Reflection is a new “series” of discussions with curators, philosophers, artists and cultural workers about the image in its broadest sense. Thinking about image-making, the diffusion of images and their mirroring of society, we will take the pulse of contemporary art. To do so, I will use exhibitions, publications, and cultural events as a material to start the discussion.

For this first edition I met Lesley Johnstone, curator and head of exhibitions and education at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal, for their new exhibition Manifesto by Julian Rosefeldt on view until January 20th2019.

We will talk about the viewer’s experience of images, their reactualization and their context.

Pierre Chaumont: So just to put our readers in context, could you tell us what is Manifesto?

Lesley Johnstone: It is a work by Julian Rosefeldt, who is an artist who lives in Berlin. Manifesto is a piece that dates from 2015, on which he began working maybe 2 or 3 years earlier. It grew out of an encounter between him and the actress Cate Blanchett. The work itself is a 13 screen installation, on which is a collage of artists’ manifestos that dates from the 20thcentury, written by Avant-garde groups or artists, up until the last one from 2004. Each video is 10 minutes 30 seconds and all are playing simultaneously. In it, we see Cate Blanchett playing different characters, and the dialogue that we hear is her interpretation of these manifestos. As he was developing the work, he was always thinking of Cate Blanchett, as the main actress in the film.

Julian Rosefeldt has a background in architecture and has a very strong interest in film. His first works were photographic, but always in a very broad sense, in a very cinematographic way. Very quickly he moved to making multi-screen installations, but that are very cinematographic,  narrative and that have a strong awareness of the history of cinema. It’s all filmed in Berlin so through the work we have this vision of the different histories of Berlin, different architectures of Berlin and the different urban fabrics.

Pierre Chaumont: I think it was filmed in the course of 10 days, no?

Lesley Johnstone: In fact 12 days, so she played one character a day.

Pierre Chaumont: And how did you get to collaborate with Julian Rosefeldt?

Lesley Johnstone: He’s an artist that I’ve been following a number of years, I’ve loved many of his works, even though I had not seen them as installations. This just happened to be a moment.

Manifesto made a big splash when it came out, I was hearing a lot about it, and so it was kind of not difficult, and I sent him an email and he said ”of course”. Before being shown here it had only being shown in New York at the Park Avenue Armory. It’s been exhibited all around the world, but very little in America. He’s not an artist that is well known in America, he will be now, as the same piece is opening in Los Angeles tomorrow, and in DC at the Hirshhorn. It’s a very compelling work, a very beautiful work, and I think anybody would be as excited as I am to show it.

He doesn’t run a huge studio, he doesn’t have a 100 assistants, he’s got one person that works in his studio, so you send him an email and he says yes or no in a very short amount of time. It was very easy. It sometimes takes more time, for some artists that are as busy as he is.

Pierre Chaumont: I’ve also noticed that later on Julian Rosefeldt edited the 13 manifestos into one single feature film. I was wondering what the installation, and the juxtaposition of these 13 manifestos brought compared to the single channel version?

Lesley Johnstone: Well there is much much more material in the installation. The initial idea was the video installation,  and because of funding issues, there was an insistence he would also do a single screen version, in order for it to travel in festivals, in a different way, in a different economy. But the point of departure was always the installation.

The film is basically an interweaving of clips of the installation, but there are moments of synchronicity in the installation which is quite surprising. There are times when there’s only one voice speaking, and these are quite resonant moments, so you know he’s chosen this particular moment where all the other screens are silent, and then you happen to focus specifically on that interpretation.

The film is almost chronological in the way it runs from the manifesto, beginning with Marx and Engels and running through. So it is a very different experience, I found it much more demanding as a film than as an installation because in it you can move around, listen and be drawn in many kind of ways. You’re always aware of all these different architectures, different characters Cate Blanchett is playing, and the relationship that he sets up.

There is also the moment when all 12 characters stop and look directly at the viewers and that’s also in synchronicity, which doesn’t happen in the film. And there are moments where you see mainly low panning over architecture or spaces. Those kind of plays between the screens do not happen in the film. The film has many other qualities however. It is a successful film and a successful installation.

I think we’ve seen this on a number of occasions artists that will make a multi-screen and a single screen version. One of the things Julian says for the reason he makes multi-screen installations is because in cinema they’ve invented the short, the feature and the documentary and that’s it. The forms are much more restricted,  and of course you’re sitting in a seat, so you are not immersed in the same way.

Pierre Chaumont: Exactly, the relationship you have to those interpretations of Cate Blanchett and manifestos are really more physical rather than a passive cinematographic kind of way.

Lesley Johnstone: And in each space, he will rework the installation depending on the size of the space and alter the size of the screens, so it’s been presented in two different rooms, and in much bigger spaces and with larger screens, so the work changes from venue to venue.

Pierre Chaumont: One thing I’ve heard from Julian Rosefeldt when talking about his work is how actual these manifestos felt to him, and even though some of them were 100 years old. I’m wondering from your point of view, as a curator, on the impact that these images have on the public and on a younger generation of viewers, artists and cultural workers? I’m wondering how you saw these ”new” manifestos ?

Lesley Johnstone: Well there were manifestos from architecture or from film that I knew less, but many of the manifestos we read them when we were younger in Art History classes.

I think that there are many answers to this question. One is that it’s incredible how they continue to resonate today. These words continue to resonate today, specifically around the state of the world, democracy, globalism, capitalism. He begins with Marx and Engels,  but there are Schwitters and Malevitch and Rodchenko, artists we associate with the revolution, with the avant-garde, further on the left we can say. Many of them were, even today with Sol Lewitt or Lars Van Trier or Herzog, they tend to be more left leaning or revolutionary, so it’s interesting to hear those words said so long ago, that unfortunately pertain so much today, in some of the cases.

The first screen starts with Marx and Engels, and then the second screen is panning across an industrial wasteland of Berlin, that very much evokes a time between the two wars or just after the Second World War. It’s a discussion on the fragility of the world as we know it, how it is coming to an end or has come to an end. I believe we still feel that, and even more so today than in 2015 and the whole movement to the right with Trump, with Brexit and so much going on with Italy, and Brazil.

Through words themselves, and with Cate Blanchett’s interpretation, it makes it very contemporary. There’s nothing nostalgic about the work at all, it’s is in no way cynical or sarcastic. None of that is there. There is an obvious love for the texts themselves, both on the part of Cate Blanchett and Julian. Each one of the collages that he made were because of the beauty of the language and to hear them being said. The other thing is also that he’s wanting people to go back and read them, you hear these collages and look at the panel and find out where they’re taken from, and maybe you want to read the whole manifesto or other manifestos. He doesn’t hide in anyway the sources, they’re all indicated. There’s a label that tells you where they come from, so if you want to read again Sol Lewitt of Claes  Oldenburg, or Shwitters, you can find them very easily. And this is reiterating these manifestos.  Moreover, for the first time in 20 years there are a lot of new manifestos being written by artists. There is a resurgence in 2018 that is also resonating with this piece, and it gives another layer of currentness to the work, I think.

Pierre Chaumont: Also by bringing these updated manifestos forward, there are new meanings in words, like you were talking before. One example for me was technology; what it was for Marx and what it is for us is completely different, yet it still strongly resonates. Plus, seeing Cate Blanchett interpreting and incorporating these words makes the work even stronger, even closer to us I think.

Lesley Johnstone: On certain manifestos, there’s a contradiction between the scene, the text and the characters she’s playing, and sometimes there’s a much closer blending between them and so there’s not a system of the kind of way.

Pierre Chaumont: I think it’s the 5thmanifesto where Cate Blanchett says ”Image is self-evident” and I was wondering if you thought that nowadays images were self-evident, meaning that, you know, more and more social media platforms are without writing or it’s secondary to the image. Are we in a self-evident-image era?

Lesley Johnstone: I don’t think an image is self-evident, we are bombarded by images, and if somebody is making something that is image-based, they have to think about that context, obviously.

Why put more images into the world? Artists are also asking ”why put more stuff into the world, why make more things in the world?”, and I think for any artist it’s always ” what can I do with this?”,  and if you are an image-based artist, a moving-image-based artist even more so, then you have to have a very strong sense of what else is going on in our society, and how these images are being used, and how they contribute to something else.

I think that also, just speaking from the point of view of a curator, I think that a piece like Julian’s work goes very well with an exhibition of painting, sculpture and choreography. When we are programming these kinds of works, it’s true that they can be demanding on a viewer; to have 6 pieces where you have to go in a dark room and sit down and focus, that’s also much more demanding.

 Pierre Chaumont: We, also, might have a preconception of certain images, yet the image cannot be self-evident.

Lesley Johnstone: yeah, and I think about this notion of unpacking images. Of course, publicity is one set of image-making and also the selfie is another set of image-making. I am not very Instagram or Facebook or anything myself so… (laughs)

Pierre Chaumont: (laughs) But in Manifesto, where there’s that moment every time where Cate Blanchett takes on that kind of robotic voice and directly faces the viewer, is quite near from a selfie. Of course we know that Julian is behind the camera, but that proximity and energy traps the viewer for a certain moment.  I don’t know what you think of this but the power of theses images is also extremely effective.

Lesley Johnstone: Well it’s that whole moment of breaking the fourth wall, of course, but it is also saying ”this is all constructed”. Because there’s a kind of hyperrealism in the films, in the way that she acts, that you get sucked into these little films that become almost otherworldly. You become part of that and then you’re pulled out every 10 minutes, and you’re brought back into the entire space.

It’s also interesting because he uses this robotic voice and it’s quite lilting, and you hear a sort of cadence of voices across the room, but each text is different. So it’s also important to go from text to text, and hear what that text is, at that moment.

The first time I walked in, because before we installed I had not seen the installation, I had seen the movie only, and I didn’t realize that at that time of synchronicity each text was different. I though that they were saying all the same text. It’s saying ”okay, you think you understand, but do you really understand?” I think it would be a very different work if we did not have that moment. Anybody that I spoke to who had seen the installation, they always talk about that moment, exactly as you did, as very surprising.

Pierre Chaumont: We were talking about the resurgence of manifestos, and with the work of Julian Rosefeldt helping in that movement, I think for example of Moreshin Allahyari with her Additive Manifesto. I was wondering if you had any idea why there’s a resurgence of manifestos occurring right now? What do you think is that desire to create a text that is not an international truth, but be a ”new” truth?

Lesley Johnstone: A manifesto is a call to action, and I think that there are many calls to action now, Idle No More and Occupy and many individuals find different ways to call to action and a manifesto is like that. As why it is now, it’s a relatively immediate way to have a voice.

It’s also a way, we’ve seen a number in Canada of indigenous artists recently writing manifestos, for instance, of kind of coming together as a collective and saying, simply put ”we want our space, please move over and give us a space” which is exactly the same kind of impetus happening in the 20’s, on a social way. I think media is really controlled, and it’s a way to get around that, and articulate a thinking or an impulse or a desire or a rage or revendication, without having to go through revolution. It’s to establish channels.

You can write a manifesto, you can put it on the web and send it to as many as can be shared. That ay it can go through magazines, newspapers, as pamphlet, and I think that desire was always there but maybe it’s needed even more now; ecology, economy, migration of people, there are so many tensions in the world that I think that it’s a way to deal with those issues.

Pierre Chaumont: To define an era and take a stance.

Lesley Johnstone: Yeah. And also to say  ”I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it.”, you know, just standing up and saying ”enough, basta! We need to do something differently.” and I think there’s a lot of that sentiment today, in the western world, but I think also beyond the western world.