A Burning Collateral Event – EXILE at the 5x5x5 Program for Manifesta 12 in Palermo

  • 15.08.2018

“May the bridges I burn light the way,” the title of the project curated by María Inés Plaza Lazo in collaboration with Alina Kolar, Christian Siekmeier and me for the 5x5x5 collateral events of the Manifesta, The European Biennial of Contemporary Art, starts with a twofold meaning. It presages a sense of extreme radicalism, the hope to ignite the decision to break away from styles, structures or expectations of the past. The shared ideal, or at least the one we tried to embrace for this project, is circular and multiple, deviant and complex; it tries to sing along to multi-gaze trajectories and new languages to imagine a new social system, full of rhizomatic roads of interspecificities, a variety of characters, genders, religious and political orientations. Troubles and turbulent fluxes have always enabled the possibility to re-organize the social realm, showing how we’ve tried to avoid the capitalization and confinement of inner forces and individual experiences. The artistic, critical approach undertaken in “May the bridges I burn light the way” treads aside from the paths of ever-existent—but nowadays resurgent—self-confinement supporters, populism advocates, wall developers, imagination torturers; in order to analyze the power of hidden collectivity. Through observing human relations with artworks we can predict the outcome of the phenomena: art can organize the gateway to utopian resistance. The exhibition was conceived as a summer camp and not as a mere display of selected artworks— unpredictable, staked with a collectively shaped momentum, imagined as specific community within the historic and popular Ballarò market—it attempted to be an example of a deliberate approach to intermix the two poles of the neoliberal economic system: survival and luxury.

The summer camp as a point of departure for an alternative definition of the exhibition, right in the middle of social transformations in the art system, should be understood as a modus vivendi that invites everyone to approach it as such, to experience the encounter with the self, with the other(s), and with the unknown. In appropriating the definition of a summer camp—the primary purpose of which would be of educational, athletic, or cultural character—for a critical project on how art circulates today, the other, the stranger, becomes the determining figure within the realm of exchange. In other words, confrontation as expected in an exhibition space turns into an act of not individual but collective change. In fact, “May the bridges I burn light the way” grew from the long-term cohabitation of a multitude of artistic practices, curatorial approaches, personal issues outside and within the biennial framework of the Manifesta. The process opens up to the pivotal and not foregone complexity that should characterize the world, and following this, the exhibition space turns into an anomalous context for the ordinary. The process of building a community is fractured—yet not interrupted—by moments of tension, confrontation, resolution, improvisation. Individual elements within the community must surrender to becoming elastic, able to withstand pressure and adapt while maintaining their intrinsic qualities. In a historical moment like the one we are experienceing, where the adulation and the exaltation of the “always the same” is the rule, a summer camp, in its incalculable composition, tests those who undertake it through the eradication of the hierarchical structures and their horizontal rapprochement as an attitude of refraction futurability.

The impossible task of reporting what we experienced during the days in Palermo, already represents a reduction in terms of a pivotal question that arose for me: Does the world still need art as it is nowadays? In order to respond, it is necessary to look back to the choice we made to work this way. Why exhibit in a marketplace? Ballarò, specifically, a secular place of buying and selling and cultural intersection is also a witness to the hegemony of globalization and its consequences. Despite the induced flatness that exists within the economic and social systems, sparkles of otherness are what the eyes of the traders are imbued with every hard working day. Many of the activities that still exist owe it to the deadly folklore sought by tourism, whose only real exchange is that of the banknote. For us, instead, the first challenging and stimulating moment was contact, human contact, that we as a heterogeneous group, needed to renegotiate and settle with the owners of shops and stands daily. Every day spent there we gained respect, trust and proximity from the locals, who accepted us having a temporary show in their habitat. The difficulty we encountered during the summer camp was not founded in the fact of us being strangers, but instead in comprehending our behaviour in relation to the enigmatic, for the majority, matter that is art. If human relationships can be reinforced by sensibility and routine, the diffidence of the vendors is situated in the supposed separation between art and life.

Unconsciousness of which kind of good art is, among the tradeable goods, because of the shady space it inhabits within the market, makes the traders less aware, perhaps the continuous contact with it proved to them the slightest difference that exists between their and our doing. The works of art, unknown realities in their raison d’être were seen by the inhabitants of Ballarò as extra-ordinary, non-communitarian, the inverse of what they are for us. In fact, some of them feared that our work would influence their own or that it would bear some political agency from which one must quickly distance oneself. How to explain to them that Manifesta, as well as many other biennials, are nothing more than a showroom where the trends of the future world—ergo the capital to be invested—are juggled?

We tried to explain it through the cohabitation of necessary goods and works. The artist Paul Sochacki, observing how of arts and goods belong to the same market system, established an artistic and economic collaboration with a Nigerian refugee who lives in Palermo. Humphrey Idouzee, creative and fashion designer in the old as in the new homeland, sold for him, as a gallery owner, fruit as works of art. They and we were equally open to a mutual confrontation of opinions and experiences, communicating the point of the artworks and observing how their interpretations enriched our ideas, while providing them with an economic benefit that they actually needed. The respect that we were granted was twofold, because of the model of old-fashioned bourgeois wealth that we appeared to have, for example being in able to stay there, sustaining ourselves, but also because of the physical process of installing and de-installing every day. In these terms, through the vehicle of art we raised an increasing cohesion between the group of artists and the inhabitants of Ballarò, due to our diversity but sameness of efforts. Sharing fatigue was our common ritual and one of the means of the respect we felt for each other. An example of this success is “The Flaming Bar,” created by the artist Iris Touliatou after researching the medieval almanacs that document the poisons and cures sold at the market centuries ago. It used to be a small kiosk run by the Schillace brothers, that through the site-specific intervention of Raffaela Naldi Rossano turned into a “reevaluated” site, a meeting point for locals and visitors, like us. One day, the elder of the owners told me: “I would also like to do what you do, but I have to support my family. I hope that other beautiful people, well-dressed, clean, polite, will populate this little square, it should always be like this.” And while saying this, he organized a tasty afternoon barbecue, to earn some extra money and to delight all the other people suddenly present in the derelict and marvellous square of Carmine Maggiore. The smoke, the smell of meat, the accumulated plastic plates we produced together with the big new family of Ballarò framed the scattered works all around such as Kinga Kielczynska’s half-machinic half-natural car installation full of waste from Palermo’s public gardens, paper ready-made luxury goods displayed on a temporary stand by Albrecht Pischel, Zoë Claire Miller’s nude portrait sessions with vegetables and fruit behind a curtain, Federico Del Vecchio’s stacked orange peel ashtray “Capri,” the Utopian Union book launch, the stunning market goddess personified by the artist Nschotschi Haslinger and Sarah Lehnerer’s poster depicting a picture of herself, half naked, with a t-shirt on with a picture of her daughter. Art and people mingled to create a new perspective; getting our hands dirty and making ourselves not the interpreters of the reality which we wanted to take form, nor saviours and benefactors, but laborers as ordinary as a market. Elmar Mellert achieved this through his performative installation, which involved washing the dirty clothes of traders, artists and the general public, collecting the essence of everyone’s dirt in a washing machine and making a considerable ice cube out of it.

The anthropologist Margaret Mead suggests a solution for one of the main problems of our culture by learning how new strategies of union between basic human concerns and experiences that take place in a limited time (like artistic ones) can work out. The problems this can solve are numerous: “they imply the balancing between the ephemeral, the highly perishable of the immediate forms and those that must have a sufficient duration to become strong and valid and embrace the whole without at the same time flattering the diversity.” It would be pretentious and naïve to imagine to have brought about a cultural turning point via art, especially in such a short time and in a city like Palermo, where the cohabitation between cultures and “l’arte di saper’ campare” were traditions and vocations even before the strategization of contrast and diversity. The process is still ongoing, but approaching this turning point, we were all shocked, enthusiastic, stunned, because we reflected each other and exalted the cultural and social differences that characterize us. We came out into the open, where we re-evaluated our prejudices, our stereotypes and the need to reimagine ourselves and rethink the art of the future that we need.

It’s impossible to recap in words what “May the bridges I burn light the way” was. It was imperfect and human, but it was also far more than I expected in terms of artistic impetus and learning. It was proof that art can survive outside the established white cube, indeed it gains force and new energy. It was an invitation to gain an overview outside the canon, a new, imaginative and radical nourishment for art. Through improvisation, experimentation and care, representing the attitude all generations to come should have, new forms that intersect relationships between the highly privileged and the immensely unlucky will be developed. The ice between art, artists and spectators today, by trial and error will be melted collectively.

Uprooting and rooting possible formats for activities that genuinely involve people outside the group of of those who reveal and never doubt, taking standards less seriously, burning many bridges could be revealing. This is why the summer camp “May the bridges I burn light the way” proved to be much more than a possible exhibition format. It demonstrated the need for every single professional attitude, sensitivity and culture. It reignited the will to question established and systemic positions, to give space to diversity without distorting it, in order to create a harmonious and singular composition. The models of the future and new structures for existence can only grow in this choral way; not the solo voice of a privileged class, but the shared, accepted privilege to collide, break, doubt will re-structure the understanding of togetherness.

*Read the Italian version of this text on 'Arts of the Working Class'.