Hans Ulrich Obrist Interview with Howard Becker

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Becker, Howard and Hans Ulrich Obrist. "Hans Ulrich Obrist Interview with Howard Becker." In The Welfare Show, edited by Ariane Beyn. Elmgreen & Dragset, 2005 (?) http://home.earthlink.net/~hsbecker/articles/obrist.html (accessed March 4, 2009).

Key Words: interviews, participant observation, cooperation, listening

Other Words: archives, Studs Terkel, Chicago, conferences, David Mamet, Wizard of Oz, art world(s), Pierre Bourdieu, Bruno Latour, Luc Boltanski, Christian Boltanski, Italo Calvino, telling about society, Robert Frank, Hans Haacke, unbuilt roads


This is an interview about interviews. Interviewer Hans Ulrich Obrist (HUO) begins by situating his dialogue with sociologist Howard Becker (HB) in relation to HUO’s project titled, ‘infinite conversation,’ discussions with philosophers, architects and artists. HUO then pitches his interviewee a two-part question: “Could you tell me a little about how you use interviews in your work and the importance of interviews?”. According to HB, interviewing is a way to find out what happened when he wasn’t there.

What I really want to find out is how people organize themselves to get something done. What I’ve been thinking about for many years is how people organize 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.

It seems HB and I share a fascination in what happens “off the page” in organizations. Hence, I’m especially interested in his use of interviews to plot cooperation in retrospect. For HB, a useful strategy involves a two-query approach. He asks: "How did you get into [whatever it is you’re doing]?” and “Then what happened?”. While situational beginnings and problems are of particular interest to HB, he also recognises the importance of initiating interviews with questions that open up dialogue. “I don’t ask, ‘What do you think about this: a,b,c, or d?’ I ask, ‘What happened?’ What did you do?”. Similarly, “…never ask somebody, ‘Why did you do that?’ Always ask them, ‘How did that happen?” This is because asking someone why they did something is tantamount to asking them to justify what they did. This tack is sure to put them on the defensive.

Other “tricks of the trade” (which, not incidentally is the name of HB’s text on research techniques) include keeping quiet and listening. Too often interviewers dominate the conversation, only to wonder afterward why it is they learned so little of significance.

What strikes me about HB’s approach is his apparent unconcern with the accuracy of his impressions. Many of his interviews are unrecorded, as cumbersome equipment--even notes and paper--can hamper conversational flow. Added to this, transcripts are difficult to render accurately, often making them expensive and unreliable records. Hence, HB prefers capturing his impressions in post-conversation notes.

HB likens interviews to a "habit" rather than a "method". This habit might be described as an informal and almost compulsive type of participant observation. It's a practice...

See also this quote in which Becker reflects on David Mamet's understanding of character dynamics in scenes.

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