Manifesta 12: The Dark Heart of the Biennial Shows Human Suffering Out of Control

The central thrust of the exhibition positions Sicily as the fulcrum of geopolitical conflicts over migration, trade, security and surveillance

The battle for the soul of Europe is being fought on the open sea. As I arrived in Palermo for the opening preview of Manifesta 12, the MS Aquarius, an NGO vessel carrying 629 migrants rescued off the coast of Libya, was offered safe harbour by the city’s mayor, Leoluca Orlando, only to by turned away by Matteo Salvini, leader of the xenophobic Northern League and Italy’s new interior minister. Spain granted the ship passage to Valencia, after its passengers – among them 123 unaccompanied minors and seven pregnant women – had spent nearly five days on the water, baking in the hot Sicilian sun.

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Uriel Orlow, Wishing Trees, 2018, installation view, Manifesta 12, Palermo. Courtesy: Manifesta 12; photograph: Wolfgang Träger

Uriel Orlow, Wishing Trees, 2018, installation view, Manifesta 12, Palermo. Courtesy: Manifesta 12; photograph: Wolfgang Träger

Death is an abstraction when political fortunes are at stake. The Aquarius debacle constitutes an ugly abdication of responsibility by one of Europe’s leaders to alleviate human suffering; but it also reveals how little he understands his own continent. Europe has always been shaped by immigrants. Nowhere is this clearer than Palermo, its shores littered with shipwrecks and its rocky hills dotted with the ruins of a dozen empires. Greek, Roman, Norman, Byzantine, Ottoman, Spanish, French: their names and designs mark the facades of a hundred crumbling churches and palazzos, whose gardens bloom with overseas cargo – the Chinese windmill palm, the Mexican prickly pear. Manifesta’s 12th edition, ‘The Planetary Garden. Cultivating Coexistence’, is deeply rooted in this history: as Uriel Orlow’s film Wishing Trees (2018) reminds us, Palermo’s own patron St. Benedict was the son of African slaves, who worked as a humble monastery cook. In the film, migrants from West and North Africa, all cooks in palermitano kitchens, share stories of their struggles beside a cypress allegedly planted by the first black saint. Forget this history, Orlow warns, and the EU’s moral mission could capsize.

‘How can civic society access levels of power and retain agency in a moment when things seem to be out of control?’ the curators ask in an introductory text to ‘Out of Control Room’, one of the biennial’s three sections, which locates Sicily at the centre of geopolitical conflicts over migration, trade, security and surveillance. (My colleague Amy Sherlock has reviewed Manifesta’s other two sections here.) Works by 16 artists across four venues do less to answer that question than to reveal its daunting scale. The failed pun of its title aside, ‘Out of Control Room’ is the dark heart of the biennial, packed with raw testimony of human suffering.

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Richard Vijgen, Connected by Air, 2018, installation view, Manifesta 12. Courtesy: Manifesta 12, Palermo; photograph: Wolfgang Träger

Richard Vijgen, Connected by Air, 2018, installation view, Manifesta 12. Courtesy: Manifesta 12, Palermo; photograph: Wolfgang Träger

At the dusty Palazzo Ajutamicristo, a onetime residence of Charles V and later hub of Sicily’s grain trade, Richard Vijgen has projected a live-time animated graphic of all discernible airborne substances passing over the city onto the Renaissance palace’s crumbling plaster ceiling (Connected by Air, 2018). Satellites with numeric labels speed across a thick whorl of wind, as airplanes drift slowly by. The feed cuts to chemicals, and we read codes for ozone, sulfur, carbon-monoxide. The graphic is unsettling: even on the clearest day, we always breathe in something we wish we hadn’t, and there is always somebody watching us.

In the following room, the potential consequences of this surveillance become disturbingly clear. A suite of images from Trevor Paglen’s recent series, ‘It Began as a Military Experiment’ (2017), portray real people photographed by the US military in the 1990s so their features could be digitised for the development of facial recognition technology. A ghostly portrait of a man, his face a mask-like blur, replicates one form of the technology by subtracting ‘unique’ elements of an individual face (in this case, a man named ‘Fanon’) from a composite of all the computer’s data for human faces. What would Fanon’s namesake have made of the technology, which appears to have highlighted his most racialized features?

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Lydia Ourahmane, The Third Choir, 2014, installation view, Manifesta 12, Palermo. Courtesy: Manifesta 12; photograph: Wolfgang Träger

Lydia Ourahmane, The Third Choir, 2014, installation view, Manifesta 12, Palermo. Courtesy: Manifesta 12; photograph: Wolfgang Träger

An unsettling buzz emanates through the wall from Lydia Ouhramane’s The Third Choir (2014), a grid of 16 battered petrol drums from the Algerian company Naftal. At the bottom of each barrel lies a burner phone, tuned to the same dead FM radio channel. Just one phone might seem like the remnant of an illicit business deal, dashed before a getaway; all together, they become a chorus, their testimony ominously indecipherable. When the artist shipped them to London in 2014, the drums were the first artwork to be exported from Algeria in 40 years, due to strict postcolonial laws governing cultural patrimony. On a table, several binders document Ouhramane’s many emails to shipping companies and Algerian officials, revealing just how difficult – and expensive – it can be to move worthless material across international borders. How much harder, a human life.

In Ajutamicristo’s chewed up courtyard, Peng! Collective have introduced a small, if somewhat disturbing, moment of levity: Call-a-Spy (2016–ongoing), a phone booth that, true to its name, allows users to ring, at random, employees of major intelligence agencies whose telephone numbers have been leaked. Instructions request that participants use fake names, and refrain from mentioning Manifesta. Peng! assert that their aim is to initiate constructive dialogue that would otherwise be impossible, but standing with the receiver to my ear, I felt like a teenage prank caller, harassing the already-compromised. (I dialled the NSA and got a fax machine.)

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Forensic Architecture, Liquid Violence, 2018, installation view, Manifesta 12, Palermo. Courtesy: Manifesta 12; photograph: Wolfgang Träger

Forensic Architecture, Liquid Violence, 2018, installation view, Manifesta 12, Palermo. Courtesy: Manifesta 12; photograph: Wolfgang Träger

In the Moorish Palazzo Forcella De Seta, Forensic Oceanography’s deeply affecting Liquid Violence (2018) gathers data from Mediterranean migration and the effects of militarized maritime borders and weaponizes it for brute emotional force. One wall charts migrant deaths at sea since the beginning of the Arab Spring in 2011 – 16,173 as of 1 January 2018 – while noting the causes of major spikes. A monitor placed on the floor traces the route of the ‘Left-to-Die Case’, a boat bearing 63 migrants from Tripoli to Sicily that drifted off course in 2011. Using satellite records, Forensic Oceanography have proven that dozens of boats were within 40 kilometres of the vessel, and would have received its distress signal, but none came to its aid – in direct contravention of the Law of the Sea. All of its passengers died. (A voiceover drily observes: ‘The sea is speedy for certain privileged goods and passengers, slow and deadly for the unwanted.’) Another video compiles digital renderings and GoPro footage from the Iuventa, a NGO rescue vessel, in order to evaluate the charge by the Italian Ministry of Justice that the ship’s crew, in failing to destroy the boats from which they rescued migrants, were guilty of collusion with smugglers. That charge was used to forbid NGOs registered in Italy from performing rescues outside of its territorial waters, where its own coast guard is unwilling to travel. (The day I arrived in Palermo, a coast guard ship carrying 937 rescued migrants was allowed to dock, suggesting that Salvini, facing legal limitations, is using the Iuventa case to his political advantage.) The intercepted boat, seen in Forensic Oceanography’s collected footage, is little more than an inflatable dinghy, piled with dozens of bodies; it’s hard to imagine such a craft making it anywhere near Italian waters, and safely into the ‘rescue zone’.

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John Gerrard, Untitled (near Pandorf, Austria), 2018, installation view, Manifesta 12, Palermo; photograph: Wolfgang Träger

John Gerrard, Untitled (near Pandorf, Austria), 2018, installation view, Manifesta 12, Palermo; photograph: Wolfgang Träger

In an adjacent room, a newly commissioned simulation by John Gerrard, Untitled (near Pandorf, Austria) (2018), is a hauntingly silent investigation into the anonymous places where migrants have died. The ‘camera’ slowly circles a meticulously rendered scene: the green shoulder of a highway, marked by a rectangular stain, its corners eared with red spray-paint. Using digital photographs and satellite imagery, Gerrard recreated the site where, in 2015, police discovered the bodies of 71 migrants packed in an Austrian poultry lorry, where they had suffocated in sweltering summer heat. (The very day the work premiered at Manifesta, the truck’s driver and three others were sentenced to 25 years in prison for murder.) The surrounding foliage is too green, the weather sickeningly sunny. The stain – left by the bodily fluids of the dead – would be impossible to notice at Autobahn speeds; it has surely since disappeared. Without monuments, Gerrard suggests, such atrocities can simply be forgotten. How many deaths at sea remain unmarked?

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Tania Bruguera, ‘NO MUOS’, 2018, installation view, Manifesta 12, Palermo. Courtesy: Manifesta 12; photograph: Wolfgang Träger

Tania Bruguera, ‘NO MUOS’, 2018, installation view, Manifesta 12, Palermo. Courtesy: Manifesta 12; photograph: Wolfgang Träger

Forcella De Seta also features a show-stopping presentation by Laura Poitras, with a central film and another four she produced in collaboration with others, detailing the US military presence in Sicily. In 2009, the US government installed an advanced cellular communication hub, the Mobile User Objective System (MUOS), in an endangered cork grove near the small town of Niscemi in south-eastern Sicily. In Poitras’s video, a drone camera slowly glides through beautifully twisted cork trees as enormous satellite dishes rise from the earth like glowing moons. An adjacent video documents the furious local response to the installation, which residents believe has been causing a cancer spike, and upsetting phone and radio transmissions. The dishes, we learn, are used to send commands to drones – the very technology Poitras used to film them – engaged in combat in the Middle East. Even here, in the ancient and serene Sicilian landscape, we come face to face with the ugly hydra of US imperialism.

Tania Bruguera has also created a work about MUOS, documenting the local ‘NO MUOS’ campaign – including the occupation of military encampments, and scaling of radio towers; marches; and letter-writing drives – in a series of vitrines and laminated binders. A wall mural depicts a ‘rainbow coalition’ of punks, young women and mothers with pushchairs confronting a wall of leering, jackbooted cops.

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Christina Lucas, Unending Lightning, 2015, installation view, Manifesta 12, Palermo. Courtesy: Manifesta 12; photograph: Wolfgang Träger

Christina Lucas, Unending Lightning, 2015, installation view, Manifesta 12, Palermo. Courtesy: Manifesta 12; photograph: Wolfgang Träger

If some of these admirably intentioned projects risk becoming too didactic, others indulge in plain documentation to the point that they fail to justify occupying so much gallery space. In Kader Attia’s video The Body’s Legacies. The Post-Colonial Body (2018) – installed in a beautifully tiled, sea-facing hall of Forcella De Seta – four descendants of colonized or enslaved people share their stories and thoughts on the postcolonial condition. Their narratives are fascinating, and vital, but also connected by the thinnest of threads. Why subsume the important specificities of each within such an impossibly broad rubric? Similarly, Cristina Lucas’s Unending Lightning (2015), a three-channel video installation in an eerie fascist veteran’s hall, Casa dei Mutilati, shows in lapsed animation all the aerial bombardments with known civilian casualties since military aeronautics began in 1911. The project culminates in a searchable database, a fantastic resource for journalists and activists alike. Projected at large scale, though, the figures seem strangely abstracted, place names sailing towards a map with the emotional immediacy of a PowerPoint graphic.

All this information makes good politics, but does it make good art? In Gerrard’s case, the answer is surely yes – and in Forensic Oceanography’s, it may not really matter. Manifesta 12 testifies to the urgency of the migration crisis while reminding us that we are always empowered to act in the common good. Even now, as I write this, someone is drowning. It will take more than art to save them.

Main image: Yuri Ancarani, Whipping Zombie, 2017, film still. Courtesy: Manifesta 12; photograph: Wolfgang Träger

Evan Moffitt is associate editor of frieze, based in New York, USA. 

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