February 10 – July 10, 2016
We in the contemporary art world have a real context problem. On the one hand, we have inherited a legacy of postmodernism which, from the 1960s onward, has celebrated the use of de- and re-contextualizing techniques across the arts. On the other hand, we have inherited the legacy of conceptualism and Marcel Duchamp, whose work enacted the philosophy that contemporary art is no longer a set of materials as much as a context. So when it comes to contemporary art, does context matter?
Julian Rosefeldt’s Manifesto at the Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin has left me to reflect on the importance of context in rendering meaning for the manifesto as a form. Most simply, a manifesto is an attempt to articulate the politics of a movement. It was a form particularly important to the 20th-century avant-garde, which sought to trouble the beaux-arts values through the development of discrete but intersecting experimental movements that had distinct politicized ends.
Manifesto is a 13-channel installation featuring Australian actress Cate Blanchett performing 13 scenes as 13 characters. Using the cut-up method introduced by William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin in the 1960s, Rosefeldt composes the scenes themed around an avant-garde movement from the early to mid 20th-century: Situationism, Futurism, Abstract Expressionism, Constructivism, Creationism/Stridentism, Dadaism, Surrealism, Fluxus, Conceptualism/Minimalism, and Pop Art. (Two scenes organized around particular media—architecture and film—present a hiccup in the coherence of Rosefeldt’s conceptual parameters.) Rosefeldt takes 3–6 manifestos from each movement and subjects them to the cut-up method, rearranging discrete texts (presumably at random) into one representative voice for the movement. The hacked up manifestos are then spliced together and matched to a character and a situation, having a defamiliarizing effect on the original texts. So, we get Blanchett as a “broker” in a Wall Street-looking building for Futurism; a “tattooed punk,” stumbling around a bar for Creationism/Stridentism; a “newsreader and reporter” for Conceptual Art/Minimalism; and a “homeless man” for Situationism.
It is the use of sound that is, in my view, most moving about Manifesto. Visually, the piece is characterized by its use of dazzling cinematic shots and the casting of a high-profile Hollywood actress who performs a series of challenging acting exercises with mastery. The multi-channel installation form places Manifesto more readily within the realm of contemporary art: if the piece existed instead as a film, it would be harder to make the case for its place in an art museum. It is the ways in which the multiple channels are quite literally in conversation with each other that complicates the predictably postmodern premise of the work. The sound bleed that occurs between channels adds a layer of complexity to the viewer’s experience: the ear attunes to the channel being viewed while it also attunes, with slightly less attention, to the neighbouring channels. The channels are in conversation with each other rhythmically, a sense confirmed when, at a particular moment in the loop, all 13 channels unite in a mechanized harmony. It is in this moment of synchronized alignment that Cate Blanchett’s face is centered in the same close-up shot on each screen around the room, her gaze meeting ours as she speaks directly into the camera in a robotic cadence.
Blanchett speaks with a zealous passion, her body rendered as the postmodern cyborg through post-production sound editing. It gives me goosebumps—Blanchett’s performance embodies the affects of the 20th-century in all its violence and simulation. There are intimations of a V for Vendetta moment, the room implicated in a fascist call for some kind of ambiguous and ambivalent revolution. We hear “No more . . . no more . . .no more,” from 13 channels at once, and then the cacophony ceases and only one channel speaks: Blanchett as the Dadaist funeral director, shouting a shrill “Nothing! Nothing!” A school bell rings from an adjacent channel and then the loop resets, with all 13 screens returning to quiet cinematic establishing shots. For a sustained moment, Blanchett’s arresting on-camera presence and her skilled voice channels the vehemence of the original manifestos, generating a hysteria contained by the parameters of the installation’s visual language and time. She demands our attention to the importance of something— something that flattens out into a vaguely politicized “nothing.”
As viewers, we are drawn in to the potency of Blanchett’s acting chops and briefly distracted by moments of entertaining absurdity that the manifesto-scene pairings give rise to— like when Cate Blanchett, playing a funeral director, proclaims with heartfelt seriousness, “from now on we want to shit in different colors!”. I find myself embarrassed, cringing for Art, all the while acknowledging that this is the Dadaism scene, and that Dadaism was first and foremost a performative satirization of the institutions of Modern Art. Yet while Dadaism is playfully irreverent and pacifist in its approach to aesthetics, neighbouring movements like Futurism have more grim political stances. Organizing before the first World War, the Futurists supported fascism and violence both figuratively and literally, and were explicitly anti-feminist. Indeed, while some of the language of Futurism and Dadaism might be similar—the discourse of destruction, for example—their political demands could not be more different.
Written predominantly by men, the manifestoes that Blanchett performs are far from neutral approaches to theorizing the role of art in society. As I walk past one channel, I hear “I have nothing to say,” and I’m irked by the ongoing appeal of a kind of hipster apathy that manifestoes like the Dadaist one, when read out of context (see: satire), can be seen as validating.
At its worst, postmodernism is seen as a dilution of meaning into a meaningless relativity soup. The New Sincerity has been coined to describe what comes after postmodernism: an antidote to the apathy, nihilism, and disingenuousness that a certain flavour of masculine postmodernism stands for. Rosefeldt further alienates the manifesto’s meaning by re-staging them in a space where the lines dividing art from celebrity culture, fashion, and Hollywood cinema are obliterated in the kind of flourish that the futurists might have celebrated.
Casting Blanchett as the primary performer in this work both moves Rosefeldt’s piece forward and harkens Blanchett to a stage in her career that, in recent years, celebrities have claimed as a means of gaining a different kind of legitimacy by working in High Art rather than Hollywood: think Tilda Swinton, James Franco, Shia Laboeuf. But as Laboeuf’s impotent attempt at transmogrifying into a performance artist demonstrated, wearing a paper bag to re-brand yourself as “NOT A CELEBRITY” has little effect on the association of your face and name with this aforementioned fame. and it is difficult to deny that the draw of Manifesto is the celebrity of the names listed in the exhibition description. Indeed, the exhibition’s marketing lead me to naively expect work by Cate Blanchett and Jim Jarmusch alongside artists like Sol LeWitt, but these names were not artists in the work so much as materials in the piece. In true conceptualist fashion, Blanchett is better understood to be a material while Rosefeldt is the artist, standing somewhere behind the camera as Yves Klein stood behind the canvases as his paintbrush nudes (always women) covered themselves in Yves Klein blue and pressed their bodies up against his canvases. Even as she steals the show, even as she will remain what is most memorable about Manifesto as a work of art, Cate Blanchett is not ‘the artist’ of this work.
Given the Duchampian conceptualist premise of Rosefeldt’s work, I could not help but approach it with context at the fore of my mind. After Duchamp and the so-called de-materializing of the artwork, context became more important to the work of art than ever before: it served as a key framing device for the work of art and an element integral to the work’s meaning. In this late-modern (or proto-postmodern) context, the manifesto became a space for articulating the framework within which that artwork is to be read, emphasizing the work’s capacity for political resonance and change. Rosefeldt’s Manifesto seeks to efface context, de- and re-contextualizing the historical manifestos with ease. The cinematographic language has the effect of flattening out context between scenes, so that there is no discernible difference, really, between Blanchett as homeless man or CEO. The only differences lie in costuming, hair, and makeup. Each scene is treated with the touch of Hollywood, so that the politics of class differences and the ensuing needs and desires that propel the creation of avant-garde movements and their politicized manifestos are removed and forgotten. The discourse of modern and contemporary art becomes vacant of meaning, the manifestos stripped of the context that gave them urgency in the first place.
As a genre, the manifesto has little meaning outside of the context within which it was written. To conflate futurism and dadaism, for example, would have dire implications on the efficacy of art, literature, and philosophy in our culture. The risk that Manifesto runs in obscuring the differences between the political stances of different aesthetic movements is the same risk that our culture runs with regards to (media) literacy and the capacity to understand the contextual nature of meaning. We live in a time when context is becoming increasingly tenuous, when social media flattens a complicated world of myriad differences into truncated headlines and memes, when a person’s ability to parse satire from not-satire is dubious, and their willingness to consider the nuances of arguments is suspect. When stripped of context, texts, utterances, and events lose key information paramount to understanding. This flattening feeds an increasingly reactionary political climate of binary thinking, in which people find themselves proclaiming “All Lives Matter” because they lack a willingness to understand or engage with the urgent context of systemic racism that the rallying call “Black Lives Matter” arose in response to, where feminists encounter hostility and harassment online because the history that “feminism” as a political movement arises from is disregarded and scorned. “All, All,” and “Nothing, Nothing”: two sides of the same coin in a context that hates context, finds it too tiresome to think about.
What power does a manifesto have outside of the context from which it was formed? No longer a potentially potent articulation of the politics of a countercultural movement, the manifesto becomes words said by names that viewers vaguely recognize as historically important—often men who stand for the “mad genius” trope that we continue to be seduced by. For the culturally savvy consumer, the spectacle of Cate Blanchett in beautifully directed cinematic scenes is made all the more palatable by the presence of intellectual discourse, even as that intellectual discourse is rendered meaningless, malleable, and silly. Art museums continue to curate and support work with a celebrity draw, work that, from the exhibition pamphlet, appears to be an art historical lesson rendered accessible by virtue of its fundamental meaninglessness. In Manifesto, the texts of the original manifestos become little more than words for Cate Blanchett to recite in a series of challenging acting exercises: exercises which she, as a talented actor, masters.
In a way, Manifesto embodies both the worst fears and the proclaimed desires of the art movements that it cites: madness and rupture; the “end of art,” the destruction of art museums and other cultural institutions. Perhaps I am missing the joke, and Rosefeldt’s Manifesto is a winking Dadaist nod. But as an artist working in 2016, it seems less interesting and relevant to make that joke than it would be to respond to the context that artists today are working within: a neoliberalism that, since the 1970s, has seen an increasing commodification and corporatization of art institutions and the loss of spaces that are not tethered to influences of free market capitalism and celebrity culture. Is there still the potential for art to be political?
Today we see the flattening out of distinctions between art, fashion, design, pop culture, celebrity culture. Is “art” to do something different than these other forms? If not, then perhaps this great flattening is not so much a problem to be tackled as an evolution of culture (vis-à-vis postmodernism) to be embraced. But if we still believe that “art” occupies a different kind of space from, say, popular culture, then perhaps its worth inquiring into what it means for art museum’s to be increasingly open to embracing celebrity culture in a time where these institutions themselves are subjected to the creeping forces of commodification. When it comes to contemporary art, does context matter? I think so.
Lauren Fournier is a writer, artist and PhD candidate based in Toronto. Her writing has been published in Canadian Art, West Coast Line, the Journal for Comparative Media Art and KAPSULA.
Abstract Expressionism Black Lives Matter Brion Gysin Cate Blanchett Conceptualism/Minimalism Constructivism Creationism/Stridentism Dadaism Fluxus Futurism Hamburger Bahnhof Julian Rosefeldt Marcel Duchamp Pop Art Situationism Surrealism V for Vendetta William S. Burroughs