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Interview by Sergio Edelsztein

Four Years After Manifesta 11: Christian Jankowski

In 2016, the city of Zurich hosted Manifesta 11. This show must have been the biggest artistic event ever presented in the city. Manifesta, the “European Nomadic Biennial” is an initiative that has been staging large art exhibitions every two years since 1996 in different cities and regions in Europe. The 11th edition was curated by the artist Christian Jankowski under the title What People do for Money: Some Joint Ventures—a proper concept for a city that has branded itself as an ultra-rich financial hub.

Jankowski invited thirty artists to come to Zurich and collaborate with diverse people from various professions creating a new site-specific work to be presented at the place of work of the collaborator, and simultaneously in a Zurich art institution. The professions of the local “collaborators” went from firefighters and policemen to security consultants—waste plant operators, a sex therapist, a chef, a dentist, a dog hairdresser, translators, schoolteachers, a transgender escort, and many more.  

Sergio Edelsztein: Christian, within the framework of Manifesta and your curatorial premise, you had an intense relationship with the city—from the Cultural Department of the Municipality to art-and architecture students and even high-school kids—and, of course, the public in general, so you have a unique outlook on the city’s view of itself and the reality out there.

To try to understand these issues, I did what no one does—I took the catalogue and read those short salutatory texts that normally open these publications written by various politicians and bureaucrats. It is interesting to see the process and understand the aim of such an endeavor in their own words. In these short texts, there is much talk about. Two interesting points: one is stressing the position of Switzerland and specially Zurich as being “geographically located in the center of Europe—but not aligned with Europe politically.”

Christian Jankowski: This view, “We are not really part of the parade and we are distinct,” reminds me a bit of the position of artists. It creates a ground for negotiating. It’s also a very good excuse for exceptions if you know how to instrumentalize this special position.

SE: The other point that is constantly stressed in the texts is the position of Zurich as a first-class cultural capital with museums, collections, etc.—especially interesting is their boasting about a “vibrant off-space scene and a rich galley scene.” From your experience and your interactions throughout the preparation of Manifesta: How does Zurich’s political, financial, and cultural elite see itself and their role in fostering this image of the city?

CJ: Everyone thinks: “Oh! Switzerland is such a rich country—it’ll be easy to receive funds,” but it’s not—although it is not impossible. With Manifesta, it was especially complex. I was in some meetings with sponsors, and it was clear to me the usual way the event was “sold” to countries in Eastern or Southern Europe would not work in Switzerland. It was more of a mentality issue. You can’t come to the Swiss with this attitude that “we know better,” patronizing them. There was some tension there, and sometimes it got a bit bizarre. But however difficult it was to get people on board, when they say “yes”—things get done.

SE: Did you feel this was a conflict along the process?

CJ: If there was a conflict, I think it was between the office of Peter Haerle, who is the director of cultural affairs of the city, and some other departments and politicians in the city, justifying the event and the financial effort imposed by it—once the decision was made. I had a great collaboration with Peter; he did his best to support. He knew how to get through, permissions, etc. A project like the Pavilion of Reflection took a lot of political negotiations.

SE: What you say is interesting, and curiously, it comes across in the catalogue texts I mentioned. Alexander Rinnooy Kan and Hedwig Fijen—both from Manifesta, stress again and again that they were the ones that selected Zurich as the 2016 venue, while Peter Haerle opens his article specifically stating that it was Zurich’s choice (to submit). Moreover, while Manifesta argued that: “By partnering with the city of Zurich and with Cabaret Voltaire, Manifesta hopes to hold up a mirror to the socio-political and the cultural conditions of Zurich,” Haerle states: “The city of Zurich itself would be the exhibition space and our society would be on show.” He then concludes in a statement that looks like a quote form Allan Kaprow: “We want to dissolve the boundaries between art in general and to the space in which art is shown. The aim is to create awareness of the fact that art can be part of our lives.” Are these empty words? Clichés? Is this an aim to be achieved? In Zurich?

CJ: That is a very avant-garde statement—almost Dadaist! The curatorial concept of Manifesta 11 was to couple an artist with a professional from another field than art. These professions were chosen by the artists. The local professionals, we called them hosts, were there to inspire, connect, and help the artistic productions. Ultimately, they provided the necessary space for showing the final artwork in their own working environments. That in itself is an un-orthodox way of doing art; it is also an un-orthodox way of showing art, and I think Peter Haerle is talking about that. The decision to work in the professional’s working environments make a complex and specific setting, a unique situation that informs the artists and later the audience. I heard about the Artists Placement Group from the ‘60s, but also it was Jan Hoet’s Chambres d’Amis that inspired me. He invited the artists into the private houses of art lovers in Ghent. I invited the artists to the working spaces of art lovers in Zurich. I could have called the Manifesta 11 “Professions d’Amis.

In the end, we showed each of the thirty resulting new artworks in three places: 1. in the semipublic working spaces of our hosts: diverse spaces shaped by their professions and businesses; 2. in the white cubes of Zurich art institutions (Lövenbräu and Helmhaus); and 3. in the form of thirty artistic film productions at the Pavilion of Reflections.

It was amazing to follow the working process between the artist and the locals, and how their encounters and negotiations led to the final artworks. As an example, the artist Marco Schmitt started as an intern at the Zurich Police. He sat in the backseat during driving night patrols through the streets of Zurich engaging the officers in discussions by asking them about the strangest thing that ever happened to them during working hours. This scene could be witnessed by seeing the film produced about this project, showcased at the Pavilion of Reflections. At the same time, at the police station the policemen arranged a cinema room in one of their offices, open to the public to see the artist’s video featuring the police officers as actors. Concomitantly to the police station, in the white cube of Löwenbräu, Schmitt presented a group of clay sculptures informed by the interviews with the officers. To see a Zurich police officer using a baguette bread to have a surrealistic smoking experience was amazing, they were experimental—even anarchic.

In the end, the fact that people collaborate in “doing art” is always the ultimate “excuse” for opening up the gates. Whether or not they understand the whole depth of an artistic concept is not so important. It’s not the same for everybody. As Rio Reiser sang: Ich bin anders, weil ich wie alle bin und weil alle anders sind. (I am different because I am like everyone, and everyone is different). To allow things to happen is a gift to art, and here again, I want to thank all our hosts for doing what they did.

SE: It’s interesting that in the catalogue, especially in Jakob Tanner’s article “Creative Coups,” the author tries to narrate the chronology of Zurich—but he can do it only in terms of economy and sociology. As much as he tries to include prominent cultural figures like Elias Canetti, Stefan Zweig, and Romain Rolland, these can be pictured only on a promenade along the Limmat. James Joyce is mentioned only in talking about the cemetery. The exception is Cabaret Voltaire. Talking about this, it is also interesting that in all the bureaucrats’ texts, it sounded as if the whole Manifesta coming to Zurich in 2016 was orchestrated as a commemoration of the 100th year for the Cabaret Voltaire and the Dada movement. It sounds like they are very proud of its “subversive quality.”

Do you feel that Cabaret Voltaire has acted throughout history—and still does—as a fig leaf for Zurich as a conservative society, or do you think the Cabaret and Dadaism itself is somehow rooted in the city’s psyche?

CJ:  Well, it’s interesting that even though the city of Zurich really prides itself in the Cabaret Voltaire, the situation of the place is incredibly precarious, even as they commemorate the 100 years. I witnessed this when I was there. It was a disaster. The Municipality of Zurich missed many opportunities to develop the place. It so happens that after failing to acquire the building, the municipality is renting it from a private company. So, they think they are spending a lot of money on the Cabaret—but only on rent!  They do not have any budget for programming, so, in turn, they rent it out for any commercial purpose, failing to give the place a specific character that would resonate on the things that happened there 100 years ago—things that they are so proud of. I think that for a movement like the Dada, and this 100-year celebration, they are missing to create a lasting symbol for the city.

SE: Was it difficult to work with the people of Zurich?

CJ: In general, dealing with real estate was problematic. Obviously, since it is so expensive, there is a lot of “value” in just being able to use a space. For instance, in the Helmhaus, where Santiago Sierra’s work was presented: the upper floors are art venues, somehow—but the space on the street level is rented to many people, from events to sausage stalls, and it was every difficult to have the space for the whole duration of the Manifesta. You can imagine, to build down an artist work like this and to re-install it after just one weekend is not an easy task. It was just impossible to have everyone involved at the same table to discuss this…

And yet, I was busier fighting the structure of Manifesta. For me, the problems with the city of Zurich were quite marginal. I can understand resistance form the bureaucrats—I am used to dealing with this, but I was not prepared to have these issues with an art institution like Manifesta, and how people had fights within… It could have been more fun, I sometimes dream.

SE: And what kind of collaboration did you strike with the local community?

CJ: Well, there were a great number of Zurich-based people involved in Manifesta 11. Take, for instance, the work of the “art detectives”—who acted in the artistic film productions of each project. Each film team included a “detective” who interviewed the artist and the host, a director, camera, sound, music, post-production, etc. This was massive, but also an interesting grouping. The “art detectives” themselves were high school pupils. Some of them were eleven or twelve years old and others fifteen. The camera, and most technical part, was done by ZHdK students. This was a group around professor Martin Zimper that was very engaged and fundamental.

In general—it was very important to collaborate with the main academic institutions in the city—the ZHdK and the ETH. The first was involved in the “software,” the artistic film productions; the ETH team lead by Tom Emerson was involved in the “hardware,” the design and production of the Pavilion of Reflections. I also had great support from the institutions and the art community: Parkett, Löwenbrau—of course, with Heike Munder of Migros Museum, Daniel Baumann, and Maja Hoffmann.

SE: So, basically the main mediators of the works were high-school kids?

CJ: In a way, yes. I see these films as artworks in their own right; they are informed by how I work on my own works. They float between performance, documentation, video art, collective works, and individual ones, refusing to stick to a definition. These films were the core of the programming at the Pavilion of Reflections.

SE: Ok, let’s talk a bit about the Pavilion of Reflections. It was indeed beautiful and obviously very expensive. What was the aim of it? Did it leave an imprint in the collective experience of the Zurich inhabitants? Were there any calls for leaving it in place as a new landmark of the city?

CJ: Well, the idea of Manifesta 11 was that it would be spread all over the city, not concentrated in one area. But I also wanted to have a central place that would be a “neutral ground,” a place that would gather the new energy spread in the city. The lake is so specific to Zurich that we thought we should build a “piazza” on the water. It was nice that it became a symbol for Manifesta 11. Lots of people were going there, as the architecture was so prominent, and in a location where no one could miss it. Once there, the films and the events mediated and expanded the meaning of the different works in the show. It really created a new democratic space in the center of a city as urbanely stiff as Zurich.

There were calls for keeping it, yes—but that was tremendously expensive. There was also an idea to ship it to another part of the lake, and that too was discarded because of costs. Also, Manifesta wanted to sell it, not give it for free—although it was sponsored by the local electricity company—and that was another expense no one could take on. I would have loved to see this amazing raft re-appearing in other art-venues and places—imagine it by the Thames in London or in a deserted place. I see it as a collective Gesamtkunstwerk. To me, the Pavilion of Reflections could have also ended up in a private or public collection. But in the end, although it was destroyed in its entirety, I am happy that it was and still remains the symbol of Manifiesta 11.

SE: What in your view was left for Zurich about Manifesta 11?

CJ: An idea.

Zurich is a city of individualists, so it is hard to pinpoint a certainty. However, there were valuable and exciting aspects about these professions’ forms of exchange and the eye-to-eye encounters that would not easily happen without this artistic curatorial framework. The artists, the professionals, and the citizens of Zurich, the biennale visitors and the Manifesta institution itself were all exposed to each other in unexpected and fundamental ways that managed to brush off the well-known ‘neutrality’ of a country like Switzerland. In collaborations, like the thirty we did, you are either in it or not... neutral is not exactly what you are looking for. Our Zurich “hosts” positioned themselves in the art. And this is a unique experience for these exposed people but also for all the visitors who see them in their “new” artsy positions. The creative agency given to the thirty “art detective” youngsters can be seen as a way to disregard that highly bureaucratic and standardized system of how art should be mediated and instead empower the teenagers’ artistic intuition and interest. All of these experiences got pulled together in the Pavilion of Reflections. So, in the end, even if I wish I had involved more local artists, I still managed to work with them, but more with the upcoming generations.     

So, to me, what stays behind is the spirit created when artists and people outside the art world meet on eye level and collaborate to make images that are new to all of us. And this spirit is embodied in the catalogue and the videos that were made for the Biennale.

Right after the opening, Maurizio Cattelan wrote to me: Good morning Christian! Congratulations for the beautiful show!! Yesterday I spent an hour watching the videos about the projects at the Pavilion of Reflections and they are AWESOME! Those together are a real Django piece. In the future, all shows should have such type of video coming along with the works.

To my regret, the videos were never published by Manifesta to be viewed by the public, which is why, from today on, you will find them on my website

Pavilion of Reflections, Manifesta 11, Zurich, 2016

Christian Jankowski (b. 1968, Göttingen, DE) lives and works in Berlin. Since 2005, he has held a professorship at the State Academy of Fine Arts in Stuttgart. His work is in the field of conceptual and performance art, for which he uses a variety of media and genres, such as film, video, and photography as well as painting, sculpture, and installation. Jankowski initiates collaborations between the visual arts and other professional worlds such as religion, politics, and entertainment. His works are in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum, New York, the Tate, London, and the New National Gallery, Berlin, among others. Jankowski has participated in numerous solo and group exhibitions, most recently at Fluentum in Berlin (2020), at joségarcia, mx, Merida (2020), at ARoS Aarhaus (2020), at the 21st Century Museum in Kanazawa (2020), the Rockbund Art Museum, Shanghai (2019), the KCUA Kyoto (2018), the Yokohama Triennial (2017), and at the Haus am Lützowplatz, Berlin (2016).

Sergio Edelsztein was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina in 1956. Studied at the Tel Aviv University (1976-85). Funded and directed Artifact Gallery in Tel Aviv (1987-1995). In 1995 funded The Center for Contemporary Art in Tel Aviv and has been its director and chief curator since then, he is now in the board of CCA. In the framework of the CCA he curated seven Performance Art Biennials and five International Video Art Biennials – Video Zone. Also curated numerous experimental and video art screenings, retrospectives and performances events. Major exhibitions curated for the CCA include, among others, shows of Guy Ben-Ner, Boaz Arad, Doron Solomons, Roee Rosen and Jan Tichy – and international artists like Rosa Barba, Ceal Floyer and Marina Abramovic. Since 1995 curated exhibitions and time-based events in Spain, China, Poland, Singapore and elsewhere. Curated the Israeli participation at the 24th Sao Paulo Biennial (1998) and the 2005 Israeli Pavilion at the 51st Biennale in Venice. Lectured, presented video programs and published writings in Israel, Spain, Brazil, Italy, Austria, Germany, China, the USA, Argentina etc. Writes extensively for catalogues, web sites and publications.

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