Hans-Ulrich Obrist in a conversation with Karl-Heinz Klopf
KHK: Here are the first pages of the layout, so you can see how the publication will be structured. There are text fragments from the interviews that have been interwoven. Each text fragment has its own page so that this excerpt is taken from the context and a new level of reception can emerge. On the upper margin of each page the temporal position and the duration of the text clip in the video is specified. Thus one can see when the given section from the interviews appears in the film. Stills from the video are shown at irregular intervals between the texts.
HUO: That's a good point of departure for our conversation, namely the idea that one does an interview on the interviews. It is actually like an inversion; you are being interviewed after you yourself interviewed all these urbanists, architects and net participants in Asia and elsewhere, asking them about extreme urban conditions, media, architecture, net experiences etc. Maybe we could begin by you speaking about interviews in an interview and how it all began and why you selected the interview technique and whether there was somehow a triggering moment . . .
KHK: The point of departure was the idea of juxtaposing built cities with spaces that emerge from digital networks, such as the Internet, since the latter is most widespread. I thought that it would be most interesting to interview persons who live in different cities and work a lot with the computer interface and networks. The interview situation seemed most natural for this. It began when I went to public netbase in Vienna where I myself have an account and first asked the kids who are moving daily in the net there how they use it, etc. This work then expanded, I travelled from city to city, meeting with people there, some of whom had been recommended to me and others whom I had discovered over the network. At the same time, I made shots on the cities, that is, the physical environment where the users live and move about on a day-by-day basis.
HUO: You always visited the place where the person being interviewed actually lives or works? Did that always take place at the same location? That is in a studio, lab, architectural office or even in a café?
KHK: That was very different, depending on each person’s preference. I simply asked them where they would prefer to do the interview. That could be in studios, or offices, or apartments or, as in Tokyo—and that is significant for Tokyo—on a bench in a public square of the city. The artist Marina Griznic spent a year there, and so for her it was most fitting to select a public location.
HUO: Our conversation here is taking place in connection with the Cities on the Move exhibition at the Lousiana Museum in Copenhagen where you are participating with this video. The question that poses itself is the reference. Here the city, the city in Asia, and your research on the subject of the network. There is very much literature to this reference, to this analogy: city and network. There are some very nice remarks that Friedrich Kittler made to the effect that cities are not like trees, and also not graphs that can be folded, but that the big city always represents a sort of overlapping, a frequency of events, crossings and is actually much more complex than the Internet is or can be. He extends even further in the sense that the Internet often uses city terminologies such as routing or bus. I thought that you could perhaps say something about this analogy which figures in your work.
KHK: These analogies and metaphors that keep resurfacing in computer jargon and in this connection, they were indeed an important motivation for making such a work. Another point of departure was the fact that in architectural theory and in many ideas of architects the level of technology and the level of communication with the new technical means has been a crucial point. This was already so at the beginning of the twentieth century, then for Corbusier, then for instance for Kenzo Tange, who had such thoughts for the replanning of Tokyo in 1960, and continues to be important up until the present, like for example for Ito, Hasegawa, Sejima and Koolhaas. For architects these references to technologies and media are extremely significant. What I intended with the overlappings in the video was a juxtaposition of these two situations in which they would become more condensed. The structure of Environments is mounted in that way that two separate levels exist: the audio level and the video level. Two levels that are hardly broken, with short cut-outs where one also sees the persons talking. The hermetic quality existing between both levels is thus only sometimes perforated. The perforation, for me, brings forth a third level. The recalled image of the speaker is sensed by the viewer. In this form the physically constructed level, the level of the technical means of communication and the mental level are rendered in the film. I wanted to condense these three levels. For me, this has a lot to do with urbanity, and I have referred to this also as Hyper City. A city where various locational and spatial substances converge. Not just what is constructed but also the mental dimension which is also ever more provoked by the urban condition.
HUO: Hyper now appears more often in connection with the extreme urban conditions of the nineties in Asia and elsewhere. Rem Koolhaas developed a hyperbuilding for Bangkok which is supposed to be about a kilometer high.
KHK: And you also find this notion already in the fifties and sixties, in Constant for example.
HUO: You mentioned Tange, you could also mention metabolism. It is also interesting when you see in Europe, one is talking there about the precursors of such urban network ideas. I am thinking of the New Babylon work by Constant that you mentioned, it is one example. Cedric Price who is also represented here in Cities on the Move with a wonderful city as a network drawing of Tokyo. A very important precursor. What is also really interesting is this oscillating, what took place between Europe and Asia, which was very important for an exhibition such as Cities on the Move. Initially, the hundred years of Secession, the Secessionists were very strongly influenced by Japan. Then there is a first Japanese Secession, as a first modern movement in Japan. You can trace all this back and forth quite strongly, when you talk with the architects from Asia in this exhibition, you also sense how much they all venerate Cedric Price and see him as an extremely important influence that triggered a lot. Simply through the AA and his whole idea of extreme urbanity and the ideas about the city. At the same time there was also the great influence of Asia on the whole Archigram movement, if you read Peter Cook on Japan. That is to say, it went back and forth. It is no longer a linearity, it is also no longer this idea of an influence from one place to another. In Copenhagen we are showing for the first time the Kohlhaas project of an airport city and an airport in the sea before Holland. It is a project that Koolhaas defines as an Asian project in Europe.
KHK: This reciprocal influencing, that has been going on already for over a hundred years.
HUO: And that is the idea of the exhibition as a network, that the exhibition triggers that. Could you perhaps say in what way the computer, the Internet and e-mail are changing how architects and artists work?
KHK: I have the feeling that it is not just artists and architects who are experiencing things this way. You, too, are for me a very good example that the computer network has become a crucial factor for one being able to work the way you do. Ten years ago an exhibition in this form would not have been possible at all, one that moves in such short intervals, changes and is constantly being updated. And this way buildings are also created and change – a process that is often supervised from a great distance. Both in art and in architecture the phases of development have accelerated. In addition, it is much easier to log into other areas. What we also discussed yesterday, that in this way it is possible to cooperate with ever more disciplines. New crossings emerge and the network, in turn, becomes more dense.
HUO: As Steven Johnson points out in a recent article in Feed Magazine that there is a relationship between the city and neurosciences today. The metaphor of the city can be expanded to the role of positive loops in learning which implies that the cellular basis of learning lies in the repetition of neural circuits. Do you relate your topics to science?
KHK: My approach is based on the reflection of spatial experiences in built surroundings. How is something built, how does this construction function, and how do we make ourselves at home in it? The space that I am trying to describe consists of a myriad of connections, references and overlappings. There are spatial complexes that are interwoven and interact. Thus, for instance, the mental spaces like memories that are largely generated by experiences in the physical environment. Then the technical and, at the same time, the global networks to which infinitely many sub-networks are connected. And they are all active at the same time. If one imagines it this way, then the resulting image is one of infinitely many operations that are very similar to the feedback circuits of neuronal networks. But first and foremost, I am interested in the structures of urban spaces that can be experienced, the spaces of information, the communication spaces, how these are created by various means and how they appear. I find this material in cities and in particular in the very large cities. It fascinates me to render this density and in so doing to perhaps filter out new views.
HUO: What made you decide to make a book on your research? Why no video catalogue or website?
KHK: I made forty interviews and recorded a total of fifty hours of video material. The 86 minutes of the video are an extract of this material. There is so much information contained in it that I find another approach to the content interesting – one that would give one a completely different way of dealing with the theme and would also allow one to find new references. A book is a form that can do without a technical interface. One is un-wired and thus mobile. To have a book along when you are on the go, to read about urban spaces in the airplane – that is a beautiful experience for me. A book can also provide information that is not appropriate and possible in a video. You can leaf through it, navigate your way through stills and texts from the video. It is a form that is also very fitting for this theme.
HUO: How did the persons you interviewed react?
KHK: It was a very positive experience. I contacted most of them by e-mail and informed them about my project. The talks on location were also very uncomplicated then. Only with Ravi Sundaram things did not work out at first in Delhi. He missed his plane in New York and thus only arrived in Delhi after I had left for Hong Kong. A few weeks later he came to Austria and so I was able to do the interview with him. The video, however, shows the Indian towns that accompany Ravi’s explanations. By meeting with many people for whom using computer networks has become an everyday matter, my own scope of work has been expanded. It is one further experience of how you can sound out new fields in artistic work and facilitate cooperations. It was something novel for many persons I spoke to that artists are working in such a way.
HUO: Were there any interviews that did not materialize?
KHK: I would have also liked to meet people who use the network in a completely different way, but it didn't work out. For instance, the programmer, extropist and WWW exhibitionist Romana Machado from Silicon Valley or Jennifer Ringley, the woman who has an online camera in her apartment so that everyone can partake of her everyday life. I never sought to create a complete image of the inhabitants of the network, and it also would not have been possible.
HUO: Can you tell me something at the end of this conversation that you have never told anyone before?
KHK: This video work should be seen as a cutting of a certain period on a certain theme. The interviews were made between November 1997 and May 1998. These are moments showing aspects that reflect the expanded urban conditions. Already in these few months in which I heard so many statements and stories about the network I have noticed how whatever is thought or said about it has changed. At the same time, there are always things to be heard that one long sees differently, or which one can no longer hear, for instance, when the equality of conditions is discussed. There can be no talk of such equality any time soon and there probably never will be. I, however, also accepted such positions, since I am not just after documenting the structure of a netspace but the extended notion of the urban as results from computer networks. I am interested in the ambivalences, in how spaces emerge, how new interstices are created, what forms of information and communication look like and what dimensions these phenomena have. The environment in which many of us are moving has expanded to an explosive degree.
Humblebaek, January 1999
Published in: Karl-Heinz Klopf – Environments. Wien: Triton Verlag. 1999.