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Allegedly, there are "things we know but don’t know we know", and "things we believe but don’t know that believe". This might be a little too mysterious an introduction, but to me, this certain phrase, "unknown knowns" represents best the accomplishment of Manifesta 2010. The origin of the phrase is already interesting, in fact, symbolic, if it is acceptable at all to use this word nowadays (later I shall return to words besides things).
This phrase was borrowed by one of Manifesta’s curatorial teams, ACAF (Alexandria Contemporary Arts Forum) from Terry Eagleton, one of the most significant Marxist critics of our time. (1) Eagleton himself had indirectly borrowed the idea from Donald Rumsfeld, George W. Bush’s secretary of defence, with kind contribution from Slavoj Zizek. (2)
On one occasion, speaking about the war on Iraq, Rumsfeld happened to engage in the following train of thought: "There are known knowns; there are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns; that is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns; there are things we do not know we don’t know." In strategic planning - for instance with regard to WMDs and terrorism - obviously the latter case has the greatest significance and of course poses the greatest danger. But not because two Islamic terrorists armed with biological weapons might ambush us at any time in the restroom of the White House, but because it can legitimate serious pre-emptive strikes and wars, as it was the case with Iraq.
Eagleton has appended this in correspondence with 21st century art theory, suggesting that the most interesting about it is what we don’t know we know. But what could he be thinking about? And what were ACAF (Bassam el Baroni and Jeremy Beaudry) thinking about in Southern Spain, when introducing the quite complex concept of the section they devised? Allegedly - and of course courtesy of Zizek - they were thinking about the almost unconscious, or at least unacknowledged beliefs, presuppositions and fears that not only shape but also define the image of contemporary art. But what are these?
Instead of providing an answer, ACAF mysteriously pointed at the works of art, and performatively marked research and reflection as the goal. In other words, the recognition of the fact that, after Lacan and Zizek (and Eagleton), contemporary art can profit the most from researching its own unconscious instead of posing the old questions. The only remaining question was whether this research would be as uncannily spectacular as the inglorious practice of the guards at Abu Ghraib and their exposure? (Zizek introduced the notion of "unknown knowns" in relation to the tortures and brutalities of Abu Ghraib, with regard to the desires and instinctive urges of the soldiers.)
But why is the intro of ACAF’s concept so symbolic with regard to the whole of Manifesta? On the one hand, because this is a critical biennale fortified by very serious theoretical armaments, and one that engages the munitions of Marxist and post-Marxist critique. On the other hand, because similarly to most critical biennales, Manifesta aims to reflect on social and geopolitical reality.
Beyond all its noble intentions and critique of ideology, this reflection implies the danger of being illustrative. And this is the lesser danger, for in the background, there lurks the danger of referentiality, that is, the fact that faithfully to the glorious traditions of conceptual art and microhistory-writing, the interpretation of the works requires too much background knowledge, even if a work is transparent in terms of its topic. If it isn’t, the audiences of diverse culture and education will need a few minutes (at least) to get tuned in. Conversely, if the artist is too spectator-friendly, they can easily slip into the categories of didactic and/or spectacular.
Based on the overall view of Manifesta, it can be said that for some reason, who knows why (artists, curators and critics, time for analysis!), everyone is still most afraid of the charge of being spectacular. As if the Debordian notion of the spectacle automatically put art into the service of capitalism and market relations. And - what’s even worse - it seems as though the critique of spectacularity could legitimate the poor visual qualities of an artwork.
Beyond the lack of the spectacle, another thing makes reception difficult: excessive self-reflexivity, which is also a symbolic feature of Manifesta, but especially this last one. For the question of wherein lie the duties and opportunities of contemporary art in the economic and political reality of our time was posed not only by ACAF, but by the other two teams of curators as well, CPS (Chamber of Public Secrets, a collaboration of Khaled Ramadan and Alfredo Cramerotti) and tranzit.org (represented by Vít Havránek, Zbynek Baladrán, Dóra Hegyi, Boris Ondreicka and Georg Schölhammer).
What’s more, tranzit.org aggravated the situation even further by inquiring into the duties and opportunities of the curator, which is also quite a topical question in our time. The curatorial concept of the section Constitution for Temporary Display approaches contemporary artistic practice with special regard to collaboration, collective thinking and collective creation, from the aspects of democratic legislation, philosophy of law and the provocative traditions of avant-garde.
This manifold and ever more intricately reverberating mise en abyme (critical/self-critical) situation is further complicated by the fact that the Central European curatorial team chose to reflect on the past and present of avant-garde and politically oriented artistic activism at a biennale that focuses partly on migration, attempting, as even its title suggests, to initiate a dialogue with North Africa, whose situation is comparable with the recent past of Central and Eastern Europe in many respects (orientalism, migration, globalization).
Finally, the Eagleton - Zizek - Rumsfeld "intertext" is symbolic also inasmuch as the authors of the catalogue, the curators of the exhibitions, and the productions of more than a hundred artists flash countless trains of thoughts and networks of events of such profundity, the analysis of which might well take several months. Therefore, giving in to subjectivity, which is a constant threat to curatorial work as well, this time I will restrain myself to the presentation of only a few works, inserting them into an abstract projection of the complex exhibition.
The abstract point of view seems to pay off in two respects. On the one hand, it may help us find a way out of the ideological crossfire of the critique of ideology, institutional and social criticism, self-reflexivity and autonomy, by examining the mediatic nature of the works, or more precisely, the way they focus on things, words and images. On the other hand, circumventing social relevance, it can recall for a moment what the task of art once used to be, and what its means were for fulfilling this task, namely, representation. Also, it may hint at what happens if, under the pressure of spectacle, performativity comes to the forefront, which is no more about what, nor about how, but about what for.
Meanwhile, the biggest question is: for whom? Of course, this question, namely the problem of the ever more academic enclave of art, had not left an impression on the curatorial concepts: CPS opened towards the media, tranzit.org towards politics, and ACAF, with delightful imprudence, towards reality, centring its concept on its complexity and the impossibility of its depiction.
Overlooking the fact that spanning from cybernetics to chaos theory, this topos is as old as the Ural or the Harz Mountains, but at least as old as the Murcia mine region, it still has quite some appeal: a lot of self-reflexivity, irony and humour. Perhaps this is why ACAF named their section Overscore, in the sense of crossing out an incorrect or inappropriate word in the process of proofreading. We cross out the "old" expression, while retaining its visibility, preserving it as a point of reference for the new. It is laudable that the curators refrained from alluding to Hegelian dialectics, Heideggerian hermeneutics and Derridean deconstruction in relation to the notion of "overscore".
Instead, they outlined the Theory of Applied Enigmatics, which attempts to confront the collective unconscious of contemporary art, examines the legacy of institutionalized humanism, while keeping the notion of complexity in view, and often turning to enigmas, mysteries and puzzles instead of examples. This is all very welcome, the only question is "display". Namely, how the artists managed to make use of the "instinctive urges" of curatorial concepts and geopolitics.
ACAF managed to borrow another good idea from Zizek (and of course Hitchcock): the "MacGuffin". (3) They had asked the artists to submit a MacGuffin for the story of contemporary art in the "illustrative" section of the catalogue representing the artworks or the artists. A MacGuffin is a prop or plot element in a film, which is essential despite its mysterious nature, and drives the plot forward without letting the viewer know what exactly the dossier or suitcase contains (incidentally, Zizek called WMDs the Iraqi MacGuffin).
And the palette of MacGuffins at Manifesta 8 turned out to be rather broad. From Ann Veronica Janssens, who submitted a single word: "imperfection", through Simon Fujiwara, who pointed a thumb out of Magritte’s famous pipe, to Willy Doherty’s surrealistic story of a peacock with a die on the streets of Murcia, or Nástio Mosquito’s anti-fascist and anti-institutionalist manifesto.
The only question is whether these little stories really bring the epic story of art forward. Do we gain anything from it, or at least does it hold our attention, if an artist dismisses the question of what art really is by answering "Fuck me, please" over a blurry portrait of Hitler?
If we are already at fucking, and screwing over, Simon Fujiwara’s project reflects quite complexly on the whole of Manifesta and the concept of ACAF. The piece entitled Phallusies (2010) relates the story of "finding" a 5-metre stone phallus, which is, of course, a fictive archaeological story. The quite "lifelike" stone statue was made by the artist out of polystyrene, constructing a story, which is exciting with respect to both local history and the unconscious of contemporary art. On the one hand, this is fictive archaeology. On the one hand, it is about getting the attention of spectator and critic alike: "centuries" after Freud and Lacan, the phallus is still perfect for the job.
To top it all, Fujiwara not only documented the "discovery" with utmost care, but also created an archaeological workshop with steel cabinets, paint-covered pants, penis-handle mug, calendar with a cover girl grilling sausage and homoerotic poker cards, in other words, a number of little ideas that reflect not only on the project and the exhibition situation, but also on phallic European cultural history.
Much more site specific and thus more typical of Manifesta 8 is Stefanos Tsivopoulos’ film installation Amnesialand (2010) at the casino of Cartagena. Contrasting the glamorous elegance of the venue, the film is a succession of images of the Martian landscape of the Murcia mine region. A counterpoint to the casino, images of a different spectacle, anti-capitalist if you will, raising attention to the damaging of nature, to profit-oriented destruction, while the narration combines mythical fiction with ethnographic documentarism. In addition, Tsivopoulus projects slides of ethnographic photographs of the miners to contrast the astonishing images of the fantastic landscape, thus confronting fantasies and fantastic images with stark reality even more.
In this spirit, most of the Manifesta projects are, if not site specific, or, using the new and trendy term: "glocal", then made specifically for Manifesta. Geopolitical reflection is also emphasized by the venues selected by the curators.
Laurent Grasso, for instance, exhibited his film, The Batteria Project (2010) in Cartagena’s former Autopsy Pavilion. The film features very spectacular images of the monstrous fortresses surrounding Cartagena (once the largest naval base of Spain), alternating between external and internal view, between grandiose and claustrophobic shots, leading the viewer into the parallel worlds of imperial illusions and battlefield anxiety. All this in a central space that reminded me of a panopticon where the artist had dissected the corpus of history along with the spirit of memory.
Another typical venue is Cartagena’s prison (if it wasn’t obvious so far, the spirit of Foucault also haunted most of the exhibitions along with Marx and Freud), but exhibitions were arranged at the local Museum of Modern Art (CPS) as well as Murcia’s old Water Mill (CPS), the former Post Office (ACAF) or the Artillery Barracks (tranzit.org).
Carla Filipe’s installation, Desterrado (2010) is specifically based on the barrack’s space, with abandoned pieces of clothing found on the streets of Murcia cast in fine concrete on the floor of a desolate restroom, as a monument to homelessness and migration.
The concept of Constitution for Temporary Display is, despite all its heroic and self-critical efforts, primarily about words, and almost by definition, it remains on the level of words. For the constitution has never been realized due to the lack of active contribution (or, the impossibility of channelling it) by the artists, or at least it has not been realized as they conceived: instead of statements and assertions, it mostly contains questions. Tranzit.org’s section itself is a lot more complex, and it comprises not only the issues of Manifesta, but also the avant-garde traditions of Central and Eastern European art.
For instance, Cristina David’s Time Machine (2010) confronts the spectator with the discrepancy of everyday reality and the reality of quantum-physics through the words of a Romanian particle physicist. The images, however, add very little to the words. Of course, they are not illustrative, but as for me, their "complexity" is beyond the confines of my abstraction.
Similarly, words carry most of the dash in Neïl Beloufa’s (his age of was 25 very typical of the anti-institutional spirit of Manifesta; also, most artists were under 40) film shot in Mali (Kempinski, 2010), which is also based on a very likeable idea. The artist interviewed local shepherds (remember: glocal) about how they imagined the future, which, putting aside all the stereotypes of postcolonialism, still gave rise to quite charming sentences, accompanied by surreal images in the framework of a constructivist installation.
The visual execution in Otolith Group’s Drexciya Mythos (2010) also fails to reach the complexity of its textual and futuristic, progressive electronic musical layers, although the idea is powerful: emigrants who drowned in the seas over the centuries have managed in some way to establish an alternative civilization at the bottom of the seas and oceans.
The most reflexive piece throughout the entire Manifesta is Common Culture’s film, The New El Dorado in Murcia (2010). Again, it is built around words, namely the complexity of speech situations and viewpoints. With a great deal of humour, their "sitcom" for three characters reinterprets the ideal of the 19th century grand tour in a setting evoking the disco world of the 80s. The dialogues of the English tourists first of all make fun of the present biennale-tourism, while mocking academic theoretical language, which does nothing else but legitimize the journeys, parties and self-absorbed treatises of the new intellectual "bourgeoisie". But they don’t stop at that, and go on to ridicule the cult of consumption, as well as utopian intentions of social critique, which are impossible to take seriously in the presentation of the comical characters, who deliver the most refined theoretical discourses in flamboyant clothes, greasy wigs, spiced up with grotesque dance steps.
Besides humour, the greatest strength of Igor and Ivan Buharov’s "avant-garde" Super-8 silent film, Rudderless (2010), inspired by the poem Rudderless (1971) by Hungarian poet István Domonkos, is its semi-natural, semi-surreal visual world. Juxtaposed with the very powerful text, the moving image paints a surprisingly accurate and dense picture of the absurdity of the socialist world via a peculiar journey, and of what it means to be enclosed in one language and culture, floating along with history and ideologies, which from time to time deliver a sudden "blow on the nape", not to help us face our limitations, but to jolt us back to reality, and quick.
CPS’s "mediatized" concept (concentrating on media technologies and seeking dialogue with them) is entitled The Rest is History? History as a construct is an evergreen topic; the mediatic nature of information transfer likewise. The added value of CPS might perhaps be the phrase "aesthetic journalism", which of course shouldn’t, but is quite hard not to, be understood pejoratively.
All in all, the concept endeavours to combine the depth of investigative journalism with the comprehensible and "media-compatible" presentation of theoretical issues. The Chamber of Public Secrets generally functions well when it is sufficiently spectacular, as in the cases of Grasso and Tsivopoulos, or in the artistic reproduction of the 2004 al-Qaeda terrorist attack in Madrid (11-M), or in evoking the images of the war in Afghanistan. At the same time, the latter very markedly presents the dangers of being illustrative. Sometimes, however, humour and irony - if allowed by the subject - alleviates this problem.
Pablo Bronstein of ACAF, for instance, spectacularly and resourcefully confronts Spanish and Islamic culture in his fantastic "cross-breed buildings" (Islamic Culture in Southern Spain - 1000 Years of Celebration, 2010). The graphic quality of the aquarelles combining the spirit of Giovanni Battista Piranesi with political caricatures in fact had quite a refreshing effect at the primarily film-based critical biennale, which might as well be called a film festival soon, especially if they invite a little more star artists, for curators are seriously overrepresented.
Out of the smaller stars we have to highlight Willy Doherty, who actually exhibited a piece worthy of his fame (he had twice been nominated for Turner Prize). The video installation Segura (2010) in the ACAF section displays beautiful images along the banks and under the bridges of Segura, Murcia’s river. HD quality, excellent compositions, eye-candy colours, modernist industrial geometry, from time to time "marred" by garbage and its producer, the homeless of Murcia.
In Cartagena at the new ARQUA (National Museum of Underwater Archaeology) building, winner of Spain’s National Architecture Award, the 27 years old Mariusz Tarkawian - also ACAF - laid out his grand vision on the wall, using black markers. On about 20 square metres, composed in a triangle four metres high, he drew up the historical allegory of the city of Cartagena, spiced up with remarkable war scenes (History of Cartagena, 2010). In Murcia, he created an allegory for the entire Manifesta in excellent small pencil drawings: Looking for Art / Anticipation in Art (2010). At the desolate building of the old post office, Tarkawian dedicated more than a hundred witty caricatures to "reproducing" the former, present, and future (!) Manifesta works of his fellow artists.
While Doherty or Grasso are even able to practice criticism while coquetting with the spectacle, based on the successful endeavours of Tarkawian and Common Culture, it still seems that - beyond intentions of social critique and above actual social engagement - contemporary art is most adept at analyzing itself.
However, this will only become spectacular once the spectator is well-versed in academic discourse and has scrutinized all the works at Manifesta, which is not an easy task in the crossfire of ideologies and microhistories, but at least, if said spectator is lucky enough to be a critic, curator or exhibiting artist, they will occasionally get some tapas or tortilla to munch along the way.
(1) Terry Eagleton: Faith and Belief, Now is the Time. Art and Theory in the 21th Century, p13, NAi Publishers, 2009.
21. October 2010.
C3 Center for Culture and Communication