Manifesta Destiny

Jennifer Allen at unitednationsplaza


Left: unitednationsplaza co-organizer Tirdad Zolghadr, critic Diedrich Diederichsen, and Unitednationsplaza co-organizer Anton Vidokle. Right: Artist Anri Sala. (All photos: Salon Aleman)

There’s more than one specter haunting Europe . . . not only Communism and Halloween revelers but also Manifesta 6, the mobile biennial that recently failed to reach its destination, Nicosia, the partitioned home of uneasily cohabitating Greek and Turkish Cypriots. This week’s announcement that Manifesta 7 will be held in the Italian region of Trentino–Alto Adige (curators to be announced, if willing souls can be found) temporarily drew attention away from that exhibition’s failed predecessor. The proposition of curators Mai Abu ElDahab, Anton Vidokle, and Florian Waldvogel for Manifesta 6 was to set up a school on both sides of the city’s dividing line, but unfortunately the main legacy has been a tangle of legal disputes involving the organizers, Nicosia for Arts (a Greek Cypriot municipal organization), which canceled the event, and the International Foundation Manifesta (IFM). Not one to be spooked by a €430,000 lawsuit, Vidokle took his curriculum to Berlin, where the teaching staff of roughly sixty writers, artists, and theorists will lecture over the next year.

Resituating Manifesta 6 in Berlin—once a divided city, internationally notorious for poor neighborly relations—was a reminder that many of Europe’s old ghosts have yet to be exorcised. Given the logistical failures awaiting correction, expectations among the crowds in attendance at last weekend’s inaugural conference were high. Redubbed “unitednationsplaza,” the school’s Berlin incarnation is named after its location at Platz der Vereinten Nationen, although the building—stuck behind a supermarket and surrounded by low-income apartment blocks—is not nearly as spectacular as the New York address.

Left: Maria Lind and Liam Gillick. Right: Artist and DJ Julieta Aranda.

During the conference, modestly titled “Histories of Productive Failures: From the French Revolution to Manifesta 6,” the tensions of the Green Line patrolled by UN troops were captured by speakers from both sides of the border; their testimonies suggested that Manifesta 6 had been doomed from the start. The Greek Cypriot Pavlina Paraskevaidou had a point when she asked, “Is conflict the new cultural tourism?” since biennials have exhausted the novelty of peripheries. After all, IFM signed the contract with Nicosia after the UN referendum to reunite the island had failed. How could curators, armed with little more than an artist list, succeed where Kofi Annan could not? Friday night ended with a grand dinner attended by Berlin's UN-like international arts community, from Danish artist Jens Haaning to Peruvian-German artist David Zink Yi. Of course, Hans-Ulrich Obrist showed up. Monica Bonvicini, hanging out with artists Bojan Sarcevic and Thomas Demand, had only one comment: “I’m glad school is over.”

But classes were just starting. Day two raised the possibility of something scarier than curators-cum-diplomats: an art school run by magazine editors–cum–fair entrepreneurs. Fresh from his appearance at the London fair, Liam Gillick reported that Frieze founders Amanda Sharp and Matthew Slotover had expressed pedagogical ambitions at a recent Serpentine talk. Gillick’s respondent, IASPIS director Maria Lind, professed skepticism about the entrepreneurs’ move into arts education. Jan Verwoert—ever the optimist—came out for the magazine/fair. Never mind conflicting interests or divisive exclusions, Frieze is an “independent project”—and economically self-sufficient to boot. In other words: More community co-op than marketing coup. Watching my neighbor Vasif Kortun take notes in a Moleskine notebook specially produced for the fair, I found myself cheering the magazine on. After an academy, why not a Frieze retirement plan?

On day three, cultural critic Diedrich Diederichsen wondered about the impact of awarding artists Ph.D.'s in Europe and then explored the “New Ugliness,” his term for the practice of exhibiting the oppressed as living sculptures, referencing artists from Oscar Boni to Santiago Sierra. Artists Gitte Villesen and Karl Holmqvist rightly did not buy Diederichsen’s decision to add Jeremy Deller to the mix—suggesting that “Dr. Artists” might in fact cure panel discussions of their chronic imprecision. Kortun decided to hold his lecture in the basement bar, which offered free beer and cigarettes—a welcome break until co-organizer Tirdad Zolghadr announced our homework assignment: a series of questions, including, “If failure were an abstract drawing, what would it look like?”

Left: Artists Boran Sarcevic and Hiwa K. Right: Artist Naeem Mohaiemen, curator Hila Peleg, artist Pash Buzani, and artist Fia Backström.

I thought I’d get some ideas the next evening when classes officially started with Boris Groys’s seminar, “After the Red Square.” Once through reminding us that the CIA had funded Jackson Pollock’s first exhibitions in Europe, Groys talked about the fall of Communism and the rise of religiosity around the world. While claiming that nationalism in art was “not internationally sexy,” the Russian philosopher was clearly haunted by his own ghosts: “I miss Communism,” meaning a time when art was not a commodity but rather an ideological weapon. Too bad the CIA did not step in to save Manifesta 6. Without such support, art, it seems, comes out the loser in such conflicts and must be content to make do with failures.