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'Manifesta 11' Proves That Possibilities Are Endless, When Curating Is an Art

Talking to artist Christian Jankowski about curating what might be the biggest art fair—and artwork—ever.

by Emerson Rosenthal
Jul 8 2016, 3:05pm

Mike Bouchet, The Zurich Load, Löwenbräukunst. Photo (c) Camilo Brau

Manifesta 11, the 100-day event marking the 20th year of the European Biennial of Contemporary Art, is by and large the biggest and most intimate artwork of the 21st century thus far. Beyond the purely physical level—the size of its canvas is Zurich (35 square miles, give or take); its participants number around 400,000, the city's entire population—it exists across authorial, ideological, and socioeconomic levels. Sure, it has a curator: artist-impresario Christian Jankowski, who, in addition to coming up with this edition's indefensibly human theme, What People Do for Money: Some Joint Ventures selected 30 artists from all over the world to participate, figured out municipal logistics for each of their respective 30 collaborative projects (or, "joint ventures," as each artist was tasked to team up with a Zurich-based professional, i.e., a dentist, a sex worker, firefighters, to create both a piece for one of two main exhibition halls and a site-specific work at their respective host's "satellite," or, places of business), commissioned local high school students, in the roles of "art detectives," to team up with filmmakers to create a full art documentary on each collaboration, built an entire open-air cinema on Lake Zurich, complete with a swimming pool, to screen each of the 30 films, and joined forces with curator Francesca Gavin to create and source Manifesta 11's "Historical Exhibition: Sites Under Construction," a collection of storied artworks, from over 100 more artists, that contextualize the new commissions; but it also has two co-authors: the entire sphere of 21st century professionalism, and no less than the world of art. 

The resultant projects at Manifesta 11, which runs until September 18, 2016, include a full-body check-up of author Michel Houellebecq, a kickboxing gym transformed into a hyperbaric art crucible, and Mike Bouchet's 80-ton array of sculpted, treated sewage, taken from an entire day's municipal load. So, literally a collaborative artwork made by everyone in Zurich. If it all sounds overwhelming, that's OK! The experience of Manifesta 11 should be. It's exactly like a tour of a modern European city, in all its ecstatic triumphs and tribulations, except everywhere you look is art.

On the biennial's opening weekend, I had the opportunity to sit down with Christian Jankowski to discuss decision-making, documentation, and the not-so-fine line between curation and artistry.

Jon Rafman, Open Heart Warrior, Löwenbräukunst. Photo (c) Manifesta11/Wolfgang Traeger

The Creators Project: Hey Christian. To what degree do you see curating Manifesta as part of your own practice?

Christian Jankowski: It is my own practice; I cannot think differently about art or stuff that I’m interested [in], so my attitude towards this biennial was the same as producing an art piece, and it would also be a lie to tell [it] differently. I mean, I don’t want this to be read only as a work and so on, because it also can be seen as too big of an ego trip, but I think it would be a lie to say, ‘No, I was taking our curating head-on, and I studied art history on the side, and then I had very different ideas about art. I’ve worked for 25 years, sometimes halfway professional, sometimes more professional, in the art world, and I came to my kind of conclusion. But that doesn't mean that the conclusion stays the same—it also reflects that I do make mistakes.’ That’s fine, but I could just work with my experience and what I had, and that’s what I did.

Marguerite Humeau, When Skies are not named yet (I), Installation at Satellite ETH, Copyright Manifesta11/Eduard Meltzer

Can you tell me a bit about the process behind constructing all this?

I had to think about a biennial as a mass media format, and also of what defines all of these elements of a biennial. Basically if you look into the construction of a biennial, where you have, of course, the curatorial, where I had my team, but then you also have production and the people who produce the work, then you have publication, then you have education, PR… I had opinions about all of them. I worked with some of them very closely, but I had concepts for all of them, and some of them were not into my ideas at all. There were lot of fights in the beginning [but] some of them really worked out very nicely. Some of them we had to leave.

Michel Houellebecq and Christian Jankowski. Photo (c) Livio Baumgartner

Really?

Yes. So only a little part was the construction of it. I would say, on one side—I would describe it in one sentence—was understanding the instrument, Manifesta, and developing opinions and ideas of how to orchestrate things a bit differently. My approach as an artist, I will always say, ‘Oh, if that’s done all the time like this, why not try it a little bit different, and try to work on this facet?’ Even though the biennial writes [that] we are an experimental form for creatorship, etc., you very often got the answer, ‘Oh, but that’s how we do it and we have 20 years experience, since you know…’

Pavilion of Reflection. Photo (c) Manifesta11/Eduard Meltzer

Yeah, institutional rigidity.

It’s always this kind of answer: I don’t take a no for a no, or a yes for yes. I take an ‘as long as they follow my ideas’ [laughs]. That was, of course, problematic, but also in this process, you understand the instrument better and better. But that’s one part of it—the other part is to go to Zurich and understand what the good venues are. I didn't have to reinvent the structure of the art world in Zurich, so for me, the only chance to add something was building the satellites and widening the cityscape. The Pavilion [of Reflections] is a new part of Zurich that wasn’t there before—it was just a leg, and now we have this island, which I think is great because it’s new ground. On new grounds, there are new rules: people come differently, especially when they take off their uniforms and just stand there in their underwear, and swim, and see artworks. They might encounter art in a new way, but also encounter groups of society in different ways. I think it will attract at least the 30 ‘audience groups,’ for example; the police department that comes because they know a few of their colleagues played in the surrealistic movie, and there was a film created; and there’s also this film about the film that’s screened in the Pavilion, so they’re very curious to come and see it. They’re also very proud that the Zurich police [force] is part of it, but they might encounter the whole group coming from the dentist’s office, and ‘Oh, when is your film on? Oh mine goes in two hours,’ etc.

Jon Kessler, The World Is Cuckoo, Satellite. Photo (c) Manifesta11/Wolfgang Traeger

In my head, I imagine how it is to mingle all of these different people together. That’s also why I brought the ‘art detectives’ on board, and also a whole bunch of students. Sometimes things are a bit complicated, but I think also they are not so. We are about Manifesta as an instrument, Zurich as a place, and then… There were a lot of journeys involved: I also took this as an opportunity to see many new artists. Sometimes, as an artist, you’re so egomaniacal that you’re often so occupied with your work and working from show to show, that you don’t really take the time or call people or go out. No, I had a good reason to ask curator friends, or people I just met, How is it in Prague? Do you know any artists that are interesting? And that was a great new thing in my life: to connect with another scene of artists. I also had the opportunity to take my chapeau [hat] down for older artists I respected and took on board, so it’s a whole connection in different ways. And of course, from artist to artist, it’s very strange to change to being a curator: I know a bunch of very good artists, who are also my friends, who wonder why I’m not inviting them to the biennial.

Exhibition View of Historical Exhibition: 
Arbeitspause.

 Löwenbräukunst. Photo (c) Manifesta11/Wolfgang Traeger

All of a sudden, a hierarchy comes into play...

Oh yeah; just because I had the opportunity. I couldn’t support them, and wanted to, but on the other hand, there’s only a number of number of seats. I would have had to do an exhibition like this with 300 people, not 30. Imagine a city like this with 300 joint ventures! It’d be fantastic.

It would fill the entire city.

I would have liked this. I would have even liked to see a 300-person project in this institution, because some people say ‘Oh, it’s sometimes a bit crowded in that show…’ I actually love that you can come back and get different layers of the works. For me, you don’t need to see everything in one or two days; we have a hundred days.

Löwenbräukunst. Photo (c) Manifesta 11/Eduard Meltzer

Can you tell me a bit about the ‘documentation’ that you produced in constructing Manifesta? Do you have notebooks filled? Photographs?

Do you think I have many photos?

[Laughs] Yes, but where are they now?

I mean, I have some on my mobile phone, because sometimes I take snapshots, but also the curatorial team, for example, took a lot of photographs when we were doing research trips. But is this question aiming to see if these are artworks, or what? I don’t totally get it.

Yin Xunzhi, Satellite. Photo (c) Manifesta11/Wolfgang Traeger

Ok, after a hundred days, this won’t all still be here. Will there ultimately be a breadth of work that you created over the course of Manifesta’s construction?

Oh, yeah. It’s quite conventional. I work like a bookkeeper. Not that the books are in order, but from the outside, it looks good. As soon as you open these folders, it gets quite chaotic—because it’s always this problem of trying to order them, and then disorder gets into it—but there are tons and tons of materials, yes. There are a lot of catalogues that people send me; there are also catalogues that I bought especially for this.

But the thing that can be delivered, and also stays, are the art docs, which are the movies screened in the Pavilion of Reflection. Each art doc is composed by all four authors: the artist, the host, the filmmaker that makes the film, and the art detective. It’s always a quartet—times 30—so we have 30 quartets each producing one film, going from the first encounter, seeing how it develops, to the presentation. But the presentations in the satellites means they're not in the institution. We end our movies—the art docs—in the firehouse for the firemen, and the firemen in the group watch what their colleagues made from the artwork that has just been produced. I think it’s in these films [that] a lot of the spirit lives on. Everything is built in this digital form; everything is there. I can very well imagine that Manifesta or somebody else putting them on the internet where they can live on and inform a lot of people. Not at this moment, because I really believe in, you know, smelling the people who are sitting next you in the Pavilion, sweating in the summer here, and to see how the different scenes interact with each other; you know, I don’t want the firemen to just be at home on their computers watching their own movie. I want them to wait there and see, because they’re waiting for their movie, but because there’s something fucked up with the schedule—they have to see two other movies, too.  

Michel Houellebecq and Dr. med. Henry Perschak, Facharzt für Allgemeine Innere Medizin. Photo (c) Manifesta 11

I like the fact that it becomes a collective experience. You see firemen laughing about that comment from the sex worker that worked on another thing, who is reacting to what, and why, and how are they interpreting this [other thing]. I think kind-of confusing moments are very beautiful moments. It’s a very rich experience to sit there and, on the one hand, laugh, and on the other hand, have it reveal something you have not thought of before. Different professional viewpoints, just the way everybody is a different character. How some of the art detectives—teenagers from different schools—were growing into their positions. How much they made the microphone a scepter—you know, ‘I have the power to do something.’ Or sometimes they developed during the course of the production of the movie, and it plays on course with the main clichés of documentaries about artists. I gave the dogmas of how to shoot these films. I was like, you have to use experimental music, you have to use experimental camera [work] when the artwork is shown... So now when you have this kind-of TV film, you see how they made something crazy. ‘I put my camera a little bit at a weird angle, so people on television get completely crazy when they see art, because it’s so free-spirited.’ I take this into it. Now, the filmmakers could also think, ‘What is really experimental music for me?’ And sometimes it creates quite irritating moments.

That’s good, sometimes.

I like irritating moments. That’s why the whole platform is standing on the water! There’s no solid ground to evaluate art. I’m sorry [laughs].

Pavilion of Reflection Filmscreening. Photo (c) Manifesta11/Wolfgang Traeger

Manifesta 11 runs through September 18, 2016 in Zurich. Click here to plan your trip. 

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