Palermo’s venerable history as a site of intercultural fusion presents a challenge to any global art organization that proposes to use it as an exhibition venue. The splendor of the city’s 12th-century churches and chapels, which combine Norman (French Romanesque), Byzantine, and Islamic (Fatimid) construction and ornamentation, tend to overpower contemporary efforts. This situation did, in fact, affect Manifesta 12—the latest in a series of nomadic biennials—as the pathos of ruined palazzi (their ornate ceilings gaping with missing plaster and paint peeling from the walls) and the prodigious growth of exotic gardens threatened to overshadow much of the work. It didn’t help that many of these works were conceptual, or had a conceptual component, requiring wall labels or a catalogue to fully appreciate; this delayed viewers’ responses and allowed the decaying surroundings to exert an unconscious influence. Non-conceptual contributions consisted mostly of documentary videos dealing with the Mediterranean refugee situation or resistance to U.S. surveillance in Sicily. The directness of these videos—whose length could also delay responses—also undermined the more oblique and indirect workings of the conceptual pieces.
Given the meticulous preparation behind “The Planetary Garden: Cultivating Coexistence,” it seems likely that this understated effect was deliberate. Perhaps it was intended to raise the question of what art and artists can do when faced with an international crisis or to remind us of memento mori, whose lessons were reinforced by the dilapidated aristocratic splendor. The garden in question comes from the books of French botanist Gilles Clément, who proposes not “a space for humans to take control, but…a site where ‘gardeners’ recognize their dependency on other species and respond to climate, time, or an array of social factors in a shared responsibility,” according to Manifesta. Clément himself helped to construct a garden in a working-class neighborhood as part of Manifesta’s effort to leave a legacy from its time in Palermo. The exhibition had three interlocking sub-themes, with about 15 works illustrating each one; “gardener-docents” conducted tours.
“The Garden of Flows” allowed the biennial to reference Palermo’s history as a historical haven of human and botanical hybridization, as well as its current role as host to contemporary Tamil, Ghanaian, and Bangladeshi communities and goal for offshore migrants from Africa struggling to survive the seas. In this garden without borders or exclusions, difference acted as a generative force. Works under this rubric included Zheng Bo’s (China) video, shown in a bamboo grove, of naked boys chewing ferns in the throes of erotic relations with them and Malin Franzén’s (Sweden) works printed directly from plant specimens, a sophisticated continuation of techniques used in 17th-century Sicilian botanist Paolo Boccone’s work with toxic plants.
“Out of Control Room” referred to the flows within invisible networks of power, which exert control over our lives but sometimes seem out of control themselves. These networks can be digital, governmental (such as forces opposing the migrants), and civic (such as efforts resisting the Mafia). Patricia Kaersenhout’s (the Netherlands) mound of salt crystals and accompanying video cited the slave belief that refraining from salt could make one light enough to fly back to Africa. This section also featured Laura Poitras’s (U.S.) films dealing with citizen resistance to the growing U.S. military presence in Sicily.
“City on Stage” tried to engage with aspects of contemporary urban life in Palermo—its civic activism, religious processions, storytelling and cinematic traditions, and grassroots projects. The palazzi and churches that served as venues became so important to this project that their researched histories commingled with artists’ works in the exhibition catalogue. Gilles Clément (France) built a garden in the ZEN (Zona Espansione Nord) social housing development, which was constructed in 1975–80 and left partly unfinished for political reasons; squatting then caused it to deteriorate. Clément’s garden was started with local residents associations in the hope of getting residents to take it over themselves. On a coastal hill 30 minutes north of downtown Palermo, in Pizzo Sella—another development left unfinished because of political corruption (pizzo refers to “protection” money paid to the Mafia)—the Rotor collective (Belgium) transformed the concrete skeleton of one building into a viewing platform overlooking a spectacular vista of the city and its seacoast.
Given how the historic city stole the show, it is worthwhile to recount how Manifesta tried to engage with Palermo in a more enduring way. Between 1955 and 1975 (a period called “the Sack of Palermo”), the city fell into the grip of politicians allied with the Mafia, which (among other crimes) replaced the surrounding green belt and its Art Nouveau villas with illegal and shoddily constructed cement apartments. After 1993, the present mayor, Leoluca Orlando, and his anti-Mafia team began a campaign of benevolent gentrification (called “the Palermo Spring”) to revitalize the city and its civic life. They restored housing and monuments, installed lighting in public spaces to address safety concerns, encouraged tourism and foreign investment, built schools, and sponsored cultural events. Six years ago, Orlando invited Manifesta to town, all expenses paid. The biennial, piggybacking on the reformers’ momentum, proceeded from mutual consultation with city officials and communities. “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 dialogue,” the mayor later declared.
Manifesta 12 commissioned OMA, the architectural consulting firm associated with Rem Koolhaas, to do an urban study of Palermo. The OMA team interviewed over 130 leading Palermitans over a three-month period and, by July 2017, had produced a 418-page volume, Palermo Atlas, with interviews, stories, essays, maps, and photos intended as a blueprint for the biennial and a stimulus for continued social renewal.
Following the same protocol, Manifesta’s education team, starting in late 2015, did field research based on the advice of local cultural and social workers. From these encounters, they made a map of the most active grassroots initiatives (the “social innovation” map) and shared it with OMA and biennial artists who had been given site-specific commissions. They found the cultural community fragmented and resolved to avoid becoming “an additional island in the city disconnected from the life of the inhabitants.” Reluctantly viewing themselves as teachers, they tried to follow the pedagogical ideas of Paolo Freire in minimizing the teacher’s authority while encouraging students to participate and take responsibility for their own learning. One school project, in the Piazza Magione neighborhood, involved a local rap musician who helped recruit participant families, interviewing older members and inviting younger ones to rhyme their stories. Photographs of the protagonists, combined with music, were then turned into a video and an exhibition in which the inhabitants brought their micro-stories together into a collective narrative. Another education project involved a reconditioned bus, which brought biennial activities into various neighborhoods.
Manifesta 12 also organized two series of collateral events—Palermo artists made up 35 percent of participants in the first series; the second focused on building long-term relationships between local professionals and Manifesta’s network of artists, galleries, and institutions. Four architecture schools (AA School of Architecture; Royal College of Art, London; TU Delft, Netherlands; and UNIPA, Palermo), working in collaboration with local academics and activists, organized two-semester labs investigating possible future scenarios for the city loosely based on the Palermo Atlas. A nightly film program screened works that featured Palermo as backdrop. A café and library of contemporary art (including Manifesta’s archives) kept open hours at Manifesta headquarters, serving to acquaint residents with biennial artists and organizers.
Manifesta 12 made a huge effort to integrate itself with the local art, social, and political scenes. Organizers plan a similar approach to Manifesta 13 (2020) in Marseilles. Perhaps it will take 10 years to know where the Palermo effort has been most effective. For now, it seems (at a minimum) that a certain level of consolidation was achieved: Palermo’s grassroots arts and civic organizations are no longer so isolated. Its artists and activists now have a firmer bridge of support, through Manifesta, to the global art world and to activists elsewhere striving for urban revitalization through art and culture.