Manifesta 11: What Artists and Curators Do for Money

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It is a very small, and no doubt unintentional victory for the curatorial concept of Manifesta 11: What People Do for Money-Some Joint Ventures (June 11-September 18, 2016) that I found it more interesting to consider the biennial by way of its producers and coordinators than its curators and artists. The work involved in manifesting “joint ventures” between thirty contemporary artists and non-artist professionals must have been titanic, both in quantity and character. Certainly, it would have been more illustrative of the relationships between art and labor than the fruits of that labor. A case in point being artist Mike Bouchet’s collaboration with Phillip Sigg, a process engineer at Werdhölzli Wastewater Treatment Plant. This commission brought into the first-floor gallery of the Löwenbräukunst a day’s worth of Zürich’s “human sludge” (i.e. 80,000 kilos of whatever the Zürichoisie are flushing down their toilets) formed into pseudo-minimalist cubes. I am less compelled by this one-liner – humans shit and other humans clean it up, thus is the world both functional and depraved – than I am in the fine print of the information panel positioned outside the air-locked gallery door: “All aspects of the art-work (research, logistics, installation, conservation, and disposal) meet the appropriate requirements for public display and environmental safety.” The mind boggles at the labyrinth of logistics and bureaucracy this project must have engendered for the biennial’s producers and coordinators. Before they began tackling practicalities there must have been a significant amount of reverse-engineering – cajoling into existence, so that they can be met, official requirements for the public display of human feces.

This is perhaps the most challenging and illuminating part of the commissioning and exhibition-making process: when the unstoppably abstract meets the immovably practical, and all the resulting micro-incidences of political and ethical implication, emotional and physical absurdity, defeat and triumph. Once, when working on a site-specific installation at a zoo, I received a phone call from the Curator of Mammals, threatening to cancel the project because the artists’ fabricator had climbed into the African wild dogs’ enclosure in order to take measurements. After several minutes of politely hysterical dialogue (during which I received a crash-course in the, frankly terrifying, hunting and feeding behavior of sub-Saharan canids), I managed to secure the curator’s green-light on the strength of the argument that the technician had meant no harm, evidenced by his only having entered the “outer defensive ring” of fencing, and not the “inner enclosure” of the little hut where the dogs slept. In the end, those measurements proved to be invaluable to the installation, but at no point did I seek to discern whether the zoo’s concern was for the technician or the dogs. We each have stories about finding ourselves in this perilous zone between the “outer defensive ring” of the real-world’s rules and the “inner enclosure” of the artwork’s needs.

This is not to say that curators and artists do not play an active role in negotiating these zones – indeed, their level of skill and interest, here, is often integral to the success of a project. Presumably the Manifesta 11 commissions received more-than-average attention in this regard, given how closely the conceit of the biennial mirrors curator Christian Jankowski’s own practice as an artist, which often finds him interlocuting outside the artworld. As evidence of the close interaction between the commissioned artists and their “professional” counterparts, the What People Do for Money website showcases candid photographs of just this: artist Fermín Jiménez Landa and meteorologist Peter Wick consider the Swiss skyscape together, Michel Houellebecq reviews scans of his brain with Dr. Henry Perschak, and Torbjørn Rødland holds forth in Dr. Danielle Heller Fontana’s office while gripping some sort of dental apparatus, etc. In fact, aside from the press downloads, these are very nearly the only images representing the commissions online. It is possible that this inattention to the finished product was born less of a desire to give primacy to the collaborative work of the projects, than it was the result of inevitable incompatibilities between the artists’ timelines and that of the communications team. For a biennial, consistency between projects in their PR presentation is often valued over the quality/quantity of information available (never mind that each work may necessitate a different communication strategy). Therefore, although one work might be complete with web-ready photographs, another may be hand-wringingly behind schedule; and so the common denominator must be sought or staged. Thus is a biennial both functional and depraved.

These may seem like insignificant administrative details – distractions from reading the actual exhibition. On the contrary, I have found that looking closely at what came after an artist or work was selected can quickly reveal how and why decisions critical to the artist and work were made. Unlike a professional framer whose entire visit to a gallery could be spoiled by spotting an overcut passe-partout, or the way an AV technician may experience the quality of a projection as directly linked to that of the projector, looking closely at what is going on around the works in What People Do for Money greatly improved my ability to understand some of its more baffling curatorial decisions. Consider again, for instance, the first floor of the Löwenbräukunst, which upon my visit contained the work of three artists: The aforementioned Zürich Load by Mike Bouchet, inflatables by Bhakti Baxter, and video works by Roman Štětina. Unfortunately, the overwhelming smell of human waste made it terribly difficult to give the latter two works more than a moment’s attention. This was a particular shame in the case of Štětina’s videos; precisely-composed meditations on the obsolescence of radio-play Foley artistry. Specifically, Studio No. 2 (Slapstick) (2013) is a 5-minute-long film that requires focus on the part of the viewer to parse the subtle aural differences between first- and second-generation audio after-effects. Needless to say, focusing my senses – aural or otherwise – was precisely the last thing I wanted to do while standing in such close proximity to eighty metric tons of shit.

So, on the one hand, pairing these two works appears to have been a poor curatorial decision; detrimental to the work of both the artists and the audience. On the other, the Manifesta 11 guide book (presumably printed before Bouchet’s installation) indicates that three additional works were slated for this gallery: a slide series by Martin Kippenberger & Achim Schächtele, and elements of commissioned works by Evgeny Antufiev and Fermín Jiménez. It is not unusual that artworks should shift around at the last minute. This is the hazard of including floorplans in a guide book, printed before the show has settled into its final form. That said, this little glance at the intended placement of several prominent elements of the exhibition combines intriguingly with rumors (n.b. utterly unsubstantiated) that the magnitude of the stench was in fact not anticipated; that technicians were retching during the installation; that there are now concerns about the gallery walls continuing to “off gas” once the installation is removed, thus jeopardizing its ability to claim air-quality in keeping with high-level conservation standards. Rumors aside, the fact that a Kippenberger was planned for that gallery does seem to suggest that, at a relatively late stage, Bouchet’s work was neither considered a threat to the safety of the other works nor the ability to properly experience them. However, once this changed (whether by decree of the curators, conservators, the artists themselves, or their dealers) that perilous zone must have cracked wide open, resulting in a series of negotiations and decisions that may have had very little to do with the finer academic aspects of curatorial practice.

Add to all of this the fact that that there was more than one curator in the mix: Jankowski was joined by Francesca Gavin, who co-curated The Historical Exhibition: Sites Under Construction – a sort of through-line of existing works that provided the opportunity to see loads of terrific art presented in a way that managed to be both didactic and opaque. Štětina’s work was part of this project as was Kippenberger’s, while Bouchet was part of the program of commissioned works or “Joint Ventures.” There were several points of clash between the The Historical Exhibition and the Joint Ventures, but what both projects seem to agree upon is a dichotomy between people who do things for money and the Manifesta 11 artists, who – to paraphrase the guidebook – “portray, question, and interact with the ideas and processes of occupations.” Although Jankowski does acknowledge his “’changing guilds’, from artist to curator,” he doesn’t appear to see the role of the curator as an overarching joint venture with the commissioned artists. Perhaps because curators are also not seen to be professionally occupied in the same way as, say, a waste-treatment engineer. There is a difference, apparently, one that Manifesta 11 labors to delineate under the auspices of bringing the two together. And maybe the only reason I was able to stomach this blind elitism was because I know exactly what artists and curators do for money: they produce and coordinate biennials.

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