Interview with the curators of Manifesta
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
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
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
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