He Works, We Work, They Work: Christian Jankowski’s Manifesta

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It raised eyebrows when it was announced that the city of Zurich was to host Manifesta 11 in 2016. What could the European Biennial of Contemporary Art, an itinerant event known for setting up shop in peripheral locations such as the Italian South Tirol region in 2008 or Limburg in Belgium in 2012, bring to the wealthy and culturally privileged Swiss city? It was for this reason that a curious crowd came to hear Christian Jankowski, German artist and Manifesta 11 curator, explain his concept at a press conference in Zurich on Thursday.

Jankoswki’s appointment had been a surprise, too, though on paper his proposal has legs. Fijen opened the press conference by stating that Manifesta 11 was to be “diametrically different” from its St. Petersburg predecessor by aiming to be “more discursive, more interactive.” Jankowski sets out to achieve this with the concept he presented, “What People Do For Money: Some Joint Ventures.” It’s informed by his own practice, in which he regularly engages with various professions, having previously enlisted telemarketers to sell art at the Cologne Art Fair, challenged Polish weightlifters to pick up civic monuments, and worked with preachers, politicians and news anchors, to name just a few.

His plan for Manifesta is to give every participating artist a list of the professions practiced in Zurich and ask each artist to pick one. A practitioner of the chosen professions will serve as the artist’s host, in a sense curating the artist’s experience of Zurich. (The metaphor of marriage was also mentioned.) The artist and the professional will also choose the venues for the resulting projects.

The focus on labor is not just a current topic, given phenomena like increasingly freelance workforces and the plight of migrant workers (the latter a hot issue in Switzerland, where politics is dominated by the right wing), but may also have a particular resonance in Zurich. Handsome Zunfthäuser, or guildhalls, where the traditionally male-dominated professional guilds have gathered for centuries to determine the course of city business and politics, flank the city’s main river, the Limmat.

Jankowski’s also seems a smart approach given the power and authority of the major cultural players in Switzerland; he aims to both evade their control and thematize the increasing professionalization of art. He characterized Hauser & Wirth, the largest and best-known Swiss gallery and now basically a multinational corporation (founded in Zurich in 1992, it now has venues in London, New York, Los Angeles and rural Somerset, England), as being a power player that offers an “all-round service.” Some institutions, yet to be named, will nonetheless be involved in 2016 with a thematic umbrella exhibition, “Profession as Subject Matter,” which will constitute part of the show.

The German word for profession, Beruf, is the root for the word Berufung, or calling, and Jankowski used both terms when asked how he would define a profession. Collaboration and compromise should, he says, be central to Manifesta 11, with one goal being to bring art to new publics in Zurich. If some of Jankowski’s suggestions seemed a touch naive-screenings of Steven Shainberg’s erotic-comedic film Secretary for secretaries or Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver for cabbies, for example-one could say that it will require a degree of unflappable optimism to realize this concept, and Jankowski has harnessed those qualities to realize impressive projects in the past.