Pulling Off a Biennial in a Pandemic: An Interview with Manifesta’s Alya Sebti

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BY Pablo Larios in Interviews | 04 AUG 20

This year, against all odds, Manifesta 13 will open in Marseille, France. It hasn’t been easy, with pandemic, travel restrictions and economic effects challenging every aspect of exhibition-making. Pablo Larios spoke with Alya Sebti, who is part of Manifesta’s artistic team, about putting together a biennial in a pandemic, and what to expect to Marseille, on site and on-line.

Pablo Larios: Manifesta was founded as the ‘nomadic European biennial’. But this year we found ourselves not nomadic at all – we’re stuck in place. How did the pandemic force you to rethink the exhibition?

Anya Sebti: Once we decided to go forward in Marseille, we asked the artists: do you want to take part? And do you need or want to change your project, in light of the state of things? And the same goes for some artists who are, for instance, coming from a place like Morocco: the whole idea of flying in and out a participant, or shipping work, has changed completely. So it’s healthy to think of Manifesta as an experiment. We’ll make no sacrifices in the quality in the content, but – in performances, for instance – when the whole idea of the interaction of the audiences and the scale of the audiences changes, we need to keep it open. We will see how it will work. When we do smaller points of encounter, you have more intimacy.

PL: What stayed the same?

AS: The pandemic didn’t change the concept of exhibition, which is titled ‘Traits d’union’, French for ‘hyphens’. It means many things, for instance solidarity. Solidarity is needed more than ever, especially because so much social injustice surfaced with the pandemic. The idea of home and refuge is central to the show.

PL: And these are topics tackled by the artists who participate? What’s an example?

AS: Yes, for instance a favourite project of mine is by Samia Henni, a historian and theorist of architecture. Her project considers: What does it mean to be an essential worker, and what does it mean to not have a house in this moment of confinement? Of course confinement presumes you have a house to be confined in. She’s working on a cartography investigating the mobility of people supporting the ones without a home and also a mobility to support those people without a home.

PL: And what will she plan to do with this material?

AS: Her work will be exhibited in the Musée d’histoire de la Ville de Marseille. It’s a city museum that has its starting point archaeological sites in the city. She will show her research, and show forms of mapping, together with a sound element. She’s interviewing people at the moment. Her project opens 11 September. It’s not to be missed!

PL: Given that there are no press or professional previews or openings, how will Manifesta unfold? 

AS: From the end of August to mid-October, roughly every two weeks, a different venue and ‘plot’ will open, each opening organically six plots opening: The Home, The Refuge, The Almshouse, The Port, The Park and The School. And then you can experience the whole biennial from mid-October to end of November. Of course the art jet-set is not coming at one time. So it asked us to especially consider our local audiences too, and the needs of Marseille.

PL: Tell me about Marseille – what’s it like and where you familiar with the city beforehand? 

AS: I lived in Paris for a long time. It’s very different from Marseille. It has so much that I’ve been missing from Morocco, my homeland: if I want to go for a real hammam I can do that in Marseille while speaking in Darija (Moroccan slang). It’s different to be Moroccan in Paris than it is in Marseille. It feels homey, in a way that was different in Paris. I lived in Italy for some years, if you want to chat in Italian and have some really good Italian food, it’s there, and grounded there. This whole approach to ‘the Mediterranean’ isn’t a concept, it’s the reality. It touches on everything: the experience of food, hammam, to the experience of who you are. 

PL: The current social justice movements have been partly inspired. How have they shaped your thinking right now?

AS: In Berlin, I co-direct a space called ifa (Institut für Auslandische Beziehungen), one of the oldest German artistic institutions. We are asking: what does it mean when we talk about colonial structures today? This is important in Germany, where I live, and beyond. In the arts, we are working in a protected space, and one of the challenges and big questions is: how do we break with this space and go beyond? It is very easy for us to talk about social justice in our comfortable sofa in a gallery space: but how do we reach people who are really taking action?

PL: Speaking of action – what’s the best time to come to Marseille, for those of us who can?

AS: October is great, because then the projects will be up. In September the focus is the public programme. 

PL: What’s a tip?

AS: When you’re here, you have to visit this space IMéRA – it’s not an official venue of the exhibition but that’s the place where we will be hosting the Public Program on ‘The Mediterranean’ in September. It’s a research centre not far from the Palais Longchamps – it’s an incredible place. They’ve been working for several years to bring together researchers, artists and writers.

PL: What’s so special about it?

AS: It’s a beautiful location with its gardens, its ‘maison des astronomes’ – which helps. The program of encounters and residents are so inspiring. And the director is one of the most incredible brains I’ve ever met.

PL: What are you reading, watching and looking at now?

AS: I have a daughter who is now 15. Amid social justice and Black Lives Matter movements, she’s been asking me for reading suggestions. So we’ve been going back to the classics together: James Baldwin, Angela Davis, bell hooks. We’re really diving in and discussing. We’re looking at Bell hook’s All about Love, New Visions. She also made an amazing children’s book called Homemade Love. I recommend both.

Alya Sebti has been directing the ifa Gallery Berlin (Institute for Foreign Cultural Relations) since 2016. She is part of the Manifesta 13 artistic team that will occur in Marseille in 2020. In 2018 she was guest curator of the 13th Dak’Art, Biennial of Contemporary African Art and in 2014, she was the Artistic Director of the 5th Marrakech Biennial.

Pablo Larios is senior editor of frieze. He lives in Berlin, Germany.

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