On the occasion of Manifesta 14, we interviewed Catherine Nichols, the creative mediator of this edition taking place in Prishtina, the heart of the Balkan countries. We asked her what it means to be a cultural mediator and what the projects are for the city and its citizens.
To begin the interview, could you introduce yourself and briefly outline your career to date, as curator, writer and arts and literary scholar, up to Manifesta 14? And what is distinctive about your curatorial practice?
When I moved to Berlin from Sydney back in 1999, I was intending to become a professor of German Studies or Comparative Literature. Not long after I finished by PhD, though, I took a chance sidestep into working in the field of visual arts through a rather fortuitous opening at the Nationalgalerie im Hamburger Bahnhof – Museum für Gegenwart – Berlin. I loved the job – and, in a way, being an interloper – from day one, so nearly twenty years later I’m still working in the visual arts. Since that first exhibition on contemporary art from Australia, where I worked as a curatorial assistant, I’ve curated many monographic and thematic art exhibitions in institutions across Germany, often working in a collaborative way. To name a couple of examples, I’ve worked on Almost Nothing. Minimalist Works from the Friedrich Christian Flick Collection, Beuys: We are the Revolution, Capital: Debt – Territory – Utopia for the Nationalgalerie im Hamburger Bahnhof – Museum für Gegenwart – Berlin and most recently Everyone is an Artist: Cosmopolitical Exercises with Joseph Beuys at K20 Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen in Düsseldorf. I’ve also curated numerous cultural history exhibitions on topics spanning from the Reformation to the passions, from the sun to sexuality. Before being invited to curate Manifesta 14, I was an artistic director of the Beuys 2021 centenary programme in North-Rhine Westphalia, a year-long centenary programme comprising some 30 cultural events in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia as well as an online radio station, a symposium and an interdisciplinary laboratory exploring radical democratic forms of collectivity. Writing plays a crucial part in my thought process. Projects for me don’t feel quite complete unless they’re accompanied by a book. Sometimes, as in the case of Black Mountain: An Interdisciplinary Experiment, 1933–1957, I’ve focused on the book alone. What’s distinctive about my curatorial practice is its transdisciplinarity, its open-ended restlessness, its greater allegiance to the principles of poetry and thought than to art-historical categories and objectives and a desire to explore the fluidity of exhibition as form and format.
For the fourteenth edition of Manifesta you were chosen as Creative Mediator: what does it mean to be the cultural mediator of Manifesta 14 and how does it differ from being appointed as a curator?
Ever since Manifesta 12 Palermo, the European Nomadic Biennial has focused its efforts more and more on working as an incubator of new ideas, mentalities and transformations. As Manifesta director Hedwig Fijen put it to me when we first spoke, creative mediators are not invited to act as an exhibition makers, but rather to respond to a complex set of objectives formulated by the people living in a given city, in this instance Prishtina, and to listen to and critically engage with all manner of different stakeholders, whether artists, architects, urbanologists, sociologists, writers, historians, thinkers, activists, workers, students or schoolchildren.
Before and after Prishtina’s successful bid to host Manifesta, people from across the cultural landscape got together to talk about what such a large-scale international project could bring to – or take away from – the city, about the scope for supporting or strengthening existing processes of social and urban transformation or instigating new ones, about the ideas that people had for different sites, the projects they were working on and the question of how a research-based biennial programme could be beneficial in the short and long term. My task was to pull these strands together and work with everyone towards realising two main objectives formulated as part of the pre-biennial process: one, reclaiming public spaces long held hostage to political repression and privatisation and tow, collaboratively bringing forth a long-term alternative interdisciplinary model of an artistic institution that would involve artists, neighbourhoods and communities: the Centre for Narrative Practice. So, while there are many, many works of art exhibited within the biennial, the overall task extends well beyond merely assembling works in space.
This year, Prishtina was chosen as the host city for Manifesta 14. Did you know this city, or Kosovo in general, before working with Manifesta?
No, I’d never been to Prishtina before being invited to visit the city last August. As is the case for many other people, I had primarily read about Kosovo in the context of the war against Serbia and the ensuing quest for sovereignty and accession to the European Union. From some of my curatorial colleagues, I had heard a little bit about the film and electronic music scenes, about the growing visual arts scene, which had also made its presence felt at documenta 14, about the layers of history inscribed in the urban landscape, Ottoman, socialist and turbocapitalist, and about the warmth and energy of the people. So, it has been a steep learning curve for me. People have been extremely helpful in providing me with access to research and information and helping me to orient myself quickly. Apart from the findings of the lengthy pre-biennial research process, online resources such as Kosovo 2.0 and the Kosovo Oral History Initiative have been invaluable. For anyone seeking a more profound understanding Kosovo’s recent history and current concerns, I really recommend starting there.
Kosovo is a state that is as small as it is emblematic, fascinating, rich in history and uneasy historical events, a crossroads of different cultures and a host country for different communities. How does your curatorial practice fit in with this city and how does it have to adapt to the territory?
The more time I spend in Prishtina, the more I understand the ambivalent experiences people have had in their attempts to reclaim and sustain any kind of hold on public space, the frustration at the lack of cultural institutions and scant resources, the stifling familiarity of insularity, the urgent desire for cultural encounter, people’s aspiration to acknowledge and yet not be solely defined by post-conflict narratives, their will to situate the richness and complexity of local stories at the heart of the biennial, and the obstacles people face, as much in making and showing art as in gaining access to education, as much in moving around the city as in travelling beyond the borders of Kosovo, a country held hostage to the issue of visa liberalisation and accession to the European Union.
For me as a curator, it’s not so much the scale of the project that is new, but rather the challenge – and opportunity – to be working in such a profoundly situated manner, to be embedded within a vast team of local and international people, to have such in-depth urbanological and historiographic research at my disposal – and to be entrusted with the responsibility of responding to explicitly articulated objectives pertaining to the social fabric not only of a city but also of a country and a region. The task is not to add a temporary layer to a run-down hotel, a defunct brick factory, a burnt-out stadium or an abandoned cinema, but to involve the whole community in reconnecting with the sites, recognising them as their own, in reactivating, reimagining and ultimately reclaiming them.
The title “It Matters What Worlds Worlds: How to Tell Stories Otherwise” makes us realise that the pivotal theme of Manifesta 14 is the importance of telling stories, better if these stories are collective in order to assume political and social power. How are the stories told by the artists of Manifesta 14 creating, together with local and regional communities, alternative models of social-cultural, urban and artistic engagement?
The theme of Manifesta 14 came into being when I recognised that the people I was meeting in Prishtina were using storytelling practices to grapple for better or for worse with old and new mythologies, or to imagine other scenarios for the future – in other words, to stay with the trouble, to tell stories otherwise. That’s not to say that the differently told stories are per se good – only to highlight the transformative power of storytelling.
The biennial participants work in multifarious ways with narrative practices. Since there are over 100 different approaches, not to mention the newly founded Centre for Narrative Practice or [Working on] Common Ground, a centre for eco-urban learning established by raumlaborberlin at the fascinating post-industrial site of the Brick Factory, it’s difficult to answer succinctly. Installations like Cevdet Erek’s, which explores the archaeological layers of the Rilindja Press Palace, its history as a printing house, a space for experimental music and a site of abandonment, or Petrit Halilaj’s, which reimagines the symbolism of the stars on the Grand Hotel, one of Prishtina’s most iconic and most stagnant buildings, involve communities by reactivating an awareness of the “ghosts of privatisation”, to cite journalist Cristina Mari, and inviting people to help reimagine new functionalities and futures for them.
Other interventions work with communities in a very immediate, tangible manner, for example Alicja Rogalska’s Sister Flats, which works with women’s and human rights organisations to explore and shift the familiar story of economic oppression through speculative practices in the domestic sphere, or The Name Comes Last collective’s long-term community engagement process Pass the Torch in Fushë Kosovë, a small town to the south-east of Prishtina. The objective of the community activists is to empower young people from the town’s Roma, Egyptian and Ashkali communities to find, make and run a community space of their own.