Manifesta 8 and the Problems of Sincerity, Louise O’Hare, Afterall Journal

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Link to text on Afterall

The tone should be personal…

First person…

Not third person…

You need to be authentic…

…and honest

In her video installation Artist’s Statement (2010), shown in a dilapidated room in a former artillery barracks during this past Manifesta, Adela Jusic offered advice on how to construct an effective summary of one’s intentions as an artist. The work was shown as part of ‘Constitution for Temporary Display’, an exhibition staged by, one of three curatorial collectives invited to curate the eighth edition of Manifesta, held in Murcia, Spain. Synced footage of Jusic, projected against opposing walls, showed her reading instructions on how to write a convincing artist’s statement: her imperious, Eastern European-inflected voice firm and persistent, each iteration of herself concurring with the other and adding to the demands of this apparently innocuous piece of career advice. This work – an aspect of an exhibition, a part of a biennial, a response by a collective to the aims of an umbrella organisation, which is itself within a network of supporting partners – is a good place to begin upon the questions raised by Manifesta 8, addressing as it does the authenticity or sincerity of the artistic persona and the limits of artistic freedom.

International Foundation Manifesta (IFM), the Amsterdam-based organisation that runs the ‘roving European biennial’, stated this year that Manifesta would aim ‘to engage with the north-south divide, specifically with Europe’s present-day boundaries with northern Africa and its interrelations with the Maghreb region’. They further explained that the biennial’s location in the Murcia region, in the southeast of Spain, was chosen due to ‘the intertwining cultures in the region, its strategic location as a Mediterranean enclave and its particular character as an authentic melting pot’.1 This desire for ‘authenticity’ is problematic when used in the context of an attempted dialogue with north Africa; it suggests a search for the ‘real’ in an ethnographic sense, or the aim to acquire, marginalise or simplify ‘other’ cultural practices and experiences. It was therefore a relief to see the contribution of, which approached the idea of a dialogue with North Africa in a manner respecting the complexity of the relations this implied. Elaborating upon correspondences between postcolonial and post-communist histories and embracing the opportunity to bring together an interesting, if well-travelled, selection of artists for this aim,2 asked these artists to discuss a set of forty questions collectively,3 an approach that resulted in works that seemed to multifariously tackle the question of what a ‘dialogue’ with North Africa might mean.’s section, ‘Constitution for Temporary Display’, included Madame Plaza (2009), an intimate choreography designed by Bouchra Ouizguen and three Aïta dancers, Kabboura Aït Ben Hmad, Fatima El Hanna and Naîma Sahmoud,4 and the video installation Kempinski (2007) by Neil Beloufa, which comprised a screen made of MDF, painted shapes and an elaborate seating contraption. Filmed at night in Mopti, Mali, the video cuts between a flashing street lamp, a floodlit field and composed tableaus showing individuals talking to the camera. In one scene a young man holding a fluorescent lamp, standing alone on a patch of dirt, explains:

I am the only man who lives with hundreds of oxen […] There is a very good agreement between us. My wife the cow has given birth to two cows and the baptism is for tomorrow. The orchestra will come […] the party will be beautiful.

Meanwhile the herd trundle into the picture, suddenly looking a little menacing, lowing in agreement. Another man states, from behind the green glow of a large leaf,

We do not need cars or planes […] We move through light, through sound. From here I can get to the North Pole in half a second.

Neil Beloufa, Kempinski, 2009, video, 14 min. Courtesy the artist

Beloufa’s sleight of hand in producing this documentary-cum-sci-fi film was simply to ask people to describe the future as if it were the present. The narratives offered – all quite convincing – did not seem to be performances or lies, but rather the footage was edited to create a sense of misplaced storytelling. Functioning as both conjured future world, performance and ethnographic documentary, the video plays with the assumptions its audience might make about the ‘backwards’ nature of isolated rural Africa, and what ‘we’ might take to be ‘authentic’.

In series of lectures delivered at the end of the 1960s, Lionel Trilling addressed the difference between authenticity and sincerity, describing how ‘at a certain point in its history the moral life of Europe added to itself a new element, the state or quality of the self which we call ‘sincerity’.5 Trilling implied that sincerity is socially defined – it is related to what we aim to be and how we would like others to see us – while the notion of authenticity had come to be considered something more essential, related to primal urges. Describing this ‘modern concern with authenticity’, and citing Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness(1902) as its ‘troubling’ ‘paradigmatic literary expression’,6 he showed how a ‘Stygian authenticity’ was depicted as something latent within the character Kurtz and uncovered when the ‘constructs of civilization’ were removed and he ‘regressed to savagery’.7 By contrast, sincerity, with its origins in the social, emerges as a concept altogether more slippery.

In Madame Plaza, Ouizguen holds her arms outstretched above her head and beats her hands back and forth; her body gently shakes – she is steadily unsteady, stepping carefully across a patterned mattress. Three women sit on another mattress, proprietarily, legs wide, staring into the distance and waiting. Ouizguen continues slowly towards them, leaning forwards, moving her arms up and down as if paddling gently in the air. Looking ready to laugh or cry, the others watch as she glides past, her expansive movements pulling along a graceful heaviness. Over the course of this deliberate performance the pace accelerates and the other women join in: swaying, chanting, and embracing one another, their voices guttural and almost pained. Taking part in something between a hug and a play fight, they become a boisterous pile of bodies. Lying down beside one another, arms outstretched, they roll, not to an obvious rhythm but carefully, studiously, as if following the well-remembered instructions of a favourite recipe – kneading themselves together. 

Aïtas are traditional Moroccan wedding dancers and Ouizguen, a Moroccan who trained in choreography in France, worked with this small group of dancers over a number of years to develop the performance. Madame Plaza could have embodied the worst kind of search for the ‘authentic’ – appropriating a traditional dance form as well as the dancers themselves, and fusing this with European contemporary choreography to ‘update’ it for the delectation of a Western audience. However there was in this piece a careful respect for the tradition it studied, not as ancient form, but as a current and multi-faceted mode of expression. The dancers’ lewd gestures and the moments where it seemed they were trying to make each other laugh displayed comradeship and intimacy of the women, and the performance functioned as an independent statement – both specific and impossible to locate.

‘You need to be authentic‘ – Jusic’s repeated instructions were pointedly ironic. The installations in the darkened rooms of the dusty old barracks, post office and prison where the biennial was held, read overwhelmingly as biennial aesthetic, for instance with the co-opting of a historic venue to add local significance to an international, portable feast. Traipsing between venues across the city of Murcia, and an hour south to the port town of Cartagena, merely drew attention to the lack of local artists involved in the biennial. Only six artists from the region were listed in the ‘pocket guide’; these were invited by another of the curatorial teams, Alexandria Contemporary Arts Forum (ACAF), to respond to the archive of the Museum of Contemporary Hispanic Art in New York.8 The ACAF also instigated ‘Incubator for a Roaming Pan African Biennial’, a platform from which to consider the potential of producing an African biennial similar to Manifesta. The ‘Incubator’ launched with a symposium on the opening Sunday of Manifesta, and began by unravelling its own proposition – reflecting on the pitfalls, contradictions and motivations of biennials in a thoughtful and practical manner. This project will continue over the next year, having begun with meetings at The Townhouse Gallery, Cairo earlier this month, continuing in a workshop in April 2011 in an African city yet to be decided, and concluding with a publication in September 2011.9 It is, however, revealing to note that although Manifesta described itself as concerned specifically with ‘interrelations with the Maghreb region’ the ACAF collective from Egypt was the only African curatorial team,10 and Manifesta neglected to involve any of the many cultural initiatives active in nearby Morocco.11 This omission may have accounted for the small proportion of North African artists invited by its appointed curators: of over one hundred artists listed in the guide just ten were noted as being born, or now living in Africa, and of these just one was from the Maghreb region.12 It is such vagaries regarding both form and resulting content which gave the sense that the enterprise was not only failing at its aims, but wasn’t even trying.

The third collective, Chamber of Public Secrets (CPS), an organisation located across Europe and in Lebanon, specifically described themselves as producing ‘transmissions’,13 so it may not have been surprising to find their version of dialogue somewhat monologic. They were responsible for one-dimensional institutional critique in the form of Thierry Geoffroy’s ‘biennialist’ character Colonel(2010),14 and the most straightforward responses to the Murcian context: for example, screening Laurent Grasso’s film of the ancient fortifications of Cartagena, The Batteria Project (2010), in an eighteenth-century autopsy theatre that overlooks the city, and Abed Anouti’s documentary about San Antón Prison in the prison itself, which was one of the exhibition areas. Other commissions included Fay Nicholson’s newspaper project (La Verdad, 2010), and a number of projects engaging with detainees,15 including Marcelo Expósito and Verónica Iglesia’s photography workshop and resulting publication (Country Europa, 2010), Nada Prjla’s video project with inmates of a Murcian detention facility (Foreign Language for Beginners, 2010) and David Rych’s ‘experiment’ with introducing juveniles from youth custody to adults serving long-term prison sentences (Encounter, 2010). Rych’s video footage of these meetings was projected above monitors screening videos made by the inmates showing their living conditions and explaining their day to day life – snapshots which were fascinating as much for normality of the life they described as for the more sordid details of life incarcerated. Oddly enough, prisoners in Murcian rehabilitation programmes had volunteered in installing the biennial – a fact that could have been interesting in the context of such reflections on the limits of freedom, but which was never publicised by the Manifesta team.16

In his 1969 lectures Trilling noted that the concept of sincerity had ‘lost most of its former high dignity’ and seemed ‘quaint’: ‘If we speak it, we are likely to do so with either discomfort or irony’.17 It might therefore seem anachronistic to suggest that the fault of Manifesta 8 was its insincerity. However a form of sincerity is surely required when undertaking ventures that aim to go beyond re-exhibiting some interesting works to an international audience. Describing the etymology of ‘sincerity’ from the Latin ‘clean, or sound, or pure’ to its early sixteenth-century use, which was ‘largely metaphorical – a man’s life is sincere in the sense of being sound, or pure or whole; or consistent in its virtuousness’, Trilling noted that by the time Shakespeare was using the word it had come to mean ‘the absence of dissimulation, feigning or pretence’, ‘with no apparent awareness of it ever having been used metaphorically’,18 stating that

Society requires of us that we present ourselves as being sincere, and the most efficacious way of satisfying this demand is to see to it that we really are sincere, that we actually are what we want our community to know we are. In short we play the role of being ourselves, we sincerely act the part of the sincere person, with the result that a judgement may be passed upon our sincerity that it is not authentic.19

By so allowing for an inauthenticity of sincerity, Trilling underlines the performative nature of sincerity as well as the problems inherent in any attempt at ‘being authentic’, which both audience and artists laboured to come to terms with during this Manifesta and its various contradictions.

Indeed throughout its fourteen years, Manifesta has always sought ‘complex situations and diverse geo-political areas’ in which to engage, and this has lead to productive conflicts and open-ended results, such as the cancelled Manifesta 6 that hoped to establish an art school in both the Turkish and Greek areas of Nicosia. With certain exceptions, this year’s Manifesta lacked both the acuity and conviction that such interesting malfunctions require. Manifesta 9 – fail better.

  1. ‘Region of Murcia in dialogue with Northern Africa’, statement on Manifesta 8 website. Available at Emphasis the author’s.
  2. For example, Stephan Dillemuth, Karl Holmqvist, The Otolith Group, Tris Vonna-Michell, etc.
  3. The questions were focused on the conventions of the biennial format and were addressed by both the artists and the team in a collective procedure. See’s statement on ‘Constitution for Temporary Display’, pocket guide, Manifesta 8, Murcia: IMF and Region de Murcia, 2010, p.14.
  4. A new version of the dance was staged as part of the opening celebrations, and footage of Madame Plaza (2009) was also screened on a monitor as part of an installation at the barracks. A monitor on the floor showed the performance on loop and three foam mattresses annotated with symbols: hearts, plants and line drawings of female nudes, leaned against a wall.
  5. Lionel Trilling, ‘Sincerity: Its Origin and Rise’,Sincerity and AuthenticityThe Charles Eliot Norton Lectures, 1969-70, Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 1971, p.2
  6. Ibid., p.106
  7. Ibid., p.108
  8. The team comprised Gonzalo Ballester, Alfonso Escudero, Jeleton, Irene Lucas & Christoph Euler, Ana Martínez and Rosell Meseguer.
  9. ‘Bringing you the answers before we know the question: four positions regarding the idea of a pan-African roaming biennial’, Symposium on Sunday 10th of October, 2010, Espacio 0, Centro Parraga, Murcia. More information available at
  10. Although Egypt is a ‘North African’ country, geographically it is as close to Spain as Poland is, and is not part of the Maghreb region, which refers collectively to Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Mauritania and the disputed territory of Western Sahara.
  11. Examples might have been the Cinémathèque of Tangier, L’appartement 22 in Rabat or indeed Anania, the first contemporary dance company in Marrakech founded by Bouchra Ouizguen.
  12. Bouchra Ouizguen. This statistic is taken from information provided by Manifesta 8 in the form of a ‘pocket guide’, where artists place of birth and current working location is listed. Of course the presence of cultural interchanges with Africa are more complex than a simple head count of nationalities can describe – Neil Beloufa, though listed as born and living in France, might be described by many as French/Algerian (his parents are Algerian), a relevance overlooked by such methods. Nonetheless these statistics indicate the lack of need to physically locate a dialogue with Africa in Murcia, over any other European country.
  13. CPS are Khaled Ramadan and Alfredo Cramerotti. They conceived Manifesta 8 as ‘a series of ‘transmissions’ (including works of art and many diverse interventions in the mass media, on local, national and international levels), using different artistic methods and strategies of negotiation’. Pocket guide, Manifesta 8op. cit.,p.31
  14. Playing a ‘colonial’ in a bowtie and safari hat, Thierry Geoffrey contributed boorish live TV interviews asking local people what a dialogue with North Africa meant, and designated his space in St Anton Prison as open to artists from North Africa.
  15. The tangible results of these commissions presented at MUBAM, Museo de Bellas Artes, Murcia.
  16. The management and conditions of work for the volunteers was not organised by Manifesta directly but by the ‘programa de reinsercion social’, a government integration and rehabilitation programme working with regional organisations to organize such placements. The same organisations worked with the curatorial group CPS to produce the above commissions and the further collaboration developed from this contact.
  17. ‘When we hear it, we are conscious of the anachronism which touches it with quaintness […] In its commonest employment it has sunk to the level of mere intensive, in which capacity it has an effect that negates its literal intention- ‘I sincerely believe’ has less weight than ‘I believe’. […] To praise a work of literature by calling it sincere is now at best a way of saying that although it need be given no aesthetic or intellectual admiration, it was at least conceived in innocence of heart.’ L. Trilling, ‘Sincerity: Its Origin and Rise’, op. cit., p.6
  18. Ibid., p.12-13
  19. Ibid., p.10-11

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