International Biennial of Contemporary Art Ljubljana,
23 June - 24 September 2000
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Cankarjev Dom
M1 & M2

Interview with the curators of Manifesta 3

Igor Zabel: Work on Manifesta 3 began when the Kosovo crisis was approaching its culmination. We are witnessing another dramatic crisis at the moment - the war against Chechnya. Do you think that you, as curator of an international art event such as Manifesta 3, are obliged to react to such events? In what way is it possible or meaningful to react? I believe that this implies a broader question: In what way can and should art and the art establishment react to social events?
Kathrin Rhomberg: I would like to begin by stating that curatorial activity and its relationship to contemporary art has always stood in a political context - I do not believe that art can even be defined without this context. But this question nevertheless appears problematic to the extent that it goes beyond the relationship between art and politics, and therefore can be understood as a question of whether or not the practice of curating, and of art mediation in general, should react to momentary processes, which I see as a definite handicap and therefore reject. This strategy would constitute a severe limitation of art, reducing the diversity of artistic opportunity to a much greater extent than it would bring possible advantages or realisations. I would therefore like to discuss two conceptual examples of the relationship between art and politics, even concrete politics, from a thematic perspective.
An important and fundamental development in current politics appears to be the repression of programmes and content in favour of strategies legitimated exclusively by their effect on public opinion surveys and election results. The development threatening Austria provides an example of how even extreme right-wing political content can be sold through these strategies. To begin to understand the often very complex mechanisms related to the new "politics", contemporary art, with its methods of political discourse, appears to be more effective than social science approaches in many cases.
Net art fits into this context. Through the establishment of decentralised, subversive networks it is thus able to deconstruct political manifestations or systems, and to successfully utilise new forms of artistic activism. In Austria, such subversive networks have recently not only falsified the Freedom Party's homepage but also mobilised opponents of Haider for demonstrations and protests with the help of the Internet, e-mail and mobile telephones. Another point where the significance of art has always played a role is the possibility of using it to make geographical, cultural and political differences transparent. In today's situation, this not only refers to areas of First World vs. Third World, or urban vs. rural; rather, and especially due to transformations in Europe, it has grown into quite a complex field. This problem area should also be reflected in curatorial practice and will hopefully be made visible by the Manifesta.
However, that art which is not centred on politics often unleashes the strongest reactions and analytical reflections. A successful example of this is the work of the Swiss artist Marcus Geiger. In 1998 he painted over a Viennese art institution's building ­ widely know as a preservable architectural symbol of the Art Nouveau period ­ with red paint as the culmination of a series of works. The strong reaction to this work resulted in a much stronger entry into issues of the critique of art institutions and the relationship of art to politics than many other works which attempted to bring forth the same result through directly and immediately readable interventions. As well as these long-term and indirect interventions, we should not exclude those positions that relate concretely to the examples of the issues in question. They represent just one of many artistic and curatorial possibilities of reacting to social and political outrages, such as those of the war in Chechnya or the crisis in Kosovo.

The expansion of art shows and other events in recent years also indicates the expansion of an art establishment or system. Manifesta, of course, cannot avoid the context of this system. Is it necessary (or indeed possible) to establish a critical attitude towards institutions? Does an event like Manifesta 3 offer the possibility for such an attitude, and how?
Mária Hlavajová: It's true that the 1990s witnessed a great number of international group exhibitions, as well as the establishment of many new biennials worldwide. At the same time, especially later in the decade, one could hear voices talking of a crisis in collective international shows - and that is already a critical articulation towards such a development. Artistic practices of institutional critique have their own responses towards the overly-institutionalised art world and its power structures, of course. But is it possible to develop a critical attitude from the perspective of a biennial curator?
I personally believe that Manifesta offers a unique opportunity. Post-Cold War momentum gave birth to it as a project with the clearly articulated ambition of providing a platform for a new type of European contemporary art event. The need to propose a new basis for discussions of contemporary art developments was informed through existing structures such as the Venice Biennial and others which did not seem to be responsive enough towards the impulses of a new social and political situation. Manifesta has tried to search for innovative possibilities. Each time a different European city and its artistic and intellectual potentials offer a collaborative hand to a different team of curators, so that each time a new re-interpretation of Europe can be worked on.
It also seems to me - after an intense period of researching artistic situation(s) - that Manifesta is understood differently in different geopolitical zones of Europe. While in many advanced capitalist countries (to avoid a counter-productive distinction between east and west) Manifesta is only one of the opportunities offered to younger generations of artists, in a number of other places, especially those with political and economic difficulties, Manifesta is one of the very few international platforms that dares look beyond the usual stereotypes. Such differences, indeed, constitute the scale of critical thinking about Manifesta as well.
My own curatorial practice calls for a continuous search for reasons for the events of our times, and for thinking art and culture closer to (what is commonly known as) reality and its social issues. Manifesta 3 is trying to make such an attempt. Opting for a more active involvement with the social and political, Manifesta 3 curators have analysed the "European state of mind" as being preoccupied with issues of protection and defence. Questions have therefore been posed to anyone interested in answering them. No diagnosis and no statement but, instead, direction in thinking have been suggested in order to unreel a potential discussion about the issues of our time.
This, I believe, contributes to our debate on the possibility of introducing critical thinking into an event such as Manifesta 3. Opening up the platform to a wide spectrum of interested intellectuals rather than the chosen few (open entry - call for contributions to the Manifesta 3 book) and an inclusive attitude (rather than its opposite, so often experienced at many institutions gambling with power) introduce new possibilities for international manifestation. Together with its affinity to issues bound to the social and political everyday, Manifesta 3 seeks its place not in discussions by the initiated few (the art world) but in a much wider spectrum of those concerned with their own role within the current contextual temporality of Europe.
There have been completely opposing ideas about the character of contemporary European artistic production. On the one side there has been the idea that there is no real difference in young contemporary production any more. On the other side, the idea that the divisions of Europe (east-west, north-south) create relatively closed cultural (or even civilisational) contexts which can hardly communicate remains strong. You have recently done a lot of travelling across Europe. What is your opinion of contemporary art production in Europe? To what extent is it "international" and "global" (and thus universally understandable), and to what extent does it remain "local" (and thus properly understandable only within its own specific context)?
Ole Bouman: Philosophically, this question is impossible to answer. If there existed an art that could only be called "local", who am I to categorise it that way? If, being an outsider, I cannot properly understand it, how can I say it's art? Moreover, if I, by nature, was a local myself, how could I ever get beyond my own limitations? In sum, I believe that the distinction between local and international has become dangerous, exactly because it has been connected to the question of comprehensibility. What we do not understand is always perfectly okay - which is the same as always perfectly worthless. The distinction neutralises more than it indicates a difference. It is also a sign of spatial dialectics that could be dangerous for a culture of justice. Especially in art, we tend to get stuck in the swamp of contempt or exotic idealisation. Travelling through Europe (and beyond actually), I rarely meet artists who remain "local" to me. The very fact that I'm there already implies that we share something. This something is the juggernaut of modernisation. We all share a certain degree of celebration of the new, and we also share a certain degree of resistance. Once we understand that we share, all the rest is only a matter of degree. What I mean is: whatever regions there might be, there is also a European culture in which the historical issue of modernisation is fundamental to everyone. There is a difference. But the contact despite this difference is more than "possible". It is inevitable.

You constantly follow developments in contemporary art, and you have been researching it with special intensity recently. What is your general impression of the quality and importance of contemporary art production? Are there many strong works being produced, or is production predominantly manneristic? Did you detect any interesting new currents and approaches? Are there, alongside the well-established contemporary art system, also alternative systems or networks worthy of our attention?
Francesco Bonami: The research trips done for Manifesta 3 have provided me with opportunities to reflect on the importance of art production and its quality. It is quite impressive to find, over and over again and everywhere, an enormous amount of art production. Yet because of the impossibility of using scientific criteria in evaluating such production, I feel compelled to raise the question why. Why do so many people insist on creating works of art that, to my understanding, are mostly revealed as irrelevant? The majority of what I see is mostly the necessity of negotiating reality with unconventional tools. This negotiation is considered art by many, but in truth is basically and often a self-indulgent way of digesting personal and private contradictions. The result of this digestion is channelled into the convention of the art exhibition, and this attempt is recurrently resolved into frustrating failure. There is a certain level of improvisation today in the production of art. It is like people to confirm their awareness of their body by performing surgery on themselves.
In fact it does not really work because awareness of society is often confused by attempts to create a work of art. It is very conservative to talk about the concept of talent at the dawn of this new era - but that's what it's all about. Only a few are capable of transforming the raw material of culture and society into focused art works capable of containing enough energy to push the viewer a step further into an understanding of his/her own life.
To go back to the initial question, I can say that we have mostly encountered mannerism. Yet the results from our research for Manifesta 3 have proved that it is possible to intersect with a consistent amount of production that is not diverted into a manneristic approach and that can deliver new transformation of contemporary art syntax. About the existence of currents, I would say that with today's expansion of the information network we are witnessing a hurricane-like contemporary art structure. I would identify three energies that, combined, can describe the state of art. First, the energy that stays at the core of the hurricane - its eye. Second, the energy that spins around. Third, the energy that makes the spiral move forward. The energy at the centre is the self-destructive eye of western culture. Its strength is still enormous, but in contact with other realities it can reveal itself as devastating. The energy that spins around is that which contains globalisation and virtuality. It lifts different languages from their ground and blends them together into a hybrid spiral of meanings. Finally, the third energy is the combination of the other two. It allows new languages to keep moving forward, to invade new territories. These territories are what you call alternative systems, functioning mostly in isolation until the winds of new biennials expose them to the confirmation of their effective relevance. We are part of a centrifugal moment in history. The centre touches and becomes the margins, becoming a "Centrum", some kind of peach pit that defies the linearity and circularity of the overly-obsolete European tradition

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