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Manifesta 8, Afterimage Vol 38, No. 4, Jan/Feb 2011

January 28, 2011

Curatorial Inquiry

Manifesta 8


October 9, 2010–January 9, 2011

The Manifesta Foundation chose the Murcia region of Spain for the eighth edition of the nomadic European biennial of contemporary art. Located at the southern edge of Europe, Manifesta 8 proposed an artistic dialogue with northern Africa. This thematic subtext aimed to assess the potential for a roaming pan-African biennial, but it was largely sidestepped and replaced with a broader set of questions: What is the nature of citizenship? What is the function of art? How does the media reflect and construct local and global realities?

Manifesta 8 proposes an innovative model for exhibition making, replacing the individual curatorial statement with a discursive, collaborative inquiry that reflects the current burgeoning return of the group formation within art practice. Three curatorial collectives—, Chamber of Public Secrets (CPS), and Alexandria Contemporary Arts Forum (ACAF)—have carried out independent projects that share mutualities of context with obvious points of intersection. Over one hundred artists are displaying newly commissioned artworks across fourteen different venues, outdoor spaces, and media platforms.

The outcome of this collective curatorial model produces complexity that is often challenging to decipher. At the same time, this network of interconnected relationships allows for a transparency of evolving relational encounters: conversations, broadcasts, critiques, think-tanks, interviews, and audience participation. Dialogue is very much on display, functioning both as a methodology and as an archive of process.

Employing institutional critique to question existing models and routine conventions, has created a “Constitution for Temporary Display.” Critiquing the biennial “spectacularization of culture” and the dichotomy between local and global, works collaboratively with artists to forge new ways for diverse narratives to coexist within the ephemeral exhibition space. The dominance of site-specific work provokes a reflection on human histories within a particular location, although some stories are more persuasive than others. Manahatas Dance (2009), a compelling video work by Sung Hwan Kim, draws the audience into a seductive world of memory. Figurative sequences portray urban scenarios that are quirky, yet dark and unsettling. The audio is interspersed with melodic nursery rhymes and quotes from Barack Obama’s inauguration speech.

ACAF has formulated a complex “Theory of Applied Enigmatics” for the exhibition, which analyzes the condition of art today. Examining the function of the historical archive, the dissemination of fact, and the subjective nature of truth, ACAF aims to interrogate received ideas and discourses concerning contemporary social issues. ACAF’s Backbench[i] (2010) is a functional structure, consisting of two sets of tiered seating positioned to face each other. Backbench was utilized to accommodate participants during a three-day workshop that was filmed and subsequently displayed in the form of a multi-channel documentary installation. The workshop was attended by four art collectives and two mediators, who debated issues such as sustainability within the biennial model. The filming techniques used convey a reality-TV aesthetic, with close-ups during tense discussions. In one segment, the camera pans across the room to follow participants as they stage a walk out, even filming one in the car-park as he smokes and complains to a fellow participant. Unsure of the rules of engagement, participants ultimately descended into a critique of the “critique model,” providing a Big Brother lesson in democracy. Conflict, chaos, abandonment—how can Backbench be fixed?

The media’s role in the construction of reality is most actively explored in CPS’s curatorial project ¿The Rest is History? Displaying new strategies for ‘aesthetic journalism’[ii] (such as the art documentary within new media social realism), a shift in the production of truth from the news media to art is represented. Fore-fronting artistic inquiry as a model for reflection on our current position, CPS examines the divisive strategies of media production, proposing that “reality is not a fact to be understood, but rather an effect to be produced.”[iii] Presenting a series of transmissions examining the production of truth, CPS skillfully addresses issues of visuality, surveillance, and conflict within the spectrum of mediation and reportage.

Thierry Geoffry’s Penetration (2010) combines installation and on-the-street news reportage and is displayed in the Media Lounge venues and online, highlighting the elusiveness of thematic “locality” within the biennial format. In La Verdad (2010), Fay Nicholson printed installments in a local newspaper in order to examine the role of the mass print media in the circulation of local realities. What We Might Have Heard in the Future (2010), a radio-theatre piece by Angel Nevarez and Valerie Tevere, uses futuristic conversations and automated voice verification to pose a Roland Barthes-style question: “What would become of a society that ceased to reflect on itself?” Stefanos Tsivopoulos’s Amnesialand (2010) offers an illuminating perspective on documentary fiction. Upon reflection, this series of installed projections  provokes questions of a philosophical nature: Where do the images of memory go when people die?

The publication Nolens Volens No.4: Mediascapes (2010) was edited in collaboration with Alfredo Cramerotti (a member of CPS) and informed by the collective’s curatorial role in Manifesta 8. The text comments on a shift in the production of truth, from the news media to art, re-functioning an investigative tradition back into a broader public domain. This process raises doubts about the claimed objectivity of traditional formats and encourages the audience to question their own position. What is “news?” What is “public?” Crucially, it seems, art does something journalism fails to do: it reflects on its own methods and means of production. For Manifesta 8, this reflection ruminates over the apparatus of the biennial format. Theoretical frameworks were devised and made highly visible through this curatorial approach—a worthwhile, if slightly self-conscious effort.

Joanne Laws is a critical writer based in the west of Ireland.

[i] “Backbench” refers directly to the political term “backbencher” that denotes, in the Westminster parliamentary system, a member of parliament who holds no governmental office

[ii] Alfredo Cramerotti, ‘Aesthetic Journalism – How To Inform Without Informing’, (University of Chicago press, 2009)

[iii] Rana Dasgupta, Nina Montmann, and Avi Pitchon (eds.) ‘Manifesta 8: The European Biennial of Contemporary Art, Region of Murcia (Spain) in Dialogue with North Africa’, (Milano: Silvana, 2010)

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