When Manifesta was initiated in 1993, the nomadic biennial’s goal was explicit: to enable cultural exchange within post-Wall Europe. Like documenta, and subsequent biennials in Gwangju, Riwaq and Johannesburg, Manifesta was founded in response to political trauma. ‘We have no intention of changing the art world,’ the five international curators of the inaugural edition stated. But in what ways does the Manifesta Foundation hope to make changes in the real world? It claims to offer host cities the benefits of education for local communities, an improved cultural infrastructure and a legacy in the form of new or refurbished venues, but the cancellation of its sixth edition in 2006 – a proposed art school on the north side of the Cypriot border – was a harsh lesson on the limits of contemporary art as a salve for contested regions.
The East/West European focus of the biennial’s first decade has now shifted south, extending its purview for the first time – in both a limited and problematic way – beyond the continent’s peripheries. Manifesta 8 was organized by three different curatorial collectives: Alexandria Contemporary Arts Forum (ACAF), Chamber of Public Secrets (CPS) – from Italy, Lebanon, Scandinavia and the UK – and Tranzit.org, which comprises several independent groups from Central and Eastern Europe. The shared curatorial statement stresses that there is no ‘homogenizing preface’ and that their projects are ‘autonomous contributions’. The extreme unevenness of their exhibitions – an impressive 85 percent of which apparently comprises new work – testifies as much. In addition to dozens of related broadcasts, publications and online projects, not to mention an extensive parallel programme, Manifesta 8 is scattered among 14 venues in the culturally mixed cities of Murcia and Cartagena of southeast Spain, the latter of which has been a historically significant defence position, as well as a trading hub with the Maghreb region.
Manifesta’s designation as the European Biennial of Contemporary Art is this year appended with ‘in dialogue with northern Africa’. In reality, this isn’t so much a conversation as a monologue. There is no exhibition component in Africa (a seminar is planned there for April, but at the time of writing a city has yet to be decided upon). Worse, out of well over 100 artists and contributors, by my count less than ten were either born or are based in northern Africa. Look closer and you’ll notice that the foundation’s general statement makes a more tentative claim than the exhibition’s subtitle: Manifesta 8 is not about actual dialogue, it aims only to ‘investigate a possible dialogue with northern Africa’. In a lecture given five months before the official opening, ACAF’s Bassam El Baroni voiced some misgivings about what he called the ‘arranged marriage’ between the Murcia region and the Maghreb, wondering whether it was hoped that ACAF’s presence as Egyptian envoys (though Egypt itself is not actually part of the Maghreb) would sanctify this union.
To the credit of the three collectives, some occasionally convincing exhibitions – and one great one – have been assembled, mostly thanks to the curators’ differing (and always sceptical) interpretations of what ‘dialogue’ might mean here. Large portions, however, are miserably installed, and there are dense thickets of theoretical posturing through which to cut. The strongest component is ACAF’s main presentation, an engaging exhibition about imagined mythologies and wayward connections. Installed in the crumbling, former post office in Murcia, it includes smartly selected older work by Juan Downey and Lorraine O’Grady as well as a number of strong pieces by younger artists including Alexandre Singh, Common Culture and Jasper Rigole. Pablo Bronstein’s 2010 series of Punch-style watercolours give a sardonic view of grand displays of pan-continental affection; the wrought iron gates of an ‘Exhibition of Islamic Culture in Southern Spain’ lead to only a hazy nothingness. Baroni calls ACAF’s strategy ‘The Theory of Applied Enigmatics’ and, with Ann Veronica Janssens’ centrally placed room of rose-tinted mist (For J&L, 2010), their exhibition keeps fogged confusion at its heart.
For ‘The Rest is History?’, CPS are collaborating with various organizations – including interesting projects with the local newspaper (La Verdad) and an Al Jazeera talkshow – to produce a series of broadcasts. But two of their three shows in Cartagena – at MURAM (a regional modern art museum) and a recently closed prison – are flawed in the extreme. The former houses several presentations based on the constructs of vision, varying from the affecting tale of a Turkish artist born with no eyes who has baffled neurologists by producing single-point perspective paintings, to a residency programme in which visiting artists work in a darkened studio, aided by partially sighted local artists, to Erlea Maneros Zabala’s series of photos from the US media paired with diagrammatic explanations of optical illusions. It is an astonishingly undifferentiated presentation of moral, intellectual and physical blindness. At the San Antón Prison in the outskirts of the city, Thierry Geoffroy (in the guise of his buffoonish ‘artist colonialist’ alter ego) has unselfishly given over his allocated space to the excluded North African artists (though he unfortunately chose to call it ‘Penetration’). A scrawled sign welcomes ad hoc contributions from these artists, though the space lies empty. Clumsy and naïve, the project is symptomatic of much of CPS’ contribution.
Tranzit.org began their research process by drafting a ‘Constitution for Temporary Display’ (CTD), a series of 40 questions that they discussed extensively with the participants. Like the other collectives, they expressed doubts about the possibility of ‘dialogue’, offering instead an approach that draws possible parallels between post-colonial legacies and Tranzit’s own experiences of post-communist Europe. Much of the work here involves absurdist narratives and imperilled archives. Though their major exhibition unravels rather dismayingly across two vast former barracks in Murcia, highlights include work by Sung Hwan Kim (Manahatas Dance, 2009), The Otolith Group (Hydra Decapita, 2010), Neïl Beloufa (Kempinski, 2007), Mathieu Kleyebe Abonnenc’s search for a lost film by French director Sarah Maldoror (seized by the Algerian government in 1971) and screening of her 1969 film Monangambée, as well as Catarino Simão’s research into the Mozambique state’s film archive. Charitably speaking, Manifesta 8 is an admirable attempt to produce a biennial that is more sustained and sedimentary, in the sense that it is a cautious prelude to venturing beyond Europe’s borders. Is this enough though? The last couple of years have seen an increased level of consideration among cities about whether to host a biennial – a concern manifested in a 2009 conference in Bergen (‘To Biennial or Not to Biennial?’) and a similar 2010 convention in Falmouth, which mooted a possible Cornish bid for Manifesta. With these approaches in mind, why did the Manifesta Foundation choose to couch a research project in the conventional form of an exhibition? And why does the result still resemble a familiar, large-scale international exhibition spread among the usual pre-existing institutions and reclaimed spaces? What does this structural continuity say about the dominance of certain exhibition models? Why not imagine new forms that grow from the new sites and contexts? These are all things that Manifesta 9 will need to consider.