CURATORIAL NOTES: PALERMO – EXILE Summer Camp: May the bridges I burn light the way, 5x5x5 collateral program of the European Biennial, Manifesta 12
- May the bridges I burn light the way
How did I get informed about our participation at Manifesta? I was tagged on an Instagram feed, posted by Pickles PR. It announced, without further details, the selected collateral projects for the Biennial’s edition in Palermo. Among others, at-the-time Berlin based gallery, EXILE: hundreds of likes, messages of congratulations and the surprised face of the gallerist, Christian Siekmeier.
On the afternoon of that spring Saturday, Christian and I were closing folders for the upcoming changes of the exhibition space: the last art fairs to participate in; shipping of artworks; the schedules of the artists we work with; his decision to move to Vienna in the autumn and all the costs coming along with it. So the question quickly became: how are we supposed to produce an off-site exhibition now, for a nomad biennial opening in Sicily in only two months?
The selection of collateral projects was scheduled for February. It was already April. We had to cope with sales during Art Brussels, edit and organize the launch of the first issue of Arts of the Working Class with Pauł Sochacki, the street newspaper that was born on his solo show during Gallery Weekend, and I tried to squeeze two weeks of holidays in May with my family as July and August were already full with work obligations.
It was clear from the beginning that all the applications for funding and sales oriented at financially supporting this project would never, ever adequately compliment the budget of the gallery. Christian is well known for doing everything to avoid following the rules of the art market, beginning with the rejection of discretion, emotionally denouncing the unfair ways of exclusion in the commercial game, and ignoring any kind of speculative interests towards the artists he has worked with over the last ten years. The biennial was definitely a coup, as we could also be in Palermo and not care about the fairs in Basel.
In my case, I had to explain to my parents, who I never see, that I would be sticking to the laptop, no matter how sunny Santa Monica was going to be. They may not really understand the logic of the profession of a curator or any freelancer in the art world, honestly who does, but what they recognize is the precarious ways in which I have to offer my free time in order for projects to happen. They sighed.
The original project, proposed a year ago, was really ambitious. The aim of the ‘summer camp’ was to collaborate with the local community, artists, networks and associations, and to create a real contribution with our presence. The call was for ‘pop-up’ events, meaning the activation of lots of people within the city without the Manifesta organization having to worry about structural support. The blossoming idea of the planetary garden, taken care by the curators of the main exhibition, would not be a reference for any of the projects, but a departing point. Thus the responsibility for a narrative that could attach the collateral project to the core affairs of the Manifesta, was only in the hands of the invited, volunteering contributors. hat could be the matching format for such an experimental call to invest in the cultural capital, not of the city, but of the nomadic biennial, while at the same time mixing public, domestic and private interests.
Reflecting on the many complexities of collectivity, the role of the art gallery and its intellectual, social and commercial practice within international global networks has to be formulated from scratch. For whom are we doing exhibitions? Is the term ‘collaboration’ in our case compatible to the core responsibility of the gallery, which is to sell artworks? If yes, what should commercial galleries really do for the artists when they ‘represent’ them but are unable to fully support their work financially?
May the bridges I burn light the way is such a beautiful, colloquial and kinky phrase, dreamed up by Munich curator Konstantin Lannert while he was visiting EXILE in Berlin. Oh yes, that phrase from thepopular scene from that L.A. telenovela, ‘Beverly Hills 90210’. It exploded in my mind. It contains humor, rage and a confessional tone. It delivers a highly charged account of visceral commitment. Inscribing it to the arguments arising around EXILE’s participation in Manifesta 12,
it provided me with the link I’d been missing between the meaning of social activism and art exhibitions for the year 2018.
Activism in the form of #metoo is an ambivalent fire: it started asking for real changes and burned itself into a Hollywood-affair in spite of its powerful influence as a demonstration against gender-inequality in the workplace. Activism against restrictive migration laws in Europe has been punished with the enforcement of even more radical reactions from conservative parties, and even the rise of neo-nationalist movements. Yet activism may be performed on a day-to-day basis in a wide variety of ways, including through exhibitions.
It may follow a utopian purpose rather than a practical one, but the ‘summer camp’ concentrates on the impact of individual gestures within the collective consciousness. The format itself deals with the militant - and sometimes disobedient - spirit of minorities and their positioning within society. In this case, EXILE had four elements that could determine its participation, an ephemeral monument for unfinished, unrealized and utopic artistic and anarchist projects of the world, based on the idea of The Great Pyramid of Erik Niedling; two days of workshop/lunches on anarchism and ecology, where all the guests would cook together, with cook and activist Pasquale Passanante, the launch of a -street newspaper in Palermo, and an exhibition in the public sphere.
It was too late to make a call for this pyramid, Pasquale just got a baby and couldn’t leave Modica nor prepare a workshop, having to run his own restaurant and lacking staff that could cover him when away. The exhibition – well, what exactly could one do if two thirds of the idea is just not possible to organize within two months? Dalia Maini, Alina Kolar and I packed our bags and headed down to the island to try and find out.
Hedwig Fijen laughed at me on the phone. Did I just ask her if it was possible to organize this exhibition closely to the Manifesta team, because we are totally incapable to fly over to Sicily? Yes, I did. I had been repeatedly asking for help, as I couldn’t go to Sicily to find a place to exhibit. What then had been the purpose of getting selected? ‘Excuse me, we were clear about the conditions of participating; all 5x5x5 projects will receive communication support from Manifesta 12 across all digital and analogue channels, including website, guidebook, social media, Manifesta 12 map and app’.
The 5x5x5 program promised a unique opportunity to experience Palermo as envisioned through the bespoke projects; the only thing is, I never saw one representative of the show, I never spoke to any of the people in charge to be informed of how hard it is to organize something in Palermo, and the artists’ names never appeared in the maps, apps, social media or guide book as expected. The artists’ names appeared in October, after e-mails and e-mails of frustrated work. I never saw one single curator at the show. There was no answer to my invitations.
Every single exhibition space they suggested – not offered, the organization team was not even aware if the spaces were available or not – was taken or not available. It was hard to reach someone over phone or email. The intentional symbiotic structure developed by the Manifesta 12 for Collateral Events benefited only Manifesta’s international scope and visitors. It was like dealing with the predators of Venezia, in an island that has not exploded its infrastructure for highly priced rents. Building on this, the purpose of the collateral events in being a link between Manifesta tourists and a community wouldn’t go beyond the limits of the biennial’s frame itself. We sighed.
Considering which local neighborhoods and communities outside the boundaries of the artworld could be a collaboration partner, we decided to work with a Taxi Cooperativa. The audio-performative work by Ayami Awazuhara and Christopher Burman was the missing link between the Palazzi and the streets. Ayami often dealt with everyday objects across a wide range of media. A stone or an orange can become a starting point for her reflections on systems of classification as well as their impact on design and our world experience. In this series of immersive narrative pieces, every taxi traveller in the city could could hear the entire work in ten minutes, the average time a passenger needs from a to b. The piece is called ‘Elevator Pitch’, a collage of lost and found melodies and conversations, between humans, between machines.
‘How’s life?’ the male voice asks. (…)‘Do you have a moment?’ (…)‘How’s the temperature?’
I sat with Dalia and Alina and the board of Taxi Cooperative Palermo after Manifesta team asked us not to contact the same company they were dealing with. They wanted to have an exclusive offer, and our project would interfere. Why so? All they would have to do is to play the piece for the passengers. So we went to the other local company and discussed the possibility to have their 150 cars available for the piece. We had to burn CDs, as not every car had a USB player. I believe one third of our agreement worked out, as I heard from people that the radio would be too noisy, the file wouldn’t play, the driver would get crazy and start hitting the machine, the incoming calls where sometimes just too many…
One exhibition, two venues, three curators, four airbnbs (one of them a boat that we used as our own private after-party venue), five days of exhibition, and thirty participants: If this was supposed to happen fast, at least it should be fun. How else to explain the effort of managing a collateral event for a well-known biennial by our own means, solely funded by passionate commitment and common urgencies? Sitting at a café with Alina next to Teatro Garibaldi that we turned into our shared office, she would constantly remind me about the pursuit of aesthetic pleasure as a political practice: “We are here to be tolerant, comforting, helpful, to sharpen the senses and soften obstinacy”.
As much as Manifesta 12 gave way for planned outer and indoor space, May the bridges I burn light the way broke the etymology of the word gardening - referring to exclusion and enclosure - and opened it up to qualities of uncontrollable variables. Thinking of the definition of the garden in relation to nature, it is unavoidable for me not to go back to Virginie Despentes’ King Kong Theory. An autobiographical essay that culminates giving King Kong the role of the female alter ego; the myth of modern beauty is broken by a sole observation: in this story, there is only two options, either stay in the pre-gendered form of sensual life in a secure place, an unknown island, or to go back to the city, to civilization, marry the handsome man, away from the ideal state of nature.
Full of anger, patchworked with continually returning memories of her rape at aged 17 by three men, Despentes’ theoretic writing encapsulates everything that turns femininity into the dilemma in which women’s guilt and men’s power are perpetuated. Abuse of power comes still as no surprise, decades after the supposed triumph of feminism. The idea of modern beauty, perpetuated in architecture and the arts, can be also disrupted through chaos. Working on the edge of the system, energy, time, and money, means to look for openness. So we asked all the invited artists and contributors to participate in ways that would see them exploring a different approach to their own work.
Iris Touliatou looked at recipes of medieval almanacs for poisons and beverages from the Ballaró market to create ‘flaming spirits’. Flaming, electric, like the three-legged matron of the city, Medusa. Like vespers of Palermo, like songs of affection, like things only Iris Touliatou can bring together. Iris turned the alchemist of the hot afternoons under the Sicilian sun, and of the windy nights in the boat. Her latest work was already crossing the boundaries of the sensory and the sculptural, combining various techniques and a wide array of organic and inorganic substances.
The smoke at Piazza Carmine in Ballaró would combine the smell of fish with fragrances brought by her, coming from two boxes full of water, souvenirs of other times. “Cure for Fears that you know, Cure for fears that you don’t know - how to carry an antidote by sea” is an artwork made specifically for the market. A remedy, prepared from plants, made in collaboration with a shaman, travelling hidden in various metal objects from the port of Patras to the port of Palermo. The travel replicates and reflects the ancient trade routes and Iris Touliatou’s own family voyages.
The ‘Flaming Spirit Bar’ turned into the epicenter of a show that could be staged only in conversation with the association of sellers of the market. The Schillace brothers allowed us to intervene in their space and have an archive of beverages by Iris Touliatou for the visitors.
Raffaela Naldi Rossano intuitively joined the historical and metaphorical journey Iris started, covering the ‘Flaming Spirit Bar’ with a net, regularly used to cover lemon and olive trees, and placing lost and found objects from hotel rooms decorating the place, serving as reflective surfaces for the drinkers at the bar. In her work, Raffaela reflects on human relationships and how to create and re-create meanings within and for them, individually and collectively. She speaks about imaginary communities through objects others have lost or forgotten, as a meeting place of cultures, deposited in parcels and contained in small envelopes. Raffaela pursues the demolition of the internal walls of an apartment building and mixing relationships between people and things in a different way.
Pauł Sochacki started a spontaneous collaboration with Nigerian tailor Humphrey Idouzee, who came not so long ago to Palermo as a refugee and who works selling shirts with her sister. Paul named him his gallerist, while Humphrey stood on the market in front of the fruits he arranged by color, and sold for the price of an artwork. Other fruit sellers would stand next to him, asking the prices with skepticism, then taking some pictures, amused. Yes, we came to work, just like everybody else here.
Next to Humphrey, Albrecht Pischel would sit down next to a selection of luxury items, or just a simulation of it. A Chanel handbag, a tablet, a smartphone, an Armani shirt displayed on a rug. They are made of paper, just like piñatas, or as presents for wandering spirits, as in the Chinese ritual. The objects behave as representing signifiers of the medium of the art exhibition itself, oscillating between the disarming of symbols of colonialism and alienation, but also mimicking what already reproduces itself a few blocks away, with fake versions of the real.
The artworks and artists got lost in the crowd. There was a thin line separating the exhibition from the routine of the fishermen and farmers at the market. Zöe Claire Miller had been developing a series of ‘Nudes with Vegetables’ in Mexico City, after meeting so many people in the tropical atmosphere of the artworld’s new favorite hub. Her body of work is mainly sculptural, so her drawings can be rather understood as a documentation - and a comment – on the production of trends and communities nowadays. The self-critical tone overweighs the apparent cynical gesture of doing some easy pieces for the fun of it, and yet they are full of hilarious details. Her voyeuristic gaze makes the nude as weird as the body of the fruit itself, but also the epicurean joy behind her erotic game is as strong as the analytic element of this social affair. ‘Nudes with Vegetables’ in Palermo was one of the loudest moments in Ballarò, behind a curtain, between two kiosks. Zöe would go through the market choosing the best fruits to strike a pose with.
The Schillace brothers started bringing their own ideas for the improvement of ‘The Flaming Spirit Bar’. Bruschetta, granita, music. If the concept of EXILE’s summer camp was already flirting with the idea of a reality show, it automatically turned into a family album for social media. It was the unavoidable, anti-institutional remedy for the imminent mutual opportunism that related us to the main purpose of being in Palermo. ‘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 the market’, wrote Dalia Maini, who along with Alina and me, would answer all the questions for the group.
Kinga Kielczynska had been working in a project entitled Białowieża for the last couple of years, raising awareness for the threatened primeval forest of the same name. The deforestation of these habitats has been a point of intensifying contention between the logging industry, national politics and environmentalists. In 2016, Poland’s State Forestry Board approved a three-fold increase in logging, argued as an unavoidable preventive measure against an invasive infestation by the European spruce bark beetle, a controversial measure that has been contested by many environmentalists as well as the European Union. Kinga would put all the waste of the forest she would find and put it in a car; as if running away with the corpse of a lover. Set in relationship to her own body, the massive green waste filling the car connects the private and the public interest in the world’s climate. Life and decay; they fit so well within Ballarò. Maybe not with organic waste from Białowieża but from the public gardens of Palermo. A charcoal drawing in the opposite site of the market depicted a net of inter-connected lines and of looping motives that appear in the form of overlapping human figures, based on personal feelings and memories of being present in the forest.
Federico Del Vecchio’s stacked orange peel ashtray “Capri” would stand around the visitors, while he would squeeze some orange juice for everyone and Sara Løve Dadadottir would present once more the book of the Utopian Union. But it was Nschotschi Haslinger who won the heart of all school groups and neighbors passing by. She came straight from the airport, dressed as a witch, wearing porcelain teeth crossing her chest, like a sweating beauty queen in a nightmare, carrying porcelain bananas with noses like babies. Men playing cards behind the spot we chose for her act were literally breaking an intrinsic limit of reality. Kids would cry at her, teenagers did some selfies as she stood there, so clear about what she was doing. She was creating pure distortion, and nothing could break that spell. Her witchy alter ego was, without even knowing the other works nor the place, creating connections with the flaming drinks of Iris, with the ghost pieces of Albrecht, matching with Zöe’s slapstick, playing just like Pauł and Humprey.
From the margins of all this biennial chaos and wonder, Elmar Meller’s ‘Ghost of a Fountain’ betted on a further layer of interconnections within and for this summer camp: Invisibility. The genuine desire of all participants, not only to have a nice exhibition deferring institutional authority, but also of relating authentically to the people of Ballarò, remained a humble gesture. Elmar’s traces here were the most intangible; recuperating the residual water from the washing machine in which he cleaned the working clothes and the everyday wear of local people. Once retrieved from the washing machine, he emptied out the water left over from the cleaning process and put it into a freezer until it was a sculptural block of ice, ready to paint a picture of disseminating water on the hot pavement of Ballarò. This inclusion of the neighborhood within his practice, was hardly noticed by visitors, but it was highly cheered by the people.
Sarah Lehnerer decided to leave the poster she produced for the exhibition in the hands of the people from Ballarò. The poster, depicting a picture of herself, half naked, with a t-shirt on with a picture of her daughter putting her finger on clay, was discussed by the people from Ballarò while we were hanging it.
“Is this art?”, they asked. “What do you think?”, we replied. “It’s not” Salvatore replied. ‘Of course it is!’, said Andrea.
’It’s a present’, I said.
This is the way this picture can be read, in any case. In fact, the two t-shirts were meant as props for a movie Sarah was currently working on, initially, nothing else. It is in a way, certainly not unimportant to know, about her and her daughter’s hand. And then again, later on her body, maybe like a babushka: a body inside a body, genderless, adolescent, blooming. In a market place ruled by men (women work ambulantly, here), this poster created a change in the atmosphere. I could see the men gazing at it. Confused, but open.
On the other side of the city center, at La Cantiera Culturale della Zisa, two t-shirts of Sarah were hanging in the garden of the community kitchen called Cre.Zi Plus. On one t-shirt, the little hand of her daughter, there she is maybe just three years old, as she engages fully in the clay. Her hand is unwieldy, even like a paw, or rather like an unshaped material. An alien hand, alienated. Of course the picture turns in many ways, if it is carried on the body at belly height - as a robe. Just when you put on the t-shirt. The other image compliments the other shirt. Diametrically, but not binary. In the second picture you see Sarah’s finger, wrapped like a dildo, also made of clay. The process we don’t see, is the one of the body changing, from then to now, although a time frame here is also not as relevant as the logic of the babushka.
Like the political poster collection of Pauł that he arranged with Alina on the windowpanes of the community kitchen. The posters, coming from other times, from different countries around the world, follow the logic of socialism as it was dreamt in the sixties, seventies. In this exhibition, they follow the logic of Paul’s paintings, too. Yet painting is only one of the means by which Pauł liberates the gesture of showing something to the others from pretentious intentions and throws them back to the social whole. Just like the street newspaper Arts of the Working Class operates.
We came to Cre.Zi Plus for discussions and again, for the artworks to be in relation to further social activities happening in the space. To replace Pasquale Passanante, we invited Ángels Miralda Tena, Dietrich Meyer and Nicholas Johnson to talk about colonialism and classification; about the decline of the mall, and the continued need for public space. Talking with them about centers of accumulation seemed to give a metaphorical layer to our practice at Ballarò. Sebastian Acker installed along the main road of the Cantiera site-specific signs next to common plants from Palermo. Scanning the QR-Codes of the signs opened an interactive map, which could be explored with two fingers, like Google Maps. ‘Remotly Natives’, the name of the project, linked every plant to a satellite image of a region where it is native or originated from, including the rainforest in Guatemala, the coast of Libya and mountains in Myanmar. The color magenta makes healthy vegetation visible by representing an infrared spectrum, which strongly reflects chlorophyll in plant leafs and is normally invisible to the human eye.
The visible and the invisible, the human and the artificial, where brought together in a series of artists’ films. Heiner Franzen manipulates a mouth reciting a monolog against nature from Peter Brooks film ‘Marat/Sade’, Narine Arakelyan sews tapestries from the Russian orthodox church to be satirized within the language of the artworld by translating it to Venice, Patrick Fabian Panetta takes a trailer from the Manifesta 11 in Zürich as a parody of itself and Sarah Lehnerer takes a drone with a female voice through the suburbs of Berlin. Jakko Pallasvuo’s ‘Soft Body Goal’ presents a humanoid figure with sound effects. First visceral, then cartoonish, the sounds sew a story of a humanity that has transcended its bodies and their attendant dysfunction to become something even more dysfunctional.
All the fantasies in film, resembling individual discomfort within the neoliberal society and the need of bursting out of it, where brought together in a brief lecture lunch with sociologist Aris Komporozos-Athanasiou. The relation between financial markets and today’s alt-right populisms were outlined by him, subscribing the role of speculation in a time of crisis as a powerful tool for thought. Considering the limitations and radical possibilities of what this could be, Aris brought examples of engagement with uncertainty. Tinder, Instagram and the art market, just to name the main examples, build the images of populist utopias and speculative imaginations. But what may sound here abstract and deliberately academic can be read in the third issue of Arts of the Working Class as a discussion based on observations of everyday life.
In a similar way Club Fortuna wrapped everything up in a ‘bonfire’ for the closing of the summer camp. ‘Voglio Solo: Passion, Mission, Vacation, Vocation’: the title of our commissioned collaboration consisted in going to the beach with the visitors and turned into a meta-classification of the valuable elements of the entire effort. Voglio Solo: Coming as we are, exposing ourselves. Club Fortuna is known for their measurements for discomfort and playful togetherness. Their work as a collective insists in parodying canons of knowledge, access and value, by reproducing the simplest forms of labor as an art practice. In Palermo, Xenia Lesniewski, Julia Rublow and Sarah Sternat brought us to the beach of Palo Gallo, a national reserve next to Mondello.
Five taxis picked us up at La Cantiera– in which we could enjoy the ‘Elevator Pitch’ by Ayami and Christopher – and we jumped in wearing the bathing gear Club Fortuna prepared for everyone, after a presentation about the Motu-Matatahi Island at the community kitchen, about purchasing the small island in the southern pacific, somewhere between Australia and Peru, collectively, and to leave it in its pure and pristine condition. The island should remain untouched and savage. Only under this condition our imagining of it will stay intimate. With this idea in mind, with the possibility of sharing resistance, risk and fantasy, we reached toward freedom from the vicious circle of jet setting around the biennial, consciously choosing the uncontrollable. We suddenly encountered moments of tenderness, lethargy and self-care within an exhibition that grew increasingly conversational, ephemeral, impossible to summarize. So it is that utopia is not a promise but a joint venture.