When in 1996 Hedwig Fijen and Jolie van Leeuwen developed the concept for the first edition of a nomadic biennial, wandering over the years within European geographical borders, Europe was at the stage of a pursuable utopia, of a setting where future generations could redeem themselves from the atrocities of a cursed XX century. The walls, physical and metaphorical, that had torn the continent apart for many decades, had just been pulled down, and despite the shock caused by the disclosure of political and social realities swept under the rug for too long, the intention of broader integration in the name of a common historical and cultural background, sounded sincerely moved by the most noble reasons.
The origin of Manifesta was informed by the enthusiasm for Europe as a new, enlarged reality and by the will to promote contemporary art as an argument, and consequently as an answer, to the open debate on a Pan-European culture. In its 20 year existence the biennial has emerged as a mutable format and a platform for debate and research, also supported by the Manifesta Journal and Publication that were structured as its vital offshoots.
A natural predisposition for critical-thinking prompted, 10 years after its first edition, the publishing of a volume titled The Manifesta Decade, edited by Barbara Vanderlinden and Elena Filipovic. The assemblage of archival materials had the purpose of establishing the main achievements of ten year’s activities not in term of production but in the matter of analytic awareness, dedicating sections to some of the topics that constitute the backbone of the biennial, such us the definition of its ground expressed in the question “Which Europe?” and the configuration of a post-Cold War, post-wall European culture.
The 11th edition of Manifesta, held in Zurich in 2016, marks the end of another decade of activities but finds Europe at its worst critical point since its constitution. If already in 2009 the post European debt crisis changed the feelings towards a European future, the latest political and social events suggest that the end of Europe as initially was imagined and dreamt of is closer and closer. The decision opted for by British citizens to leave the European Union in June 2016 and the threats of following their lead issued by other countries, are just a part of the menaces the Union is facing. Added to endemic and long-standing issues -the economical discrepancies between members, the decisional dependency on the Union that often clashes with individual inclinations, the capitalistic tendencies related to the free market the EU has been accused of, among the others- Europe has lately found itself fighting against external complications related to new waves of immigration from Arabic countries and a consequently complex cultural integration made even thornier by the recent terroristic attacks.
When in 2012 Hedwig Fijen was asked to re-define the role of the event on occasion of its 9th edition, the director expressed the understanding of new premises:
“We are now locked into a globalised, fast-moving, morally degenerating and financially obsessed period in post-industrial Europe. We have virtually dismissed the previous definition of “United Europe”. We are keenly aware of the lost potential of Europe, where Culture is no longer the master key, divided instead by monetary discrepancies.”
According to its founder, Manifesta reacts to new challenges and context pursuing a site-specificity that “focuses on social artistic resources and connotations which might oppose the existing infrastructure, but which constitute new models of exhibition-making”.
Whatever effort was made to re-programme strategies and topics, in 2016 and in particular after the dismissal of the European dream by Britain, it feels that the shaping of a specific European cultural identity, chased not just by Manifesta, failed to create an integrated conscience beyond the national borders.
Looking at the British case as example, after the fatal 22nd of June 2016 some criticism was brought up in regard to the weakness of Pan-European cultural premises. In an article by Liam Gillick first published in German in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung on 4th July 2016 and re-presented few days later by E- Flux in the original English version, the British artist questioned the strategies and the arguments employed by the cultural elite in Britain to address a European distinctiveness and the importance to keep on contributing to its flourishing. Gillick harshly criticised “the failure of British cultural figures to push the vote towards remain” and their lack of “decent arguments that could be expressed beyond generalized statements” and economic debates that stressed the importance of EU funding.
The artist blamed the inability of his fellow citizens involved in the art world to define a European character rooted in “philosophical” idiosyncrasies and in order to present a model able to lead to new methodologies, he proposed his experience as representative artist for the German pavilion at the 2009 53rd Venice Biennale. Invited by Nicolaus Schafhausen “to navigate what was intended to be a reflection of the new Europe [they] had both matured in”, Liam Gillick described his experience as “another layer of German culture brought to the surface” that was made possible by the specific disposition of the German local art scene. To paraphrase Gillick’s words, there the founding principle of artistic existence that drives critical culture is the establishment of a resistance to nationalistic conceptions of artistic practice.
Where does the 11th Manifesta stand on the current European cultural debate?
Curated by the German artist Christian Jankowski, the 2016 edition of the biennial was conceived to institute a specific relationship with Zurich, its hosting city, and its population. The participant artists invited to develop a project working alongside a professional based in Zurich presented the products of their collaborations through diversified formats. Expressing practical and discursive exchanges carried out over a long period, the outcomes were displayed in the main exhibition venues in the shape of finished art works, in the actual spaces where the professional hosts performance their every-day jobs and on the screen of the Pavillon of Reflection where experimental videos produced by local art students documented the production of each work.
In line with the title What people do for money, both the site specific projects and the existing works selected by the curator aimed to investigate the complex correlation between occupations and personalities. Jankowski developed multiple narratives to provide a reflection on how the professions people pursue shape and affect the conception of themselves and the way society perceives them. The main focus of Manifesta 11 was creating a very local ecosystem that presented specific conditions as reflection of the global ones. The strategies employed are part of Jankowski’s practice as an artist. He made use of his interest in collaborative and interactive scenarios to define the format of the show and set curatorial premises able to build an original and coherent system.
What has predominately concerned the commenters though, is an often lacking cohesion between the concepts and the realisations of the specific projects. In some cases, the out-of-the-art-context moments scattered throughout the city were accused of dullness and incapacity of expressing the strong-minded concepts behind them. In some others, the original intentions were deformed by the realness of the situations that turned the works into lifeless apparatus, missing the original intention of operating an active role.
Now that the biennial has come to its end and many words have been spent both about its nature and about the European context it is embedded in, it appears legitimate to wonder why, in a tempestuous -and therefore rich of potential for a fruitful debate- moment, Manifesta has failed to address some of the most problematic European urgencies.
Speaking about labour, and art labour in particular, felt like to right path to take, but was Zurich the right context to do so? For an event that relied so strongly on the site specificity of its scene, the least one could expect was a genuine involvement of this context in the problematics on the table. Can one of the wealthiest cities on the planet, powerful centre in a historically autonomous and neutral country, proud of its exclusiveness, represent the European distress and foster influential statements?
The importance of the setting seems to be paramount for exhibitions that aim to propose a paradigm of larger scale social and political situations. This seems the reason why Adam Szymczyk, artistic director of the 2017 edition of Documenta, made the decision to relocate a large section of the prestigious art event that has taken place in Kassel since 1955 to the Greek capital. To justify his choice the curator simply but convincingly affirmed that the financial relationship between Greece and Germany and the Mediterranean geographic identity further challenged by immigration issues were more curatorially relevant. Using Athens and its art ecosystem as a model for a renowned identity sounds like the winning move to propose a truly European art manifestation, able to represent the “figure of a larger situation that Europe has to confront”
Angela Pippo is a curator based in London. She completed her MA in History of Art in 2013 in Milan and she is currently attending the MA Curating the Contemporary at London Metropolitan University and Whitechapel Gallery. She collaborated as researcher and grant recipient with international institutions such as the Antonio Ratti Foundation (Como, Italy) and the Institute of Contemporary Art (Sofia, Bulgaria). Her past curatorial experiences include: Concrete Matters, 3 – 19 March 2016, Bank Space Gallery, 59 – 63 Whitechapel High Street, London. Through The City, February 2016 – February 2017, The Blithehale Health Centre, Bethnal Green, London. 217 Stangers/ Hao Xu, 8 May 2014, the Anatomy Museum, King’s College, London (curated by 15Curators Collective)
 Hedwig Fijen, (2012) “Three Questions to Hedwig Fijen, Director of Manifesta”, http://m9.manifesta.org/en/news/three-questions-to-hedwig-fijen-director-of-manif/
 Liam Gillick, (2016) “Unleash the Butterflies: The Failure of Culture in the Face of Brexit”, e-flux.com, 8 July 2016, http:// conversations.e-flux.com/t/liam-gillick-unleash-the-butterflies-the-failure-of-culture-in-the-face-of- brexit/4011
 Liam Gillick, (2016) “Unleash the Butterflies: The Failure of Culture in the Face of Brexit”
 Zoë Lescaze, “Documenta 14 will be held in Athens and Kassel”, artnews.com, 6 October 2014, http://www.artnews.com/2014/10/06/documenta-14-will-be-held-in-athens-and-kassel/
Featured image: Pavilion of Reflections, Lake Zurich, Manifesta 11, Zurich 2016, Manifesta Copyright