In search of a balanced view
Now that the shock of the cancellation of Manifesta 6 has been expressed with an emotive backlash against what appeared as conservative policies and attitudes in this country and I for one, have contributed my bit too, (see Not for Art).
It is time to continue the debate with the other equally pertinent issues albeit less sensational in the light of what has been published in the various forums both official and non official.
Local and International Backlash
The backlash in all its forms appears to be an indicator of overall disappointment and frustration with a cultural and political system which does not at least appear equitable and transparent, not only in Cyprus but elsewhere too. So many artists and theoreticians missing the opportunity to participate in and contribute to a 3 month event that has been perceived as a courageous ground breaking initiative which would undoubtedly have exerted a great influence on the development and attitudes of future biennials is a lot of shared disappointment.
In Cyprus, many of us invested into Manifesta 6 an agenda of responsibility to at least kick start some very vital changes in our cultural environment. We expected the school to generate a transformative dialogue that would elevate the condition of cultural workers in this country and its immediate region. (see Planning for the Future)
Art and Politics
There is an inseparability of art and politics, especially on the scale of international biennials such as Manifesta. Unfortunately for all Cypriots, the abundant international documentation on the advocacy for the “No” vote in the Referendum 2004, by the present government has now re-created a climate of mistrust, a generalised deduction that the Manifesta 6 cancellation is exclusively a return and reinforcement of this political attitude. It is true, like most nations, Cyprus does have its share of nationalist bigots, but it is a major mistake for the international community to assume this represents the entire country as it negates the presence of many bicommunal collaborations and friendships.
My criticism of the NFA is that they should have foreseen this obvious connection and its literal translation by the international community and not allowed the situation to reach its unfortunate conclusion. In this context, IFM also played a role. The question then is why?
Why did the NFA and IFM fail to resolve this deadlock knowing that it would be the people of Cyprus who would in the end be the losers.
That there is a general disregard for the importance of culture and cultural practice in Cyprus is true. It appears also true that the Host failed to fathom that Manifesta 6 is not yet again one of those expensively funded large scale exhibitions which comes and goes quietly. They also appear to have failed to understand that IFM is a high profile organisation which would not shy away from politics and political debate. In fact, this conflict of purpose will raise IFM’s profile and as far as the international community will be concerned, the cancellation of M6 by the NFA will enhance IFM as a beacon for the freedom of expression and practice for artists and curators alike. The NFA has involuntarily set up a huge public relations campaign in favour of IFM but the situation here is not this issue alone.
We, in Cyprus know that Yiannis Toumazis, the Coordinator of M6, was an energetic “yes” voter in the 2004 referendum. He was so impassioned with the prospect of a unified Cyprus that he published numerous articles in the press criticising the encouragement of the “no” vote by the present government and he advocated a move on to a healthier political and cultural future of cooperation and collaboration.
So why did the official M6 forum, IFM, the curators and NFA fail to delete or comment openly on the vitriolic extremely personal attacks on Mr.Toumazis which had absolutely nothing to do with the issue of cancellation nor with his skills as a coordinator and why were these comments allowed to remain on the forum until its closure. I notice that the new official manifesta forum states clearly its intention to delete any post with ‘bad language’. It is mainly this incident which took the discussion to such a low level of communication that made me revise my opinions about what’s really happening.
In Cyprus, we also know that the Ministry of Education and Culture has as one of its major priorities, the support and development of bicommunal projects and has allocated an equivalent generous budget for this. So what went wrong? The positive attitudes of bi-communality were in place at the onset of the Manifesta negotiations, so why did IFM and the curators insist on pushing the boundaries beyond the chance of M6 realisation and why was the delicate political situation in Cyprus not afforded a respect and cooperation due to a Host. This stubbornness represents a colonialist attitude, representing the rash eagerness of the populist world view that all people in this region are open source for accusations, manipulation and condemnation of being untrustworthy extremists.
This situation raises some very salient issues with the main one being the absolute necessity for an ethical approach when organising events in conflict zones. It is of vital importance that sensitivity and discretion are implemented by both curators and organisers. Working in a region imbued with its own divisive political and historical agenda is a mammoth task requiring cultural diplomacy which transcends the autonomy of curators and organisers (see Open letter to Manifesta).
It requires the understanding and experience of the intricacies of the fabric of a particular society with all its interwoven pain and resentments. Without this consideration, internationally organised cultural events would take upon themselves, a mandate to be highly funded and transient incursions upon a host city and its culture. (see Open City)
This is an important consideration which requires its own concentrated open discussion.
An Open Debate
With the exception of a few, where are the voices? The cancellation of M6 is the radical realization of M6 which moves the dialectic into a totally new arena. Does this not provoke some very serious and honest consideration? Why are most of my colleagues sheltering themselves in their ateliers or behind alias names, waiting to see which side will be the most profitable to openly support at a later date? This radical realization of M6 is now public domain demanding a translation of issues which should be addressed with a balanced dialogue representing all points of view.
I believe that the people directly involved with the organisation of Anton Vidokle’s department had no ethical problem with its site in Northern Nicosia. However, the legality of this situation was not up to them. This is the domain of lawyers who are bound by the nation’s laws and legal requirements. No cultural event on any scale can usurp this right.
As an analogy, I could not imagine the Palestinian government would consider funding and implementing a section of an art school in Israeli occupied territory, nor would the international community expect them to do so. This issue goes far beyond the autonomy of curators and the jurisdiction of international biennials especially in this region where the delicate thread of détente is always pulled so tight by many conflicting vested interests.
The 100 days school could have been a meeting place which encouraged people to feel at home across the border, to trust and take responsibility for a shared future. I would have greatly admired the establishment of a department of the school in the north as a courageous and positive pacifist mediation with the Turkish administration. This hope is shared by many Cypriots but at this point in time, the political and legal framework on both sides is still in a state of “under siege” and as such the only translation possible is the reading of legality bound by UN resolutions. In spite of this, it appears that the Host was willing to implement and fund short term events (meaning days at a time rather than months) throughout the 3 month period of Manifesta in occupied territory so why was this not mentioned in the various forums and why didn’t both IFM and the curators see this agreement as positive social and political progress in itself?
The bipartisan issue
Although it appears to the international community that the sum total of the cancellation of M6 is again the victory of wealthy Greek versus poor Turk, it is a very cliché and mistaken conclusion. As I have stated already and regrettably, like most nations, all of Cyprus too, has its proportion of nationalist obsessives who encourage a paranoid xenophobia and racism. However, to focus a development of scholarly, relevant and constructive dialogue exclusively from this point of reference negates what we have already achieved through a small but open discussion instigated by the presence of M6 on this island for the past two years.
Helene Black is an artist and a founding member of NeMe