feed is a curated space in itself which celebrates handwriting. His mission is to save the written word from extinction. The following text was taken from a conversation Hans had with Lisa Luxx.
Everything I do develops out of conversations. It’s an exchange, it’s a dialogue, it’s often a friendship. The project started during the Christmas holiday when I was with the poet Etel Adnan and artists Simone Fattal and Koo Jeong A. We were in a café where we were seeking shelter from the rain, and whilst I typed on my phone, Etel wrote a beautiful poem on a paper napkin. That, in a way, prompted me to start the project.
I would always ask the artist to write something out of a conversation, or very often pick up a sentence they’ve just said. It’s really just what fits on a piece of paper. I have Post-its because I love Post-its and so often artists use my Post-its, though sometimes they want to use their own paper.
While I was growing up in Switzerland I discovered the work of Robert Walser, 1878-1956. Already as an adolescent I was very fascinated by his microscripts, these tiny, microscopic, inscrutable, seemingly invisible scripts which he called “pencil method”. They were drawn on very small fragments of paper, quite often on found papers, like business cards and so on. For many decades we assumed that they would not be decipherable. However, the great Werner Morlang, who just died recently, to whom I would like to dedicate this interview, dedicated decades of his life to show that they can be deciphered. I think that my passion for handwriting comes from a childhood and adolescent obsession with Robert Walser, and the beauty of these little scraps of paper. I mean, they are not drawings, but they are doodles. They are visual documents.
I’ve never had training as a calligrapher, but obviously at school, we learned handwriting with a fountain pen. It was only possible in our childhood to write in ink, something which is now much less present. I think the importance of handwriting came from a text of Umberto Eco’s, that we should reintroduce calligraphy courses because, through the computer, handwriting faces potential extinction. This is why I have decided to celebrate handwriting on social media, and to use Instagram and Twitter as the medium.
The experience of handwriting for me has always been as a way of thinking. I’m a doodler. I doodle, sketch, draw and handwrite every day. It’s the way I develop every exhibition and every book. Of course I write on the computer but every idea starts with a doodle. And I doodle non-stop, on trains, and a lot during conversation. I doodle a lot when I sit on panels in conferences. I just do it because I have always been so anxious to speak in public. To fight this anxiety, I feel slightly more secure when I doodle.
I’m not an expert in graphology [identifying psychology or personality through handwriting], but I think you can tell a lot by it. The beauty of it is that no two people ever have the same handwriting. Every person who reads this conversation has a different handwriting from any other. In a way there are as many different handwritings as there are human beings on the planet, and so in a way – it’s very much resisting homogenization.
Today I posted the artist Gustav Metzger, who is now in his late eighties and is one of the key pioneers of art of the second half of the twentieth century and beginning of the twenty-first century, the founder of auto-destructive art, and a great inspiration. Gustav says that if you talk about “climate change” then nothing will ever really change. You should talk about extinction as a wake-up call, which prompted us to do the Serpentine Galleries Extinction Marathon in 2014. It’s interesting that actually it’s Gustav who says, “As artists we need to take an ongoing stand against the ongoing erasure of species. Even when there is little chance of ultimate success, it is our privilege and duty to be at the forefront of the struggle. While humanity has moved through extreme crises in the past, time and speed is of the essence.”
There is the idea that the protest against the extinction of species, as A.S. Byatt shows also, smaller species disappear—when is the last time you saw a centipede?—but also cultural phenomena. Susan Hiller shows us that languages disappear, more and more of them. And of course handwriting is in danger of extinction.
I think the relationship between social media and analogue art is Both/And instead of Either/Or or Nor/Nor. Radio was not destroyed by television but was reinvented, and today it is a more dynamic medium than ever before. I think in the time of digitalization, and of the internet, there is an increased desire for analogue things. The book hasn’t disappeared at all. Live concerts and exhibitions are more important than ever. So I think it’s often a relationship of complementarity, of reciprocity. I don’t think that one thing replaces the other. In any case we need to find ways of combining, of making hybrids between analogue and digital.
This is a movement, so it goes beyond a project. I won’t stop it until handwriting is back. I hope more people will follow it, not because I want to have more followers but because I want people all over the world to celebrate handwriting again, and so there’s no end in sight. It’s a movement, it’s a struggle. In a similar way to the topic of extinction, as Gustav says, it’s not a project you start and then stop. It’s a very long-term project with no end in sight. And at some point there might be Volume 1 of the book.
Find Hans on Instagram by clicking here.