Manifesta 11: an Interview with Hedwig Fijen

by Carla Ingrasciotta
May 25, 2016
Carla Ingrasciotta
Fijen Hedwig

On the occasion of our special issue on Manifesta 11 in Zurich, we had an interview with Hedwig Fijen, Founder of Manifesta and Director of Manifesta 11. The curatorial concept of this year’s edition “What people do for money?” focuses on the fields of work in Zurich and their relation to art.

Hedwig Fijen is founding director of Manifesta, the European Biennial of Contemporary art, since its origin in Rotterdam in 1993. Fijen is in charge of all aspects of the Manifesta organization including the selection of Host cities, thematic content and the curatorial selection. The final execution of the concept of the curators is her responsibility.

Carla Ingrasciotta: In which way the concept of Manifesta has developed since its foundation (Manifesta 1, Rotterdam, 1993). Which are the guidelines that still characterize the biennial and which are your expectations after this year’s edition?

Hedwig Fijen: Manifesta, the European Biennial of Contemporary Art, is a migratory biennial which aims to critically reflect upon the changing cultural DNA of Europe. This critical nature has been with us since Rotterdam. Every two years, Manifesta arrives in a new host city, explores the genius loci and serves as a think-tank for re-identifying how we in Europe live, work, think and see our future.
We still think artistic practices can have an impact on society but then we, artists and producers should join forces and should act in interdisciplinary and intergenerational ways. Especially now when Europe does not have a clear vision on many topics such as migration, how our cities become sustainable and the effect of climate change on how we live. The issue of this Manifesta 11 in Zurich is part of how artists and thinkers can give us a vision of how the world looks like when we are faced with the ultimate effects of automatisation, digitisation and robotisation. Maybe ‘What people do for money?’ becomes ‘What people do with having money but without work and how do our lives look like?’. We hope that this surprising playful concept of Christian Jankowski is triggering the right questions about the conflicts of today, the conflicts of how to monitor global changes today by not only leaving them to our politicians but also involving the audiences and ultimately we the visitors. Of course we should also be critical to our own world, the art world: What do We do for Money and what do we do in the art world without paying people?

C. I.:  Could you tell us more about the featured cover image (The Pavillon of Reflection) we selected for our issue on Manifesta 11?

H. F.: Pavillon of Reflections is a floating island with an open-air cinema and integrated swimming pool, which will constitute a new temporary landmark in the city. The aim of this architectural statement is to create a new, central location for the 100-day duration of the biennial: the pavilion will offer space for dialogue and reflection on the artworks created for the biennial and will also act as a meeting place for participants and visitors. It is being made in cooperation with 30 architecture students from ETH Zurich, led by Studio Tom Emerson: being designed and realised in a collective process by the students themselves.
What is worth highlighting are the films about the production of the new artworks, screened at the pavilion. These films are by “art detectives”, Swiss youngsters, who have followed the production processes as a third partner in the artistic concept development between artists and professionals. This has been a rare and unique experience, seeing that most of artistic processes are quite mythical and invisible for us, the audience. With the help of the films, one can experience the possible ups and downs, conflicts and joys of making an artwork.

C. I.: How did you chose this year’s thematic contents “What People Do for Money: Some Joint Ventures?” And in particular, why did you chose the theme of “Professions”. Which kind of reactions are you expecting from Manifesta 11’s audience?

H. F.: The theme was proposed and created by Curator, German video and conceptual artist Christian Jankowski. It’s the first time Manifesta was selecting an artist as a curator in an attempt to bring on the table direct interactive performative collaborations between artists and the audiences. His proposal was selected from 3 shortlisted candidates. The theme reflects his own artistic practice, which evolves around the concepts of collaboration, inclusion of non-art-professionals and criticism of mass media formats. Manifesta decided for Zurich because of its unique position as a neutral country in the heart of Europe, posing the question what does neutrality mean and how can we involve the Swiss audience about the concept of reciprocity and collaboration.

C. I.:  Could you tell us more about why you selected Zurich as Manifesta 11’s host city? In which way the city itself can contribute to engage visitors to the biennial? And how does Manifesta interact with Dada movement’s anniversary in Zurich?

H. F. : Just why Manifesta selected Zurich – Switzerland’s ‘global local city’, is somehow contradictory in its perception. Its linked to Europe and the world by capital, culture and football – and at the same time also rather nationalistic and inwards orientated. This choice of Zurich for 2016 is related to the question ‘where are we now?’: from the perspective of Zurich we would have an unusual vantage point on the current European status of crisis. Working on the biennial in Switzerland – a country that seems in some ways idyllic, with a system of direct democracy, four official languages and the highest of living standards – feels surreal as being on planet paradise, while Europe faces its most dramatic and urgent humanitarian crisis in terms of migration since the Second World War. But from this vantage point we can reassess our own role as eyewitness and a show to deal with the main crisis issues of our times mediated by artistic practices.
We are always challenging cities and citizens to look beyond the average and see their own city from the perspective of an artist or artistic mediator.
Our collaboration with the City of Zurich has been very close since the early days of the project. The city contributes to this edition of Manifesta not only with the participation of roughly 30 hosts and professions, but also by developing knowledge through the ETH and ZhDK universities as well as all sorts of representatives of Zurich-based communities: not only those who work for money, but also homeless, stateless and immigrants as well as people who are retired from their professions.
Manifesta interacts closely with the Dada anniversary. Our main biennial programme is concentrated on interactive collaborations and performances. Second the Cabaret Voltaire is turned into a guild for artists in which it will function as a place for performances where the visitor can propose a performance with a local citizen.

C. I.: Every two years you select a new team of curators and art professionals. One of the main theme of this year’s biennial is “collaboration” so, from the point of view of a Director, how is it working and collaborating with your team? And how did you select them?

H. F.: In each Manifesta I bring in a team of international professionals which is blending together with local professionals and we hope to create a synergised team of the best people in the field. Since Manifesta is like an advanced Uber, we act without a building and without a collection but are still challenged to develop the best experimental biennial exhibitions. The “start-up feeling” is very much integrated in our processes since we are only temporarily occupying the cities where Manifesta is held – and still aim to create a short- and long-term impact in the cities and communities. The team is selected, together with my permanent colleagues, of the most brightest and most creative people we can find, of pro-active and flexible spirits.

C. I. : Manifesta 11 will run at the same of Art Basel 2016. Which is the relationship between the two art events? In which way Manifesta should attract visitors in and outside Switzerland?

H. F. : We are collaborating with Art Basel on many levels: by bringing their guests to our biennial, and offering various programmes for their collectors during the opening of Art Basel. Also the fair launched a crowdfunding initiative, which has proved challenging.
We normally attract mostly local and regional people – an amount of 70% of our total visitors, but a minimum of 30% will be international professionals following us.

C. I.:  You already announced your next location in 2018, that will be Palermo in Italy. How does the process of choosing a new destination works?

H. F. : There are many cities in Europe still interested in hosting a Manifesta edition and I select the city which fits mostly in our strategic vision of how cities represent a certain stage of transformation or unique status quo in dealing with climate change and migration. This is why we are specifically interested in hosting Manifesta in cities around the Mediterranean, where the effect of migration because of climate change will be most visible and tangible on how we live in urban environments and how we organise our cities in the future. Sometimes we pro-actively look for cities or regions ourselves. After Manifesta 12 in Palermo, I am already preparing the grounds for M13 which is taking place in Marseille in 2020.

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