“In this period of change,” narrates Cate Blanchett, “the role of the artist can only be that of the revolutionary.” The actress’s voice-over blares above footage of a bearded old man, pulling a shopping cart through a desolate industrial wasteland. “It is his duty to destroy the last remnants of an empty, irksome aesthetic, arousing the creative instincts still slumbering unconscious in the human mind.” The video slowly crescendos to the main event—Blanchett, playing the role of the homeless man, looking straight into the camera and chanting hypnotic verses akin to a political speech. The words we are listening to come from a manifesto, written by CoBrA artist Constant Nieuwenhuys—who was part of the influential collective of European avant-garde artists—for Reflex I in September of 1948.
In 2015, German artist and filmmaker Julian Rosefeldt cut and merged several dozen historical texts by artists, critics, filmmakers, and architects to construct scripts for 13 short films that can be screened either back-to-back, or simultaneously as they are now, on view at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture garden in Washington D.C. The Hirshhorn’s Chief Curator Stéphane Aquin, who organized the current show Manifesto: Art x Agency, places Rosefeldt’s ingenious vignettes, together titled Manifesto, at the center of the exhibition. Shot in Berlin over just eleven days, in locations that ranged widely—from a puppeteer’s workshop to a newsroom to a high-tech trash transfer station—both their unified concept and Blanchett, their principal performer, connect the films. The actress plays the central figure in twelve of the videos (and two people in one of them). The 13th video, a prologue that she narrates, plays on its own separately at the entrance of the projection room.
Under chameleonic guises and a myriad of accents, Blanchett enacts the speeches that Rosefeldt collaged. As one walks through the projection room, one begins to discover the different screens scattered around, some placed parallel and others perpendicular to one another. In one, Blanchett proclaims in a drunken accent, “We glorify the revolution aloud as the only engine of life. We glorify the vibrations of the inventors young and strong. They carry the flaming torch of the revolution,” a composite of lines from several screeds. In another, she embodies a 1950s housewife praying before a Thanksgiving family dinner: “I am for art that comes out of a chimney like black hair and scatters in the sky” (Claes Oldenberg’s “Ode to Possibilities,” 1961).
Rosefeldt assigned some speeches to characters whom you would expect to address an audience—the newscaster in the studio, trading lines with a field reporter; a party hostess; an eccentric choreographer; a schoolteacher; and a funeral speaker—and Blanchett does so. In other videos, she performs as the homeless man, a financial trader, a machine operator, and a puppeteer. In these cases, Blanchett delivers the characters’ lines mainly in voice-over.
The intense chatter and narration of the contiguous films clash and overlap until—in an eerily hypnotic and effective touch—all twelve orators of each vignette meld into a sort of chant, as Blanchett directly faces the camera. Though each version of Blanchett is performing a different chant, and a different manifesto, what unifies them is the singular focus of each film on her face, which suddenly takes over the screen. The brief choral moment links the films, and the entire project, regardless of the visitor’s position in the darkened room. The characters all speak at once, in rapid monotone, as if the manifestoes are in dialogue with one another. The collective volume steadily rises until little is discernible. It’s at once passionate, intriguing and disconcerting, compelling the audience to gaze at the many characters that Blanchett performs, and become engulfed by the urgency and immediacy of the recited speech melting into one rhythm. There are assertions of debunking and destroying what came before in order to create a fundamental moment of unique artistic expression, but in looking around, and following each individual plotline, you’re struck by the similarities between the manifestoes: the rhythmic harmony, the energetic symbiosis, and the intellectual attack.
Though artists and creatives have written manifestos across history and geographical location, the term still evokes the revolutionary spirit of the 19th and early 20th centuries. The Communist Manifesto, published by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in 1848 set an example for breaking up with the past that seeped into many subsequent avant-garde manifestos and art movements. Its spirit suffuses Rosefeldt’s project, as he quotes from the text on an introductory screen: “All that’s solid melts into air.” Futurism, Dadaism, Surrealism, and Suprematism are just a few of the artistic movements that inspired Manifesto. The earliest statement excerpted in the 13-channel video installation is from 1909, by the Italian Futurist Filippo Marinetti. Blanchett recites parts of Marinetti’s incendiary Futurist Manifesto while playing the role of a ballsy Wall Street trader in a clear critique of Marinetti’s misogyny. Not only is Blanchett playing a role normally associated with men and patriarchy, she is doing so while reciting parts of a manifesto that is very much known for its push to glorify war as “the world’s only hygiene.” The manifesto’s basic tenets, however, were nothing if not provocative: “Courage, audacity and revolt will be essential elements of our poetry,” it proclaims.
The earlier statements from which Rosefeldt mines all derive from Europeans, at the time (1910s through late 1940s) impatient with the status quo. “Time and space died yesterday,” Marinetti announces; “I am against systems, the most acceptable system is on principle to have none,” proclaims Dadaist Tristan Tzara in the “Dada Manifesto” of 1918. “We will destroy the cult of the past,” and “Let us overturn monuments, pavements, arcades and flights of steps; let us sink the streets and squares; let us raise the level of the city,” commands another Futurist polemic (“Manifesto of Futurist Architecture,” 1914). However, Rosefeldt doesn’t limit the manifestos one to a time period or continent, as he’s also consulted the aforementioned American sculptor Oldenberg’s “Ode to Possibilities,” (1961), where Oldenberg affirms “I am for an art that grows up not knowing it is art at all,” and even more recent manifestos by filmmakers Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg, whose Dogme 95 movement in 1995 declared a half-serious embrace of purist filmmaking.
Manifesto can be read either of two ways: as a showcase for the brilliance of Blanchett’s talent paired with art house cinematography, or as a spectacle. If you’re willing to spend some time with the videos (a total running time of one hour and 35 minutes) an arc of intellectual history can be discerned. As much as Manifesto is about the role of the artist, it also implicates the role of the audience. Manifesto does not underestimate the intelligence or the capabilities of its viewers, but instead addresses them directly, making the agency and urgency shared conditions between both the audience and the artwork. A main thread between the short films seems to be the looming question of whether art still has the potential to be revolutionary.
Ultimately, the work explores the universal role that artists play in our society, and how that role is never passive. Manifesto seems to proclaim that the artist’s position must be towards social propagation and social commentary. It’s a utopian idea for sure, but in stating it and insisting on it Rosefeldt provides his takeaway—the character of the manifesto itself. It is the desire and necessity to feel heard, and the risk that comes with saying something that is almost impossible to realize.
“Manifesto: Art x Agency” is on view at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Independence Avenue and Seventh Street SW, Washington D.C., through April 6, 2020.
Sahar Khraibani is a multi-disciplinary artist, designer, and writer from Beirut, currently based in New York City. She holds a BFA in Graphic Design from the American University of Beirut and is a graduate of the Art Writing program at the School of Visual Arts.