Labyrinthine Cinema: Review of Manifesto, Julian Rosefeldt

Julian Rosefeldt’s thirteen-part film installation, Manifesto, is situated at the approximate midpoint of the Hirshhorn’s Manifesto: Art x Agency exhibition which comprises the entire outer ring of the museum’s second floor, serving to bridge early twentieth-century manifesto-catalyzed art—futurism, surrealism, constructivism, and lyrical abstraction—with political art that speaks more specifically to contemporary concerns. It thus acts as a synecdoche of the attempt by the exhibition—and by manifestos in general—to taxonomize the breadth of history and the diversity of individual expression. The ways in which the installation subverts these tendencies make the two-hour journey one of the most compelling artistic confrontations in my recent experience, both on intellectual and sensory levels.

Despite the labyrinthine, multicursoral nature of the installation, it has a definite starting point and an intended (but less obvious) end point. Entering the dark arc of the chamber, you will first confront a single screen, the “Prologue,” that shows a fuse burning in extreme slow motion, over which a voice speaks what appears to be a sort of anti-manifesto, including lines like “To put out a manifesto you must want: ABC to fulminate against 1, 2, 3,” and “I speak only of myself since I do not wish to convince; I have no right to drag others into my river.” Only a type of well-read individual—or someone who has discovered the double-side laminates tucked into a file box on one side of the viewing bench—will understand that the monologues of Manifesto are cobbled together from multiple sources—in this case, Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Tristan Tzara, and Philippe Soupault. We do not know if Marx would have approved of his logic-based examination of the manifesto genre being answered by Tzara’s dissuasive flights, but Rosefeldt has made his own connections and taken significant license. The manifesto is a genre that is easy to dislike—I dislike it—due to its usual bossiness, its casual violence, the way it limits possibilities in its attempts to make; so it’s welcome how the prologue ends with a thesis question that addresses the dangers of manifestos as a whole: “How can one expect to put order into the chaos that constitutes that infinite and shapeless variation—man?” What viewers next encounter answers that question in the only appropriate way—one can’t—but it’s sublime to see all the ways we’ve tried.

Viewers who know that Manifesto is a multi-channel installation might expect to view each screen in the similarly focused way as the Prologue, thirteen little cinemas. Instead, you round the corner and see and hear parts of the next twelve vignettes all at once. 

They pollute and bleed into one another. This is chaos; this is impossibility. A number of the screens are dually projected on the front and the back, as if one manifesto might be the flipside of another. Twelve speakers are suspended above the twelve viewing benches, so it is thankfully possible to focus on one film at a time, but it is also impossible not to hear all of them simultaneously, phrases jutting outside their margins and seeming to offer accidental commentary on the film/manifesto you’re watching, difficult not to find your eyes drifting to other Blanchetts, wondering what role and accent she’s assuming over on that screen, what -ism it’s distilling. 

In the second screen you are likely to stop at, that of Situationism, the script of which is taken mostly from Lucio Fontana’s 1946 invective against apolitical art, “White Manifesto,” Blanchett plays a bedraggled, bearded vagabond, pulling a trolley, dog in tow, who is stumbling through post-apocalyptic industrial ruins as she declaims against Art for art’s sake in a thick Scottish accent. She passes by a baboon perched on the rubble, ascending to the top of a building where she employs a megaphone to continue her harangue in the direction of a very inhabited modern city. As elderly women set off fireworks with childlike glee, oblivious to the impassioned outcast stumbling by, it is only in this film that the imagery of the Prologue returns, an early, subtle reminder that we shouldn’t forget all that anti-manifesto stuff, that the thread running through all of these vignette is a lit fuse heading toward explosion. An aerial drone shot returns viewers to what would be the beginning of the vignette if these vignettes had obvious beginnings and ends. True, there is a moment when the script starts, but, sitting down, it is disorientingly unclear where you’ve landed in the ouroboric loop.

I have held off describing the key cohesive element of these films until now, because it took me as long to realize it was happening. At one point in each film, Blanchett turns to the camera and, in a pseudo-religious, monotonic recitative, delivers a portion of the Frankensteined script without breaking eye contact. The magic is that she does so on every screen, that they sync up but at a different pitch, creating an eerie musical chord or overtone series that casts the individualistic fire of each of the many thinkers into a kind of harmony. One could describe it as a cohesion or unity, but all these words take on negative connotations given the intended us-versus-them vision most manifesto writers probably intend. It is a moment that requires a contradictory description, both polyphonic and monophonic, again a synecdoche of what the entire installation—if not the entire exhibition—is attempting to weave together.

Without looking at secondary sources, I would describe the guises Blanchett assumes on the other eleven screens as a stockbroker, a dollmaker, an industrial crane operator, a dissolute rock star, a eulogist, a curator speaking at an art exhibition, a theater choreographer, a newscaster/meteorologist (the only time she plays two roles in the same vignette), a scientist in a protective suit, a mom praying with her family at dinner, and a schoolteacher of young children. 

That last one is labeled “Epilogue,” and, except for adhering to this directive, I negotiated the screens in that order, an order of my random choosing, not the “official” one. The settings and characters of the various -isms are deliberate, and are often laced with critique. Unlike the Hirshhorn’s curators, Rosefeldt immediately calls out the ickiness of the Futurists—in particular Filippo Tommaso Marinetti’s misogynist, fascist manifesto—by placing it into the mouth of a stockbroker. At first this figure seems larger-than-life and full of agency; it takes some minutes of smooth crane work to show that Blanchett is but one of dozens of such figures populating the grid of a many-leveled office building. The proliferation of these figures and their many computer screens provide an immediate corollary for the installation’s twelve-screen viewing room. It’s hard not to begin to think of all these impassioned voices of the last century as nothing more than stockbrokers buying and selling at the whim of fluctuating numbers.

The dollmaker is a riff on André Breton’s “psychic automatism,” the crane operator seems to perform Antonio Sant’Elia’s “beneficial demolitions,” the eulogist becomes one of Tzara’s “widowers with the sadness of poison,” and the rock star seems to be deriding and/or embodying Manuel Maples Arc’s “the whole world… conducted like a [fucking] amateur [fucking] band” (Rosefeldt and Blanchett are unafraid to add words to the manifestos). In the scientific facility of Suprematism/Constructivism, Blanchett finds her way into an anechoic chamber (the silent inverse of the installation’s echo chamber) and becomes fascinated by the study of a floating black slab, a human animal confronting total abstraction. This slab is the same size and shape as a bench outside the scientific facility, as the bench a museum-goer is likely seated on while watching Manifesto, reversing the status of spectator and spectacle, and making each individual human life the true object of the installation’s scrutiny.

Effects accrue. The funeral music of the Dada vignette becomes permanently lodged in your ears, the mystery of snatched glances at peripheral screens becomes cogent narratives, and you begin to perceive that voices drop out of the synced-up section at different times. Does this mean something? At some point I noticed that one of the voices—the meteorologist, I would find out—launches into the drone some seconds before the rest of them sync up, causing me to think I’d stumbled upon either a glitch and/or a cypher for the whole installation. Nothing doing. Birds are prevalent, as are apes and monkeys and other references to humankind’s earlier evolutionary stages, as is junk—everything from the amassed empties and food containers and ashtrays of the Stridentism/Creationism rock band to the garbage incinerator of the Architecture vignette to the picked-over meal of the Pop Art family. Certain exclamations become increasingly recognizable, and they increasingly seem to comment upon the manifestos as a whole: “Nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing,” from Dadaism, “Ideas can be works of art” from Conceptual Art / Minimalism, “Mankind is passing through the most profound crisis in its history,” from Situationism (but seeming to specifically critique its neighboring stockbrokers), and “Nothing is original,” the beginning of the vignette on Film manifestos, both written on a smartboard and stated matter-of-factly by a teacher as she begins to walk around a classroom, bending the words of Stan Brakhage, Jim Jarmusch, Lars von Trier, Thomas Vinterberg, and Werner Herzog to comment upon the children’s coloring books. It is appropriate that we end with film, appropriate that the confidence of this teacher’s corrections of fledgling attempts has been thoroughly undermined by two hours of beautiful squabbling.

I have written this review just as I experienced the event, not having seen the 90-minute feature version of Manifesto that premiered at Sundance in 2017. The installation will no doubt unfold very differently for those who have previously encountered this film. Manifesto was shot in the winter of 2014 over the course of 12 days in and around Berlin and first premiered as an installation at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image in 2015. You can see it in Washington DC at the Hirshhorn as part of the Manifesto: Art x Agency exhibition until January 5, 2020. It is a pilgrimage fully worth making. (Also, you could walk through it in like ten seconds, if that’s your speed.) Lastly, the Manifesto book ((Koenig Books, $55.00) available in the gift shop is much more than supplementary material, but a fine work of art in its own regard, taking the eye of a music composer and a Mallarmé-esque concrete poet and to the various scripts.  

Joe Sacksteder is Director of Creative Writing at Interlochen Center for the Arts and author of the story collection Make/Shift (Sarabande Books). Check out his work online in Hobart, The Rumpus, Ninth Letter, and Passages North. His album of audio collages based on Werner Herzog film commentary, Fugitive Traces, is available from Punctum Books, and his debut novel, Driftless Quintet,is forthcoming in November. 

About the author

Director of Creative Writing at Interlochen Center for the Arts

Joe Sacksteder is Director of Creative Writing at Interlochen Center for the Arts and author of the story collection Make/Shift (Sarabande Books). Check out his work online in Hobart, The Rumpus, Ninth Letter, and Passages North. His album of audio collages based on Werner Herzog film commentary, Fugitive Traces, is available from Punctum Books, and his debut novel, Driftless Quintet,is forthcoming in November.

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