The conversation between Nikolaus Hirsch and Tobias Rehberger on the occasion of the completion of Rehberger's spiral bridge in Oberhausen was originally published in Domus 950/September 2011 in a shorter version.
Nikolaus Hirsch: You are an artist, I am an architect. What interests me in this constellation is how disciplines define practices and how they extend and renegotiate their territories. Nowadays you are increasingly working outside museums and galleries, in spaces or contexts that are traditionally more often occupied by architects and engineers—that is, in my field. There seem to be more and more hybrid territories between our two professions. The most recent example of this phenomenon is your new work Slinky springs to fame, a pedestrian bridge in Oberhausen. At seven kilometres long, this spiral is probably your largest work ever.
Tobias Rehberger: It's by far the biggest piece I've ever done, and maybe the biggest I will ever do.
Can you describe the genesis of this project?
It was an open invitation to an exhibition called Emscher Kunst, as part of the Ruhr area's 2010 European Capital of Culture programme. Florian Matzner, the curator of the Emscher Kunst project, invited a number of artists to stay there for a couple of days. We studied potential sites and spaces for possible artworks. At some point I found myself standing in the place where the bridge is now. To my back was a castle that is now a museum, and on the other side was a 1930s-era sports ground, with the two sites separated by the Rhine-Herne Canal. As I stood there, I thought it would be nice to be able to walk from that spot over to the other side.
So the idea of the bridge was your idea, not a brief coming from urban planners? You somehow invented your own brief.
Exactly, it was not a commission. I told the curator that it would be great if we could make a bridge here. I'm not sure why, but I've always liked bridges—the way they look, the way they function, the way they become landmarks. At first I didn't really believe in the proposal, but Matzner spoke to the people from the city and from the Emscher Genossenschaft (a company of sorts responsible for redevelopment along the Emscher, a river flowing through the Ruhr region), and said they would all really like me to do a bridge. He said, you know what, I talked to those people and they said they would really like you to do a bridge and ask me for some sketches.
So the work is a product of coincidence. You invented a commission for an infrastructure. This is quite unique since a bridge is usually the result of long-term master planning. Yet yours belonged to the shorter rhythms of the art world and its exhibition formats.
That's right. They were extremely happy about it because the possibility of doing the bridge as an art project meant they could draw on EU funding and thus solve a financial problem. I first made a couple of rough sketches on paper before talking to the architect who works for me in the studio. We then made a rough computer sketch and the whole engineering process began immediately after that.
By defining the engineered infrastructure as an artwork it was possible to enter another economy.
Exactly. And then I made a couple of rough sketches first alone on paper and then I talked to my architect who works for me in the studio and we made a rough computer sketch that was sent to them and immediately after they called and said, it's fantastic, it's great, they love it, they want to do it. And then the whole process began of course with the engineering.
You worked with Schlaich Bergermann & Partner from Stuttgart, one of the most expert studios in the field of bridge engineering.
I didn't know them at all. My contact was Mike Schlaich, with whom I discussed the technical possibilities. My idea of a spiral was inspired by the Slinky, the toy developed in the 1940s. Right from the start the two main elements were a black spiral and a colourful band for walking on that went through the spiral. We tried to make the spiral itself structural. Of course, that was a paradox as I'd chosen the spiral precisely because it's a very un-structural object. Despite our efforts, we had to give up on the idea because the spiral became such a monster in order to become structural. I insisted on the walkway running through the spiral and in the end Mike Schlaich came up with a structural solution: a slender, nine-centimetre-thick so-called Spannbandbrücke, which is a kind of upside-down suspension bridge. The aluminium spiral looks flexible, stressing that walking over the bridge is not just about going from A to B. You have other choices. It was more about combining the two spots on either side of the river with a certain kind of experience.
How would you describe the process between you, the artist, and Mike Schlaich, the engineer?
I would describe it as a kind of ping-pong game in which I made the service. Mike Schlaich would then do a return proposal in a way that made sense to him, and then I would take that up, change it again, and give it a different spin, a bit of slice or topspin, so to speak. Each of us always reacted to what the other did.
I assume that there are limits to such a playful ping-pong collaboration: hard criteria such as structural calculations and material properties.
If an engineer tells you that something doesn't work, you have to rethink. You can insist on certain things, but you can't insist on other things. We went through a long process of off-roads and dead ends. But if you look at the first sketches and look at the results, they are almost exactly the same.
Working on a bridge in a complex urban environment entails addressing all sorts of structural necessities and pragmatics. Is there more resistance, or a greater number of pragmatic problems, involved with the outside environment compared to the safe and controlled environment of a museum?
I wouldn't say there is less resistance. In museums it initially seems that the problems are minor, but in the end you are just as limited in the museum space as you are anywhere else. The idea of the white cube suggests that there's nothing to restrict the artwork, but that's not true. Museums are interesting precisely because there are problems, not because they're so neutral.
Does this mean that the white cube engineers the possibilities?
Yes, it does something to the artwork. It's the same problem as a landscape or as a spiral. When you were saying in the beginning that I work more and more in other fields than just the museum, I'm not implying that the museum is not an interesting space any more. The museum is interesting because there are problems, not because it's so neutral.
Some of the problems appear through functional criteria. There are functional aspects in some of your work for museums and biennials, for instance the Café at the Venice Biennale. I wonder how you think about the relation between art and service, about …
Exactly, this strong word of applied art, and all the clichés about relational aesthetics. In architecture the functional relation is very present as a brief and as use value—although you could argue whether these givens are just pretexts for the autonomy of architecture. What is your take on the autonomy of art?
First of all, I think it's a myth that art is really autonomous because it is so linked to and involved with many other things. It always serves a function—even the most abstract sculpture in the whitest, most cube-like museum space. Since there is a necessity to do that, there is also a function, it's unavoidable. I don't believe in autonomous art, I don't think it exists. Secondly, for me it's important that I don't consider something to be art because there is something artistic in it. It's not like there's a core that you're trying to lay open and which would then allow you to understand it as "art." I think art is a perspective. Something is art because you want it to be art, because you look at it with certain parameters of quality that indicate what you classify as art, and so it's a projection. I could describe the recording machine in front of us as a sculpture. The question is how successful it is in a certain system of qualities, but that we use it as a recorder is only because the qualities of a recorder in it seem to be greater than the qualities of it as a sculpture. I like the possibility of being able to switch perspective, or making it obvious that switching perspective with an artwork also turns it into something else. So, of course, my interest in all this is about the nature of sculpture today. So that is my first perspective, but in order to talk about it I have to give the possibility to not see it as a sculpture. I always like the moment of people are able to deal with it without having any parameters or any status quo of thinking about an artwork.
Switching function on and off becomes a potential. The assumption that something is functional also opens up a kind of freedom that is dysfunctional—not in a negative sense but in the sense of a productive misunderstanding.
In the moment I introduce functionality, it is already a kind of dysfunction in the context of the idea of the autonomous artwork. So all these misunderstandings are productive because from there we could go on thinking where it comes from or what else it could be. To give you an example: a couple of years ago, on a hot summer day I was in front of Mies' Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin. There is a piece by Richard Serra, a rusty metal cube. It was a hot day and I was waiting for somebody and I just jumped on the cube and sat down on it. It was really cold and suddenly looking at the Richard Serra with my ass instead of my eyes it brought up a completely different kind of question. It was still a sculpture, but it developed a quality that I haven't expected and it was a kind of functional.
The bridge in Oberhausen is a collaboration between an artist and an engineer. Maybe we can broaden the debate from the practice of collaboration to the question of relations between disciplines and the factors that distinguish them. Are disciplines still relevant? Do you reach a critical point where everything dissolves in a generic, transdisciplinary territory, which might be an area of total compromise? The crucial question is: how can one collaborate without compromise? Collaboration has a double side: a togetherness in a specific practice, and the negative connotation of betraying, the French "collaborateur" in the sense of fraternising with the enemy.
I think the disciplines are relevant because they provide a structural model. You need a certain kind of playground, what I describe as a perspective, i.e., using certain parameters to define the qualities of something. I like to describe it as a kind of chewing gum: it has some limits, but it remains flexible. Its border is the contemporary world. That's where people like to pull and push and try to make it into something else automatically. And I think it's just a kind of a description of a certain system.
So art and architecture are systems, systemic views that differentiate themselves permanently and reinvent their boundaries.
Precisely. That's why I don't think there is something in something that makes it art, it's only the way you look at it, that's your parameters, that's the way your brain thinks what art is or your brain thinks what architecture is. You can discuss it under these parameters, but then you could also discuss it under other parameters. I could totally imagine myself as an artist making a cardboard box that is more interesting as a cardboard box than as an artwork. But I could also imagine myself making a house that is more interesting as a sculpture than as a piece of architecture. I would only call myself a sculptor because that's my perspective, that's what I'm interested in and that's where my questions come from and that's the system I'm trying to push and pull.
Allow me to offer a consideration regarding the disciplines of art, architecture and engineering. Architecture lies somewhere in between the other two. The Oberhausen project is a collaboration between an artist and an engineer, and it annihilates the rather blurry position of the architect. I wonder whether, in the 21st century, it is possible to think of disposing of architects in favour of a field that is negotiated between artist and engineers.
I don't think so, because there have to be people who make architecture. That doesn't mean you have to make a bridge or even a house, but you have to make architecture, you have to discuss, you have to pull and push your chewing gum. Even if we didn't need architects to build anything any more, I think we would still need architects to discuss the issue of architecture. Architecture starts from the moment when the building or whatever it is (it could be a cardboard box or a sheet of paper) reflects on its own discipline and on its own limitations and possibilities. It's the same with art.
That's an interesting point because the cultural understanding of architecture is maybe the idea that architecture delivers more than just a use value. This is what one could define as the difference between architecture and building.
Exactly, and they should. But they should …
I think what is interesting in a way is this idea of the surplus of it, that's going beyond the building, is somehow very different from the kind of surplus that is produced in the art field.
I think there was a moment in the 20th century where there was the idea you could detach the surplus from anything so you could only have the surplus which would make it the purest art, which I don't believe in because, you know. A classic example would be minimalism with its idea that you could cut everything away from the art as much as possible and then the real art appears, the essence of art appears, and that is the idea of the surplus. But then if you look at it, you know, like whether it goes on the market or it hangs in a museum because there was a museum director who liked it and somebody else takes it off because they don't like it and so on and so forth, you know, there was always a functional moment to it. The only way you could do that is to make something that nobody ever sees, nobody ever understands and nobody ever notices that it exists. Then you would really achieve a kind of completely unfunctional object. What would you say is the surplus in architecture?
Maybe architecture is already a kind of surplus. An excess from building. Functionality might be a starting point but in the end it is very much also about the discourses and conflicts that make architecture.
The moment where a building becomes architecture or something that an architect does or where you introduce it into the system is the moment where it becomes aware of the system itself. Otherwise it is, as you said, a building. But the moment when architecture starts is when the building or whatever it is, it could be a cardboard box or it could be a sheet of paper—no matter what—if it reflects about its own discipline and about its own limitations and possibilities, then it becomes architecture. That's the same with art: The moment an artwork reflects about the possibilities and the limitations it has, it becomes art. And that has nothing to whether it's functional or not.
This is also the reason why the disciplines and also their names are still productive—even as a productive misunderstanding.
Exactly. You need this framework, otherwise you can't reflect on anything. This is not completely fixed. The moment you introduce something, it changes the system. In order to be able to talk about something, you need these limitations, but the moment you talk about it, they change at the same time.