“I have pushed for the transformation of Manifesta (…) into a more inclusive, pragmatic and sustainable format that turns signals into substance.” — Hedwig Fijen, founding director of Manifesta
1. Opening Rites To Our Common Humanity
Buzz words fly around at the press conference launching Manifesta 12 in the breathtaking Renaissance Church of Santa Caterina: incubator, civic cooperation, testing ground, sustainability, interconnection, flowing networks. The 12th edition of the biennial took as guiding vision the “Planetary Garden,” a term coined by French gardening philosopher Gilles Clément. They add that Manifesta, the nomadic biennial, was created in the early 90s as a response to the erection of new partitions and borders in Europe after they had been felled in the previous decade. Manifesta 12 wants to shift perspectives, in order to imagine and promote caring for the world through collaboration, the second tier of its title, “Cultivating Coexistence”. This “cultivating,” a gardening of sorts, is to replace the existing paradigm of one species’ domination at all cost. The concept of cultivation is to be applied to the city of Palermo itself, with the ambition of bringing lasting change and empowering its citizens of all origins and classes.
An abandoned building, the Garibaldi Theater, has undergone a most dashing renovation that will become one of the legacies of Manifesta to Palermo. It works as the main hub where accreditations are processed, panels and interventions held, and the space is notable for a modesty often lacking in the art world. No huge banners signal its facade, nor are we assailed with the usual branding and signage mania. The space is continuously open from auditorium through the servicing desks to the street. The only toilet lacks a lock, so visitors guard each other’s privacy in an atmosphere of casual goodwill. International filmmakers Laura Poitras and Henrik Moltke, legendary for documenting the excesses of US surveillance, try to make themselves heard above the general din. They are introducing the results of their residence at the Italian National Film School. The school’s documentary branch happens to be located in Palermo, enabling Poitras and Moltke to mentor the film students that were invited to produce films for Manifesta 12. The excitement is palpable as clips are projected in the presence of the young filmmakers. The films, surprisingly assured and expressive for student work, address sociopolitical issues such as the refugees’ conditions of life. The audience cringes as a paternalist evangelical proselytizes a young African. Regurgating submissively the minister’s every word, the refugee seems to crave the attention, and potential clout, of someone outside his limited social circle.
Another film, as well as of a number of pieces at the Biennial, deals with the subject of MUOS. The global communication system (Mobile User Objective System) has been implemented by the US Navy in four locations around the world to facilitate military communications and support war from a distance. With Europe, Africa and the Middle East all within reach of drones and unmanned planes, Sicily was an obvious strategic choice For this documentary, young African refugees who know the area inside out, and are skilled at avoiding patrols, guided the filmmakers through the devastated wilderness surrounding the compound. Crawling right up to the tall fences, the team shot an unmanned plane taking off to an unidentified destination, for an unidentified purpose. Breathtaking. And an inspiring example of collaboration across differences for the common good.
While the press conference and the initial panels serve as invitation to critical thinking, a performance at the Palazzo Forcella de Seta dips into a very different register. The dilapidated palace, reopened for the Biennial, shows influences from the Middle East, Africa and Europe in its elaborate ceramic tiles and ceiling decorations. In a sumptuous room, a mountain of salt induces the visitors to circle around its commanding appearance, complete with landslides and shiny facets. Salt, a universal commodity for humans, is extracted from the sea where countless refugees have lost their lives. This substance also refers to the belief held by enslaved Africans that if they ate no salt they would be able to fly back to Africa. Black artist Patricia Kaersenhout, the creator of The Soul of Salt, calls to the forefront a group of shy young refugees. They sing an adaptation of a 19th century American slave song. As they get more confident from hearing each other’s voices, and from the emotion projected by the audience, their song rises above the scintillating salt to fill the room: “No more drowning at sea, No more, no more. No more private property, No more, no more.” Next, a black man from the ex-Dutch colony Suriname in South America blesses the salt through a sacred ritual including prayers and singing. Described as “a spiritual leader” in the program, and a likely descendant of slaves himself, he spreads a few pinches around the room, then spits a liquid from a bottle, which turns out to be rum, on the heap. Finally, the artist invites the visitors to carry back some of the salt and dissolve this symbol of suffering in water to complete the cycle of commemoration.
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