In his introduction, Ramon Tio Bellido, General Secretary of AICA, thanked the near- capacity audience of around eighty people for taking time out to attend this round-table discussion, which had been arranged within a series of similar events, in partnership with the International Foundation Manifesta, Amsterdam, with the support of the European Community’s Culture 2000 Programme. He also warmly thanked the organisers of Manifesta 5 for their support and for making available the premises and necessary facilities
Tio Bellido recalled that a number of other round-tables had taken place at the opening of previous editions of Manifesta, and that the proceedings of the last one, which had taken place in Frankfurt, thanks to Kim Levin, former President of AICA, and Christian Chambert, in charge of the Special Projects during her Presidency, had been published. This booklet would be available to enquirers, at this event in San Sebastian. At the same time, he highlighted some of the difficulties that had arisen in the course of setting up the present meeting, owing to the fact that a number of Spanish critics had declined the invitation to speak, on the grounds that they were joining a more general boycott of M5 by many professionals in Spain, who believed (mistakenly, as it happened) that no Spanish (as distinct from Basque) artists had been inculded in the selection. He regretted that this issue should have been a cause for contention, and that it should have drawn attention to the nationalist climate which continued to prevail, in certain sectors of the community. He also deeply regretted the absence without warning or explanation of Santi Eraso, Director of Arteleku, who had previously agreed to take on the role of moderator, and who would have been able to make an important contribution to the debate, on account of his special knowledge of the local milieu and of cultural policies in the Basque Region.
Standing in at short notice as moderator, Tio Bellido went on to explain that, as this edition of Manifesta did not have a central theme, it had been a little difficult, in advance, to think of a topic for discussion, that would respond to the intentions of the curators, both of whom were, in any case, prevented by their tight schedule from taking part in this event. At the same time, however, the lack of a clear theme provided a good excuse for the guest speakers to exercise their critical abilities, by sharing with the audience some of their first impressions, after making an initial tour of the exhibition.
Tio Bellido went on to present the five speakers who were sitting beside him : Sirje Helme (Director of the Estonian Center for Contemporary Arts , Tallinn), Hüseyin Alptekin (Turkish artist and art critic, taking part in M5), Camiel van Winkel (freelance art critic and historian, based in Amsterdam), Toni Calderón (Director of La Sala Naranja, Valencia) and Yiannis Toumayis (Director of the Municipal Art Center and the Pierides Foundation, Nicosia, Cyprus).
He then gave the floor to each of the speakers, in turn
Sirje Helme began by remarking that this edition of Manifesta seemed to operate on at least three different levels – the political, the social and the artistic – and that the M5 organisers had given carful consideration to the immediate and regional contexts. She wondered whether the curators had been over-ambitious, in attempting to focus on overtly political issues and whether they would, in fact, succeed in communicating their aims clearly to the public. On an artistic level, she noticed that some proposals comprised works by older artists from the generation of the 1960s and 1970s when art was involved in trying to change the world in a theoretical way, but that subsequent developments had been, rther, towards more personal or individual utterance. The artist’s individual message was now supposed to be completed by the audience, as the exhibition was very tied to current proposals that addressed the public direct and stressed typical social and political situations in the region. She wondered where all this might lead, and what one was to think about the substantial sums of money being spent on such initiatives.
Hüseyin Alptekin mentioned how critical of Manifesta he had always been, ever since M3 in Lubljana. Now, of course, he was having to speak from another perspective, and striving to avoid a sense of guilt about this. He explained his own project in some detail, which consisted of making installation work in some back streets, with the help of local citizens, and creating a distraction with signs advertising long-vanished hotels, bars and popular places, which had been swamped by heavy-handed policies for urban renewal. He had tried to do this done this on the French Riviera, where one of his projects had been censored, and in places as far apart as Istanbul, Manchester, Bristol and Rio de Janeiro. For the last two weeks – too long, in his opinion – he had been working in San Sebastian, in the former fishermen’s quarter of Pasajes. He considered his work to be not only ethnological, but to link up to a nostalgic form of anthropology. Before passing the microphone to the next speaker, he said he wanted to make clear how strongly he objected to the choice of Cyrus, as the venue to the next edition of Manifesta.
Camiel van Winkel began by ironically saying how interested he was, to find that Bas Jan Ader had been included in this context. He checked the statement of the curators, quoting their potential for polemics and their attempt to contrast notions of informed complexity with the layering of different meanings. For him, an exhibition like this one raised a great many problems, on two main levels: those of the curator and of the viewer. The curators had produced the kind of discourse that nobody could follow, even if they claimed this to be an « intellectual activity » and appeared to argue in favour of a kind of ‘relational art’. This central paradox was a ridiculous one, as the viewer was confronted with a show that was flat and conventional, low-risk and inoffensive. M5 was the kind of average, consensual show that could be seen in any museum, anywhere else in the world. But maybe that was no bad thing, after all, as it might no longer be possible, nowadays, to build a ‘Utopia Station’, based on the notion of transgression. What we had, in M5, was a kind of predetermined Kindergarten. Nevertheless, one could sympathise with the predicament of both the artists and the curators, even if they had more or less got it all wrong. The political project in M5 had completely collapsed. What it offered was a melancholic solipsism, an auto-reflexivity and fragmentation of the European cultural landscape that turned to the dislocation of subjective, troubled minds, when adopting roles and trying to make them fit in with site-specific elements.
Yiannis Toumazis presented himself as he next ‘curators’ brain’ for M6, that would take place in Nicosia in 2006. He had been walking around the city of Donostia-San Sebastian, wondering whether M5 had been made for San Sebastian, or San Sebastian for M5. In his view M5, as a curatorial project, had been carried out with a high degree of poetic skill, and he found the results to be generally very harmonious. However, he considered it to be more nostalgic than political, in the true sense of the word, and its presence at street level was not sufficiently strong, as if an attempt had been made to avoid the audience, whose participation and reactions were of the greatest interest to him, in a city such as this, where terrorism and tourism were everyday facts of life. M5 did not seem to him adequately to have directly confronted the genuine social reality; would the citizen of San Sebastian citizens really be concerned by a set of proposals such as these?
Toni Calderón (translated from the Spanish) said that M5 was the same as any other kind of biennial. It was fetishist, in that it conformed to prevalent models for events of this kind and was obedient to the same kinds of processes. Nowadays, many artists had broken off their relationship to the working classes – if they had ever really known or pretended to understand anything about this – and biennials such as Manifesta had converted themselves into cultural brokers, on the basis of their very conventional understanding of what politics was meant to be about. Biennials tended to be academics, to present a very standardised image of the concept of public art, and uniform evidence for the same. The only new thing they had to offer – if anything – was the itinerary they constructed and the works they selected for public display. Otherwise, they had degenerated into a form of mass entertainment. He said that it was time for art to recover its independence and to act in an autonomous context, with the real participation of the public. If not, this M5 biennial would end up, being a show like any other, and not a critical proposition. In concluding, he insisted on the necessity for alternative proposals, that could escape from the institutional burden of the museum and its historicist discourse, which was not at all progressive, but pseudo-didactic and – as he had said at the beginning – fetishist.
Sirje Helme replied to the criticisms of both Toni Calderón and Camiel van Vinkel, by saying she believed they were being far too harsh, in their attacks on M5, when, in reality, the artists themselves played a much greater part in the game than the audience might have been led to suppose, from what had been said, fo far. She insisted on the fact that art was in a very weak position, when confronted with political decisions in societies such as our own, and that the modest propositions that artists and exhibtions such as this could advance were of far greater impact and power than either of the previus speakers had been willing to allow. Yiannis Toumazis wondered whether any alternative to the present one would not be purely anarchic and whether, in that case, it would be possible to reach firm decisions of any kind. Toni Calderón replied that the alternative was, in fact, a model enforced by the institution, when one tried to work on its margins, with no subvention or help of any kind.
In the short time remaining, the few questions from the public focused mainly on issues relating to the content of M5 itself. Ramon Tio Bellido closed the discussion, by once again thanking the speakers, the audience and the co-organisers of the event.