- Various / Manifesta 12. Palermo, Sicily.
A genre of defamatory painting, the pittura infamante would intercede in deadlocked legal cases in northern Renaissance Italy. Commissioned by local governments or prosecuting bodies when legal consensus could not be reached, these paintings would depict the accused hanging upside-down from one leg and would be displayed in public places. These visible demonstrations of the subjects’ guilt would act as effigies and, through accretion, a public sense of blame would develop. This could be enough legal evidence to push a case into a guilty verdict.
Forensic Architecture (a research unit based within the Visual Cultures department at Goldsmiths College, UK) also generate aesthetic evidence in order to intercede in legal deadlock. Put reductively simply, Forensic Architecture utilise technological advances to prosecute crimes against humanity that would otherwise be ‘below radar’. They fight to increase the purview of what constitutes sufficient evidence to prosecute atrocities that increasingly occur ‘beneath the threshold of detectability’ (their terminology). Just as photography and fingerprints were once not admissible in court Forensic Architecture work to include drone shrapnel maps built from smartphone footage and retrieval of witness testimony via VR-reconstruction of domestic interiors as evidence in cases against atrocity. To intercede on behalf of those that cannot.
Their compelling, condemning visual output and the paradigmatic nature of their work has seen their practice begin to inhabit art institutions. In 2018, this includes the ICA, the Turner Prize and – under the banner of their wing looking specifically at the plight of refugee and migrant drownings in the Mediterranean, Forensic Oceanography – Manifesta 12.
Having seen the same presentation at their exhibition at ICA earlier in the year I didn’t spend any time at Forensic Oceanography’s work at the Palazzo Forcella De Seta, part of Manifesta’s Out Of Control programme, and I was glad of it. As ever I was trying to spend more time with work that was new to me. I was also glad because of something Daniel Neofetou elucidates in his recent article on Forensic Architecture where he argues that the category error of assessing their work as art does both art and activism political disservice. By trying to read the unit’s output as an affective space we not only minimise the legal impact of the practice, we also reduce the lives of and brutalities suffered by the victims of such atrocities to fodder for artistic endeavour. Neofetou argues that another byproduct of this move is the reduction of the political potential that can be marshalled by art. By holding examples such as Forensic Architecture’s practice up as how political artwork could or should operate we minimize the non-didactic work that artists can do to foster a zone of possibility where radicality can germinate.
Forensic Architecture’s work is vital and vitally occurs upon an aesthetic plain, but while their inclusion in art and biennale platforms will no doubt educate biennale audiences into the specific complexities of the cases they investigate and (I imagine) raise more funds that can be returned to the legal and technical work, their platforming or consumption as art runs the risk of minimizing their output’s chances of being understood as evidence.
The popularity of pittura infamante within Italy began to decline at precisely the point it started to be considered art. Once they became art, they could no longer prosecute and, as it transpires, people did not much need them as art either.
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Elsewhere, in Palazzo Ajutamicristo, Tania Bruguera’s installation-mural Article 11 depicts the struggle of Sicilian activists against MUOS, a global communications system that conducts remote warfare on behalf of the United States Navy. Three enormous satellite dishes that control drones. Bruguera has long understood the importance of documenting resistance as it occurs and has created something between a museological display and street art. Cabinets protect flyers and monitors display videos of the diverse group’s dedicated resistance whereas the collaged photographs and political cartoons stuck directly to the wall are united by a painted mural historicizing the movement’s successes, setbacks and goals. As with Forensic Architecture’s practice, the visual depiction of crimes otherwise unknown are given a (semi-) global stage. We are educated, not only into a specific injustice but the lines of transit, commerce and (in)detectability these contemporary atrocities occur along.
In the same building Lydia Ourahmane’s oildrum installation The Third Choir investigates global logistics in an entirely different fashion. Twenty empty Naftal oil drums from Algeria sit in a room and at the base of each rests a small phone tuned into a radio transmitter. Separated from each other by their oil drums, but also amplified and distorted, the noise coming from each phone coalesces into something like a song, sounding neither like radio nor the kind of sound an individual phone could make. Repurposed common technologies have been reconstituted into something that can sing. A chorus.
A nearby folder details the logistic history of the work’s construction. Built for a final year BA project, the difficulty of constructing this work of found objects becomes clear. After liberation from French rule in 1962, a law was put into effect that restricted the transport of works of art out of Algeria. The work that Ourahmane went through to secure the oil drums resulted in it being the first legally exported work of Algerian art since the ‘60s. Rather than the subject of the work, the conditions of the piece’s manufacture are foregrounded and the rare occasion of the sculptural-choral work becomes evident.
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Several works at Manifesta, particularly in the Out of Control themed buildings, displayed these practices that operate along the art-as-evidence or art-as-indictment lines of logic. Pittura infamante point not only toward such methodologies but also to the miraculous encounter. To the total upheavals required to eject oneself from a bogus system or to take a break from the world as-is only to return unhinged, equipped with tools up to the job of rupturing the world. The pittura infamante are also commonly cited as the origin of the Major Arcana’s Hanged Man card. Strung up by one leg but holding a solemn expression suggesting a consensual engagement, the Hanged Man points towards self-sacrifice. Of electing to hang upside-down and to eject oneself from society in order to see things as they truly are. The Hanged Man is also Odin.
Palermo is hot. The streets are populated with cacti and succulents. Moisture is rare. Becoming attuned to the environmental specificity of the city and its dietary history has been central to Manifesta’s programme. Three encounters with works by Cooking Sections (Daniel Fernández Pascual and Alon Schwabe) and Fallen Fruit (David Burns and Austin Young) focused on fostering these sensitivities.
Fallen Fruit exhibited a digitally-rendered wallpaper (Endless Orchard) where a collage of fruit trees populate a surprisingly-beautiful rainbow gradient and a Public Fruit Map of Palermo that isolates the commons available within the city, namely the fruit trees, street art and religious icons. It invites Manifesta visitors to eat freely available fruit and regard publicly visible sites of worship or artwork.
One of Cooking Sections’ two interventions in central Palermo was a cavernous yellow mesh placed around two citrus trees, whereas the other was a ‘dry garden’ a faithful and functional recreation of the city’s architectural ingenuity in creating buildings that generate microclimates able to support plantlife with minimal irrigation. This second intervention was visible only by travelling through the Chiesa di S.Maria dello Spasimo, a gigantic and breathtaking example of a microclimatic former-place of worship that now houses trees growing within a roofless church. Surrounding three small fruit trees and built from terracotta brick, to sit within this second iteration of What is above is what is below was a remarkable thing. To literally breathe the different breed of air generated through such technology and sharing the space with a small tree that would otherwise wilt or suffer in the heat and to, potentially, eat its fruit. It felt sweetly intimate. Rather like popping in to a stranger’s kitchen, or sitting at the back of a house of worship to a God you don’t necessarily believe in.
That said, all the ripe fruit available had been eaten by other Manifesta visitors. The commons has been devoured by the tourists somewhat and we were a couple of hours late to the dining table.
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Other works engaged with the city’s specificity in a similarly embedded fashion. Masbedo’s VIDEOMOBILE provided a mobile stage where performative reflections on the city’s history as a location for film-sets had previously occurred and were now displayed. Their colossal yet quiet intervention in the Archivio di Stati, Protocol no.90/6, managed to cohabit one of the most remarkable rooms I have ever entered without feeling like an intrusion or an irrelevant footnote. The video was an impossibly tall LED screen showing a bespoke wooden puppet kind of moving around but not doing very much installed at the end of a Noah’s Ark-sized room that held countless bound and unconsulted state records dating back to the 17th century.
Ottonella Mocellin and Nicola Pellegrini’s Blind Walk (the denied city), is an audio tour and smartphone app that guides the listener/s through Palermo via the narration of two Palermitan friends who have been blind from birth. The tour begins near the festival’s hub at Teatro Garibaldi and winds it’s way back to via Albergheria. A political and sensory impression of Palermo coats the city as both Santo and Peppino (the narrators), relay their Palermo in a manner that forces the listener to slow and approach specifics streets as environments that need to be known deeply to be known at all.
The Blind Walk (the denied city) ended near our apartment in the market part of town. Palermo’s markets are the best I’ve ever been to. An encounter with something that I wasn’t sure was art at the time occurred one evening. The stalls were mostly packed up. Some other Manifesteers recognised their kind and asked us if we knew where a particular bar was – we didn’t but a woman emerged from an interior space. She knew where the bar was but more importantly, she was wearing a mask that seemed to made from dripped wax. On her tables were ceramics that looked like bananas but had human noses in their concave. I guess they were moons? Later interactions at the airport confirmed the artist’s name but I have since lost the information.
This intervention in the beating heart of the city, occupying the living market as opposed to unused churches or municipal buildings created an encounter on a similar register to Mocellin and Pellgrini’s audio tour in that it was totally embedded in the city’s life, albeit unashamedly the work of an outsider, but with the possibility of a random encounter that did not require a map or even an awareness of the biennale to experience. This ensured a strength of presence, a rupture, that made a lot of the other public interventions seem demure by comparison.
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In collaboration with academic Alessandra Di Maio, duo Invernomuto have created Black Med, a series of sonic and video interventions based on Di Maio’s notion of the Black Med (taking Paul Gilroy’s Black Atlantic as a starting point), of the Mediterranean as a sea that has always-already been a zone of diasporic exchange. In Black Med, Invernomuto are attempting to trace the sound of the subcultural histories that these exchanges have fostered.
We attended a listening party where Invernomuto played their own selection of tracks held under the Black Med banner. The project’s specific website has also been updated fortnightly with new playlists unpicking different sonic leylines of the Black Med. Kareem Lofty’s inaugaural mix was simultaneously ambient and urgent, Donato Epiro focused upon various vocal and a capella traditions, often in a devotional or religious context and the platform is currently hosting a selection by Paul Gilroy, mostly songs that have migrated back to the Mediterranean from America, isolating fresh iterations, most notably in Rokia Traore’s extraordinary rendition of Strange Fruit.
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On our last day in Palermo, we decided to visit some non-Manifesta sites. We visited the Palazzo Chiaramonte, a palace that was requisitioned and used as a prison by the Spanish Inquisition for 182 years. Somehow, the prison escaped the almost-complete erasure that occurred at the Inquisition’s cessation and the cell walls are decorated with remarkable relics of the inmates’ time of persecution. Attempting to prove their piety, the various prisoners of the Inquisition, manufactured ink from a mixture of brick dust and body fluid. Their graffiti remains, overwhelmingly religious in content we see a podgy God, resplendent with Botticelli fat-rolls and a long beard. A mixture of Sicilian, Italian, Latin and English recite remembered Biblical passages. Dissent can be slyly detected within these attempts to prove their innocence through aesthetic effigy (a reverse pittura infamante). Ludicrous caricatures of Spanish soldiers see their donkey steeds defecate and some measure of revenge that has lasted for centuries has been enacted upon their imprisoners. A gigantic beast with a jaw like a crescent moon and triangular teeth representing limbo, finds the righteous dead awaiting the Judgement Day within its cavernous gape. Among kneeling Jesus we find inmates of the prison themselves who pray for the judgement that will supersede the Inquisition’s. They have painted their innocence and while it will not help their case with the Inquisition’s petty and bloodsoaked court, they have created a material witness to their worth.
A potential vocabulary error occurs in the English section of the graffiti where the artist has described the punishment of the damned and has ended up sounding like the type of upside-down logic sought by the Hanged Man and his ilk.
The damned Pontius Pilate is described as having ‘asended into hel’.