EN / nl
The Legacy of Manifesta
What is Manifesta, the European biennial of Contemporary Art?
The origins of Manifesta as an international art event are embedded in the social and political changes, which occurred in the 1990s in Europe. Manifesta’s legacy is rooted in the time-frame of a politically unbalanced situation, before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 reunited the previously separated East and West. Manifesta was initiated in the early 1990s by fifteen European countries and their national arts councils, who no longer accepted that artistic practices from different parts of Europe could be detached from one another. Since Manifesta is the only roving biennial, changing its location every two years and not focusing on the concept of the art biennial as a representative, formatted event, Manifesta constantly needs to re-examine its original mandate. It responds to the changing dimensions of the artistic, social-cultural and political framework in which it operates. It reassesses the role that a biennial is able to play in ultra-peripheral or contested areas in Europe, and in its neighbouring countries. Maintaining a flexible structure, constantly adapting to changing geo-political parameters, Manifesta’s mission has proved to be an immense challenge for a variety of reasons. The East-West focus in the 1990s has transformed into a need to better facilitate North-South dialogue, reflecting the current changes within a European/global hierarchy. Dialogues with other continents have been established to research and understand the failing position of Europe in a worldwide context. Part of its strength is that Manifesta needs to prove itself as an ‘existential emergency’ (formulate differently...) every two years. From the beginning, a multitude of objectives has been fundamental, particularly artistic independence, technical excellence, inventive curating formats and the inclusion of diverse audiences. This was based on the development of innovative mediation systems, combined with a small, full-time administration. The need to change the focus from aesthetic concerns to production processes, and even art mediation, was strongly felt through all channels during the first decade of Manifesta’s existence. Since 1996, a big group of emerging curators has embarked on their experimental careers with Manifesta, while more than 600 interdisciplinary artists from dozens of nations were invited to conceive new works, often free from the constraints of the art market. Nevertheless, we are aware of the recent, strong push to shift the focus from purely artistic practices to a more extensive program targeting a wider audience, although Manifesta has never seen public attendance figures as its overriding priority. At the same time, Manifesta has taken its stance against nationalism, commercialism and the idea of the biennial being “hijacked” as a leisure event of readymade culture. A crucial part of the discourse of Manifesta is how, where and when Manifesta has succeeded or failed in its consecutive attempts to address Europe’s role as an open, inclusive society and a new multi-cultural entity. Based on the original parameters Manifesta set itself in the 1990s, what has worked and what has not? Manifesta seeks to identify those inter-cultural collaborations and social changes it has truly initiated on local, regional and international levels, plotting its role as an alternative, roving enterprise to study the DNA of Europe in its entirety. Did the transformation of power after the fall of the Berlin Wall really create an open climate for cultural exchange? Or was this simply the start of other political, monetary and governance conflicts, steered by rapid changes and imbalances in media, technology and ecology, affecting the global equilibrium? Even more so, is such a visible biennial/institution like Manifesta the ideal, semi-public platform for the circulation of creative ideas by artists and curators, beyond the constraints of the commercial market? Biennials help to measure the originality of an idea by spotlighting it on a stage. From the start Manifesta employed a system of critical self-assessment to investigate the role and significance of its artistic and social practices. Through critical workshops (the Manifesta Coffee Breaks) and publications like Manifesta Journal and Manifesta Decade Book, Manifesta takes peer-reviewing and interactive criticism very seriously. It is willing to illustrate this by changing modalities, in opposition to authoritarian and prevailing consumerist models of ‘the blockbuster show’. Manifesta always invests strongly in artistic research, in terms of exhibition-making, developing new modes to commission site-specific works and its capacity to train young professionals. At the same time, it has acted as a protagonist and a stimulus for regional artistic life, radiating energy between local administrations, cities and the biennial itself, so that the latter can function as a catalyst for change. There is no prototype of how a Manifesta edition works, since this depends on a multitude of parameters, conditions, expectations and production processes. Today, cultural funding systems are suffering as a result of the economic crisis in Europe. Due to a reassessment of the notion of biennials in general, Manifesta envisions new models in which it re-identifies our support structure through a combination of public and private funding. The biennial as an exhibition model might even be dated. Current demands by host cities and international partners seek the potential to turn the biennial into an art school, or to make Manifesta’s professional network and know-how available to a broader public in the non-Western art world. The need and ability to link the biennial to the locality and its history is a priority. The importance of local research is revealed by Manifesta’s seriousness in its selection of Host Cities and curatorial candidates for each edition and each team. Recent editions of Manifesta have set out to give visibility to local, regional and national factors concerning history, social issues and political autonomy, reflected in the exhibition concept.