Cuauhtémoc Medina is an art critic, curator and historian, with a PhD in History And Theory of Art from the University of Essex, and a BA in History from the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM).
Since 1992 he has been a full time researcher at the Instituto de Investigaciones Estéticas at UNAM. Between 2002 and 2008 he was the first Associate Curator of Art for the Latin American Collections at the Tate Modern.
Cuauhtémoc Medina, together with his curatorial team of Katerina Gregos and Dawn Ades, is in the process of presenting Manifesta 9 – the biennial that takes into consideration the specificity of the local audience. In interviewing Medina, Arterritory.com asked how this process is evolving, and what problems it may entail.
Manifesta venue. Press photo
How do you position “Manifesta9” in relation to “Documenta13”, especially since they are coinciding and based only a half-day ride away from one another?
I need to say I do not know what Documenta13 is about. I understand that chronological and geographical proximity implies that people will start to compare the strategies and alternatives of both events. However, the question of audiences is very central to Manifesta. And I don’t think that it is so just in this, the 9th edition of Manifesta. I made a point about audiences given that this is a nomadic biennial, and it is bound to land in areas which precisely don’t have a full-fledged cultural structure developed, and moreover, places that don’t have a metropolitan pattern of cultural consumption, which somehow grants you a significant starting point to expect both numbers and also, attitudes related to established constituencies of contemporary art. Of course, Documenta is a kind of event that somehow concentrates that kind of energy on the global sphere, it’s site is fixed. Let’s put it this way: there has to be a different attitude tied to the event that behaves like Rome, as compared to the event that has a gypsy strategy. And in that sense, one of the goals of the Manifesta 9 project has to do with the question of “what is the sustainability of these exhibitions?”. Manifesta 9 has to produce a change of attitudes, and that starts with the building of an audience; this is mostly an ability to attract interest – to mobilize the media on the ground, with the intent of creating the need – the love-affair, the psychological and cultural expectation – that in the future will allow cultural practitioners in this area to keep on developing. So one of the reasons why it is correct to have an event of this kind is precisely because in the future, you may have a different social outlook and a different cultural opportunity. By now, the totally ossified and unthought assumption that biennials need to be mega-exhibitions of contemporary artists has to be challenged; to create a more interesting context for contemporary art, you need to operate and establish a dialogue with the viewers, to make the event a turning point among the possibilities of cultural activities and spectatorship in a place like Limburg. It is important to note that Limburg was an area that was populated, and to a great extent created, by coal money; the local audience is basically the offspring of the migrant working class. Therefore, it is understandable that the building of cultural energy here has to have a completely different strategy than for a place that has a more metropolitan audience.
Historically, what Documenta did in 1955 was in a very secondary city in Germany; nevertheless, the biennial has claimed a centrality, and now millions drag themselves over there every five years just to see what is happening. So, the two events are essentially not that very different, except for the fact that Documenta had a chance to produce that effect in a long run, for more than half of a century now, whereas there are all of these utopian expectations around Manifesta – that it has to achieve some of these same effects in a single blow.
Manifesta venue. Press photo
Recently I spoke with “Afterall” magazine director Pablo Lafuente; in speaking about “Documenta”, he said that from the German side, it is not just the art crowd who is coming to see the exhibition: it is a must-see for one million middle-class Germans, who are more informed about art than other Europeans.
I think that you need to take a different point of analysis to understand what happens around Kassel or Sao Paulo, or to take a completely different example, like Istanbul. One should not understand these issues in relation to the structure of class inscription. One has to also look at what was the effect at the moment of institution, and what were the political and cultural tensions that were addressed at that specific point. Kassel involved an operation that, indeed, produced a moment of identity-making in both German politics and Germany's outlook as a nation. In 1955 (and that was the explicit goal of the show) it reversed, in a single blow, the erasure of modernity and the avantgarde as performed by the Entartete Kunst exhibition that was shown in 1937 in Munich. So, Documenta established the idea that contemporary and modern art were to be part of a national project, as well as part of the national social identity. Something similar happened, for instance, in Spain, but with a different pattern and weaknesses, after the transition at the end of the Franco era; because of the violence of the nazist regimes against modern art, it had become part of the official ideology. The availability of that market, which also involves the incredibly significant markets for books in Germany, is to do with that inception, with that meaning.
When you think about the Sao Paulo Biennial, it is both the signifier and the instrument of the modernist outlook of the Brazilian bourgeoisie, as well as one of the Brazilian cultural projects realized after the 50’s. The biennial, in that sense, is not an object that blindly reflects an already existing cultural situation, but rather produces it, and that has enormous consequences. I am trying to suggest that the biennial, as such, defined the new national ethos of some places - it is a political tool. Such as the role of the Havana Biennial – the government made the biennial in order to transpose the politics of third-worldism into the artworld; they gave Cuba the imaginary role of leading a sort of post-colonial common front. It actually had the effect of creating a paradoxical situation on the island by alluding to a certain spirit of global contestation, which is an uncomfortable subject of dissidence in terms of the possibilities of cultural practice in Cuba.
One of the goals of Manifesta 9 is to create the notion of a region that, indeed – in claiming the role, of Limburg as part of the cultural structure; and also, extending it so far as to provoke, or to make it possible, to conceive of the industrial hinterland of Europe as its own. In that sense, the project also had to play at the level of the content: how to involve the arrival of a certain cultural operation with the building and questioning of the local cultural conditions. Of course, the difference is that we are not working here so as to establish, or review, or work in tandem with a new political order. It is not a national formation. But indeed, once you understand that it is the political behaviour of biennials to establish their centrality in the long term, you are bound to think of how to mobilize that power, and what can that moment of openness and that interpretation stand for. On the one hand, I am trying to make an exhibition that alludes to a certain conviviality of cultural practices, of the relationships of the past and the future that relate to the condition of the subjectivity that is produced by the different faces and waves of industrialism; that on one hand, one has to look for a way of reflection which goes beyond that of turning it into a certain identity that questions the utility of the moment – of building the ethnic or origin-based identity models and discourses which are the ones that, today, are very akin to the right wing; but there’s also a quest for a viability of the biennial system, and of Manifesta specifically. I am just going to make one simple claim: one of the political questions that we need to address at a certain moment is how the space that we took for granted for cultural practice and for cultural expenditure – which came from the post-war arrangement of the politics of different European states and was part of the building of the great project of Europe – is now in great danger. Right-wing populist formations are actually targeting contemporary art culture and cultural budgets as things, that in their view, shouldn’t be part of political projects and social design. They are effectively hoping to subsume (as it happened in the USA in the 1980’s) the entire cultural field to a market logic that, of course, just plays for structures of cultural consumption that come from the cultural industry, the mass media and other forms of identification – I mean, things that go from nationalistic forms of ethnic hatred to the moment of identification that is at the core at every Hollywood movie or soap opera. So, at this particular point (the point I am now making goes beyond this project), we need to understand the political significance of defending, with the audience, the social context which creates a space. To have a cultural field, we need to be able to mobilise the audiences, to reach them, to make us absolutely necessary, to preserve a space, so to speak, in the political structure. We need to fortify the relationship we are actually involved in, which is changing and exchanging with the audiences.