“The project is the city”
The biennial takes from the strategic position of the island and situates on center stage immigration & movements of people, surveillance & borders, flora & capital at center stage.
The twelfth edition of Manifesta, the European nomadic biennial, which sets up at the politically charged Sicilian capital of Palermo, opened its door on Saturday the 16th of June. The contemporary art multi-site exhibition presents an ultra-eclectic array of participants. It can be visited till next Autumn, the 4th of November and comprises 50 artist and 30 newly commissioned artworks scattered around six main locations, ten extra venues throughout the historic city and four locations on the periphery.
Palermo’s Orto Botanico, founded in 1789, acts as inspiration and heart location of the exhibition. Titled The Planetary Garden: Cultivating Coexistence uses the garden as a metaphor for diversity and cultural cross-pollination that embodies the city, noted for the sociocultural syncretism between Western, Islamic and Byzantine cultures. The largest island in the Mediterranea Sea is a meeting point between civilizations at the crossroads of Africa and Europe. Manifesta 12 —from now M12— uses the botanical garden moreover to evoke modern times globalisation, reminiscent of the values of scientific progress and Enlightenment.
Through an interdisciplinary exhibition that features talks, concerts, performances, films, and workshops, visitors face uncomfortable topics such as global surveillance, climate change, toxicity, and migration. Precisely Leoluca Orlando, Palermo’s mayor and great defendant of immigrants’ rights in Italy, declared Palermo an “open city” in front of a crowded press opening in the Baroque splendour of Santa Caterina church.
This biennale is signed by four “cultural mediators”: Spanish architect Andrés Jaque, journalist and filmmaker Bregtje van der Haak, Sicilian-born architect and OMA partner Ippolito Pestellini Laparelli, and curator Mirjam Varadinis. It has its headquarters in the Teatro Comunale Garibaldi, reopened in 2017 after its occupation by a collective of theater workers, located in the historic Piazza Magione.
No doubt that Palermo —which this year is also the Italian Capital of Culture— is having a renaissance, beating its reputation for corruption and crime, hence, Sicilian hospitality and intercultural mix, anarchistic sense of run the city and great cultural pride, generate an incredible climate for the event. The city itself is one of the main stages of the biennial: decaying palaces, oratories, enchanted ruins, spectacular churches, extravagant courtyards, and rarely accessible places of wonder lend a superb atmospheric backdrop to the festival. During the opening days, M12 took the streets with processions, performances, and dances; very participative events with a tremendous response from the locals.
The show shapes up three main sections scattered through the main venues hosted by chapels and palazzi. Garden of Flows is located at Orto Botanico and palazzo Butera. Out of Control Room at palazzi Ajutamcristo, Forcella de Seta, and Trinacria plus Casa del Mutilato. City on Stage at Palazzo Constantino, Teatro Garibaldi, Instituto Padre Messina and the suburban sites Arena La Sirenetta, Costa Sud plus mafia touch areas Pizzo Sella and dilapidated Zona Espansione Nord (ZEN). Also, M12 will be further expanded by more than 70 collateral events spread out through November.
City on Stage
This section features Palermo greatness, from tradition to massive tourism, failing infrastructures, communal and social practices.
Most visited and celebrated is the installation Protocol no. 90/6 by Italian duo Masbedo (Nicolo Massazza and Iacopo Bedogni) at the State Archive. It combines video of a puppet shown on a giant LED screen surrounded by masses of crumbling stacked documentary material, folders, and records: memory and decay. One of these memories suddenly shows up, a single folder from the archive is illuminated by a lamp. It contains records of artists investigated by the goverment. One of this, is a condemnation of film director Vittorio De Seta, who was suspected of fomenting communism for his works with farmers, fishermen, and miners. The puppet on the screen represents De Seta. This singular, remarkable work is only open to the public for a few days, after, the archive will be closed again.
Masbedo also shows Videomobile at Palazzo Constatino, an old van turned into a “video-cart” which presents on its screens the locations of film-sets in Palermo, investigating the history of the city, with a special focus on themes such as the dynamics of power.
On Saturday morning (June 16), Matilde Cassani’s Tutto started at Quattro Canti with powerful drumming, joined by the church bells and finally, explosions of confetti, offering moments of magic and “provisional” joy at a crowded crossroad dressed with the artist’s stitched banners —one banner is also presented at Palazzo Constatino.
In the afternoon Marinella Senatore’s Palermo Procession brought together activism and a collective dance in the historic city center inspired in the procession of Santa Rosalia. Processions have a millenary history in Sicily, rooted in paganism and ancient religious rituals. Santa Rosalia is not only a celebration that ties everybody together but almost an obsession for people in Palermo, from all sorts of communities and backgrounds. Flags and material used during the performance can be seen at Chiesa SS. Euno e Giuliano.
Jordi Colomer’s video installation New Palermo Felicissima at the Instituto Padre Messina features a small group of people moving by boat along the city’s Costa Sud. A young guide, played by actress Laura Weissmahr, gives information about the surroundings —we hear the same thing twice— as she is repeating lines from writer Roberto Alajmo dictated to her by earphones, while she is trying to imitate Italian accent. Fiction, oral history, and communities from the perspective of those who look at a land from the see.
Gilles Clément, French philosopher and landscape architect who inspired the title of the show with his book Le jardin planétaire, has created an urban garden in collaboration with the London-based design studio Coloco in Palermo’s ghetto ZEN district. For how long will the community garden keep on existing? If this is a biennial that aims for enduring local impact, cultivation notoriously requires time and this project should come to fruition months if not years.
Belgian architectural collective Rotor’s installation Da quassù è tutta un’altra cosa [From up here, everything looks different] invites viewers to visit the devastated hill Pizzo Sella, nicknamed “hill of shame,” which offer panoramic views of the Gulf of Mondello and it is home to 170 aborted villas built by the mafia but never demolished. The walls of these modern ruins are covered since 2013 with graffiti by the Palermitan art collective Fare Ala.
To end up this section, Yuri Ancarini’s Whipping Zombie and Lapidi at Oratorio della Madona Rifugio are two videos that aim to explore the contemporary metamorphoses of the practices of memory in relation to historical traumas and wounds. In Whipping Zombie inhabitants of a remote village in Haiti perform the gestures and the dynamics of their terrifying past as slaves. Whilst Lapidi, shows the memorial tablets honoring the memory of the magistrates, civilians, journalists, police officers and all those victims of violence in Palermo.
Out of Control Room
Migration by sea, human trafficking, war, human violence and technology-infused border control are on its map.
Rationalist building Casa del Mutilato, hosts one of my personal favorites. The Spanish artist Christina Lucas three screens video installation Unending Lightning, an ongoing project that documents the history of aerial bombardments over civilian targets, from the first, in 1911, to the present day. A world map fills the central screen and names of cities flies from the sides to locate them in it. The days go by, month by month, year by year, decade after decade. We spent one hour in front of the work, and just one decade of our present history destructive passed by. Europe, Korea, Vietnam, the Balkans, Guernica, Hiroshima, Nagasaki and 9/11 are on the screen. The left-hand screen records the number of deaths and who bombed, whilst on the right, archive photographs appear and leave. This implacable work, more than six hours long, is a horribly compelling record of more than a century of aerial destruction.
At Palazzo Ajutamicristo, Cuban artist Tania Bruguera’s installation Article 11, documents the Sicilian political movements opposed to MUOS, the US Navy’s new global communication satellite system in Niscemi, a mountain in the south of the island. Bruguera worked with local protest groups, documenting direct action and media coverage. One wall carries a mural portraying the force of local opposition to the base station.
James Bridle’s Citizen Ex is an installation that uses a specially conceived algorithm to show us the path made by the information —both input and output— generated each time we access the Internet. It deals with a relevant topic, the storage and traceability of the data used by individuals, companies, and technologies in different countries and jurisdictions and we see it is almost 90% storaged at the USA.
Algerian-born Lydia Ourahmane’s The Third Choir sound installation is composed of 20 oil barrels that she struggled to import from the Algerian company Naftal. Each barrel holds a cellphone with fragments of sound pieces recorded in Algeria. It attests to the movement of bodies across borders by being the first artwork to be legally exported from Algeria since 1962, because of its restrictive legislation on the circulation of art.
The Berlin-based Peng! Collective has installed a phone booth outside Ajutamicristo, and you can dial up government agents in Germany and France, the FBI, and CIA. Telephone numbers have been picked from a secret database. Written in the booth there is an advise to use a false name and have a good cover story when making a call.
Across the Border by Filippo Minelli is a participatory project that investigates the themes of migration and identity. He has a series of flags made by performers from all the geographical areas with which Palermo is connected due to migration or the exchange of communications through Internet infrastructures.
There is a preponderance of video art at M12, and at Forcella de Seta, is a fact. Laura Poitras work —as Bruguera’s one— relates to the United States military presence in Sicily, which connects via satellite to drone controllers in the US. The films of rockets taking off and camera approaching the satellite dishes evoke the ground station and its remote impact, also military versus civilian technology. In an outer room, a small monitor screen shows a huge military drone preparing for deployment and Poitras’s own drone-shot video is projected in a dark chamber.
Far better is Forensic Oceanography’s Liquid Violence, an examination of Italy and the EU’s decision to cut back on search and rescue operations at sea, and the criminalization of NGOs that attempt to rescue refugee boats from Libya. Also investigates how the Mediterranean’s increasing militarization impacts the rising numbers of deaths among migrants.
Purple Muslin by Turkish Erkan Özgen is a video piece created in collaboration with women refugees in Europe and Turkey who fled the war zones of northern Iraq. It features a series of interviews in which the women recount their personal experiences of war, suffering, and migration.
Kader Attia’s contemporary post-colonial body of work is especially focused on descendants of slaves and colonized populations. In his film The Body’s Legacies. The Post-Colonial Body, Attia interviews four people whose ancestors were slaves or members of colonized populations. The narration of personal experiences alternates with the story of Théo Luhaka attack in a Paris suburb in 2017.
One of the few non-video works at Forcella de Seta is The Soul of Salt by Patricia Kaersenhout, literally a mountain of blessed salt framed by the palace’s marvelous Arab-Norman inspired mosaics. In the Caribbean, enslaved people dreamed of flying back to Africa: legend said that the consumption of salt would weigh them down. As a gesture of commemorative release, visitors are invited to take salt and release it back into the water.
Garden of Flows
In tune with Palermo’s voluptuous nature and exotic plants, such as the gigantic ficus macrophylla, a kind vegetal columned building on Piazza Marina, this section includes orchards, plants, nature, social practices or architectural responses to climate change.
One of its main venues is the Orto Botanico, here Michael Wang charts plants’ role in the Anthropocene. The Drowned World, connects to the organic origins and current biological consequences of the phenomenon of industrialisation. It includes a fountain colonized by green-blue living cyanobacteria, which appeared over two million years ago when oxygen was first produced by photosynthesis, causing the greatest mass extinction in the history of the planet. It also has a forest composed of plants similar to the existing in the Carboniferous Period, that can be seen via raised platform at the garden’s edge; finally, there is a gallery of close up detailed photographs of coal.
Leone Contini’s Foreign Farmers is the result of ten years of collecting seeds and stories and takes shape as an experimental garden where migrating varieties cohabit. Inspired by the hybrid genealogy of Sicilian plants and vegetables, the artist has built a hybrid bower where acclimation is no longer imposed as part of a colonial power-based relationship, but as a natural process. Here, the Sicilian cucuzza grows alongside its Bengali, Sri Lankan, Philippine, Turkish, and Chinese counterparts.
Installation Lituation by Southafrican Lungiswa Gqunta seeks to interpret the garden as a stratified space complete with stories, sacred rituals, and memory. Our relationship to the land is tied to exploitative work but also to a sense of transcendence. The installation is composed of glass bottles and unleaded petrol which cover the entire floor of the Gymnasium in the Botanical Garden.
Renato Leotta hasbuilt the minimalist installation Notte di San Lorenzo, a floor with the marks of falling lemons imprinted on the maiolica tiles that cover an entire room floor of Palazzo Butera.
Also at Palazzo Butera the LA collective Fallen Fruit have printed a gorgeous, gaudy wallpaper patterned with the public fruiting trees of the city which they have also mapped: free fruit to nourish the commons.
In other space of the palazzo, Melanie Bonajo’s Night Soil video trilogy explores the alienated urbanites that go to reconnect to nature-derived practices and belief systems: ayahuasca trips, sexual therapy derived from tantric traditions, and back-to-the-land food cultures as forms of social healing.
The London-based duo Cooking Sessions (Daniel Fernández Pascual and Alon Schwabe) has built simple structures around different trees diseminated in city gardens and the open-air Chiesa Santa Maria dello Spasimo, to study dry watering techniques that make possible cultivation without irrigation systems, giving the chance for plants to survive even in dry conditions and combat desertification.
M12 in Palermo is not about decadence and nostalgia, but of revitalization and care, despite old problems and new emergencies. The city great cultural heritage generates an incredible climate for working in artistic, political and social terms. We all saw a real attempt to engage the politics of Palermo, Sicily, southern Europe, North Africa and beyond. The biennial is reflecting back the driving forces behind such events: urban regeneration, civic engagement, economic stimulus, fresh perspectives on the city spaces, and of course a new position on the global cultural map.