Entering the darkened gallery space in the side wing of Berlin`s Hamburger Bahnhof – Museum für Gegenwart, the visitor first encounters a projection showing the close-up of a fuse cord burning in the dark. Shot out of focus its sparks are flying in slow motion, a firm clear female voice comes in beginning a monologue which includes familiar lines and passages: “I am against action; for continuous contradiction, for affirmation too, I am neither for nor against and I do not explain because I hate common sense. […] All that is solid melts into air. […] I am writing a manifesto because I have nothing to say.”. The fuse cord gradually exstinguishes without leading to an explosion.
Quoting parts of the manifesto of the Communist Party, Tristan Tzara`s Dada Manifesto as well as pieces of Philippe Soupault`s “Literature and the Rest”, the 4-minute video in its function as “Prologue” sets the tone of Julian Rosefeldt`s exhibition “Manifesto”. The opulent 13-channel installation is a homage to the textual form of the artist manifesto – in Rosefeldt´s words “a manifesto of manifestos”. Inspired by the research for his previous work “Deep Gold”, Rosefeldt began looking further into the genre and its poetics. From about sixty popular art manifestos – the earliest from 1848, the latest from 2004 – he collaged twelve new powerful and entertaining manifestos. Said manifestos serve as the source for each of the thirteen videos (a prologue and 12 scenarios) delivered and performed as monologues by Oscar-winning actress Cate Blanchett.
In every film, an extremely versatile Blanchett morphs into another role: From homeless man to broker, newsreader to punk, puppeteer or scientist. Obviously these roles do not represent the manifesto`s authors, they rather show contemporary types chosen by the artist to counterpoint or stress the ideas and attitudes of the text passages they are reciting. As a CEO at a private party, Blanchett is orating in front of an affluent audience, praising “the great art vortex”. Continuing her celebratory speech, she changes the tone to amuse her crowd quoting more passages of the Vorticist manifesto: “The past and future are the prostitutes nature has provided.”. Polite laughter, glasses are clinging. Another scene shows a bourgeois American family sitting at the dining table about to say grace. Blanchett in the role of the conservative mother is leaning her head, folding her hands but instead of the usual blessing, she begins to fervently recite Claes Oldenburg`s Pop Art Manifesto which consists of a series of propositions starting with “I am for an art …” and includes such gems as: “I am for an art that is political-erotical-mystical, that does something other than sit on its ass in a museum.” or “I am for the white art of refrigerators and their muscular openings and closings.”.
Cate Blanchett as newsreader enacting Conceptual Art ©VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2016
All 10-minutes-long videos in the exhibition work according to the same principle: the art manifesto collages are delivered as monologues by Blanchett at first in voice-over introducing the scene, then in filmed action and at its climax as speech to camera. Shown in parallel and installed without spatial division, the monologues interfere with one another, and the visitor is always confronted with more than one narration. While watching Blanchett in the role of a primary school teacher softly correcting her pupils quoting Jim Jarmusch: “Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination.”, one can at the same time hear her in the role of an eccentric choreographer slamming the rehearsal of a dance ensemble with the words of Yvonne Rainer, “No to style. No to camp. No to seduction of spectator by the wiles of the performer.” From somewhere else the sound of a brass band appears, introducing the funeral scene in which Blanchett is holding a eulogy consisting of a collage of several Dada manifestos. Sounds and voices overlap and compete for attention until a point in each video when all characters in sync turn towards the camera falling into a chorus-like liturgical chant, filling the dark gallery space with a polyphony – or cacophony – of interfering monologues. It is an impressive experience, but simultaneously the installing method makes it very hard to concentrate on words and ideas expressed in the manifestos.
In general, the exhibition and each of the videos are aesthetically pleasing and entertaining to watch, which is equally due to the scenography with its amusing artifices, the strong selection of text passages as well as its its star power. Rosefeldt´s opulent, multi-layered and choreographed installation blurs the lines between narrative film and visual art. Commissioned by a unique group of partners that include the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Hamburger Bahnhof and Hanover `s Sprengel Museum, “Manifesto” is in no way inferior to most cinematic productions made in Hollywood. But here´s the problem: Although Rosefeldt claims in his intro text and again in the video interview accompanying the exhibition online, that he wanted to emphasize and celebrate the literary beauty and poetry of artist manifestos, the texts are outshined by the cinematic staging of actress, setting and choreography of space. The attention of the viewer is drawn to speaker and theatrical performance, instead of focusing on the poetics and messages contained in each one of the thirteen art manifesto texts.
Another stylistic element that Rosefeldt uses attempting to highlight the manifesto texts is creating tension between text and image. Most of the settings and characters in “Manifesto” deliberately break with the performed text, which can for example be witnessed in the scene of the conservative mother reciting Oldenburg. Both were conceived by Rosefeldt to intensify the contrast between the rebellious rhetoric, idealism and radical notions of the manifesto form and the realities of today´s world. This does not work out at all times, sometimes the performances seem so exaggerated that they tip over and border on the ridiculous, the staging turns into travesty. It reinforces the impression that the exhibition is not in the first place about the texts, their content and reflective presentation, but rather aimed at the maximum achievable effect. But Rosefeldt succeeds in his intention to show how surprisingly current the demands of some of the manifestos presented are, most of them written in the 20th century. A century which was defined by historian Eric Hobsbawm as the short century and “The Age of Extremes” which saw the disastrous failures of state communism, capitalism, and nationalism. The world has more or less continued to be one of violent politics and violent political changes, and as Hobsbawm writes most certainly will continue like that.
Cate Blanchett as homeless man in Julian Rosefeldt`s “Manifesto” ©VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2016
So it is no wonder that the manifesto, also serving as a signal of crisis, is experiencing a revival. With the internet as an easy means of dissemination, the manifesto form has been revisited by a great number of single artists and artist activist groups, it spread out in every niches of the art world, and was adapted by academia and beyond. So when Rosefeldt in his statements nostalgically praises texts from the “Age of Manifestos” and states that he misses this thoughts focus in today´s discourses, one cannot but wonder if he missed the current debates sparked by texts like the “#ACCELERATE MANIFESTO for an Accelerationist Politics”, “The Coming Insurrection” by the anonymous Invisible Committee, “Xenofeminism: A Politics for Alienation” authored by Laboria Cuboniks collective or texts by individual artists like Hito Steyerl which became important points of reference.
Rosefeldt´s selection of manifesto texts seems random and inconsistent with his expressed intentions: Why was the manifesto of the Communist party included in an assortment of art manifestos? Or why were Jim Jarmusch`s “Golden Rules of Filmmaking” from 2002 and Sturtevant`s ”Man is Double Man is Copy Man is Clone” from 2004 chosen in a selection concentrating on 20st century texts? Instead of concentrating on canonic art movements and a few single artists, it would been more convincing to reflect how the art field since then has been trying to re-position itself within the shifting boundaries of activism, technology and aesthetics. With a subjective selection of simply “the most fascinating, and also the most recitable” texts, “Manifesto” is caught up in an acritical nostalgia to the disadvantage of coherence and focuses rather on text as performance as on persuasive messages and reflection.
As Mary Ann Caws in her anthology “Manifesto: A Century of Isms” states, the manifesto is “a document of an ideology, crafted to convince and convert”. Naturally, there also is some discomfort with or even suspicion of the manifesto form. The obvious example being the Futurists, who in their manifesto glorified speed, machinery and war. Their text largely influenced the ideology of fascism which they supported in the run up to World War II. In the exhibition, the macho-male tone of the Futurist manifestos fittingly and amusingly is performed by Cate Blanchett in the role of a female stockbroker. Rosenfeldt met Marinetti`s dream of an engineered society showing us the violent creator and destroyer financial capitalism.
Julian Rosefeldt. Manifesto
Curated by Anna-Catharina Gebbers & Udo Kittelmann
10.02.2016 to 10.07.2016
Hamburger Bahnhof – Museum für Gegenwart – Berlin