We begin with a memory of the Cypriot capital of Nicosia. A few of us were visiting the Turkish-Cypriot sector of the city, and had just crossed back over the UN-controlled Green Line. It was the time for Muslim prayer, and the voice of a muezzin cut through the air. Almost immediately, the bells of the Christian churches in the Greek-Cypriot sector started ringing intensely. For a few minutes the incredible noise prevailed, as prayers and bells fought with each other, until both stopped as suddenly as they had begun, and it was quiet again in the last divided city of Europe.
This unforgettable memory dates back to 2005, during a visit to the island for the first official preview of Manifesta 6, the European Biennale of Contemporary Art, scheduled to take place in Nicosia, Sept. 17-Dec. 23, 2006. The atmosphere was festive. That evening, over fine Cypriot dishes, almost everyone had a confident word to say about this great opportunity for the city, while Nicosia mayor Michael Zampelas worked the room, greeting his illustrious visitors and being courteous to the ladies.
But did the three people in charge of organizing Manifesta 6 -- the German curator, critic and editor Florian Waldvogel, the independent curator Mai Abu ElDahab from Cairo, and the Russian-born New York artist Anton Vidokle -- really know what they were getting into? Planning an art exhibition for a place where barbed wire is still an everyday reality was a bold move. The local politics are complicated, and becoming entangled in them could be risky.
In the end, the curators did the only thing outsiders can do in such a situation: They tried to deal with the politics without taking sides. But if such a thing were truly possible, then Cyprus would not be a place where people have to show their passports to cross the Green Line, where both Greek and Turkish Cypriots are still missing, where UN troops still patrol in combat uniforms, and where mosques and churches fight it out every day with their prayers and bells.
Now, Manifesta 6 has been canceled, after increasing friction between the three curators and Nicosia for Art, the city-run nonprofit organization sponsoring the exhibition. With the official opening of the biennale a mere three months away, Nicosia for Art issued a statement on June 3, 2006, declaring that it had terminated its contract with the curators and the International Foundation Manifesta (IFM), the biennale’s Amsterdam-based home organization. The statement was signed by Yiannis Toumazis, who had been selected as general coordinator of Manifesta 6. Toumazis is director of the Nicosia Municipal Arts Centre, an affiliate of the Pierides Museum of Contemporary Art in Athens.
Manifesta is what one might call a "nomadic" exhibition. It takes place in a different city each time, and previously has been held in Rotterdam (1996), Luxemburg (1998), Ljubljana (2000), Frankfurt (2002) and San Sebastian in Spain (2004). For Manifesta 6, Dublin (including Belfast) and Talin in Estonia were candidate cities, along with Nicosia.
The central project of Manifesta 6 was planned as an international, independent, interdisciplinary art school, based on the model of Black Mountain College in North Carolina, which operated from 1933 to 1957 and numbered among its students and faculty such artists as Buckminster Fuller, Ben Shahn, Robert Rauschenberg and John Chamberlain.
The Manifesta 6 curators issued an open call for participants, and said they got a good response. Accomplished artists and curators were ready to staff the school, and hundreds of students had applied to participate. The goal was to investigate the possibilities of contemporary art education, and to that end the curators organized conferences, lectures and published a book.
The scheme went off track after the curators insisted that the school operate in both the Turkish-Cypriot sector (the department to be overseen by Vidokle) and the Greek-Cypriot sector (departments run by Waldvogel and ElDahab). Though the Greek-Cypriot organizers had agreed that Manifesta 6 would take place in both sectors, the plan to establish something as formal as a new school in the Turkish-controlled part of the island was too much for the biennale’s Greek-Cypriot sponsors.
As is well known, the island of Cyprus is divided. Britain, which annexed the island in 1913, gave the country its independence in 1960, though conflicts between Greek and Turkish Cypriots were not resolved by the new constitution. After a 1974 coup on the island sponsored by the Greek military government, Turkey invaded, seizing more than one-third of the island’s territory (the Greek Junta made no armed response, and collapsed soon after). The north part of Cyprus has remained under Turkish arms ever since.
The conflict remains acute, in political chambers of Greece, Turkey and Cyprus as well as among the populace. Both sides harbor bitter feelings, and only recently has the situation improved enough to allow movement between the two sectors. But barricades and the guard posts still mark the demilitarized buffer-zone, the so-called Green Line that runs through Nicosia. And the area looks like a war zone, despite the the occasional tourist, perhaps reddened from the sun and smelling of lotion, who might cross between the two sectors.
The curators of Manifesta 6 claim that the Cypriot government had agreed that the biennale would operate in both sectors of the divided city, including what it calls "the occupied part of Nicosia." The curators now accuse the Greek-Cypriot coordinators of sabotaging the exhibition by systematically preventing attempts to establish a department in the Turkish-Cypriot side. Moreover, the conflict also involves issues of funding and organization.
According to Vidokle, "Manifesta faced two problems: A complete administrative standstill in Nicosia, where the coordinators never told us what the actual budget for the project was, had not secured venues we requested, had not secured visas for participants, curatorial assistants and those curators who needed such documents to work in Cyprus, had not sent proper invitations, agreements or contracts to participants, and had not produced a comprehensive production plan for Manifesta 6.
"The second major problem," Vidokle continued, "was the recent refusal by Nicosia for Art to facilitate or allow any activities of Manifesta 6 in the Turkish-Cypriot community of Nicosia, contrary to numerous official public statements it had made for the past 15 months. Ever since the beginning of this project, in 2004, we had been told by local officials and representatives of Nicosia for Art that Manifesta 6 would be able to have venues and present programs in the entire city, on both sides of the Green Line. Since this March, Nicosia for Art had completely reversed its position and claimed that this was somehow illegal. No specific law was ever been quoted to us that would substantiate this new position, with which we completely disagree."
Nicosia for Art director Toumazis, on the other hand, told the story quite differently. "No one is denying," he said, "that the Greek-Cypriot organizers had agreed that Manifesta 6 would be bi-communal. We proved this by organizing events in the occupied part of Nicosia and by planning to organize more.
"But that is something totally different than founding a school department in occupied territory," Toumazis said. "A bi-communal project is one thing, but the building of infrastructure in an illegal state is quite another. We never agreed to this.
"In any case," Toumazis added, "the idea for the school to have three departments came about only last November, when the three curators disagreed with each other and decided to split things up. They then wanted to found a school department in the occupied part of Nicosia. We could never agree. We will not cancel out our own existence."
In its statement announcing the cancellation of Manifesta 6, Nicosia for Art said it would "take all necessary steps to claim damages against both IFM and the team of curators."
Vidokle also said that the festival was plagued by funding difficulties. "There was absolutely no budget transparency," he said. "Typically, Manifesta allocates a third of the funds for artistic activities, money that the curators can pass on to participating artists. Nicosia for Art has quoted a total projected budget of €1.8 million, and said that the artistic budget is a mere €300,000.
"However, we had no control over even these funds, as each expenditure had to be approved by Toumazis. All requests for budget transparency or information meet with outright hostility and we were told it is none of our business. All requests for clarification of expenditure rules were completely ignored."
In addition, Vidokle added, "Communication was really dismal. Since this winter almost all contacts with Toumazis were via email alone, with his communications made in strange legalistic language that suggests editing by a lawyer or a legal advisor. It was not normal communication by any means. I tried to call him but he did not take the calls."
Toumazis called Vidokle’s charges about the budget unsubstantiated, and claimed that the curators had not delivered on promises to secure international sponsorship for the exhibition.
"Numerous international grants were received," countered Vidokle, "from the Ford Foundation, the American Center Foundation, the Mondriaan Foundation, Allianz and many other sponsors." Vidokle added that additional grant funds were expected as well in the coming months.
Now, of course, that additional funds are not necessary. Several provisional ideas are in the air, including a suggestion that the project could go ahead without official support.
In any case, after the collapse of plans for Manifesto 6, one glaring fact remains -- real, tangible politics can easily defeat the idealism of art and art institutions. In terms of the political aspirations of contemporary art, Manifesta 6 was a profoundly ambitious endeavor.
In hindsight, it might be obvious that a Dutch foundation and three itinerant international curators would not manage to overcome one of the most persistent conflicts in international relations. As Vidokle put it, "Manifesta is a rather fragile cultural institution, not the United Nations." And, as is obvious from the stalled United Nations plan for power-sharing on the island, the UN has not done much better.
AUGUSTINE ZENAKOS is an art critic who lives in Athens.