The Van Alen Gets Formulaic

Rem Koolhaas and Hans Ulrich Obrist on June 13, 2008 at the Van Alen Institute. Photo by Patrick Hannaway, Courtesy of Van Alen Institute.

Switzerland’s Hans Ulrich Obrist may well be the curators’ curator. In the past fifteen years, he has organized over 150 global exhibitions, collaborating with countless figureheads such as Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, Danish installation artist Olafur Eliasson, and the late, great Philip Johnson. Obrist has spent much of his career assembling forums and asking questions to a global audience and with Formulas for Now: Hans Ulrich Obrist’s New York Interviews, he asks architects, artists, mathematicians, scientists, and taxi drivers his most sweeping question yet: “What is your formula for now?

So what does Obrist mean by “formula?” He cites the exhibit’s genesis to an interview he did a few years back with chemist Albert Hofman, the inventor of LSD. Hofman drew the simple LSD formula on a piece of paper and handed it to Obrist. Suddenly, the idea for Formulas was born. It became a quest for that kind of “elegant simplicity: the crystallization of a potentially complex idea translated into a single equation,” Obrist says.

The Van Alen Institute in Manhattan is now host to roughly 356 minutes of unedited videos, spanning the last seven years of Obrist’s Formula interviews. In addition, the Institute is presenting Obrist’s latest interview, one filmed just a few weeks ago on the premises with Yoko Ono.

Part of the fun in watching these videos is observing how Obrist plays with various combinations of interview techniques. With Yoko Ono and Philip Johnson, Rem Koolhaas joins him as his onscreen wingman. The Dutch architect’s role is more pronounced than Obrist’s; Koolhaas is flashy and whimsical, Obrist more subdued. In the Johnson interview (conducted in 2001), Obrist barely even emerges from behind the camera, while Koolhaas quips and cajoles the ninety-five year old Johnson. Meanwhile, Obrist stakes claim as the visionary eye behind the larger project—the cameraman who catches Johnson in subtle turns of mischief, befuddlement, reminiscence, and outright brilliance during the fifty minutes of film.

Obrist says that if the so-called “formulas” explored in Formulas For Now, “succeed in familiarizing audiences with the expansive, even absurd, thoughts occupying some of our greatest minds, they have fulfilled their basic charge.” It is his overarching aim, however, that these conversations “inspire new forms of cultural dialogue and can perhaps even serve as a template for related ventures to come.”

The exhibit runs through August 15.

Categories: Arts + Culture