Editorial

Nataša Petrešin-Bachelez, Lisa Mazza, and David Riff

How can we work under such conditions? Sadly, we find ourselves asking this question again and again. A massive global shift is underway in the order, or shall we rather say, the disorder of things. Notions of hybridity and unevenness, once so central to our self-understanding(s), are gobbled up by the notions of hybrid war, with its ghost armies and its highly addictive image productions. All the old foes—censorship, criminal persecution, and all-out instrumentalization—are back with a vengeance, but there is nothing old about the choices they prompt. In the age of hybrid war and velvet revolutions, things are much more complex. Caught up in the confused dynamics of political turmoil, the conditions hold us hostage unless we somehow manage to change them. Yet if we accept and internalize the imperatives of power not to address “complicated issues,” we will most likely end up ignoring the elephants in the room. One of these elephants is the MANIFESTA 10 Biennial in St. Petersburg, which has taken place amidst the authoritarian political turn in Russia. While the editorial team of this journal is certainly concerned with the exhibition and the debates it has provoked, it must be said very emphatically that MANIFESTA in St. Petersburg is certainly not the only recent event to present its producers with difficult circumstances. How do we describe the difference between our various complications, and do they really add up to something like a global turn? Furthermore, how can we continue our various engagements, despite the overwhelming pressure to boycott, withdraw, and resign? These were the questions that drove the editorial process behind this issue of Manifesta Journal.

Editorial work on this issue ran parallel to the fateful “Russian Spring.” What did this season of reaction mean to curators and critics living and working in Russia? Guest editor David Riff poses these questions and others to philosopher, poet, and artist Keti Chukhrov, critics Gleb Napreenko and Alexandra Novozhenova, as well as curators Andrei Parshikov and Viktor Misiano, president of Manifesta Foundation and founder and former chief editor of Manifesta Journal. Which ways forward seem the most salient, and what realistic view must one take to continue? There is no future without a past. Which historical perspective shall be used to tackle the present situation? Boris Buden tries to answer this question in his speculation Red Velvet, where he draws a line between the events of Eastern and Central Europe’s “velvet revolutions” and the current self-understandings of liberal democracies and the oppositional forces they provoke, with implications far beyond the local context of Central and Eastern Europe.

Perhaps a historical consciousness of the kind that Buden describes would allow us to see the all too-often occluded links between the increasingly repressive situation in Russia and those of the Middle East. In the case of Syria, deep connections go far beyond the relations between Putin and his client, Bashar al-Assad, and even beyond an unspoken Russian post-Soviet colonialism in the region. There is a synchronicity between both the aspirations and their denial: the Assad regime’s flirtation with liberalism and a parallel process under Medvedev in the mid-to-late 2000s in Russia, culminating and ending with the global wave of protest in 2011. Rasha Salti thus talks to Syrian playwright Mohammad al-Attar about the trials of exile, and how the production of art in a global context can anticipate the uprise of an entire generation. A late and very inspiring instance of such uprising was the urban protest against the razing and gentrification of Gezi Park in Istanbul, in which architects, urban planners and artists played a crucial role. Erden Kosova discusses with the activist, cartographer, and artist Burak Arikan on how urban cartography and the mapping of solidarity networks can contribute to struggles, often at a divide from representation-hungry art institutions, all the while reclaiming the “use” of art and the poetics immanent to struggle. 

It is this immanent poetics and its subversion in art that stands at the center of a dialogue between curator and critic Bassam El Baroni and artist Hassan Khan on the effects of Tahrir Square and its productive effects on artistic thinking and vice versa, presenting an intriguing though by-now fading snapshot of the so-called Arab Spring’s utopian-aesthetic dimension. As both authors have pointed out in their introduction, the situation has begun to look very different two years down the line. From this observation has the present issue title emerged: that any situation at this current moment in time, in any place, “never leaves our waking thoughts for long.” Two years after the so-called Arab Springs and the Russian “winter of dissent,” pundits and serious critics alike are drawn into comparisons of a Cold War 2.0, an image reinforced by the Russian Federation’s recent nuclear posturing. Yet isn’t this comparison too facile? Ilya Budraitskis addresses this question in The Language of Cold War?, asking whether or not such banal historical parallels obscure the real nature of the reactionary turn and block off the search for viable survival strategies. This theme of survival is further taken up by Veronica Noseda, who narrates her journey to Russia to play soccer in the Open Games in 2014, a multisport event held by the Russian LGBT Sports Federation, which highlighted the concrete reality of struggles in forms unimaginable at the height of the real Cold War. Cold War-era ideology and its application in the instrumentalized psychology of behaviorism stand at the center of Ana Teixera Pinto’s speculation, The Pigeon in the Machine. This excursus into the history of behavioral systems-theory and animal experimentation raises timely questions in an untimely form, addressing the groundwork that was laid for the biopolitics of a “brave new world” between the USA and the USSR, more than sixty years ago. Precisely these biopolitics are the source of new unexpected combinations. The fundamental hybridity of a wholly man-made cosmos of conditioned and experimentally-generated fauna and flora gives rise to new ideological forms of Magical Anarchism, as narrated by Julia Rometti and Victor Costales, where facts and metaphors are driven by Amerindian perspectivism.

What does it mean to work under such conditions with respect to curatorial practices and artistic potentialities? Controversies around recent contemporary art events have stirred artists’ boycotts and mobilised their publicness, most notably this year at the Biennale of Sydney, here brought to discussion by Sarah Joseph. Joanna Warsza and Nikita Kadan exchange their views in light of the public programme of the MANIFESTA 10 in St. Petersburg, on the reasons of participation or withdrawal from the construction of an ideological facade. Are boycott and withdrawal always the end of the conversation, or can they be the beginning of something new? Mariam Ghani speculates on exactly that in her report on how the Gulf Labor Working Group’s boycott of the Guggenheim’s Abu Dhabi franchise ultimately generated an exhibition program of critical art called 52 Weeks, giving the very notion of boycott a more positive turn. Rasha Salti in conversation with Nancy Adajania speaks “truth to power” and about her refusal to resort to the self-censorship. She lays bare the development behind the grossly misinterpreted installation of Mustapha Benfodil at the 10th Sharjah Biennale in 2011, as well as the existence of the public sphere in some of the Arabic-speaking countries, and its absence elsewhere. 

Censorship and self-censorship are also returning in South Africa, as Ntone Edjabe, editor of Chimurenga Magazine, tells Matteo Lucchetti. Today, old members of the African National Congress who supported the cultural boycott of the apartheid regime are among the loudest to call for censorship, while neoliberal freedom of the press counteracts and prevents a much-needed decolonization of language. Still, it is possible to develop strategies of cultural resistance even under highly repressive conditions, as becomes obvious in Amanda Lee Koe’s discussion with Alfian Sa’at and Tan Pin Pin about the dynamics of censorship and self-censorship vis-à-vis theater and film in Singapore, where increasingly sophisticated arts funding goes hand-in-hand with repressive occlusion of local politics from the arts. Are solidarities possible across vastly different contexts, when exhibitions all over the world are attacked by homophobic thugs? Such questions are in the background as Moses Serubiri talks to curator Koyo Kouoh about how a recent exhibition at Raw Material Company, Dakar, was attacked for trying to start a debate about homosexuality in Africa. By revisiting her exhibition, Negrita curator Veronica Wiman in conversation with the artist Liliana Angulo reflects on how to counter self-censorship by giving space to the fight against racism, classism, sexism, and gender violence towards women from the Afro-Columbian community in Cali, Colombia. Ending with an excerpt from Hu Fang’s poem “The Becoming”, we might be misinterpreted as being romantic futurists, endeavoring only towards a lucid analysis of the ever-repeating historical narratives. That, dear reader, is for you yourself to ponder:

Our descendants might could from the track of circular time
have a new start
landing on feet on the muddy puddle pavement