On “Manifesto”

By Martin HarriesMay 27, 2019

On “Manifesto”
TO CHANT WITHOUT restraint, without holding back: the frisson of collective surrender to a simple phrase which itself encapsulates a political project, however simplified — and it may be all the more enthralling for this simplification — is opposed to the linguistic complexity that marks most manifestos. The chant, authorless, opposes the manifesto, which rarely shakes its origin in the writing of an individual. The manifesto, at once the written program of an avant-garde movement and an example of its aesthetic and/or political urges, may aspire to the anonymity and urgency and mass oration of the chant, and yet, complex sometimes despite itself, the manifesto resists chanting.

Julian Rosefeldt’s collaboration with Cate Blanchett, Manifesto, is a video installation first exhibited at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image in 2015; since then, the piece has been shown at about 21 venues from Auckland to Shanghai, and its world tour continues. A series of beautifully produced videos featuring performances in which Blanchett recites pieces of manifestos written by a wide variety of artists, Manifesto circulates as a “contemporary call to action.” Both the press release of Hauser & Wirth, the Los Angeles gallery where Manifesto had its West Coast premiere, and the back of the DVD package of the film use this phrase. It is hard, however, to know what action the piece calls on us to perform. I may simply have been insusceptible to this call, or I may have resisted it, or I may misunderstand what “action” means here. Or this may be the problem: that the “contemporary call to action” in the sphere of art does just this, provoking reflection on the relation between the possibilities of political speech in the present and the desired performative force of manifestos or calls to action ranging from The Communist Manifesto (1848) to Elaine Sturtevant’s Man is Double Man is Copy Man is Clone (2004). (The largest group of selected texts belongs to the interwar period in Europe, representing many of the avant-garde movements of that time.) A meditation and performance of manifestos without being one itself, Manifesto stages “thirteen collages of artists’ manifestos.” As Ed Dimendberg has pointed out in “Manifesto as Manifesto” (forthcoming in En Face & Beieinander: Festschrift for Richard Sieburth, 2019), Manifesto, unlike many other video installations in galleries, exists in a catholic variety of media forms: as a DVD in a package that emphasizes Blanchett as star; as a book, with the visual artist’s name and a photo of the actress on the cover, which gathers the texts of the “collages” along with essays; as a collection of streaming videos available on the artist’s website; and in the installation form that occupied two large galleries at Hauser & Wirth in Los Angeles from late October to early January: “Julian Rosefeldt. Manifesto,” to reproduce the oddly punctuated title given by the press release. This variety of modes of publication contrasts, for instance, with Christian Marclay’s The Clock (2010), which exists only as an installation and as a limited edition. Unlike The Clock, a comparably ambitious installation by an artist working with video, Manifesto is at once designed for display in intricately planned gallery spaces, and also available at any time, and to anyone, to watch online. Manifesto wants to be free.

Each form of publication of Manifesto raises its own questions: my focus here will be on the installation at Hauser & Wirth. Manifesto includes 13 channels: a prologue of four minutes and 12 videos of 10 minutes and 30 seconds each. At Hauser & Wirth, benches were set up in front of each of the 13 screens, and the sound was carefully focused, so that one could concentrate on each video separately. Yet a visitor was also always aware of sounds spilling over from other parts of the installation and, depending upon where one was sitting or standing, one might catch glimpses or even find oneself focusing on partial images from another screen. Further, in the form of installation, the various channels insist on their combination at regular intervals: Blanchett plays 12 characters, and about two-thirds of the way through each video, each character turns to face the viewer, all but unblinking, as if in a trance, centered in the frame, and each intones a passage from whatever manifesto she is speaking. That is, for a moment, the elaborately individuated characters Blanchett plays speak together. Collectively, however, the various voices combine into the sound of an alien robot chorus: high-pitched, recognizable as language but inarticulate — or, it may be, unarticulated because collective. The voices, that is, combine as a strange chant, as choral noise.

Manifesto gives the words of manifestos to embodied characters. As manifestos become soliloquies spoken by these characters and, quite often, speeches delivered as voice-overs, the piece at once disrupts one’s sense of these manifestos as discrete aesthetic and political statements and wrenches them from their original historical situations. Rosefeldt has called manifestos “seismographs of their time”: the piece asks what happens to these measurements of the shocks and tectonic shifts of one period when they are dislocated into utterly rich and yet bewildering worlds of another period or periods: a widow in mourning somewhere in Eastern Europe, it seems, delivers a Dada soliloquy as an address at the funeral of her husband; a Russian choreographer resembling Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard speaks passages from manifestos by Yvonne Rainer, George Maciunas, and Kurt Schwitters to an audience of ballet dancers dressed as sequined aliens with bulbous brainpans; a “conservative mother” speaks the words of Claes Oldenburg to her family gathered around an elaborate lunch table. The manifesto as pamphlet, produced to be broadcast to those with ears to hear, takes on a new, disorienting status as dialogue or soliloquy in dramatic situations into which the films throw the spectator without preliminary contextualization. The effect is at once one of decontextualization, as the manifestos have been ripped into fragments and removed from their historical situations, and of surreal or humorous or off-kilter recontextualization. These new contexts arise through dramatization and through the delegation of these texts to particularly and idiosyncratically embodied speakers, all of them played by Blanchett but otherwise remarkable for their collective discontinuity. There are sometimes what one might call establishing shots, but most often one still does now know where one is: this is a trading floor, this is a ruined factory, this is a cemetery, but where?

Manifesto dislocates manifestos written by artists addressing particular historical conjunctures, which produces an uncanny sense of historical continuities and contradictions. This or that manifesto, a historically specific moment of address — an artist’s or collective’s appeal to repair the world, or art, or the world through art, or art through the world — at once becomes contemporary and out of joint: the words of the manifestos variously “fit” the roles Blanchett plays and their settings seem utterly to contrast with these roles and where the performances happen. Most often, there is a kind of disorienting oscillation, as the words of the manifesto seem at once oddly to belong in these new contexts and violently to contrast with them. Manifesto plays with this dialectic of historical specificity and unmoored transmission further in producing scripts from collages of texts that themselves date from different periods: only one of the films takes all of its text from a single manifesto from a single year.

No single dynamic describes all of the films. As installed at Hauser & Wirth, the viewer first encountered Blanchett as a rugged, bearded, homeless man, accompanied by a dog, pushing a cart. The video begins with an aerial view of the ruins of an immense industrial complex, and slowly turns its focus to the homeless man walking through the complex. During this early sequence as the camera pans over the geometry of the vast desolated complex from the air, Blanchett, speaking clearly in a voice-over — in “her own” voice, it may be — intones the words of a text that begins:

Mankind is passing through the most profound crisis of its history. An old world is dying; a new one is being born. Capitalist civilization, which has dominated the economic, political, and cultural life of continents, is in the process of decay. It is now breeding new and more devastating wars. At this very moment the Far East seethes with military conflicts and preparations, which will have far-reaching consequences for the whole of humanity.

While the spectator at Hauser & Wirth could ask for an exhibition checklist — as I thought to do, on my first visit, only after having taken in all of the films — few listeners are likely to recognize each of the pieces of the collages. The films include no indications of the breaks between the texts Rosefeldt has collaged or sutured together, and in the darkened rooms of Hauser & Wirth there were no visible captions, titles, or anything at all to tell the audience that this passage, for instance, is an extract from the “Draft Manifesto of John Reed Clubs,” first published in New Masses in 1932. One does not need to know this provenance, however, in order to sense the contrast between the prophetic urgency of the text and the spectacular ruins of what was once a new world become old, its process of decay complete. That the factory itself appears to be the remains of a capitalist or a state socialist enterprise only adds to the sensation that this text, in its contemporary moment, predicted this ruin. This sense of an anachronistic joining of dramatic situation to the text of a manifesto is more striking in some of the films than others, but this effect of a simultaneous match and disjunction between these historical texts and the setting of the video is virtually always in play.

In an interview, Rosefeldt has stressed the importance that Blanchett delivers texts written mostly by men, with the exceptions of those by Adrian Piper, Yvonne Rainer, Olga Rozanova, Sturtevant, and Mierle Laderman Ukeles:

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 third 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.

Considering this gender disconnect as merely thrilling, however, sidesteps the way that embodiments within the piece are in fact peculiarly illustrative or peculiarly in contrast with the texts they speak. Rosefeldt imagines the installation as a set of drag performances: set pieces of masculine would-be aesthetic and political world-making incongruously embodied by Blanchett. The thrill of having a woman “embody” these texts, “just bursting with testosterone,” comes from our recognition that the rhetoric of these texts, whatever their sources and whatever our knowledge of those sources, is in some recognizable way a masculine idiom of an art world dominated by men and their voluble ambitions. For example, when a “tattooed punk,” to use the description of the press release, spits out manifestos by Manuel Maples Arce, Vicente Huidobro, and Naum Gabo, the repudiation of bourgeois traditions of art seems very much in character. Conversely, when a veiled widow at the very proper funeral of her husband delivers Dada manifestos about shitting on art to somber mourners gathered about his grave, the contrast between her scatological and comically deadpan aesthetic fury and the event depicted is central to the film’s frisson.

An impulse driving the writing of manifestos tended toward a desire for anonymity, toward the desire for a document to shed its author on the way to becoming the charter of collective speech and action, and yet the history of manifestos also suggests a need — a distinctly gendered need? — to assert authorship and authority. Martin Puchner suggests this need in Poetry of the Revolution, for example, when he discusses how the names of Marx and Engels became attached to the original anonymous Communist Manifesto. Yet, as the need for prestige seeps into the artist’s practice, the author function kicks in, and this so-called anonymity ultimately performs as an assertion of authorship and authority rather than as an expression of a unified collective. Certainly, Manifesto decouples these texts from their authors, at least for a while, at least until the visitor asks for the press release, or the reader looks through the book with the artist’s name on it. I emphasize this bibliographical point because the various media instantiations of Manifesto, as I mention above, do present authorship in various ways, and because it seems to me bizarre to suggest that Rosefeldt does not share authorship of this work with Blanchett. My thinking here was stimulated by a 2015 essay in Reverse Shot, for which Shonni Enelow argues that the collaboration between Juliette Binoche and Olivier Assayas in making Clouds of Sils Maria challenges conceptions of authorship. To say that Blanchett embodies manifestos, in other words, is also to suggest that she embodies Manifesto, rather than being a joint creator of it. One might ask, instead, how embodiment performs its own kind of authorship and authority, or how embodiment alienates the idea of authorship.

The “epilogue” to Manifesto takes place in a school. This sequence is at once among the most comic, the most self-reflexive, and the most moving. It is comic because the situation shows a schoolteacher explaining to a group of children that creativity is theft, self-reflexive because the texts concern filmmaking, and moving because of a slow-motion sequence in which the camera leaves the classroom and swoops down and children’s playground games are the background for Blanchett’s voice, in voice-over, reading a manifesto by Lebbeus Woods. She declares she is “at war with my time,” and the texts ends: “Tomorrow, we begin together the construction of a city.” Earlier, the teacher channels Jim Jarmusch: “Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination.” Manifesto declares itself as a series of canny thefts. This sequence is also self-reflexive in foregrounding the moments of simultaneous speech across films as choral. This foregrounding happens explicitly in the context of the alienation of cinematic authorship. Blanchett as teacher, channeling Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg’s Dogme 95 manifesto and adlibbing a bit, sternly reminds her pupils: “And the director must not be credited — all right? It’s very important.” After scattered agreement with this admonition, the children collectively begin to chant an open “ah” sound, without melodic variation. This choral drone of children’s voices provides the backdrop for Blanchett’s turning frontally to the camera and continuing with a version of the manifesto, delivering her vow to refrain from personal taste, declaring that she is no longer an artist, that she will make films “at the cost of any good taste and any aesthetic considerations.” (Manifesto does not note that von Trier and Vinterberg presented this declaration as a “vow of chastity.”)

In this moment, Blanchett at once “embodies” the manifesto by delivering it as a first-person declaration while the peculiar situation of this performance in the installation performs its effect of robotic anonymization. The combined sound of voices from the various screens is a wash of sound, a tone, a drone. To become collective speech is to become nonsense. This effect is specific to the instantiation of Manifesto in the gallery space: it is in this carefully curated world that performance produces a wash of sound out of a collage of chanted texts. The DVD version ends with a credit sequence in which something like this effect is achieved by layering the chanted sequences together. Within each film, however, the chanted texts are audible and there is no overlap. The force of the chanted combination of manifestos drowns out the specific content of any of them. Manifesto, in the end, may be about the fear of the loss of self and authorship that would come with the manifesto’s achievement of the performative force the genre desires.


Martin Harries is professor of English at UC Irvine. The author of Forgetting Lot’s Wife: On Destructive Spectatorship, he is working on “Theater after Film,” a book about the impact of mass culture on postwar drama.

LARB Contributor

Martin Harries is professor of English at UC Irvine. The author of Forgetting Lot’s Wife: On Destructive Spectatorship, he is working on “Theater after Film,” a book about the impact of mass culture on postwar drama.


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