Petitions, Propaganda and Manifesta 2014: A “Neutral Space for Discussion”?

Manifesta's Hedwig Fijen,  Director of the Hermitage Mikhail Piotrovsky, and Kaspar Konig celebrate the official announcement of Manifesta 2014

Manifesta’s Hedwig Fijen, Director of the Hermitage Mikhail Piotrovsky, and Kaspar Konig celebrate the official announcement of Manifesta 2014. Image courtesy of Manifesta.

So, speaking of petitions, we have had quite a few Manifesta-related versions sent to our inboxes recently. The most prominent was penned by Noel Kelly, on Change.Org. It states, very plainly that, in light of Russia’s recent, very controversial legislature on “homosexual propaganda,” Manifesta should move or delay its 2014 edition, which is to take place at within the Hermitage and be curated by Kaspar König (which we announced here, but you can find the official statement here.) Kelly writes:

It is important that we send a message to the Russian government that such draconian measures will not be tolerated. In particular, the art world community must act now and request that Manifesta is either awarded to a different city, postponed until human rights are restored, or cancelled as a sign of support for the LBGT community.

What Kelly and the many others who fervently forwarded this email (though did not sign, it would seem, as there are currently only 1700 or so supporters, and we’re pretty sure we’ve been sent more forwards than that…) are wagering here is that Manifesta matters to the state.

To be frank, the Hermitage does not need Manifesta. It is one of the most storied museums in the world, with an unrivaled collection. In 2014, it will be celebrating its 250th anniversary, which, alone will bring in more tourists than the word “Manifesta.” (As, let’s face it, that’s a very limited audience, globally speaking, and most of it will be waving press cards or free passes.) If the Hermitage wanted Kasper König – or for that matter, any of today’s top curators – to create an exhibition, all they would have to do is ask. They have the space, they have the resources; what they have lacked – critically – is the infrastructure and organization for these kinds of exchanges. This is what made the Hermitage so appealing for the cash-strapped Manifesta, whose otherwise underdog politics might seem in contrast to its selection of the world’s largest museum (museum, not museum complex – take it easy there, Smithsonian.)

The question then is whether St Petersburg needs Manifesta, and that is more open-ended. In response to the petition, Manifesta Director Hedwig Fijen told Monopol:

Of course we are concerned about the current conservative climate. But should we isolate all countries that have not committed to an equal standard of human rights? Or should we not much rather try to build bridges and establish a cultural dialogue? [Translation. Read the original here.]

Some of Manifesta’s St Petersburg team responded with a petition of their own, repeating Fijen’s assertions that Manifesta could provide a very necessary platform for dialogue. A similar argument can be found at 4art2matter, which we were directed to by artist Taus Makhacheva (under the heading “RUSSIA NEEDS MANIFESTA 10!!!”). The piece calls it like it sees it, claiming that “This petition seems mostly to be an internal dialogue between Europeans who have not considered the majority of Russians’ views.”

 It seems that in fact this action of moving Manifesta’s location away from Russia, would make little difference to government policy and instead simply punish artists and russian citizens by taking away this chance to develop a progressive dialogue between Russia and Europe. [Read the full statement here.]

So far the most helpful, considered piece we’ve seen on this is from artist and activist Dmitry Vilensky of Chto Delat, who provides a careful examination of both sides of the debate, though he immediately cries foul over Manifesta’s claim that it can act as “neutral,” lamenting that the brand has allowed itself to be bought by St Petersburg’s powers-that-be. Alas, this is  in Russian, but we’ve translated a little here [Again, find the original here. This translation is our own and just for the purposes of this blog]:

For me, the real problem is that the idea of a boycott comes from the “outside,” in terms of its relation to the players of the local situation – all the more so, as St Petersburg doesn’t actually have a real art community, in which one could state their positions and suggest alternatives. Chto Delat‘s position has always come from the idea of the grassroots self-organization of local cultural life, but in our specific situation, when all forms of civil society seems to be collapsing, we clearly realize that we lack concrete opportunities to articulate a serious opposite to these “outside” players, with their superficial understanding of what is happening here in the city. It’s for this reason, speaking from a relatively marginal position within the art scene, I would say that for us the calls for a boycott are still early

… But now there are warning signs. The counter-petition, written by people from Manifesta, claims that it will strive not to interfere in “internal” politics and instead “cultivate” a kind of taste (?) for the abstract values of tolerance. What’s that?? Instead of hearing a declaration of solidarity with the LGBT community, with all of those who are persecuted in Russia (from migrants to the members of certain art collectives sitting in prison), we hear that Manifesta will not participate in propaganda, instead striving to maintain a neutral space for discussion. There is no such thing as a neutral space for discussion in today’s Russia. We are either on the side of the repressive machine for the production of conservative ideology, entertainment and the mind-wasting of the creative class, or we fight to develop a viable alternative to this. In the current situation, forcing the prerequisites of a Cold War between “The West” (with its array of civil society values) and Russia leads to the rhetoic of a psuedo-union through art  – a starry-eyed take, better suited for the mission statement of some international charity organization. Real contemporary can and must deal with antagonistic conflicts. This is the only possible position Manifesta can take on the problematics of presenting a democratic art project in a situation of legitimizing the power of an archaic escalation of violence on every level of civic and political life. This is truly a radical conflict, and it’s unclear how it can be resolved, but as we have learned in the case cases of China or the Arabic countries, the Western cultural machine is always ready to compromise, retreating behind the rhetoric of respecting “differences,” when in reality it is quite frankly dictated by financial interests and the obscure idea of expanding “all that is well and good.”

Again, find the entire statement here. We thank Dima for this thoughtful contribution to the debate and look forward to seeing more responses.

Protester image

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7 Responses to Petitions, Propaganda and Manifesta 2014: A “Neutral Space for Discussion”?

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