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Democracy sucks

January 1st, 2011 by Clare Butcher

The following is a piece about to be published in a South African online art journal, Artthrob (www.artthrob.co.za) but I thought I’d post it here for your feedback.

Democracy sucks: a review of Manifesta 8: the Region of Murcia (Spain) in Dialogue with northern Africa

CLARE BUTCHER

“Democracy” has a long and complex conceptual lineage. Within western thinking it has been divvied up into a range of topoi – including the majoritarian, the partnership, and Chantal Mouffe’s recent conception of ‘agonistic’ democracy. Each of these versions relies on various constructs of individual versus general will. Majoritarian democracy is, according to Ronald Dworkin, the instatement of a particular law, person or process, based on the representative will of the greatest number of people – which by no means ensures that everyone is, in fact, represented. In partnership democracy (as the curatorial collective responsible for a part of the Manifesta 8, tranzit.org, would have us understand), ‘people govern themselves as full partners in a collective political enterprise’ where decisions can only be reached under certain preconditions, ensuring the equal interest for all involved. The recently opened Manifesta 8 in Murcia and Cartagena, Spain attempted an enactment of these very tensions between general and individual will, set within the framework of the site-specific, cultural machine of the biennial model.

Manifesta is a roaming European exhibition of contemporary art occupying a different European city every two years, under the guidance of a different curator (or [collective noun] thereof). Previously, the biennial has taken up residence in Rotterdam, Luxembourg, Ljubljana, Frankfurt and Trentino, to name a few. The programme is maintained by the Manifesta foundation, which operates between biennials via the Manifesta Journal on curatorship, as well as through a number of meetings and seminars.

For Manifesta 8 – spuriously subtitled ‘The Region of Murcia (Spain) in dialogue with northern Africa’ – the Manifesta Foundation invited the Alexandria Contemporary Arts Forum (ACAF) based in Egypt, the Chamber of Public Secrets (CPS), a `production unit’ organising cultural events internationally, and tranzit.org, a conglomeration of curators from Eastern Europe. Hoping to address the conceptual and physical borders between the post-colonial and the post-communist, the European and the non-European within the region, as well as the capacity of cultural production to move across these, each of the three collectives operated within their common framework via ‘autonomous curatorial contributions’. These were dispersed over separate locations and in a diversity of media throughout the two cities.

The juxtaposition of the terms ‘autonomy’ and ‘commonality’ provided the starting point for a general curatorial exercise in introspective flagellation: What does curating mean in cultural context? Have we been brought in to solve a socio-political crisis? Does criticality in this setting only cater to the constructedness of the biennial itself? Do you hear any dialogue at all with North Africa? The Chamber of Public Secrets chose a representative response to the structural situation of the biennial, comprising of projects created on-site in the city of Murcia, using various popular media to reflect more generally on the economics of cultural production. Their dialogue with North Africa consisted of Thierry Geoffroy/Colonel’s Penetration Room, installed in the former prison in Cartagena. The empty room was proposed as a space where the African artists painfully invisible in the rest of the show (save a few, such as Charles Mudede and Hassan Khan) could supposedly ‘penetrate’ the biennial’s borders. True to form, Geoffroy’s tongue-in-cheek tactics – hailing the visitor with statements such as ‘DEAR NORTH AFRICAN FRIENDS, PLEASE FEEL WELCOME TO USE THIS SPACE TO INSTALL YOUR ARTWORKS, SO WE CAN HAVE A DIALOGUE WITH YOUR PARTICIPATION AS WELL’ – made for an empty exhibition. Certainly the dialogue was not ‘democratic’ (in any of our earlier definitions) but Geoffroy’s hyper-exposure did nothing to make a solution more visible.

Penetration Space, the old prison in Cartagena, CPS Manifesta 8

Penetration Space, the old prison in Cartagena, CPS Manifesta 8

In contrast, the works of Zimbabwean film-maker and writer, Charles Mudede (based the US), and the Egyptian artist, writer, musician, Hassan Khan, curated by ACAF, had little to do with making “Africa” more visible in a pan-European biennial. Instead their perspectives as postcolonial subjects subtly initiated a dialogue with the artists’ projects around them.

Mudede’s first art project, Twilight of the Goodtimes (2010) executed in collaboration with Michael Leavitt, researched by Roxanne Emadi, and scored by DJ Shingi, tracks the development of high-rise housing units designed by African-American architect, Robert R. Taylor, in Chicago in the 1950s and 60s and the dissolution and then demolition of this modernist dream of urban utopia in the following years. Next to a timeline of these events and behind a blank, vintage television set, is a projection of the American TV sitcom, Goodtimes. The Goodtimes material is spliced with footage representing more contemporary political progressivism: Thatcherism, speeches by Bush – whereby Mudede shifts the axes of evaluation concerning a Hegelian idea of social history. This is not only an American or African story. Mudede “penetrates” the space with his politics and yet he speaks not only as a diasporic African, but as a visionary, critical voice.

Charles Mudede, Twilight of the Goodtimes, ACAF Manifesta 8

Charles Mudede, Twilight of the Goodtimes, ACAF Manifesta 8

Changing the terms of visibility, for change’s sake was not the intention of the ACAF curators. Instead of introducing a radical democratising of the biennial structure, as the only curators “representing” North Africa could be expected to, Bassam El Baroni and Jeremy Beaudry used a tentative Theory of Applied Enigmatics to decipher the agendas motivating the “beyond borders” exercises of cultural brokers in any context. These “enigmatics” took shape in selected artistic and design projects as well as a series of staged discussions organised by ACAF. The Backbench sessions (2010) carried out on the agora-like seating constructed by nOffice and later presented as a video installation in the exhibition space of the former Murcia post-office, saw various cultural producers painstakingly articulating the ethical dilemmas of globalised art practice. Their diplomatic travails culminated in a plaintive, beat-poet style Prayer for Art video piece (including prayers from Croatian curatorial collective, What How and for Whom, and Khwezi Gule).

Upon this curated discursive platform, ACAF also initiated discussions around the possibility of a Pan-African Roaming Biennial. The project, Incubator, is a year-long investigation done in partnership with a number of practitioners and institutions from around Africa – including the Contemporary Image Centre in Cairo, the Centre for Contemporary Art of East Africa (CCAEA) Nairobi, Art Moves Africa (AMA), and Gabi Ngcobo of the Centre for Historical Reenactments (CHR) in Johannesburg. Despite trying to contact key participants, what was actually discussed during the first meetings held in the context of Manifesta 8, and information concerning Incubator’s subsequent activities in the coming year, remain somewhat Free Masonic. The organisers seem refreshingly wary of divulging details before more of the project’s structures are in place to continue. This same collective caution extends to the tone of the abstracts of papers presented at the Manifesta discussions, which are (surprisingly) available online: http://www.panafricannial.org/symposium

Armed with an artillery of post-colonial subclauses and post-financial crisis qualifiers, the five speakers at the Manifesta discussions were assigned to articulate an historically and politically informed position on the relevance, efficacy and logistic reality of a nomadic African biennial. One of them, N’Goné Fall (curator of the Dakar Biennial 2002, and founding member of the collective, Gaw), seemed to take something of an agonistic stance, making an effective itinerary of the biennial or biennial-like events occurring on the continent in the last decades, followed by a comprehensive ‘For’ and ‘Against’ list. Primarily, like ACAF’s activities with Enigmatics, Fall questioned the validity of radical change merely for the sake of it. Yes, we need to address the monopoly of the idea of an ‘African’ biennial, as well as the fragility of most countries’ socio-economic structures (hence their ability to support an event of this scale). Moreover, a roaming African biennial would, Fall stated, enhance intracontinental artistic networks and actualise more democratic access for audiences in countries not able to host frequent exhibitions of international contemporary art.

Hassan Khan followed Fall in asking whether a repetition of the biennial structure was really the best alternative to the current networks of production and display already existing in Africa: whether, indeed an alternative rather than a substantiating of what is already there, was even necessary. The conception and logistics of an artistic Pan-Africanism were taken up by Ghanaian/USA/UK artist and organiser Senam Okudzeto. Her post-script challenge to the discussants and to Incubator as a project, was to think through a ‘biennial without bureaucracy’; to consider the unionisations, visa requirements and access that might enable audiences as well as participants to collaborate in the process.

Whether in an African or European context or somewhere in-between, it is a kind of democratic exhibition model – tentative and cautious rather than majoritarian and representative - that the beleaguered cultural producers taking part in global events seem to hanker after. For this very reason, I have delayed mentioning the final curatorial component of the Manifesta 8 until now. A Constitution for Temporary Display was tranzit.org’s means of decision-making and position-taking within the short-lived, potentially out-of-context Murcia exhibition. Their questions surrounding the establishment of a representative curatorial practice, like many of the Incubator discussions, detailed the direct links between the very logistical and the very symbolic nature of how these moments of display happen. Do we communicate by skype? How do we continue that dialogue in the physical space of the ongoing exhibition? What does the notion of opening hours mean to you?

Using these questions as cautionary guidelines rather than attempting to solve anything, tranzit.org selected artistic projects that also highlight acts of showing and narrative circulation. One striking example was the redisplay of Sarah Maldoror’s 1970 film made in Algeria, Monangambée, about the political activist, Luandino Vieira. Maldoror said herself that film was the only form of art with no boundaries. But it seems that by creating the conditions appropriate for a temporary display in the middle of a small city in the south of Spain, it was not only Maldoror’s film but a host of other art forms which were able to cross borders – political, spatial, conceptual. Perhaps this is the only form of democracy possible within exhibition-practice today: a time-based, fleeting democracy, prone to precarity, always conflicted in terms of what majority it represents and where, sceptical of commonality, and careful with the notion of autonomy. Perhaps this is the point at which the real dialogue with and within Africa begins.


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