Julian Rosefeldt. Manifesto, 2014/2015 © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2016

Becoming a Manifesto

Berlin-based artist Julian Rosefeldt brings a collage of manifestos to 13 films featuring Cate Blanchett

As you enter a dark room inside the Nationalgalerie at Hamburger Bahnhof — Museum für Gegenwart in Berlin, you hear a cacophony of voices, ambient noises, even the music played by a fanfare. In the entrance, you see a first screen showing a burning fuse in slow motion — this is the only film from the 13 shown in the exhibition with no individual on, and while your eyes get lost in the hundreds of out-of-focus sparks, a voice rises:

All that is solid melts into air.

The first persona interpreted by Cate Blanchett speaks a line from Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’s Manifesto of the Communist Party (1848). Later on in this voice over, she continues with a fragment from another manifesto:

I am writing a manifesto because I have nothing to say.

A fragment from Philippe Soupault’s Literature and the Rest (1920), this time, which will be followed by words from Tristan Tzara’s Dada Manifesto (1918). After this introduction, the viewer is invited to move from one screen to another for the next two hours, and I can assure you, it blows your mind.

Julian Rosefeldt. Manifesto, 2014/2015 © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2016

Julian Rosefeldt’s Manifesto is a tour de force. The solo exhibition on show until 10 July 2016 at the Hamburger Bahnhof presents a collage of manifestos through 13 parallel films. Rosefeldt has made a selection from manifestos ranging from Karl Marx to Elaine Sturtevant, from futurism, Dadaism, situationism, Fluxus, Pop Art, conceptual art, or Dogma 95, to question the role of the artist in today’s society but also emphases the literary beauty and performative energy of artist manifestos by forming 13 poetic monologues brought to life by internationally renown, Award-winning actor Cate Blanchett.

The text most often associated with the term manifesto is Marx and Engels’s Communist Manifesto. Until visual artists adopted the genre because of its character as critical of society, manifestos remained caught in a political realm. Filippo Tommaso Marinetti triggered a wave of manifesto writing with his Futurist Manifesto (1909). In the process, the genre of the manifesto took shape, including aspects like the vivid and precise communication of authorial intention, appellative language, militant provocation, and often propagandistic self-promotion. Artist manifestos also often address social themes that go beyond art in a rebellious rhetoric. In Rosefeld’s selection, which includes Tristan Tzara, Kazimir Malevich, André Breton, Claes Oldenburg, Yvonne Rainer, Sturtevant, Bruno Taut, Sol LeWitt, Jim Jarmusch and other artists, architects, choreographers, and filmmakers, manifestos are about the freedom of expression and demand profound changes in attitudes or society.

In an interview published in the exhibition catalogue, Rosefeldt explains,

The process of scripting Manifesto was very organic. I started to play with the texts and to edit, combine and rearrange them into new texts that could be spoken and performed. I like to imagine these texts as the words of a bunch of friends sitting around a table in a bar talking and arguing. They are complementing each other in a playful way.

There is also a strong playful element throughout the piece, as the viewer has to move from one screen to another, trying to find its way into this newly formed manifesto where words and images overlap and compete for attention. From a homeless man bawling Guy Debord’s words Situationist Manifesto (1960) directly to the viewer:

To those who don’t understand us properly, we say with an irreducible scorn: ‘We, of whom you believe yourselves to be the judges, we will one day judge you!’

We move to a tattooed punk discussing creationism and stridentism through among others, Manuel Maples Arce’s words from A Strident Prescription (1921):

In my glorious isolation, I am illuminated by the marvellous incandescence of my electrically charged nerves.

It is especially striking to see certain words spoken by everyday people, be it a broker or a worker in a garbage incineration plant, as it moves the words almost into a new dimension and allows the viewer many different interpretations and the possibility to identify with certain causes. This enormous contrast between the what we see on screen and the words we hear amplifies the emotional and intellectual impact of the piece on the viewer. This effect can be at times powerfully destabilising, but also extremely funny, like when the teacher steals Jim Jarmusch’s words to speak them in a didactic tone to her pupils:

Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work and theft, will be authentic.

In the same interview, Rosefeldt explains that for him,

[…] the humour in Manifesto stems from the combination of the spoken word and the scenario itself. The interaction of certain images with certain fragments happened intuitively. And I find some of them funny, although it isn’t my main intention to make the audience laugh.

And when a newsreader in a TV studio, following a Good evening Ladies and Gentlemen, states in her big forced smile that:

All current art is fake, not because it is copy, appropriation, simulacra or imitation but because it lacks the crucial push of power, guts and passion. All of man is fake. All of man is false. Not only because he cheats and lies with charming ease and hates and kills with determined speed, but also because man’s new cyber form is Man as God.

before she move from Elaine Sturtevant’s Shifting Mental Structures (1999), to fragments from Sol LeWitt and Adrian Piper, dialoguing with her colleague, also impersonated by Cate Blanchett, reporting back from under a heavy windy and rainy place, which will be revealed at the end of the film to have been staged and fake.

There is a sense of urgency in the tone which is issued by all the pronouncements that Rosefeldt gathers together in his text collages. This becomes particularly striking in one moment throughout the installation when the artist unites all characters in all the films to one single orchestral sound.

Julian Rosefeldt. Manifesto, 2014/2015 © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2016

While most of the manifestos are written by men, the declarations in Rosefeld’ts Manifesto are by one woman in usually female roles, as he explains in the interview of the catalogue:

The main idea for Manifesto was not to illustrate the particular manifesto texts, but rather to allow Cate to embody the manifestos. Until the last thirst of the twentieth century there were only a few manifestos written by women artists. Most were written by men and they are just bursting with testosterone. So I thought it was thrilling to let them be spoken today by a woman.

So we see Cate Blanchett becoming a choreographer of a dance ensemble, a teacher, a funeral speaker, a factory worker, a stockbroker, a puppeteer, a conservative mother with her family, a newsreader and reporter, a scientist, a tattooed punk, a CEO at a private party and a homeless man, bringing the historical manifestos to today’s everyday world, becoming the manifesto. Like Anna-Catharina Gebbers and Udo Kittelmann write in their essay “To Give Visible Action to Words” published in the exhibition catalogue,

Manifesto clearly wants to show individual characters with their personal struggles, their interactions with others, and their cultural and film-historical traditions.

Julian Rosefeldt allows the viewer to truly immerse into the work, going to meet one character after another, watching an extraordinary actor moving like a chameleon from one individual to another, one movement into another, one thought into another,… transporting us into our own manifestos, allowing us to become, in turn and through the multiplicity of voices and ideas, our own manifesto.

UPDATE on 24 November 2016: Manifesto will be shown during the Holland Festival in Amsterdam between 4 and 25 June 2017.

UPDATE: exhibition date extended. Manifesto is on show at the Hamburger Bahnhof – Museum für Gegenwart – in Berlin until 18 September 2016. For more information visit: www.julianrosefeldtinberlin.de

To accompany the exhibition, a richly illustrated catalogue has been published featuring all the texts performed in the film and contributions by Burcu Dogramaci, Anna-Catharina Gebbers/Udo Kittelmann, and Reinhard Spieler, along with an interview with Julian Rosefeldt.