Hedwig Fijen (HF): You’re from Estonia, right? Have we met before?
Liina Siib (LS): I guess we have. I was in St Petersburg for the Manifesta Coffee Break last December.
HF: I’ve been in Tallinn many times. We worked with Rein Lang, the Minister of Culture, to try to bring the Manifesta to Estonia.
LS: I have heard about that. We hope that it will happen.
HF: It is hopefully a good rehearsal here in St Petersburg.
LS: Yes, Manifesta is closer to Estonia than ever before.
HF: Are people talking about it in Estonia?
LS: Yes, they are. Since autumn 2013 there have been discussions about how to engage Estonian audiences and how Estonian artists can contribute to Manifesta 10.
HF: This is also what I discussed with Rein Lang: why he wants Manifesta, because we always check the possible long term impact of a project like this.
LS: Why was it necessary for Manifesta to come to St Petersburg? What is the mutual impact here?
HF: I think there were three reasons: artistic, historical and geopolitical. We wanted to do the Manifesta show during the decade in the ‘east’ from the western perspective and in the ‘west’ from the eastern perspective. It was through the good relationships between Hermitage Amsterdam and the St Petersburg Hermitage that we got to know each other, and then we found out about the 250th anniversary of the St Petersburg Hermitage.
Manifesta is a child born in the post-Communist era and we have a kind of idealistic, ideological point of view in bringing people together and researching the changing DNA of European culture. If you go a little bit more deeply into the history of the Hermitage, which Peter the Great started and Catherine the Great built on, it is of course clear that the tradition of showing contemporary culture in the Hermitage did not start with Manifesta, that it was already there 250 years ago. We wanted to discover the meaning of contemporary art now in a changing, contested society like Russia. We were of course very much stimulated by the courageous attitude of Director Piotrovsky [Dr Mikhail Piotrovsky, Director of the Hermitage], who constantly affirms that the Hermitage as an institution has always been a place of free thinking, a place of humanistic ideals. It’s very inspiring to research the notion of contemporary art in a museum like the Hermitage. Also, it is not a traditional museum but a kind of Kunstkammer.
LS: How much did the framework of the State Hermitage Museum determine the selection of works and projects?
HF: Artistically, we wanted to do something different than holding it in an industrial building, as we did in Manifesta 9 in Genk and in Murcia. A museum allowing an intervention as a parasite into the museum context is extremely interesting, plus of course the idea that in a museum we could focus a great deal on audience development. How do you create a different audience than the current one in the Hermitage, since audience development, mediation and education are at the very core of Manifesta. When you ask Dr Piotrovsky what might be the impact of Manifesta being in the city, he’ll say, of course, that it’s the understanding of contemporary art for a larger audience, as well as building up a different audience for the Hermitage and for the General Staff building (GSB). One-third of Manifesta 10 takes place in the Winter Palace and two-thirds in the GSB.
LS: The first Manifesta biennial took place in 1996. How do you see the development and changes of the European Biennial of Contemporary Art over the 20 years? How much does Manifesta reflect its time and how much is this connection with time and place important? Or, what is important?
HF: I started Manifesta in 1993, so it is now my tenth biennial. We have developed from a very idealistic organisation into a much more Realpolitik organisation. We need to consider that Manifesta is not a conservative, established organisation. It does not have its own financial reserves, and we have to raise a million euros every two years to stage a biennial. We are always in crisis. We are not a museum, we are not a political organisation, and we are not an NGO. We are a small experimental arts organisation.
The idealistic beginning differs from the current Realpolitik in that the expectations have grown immensely. In the beginning, people expected Manifesta to do something new and they wanted to support it. Now many cities want Manifesta and they want to misuse Manifesta. Maybe they want to use it for cultural marketing, or maybe they want to use it for political reasons. For us, it is a challenge to find out whether there is an urge for Manifesta to exist, what dreams we can realise, and how Europe has changed. When we started there were four or five, maybe more, biennials in Europe; now the landscape of international perennial events has changed enormously. So we need to justify our existence every two years.
We are now working within a Shakespearian dilemma: to be or not to be, to engage or disengage. It doesn’t always happen in such an extreme way, but it could also happen in the next Manifesta in Zürich, because Manifesta chooses to take place in contested areas. The question is: what is a contested area? Is it a western European city where there is a huge amount of money, like Zürich, or is Zürich also contested in some kind of geopolitical way because it does not want to belong to the European commission but still benefits from the advantages of Europe? The complexity of Manifesta is that cities are financing a parasite which criticises them. And, we don’t know, maybe Rein Lang understood that very well [laughing].
LS: He is gone now*.
HF: There is a spagat – a split. People want to misuse us for the cultural marketing of their city, but actually they get a negative protagonist inside, a parasite which eats up the city from within. This doubleness is challenging and super complex. Manifesta has now been ranked – I don’t know what it means; it does not mean anything to us – the fourth most influential biennial in the world, and this creates expectations. We need to try to free ourselves from these expectations. So we don’t become an institution.
LS: You mentioned in one of your talks that Manifesta has always been a risk.
HF: This is what I keep on saying and people of course attack me for this. I took a risk when we came here. But I also would have taken a risk if I had not come here. Many people have criticised Manifesta, saying that we are not in East-European contested areas enough. We have been in safe havens. If we take a risk, people criticise us and if we don’t take a risk they criticise us. This is the spagat. If you are really honest and committed to your experimental character, you need to take a risk and sometimes a risk or an experiment can fail. We do a lot of risk management, but of course this is also Realpolitik: if we have protection from the situation in the Hermitage, we are not relevant in the outside world. We are in Russia, in a very contested area with all its problems and we need to critically respond to this and take responsibility. Creating responses and creating a context in which everybody, including staff, artists and curators, can take responsibility is hard work.
LS: In Genk, Manifesta strongly addressed the place, with its history and geography. St Petersburg is a very unique city in Russia, its ‘window to Europe’. Also, for Estonia and its culture, St Peterburg has meant quite a lot throughout history. How do you relate to St Petersburg’s history, topography and psyche?
HF: The topography of the city, the locus and the mental character of the city have had enormous impacts. Especially for the Dutch people, because the original plan of the city of St Petersburg is based on Amsterdam, with its canals. For me, it is quite clear that almost all of the artists were super inspired while they were here, although the context is complicated. The deeply multi-layered history of St Petersburg, with its architecture, music, literature, its wars and the siege of Leningrad, as well as its direct relation to West-European history and culture, is tangible in every stone you pick up here. Getting artists inspired was our original ambition and dream.
LS: Can you tell us something about the curatorial practices of Kasper König at Manifesta 10?
HF: We selected Kasper because he is very trained in the public domain, like Münster; he has worked for many years as a museum director in the Ludwig Museum, which has one of the best Russian avant-garde collections in Western Europe. He has taught, and he was the Rector of the Städelschule in Frankfurt am Main. So education, collections and art in public space are his expertise. He is of the same generation as Dr Piotrovski. Manifesta is a research biennial, so we ask the curators to base their proposals on research conducted. König is an artist’s curator, he gave completely free space to the artists in the Winter Palace and the GSB, and for the public programme he invited Joanna Warsza from Poland and Rainer Schumacher from Germany to do the cinema programme. For König, it was important that all the artists come here to St Petersburg for a couple of weeks to do research in context, and submit proposals of how they could do interventions which were not only internationally understood in terms of how contemporary art reacts to specific geopolitical issues but that specifically deal with the Russian people. I always emphasise that the task we gave Kasper was to make an exhibition for a Russian audience.
LS: There are several works, commissions created specially for the Manifesta 10 exhibition in the Hermitage, new works by Marlene Dumas, Wolfgang Tillmans, Eric van Lieshout and Francis Alÿs among others. Some works are integrated from the Hermitage collection: the painting The Dance by Henri Matisse and a vase by Piranesi, site-specific work.
HF: I can’t say anything about the exhibition because that is Kasper’s story. He made a very interesting choice of artists. Of course, the question is how the Russian audience will react to what these artists have made. Manifesta doesn’t show works by normal artists. Every two years there are radical differences in what Manifesta stages.
Everybody should see the incredible work that Kasper König has done by taking an art historical perspective on artists who have never been shown here. So every journalist and professional who comes to the exhibition and says “Ah we all know these names; we have seen these people”, that’s not the point. These items that are shown here have never been shown in Russia. We made specific new commissions, site-specific work for this context of having interventions in the State Hermitage Museum. The Russian audience will have to look at it with different eyes because this may become an iconic exhibition in this context. Not only about a moment, taking place now in 2014, but also how the artists work in this context. Some with such amazing commitment; it’s unbelievable.
LS: Manifesta strongly stresses educational tools, and the biennial in St Petersburg is no exception. We had a great opportunity to learn in the local situation about doing and understanding contemporary art, but also an opportunity to hear about educational plans within Manifesta last December at the Manifesta Coffee Break. How do you introduce and spread the message of Manifesta and contemporary art to wider audiences? How do you engage local people in the programme?
HF: This is the hope of Manifesta. If you asked me when Manifesta would be successful, I would say if we reached out to this young generation of new audiences, 10 000 school children, and maybe 2000 blind people and orphanages, to those people who never go to a museum, who are not connected to contemporary culture. It would be a clear sign of Manifesta’s success if we got these people asking questions about what they are seeing, what they believe, and how what they are seeing or experiencing fits into their daily lives.
I think it was Piotrovsky, during a press conference in March 2014, who said that the impact of the education programme will be felt in the next decade because maybe in ten years we can understand what Manifesta has meant, because then this generation who experienced Manifesta, worked in Manifesta, will hopefully have built up their own methodology and their own language and a way to relate to contemporary art.
The Manifesta education programme also has many workshops: Manifesta TV, Manifesta Dacha, Manifesta On Board, Manifesta Summerschools and Manifesta Nights. There are many training programmes for teachers, because if you don’t start with teachers, the students will not be brought in easily. So it is a different pedagogical methodology which Manifesta uses, and I hope that this will last and have a long term impact. It is good to work together with the Hermitage because they have a youth education department and they might be interested in our methodology, and use this pedagogical system for their own purposes. For the first time, there will be education spaces in the Hermitage for children to produce works themselves.
LS: Will Manifesta TV also address the issues of media freedom?
HF: I think Manifesta TV is a good example of ‘just do it’. Then of course in the public programme, in the film programme, in the TV project – everywhere this criticality and the critical response to what is happening in Russia today will be specifically discussed. So we have to see how this works out. I can hardly say how we will manage this; we have to see what happens.
LS: Can we summarise the politics of Manifesta in the present situation as: ‘just do it’ and see how far we can go?
HF: Yes, maybe, because we need to be extremely modest. Let’s first do something, let’s first see if we can open the show, let’s first see if we can put together the education programme, and then let’s analyse it later. I ask everybody to allow us to do the work on an artistic level and of course we will address every issue which we face in our daily work in a critical way. People should understand that we are not a political organisation and we do not function like the European Commission or a multilateral organisation. Maybe this is the power of something like Manifesta.
LS: With Joseph Beuys as one of the artists in the Hermitage exhibition, there will be immediate associations with the artist’s past during WWII and his links to Crimea and the Tartars who rescued him.
HF: That is amazing, I don’t know if Kasper has that in mind. These kinds of associations are almost metaphors and will give power to the exhibition.
LS: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
HF: Please emphasise the engagement of the super committed staff here, the people in the Hermitage and the people in the city, and all the volunteers. This is super important for Manifesta: only because of them were we able to stage it. This Manifesta is a celebration of their efforts.
*Rein Lang, Minister of Culture of Estonia in 2011–2013
Manifesta – the European Biennial of Contemporary art and culture that changes location every two years. Manifesta began as a Dutch initiative to create a pan-European platform for the contemporary visual arts. Manifesta 10 took place in St Petersburg from 28 June to 31 October 2014. For more information: manifesta.org
Hedwig fijen – the Founding Director of Manifesta, in charge of all aspects of the Manifesta organisation, including the selection of host cities for the biennial, thematic content and the curatorial selection.