Thierry Geoffroy during the filming of his work Artist Colonialist Investigating for TV: Is There a Dialogue with the Spanish and You Northern African?, 2010, Murcia, Spain, 2010. Photo: Rian Lozano.

Thierry Geoffroy during the filming of his work Artist Colonialist Investigating for TV: Is There a Dialogue with the Spanish and You Northern African?, 2010, Murcia, Spain, 2010. Photo: Rian Lozano.

Manifesta 8

Thierry Geoffroy during the filming of his work Artist Colonialist Investigating for TV: Is There a Dialogue with the Spanish and You Northern African?, 2010, Murcia, Spain, 2010. Photo: Rian Lozano.

THE EIGHTH EDITION OF MANIFESTA, the peripatetic pan-European biennial, was held in Cartegena and Murcia, two cities on the southeastern coast of Spain. In her introduction to the catalogue, the biennial’s founder, Hedwig Fijen, speaks of the locale as providing an opportunity to explore “issues of migration, immigration, refugee status and diaspora,” a sentiment in keeping with the exhibition’s aim to engage (per its subtitle) in a “dialogue with Northern Africa.” But Pedro Alberto Cruz, minister of culture and tourism for the region of Murcia, expresses a different view of the relationship between mobility and Manifesta. In his foreword, he extols the exhibition’s “articulation of the region of Murcia as a first-level hallmark in the international realm of cultural tourism.”

Betwixt and between these two contrasting positions were three international teams of curators: tranzit.org (with curators from the Czech and Slovak Republics, Austria, and Hungary), ACAF (Alexandria Contemporary Arts Forum, with curators from Egypt and the United States), and CPS (Chamber of Public Secrets, with curators from Italy, England, Denmark, and Lebanon). These groups formed a geopolitically representative spectrum of translocal networks, promising an exhibition program that would go beyond individual curatorial preference. And indisputably—especially in the case of tranzit.org—the organizers presented a range of complex works whose aesthetic rhetoric stood in obvious tension with the kind of vague, conformist tokens of resistance that one sees all too often. In the old Murcia military barracks where the bulk of tranzit.org’s show was installed, works such as Igor and Ivan Buharov’s video Rudderless, Stephan Dillemuth’s installation The Hard Way to Enlightenment, and Tanja Widmann’s installation Hard Currency: Revaluation, all 2010, traded instead in performative reflections on and ambiguous parodies of conventional claims about flexible transcultural networks, alternative pedagogy and knowledge production, and participating subjects. Another work tranzit.org presented, part of artist Pedro G. Romero’s project “Archivo F. X.,” 1999, deserves mention here. Titled Tesauro: Murcia, 2010, it is an impressive collection of material on Spanish iconoclasm that sheds light on resistance to the Catholic Church and its entanglements with fascism.

The primary venue for the second curatorial team, ACAF, was a disused Murcia post office. There, the curators installed a project of their own, Backbench, 2010, which they identified as “an artwork in its own right.” This multichannel video installation—which documents an ACAF-organized conference of artists and curators held on a set that resembles Britain’s House of Lords—is a satiric critique of rigid institutional divisions between the roles of artists and curators, perhaps. While the humor in reflexive works like the video Prayers for Art, 2010, by Adam Carrigan and Kenny Muhammad (which deflated the biennial’s rhetoric by using it as fodder for a beat-box-style vocal performance by Muhammad) was welcome, there was nothing funny about the building, an authoritarian early-Franco-era edifice. Bizarrely, the building’s freighted past was not addressed by any of the works on view, though the collective Common Culture’s video The New El Dorado, 2010, did feature three people discussing the building’s future—it is soon to be transformed into a casino. This stab at critique, however, was trumped by a promotional video at the site, installed by the building’s owner, that breathlessly offered more details on the conversion. In light of the fact that so many contemporary curators and artists are participating in the anything-but-invisible, reality-shaping force of advanced casino capitalism, one might conclude that Peter Bürger’s infamous verdict on the twentieth-century avant-garde—that its effort to collapse art into life, and thus effect not only aesthetic but social change, was an ignominious failure—might be wrong after all. Indeed, Minister Cruz evidently feels that art and life have become congruent in a more or less satisfactory way, and his opinion was supported by the curators’ and artists’ ineffectual efforts to critique their function on behalf of city marketing, real estate speculation, and gentrification.

Happily, CPS presented some strong works, including Laurent Grasso’s documentary film The Batteria Project, 2010, which took local defense structures as its subject and seemed to reflect on the character of “fortress Europe,” and Stefanos Tsivopoulos’s film Amnesialand, 2010, a formally conventional but intricately conceived docufiction about the repressed history of the exploitive mining industry and its long-term ecological impact in the region of Murcia. Their portion of the show spilled over into several venues in the neighboring city of Cartegena, where one of our destinations was San Antón Prison—temporarily closed for renovations, but soon to reopen as a reformatory run by a private corporation. Working with an organization called Parentésis, Manifesta had arranged for low-security inmates at nearby detention facilities to act as attendants. When we arrived, an inmate attendant greeted us and talked to us about life behind bars while a security guard hovered like a suspicious warden—an embarrassing encounter that registered as an unsavory instance of hyper-post-avant-gardist interactive realism. After this meeting we proceeded to tour the run-down cells, bathrooms, and common areas, where the “dialogue with Northern Africa” came into evidence in a number of works involving DIY aesthetics and CNN-esque photo and video documentation (in the case of a wry work by Thierry Geoffroy, a pith-helmeted “colonialist” conducted the dialogue). Inasmuch as several of these projects spoke to the situation of North African migrant workers employed at starvation wages in the Spanish agricultural industry, the abyss into which the public-private partnership of European cultural politics and regional tourism was pulling us became all the more palpable—an abyss from which Manifesta’s better works attempted to extricate us, unfortunately without much success.

Sabeth Buchmann is a professor at the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna.