Difficult cooperation. MANIFESTA 11

Bermet Borubaeva

The roving European Biennial of Contemporary art, “MANIFESTA”, was being held in Zurich, Switzerland this time, and ends already tommorow (September 18). A lot of people seemed to be wondering what exactly Christian Jankowski, curator of the exhibition entitled “What People Do For Money: Some Joint Ventures”, wished to show to the public.

The idea is that artists, in collaboration with local Zurich residents representing different professions (i.e., “non-artists”, or “hosts”), should create joint works which would then be presented either in the exhibition or in the workplace of the “host”. The exhibition’s structure has been divided into several dimensions: there’s the main exhibition, located at two united venues: Helmhaus and Löwenbräukunst, which are former breweries, and then satellite locations – the workplaces of the “hosts”, that is, the workplaces of the local professionals who were invited to collaborate. There’s also a specially created pavilion near Zurich Lake in which the entire documented process of preparing for the exhibition has been translated.

Julian Opie. Christian, Senior Curator. 2003. Manifesta 11, Zurich 2016

A unique feature of this edition of Manifesta is that for the first time in its history, the exhibition has been put together not by a curator or a group of curators, but by an artist selected by the Biennale Committee. “Would you fancy curating an exhibition?”, the organizers of Manifesta asked Jankowski some time ago. The artist, logically, followed up with: “Yes; which one?”, the answer to which was then: “We can’t say”. After that, Jankowski was invited to Zurich.

Jankowski mentions this curious exchange in the catalog for MANIFESTA 11, in his curatorial statement (which has an interview format). He describes and mystifies the start of his working on the project with romantic spirit: “In the summer of 2014, I received a mysterious call at my studio...” Along the way, he shares his thoughts about his personal point of view about the Biennale’s location – it turns out that his first solo show took place in Switzerland, and he even had a four-year-long romantic relationship with a Swiss woman. Given the fact that being a curator, and “without knowing exactly what it meant”, is an unusual role for Jankowski, he asks himself reasonable questions: “What does it mean to be a curator? As a person? As an artist? Would I ever get another chance to curate such a major event?”, not to mention: “Where should I put the art? Whom should I invite? How should I make my selections? What should the Biennale even be about this time?”

Christian Jankowski is known for his artworks done in collaboration with representatives from various professions. His art projects have been devoted to working alongside magicians, politicians, Vatican bodyguards, etc. He decided to make professions a key Biennale theme: “Now I was sure: it is about professions, vocations, and which professions contribute to artistic representation… I invited thirty artists to Zurich, to collaborate with people in other professional fields. To start off, each invited artist was given a list of 1000 professions practiced in Zurich today. Each artist chose one, and Manifesta had found its respective hosts”.

A number of questions arise at once, ones which the catalog does not cover:

- Why did Jankowski invite this specific number of artists, i.e., thirty?

- How did he select these thirty artists?

- According to what principles did these thirty artists chose just one profession out of a thousand suggestions?

- How did the committee go about selecting the professional non-artists for this collaboration?

Regarding the ideological discourse that is inevitably associated with the topic of labor, Jankowski states: “Ideologies had no part to play in my preparation. I trust in the artists and the art”. Can such an ideological grading be applicable? The political system of coordinates still leaves no one behind. Today, labor problems pervade society on a global level – the exploitation of labor, growth of the precariat, poor environmental conditions faced by people in different fields, etc. And the exhibition just partially speaks about this.

Sites Under Construction”, by Jankowski, is a “system that presents a new perspective on the relationship between art and professions”:

- The representation of professions;

- The aesthetics of break time;

- The structure of the working environment;

- Art as a second Profession;

- Art without an artist.

There is some kind of splitting of the labor phenomenon into small pieces related to the topic of professions. And such topics as “The aesthetics of break time”, and “The structure of the working environment”, lead to the romanticization of labor relationships in a neoliberal economy. Jankowski quotes Hans Shnier, the protagonist in Böll’s novel: “I'm a clown and I collect moments”. Jankowski continues this thought with: “Manifesta 11 should be a collection of just such moments for you”. It seems that we are, again, offered just a scattering of a mosaic – a kaleidoscope that can be rotated endlessly, and with which we entertain ourselves with new combinations of the same particles.

Jonathan Monk. This painting should be installed by an accountant. 2011/2016. Manifesta 11, Zurich 2016

Instead of giving descriptions of artworks, the Biennale’s catalog includes a series of interviews with the participants of the process – “the hosts”, that is, the representatives of the various professions with whom the artists collaborated. And here it becomes obvious that in many of the exhibited projects, the hosts were deprived of participating in the decision making process; instead, they were just an “object in”, rather than ‘”the subject of” the respective collaboration. Often, artists just used their own professional entourage, skills and facilities to create their works. “Why do you say their own works?”, you may ask, “It is the result of joint cooperation, and they made it together!” It turns out that the artworks presented in the exhibitions have been signed only by the artist – and without specifying the names of the local Zurich professionals who took part in their creation. One gets the impression that the artists did not even try to figure out what, in fact, the hosts themselves would have liked to present at Manifesta – or if the hosts even had the chance to say what is the most important thing that they would like to express through this project. This is not to say that all of the ideas of the hosts should have or could have been fully realized, but just posing such questions to one another is the beginning of true cooperation, rather than just basing everything on one-sided assumptions.

From an interview featuring several Zurich citizens, it can be understood that the artists made the decision to create their own work, and that the hosts, with their workplace and professional skills, just served as a plastic and visual material with which the artists executed their art works. In my personal opinion, the artists in this project could have created their works, and just as well, without this “game” of collaboration. Basically, the non-artists did not feel as they were part of the process – they constantly referred to the supposed group project with the words “for his/her project” instead of “for our project”. One of the artists (Yin Xunzhi) chose the profession of flight attendant, which he then chose to portray on his canvases. In the catalog’s interview, flight attendant Délia Eberle explained how she was in Zurich’s airport when she was approached by the curator of Manifesta 11, Christian Jankowski, who then asked her if she would like to act as a “host”. Basically, any attractive woman could have been approached, and I do not think that, in this case, the concept of the work would have dramatically changed. Only the face would have been different, nothing more.

A scene from the Manifesta exposition. Photo: Bermet Borubaeva

The collaboration between the artist Shelly Nadashi and Dr. Margaretha Debrunner, a teacher of Latin and ancient Greek languages, stands out from of all of the other stories. This teacher of “dead” languages is very concerned about the fact that her subject is under constant pressure from local Zurich authorities – one must constantly defend the subject’s worth in education. Her position gave her an incentive to participate in Manifesta 11 – to bring attention to this problem. Together with Nadashi, the pair studied these dead languages and translated various texts from masterpieces of ancient Greek literature. At Manifesta, Nadashi presented her visualizations of these excerpts, while Dr. Margaretha Debrunner gave lessons and translated texts with visitors to the exhibition. This truly collaborative project starkly contrasted with that of the other “collaborative pairs”, and even emphasized the passivity of the other interactions.

In one of the final interviews in the catalog – with Maggie Tapert, a teacher and researcher in the field of sexology, who interacted with the Hungarian artist Andrea Éva Győri – there’s a phrasing that perhaps best reflects the key problem of the latest Manifesta: “It took me a while before I understood that she was the artist and I was just the host. I thought it was about collaboration. But actually, my task was only to inspire her art”.

Yin Xunzhi. Pass Through. 2016. Manifesta 11, Zurich, 2016

Most likely, it’s the weakness of the concept that is at fault here. An excellent practice, mastered by an individual artist (Jankowski), will probably fail as a curatorial method in which an artist makes others act within its framework. The artistic concept turns into a marketing ploy designed to attract additional attention to the show, and discredits the idea of an inter-professional collaboration. Manifesta is a powerful laboratory of curatorial approaches, and this latest edition of “experiments” shows that the idea of inviting an artist to curate and organize the overall exposition along the patterns of their own artistic framework, results in no fewer questions and doubts than previous Manifesta models have. In any case, this is also a result. And it can serve as the basis for new ideas, inquiries, and turning points on the theme of “curatorship”.

Detail of the installation created by writer Michel Houellebecq for Manifesta, with the support of medical doctors. It is a play on the author’s X-ray and ECG results.