Can Art Be Political? Regarding the Controversy Surrounding Manifesta 6

Can art be political? Judging by the problems that Manifesta 6, the European Biennial of Contemporary Arts, has encountered with its next venue, the answer is yes! Moreover, this plain affirmation looks like an understatement in a context where politicians like to affirm their separation from culture but where they still have the power to censor a cultural project. The next Manifesta, an exhibition founded and aimed towards a larger Europe that already took place in Rotterdam, Luxembourg, Ljubljana, Frankfurt, and Donostia-San Sebastian, was supposed to happen between September 17 and December 23, 2006, in Nicosia (Cyprus), a culturally and politically divided country, which, partly because of its division, is not well endowed in terms of cultural events.

Given the complexities of the venue, the three curators selected this time for the upcoming exhibition–Mai Abu ElDahab from Cairo; Russian-born, New York-based Anton Vidokle; and German critic and editor Florian Waldvogel–wanted to revisit Manifesta and give this “Biennial in the age of Biennials” a new form. The new version Manifesta would be more than a mere art exhibition by establishing a different timetable.

It is said that the last Manifestas weren’t very well received and were sometimes stigmatized for conducting an “official” policy of the arts at the local level (looking at what’s happening in Cyprus, that may well have been true!). This fact, combined with the context of Cyprus itself, persuaded this year’s team of curators to try something else. They decided to use the 100 days of Manifesta as a platform for a social and cultural experiment that would also provide visibility for today’s artistic practices and that would engage a whole range of cultural, theoretical and social components.

The idea was to open a school in this part of the Mediterranean world, which is geographically closer to the Middle-East than to Western Europe. It would operate at the same time and within the same space as Manifesta, replacing the exhibition “event” and the individual artistic practices with a form of collective exchange. This would also open up the question of spectatorship. The idea was to bring together applicants from the Middle East; North-Africa; the East and the South of Europe; from places recently touched by civil, interethnic or religious wars; and of course, from Cyprus itself. An open call for participants was issued, artists and curators were prepared to staff the school.

Not wanting to take sides in local politics, the curators insisted that part of the school be located outside of the U.N.-controlled demilitarized Green Line, in the part of Nicosia occupied by the Turkish military since 1974. Other related events and residencies were to take place in both sectors, involving the Greek and Turkish communities. The curators also insisted on recruiting students from both parts of Cyprus. Since the North Turkish Republic of Cyprus and its government are not recognized under international law, the Cypriot parties entrusted with organizing Manifesta 6 were recruited from the Greek-Cypriot authorities. The budget came to 1,8 million euros, with one million provided by NFA (Nicosia for Art Ltd.), a special entity set up by representatives from the Municipality of Nicosia and the Cypriot Ministry of Culture and Education to administer Manifesta 6. Other funds would be provided by international organizations, including the European Community.

More than the Bauhaus or the Soviet Vhutemas, the reference myth for the planned school was the interdisciplinary Black Mountain College in North Carolina, together with the experiments of the Fluxus Group in Germany and New York. To my mind, it would have been interesting to engage in a discussion of these myths of origin, and of the project as a whole, after the opening of the school. However, now any debate is meaningless since the situation between the NFA and the curators has deteriorated so much, with the Mayor of Nicosia firing the curators and breaking the contract with Manifesta. By insisting that the art school be located in North Nicosia, he “made a political issue out of a purely legal matter”.

First one of the curators, Abu ElDahab, left Cyprus at the end of May 2006 because she did not have a work permit and her visa had expired. Then the two curators left in Cyprus, Vidokle and Waldvogel, were accused of breaching the confidentiality of their discussions with the municipality of Nicosia. Though the Greek-Cypriot organizers had agreed that Manifesta 6 would take place in both sectors, the plan to establish a new school in the Turkish-controlled part of the island seemed obviously too much. The NFA, headed by the city’s mayor, Michael Zampelas, cancelled Manifesta 6 because, according to him, establishing a department of the school in the occupied part of Nicosia created a conflict with certain aspects of Cypriot and International law.

In its statement announcing the cancellation of Manifesta 6, Nicosia for Art said it would “take all necessary steps to claim damages from both the International Foundation Manifesta and from the team of curators”. In Cyprus, a petition was launched that urged “the curators, the International Foundation Manifesta and other contributing organizations to seek ways to independently realize the project in all of Nicosia”. The Manifesta Foundation in Amsterdam stated that any “allegations by Nicosia for Art that Manifesta wishes to operate in an illegal manner are entirely unjustifiable and unacceptable.” The Foundation decided to set up a legal defence fund which was announced at a press conference during ArtBasel on June 14. It was announced that the International Foundation Manifesta and the curators were now being individually attacked by Nicosia officials. “Moreover,” Manifesta officials were quoted as saying, this legal action is aimed at preventing any part of the project from being realized in any form, anywhere, at any future date.”

On July 5, summary proceedings were held between the Manifesta Foundation and Nicosia for Art before the President of the Rotterdam District Court. The conclusion of these proceedings was that both parties will try to reach an amicable solution. Says Vidokle, “I think there will be a settlement, but not one that would enable the project to happen. Nicosia has almost unlimited legal resources and they are determined to erase the project. The best we can expect is that the legal cases are dropped.”

Elisabeth Lebovici is a critic, curator, and author. She lives and works in Paris.