Manifesta Curator Cuauhtemoc Medina on Rethinking Art History to Bring the Roving Biennale to Belgium

Manifesta 09 at the André Dumont coal mining complex, in Waterschei
(© Photo: Nicolai Hartvig)

With the launch of Manifesta 9 now complete, its head curator Cuauhtémoc Medina feels “a little bit wrecked.” Staging this latest edition of the roving European biennale, alongside fellow curators Dawn Ades and Katerina Gregos, has been an 18-month exercise in rethinking the biennale format and inserting art into the industrial legacy of Belgium’s Limburg region.

“On the one hand, you feel that a year and a half to create a biennial is too short. On the other hand, you feel lucky because if it took any longer, it would kill you. You have to have a deadline,” Medina told ARTINFO France from his home in Mexico City, before going on to discus the social and cultural implications of production, the desire for curatorial control, and how to break the biennale mould.


This is the first Manifesta to be held in a single venue, the André Dumont coal mining complex in Waterschei, near Genk. How did you approach structuring and curating this edition?

There are different reasons [for this structure]. One has to do with the general speed of the project and our experimenting with how to break the standard model of biennials that purely exhibit contemporary artists, without any internal logic. It’s the notion of a project that tries to have a grammar and an exhibition-like mode of operation, in terms of presenting a possible unity of different elements. It was logical for it to be in one single location.

Second, the reason why many biennials sprawl across a very wide variety of spaces has to do with the prevalence of two modalities of our practice: site-specific interventions and community-based projects. One aspect of this show was an attempt to limit those practices, since very frequently in recent years, they had been somehow academicized and had lost their political poignancy. We decided not to delegate to the artists the achievement of the biennale’s two functions: the task of establishing a conceptual dialogue with the location and establishing a social network.

And third, this building was so extraordinary and so significantly large that it seemed appropriate not to go beyond it. It is an incredibly dignified industrial building and a signifier. It conveys not only the economic center but also the point of origin of the whole civil structure of Genk. The building seems to suggest that it has this political and social function beyond the mere intention of producing.

“Dignified” is an intriguing word for a building that was an industrial lynchpin, but today seems like an anachronism. Miners are no longer the heroes and our socio-economic structures have changed. Was part of your discourse here designed to redeem values of the past?

When I call attention to the dignified character of this building, I’m describing something that intends to be a palace of industry of a certain kind. The exterior could be that of a very significant hospital or school, or maybe of a very important train station in a capital. All those elements really have to do with exemplifying a certain social power.

The exhibition doesn’t want to just look into the past but to actually, hopefully, make people aware of echoes between different eras. The architecture of contemporary companies and industries displays similar goals of establishing social institutions, though of a different kind. Despite changes in technologies, appearance, and scale, there are certain questions asked by artists throughout the last two centuries that all relate to how the structures of production create cultural wealth.

Production is a theme that runs across the exhibition’s three floors, though each is very individualized — there’s a purely local-historical section, a section devoted to commentary on modern art, and a section with a wider, contemporary perspective. But the conversations criss-cross in a non-obvious way. Some works use coal and are tied to mining, but many are more subtle and timeless. How did you approach creating these correspondences?

The thing that unites the three members of the team — Katerina Gregos, Dawn Ades, and I — is a passion for exhibition-making and the experience of exhibitions as an intellectual form. We invested a lot of time in our choices and decisions concerning the distribution of works and the installation, to create both rather visible and more esoteric or obscure connections, inviting audiences into this layered and rich structure. It is genuinely a matter of trusting that you have an audience that is able to process very sophisticated forms of cultural cross-reference.

Similarly, the reason we decided to make the catalogue in the form of an encyclopedia had to do with an underlying interest in connections that are not necessarily to be developed into a narrative. We had to work to produce the texture of the exhibition beyond mere associations. Although there was a moment when we thought of mixing the material a little bit more, we decided to opt for a very clear differentiation, even in terms of the styles of presentation. To both involve the audience in thinking that these are three exhibitions on their own, and also to see what we could achieve by means of memory, or repetitions and reverberations.

Is this a a way of re-evaluating history through art? Or is the biennial focused on defining modern art?

We wanted to make the art-historical materials reflect on contemporary practice. We were hoping to produce an alternative history of modern art that also had, I don’t know if I should call it pedagogical, but let’s say a mediating effect on the rest of the exhibition. We have a team of moderators who consider other paths through the exhibition, such as the question of the displacement of capitalist and industrial structures to the East, or the residue of found practices and their relationship to historical circumstances.

We also made certain groupings in the contemporary section that are more related to the proximity of certain works. Though it is not indicated, these clusters produce an impression of works coming together around the same problems. We had this space that communicates sound, so we could hear works in the distance and some works were connecting genealogically. Particularly the effects of Alberto Calvacanti’s sound experimentation and how his interests are taken in by, for instance, Mikhail Karikis and Uriel Orlow’s fantastic, operatic film. There is a little bit of an intention that people should find these mental or physical connections.

This is most evident in Nemanja Cvijanovi?’s “Monument to the Memory of the Idea of an Internationale,” where the sound begins as a tiny music box melody on the top floor and emerges through a wall of sound outside the building, heard throughout the exhibition. It is almost ghostly.

It is indeed the intention of Nemanja’s piece to have a phantasmagoric character. It has this interactive aspect where the audience activates a massive sound effect by turning the lever of the little music box, walking up from downstairs and somehow becoming guilty of starting the whole process. Both the artist and the piece ended up being a very important element of the structure of the show. I think we never tried to avoid the need for an explicit structural communication — but at the same time there are a number of sensible and poetic effects that move beyond the sphere of pedagogical experience. I've reached the conclusion that the mystery inherent in some artworks is enhanced by avoiding an esoteric approach, by actually working with a position that is down to earth and allows the artwork to display something that, in effect, is not easy to represent.

The statement accompanying the exhibition says that it “proposes to redirect the course of Manifesta toward an advocacy of art production.” On the top floor, the excesses of production are seen in Jota Izguierdo’s installation “Capitalismo Amarillo: Special Economic Zone,” which includes counterfeit brand-name luxury goods. The art market and luxury markets have grown ever closer. Are there invisible lines drawn within the exhibition to this theme as well?

It’s a very interesting question and it had not occurred to me that that could be an implication. The exhibition is hopeful about artistic practice, to avoid skepticism. Indeed, there is a level of recklessness with which the commercial and media-oriented art world, in recent years but also in the 1980s and 1960s, seems to consider the production of art as a problem on its own terms.

One clear decision with the exhibition was not to put emphasis on an economic reading, on the sphere of representation of capitalism today, the financial markets and the art market, things that have less to do with the question of production and poetics than with the question of fetishization and seduction. If you look at a performance by Tino Sehgal, it is interesting that he has managed to dematerialize everything except the price, which remains pretty safely material. In a way, the exhibition does not depart from the belief that dematerialization equals resistance. But it is also not trying to refuse the space of cultural production as such. On the contrary, it is trying to suggest that it has a certain historiographical value, that even the most commercial practices have the task of bearing witness to what the world is.