Palermo is a confluence of migratory flows. Positioned at Europe’s Southern tip and Northwest of the Middle East, the Mediterranean city’s identity has been shaped by a plethora of civilisations: traces of Greek, Roman, Norman, Arabic, Byzantine and Ottoman influences reverberate through the street, fusing with contemporary narratives to make for an intoxicating destination. In 2018, Palermo is placed under the gaze of Manifesta. In the words of many locals, “What is Manifesta?” It’s neither an exhibition, a performance, a festival nor a conference, but all and more combined. It’s a roaming, nomadic, contemporary, at times collaborative and explorative platform; one which showcases predominantly new work by artists residing in or responding to Europe.
With the support of an ENGINE and New Art West Midlands Micro Bursary, I travelled to the Sicilian capital to better understand Manifesta 12’s curatorial trajectory of “cultivating coexistence” amidst Palermo’s vivacious cultural fabric. As a visitor, I cannot say that, after five days, I know Palermo intimately – far from it. Its winding streets, frequently interrupted by boisterous scooters, led me off-course on an hourly basis. It’s a feisty city with a millennia-old history and a population who is equally dismissive and proud of their nationality. For decades, Sicily has followed its own trajectory and, until recently, Palermo has been heavily influenced by the Cosa Nostra. In navigating the town, a prevalent street art movement weaves its way between UNESCO heritage buildings, while unbeknown alleyways are studded with blue-LEDs in preparation for the Feast of Santa Rosalia.
After reading Mayor Leoluca Orlando’s statement that “Manifesta 12 is not a foreign body fallen upon the city like a meteorite but the result of sharing and fostering visions, aspirations, projects and dialogues,” I was intrigued to understand how a nomadic Biennial could connect with and build a legacy in this Palermo in such a short space of time? And what type of legacy does it wish to leave behind? “You think you’re going to come to Palermo and not have problems? Think again,” commented an invigilator, whom, regardless of her remark, saw Manifesta in a good light; “it’s changing the city – bringing money and employment.” But are these changes down to Manifesta? Palermo is also Italy’s Capital of Culture 2018 and already has a burgeoning artistic scene.
Much like its host destination, Manifesta is complex. It works bilaterally between Palermo and Amsterdam – it has two teams, one based in Sicily and another in its Dutch offices. For the first time, Manifesta hit the ground running two years before the main event; it has also recruited a group of Creative Mediators to develop its 12th edition concept, The Planetary Garden. Cultivating Cooexistence. Taking its title from Gilles Clément’s The Planetary Garden (1997), Manifesta 12 updates the book’s portrayal of the Earth as a garden that is tended to by the human gardener by infusing it with Palermo’s horticultural jewel, Orto Botanico, and Francesco Lojacono’s View of Palermo (1875) – a 19th Century painting which illustrates the city’s multi-national plants species. Collectively, The Planetary Garden is a poignant reminder, in these xenophobic times, of the diversity that exists in what we perceive as being “native.”
On paper, Manifesta’s curatorial concept makes for a crucial antidote to Europe’s closing-borders. One of its three sub-sections, Garden of Flows, pursues the notion of a “transnational commons” through explorations of “toxicity, plant life and the culture of gardening.” The second sub-section, Out of Control Room, examines “power in today’s regime of global flow,” identifying the migrant crisis and data privacy as two major players, while the third, City on Stage, incorporates Palermitan dialogues into a global context. As a whole, visitors are given the opportunity to reassess contemporary themes from a Mediterranean perspective. In speaking with Chiara Cartuccia, M12 Curatorial Coordinator, she worded it as “everything is looked at through the lens of Palermo. That’s the original thing – the gaze, the eyes that you are adopting.”
And it’s true: the vibrant flora, the exotic smells from Ballaro’s markets and the heat from the cobbled pathways, all influence your understanding of the works exhibited. In many ways, I engaged with sites and concepts that would, ordinarily, not be on a tourist’s itinerary. Far from ‘alternative-sight-seeing,’ Manifesta’s use of otherwise covert buildings enable audiences to access a different version of Palermo. The Biennial Hub, staged inside Teatro Garibaldi, marries deck chairs and topical books with terracotta walls and rustic alcoves. In our conversation, Cartuccia highlights these invaluable choices: “The decision not to use institutional spaces was a brave one. While it’s been a struggle in terms of bureaucracy and architectural implementation, hopefully, with regards to this theatre, it is just the beginning.”
Orto Botanico, one of Europe’s oldest and largest botanical gardens, is another example of Manifesta activating unusual spaces; albeit it is already a thriving and much-loved destination. In an ornate greenhouse, Alberto Baraya playfully assembles 21st century herbariums from fake flowers: he connects with Palermo in an excursive manner, paying attention to the floral offerings at its numerous votive shrines. Nearby, American artist Michael Wang‘s The Drowned World (2018) examines the cyclical nature of plant toxicity: firstly, through a bubbling bed of algae and secondly via a forest of ferns grown in the ex-AMG gasometer site. While these works are in-situ, there’s an innate sense that they are insular and do not necessarily coexist with their fellow Garden of Flows exhibitors.
Negating this doubt is Leone Contini‘s allotment – the result of 10 years of collecting seeds and narratives from farmers in Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Turkey, China and beyond. Inside, a Sicilian cucuzza thrives alongside its international relatives – a prime illustration of the ‘coexistence’ of plants, cultures and nationalities – while the allotment’s positioning in a former colonial section further upends historical hierarchies. In Palazzo Butera, LA-collective Fallen Fruit presents Theatre of the Sun (2018), a dazzling enclave of citrus and flora-patterned wallpaper. As though to update Lojacono’s View of Palermo, the piece details the edible fruit growing in Palermo’s urban landscape – it’s accompanied by a Public Fruit Map of Palermo to encourage visitors to seek these out for themselves. Continuing with the theme of “growth,” Cooking Sections‘ interventions at Giardino dei Giusti and Spasimo use dry watering techniques to cultivate plants in parched climates.
Much like the plants that inhabit Palermo, Manifesta’s artists are predominantly multi-national: but, here, a lack of Palermitan creatives is noticed. The positive in this is that it invites practitioners to introduce concepts which are not automatically evident in the city’s everyday workings. Out of Control Room – perhaps the more sombre of the three sections – looks outwards, incorporating works which assess the flow of “global powers,” i.e. people, data, goods, plants, microbes and money. At Palazzo Forcella de Seta, Europe’s migrant crisis surges to the fore in Forensic Oceanography‘s research into the Mediterranean’s militarised border regime. The first of four works, Liquid Traces (2014), reveals details of the “left-to-die boat” case in which 72 migrants drifted for 14 days during NATO’s military intervention in Libya in 2011. The film’s narrator candidly describes the boat’s fatal journey as it drifts past nearby vessels and military-controlled zones.
Peng! Collective takes a different approach and subtly slams the EU’s border control policies by inviting members of the public to become “Escape Agents.” Fluchthelfer.in. Become an Escape Agent (2015) uses short videos to promote the idea of helping refugees across internal EU borders – in one film, a German couple, returning from holiday, lend a hand to a refugee. The tongue-in-cheek piece is accompanied by a live website with details on how to proceed and a Crowdfunding campaign to assist Fluchthelfers now facing legal prosecution. These are concepts which affect the whole of Europe – including Palermo, which finds itself at the edge of where Europe meets with Africa and the Middle East.
Though the representation of Palermitan artists is low, Manifesta does pay attention to its current location. I spoke with a ‘Gardener’ (a Biennial Guide) about M12’s relationship to Palermo: “Manifesta has reopened important venues to the public and it is challenging the city’s former association with criminality. All of Palermo’s local problems are now part of a global community.” In our conversation, the Gardener refers to artistic interventions at Pizzo Sella and ZEN as “amazing projects which address parts of the city that have been erased from the memory of our citizens. We, as Palermitans, used to see these places in a negative light – as immovable or unchangeable.”
Manifesta seeks to reactivate these sites, some of which were disrupted by the Sack of Palermo – a collective term for the post-war construction boom from the 1950s to the 1980s which saw unregulated buildings replace architectural gems and green belt land. At a time when 14,000 people were left homeless and Mafia-connected officials were monopolising building permits, projects such as Pizzo Sella and ZEN (Zona Expansione Nord) were hastily erected – the former incomplete and abandoned; the latter constructed without public parks, schools or local amenities. Rather than dwell upon historical events, Belgium-collective Rotor – known for its interest in material flows – encourages audiences to rediscover Monte Gallo (the site of Pizzo Sella) through an alternative narrative.
Da quassù è tutta un’altra cosa (2018) is, in equal parts, a workshop, an intervention, conversation and an excursion, which facilitates a shift in Pizzo Sella’s reputation as a ‘poster child of real estate corruption.’ The poised, concrete skeletons which lay, stacked on the hillside, remain physically unchanged by Rotor: instead, the collective recalls the bygone goat paths leading up, towards the neighbouring Capo Gallo Nature Reserve. This narrative reintroduces Pizzo Sella as an observatory for viewing the cliff, ocean, city and aborted building site beneath – it’s subtle and low-key. But, I wonder, how many spectators see the documentation at the city centre’s Pallazo Costantino and subsequently visit the Pizzo Sella itself?
Having wandered as far as Mondello, I could see the ghost-village looming overhead; without an organised tour it is difficult to engage with the work itself (*Gardener-led excursions have since been facilitating this process.) But there’s also an unease in observing these places as part of an ‘art pilgrimage.’ Coloco & Gilles Clément‘s Becoming Garden (2018) shines a light on the ZEN housing project, but there’s a risk that people’s personal lives, rather than the city, are the ones being placed on a stage. Still, good intentions can be found in the creation of a community garden – the result of group workshops and discussions on the importance of caring for a space.
Undoubtedly, the resounding question in people’s responses is: what’s next? What comes after Manifesta; what will be left behind? In speaking with Rossella Pizzuto, M12 Education Coordinator, it became clear just how important Manifesta’s Education Programme is in building this so-called legacy: “The Education Department was the first to start work here in Palermo, two years ago. The team worked with social and cultural professionals, asking them what they expect from Manifesta – and we are continuing with this process. We’re trying to understand how Manifesta can be sustainable for them after it ends.” As a native Palermitan, Pizzuto is keen to reach out to communities: “People are used to staying in their own neighbourhood – so it’s great that we have an Education Hub in the form of a bus to travel and bring Manifesta to them.”
Pizzuto mentions Pizzo Sella and ZEN, “Pizzo Sella, is always in people’s minds as a shame – it’s better that people don’t see it; something related with the Mafia and exclusivism. Rotor literally opened up this location. The work in ZEN is also about education – to educate people on how to be, once again, part of a community.” The notion of establishing a sense of community is something which is applicable worldwide. Manifesta’s commissioning of a Palermo Social Innovation Map has sought to emphasise the importance of community by identifying ‘spaces of culturally-driven social innovation.’ It highlights local initiatives already in place in six geographical areas: Ballaro, Cantieri, Culturali alla Zisa, Costa Sud, Ex manicomio, Sferracavallo and ZEN. It’s a map that opens Palermo up; sadly, its existence is not widely advertised.
The Palermo Atlas is perhaps a more prominent document – one which, in my mind, is more valuable than the Biennial guide itself. In the build-up to Manifesta, the Office for Metropolitan Architecture was commissioned to analyse the city from multiple disciplines, with research undertaken across the realms of architecture, archaeology and anthropology. It proposes a new research model for the Biennial – and the resources gathered will outlive the festival itself. But, there are limits to how much two-years of research within Palermo’s 2,700 year-old history can cover – and this is felt by communities of local practitioners.
In truth, there are only two Palermitan artists in the Official Programme – when asked about this, the Curatorial team answered “We researched, went out to meet people – but you should be allowed to branch out, to find people who are engaging with the topic in the best way.” It’s also fair to add that Manifesta is first and foremost a Eurobiennial, not a Palermitan-biennial. It does, however, seek to cultivate a coexistence – which from an outsider’s viewpoint, is not achieved in the Official Programme. Manifesta’s press release reads: “Closely collaborating with Palermitans, M12 co-habits Palermo as an ideal place to investigate the challenges of our time, and to experiment with traces of possible futures.”
Examples of the Biennial’s collaboration with organisations, universities and collectives show that yes, it works collectively to investigate and experiment. But, Manifesta remains a non-organic entity in the city’s fabric. In meeting with Gabriella Ciancimino, I garnered a sense that Manifesta and local practitioners were not necessarily in harmony: “There are people, who for years, have been making art. I don’t understand why this part of Palermo didn’t come out in Manifesta’s research. They focused on a particular reality of Palermo – and missed out on others. You can’t escape the young artists practicing here.” And it’s true: there’s little mention of the Pizzo Sella Art Village established by Fare Ala, nor are the city-based photographic collective Minimum or Botanical curatorial project, Radiceterna, in the Official Programme (though they are part of M12’s Collateral Events.)
Palermitan and Sicilian artists have a greater representation in the Collateral Events. Cartuccia comments: “We had over 700 applications, mainly locals, for our Collateral Events. The city is so alive, you can really tell, especially from the kind of discourses that they were bringing.” But there’s also a sense that Ciancimino’s solo show, In Liberty We Trust at Palazzo Ziino, gained its Collateral Event accreditation after the exhibition was in place. Organised by the Accademia di Belle Arti di Palermo, In Liberty We Trust invites viewers into a monumental jungle of in-situ drawings which bind together botanical décor with political iconography and symbols of liberty – notions in-line with Garden of Flows.
Perhaps what Ciancimino says is true, “It was too fast. They [Manifesta] didn’t go deep enough.” Others too, agree that Manifesta doesn’t really know the city – “one or two years is not enough to build a relationship,” says Giulia, a Palermitan Law graduate, “Manifesta was unprepared for Palermo and vice-versa – it’s its own city with a very, distinctive character.” Later, I spoke with Palermitan-born Kaya at Galleria Franco Noero‘s Simon Starling presentation, whom offered another perspective: “Manifesta brings fresh air from Europe[..] there are people who complain that it is not perfect; life is like this.” Moving onto the topic of the future, Kaya adds, “A lot of people are asking what is going to happen after Manifesta. I tell people to calm down, let’s work on it [..] Others say, we were already here. It’s complex. I say, you need to change this town – you need to go into the community.”
As an outsider, I was privileged to have these conversations: they provided me with an insight into the city’s relationship with Manifesta. Upon reflection, one of the most valuable experiences was meeting with artists at a Radiceterna opening at Orto Botanico: here, I understood something about how Palermitans make and converse – albeit, no different from practitioners back home. Still, it was in talking to Ciancimino and visiting Ignazio Mortellaro‘s (Radiceterna curator) studio that I began to engage with Palermo and its people – something organic which no Biennial can produce; yet, one could argue that it was Manifesta that took me to Palermo.
I think back to the Kalsa district’s street art: two snails face each other, one shell adorned with the words Case x Tutti. It’s not part of Manifesta, but holds a message that rings true through the lives of many Palermitans and connects with today’s global challenges of migration, power, gentrification and ecology. M12 achieves in-part its desire to “explore forms of politics based on cross-pollination and on the coexistence of what is different” (from Garden of Flows, Map.) through its portrayal of cultures coming together in one form or another. The plants in Orto Botanico prove that coexistence can be “cultivated,” but years of nurture have gone into achieving the cohabitation of plants – the same could be said of people and artists alike. Time is needed tell whether Manifesta is veritably invested in Palermo and not merely positioning itself in a rotation of timely places.
Manifesta 12 runs until Sunday 4 November 2018.