by cheyanne turions
This June, the 10th edition of the Manifesta Biennale opened in St. Petersburg, Russia. Since its beginning, the Biennale has been itinerant, typically unfolding in peripheral European cities or contested regions. Prioritizing processes of research as a tool for embedding the event in specific local contexts, the concept of each edition reflects upon the social, geographic, economic, and political realities of the place itself. Originally concerned with the possibilities of art to respond to the shifting cultural contexts of the European continent in the aftermath of the Cold War, it seems only appropriate that the Biennale be eventually hosted by a Russian city.
However, when it was announced in February 2013 that the 2014 edition of Manifesta would take place in St. Petersburg, it was a very different political reality on the ground then than it is now. Russian military forces had yet to annex Crimea, the homophobic sentiments of Vladimir Putin had yet to be formalized into anti-gay legislation, and long-observed practices of state censorship have since become more and more blatant. What are the reciprocal responsibilities of art, of artists and curators and a privileged cultural class that are able to parachute into St. Petersburg only to pick up and leave once their aesthetic appetites have been quenched?
In March 2014, Manifesta announced the curatorial approach for the 10th edition, where the Biennale’s Director Hedwig Fijen acknowledged the tension between the politics of place and the possibilities of culture: “As a nomadic European biennial we choose to operate within contested areas, outside the ‘safe haven’ of the ‘West,’ and do so because we believe art provides an alternative perspective and reflection on society...Our work is one of debate, negotiation, mediation, and diplomacy, that does not shy away from the conflicts of our time. At a time when everything tends to be read through a geo-political lens, art is there to provide complexity and nuance.” Not all artists scheduled to participate agreed. Notably, the Russian collective Chto Delat withdrew from Manifesta, citing comments of the Biennale’s curator Kasper König as particularly problematic: “He [stated] his dislike for ‘cheap provocations’ in topical political references, warning that Manifesta 10 at Hermitage could be ‘misused by political actors as a platform for their own self-righteous representation’, and insisting that ‘it is [his] hope to present far more than just commentary on the present political circumstances’ [link]. It is clearly art over politics. Kaspar König’s most recent statement denigrates any attempts to address the present situation in Russia by artistic means, demoting them to ‘self-righteous representation’ and ‘cheap provocation’ and thus effectively preemptively censoring them.”
The collective goes on to say that, “We are generally against boycotts and especially as far as international cultural projects in Russia are concerned. A cultural blockade will only strengthen the position of reactionary forces at a time when the marginalized anti-war movement in Russia so desperately needs solidarity. But our aim at least should be to turn every cultural project into a manifestation of dissent against the Russian government’s policy of violence, repressions, and lies. Even if you are staging Shakespeare or exhibiting Matisse, the task of culture today is to find the artistic language to bring home that simple message.” What the comments and actions of Chto Delat make clear is that the possibility of art to effect social change can happen through both participation and refusal. In this case, their withdrawal is not of the political context per se, but rather from the depoliticization of the context through the machinations of a curator’s aesthetic agenda.
I have not seen the Biennale, so I cannot comment on whether or not the censorship and political softening imagined by Chto Delat has been enacted through the exhibitions in St. Petersburg. However, in a hopeful provocation, Russian scholar Ekaterina Degot expressly performs what König had feared: “It became clear to me that precisely what I had to do was ‘misuse’ this platform—though not to address the political significance of Russian art [as she had been invited to do in the exhibition catalogue], but to rather address the political significance of Manifesta 10.” “A Text That Should Never Have Been Written?” is the result and is currently available online as part of e-flux magazine. Degot’s name is listed among the contributors to the catalogue, and so I assume that some version of her ideas have become part of the Biennale’s official narrative.
As Degot makes clear in the text, Manifesta is as much a distinct stage of career development for the artists involved as it is an attempted provocation of its context: “Under aesthetic censorship...international contemporary art is a protest act by definition. But in a broader context it is not, and has not been for decades. The world we live in is more complex than that. There is no guarantee of emancipatory potential in contemporary art, and neither are there specific forms that would assure us of the correct political behavior of their creators, let alone their owners.” As consumers of culture and as participants in systems of globalized exchange (of power, goods, and ideas), the obligation of artists, cultural workers, and Biennale tourists is to recognize that what is happening in Russia is not a peculiar or bounded circumstance. But criticality is not assured by the simple form of art. If the relationship between contemporary art and progressive thinking is to be meaningful, then it must be tended. Chto Delat do so through refusal and Degot does so through instrumentalization. Amongst those who participated, The Calvert Journal collected a spectrum of responses to the question of whether art can change the world. I am not sure how to measure the potency of art to effect social change, but as the political situation in Russia continues to escalate and as Manifesta proceeds, this moment becomes one in which it is important to consider how art and politics can be utilized in service of each other.
Featured image photo credit: Elena Kovylina, still from the video of her performance Equality (2009), courtesy of the artist.
 A timeline of the recent political crisis in the Ukraine can be viewed here: http://www.aljazeera.com/news/europe/2014/03/timeline-ukraine-political-crisis-201431143722854652.html
 Passage of the two controversial bills is discussed here: http://www.aljazeera.com/news/europe/2013/06/2013611155323341978.html
 A short video describing the changing state of media freedom in Russia can be watched here: http://www.aljazeera.com/video/europe/2014/04/russian-opposition-deplores-media-clampdown-2014413162835159413.html
 “Curatorial approach and artists announced,” Manifesta 10, accessed on 17 July 2014, http://manifesta10.org/media/uploads/files/press-release_ENG.pdf.
 “Chto Delat withdraws from Manifesta 10,” Dmitry Vilensky, Chto Delat, accessed 17 July 2014, http://chtodelat.org/b9-texts-2/vilensky/chto-delat-withdraws-from-manifesta-10/.
 Ekaterina Degot, “A Text That Should Never Have Been Written?” e-flux Journal #56 (July 2014), http://www.e-flux.com/journal/a-text-that-should-never-have-been-written/#_ftnref1.