Manifesta 11: Christian Jankowski

Manifesta 11 has opened in Zürich, read how chief curator Christian Jankowski hopes it will activate Zürich's art scene

By Tom Eccles

Christian Jankowski. Courtesy Manifesta 11

Christian Jankowski has been appointed chief curator of Manifesta 11, which will take place in the city of Zürich in 2016. The Berlin-based artist’s recent solo exhibitions include Heavy Weight History at CCA Ujazdowski Castle, Warsaw, in 2013 and casting Jesus at MACRO, Rome, in 2012. Manifesta, Europe’s nomadic biennial, was launched in 1996 with the aim of examining contemporary art and its context in Europe beyond the familiar centres of artistic production. Recent editions of Manifesta have focused on geographical borders and margins, both within Europe and – as with Manifesta 8 in Murcia and North Africa – at its outer edges. Characterised by a strong sense of place, an engagement with the cultural and political present, and a commitment to innovative curatorial practice, the tenor of each edition is distinct to its time and place.

ArtReview In her announcement of your appointment as the curator of the next Manifesta, the biennial’s director, Hedwig Fijen, said: ‘Jankowski will investigate the whole array of art’s authorship, its production and its reflection on Zürich’s professional landscape. In doing so, Manifesta 11’s chief curator approaches the complex identities of the city in an unexpected way, reaching out to audiences beyond the inner circle of contemporary art biennials.’ This hints at a classic strategy of yours as an artist, which is to engage very specific groups of people we don’t normally expect to be art producers per se – a church group, or a heavy weight lifting team, for example – to participate in the making of an artwork (a film, a performance). Is this what we should expect from your Manifesta?

Christian Jankowski Yes.

AR Why do you think you were chosen as the curator of Manifesta?

CJ I think they needed a wild card, because art is already so well established in Zürich. There are so many good institutions and curators, and everybody is very well educated. So they thought to go with a project where the outcome wouldn’t be predictable, where there would be some risk involved.

AR What was your pitch?

CJ My pitch is that I’m sticking with my old ideas. My pitch is to do what I always do, which is to work within the framework of collaboration. I’ll be working with people who are not already involved in the artworld and looking to link artists with representatives of different vocations. Through this, we’ll produce a bunch of new works. I mean, there will be an introductory show consisting of existing works, but for me that will be more like an introduction to the theme of Manifesta 11. It’ll also provide information about all of the satellite spaces, where we’ll present the new commissions.

I’m compiling a list of all the professions in Zürich, from which the invited artists will each choose one profession. Then I’ll find an interesting character or personality who practises that profession, who would be willing to collaborate with an artist, who would also be willing to host the artist and help find a non-art venue where the finished work will be presented. In this way, there will be many different kinds of venues for the exhibition.

While it’s a bit like art in corporate spaces – art in businesses or business-related places – I’m not asking artists to work with a company, but rather with individuals who work at that company. It’s really about one-to-one encounters between the hosts and the artists. Each project starts with a budget of €8,000, and then we can develop projects from there that will grow financially or materially depending on the context.

AR Zürich being Zürich, I hope you will be collaborating with the banking community?

CJ I trust the artists to pick interesting professions from the list we give them. But if we get to the last artist participating and no one’s chosen to work with a banker, I’ll make sure to let them know that. Still, maybe it would say something if no one were to pick ‘banker’ from the list. Of course, the banking community is a topic for Manifesta 11 – even if none of the artists choose to work with a banker.

AR Do you have a working title?

CJ Manifesta 11 will be called What People Do for Money. I think it resonates well with Zürich.

AR What do you think the projects will reveal about Zürich?

CJ You know, there’s no predetermined outcome. In the end, it will all come down to the interactions between the hosts, the artists and the spaces they move through. There will be dozens of hosts, and they will each have a different effect on the work produced. But all together, they will reveal something about what use the hosts think art has – and also what people from Zürich are willing to put into art.

The hosts will have to participate out of honest interest. I kind of like those moments when you say (or a host might say), ‘ok, I can do that. But what’s in it for me?’

If you think about Sigmar Polke’s church windows in Zürich, of course they needed windows for their church. So Polke’s work was the perfect fit. He could use resources from the church. I hope some of the Manifesta projects also find niches like that, where they follow the interests of their collaborators to make something that might be permanent, or that can use the energy that’s already there, or recycle stuff.

AR There is always the tendency among artists and curators to work with groups who sit at the margins of political and economic power and to use these kinds of exhibitions as ‘platforms’ for giving voice to groups and issues that often remain unheard. That’s not really been your approach. How do you select who you want to work with both as an artist and now as a curator?

CJ That’s true. My approach tends to be different. I often distrust the black-and-white views of people who believe they’re on the right side. I find it interesting to go to the centre of the system. My work is perhaps affirmative in that way, but it also has the potential to destabilise. It can be read in two ways.

Manifesta 11 will be about personal relationships. If an artist chooses to work with a banker, the artist will be working with a person, not an institution. He or she might be a higher-up, or might come from the mailroom. We will send artists into every corner of society and ask them to make work in relation to the information they find – whether it’s powerful or not, critical or not, intelligent or not.

AR Why work with businesses rather than, say, community groups?

CJ I’m concerned that community groups might use up too much energy by talking too much. I thought about community groups, but I don’t want a conference where everybody talks, where everybody has an opinion. Where talking might even be an endpoint. Instead, I’m interested in activating. I also think that the resources you have are much clearer in a business. When you talk to somebody who owns a bakery, you can expect to find certain material. I think if you look at my past works, you’ll see that I was always more interested in professions.

AR I always thought you worked primarily with social groups, church groups, a hula-hoop club or a heavy-weight lifting club. Somehow, these kinds of self-identification groups have always been places where you’ve been able to infiltrate as an artist.

CJ The members of the heavy weight lifting club consider themselves service professionals, sportsmen. The hula-hoop teachers also do this professionally. They have customers that form a group, the same as a yoga teacher.

Professions bring a certain vocabulary, they bring a certain viewpoint on the world, and they have a very specific look. They also bring something unexpected and new into the artwork through a kind of shared authorship.

AR Have you specified to your artists the minimum amount of time they commit to the project?

CJ No, because I trust that the artists will commit themselves to the project. If they agree to participate, then they’ll want to make good work. It doesn’t matter whether an artist spends a few days or a few months on a project – it doesn’t guarantee a good artwork.

AR Humour is always present in your work. It’s a way to get to something quite profound. Do you think humour will play a large part in Manifesta?

I want the artist and the host to get together and really feel like they can do stuff without me, not knowing what the result will be. Humour might come into play at some point. But I trust the artists and the hosts, and I don’t want to control how the artworks will be made.

CJ People will likely find humour in it. But humour isn’t driving the project. If I were to imagine being invited as an artist to Manifesta, I’d like the idea of being picked up by my host, that somebody would feel responsible for me other than the curatorial assistant who says, ‘Oh, here, read the concept of this biennial. And oh, yes, you should know this and that.’ Instead, you get a personalised tour through Zürich.

As the curator, I won’t be providing the information. I’ll work in the background with my team. I want the artist and the host to get together and really feel like they can do stuff without me, not knowing what the result will be. Humour might come into play at some point. But I trust the artists and the hosts, and I don’t want to control how the artworks will be made.

AR With many of these more public projects recently there has been an interest in activism. Do you think we’ll see some political actions that come out of this Manifesta? The artist Artur Zmijewski’s 2012 Berlin Biennale for example focused solely upon activism.

CJ You know what, I found Zmijewski’s Berlin Biennale frustrating. I thought it was quite sad to see how the activists were presented. I like Artur as an artist, and I think as an artist, he’s done many great projects. But I found the exhibition to be a bit disrespectful to the topic and to the activists. Instead of working in a way that made the artworks or the statements look stronger, he forced nonartworks into an art context, and they suffered from that.

The curators that I’ve liked have always stepped in and helped make the artists and the artworks look good in the end. They found a good place for my work between the interests of different artists. It’s not enough to throw people in a room and say, ‘Here’s the room, get in, everybody, find something.’ That was my feeling about Berlin. He threw people together, but they looked absurd in that context, because the white cube is not a real context for activism. This won’t be my focus, because I think that activist groups are often in a rather weak position, criticising something from outside the system. Rather than protesting outside buildings, which I fully respect, for this Manifesta and for the topic of my Manifesta, I would like to see who owns the building and to bring the artists into contact with those people. We will try to find representatives of people from different walks of life and then work in dialogue with them and see where the dialogue ends.

AR Manifesta is also seen as a kind of touchstone of the European project. Whether it’s the fall of the Berlin Wall, whether it’s the expansion of the European Union, or the unification of Eastern Europe with Western Europe. It’s had its moments of crisis, in Cyprus, for example, when the exhibition was cancelled in 2006. Right now you have this incredible moment in Europe of xenophobia, Islamophobia and rising nationalism, and in Switzerland of course, no minarets. Will you touch down on some of this?

CJ Of course, I hope Manifesta 11 will do just that, but I won’t do so as a curator who says, ‘You should work with minarets in Switzerland.’

AR As an artist, you have always had an intense interest in and a great facility for thinking about communication strategies. How are you thinking of marketing for Manifesta?

CJ The results of these collaborations are by their very nature unpredictable. So I felt that with this Manifesta, there’s a need for reflection. We will document the different steps of the project as well as the different obstacles during production in a series of collaborations between students and professional filmmakers. The films they will produce will follow a series of guidelines that I’ve developed.

These films will be presented at the ‘Pavillon of Reflections’, a venue floating on Lake Zürich that’s being designed by the architect Tom Emerson and his students from ETH Zürich. So, you’re there in the beautiful Swiss landscape on the lake, and then you see on the projection what actually took place.

The Pavillon of Reflections will function on many different levels. For the people in charge in Zürich, they’ll be on camera saying, ‘No, our bank will not do this, for this and this and this reason’ – you know, just to take the bank as the first example that comes into everyone’s head, but it’ll be the same with the other professions.

Two weeks prior to the opening of Manifesta 11, the artists will present their projects at private receptions for the professional groups they collaborated with. So there will be openings solely for policemen or only for – I don’t know who – for the hair salons or for the customs officers.

These openings will be documented and presented at the Pavillon of Reflections, so we can see how different businesses or these different professions or individuals interact with art. Whether they’re proud of it, how they identify with it, what they think of their colleagues. Then you can compare the way each project was received at the Pavillon of Reflections, because you’ll be on the lake, with a certain distance to Zürich.

AR You must have seen Kasper König’s St Petersburg Manifesta. What did you think?

CJ Good question. You know, there aren’t many people who could have done that Manifesta under those conditions. I think Kasper did the right thing in deciding not to stop the dialogue. It was actually the first Manifesta I saw, so I can’t compare it with any others. But I liked it. It was old school, but I like old school. After seeing it, though, one thing I decided is that I want to put more emphasis on new productions. 

For more on Manifesta 11 see here

This article first appeared in the May 2015 issue of ArtReview.

9 June 2016