Rome, correspondance.
Palermo’s Manifesta will not be an art biennial: Interview with Mirjam Varadinis.
By Raja El Fani

Mirjam Varadinis is half Greek, half Swiss, she is curator of Zurich Museum. As she is the only art curator among the other members of this year Manifesta’s curatorial team, I was especially interested to hear her opinion on Palermo’s likely cultural renewal and collect her artistic view on Manifesta program (just released in Rome) apart from the other sectors’ professionals. She claims she has a close relation to Sicily since her husband and her bought a house there six years ago and spends as much time as possible there. She speaks Italian and has studied Italian literature. She was the curator of the “Printemps de Septembre” in Toulouse in 2006 (the artistic director was then Jean-Marc Bustamante). There she had gathered her first experience in curating a city. And Toulouse is, like Palermo in Italy, in the south of France. After that, she has curated a very large exhibition in the city of Ghent, using the city as a material. In the interview she insists she’s very much interested in working outside the classic museum space.
She couldn’t spoiler the list of artists for Manifesta 12 but told me that it most probably be released in spring 2018, but many art lovers can already guess which artists will be selected for the exhibition.
Manifesta 12 will start in June and will be a test for next edition of Manifesta on a Mediterranean city again, in Marseille.

Interview with Mirjam Varadinis curator at Kunsthaus Zurich and member of the curatorial team of Manifesta 12 Palermo

Inferno: Is the new curatorial model that Manifesta will test in Palermo a drastic solution to culturally reactivate a complex city?
Mirjam Varadinis: I wouldn’t really call it drastic. For me it’s a contemporary way to think about relevant issues of our times that need to be addressed by combining knowledge from different backgrounds and perspectives – not by separating one discipline from the others,. It’s actually a phenomenon that is quite common in the art world today. In recent exhibitions, that I’ve curated there has always been an interdisciplinary approach, i.e. artists from theatre were meeting with visual artists, but also dancers or choreographers were part, or writers and scholars. So I think it’s a good model to respond to the complexity of today’s world and of Palermo.

What is your task exactly at Manifesta 12? Are you still a curator?
For this time we are all curators and we don’t share tasks based on our specific background or experience. This means that Andrés and Ippo will not only focus on architecture, or Bregtje on film. But we define ourselves as a kind of temporary collective agency, that takes decisions together, and also the contributors/artists are chosen collectively.

But it seems that the Garden theme of this Manifesta edition has been chosen by urbanists or architects.
Not at all, the garden is not intended as an urbanistic category and should not be taken too literal.

So it’s more a metaphor.
Exactly, it’s a metaphor for one of the most urgent questions we have to face today: how to live together, how to define coexistence and how to embrace diversity. Manifesta started when borders collapsed between East and West and now we live in times when borders are rebuilt and reinvigorated again. This protectionist attitude is based on a model that excludes the « Other ». The idea of the garden offers another model as gardens have always been places where life was created out of a migrationof species. In that sense the idea of the garden conveys also a strong political message, one that is rooted in the M12’s host citybecause Palermo has a long history of syncretism. It’s a city where so many different cultures and religions have lived together from the Arabs, Normans in historic times to the more recent flows of migrants from Bangladesh or Sri Lanka., And of course the refugees arriving by boat from Africa. So it is a place where the question of coexistence is really relevant.

It seems to be more a political than an artistic biennale.
It is political, yes. And in that sense we don’t want the Garden to be limited to botany only. The plants are used as metaphors to address issues of migration, post-colonialism or climate change. Agarden is a place where life grows out of cross pollination – and of course there also plants that hate and kill each other.

So it’s more a jungle than a garden? The garden should be something more controlled.
In that sense you’re right, we feel that we live in times where a lot of things are out of control. Our lives are being dominated by abstract algorithmic systems and transnational flows that are hard to get hold of and that create a sense of helplessness. Therefore we aim to make these flows more tangible, more visible, and we would also like to offer tools to regain agency. Therefore the garden as we envision it can also be a technical garden reflecting on the idea of the networks. By the way: the Mediterranean is also a hub for technological infrastructure, like internet cables, that run through the sea.

But it’s really hard to imagine how the artists could interpret this theme.
No it’s actually not. A lot of artists are in fact already working on these ideas.

So are you trying to say that the Manifesta 12 theme comes from the research of some artists and not from the curators?
Curatorship is something that is always in dialogue with what the artists are doing. For me it’s important that a curatorial concept grows out of ideas or questions that I encounter in art works and that I don’t implement anything that has no roots in the artistic practice. This is a methodolgy that we have also implemented with M12: We didn’t arrive with a predefined concept but extracted the curatorial concept out of the reality of Palermo. In that sense also the Mayor of Palermo plays an important role. He wrote a manifesto where he defines mobility as a human right. So it’s a very unique stance from a politician in current times. He also said that there is no migrants in Palermo, everybody who arrivesin Palermo becomes immediately a Palermitan.

It could be seen as a provocation by European Union because the Mayor Orlando has no program to make this free mobility true.
Of course it’s not a reality yet but it’s a very interesting starting point as it opens up a different view on the so called « refugee crisis ». With M12 we really want to think further on this idea and therefore we will be also organizing summits during Manifesta where we invite intellectuals but also activists and politicians to to reflect onquestions like: what does it really mean to have a borderless world? These summits don’t want to address these issues only in an abstract way, but we want to have a clear output, like writing new constitutions.

Do you think Palermo may be compared to Zurich in the times of Dada? I mean as Zurich was the neutral country during war and refuge for artists, and Palermo is a natural refuge for refugees, an island situated at the external borders of EU, enough to be considered the end of the West. Do you think Manifesta is able to create a historic event in Palermo with all this similar conditions with Zurich?
The idea of refuge might connect the two – although the world has of course changed substantially since WW1. If Manifesta will be a historic event, only time will tell. I want to think about Manifesta as an incubator, as a catalyser that unleashes something that hopefully has a strong impact. Palermo is a laboratory where it’spossible to think in a different way about crucial themes of our times. And this is very exciting.

Don’t you think Manifesta will go on the opposite directions of European Union programs?
If I look at how the EU is reacting on the flows of refugees, there is no real plan or vision how to deal with this issue. We really have to come up with new models and ideas., And this is what Palermo offers: a new insight on how to approach these pressing questions. With our curatorial concept we aim to create a dialogue of Palermo with the world, that’s why we call it the “Planetary Garden ».

So Palermo with all its anarchy and urban decay is a really ideal location to make you realize all those things!
Yes, it is totally! It’s an ideal location to talk about the problematics of our current times. As you were asking about therelation with Zurich: in Palermo you have thousands of abandoned buildings, in Zurich you don’t have one centimetre of the city that is not commercialized yet. Of course, Zurich has never been destroyed, Palermo was. But in that sense Palermo is the complete opposite of Zurich. Since there is no money in Palermo, many buildings stayed in their original shape, even though they are not used any longer. That’s why you have a very physical presence of History.

Have you met local artists?
Yes, we met local artists and we invited also Sicilian and/or Italian artists to participate in M12. We’re also in touch with the art Academy of Palermo and other institutions.

Are you collaborating with students?
Yes, we’re collaborating with the university of Palermo, but also with the experimental film school and others.

Have you found local artists that work on the same questions than the international artists?
Today’s world is very much interconnected. And the questions we are raising in our curatorial concept are relevant both for Palermo and the world. In that sense we don’t think in geographical terms about artists but more about the individual relevance of each artist.

Can’t Art risk to be sacrificed to make room to the humanitarian emergencies in this Manifesta? Couldn’t Art end up in the background?
It depends on how you define art. I don’t see art as something separated from society and social-political questions . On the contrary. And our interdisciplinary team chooses not only classic visual artists, but people from different fields. A lot of them are working on the in-between zones between disciplines and this will be interesting.

Will the number of participant artists will be reduced because of the interdisciplinarity of this Manifesta?
Yes, there will be less artists in this edition, but not because of the interdisciplinarity but because of a very conscious decision to reduce scale. If you look at how biennials have constantly been growing and expanding in the last years, I find this very problematic.
These big art events have become huge economic machineries thatonly follow the capitalistic logic of growth. But it’s time to think about resources and to scale down instead of expanding – not only in art but also in regards to the resources of our planet. Therefore we decided to reduce the number of artists and to go more in depth with them instead of wanting to cover horizontally the whole city – or world.

What about the artist you use to work with?
There will certainly be some artists I’ve worked with before. It’s interesting to continue working with the same artists in different contexts. But since the artists’ selection is always based on the specific context of an exhibition, there will also be new artists thatI feel are super relevant specifically for this biennial.

Your mission will be to make coherent the work of those different participants.
This is the curatorial work, yes. As I said, we are doing this collectively, so I’m not an exception in that sense.

What is the difference to be a curator in a museum and in a biennial?
In the museum you have a very clearly defined artistic context.People who are entering the museum are going there specifically to see art. With an exhibition or biennial that uses the city as its material you enter a completely different context. The venues are no white cubes but have a different quality and instead of museum visitors you have citizens that are suddenly confronted with art. That’s a challenge but something I’m very much interested in.

Raja El Fani

Voir le programme de Manifesta Palerme :

L’interview en français paraîtra dans le print INFERNO 09 en 2018.

Photos Studio CAVE (palazzo Butero restauré) et Asell Yusupova (Portrait de la curatrice).

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