Manifesto, 2014/2015 / © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2016
(Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin. August 2016.)
“Über’s Café.” The guard pointed. I looked off to my left and over his shoulder. Sure enough, down a big empty hallway, there was a small, stylish neon sign promising coffee and food. Above the café. All right. I thanked him and headed into the corridor, my footfalls clacking too loudly. I was alone. Floor to ceiling windows on either side of the passageway let in the late afternoon light, and as I approached the raised landing leading up to the café entrance, I could see an open stairway slanting up above that little neon beacon. There was no obvious signage. Manifesto was touted as a featured exhibit, but you wouldn’t know it unless you, like me, had had a friend proclaim its virtues to you at a wine bar across town.
The Hamburger Bahnhof Museum für Gegenwart (literally “Hamburg Train Station Museum for the Present”) is a good example, if in a way less obvious than that of architectural icons like New York’s Guggenheim or Berlin’s Libeskind Building, of museum form meeting museum function. As its name implies, it’s a decommissioned railway hub. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the station was turned into a transport museum, and then, upon an art loan from the somewhat ironically named construction magnate Erich Marx, transformed into Berlin’s major museum for contemporary art. There is no sign to this effect; the wording over the main entrance still indicates that you are about to enter the civic planner’s utopia of a Verkehrs- und Baumuseum. And while it has been thoroughly renovated, it retains the shape of a train station: a soaring main chamber with a number of endless-seeming corridors snaking off of either side of it, into which art doesn’t really fit. You can walk for miles in this museum in a way that feels like you are traveling, rather than the way it feels to walk miles when you get lost in the Louvre. Encountered in this way, the exhibitions are almost a surprise.
Hence my guard-asking, and then clopping down a huge, empty windowed hallway towards the café, over the top of which Julian Rosefeldt’s newest video installation seemed nothing if not shoehorned. The entrance to it was an unadorned white doorway. The unhelpful catalog flyers were available in a messy pile on what for all intents and purposes looked like a folding table. There was, in retrospect, something both very apropos and wildly inappropriate about this placement of Rosefeldt’s eponymous tribute to the manifesto. On the one hand, manifestos make up their own genre precisely because of their demand for centrality: their volume knobs are often turned up to 11, their “you have nothing to lose but your chains”-ing designed, rhetorically and sometimes literally, to be shouted through a bullhorn.1 On the other, artists’ manifestos in particular are, in that worn but useful language of literary theory, always-already a mere supplement: not the art but the way to the art, not the finished product but the instruction manual. Perched over the museum restaurant, you could easily miss Manifesto—but if you’re really hungry or thirsty, you’ll run right into it.
Manifesto is, in the simplest terms, a series of thirteen short films. Twelve of them star Cate Blanchett in roles ranging from a stockbroker to a puppeteer to a housewife. The thirteenth features a burning fuse, shot in extreme slow motion. The piece is also a printed text in the form of a lovely, oversized catalog and script published by London’s Koenig Books. From the book, we learn that the “first” film in the series is meant to be the one starring the fuse. Beginning with a voice-over of Marx and Engels’s Manifesto of the Communist Party, the “start” of this installation leads off with the sentence “all that is solid melts into air” and continues with Dadaist Tristan Tzara’s short list of desires that one must have in order to produce a manifesto in the first place, including the desire “to organize prose into a form of absolute and irrefutable evidence.”
I scare-quote “first” and “start” because it is not at all certain that the viewer of Manifesto will encounter the films in this way—it’s just as likely that one will miss the Marx altogether, rather than hearing it as the lead sentence. Arranged along the sides of and on walls jutting into an enormous but low-ceilinged darkened room, the exhibition feels like it’s in a tunnel, which would seem to mean that there would also be a linear way in which one would naturally view its pieces. In practice, however, this tunnel-feeling somehow confines itself merely to the space, rather than one’s movements within it. As such, I walked a little ways past the burning fuse and did a U-turn, coming up to a scene in which Cate Blanchett’s character, impeccably dressed and holding a flute of champagne, is hosting what appears to be an event for wealthy art patrons in a modern, glass-fronted villa. (She is described in the catalog book as a “CEO” describing a “new concept for the company.” This is just as well.) As she circulates, a voice-over of the “Preface” to The Blue Rider Almanac, Vasily Kandinsky and Franz Marc’s manifesto for the eponymous group of German and Russian painters, plays in the background. When we hear her speaking to a guest, it is lines from Wyndham Lewis’s “Manifesto” for the twice-published BLAST magazine: “Art has nothing to do with the coat you wear . . . the ‘Poor’ are detestable animals! . . . and the ‘Rich’ are bores without a single exception!” Blanchett, whose performances throughout the installation are breathtaking in their range, speaks the lines with a polite smile on her face and the self-satisfied tone of the very rich: the “of-COURSE-darling” vocal modulation used by those who are rarely, if ever, told that they are wrong or ridiculous. “The POOR are deTESTable ANimals!” Smile. Sip of champagne.
It was fortuitous, but I think significant, that my first few minutes standing in the dark were spent watching Blanchett play a zero-point-one-percenter, rather than staring at a burning rocket fuse while listening to Engels. (An aside: in eighth grade, my school classmates and I were made to memorize and then recite a bit of the fourth chapter of the Communist Manifesto. It has only recently occurred to me how weird this was.) Manifestos for art are the foam on the cresting wave of the avant-garde—but waves, as we know, always get sucked back into the ocean. Wyndham Lewis, as a manifesto-writing artist, is a great example of just how fast that riptide can move backwards.2 Manifestos attached to artistic movements announce almost without exception the arrival of something that, in the view of the manifesto, is completely new: a new way of thinking about what art should do, what its place in the world might be, what metaphorical windows it should best go about breaking. But it’s hard to break windows when those windows are the floor-to-ceiling glass frontages of art buyers’ apartments. The claustrophobic proximity between avant-garde artists and the extremely wealthy was less the case in 1914 than it is in 2016, but Rosefeldt’s installation is taking place in the latter year, not the former. And in these latter years, the rhetoric of innovation and disruption has been thoroughly coopted by technocratic capitalism, transforming its promise of collective action into a bleary certainty that each new “disruption” will be geared towards concentrating wealth in the hands of startup executives.
The march of history, thus, leaves the manifesto in a tricky position. Lewis, for instance, didn’t give a single fig about the collective body; he insisted (and Blanchett intones) that BLAST would “not appeal to any particular class” but instead only “to the individual.” As a magazine, BLAST would be a failure, but its diagnosis of what would become the “popular” seems to have been more or less correct. Those manifestos which were geared specifically towards collectivity seem even less prescient, and so Rosefeldt’s mixture of manifestos like Lewis’s with radically leftist proclamations like those of pre-Situationist Constant Nieuwenhuys and of the John Reed Club (named after the journalist-poet-author of Ten Days That Shook The World) form a type of incoherent word-soup. Those last two manifestos are combined in a different film, namely the one which sees Blanchett in the startling role of an old homeless man, shouting lines like “the present crisis has stripped capitalism naked – it stands more revealed than ever as a system of robbery and fraud!” through that aforementioned literal bullhorn. But as all the films are playing at equal volume in one room, the auditory effect is radically combinatory, asserting, it seems, that there is something fundamentally similar about what Blanchett-as-unhinged-drifter and Blanchett-as-villa-owner are saying.
This assertion, in some ways, isn’t wrong: the desire to make art matter in some political way, even if that politics is a repudiation thereof, fundamentally undergirds each of the texts that Rosefeldt weaves into his manifesto-as-chorus. One of the most striking features of the installation is a moment when every single one of Blanchett’s characters suddenly and simultaneously turns towards the camera, fixing it with an unblinking stare. The voices collectively rise and modulate into a flat, eerie chant in which you can make out the words being said by the character on the screen in front of you, but only barely. The minute you lose focus, those words dissolve into an undifferentiated tonal mass, a chord of language that sounds like a dystopian version of whatever was going on in the early days of Mac’s experimentations with computerized text-to-speech software. (Remember the Bubbles voice? Or the Deranged one?) This continues for a few seconds, and then each scene snaps back into whatever counted as “normal” for that scene before, be it a dance rehearsal or a family dinner or a news broadcast. This choral moment comes near the end of each short film, thus capping them all off with that declaration of genre-based solidarity.
There is one particularly easy, and thus particularly banal, takeaway from these performances as a collection. It is to say something about the way in which Rosefeldt makes the manifesto “ordinary” by putting it into the mouths or laying it over top of the “humble actions” of “ordinary” characters—garbage collectors, teachers, scientists. By doing so, the argument goes, the viewer sees the way in which we can all form our own manifestos, and how the extraordinary can arise from the quotidian. This individualist-“Kumbaya”-ing is reminiscent of Lewis’s worst impulses and fails on the most basic observational level: for there is nothing, not one thing, ordinary about Cate Blanchett. Blanchett is a virtuoso, a marvel in subtle and theatrical transformation, but whether you are laughing at her earnest portrayal of a schoolteacher telling a doodling student that “nothing is original” and thus to “select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul” (from Jim Jarmusch’s “Golden Rules of Filmmaking”) or trying to squint through the layers of prosthetics needed to turn her into the shouting Situationist man, the delight comes from seeing Cate Blanchett do these things. At no point does the viewer lose sight of the fact that this is a marvelous performance by an astonishing actor. Far from making the manifestos ordinary, Blanchett makes them even more extraordinary, drawing attention to the fact of the piece’s gimmickry by being so endlessly mutable. Any declaration Rosefeldt might want to have made about the radical collectivity of the manifesto as genre must give way before the force of this individual performance—the hyper-individualism of celebrity and the cult of talent.
Perversely, the inescapable fact of Cate Blanchett’s capacity to elicit delight eventually draws one’s attention (eventually meaning retrospectively, if one, like me, did not have many of these manifestos to hand and had to go looking them up later) to the fact that while there are many formal similarities between all of these artistic screeds, some of them were written by fascists. Lewis wouldn’t have been Lewis without Ezra Pound, and Marinetti’s Futurist manifesto—overlaid, cleverly, upon the scene in which Blanchett plays a stockbroker—is inextricable from Mussolini’s March on Rome. There is danger, that is, in the pure entertainment one finds in this context in watching a single artist be so good at her work, danger in being delighted simultaneously by Claes Oldenburg’s paean to consumption and John Reed’s critique of capitalism. Manifesto is not designed to expose these disjunctions and contradictions, although there are a few twists of logic that one might make in order to argue that it is. One such twist would be to rely too heavily on Rosefeldt himself, who has stated rather curiously that “[n]ot all of these artists I admire but I can truly say that I fell in love with them reading their art. It’s really beautiful. If you have always the work in front of your eyes and then all of a sudden you have this voice and it becomes only poetry and lyrics, it gives you so much access to the person behind the artwork.” This statement is nonsensical on a couple of levels, not least of which is its strained attempt to divorce person from poetry while claiming that said poetry gives one privileged “access to the person.” So while Rosefeldt appears to be cognizant of the fact that some of these testosterone-fueled proclamations have aligned themselves with power in consequential ways, Manifesto backs away from any coherent narrative in which this fact is made clear. Instead, the radical simultaneity: a good metaphor for modernism itself, but also a tellingly apolitical one.
This is not to say that art like Rosefeldt’s must necessarily be didactic. But if it’s not going to be, then no one gets to make the argument that Manifesto is, itself, a manifesto. (This happens a couple of times in the catalog’s own critical paratexts, which are in the main quite weak, and once from Rosefeldt himself, which is relatively unsurprising, but still wrong.) Whatever you think of Dadaism, there’s no attempt to provide “absolute and irrefutable evidence” of anything here. The words flowing from the installation’s speakers do not themselves have any real bearing on the piece of art of which they are a part. They aren’t even the main attraction. And so we, the viewers, are left to our own devices. I found myself wandering across the exhibit and back again, viewing the films in no particular order, with one perhaps telling exception: near the front of the exhibit, there was one scene in which Blanchett was playing what looked like a punk rock musician. Her hair was cropped and black, she was covered in tattoos, and she stumbled around the last remnants of a post-gig party, clutching a bottle of liquor and a cigarette. (If this exhibit is one absolutely indisputable thing, it is a tribute to the sheer prowess of its makeup artists.) I left that scene, deliberately, for last. I wish I could say exactly why I did it, with all of the conjured security with which we academics make our pronouncements. My closest guess would be that this Blanchett—the drunk, younger-than-she-is, angry, working-class Blanchett—was the one that seemed the most not-Blanchett to me, and (thus?) the most alluring. Even in that comparatively blissful pre-election moment, something in me was drawn like a moth to a lightbulb towards Lady Galadriel-as-Brody Dalle; something in me wanted to wallow around for a while in the unbridled, ludicrous sexiness of a good girl gone bad. Hers was the only role in which, for a moment, I lost myself, in which a confusing mixture of nostalgia and hope and grief tumbled around in my chest, unanalyzed.
Rebellion—that cornerstone of the manifesto’s raison d’être—makes us roll our eyes in this postmodern (sorry) moment because, in some way, we’ve bought into a kind of lifestyle-Fukuyama-ism in which all rebellion has already permanently failed. Approximately ninety-eight percent of all American smugness stems from this perverse form of relief, in which when nothing changes, at least we can say that we always said it wouldn’t. We cannot afford to be so smug now, as we wake up in a world in which a certain kind of rebellion has dealt a decisive blow to notions of reformist progressivism. I remain unconvinced that Rosefeldt’s Manifesto is any kind of rehabilitation of the form from which it takes its name, and his choice of mouthpiece does not negate the profound homogeneity of the authors on which it relies.3 But my gravitation towards a heavily be-eyelinered Blanchett yelling “WHO OF US IS THE MOST SINCERE?” says, I think, something about my own hope that we are capable of admitting what we are as well as what we are not, and of recognizing the hot pull of desire that holds those two things in sometimes shameful tension. As she slumps and flails, shakes popcorn over the floor and thwacks a microphone, Blanchett’s character (speaking words from Manuel Maples Arce’s Strident Prescription) speaks to the abandon we find so rarely, and to the violent freedom it can promise, for good and for ill. Those of us with the time and the safety to think hard about any of this must confront what we have given up in order to do that thinking, and then we must ask ourselves, in these carefully lit and unlit rooms, whose voices ought to rise in that unrelenting chorus.
Manifesto premiered in the United States on the 7th of December, at New York’s Park Avenue Armory, and was screened this year at Sundance.
- The quote is in fact a common mistranslation of the German original—“die Proletarier haben nichts in ihr zu verlieren als ihre Ketten”—which reveals a lot about the expectations we have for manifestos’ forms of address.
- Martin Puchner’s Poetry of the Revolution is a lucid and cogent full-length analysis of these kinds of tensions between the aesthetic and the political—but he lays out his feelings about Lewis most succinctly in his essay in Douglas Mao and Rebecca Walkowitz’s edited collection Bad Modernisms. “Among the many bad British modernists,” he writes, “Wyndham Lewis stands out as the inventor of a particularly unsavory brand of modernism, an amalgam of racial hysteria, homophobic diatribes, fascist politics, and social resentment.”
- The definitive corrective to this tendency remains Janet Lyons’s Manifestoes: Provocations of the Modern, which (anachronistically) gives the lie to Rosefeldt’s attempt to justify his choice of texts written almost exclusively by men, as he does in the catalog book by saying how “thrilling” (97) it was to have Cate Blanchett recite them.