Maria Vasilieva of Manifesta 4

Maria Vassileva worked on the team that organized last year’s Manifesta 4 in Frankfurt/M.. She was born in 1961 in Sofia, Bulgaria. She graduated in art history from the Art Academy, Sofia in 1984. Vassileva specialised at the Museum of Modern Art, New York (1998) and at the Institute of the History of Art at the University in Rochester, the USA (1999). She is a founding member of the Institute of Contemporary Art – Sofiam, and Chief Curator at the Sofia Art Gallery. She currently teaches the History of Contemporary Art at the Art Academy in Sofia, and since 1998 has been the curator of the women’s group “The 8th of March”. Her latest large exhibition is “Export-Import. Contemporary Art from Bulgaria” currently running in the Sofia Art Gallery (March 2003).

Sven Spieker: How did you become involved in the Manifesta project?

Maria Vasilieva: The RAVE Foundation announced three scholarships for curators (from transforming and developing countries) to work for Manifesta 4, and three of us, with Denis Romanovski from Minsk and Florian Agalliu from Tirana, had been recommended by the curators. That is how we got there.

S. S.: What did you see as your main role in working on the curatorial team for MANIFESTA?

M. V.: The three of us were involved in all activities that made Manifesta 4 possible. I can list some of them: meeting and assisting the participating artists during their visits in Frankfurt (one preliminary meeting to discuss the idea, the space, and other technical details, and one more for the opening), working on the catalog, short-guide, video leaflet and supplements.

I’ d like to underline this brilliant idea – ten days after the opening, the images of the works shown in Manifesta 4 had been published in the form of post cards. These cards accompany the catalog and in this way Manifesta 4 is one of the few biennials where one can see the actual works published immediately after the opening.

We even worked on the invitations and labels. We participated in establishing “The Room” – a project within the project (also called the Research Room or Archive) in which more that 700 folders with information about artists who had been met by the curators during their research travel have been organized and exhibited for public access. This is practically the biggest archive of contemporary art currently in existence, and it is in the possession of the Manifesta Foundation.

We assisted one of the participants, Daniel Garcia Andujar, on maintaining the Trespassing Space (a specially pre-arranged place for meetings, discussions, presentations, and library holdings) and the alternative web-site, www.e-manifesta.org.

The whole time we worked in very close collaboration, including discussions and brain storming with the curators of Manifesta 4. Sometimes, when we had a more administrative type of task, we worked with its General Coordinator, and of course with other people from the Manifesta 4 team.

S. S.: Manifesta is organized by a curatorial team. Did you see such team-work as an advantage? Or does it become difficult to produce a coherent curatorial concept?

MV: Unfortunately, there is a myth that it is impossible for people who do not know each other in advance to collaborate peacefully. The curatorial team of Manifesta 4 disproved this judgment. For example, they didn’t announce and even didn’t write a general concept, not because they had a problem with the “language of the other,” but because they were really committed to not reproducing such a concept. That was, by the way, the main point of the attacks against them.

It was difficult mostly for the journalist to understand the risk that the curators took – to compose a show without a “big conceptual idea”; to first propose the exhibition, but not apply works to a theoretical basis. The concept was that there is no one important, basic, bright trend in contemporary art that “demands” to be underlined.

The curators mentioned that several times, as well, that there are no outstanding works. That’s why the exhibition was built on the principle of balance. There were no “important” or “less important” pieces. That helped them to make the four main venues of Manifesta 4 of the same significance, and to make the Kunstverein in the center of Frankfurt as important as the Frankenstainer Hof – an unknown place, specially renovated by Manifesta 4.

Of course, as everywhere, when more than one person is responsible for something, there was night and day dialogue – to convince the others, to learn, to lose, and to win.

Manifesta 4 was more than one year of non-stop brainstorming, conversations, discussions, and elegant battles between the curators, between curators and financial department, between curators and artists, etc.Every team is different and there is no one recipe to make it work smoothly. I consider myself lucky to work for Manifesta 4, where the bon tone was kept till the very end. That was very related to the high productivity of the whole team.

S. S.: How would you characterize the participation of artists from South-Eastern Europe in last year’s MANIFESTA? What did they bring to the exhibition? Or would you say that these artists cannot be referred to as a “group” in any way?

M. V.: If you were there, no such a question would come to your mind. I am sure it was not Manifesta 4’s main goal to show the differences between East and West (which is already a concept). The curators’ decision was just to select and present good art (from their point of view) and different artistic approaches.

Their curiosity lead them in their attempts to find the most interesting and different works, as well as the way to create an exhibition that will show the variety of trends in contemporary art. That’s why Manifesta 4 exhibited photos, objects, performances, installations, sight specific installations, posters, newspaper, paintings, murals, video, video installation, net art. Even the cafeteria was a piece of art. That was the leading principle, not regional or national characteristics.

S. S.: MANIFESTA was held in Frankfurt for the first time. What was your impression of the interaction between the city space(s) and the various MANIFESTA venues?

M. V.: As Iara Boubnova once mentioned, this exhibition would never be the same if it was created in another place. That was obvious, of course, in the site-specific projects, and less visible in the other works. Some of the artists were invited to participate in Manifesta 4 with pieces that were ready. Others were invited to create new works especially for Manifesta 4. The latter, of course, produced their works inspired by particular situations in Frankfurt, or by particular place.

The artists used the river Main, the famous Main Train Station, and the even more famous Frankfurt Airport as inspiration and referential topics. Also, Andreja Kuluncic and Luchezar Boyadjiev used billboards and citylights at the bus stops and in the subway stations for their works. The curators also invited Institut fuer Kulturantropologie and Europaische Ethnologie, based in Frankfurt, to actively participate in the show. One of their products was to put signboards on important places in the city with some explanations that I am sure were interesting, new, and provocative even for the citizens of Frankfurt.

S. S.: Many people have commented on the relationship between Documenta and Manifesta. In most reviews, the comparison worked to the disadvantage of Manifesta. All facile alignments aside, what is, in your view, the relationship between both projects?

M. V.: Except for the fact that several artists participated in the both projects, it is hard to find similarities. Of course, it was very comfortable, especially for the visitors from abroad, to see both events so closely aligned with one another.

The two projects are totally different in their concept and form, and Manifesta 4 is smaller in “size” and budget; it is more mobile than Documenta. Manifesta is also oriented more towards the youngest generation; one of its goals is to discover new names and that’s why it is freer in its choices and even in its mistakes. The two teams didn’t interacted, but at the day of the opening of Manifesta 4, the curatorial team received a telegram from the team of Documenta with congratulations (and vice versa).

S. S.: It seems as if many artists who participated in this year’s Documenta investigated art, quite literally, as “document.” Was there a similar “documentary imperative” at work at Manifesta?

M. V.: What I am trying to underline is there was no one trend in Manifesta4. There were documentary pieces, but also a lot of other type of works: exquisite, almost meaningless, objects (Tobias Putrih, Jan Mancuska), labyrinth installations (Monika Sosnovska, Sancho Silva), self-made “playful and anarchistic” objects installation (ROR – Revolution on Request), kitchy objects and pictures (oil o canvas!) by Alban Hajdinaj.

There were also claustrophobic spaces by Massimo Bartolini, “cut and paste” Guernica by Ibon Aranberry, located on the river bank, videos, based on real situations (Kalin Serapionov, Yael Bartana, Halil Altindere) or based on directed situations (Olivier Barden, Luchezar Boyadjiev, Jeanne Faust, Jon Mikel Euba) or on edited and manipulated material (Pierre Bismuth, Gerard Byrne).

As well, there were the strange, architectural videos of Jonas Dahlberg, incredibly beautiful color photos in an “Etruscan style” by Bleda y Rosa or nonspectacular but trying to discover the inner image of the big city, photos by Nina Fischer & Maroan El Sani, strange murals by Anna Gudmundsdottir, the solo submarine in the river Main by Antal Lakner or the oranges, jumping from the river water by Jasper van den Brink.

As you can imagine the visitor of Manifesta 4 could experienced quite different emotions, from enjoyment and delight to puzzling and sorrow, from suspense to real laugh.

S. S.: What, or where, is the role of the so-called new media in Manifesta?

M. V.: They appeared in their natural way. Not counting the net-project by Nomeda and Gediminas Urbonas and some presentations of net-projects from Davide Grassi, 0100101110101101.ORG and APSOLUTNO, the new technology was used in a very practical way for the two Web sites of Manifesta4: the official one and the one designed and maintained by one of the participant artists to provide free space for reflections.

The Internet was also the main weapon of Sal Randolf. She won her participation in Manifesta 4 through an Ebay auction, and used it to arrange her Free-Manifesta project. If we still count video as a new technology, it was widely distributed, used not only for the purpose of art-for-art’s sake, but also to document the event in the video documentation tape, produced by ZAPP Magazine.

There was a special section called Video-program, organized in a controversial, but quite beautiful way. In a huge exhibition hall, five big screens were “falling” from the ceiling. The visitor could freely move from one to the other with cordless headphones. I cannot say that in Manifesta 4 there was an accent on new media, but these kinds of products were not separated (isolated) in a special place or additional program. They were just a part of the whole as they are in the real life.

S. S.: How can, in your view, the future role of Manifesta be defined?

M. V.: As normal, non-monstrous, biennial, vivid and innovative.

Sven Spieker
Sven Spieker is a founding editor of ARTMargins. Spieker specializes in European modernism, with an emphasis on the Eastern European avant-gardes, postwar and contemporary literature and art, especially in Eastern and Central Europe. Spieker's publications include Destruction (ed., MIT Press/Whitechapel 2017); The Big Archive: Art from Bureaucracy (MIT Press, 2008; Korean translation, 2013); The Imprints of Terror: The Rhetoric of Violence and the Violence of Rhetoric in Modern Russian Culture (ed., with Anna Brodsky and Mark Lipovetsky, Vienna, 2006); Bürokratische Leidenschaften. Kultur- und Mediengeschichte im Archiv (ed., Kadmos, 2004). Spieker teaches at the University of California, Santa Barbara (USA) and lives in Los Angeles and Berlin.