Manifesta opens the doors in St Petersburg during these days. There is no secret that the decision of the Manifesta Foundation to place the biennial in Russia when legislations in the country seems to make things extremely difficult for a great deal of their citizens with the "gay-ban-laws" and then came the situation in Ukraine...
I went to Riga mid April to participate in a seminar about Biennials invited by Solvita Krese of the LCCA, The Latvian Center for Contemporary Art. The conversations around lunches or dinners circulated a lot about two things: the threat they felt from Russia and the Western perception about it. There are a lot of misconceptions in the West about, ahem, everything it seems, not really surprising. The dinner conversations also led to interesting open conversations during the seminars I attended, where Ekaterina Degot gave powerful talks (via Skype). She talked about the current situation in Russia and how she perceives the "Manifesta-debacle" from the inside - she was meant to participtate with a text.
Just the night before she spoke in Riga (or from her home in St Petersburg) the Ministry of Culture had issued the decree that all art that shall be produced must be "patriotic" to be able to get official funding. The signs are clear and to be a person involved in the art today in Russia is difficult to say the least.There are worries about that the borders will be closed again, and that no Russians (within the arts) are able to travel, much less move to another country soon. These are concerns not to be taken lightly. The situation is indeed worrisome.
Walking around Riga is interesting, and walking into the absolutely huge (Europe's largest) food-market with rows after rows of different pickled gherkins in various sorts, listening to the people it is evident that the Russian population in Riga sticks sorts, listening each-other. Thing is, after the independency of Latvia, around 200.000 Russian people are stuck. They are Russian but without a Russian passport. Neither do they have Latvian passports either. They are in fact stateless. The same problem is found in many other countries that used to be tied to the Soviet Union. Imagine the frustration not being able to speak the native tounge and being stuck within a group of 200.000, which is large enough to be a hell of an angry crowd, but not in a position to make their voice heard? It is slightly different to experience the situation and take part of the discussions within the setting where things are happening than to stand outside of things, trying to formulate not only a truthful (whatever that means) image of the situation and then formulate a standpoint to it. I'd say it is pretty damn impossible. The situations are always much more complex and paradoxical than anyone from the outside would ever be able to see. This seems like a little self-important and stating the obvious, but it seems as if it is not.
The decision by the artist group Chto Delat to withdraw from participating in Manifesta 10 and talks about boycott from different corners of the world have also spread to the art critics. One critic (who writes regularly for one of Sweden's largest tabloids) went so far as to comment on collegues' Facebook-wall about Manifesta "I boycott that corrupt and war mongling shit-country." and of course the discussion continued after. If this is what we can expect from journalists or art critics in the future, I fear that the general readers in the so called "western free world" are being fed with second, or third hand news. Somehow I really do have a much better understanding for the word "boycott" when it comes from cultural workers who will get their pay check from a hand they don't like (for instance in the case of the Sydney biennial recently). That makes a whole lot of sense! But if there are no journalists or critics around to take note about what is corrupt, there might not be any fruitful boycott either.
Now, naturally, every situation is different from another but to me theat a boycott from a critic within this situation is not only rather fruitless, but mainly a great misunderstanding about what the critical "mission" should be all about. At least in my book. Ekaterina Degot published a really long, but also a very interesting analysis in the E-flux magazine during the opening days of Manifesta. You can read the TEXT HERE. Her text named "A Text That Should Never Have Been Written" oozes from the center of this sort of anxiety and it starts thus:
Timing is everything.
When I was commissioned to contribute to the Manifesta 10 exhibition catalogue1 with a text on the political meaning of Russian art, Russian lawmakers had already passed legislation against “homosexual propaganda,” but Crimea had not yet been annexed.
Once the annexation became fact, it was finally clear that it would be impossible to write such a text, as if the Manifesta in Petersburg were just an ordinary exhibition in yet another ordinary country (albeit one with shortcomings). I decided to distance myself from the project.
When Manifesta’s curator Kasper König answered public demands to boycott this year’s festival by saying he would be upset if Manifesta was “misused by political actors as a platform for their own self-righteous representation,” 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, but to rather address the political significance of Manifesta 10, scheduled to open in Saint Petersburg on June 27.
It is still unclear whether it was the right decision to write this text in the moment it was written. Subversive positions are fragile and context-dependent. They are always at risk of turning into legitimations. If and when this text appears in print, the situation may well have changed. Timing is everything.
Degot finishes off her text:
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. Increasingly, we hear of such a thing as a left-wing rhetoric (and maybe not even just a rhetoric) of the right wing, and we see contemporary-looking (and maybe even contemporary-thinking) art that embraces nationalism and dictatorship. There will be such examples—from the Russian context—at Manifesta, although it seems through an oversight rather than programmatically. There are no rules anymore, and each case has to be taken separately; the relatively safe common ground of contemporary art is shifting. And this incredible complexity is the only hope left.
Degot pinpoints a lot of the things I tried to vaguely push for in my own text for Momentum last year. She speaks about stuff that has preoccupied my mind for some time now.
I also would like to point to an conversation about "Engagement or Disengagement" in the light of Manifesta 10 between Nato Thomson with Joanna Warsza who is the curator of the public art commissions of Manifesta this year.
I can only conclude that I wish that I had the means to go there myself!
UPDATE July 3rd with a link where artists in Manifesta 10 are asked if art can make a change, in the light of boycott of course.