Introduction: Politics and Art, Art and Politics
A few days before the 12th edition of Manifesta, Europe’s roaming biennial, opened in Palermo on June 15, 2018, the Italian government put an end to illegal immigration. Interior minister Matteo Salvini denied the rescue ship Aquarius, packed with 629 refugees, entrance to all Italian ports. This tough stance against migration was meant as to signal all EU countries that the ongoing stream of migrants coming from Africa to Europe through Italy is in fact a shared European problem. The response of the mayor of Palermo, Leoluca Orlando, opposed to Salvini’s decision, was to emphatically welcome the Aquarius into his city. It is Orlando’s contention that there are no migrants in Palermo; everybody living in the city is principally a Palermitan—notwithstanding the legal status of citizenship. Although mayors do not have the mandate to provide immigrants the legal status of citizenship, they do have the capacity to create the inviting environs, hence Orlando’s decision. In various ways, this assertion was realized. In 2013, Orlando founded the “Council of Cultures,” a delegation of the city council representing all cultures that the city has to offer. Two years later, in 2015, the “Charter of Palermo” was signed by lawyers, representatives of NGOs, and civil servants, a document which made it a prerequisite that every migrant is a person, and as such possessing human rights.
Manifesta 12, entitled The Planetary Garden: Cultivating Coexistence, was prominently marked by the rhetoric of Mayor Orlando, who already since 2012 aimed to call the biennial to his city. It was actually not Orlando who commissioned Manifesta 12’s curatorial team, but there are several noticeable parallels between his positioning as the city administrator and the statement that the curators of this biennial wanted to make. The starting point for the 2018 edition was the constant redefinition of Palermo in form and dynamics, as a “laboratory of diversity and cross-pollination, continuous migration—from the Ancient Greeks, the Arabs and the Normans, to the recent arrivals from Northern Africa, Southeast Asia and the Middle East.” The curators, or “creative mediators” as they were called in the Manifesta 12 Guidebook, Bregtje van der Haak, Andrès Jaque, Ippolito Pestellini Laparelli, and Mirjam Varadinis, developed three program sections out of this starting point, i.e., The Garden of Flows, Out of Control Room, and City on Stage, that each consisted of a series of presentations and events in various public spaces and historical buildings throughout the city of Palermo.
An important theoretical underpinning of Manifesta 12, ultimately also providing the title, came from the French botanist Gilles Clément. In 1997, he defined the world as a “planetary garden,” which man needs to take care of like a gardener. This view was particularly made visible in the program section The Garden of Flows, for which the historical Orto Botanico (founded in 1789) was the main venue. The diversity of the Palermitan flora, allegedly not including any plant indigenous to Sicily, was presented here as a metaphor of the social-cultural relationships in Palermo. Besides this metaphorical approach to migration, the curators also chose to reflect upon migration from a documentary or even journalistic angle. In the program section Out of Control Room, taking place in the once glorious Palazzo Forcella de Seta as well as other venues, the controlling political systems that define our globalizing world were examined. City on Stage more specifically focused upon collaboration and exchange with diverse social and cultural groups in Palermo, which led to a variety of performances and projects in public spaces.
The topic of migration, as an overall theme of Manifesta 12, also being the key manifesto of Mayor Orlando’s city policy, raises the question as to what extent this biennial can be regarded a political instrument. Rather than the adoption of art as a tool for political propaganda—which is according to the Russian philosopher Boris Groys beside the commodity the only way an artwork can be produced and brought to the public—, the potential of contemporary art as a stimulus to create public awareness of complex social issues (e.g. migration) is at stake here. The American art historian T.J. Demos claims that the number of artistic practices related and referring to different aspects of migration and its humanitarian and sociological crises is growing. In his book, The Migrant Image: The Art and Politics of Documentary during Global Crisis (2013), he analyzes the relationship between art and politics in the work of various contemporary artists. According to Demos, “Our time of disaster and emergency [...] has placed post-Enlightenment paradigms of truth in crisis, and in turn brought new investments in the potential political use-value of the documentary since the 1970s.” This generation of socio-politically engaged artists/activists aims to intervene in the world and has progressively found institutional support in “documentary-heavy exhibitions like the paradigm-shifting Documenta 11.”
In his book, Demos analyzes the work of these artists from three points of departure: 1. How have artists invented new artistic strategies? 2. How is it possible to represent artistically life severed from representation politically? 3. How has the creative reconfiguration of art’s connection to politics constituted an oppositional force directed against the disenfranchising division of human life from political identity, which defines the status of the refugee? Following the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, Demos considers the figure of the refugee within the present situation of massive demographic shifts in the world as a representation of “the paradigm of a new historical consciousness.” According to Agamben, we can perceive a future political community in the refugee, going beyond the nation state and the destructive exclusion of non-citizens. In the ‘“diasporic public space” of international biennial exhibitions, as Demos argues after Okwui Enwezor, this notion is represented in “forms of sociability that remain open to foreignness, mobility and flux.” Starting from this notion, the analysis of the curatorial strategies of Manifesta 12 might reveal to what extent this biennial enabled art to intervene in today’s society.
The Migrant as Manifesta 12’s Leitmotiv
The Manifesta 12 Reader, a collection of texts on migration and thematically categorized in the sections “gardens,” “borders,” and “networks” reverberates Agamben’s proposition to regard the refugee as a model for a new political ideology. Included in the reader is his text “We Refugees,” an early version of his seminal text “Beyond Human Rights.” It could generally be considered the leitmotiv of The Planetary Garden; the various works selected for this edition of the biennial were permeated with discourse on, as well as representations of, the figure of the refugee. They represent possible new life forms that could stimulate “faith and hope in a better world to come,” as Demos characterizes the artistic practices that he describes in The Migrant Image. Many of the works and projects that were on show at Manifesta 12 comprised both socio-political motivation and new documentary imagery. In this respect, they adhere to the new “politics of aesthetics” as described by Demos. In order to determine whether the exchange between art and politics—raising awareness of societal or humanitarian issues—was effectively applied in this edition of the nomadic biennial, I will hereafter reflect on a selection of representative projects that took place at the different venues of The Planetary Garden. These will then be compared along the program lines of Orlando’s city politics in regard to Manifesta’s biennial model as to disclose the curatorial strategy of Manifesta 12.
Starting at the Orto Botanico—the “heart” of this biennial—the idea of a planetary garden most concretely became visible in the program section The Garden of Flows. Here, the metaphor of the imported Sicilian plants was almost literally illustrated in the work Foreign Farmers (2018) by the Palermitan anthropologist and artist Leone Contini. The experimental vegetable garden that he built in the botanical garden was the outcome of a ten-year-project. Contini collected vegetable seeds through various communities of migrants that mutually exchange these in order to produce the food of their homeland. Although principally optimistic, the provisional vegetable garden did not make much of an impression being part of the luscious Orto Botanico. The work Lituation (2018), installed in a glasshouse right next to Contini’s garden by the South African Lungiswa Gqunta, in this respect delivered a more lucid message. Gqunta regarded the botanical garden as a “contested landscape, one we water with liquid that will ignite the masses because the revolution is lit,” and illustrated this by pelting the glasshouse’s historical papaya trees with Molotov cocktails. With her contribution, according to the caption, she wanted to lay bare the complex (colonial) history of the botanical garden. The taxonomical ordering principles on which the garden is founded not only symbolize birth and development, but also destruction and oppression.
In the Tineo Pavilion at the entrance of the Orto Botanico, the Palestinian artist Khalil Rabah presented his own taxonomy of objects and artifacts in and around the glass cases that usually display the various plant and seed collections. In his work, Relocation, Among Other Things (2018), these objects and artifacts were assembled in homogeneous collections, which is explained in the accompanying catalogue as a “portrait of resilient bodies that traverse oceans and lands, travelling from everywhere; objects floating out of history, gatherings and assemblages on tables, in markets and shop windows, displaced and displayed: goods that want to find a home.” The subversion of the use of the orderly exhibition display to a sort of flea market was endearing. The significantly unequivocal relationship with the theme of migration provided by the curators, however, placed Rabah’s work within the general discourse of conventional migration theory related to illegality and victimhood, rather than positioning it as a contribution to “a growing discourse and widening social movement that situate migration as bearing positive transformative potential in the current neoliberal world of control, repression, and inequality,” as Demos imputes contemporary aesthetico-political expressions of artists.
The representation of migrant issues was continued in Palazzo Butera, a 16th-century palace that was bought by the collector-couple Francesca and Massimo Valsecchi in 2016, after which it was restored to display their private collection. Also in this venue of The Garden of Flows section, works that represented the migrant/refugee through botanical metaphors were brought together—often in a quite unambiguous manner. The video-installation Wishing Trees (2018) by the Swiss artist Uriel Orlow was one of the most successful exceptions to this kind because it envisaged the figure of the refugee on various levels (historical, but also symbolic). In the video-installation, three Sicilian trees with a long history of human interaction play a central part. On the outskirts of Palermo grows an ancient cypress that was allegedly planted by the first black saint Benedictus, a chef and the son of African slaves in Sicily. In the center of the city, a giant rubber tree grows over the former residency of the investigating judge Giovanni Falcone and his wife Francesca Morvillo, who were killed by the mafia in 1992. In the southeast of the Sicilian island, the remains of an old olive tree mark the location where in 1943 the armistice of WWII was signed. Recordings of these trees on location are juxtaposed by video-narratives of current inhabitants of Palermo, such as the anti-mafia activist Simona Mafai and an African migrant chef. With his multifaceted installation, Orlow provided the audience with an opportunity to contemplate the theoretical complexities and ambiguous implications of migration without explicitly illustrating the curatorial statement of The Planetary Garden.
The Palazzo Forcella de Seta – an impressive palace on the seaside once owned by the princes of Cattolica and originally built as a bastion—was the main venue of Out of Control Room. Various video works with an activist inflection were displayed here as to inform the public about the fact that Sicily is the major crossroads in the worldwide military communications and American drone operations. The multi-screen installation Liquid Violence (2018) by Forensic Oceanography presented three research projects that the collective had conducted since 2011. These critically depict the spatial and aesthetic conditions that have transformed the Mediterranean sea district in a military border zone in which large numbers of migrants were killed. The reconstructions of various military interventions in the Mediterranean sea between Italy and Libya offer insight into the political decision-making and its consequences for the life of migrants (that are invisible for many). The American documentary film director Laura Poitras collaborated with Sicilian citizens/ activists as well as with local artists who protested and battled for over thirty years to put a halt to the ever-growing construction of military infrastructure. This resulted in the video-installation Signal Flow (2018). The project critically reflects on the land-use of the Mediterranean landscape of Sicily, revealing delicate US military information.
In the Palazzo Ajutamicristo, a former 15th-century noble palace in the historical Kalsa district, which was also part of the section Out of Control Room, several collaborative projects were presented. Next to Article 11 (2018), a series of activities that also questioned the American “intervention” in Sicily developed by the Cuban artist Tania Bruguera together with the local inhabitants of the small town Niscemi, Filippo Minelli’s project Across the Border (2010-ongoing) was the most prominent. After entering the exhibition on the upper floor of the palace, visitors faced some thirty colorful flags, which were hung throughout the entire space on a clothesline, on which words such as “hope,” “belief,” “autonomy,” but also less universal or elevating concepts such as “hormones” or “bananas” could be read. The Italian artist commissioned a variety of people, living in countries that are mutually connected through the migration of people, to design a flag/banner with their surrounding community containing a representative word that connects them and enables them to share similarities with other locations in the world. Like many works in the Out of Control Room section Minelli’s project leaned heavily on the concept of social sculpture but did not really go beyond the practice of community work.
The various projects in the program section City on Stage were more specifically meant to give a voice to the diverse communities in Palermo. Some of the collaborative projects that resulted from this, such as the colorful procession of the Palermitan Marinella Senatore, had a socio-performative character, but there were also projects that lacked an artistic stance and commenced from a particular societal assignment, such as Becoming Garden (2018) by the architecture collective Coloco in collaboration with Gilles Clément. In 1969, the iacp (a Palermitan social housing agency) commissioned a new housing estate project in the outskirts of Palermo through an open contest. The successive construction of a suburb that was named ZEN (Zona Espansione Nord) was stopped between 1975-1980 because of political administrative interruptions. As a result of this, the houses lacked infrastructure, but were nevertheless inhabited by people due to a shortage of housing. Coloco planted a community garden on a former dumping ground in the presently challenging neighborhood, which was meant to improve the quality of life of the inhabitants through taking care of their environs. In this respect, the project relates to the original mission of the historical gardens project allotment rather than it generating the syntheses of politics and artistic practice that Demos differentiates—in which the political does not steer the artistic.
Palermo: A Unique Case Study
A considerate amount of principles that lay at the foundation of the Manifesta biennial come together in the selection of Palermo as the location of its twelfth edition. Inherent to the nomadic character of the biennial is its Pan-European mission: the intention to explore the geographical and psychological region of Europe, in which establishing dialogues between specific cultural and artistic contexts and the broader international field of contemporary art, theory, and politics in a changing society are paramount. Focused on Europe after the fall of the Wall, one of the most important objectives of the biennial is the mobility of people, both within and outside the EU. Palermo is an exemplary case, according to general director Hedwig Fijen: a place where the crisis of migration, currently faced by the whole of Europe, is put under a magnifying glass. At the crossroads between Africa and Europe, the Middle East, and North and South America, Sicily has long been subject to the colonization of various people. The Phoenicians, Arabs, Greeks, and Normans have all left their mark on the culture and impressive historical architecture of the city. Furthermore, after a long period with a mafia regime, the social structures and DNA of the Palermitan people were heavily damaged. Conversely, the inhabitants of the Sicilian capital are remarkably tolerant, and Muslims, Christians, and Jews have harmoniously lived together here for hundreds of years.
Every European city, city conglomerate, or region can in principle apply to host the biennial. The board and the general director of the Manifesta Foundation subsequently decide which location will become the hosting city, taking into consideration the artistic and intellectual context, the infrastructure and institutional stability, as well as the socio-political and financial situation. Ultimately decisive for the selection of Palermo as the hosting city for the twelfth edition of the Manifesta biennial was the appeal of Mayor Orlando to be more than a manifestation of contemporary visual art, but use the potential of art to convince the inhabitants of Palermo to combat the social problems in their city. Palermo in this sense was the perfect location for Manifesta to organize a biennial. The existing circumstances offered the possibility to engage with, in collaboration with local institutions and experts, the various crises that determine the daily practices in Palermo. Such an approach comes very near to the principal intentions of Manifesta. Moreover, Orlando’s ongoing efforts to diminish the dominating power of the mafia—for over twenty years now—transformed Palermo into a city where inhabitants, tourists, and migrants have found an open and safe haven.
Due to these opportune circumstances concerning the location, it almost seems that this Manifesta edition could not fail to positively influence the image of migration from the very start. To return to Demos, it should however be questioned to what extent the potential of the biennial is to effectively contribute to the transformation of (political) ideas that regard the refugee or migrant as threatening for national stability or even identity. It is only in retrospect that a possible answer to this question can be formulated. In a speech by Mayor Orlando, held during the closing days of Manifesta 12, he referenced to the global impact of the biennial, and emphasized that Palermo’s contribution to The Planetary Garden has been the openness that the city has shown in regard to migrants. Orlando stated that Palermo is definitely too small to accommodate all the migrants in the world, but he questioned whether the European Union, with its twenty-seven States and hundreds of millions of residents, is yet too small. According to him, international mobility is a human right, and every person has the same inviolable rights. The humanitarian-political ideology that is strived for by Orlando takes an extraordinary position in the Italian, or even European, landscape—where nationalism and populism increasingly predominate. It responds to Agamben’s motion to separate the concept of the refugee from that of civil rights and the right to asylum, and in doing so to strengthen the position of the refugee. However, that is not to say that this political stance was envisioned in an innovative, creative, and socially stimulating manner in the artistic and curatorial projects of Manifesta 12.
The reception of The Planetary Garden by the international (art) press praised the ideological and provocative political viewpoints of this edition as well as the radically different approach of the model of the biennial. But it also questioned whether the interesting information that was shared with the public in this biennial beside good political statements also showed good art. In addition, the national and primarily local reception expressed the criticism that due to lack of time and preparation the interaction with the city was only superficial and did not really have a social impact. The reflection on Manifesta 12 thus on the one hand seems to focus on the socio-political promise of the biennial, but on the other side it also questioned its artistic or even aesthetic value. In conclusion, it should be maintained that these two principles do not by definition come together in The Planetary Garden. Demos argues that a “creative arrangement of sensible forms and their engendering modes of social equality” can only come about while “resisting the simplistic distinctions between the artistic and the political, whether they emanate from the separatist perspective of activists intent on politicizing visual culture and discounting art, or those of artists desirous of reaestheticizing art at the expense of politics.” Many of the works in The Planetary Garden, however, depart from an explicitly socio-political intention and often have an explicit, unambiguous relation to the figure of the refugee. This places “reified sloganeering or artistic welfare” above “subtle aesthetic construction,” which is according to Demos rather the opposite of the essence of the new politics of aesthetics. The influence of Manifesta 12 should therefore particularly be regarded from the symbolic value that the biennial has for Palermo. Local voices say that this biennial would have been unthinkable twenty years ago. According to them, Manifesta, together with the support of Europe’s cultural capital organization, has changed the traditional idea of artistic production, which generated a new circuit of contemporary art in the city and which also contributed to a positive cultural climate in the city. This achievement seems to be predominantly credited to Mayor Orlando, who perhaps should be considered the true “creative mediator” of this biennial. It was he who positioned Manifesta consciously and effectively to promote his city, in which socio-humanitarian values and the improvement of social conditions have always been the main focus of his political program. Although Manifesta 12 could not be regarded a textbook example of the Demosian politics of aesthetics, it was also not a limited event. As Orlando already proclaimed at the start of The Planetary Garden, it functioned as a reflection on an imagined Palermo, a future Palermo, a Palermo to which he will continue to commit himself long after the end of this biennial.
Nathalie Zonnenberg is an art historian and curator based in Amsterdam. Currently she is interim course director of Curatorial Studies at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts (KASK) in Ghent, and assistant professor in Modern and Contemporary art at the Open University (NL). Prior to this (2007-2017) she was lecturer in the department of History and Art History at Utrecht University and the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam, where she received her PhD in art history. The PhD publication Conceptual Art in a Curatorial Perspective: Between Dematerialization and Documentation came out in 2019 (Valiz Amsterdam). As a curator she worked for several art institutions, including Witte de With center of contemporary art in Rotterdam, the Kröller-Müller Museum in Otterlo (NL), and Beyond, a public art program in the public sphere of Leidscherijn Utrecht. Zonnenberg was senior editor of Manifesta Journal (2009-2011), and author of many publications and reviews on contemporary art in catalogues, artists’ books and magazines such as Metropolis M, De Witte Raaf and Afterall Journal.
 Leoluca Orlando, “On Migration: Palermo’s Perspective,” Climate 2020 (Sept. 11, 2018), accessed May 1, 2019, https://www.climate2020.org.uk/on-migration-palermos-perspective/.
 Ibid., xvii. Demos specifically recalls Okwui Enwezor’s Documenta11, but I would argue that Catherine David’s Documenta X, or even Harald Szeemann’s documenta 5 already anticipated this progression.
 See also the Manifesta website: https://manifesta.org/biennials/about-the-biennials/, accessed May 6 2019.
 Hedwig Fijen, Manifesta 12 website, accessed May 6, 2019, http://m12.manifesta.org/why-palermo/.