Last Tuesday, dozens gathered at Pakhuis de Zwijger in Amsterdam for the book launch of “Manifesta 12 Palermo Atlas,” where attendees debated new methodologies for the Nomadic Biennial. Manifesta is the European Nomadic Biennial, held in a different host city every two years. This year, the 12th edition was held at Palermo, in southern Italy. Originally a Dutch initiative, this event attracts visitors from all over the world.
Zef Hemel, Professor of Urban and Regional Planning at University of Amsterdam, moderated the event. Hemel introduced the Palermo Atlas, an urbanistic research commissioned by Manifesta to the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA). The result is an interdisciplinary investigation of the city, covering architecture, archaeology, anthropology, archival research, personal history and media. Research for the atlas was conducted before defining Manifesta’s creative program, and intended to ensure that Manifesta achieves a real long-term impact for Palermo citizens. “The atlas is a scan of contemporary Palermo and defines mediation between Palermo and the rest of the world,” explained architect and Manifesta’s creative mediator Ippolito Pestellini Laparelli, who led the study. The long-term goal of this experiment is to leave a tangible legacy to cities that host major international art events – Manifesta is the 4th most influential biennial in the world. From that perspective, Palermo was a laboratory. “We chose Palermo as a blueprint for the global, an incubator of different world conditions,” said Hedwig Fijen, founding director of Manifesta. “In Palermo, Manifesta investigates the international conflicts and transformations of our times.”
Dutch art plays a special role in this edition of the biennial, highlighted Fijen. For the first time in its history, Manifesta included a specific Dutch component, the Dutch trail, supported by the Dutch Embassy in Rome and the center for international cultural cooperation DutchCulture. Dutch artists, thinkers, designers, architects, galleries, institutions and universities are taking part in a series of programs parallel to the biennial. One of these artworks is The Soul of Salt by Patricia Kaersenhout, literally a mountain of salt standing out in one of the beautiful rooms of Palazzo Forcella De Seta. It celebrates a slave legend from the Caribbean tradition, according to which enslaved people refrained from eating salt because they thought they would become lighter and could fly back to Africa. According to Manifesta’s website, “the Dutch trail encourages to discover the creative energy flowing from the Netherlands into Palermo, engaging with Europe and the world at large in a symbiotic coexistence.”
Global mobility, in terms of both creativity and human flows, was also the focus of the speech of Leoluca Orlando, mayor of Palermo, who closed the debate. In the past months, Orlando heavily criticized the closing-borders policy held by Italian, right wing Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, who closed Italian ports to boats saving migrants in the Mediterranean. “The future of humanity is mobility,” said Orlando. “We say thanks to migrants, because they guarantee human connections. In Palermo, migrants are not 100, 1.000 or 10.000. Migrants are all inhabitants of Palermo.”
Palermo: From mafia battlefield to outpost of cultural investors
The 71-year-old Mayor Orlando has maintained his mayorship of Palermo for 18 (not consecutive) years. The city’s recent history, occasionally described as a path of resurrection from mafia battlefield to cultural capital, is inevitably linked to his name. “There is no city in the world that in the last 40 years saw such a cultural change as Palermo,” said Orlando. “I thank the mafia. Because they killed too much, and obliged us to change our minds.” One of the deepest points of this murderous escalation (and of the whole history of the Italian republic) was July 19, 1992, when a car bomb killed Paolo Borsellino, one of the magistrates investigating the godfathers of Sicilian mafia. “Palermo is flourishing as a cultural city on the basis of its past as a city of mafia. It is a city that experienced mafia’s fundamentalism, and therefore now promotes hospitality.” What does Manifesta leave to Palermo citizens? “The pride of being a mosaic of different cultures, the historical and artistic dignity of contamination.” And, on a more concrete note, “the attention of foreigner investors.”
The threat of gentrification
Ippolito Pestellini Laparelli, 38 years old co-curator of Manifesta’s 12th edition, worked in the Dutch headquarters of OMA for 13 years and recently moved back to Italy. He was the head of the team (including over 100 people) conducting the research that led to Palermo Atlas. Manifesta, and biennials in general, aim at permanently transforming the cities that host them, leaving a tangible legacy to their citizens. When carrying out this kind of operations, where does the risk of gentrification start? “We are aware that Manifesta happens in a city that is changing,” said Pestellini Laparelli. “We tried to operate in different areas of the city, even in the outskirts, without altering the nature of each neighborhood. In the most problematic areas, we worked with the inhabitants, trying not to impose things from above. We occupied beautiful and abandoned places in the historical center, showing that it is possible to intervene and change an urban context without transforming whole historical areas in shopping malls.” What is the tangible legacy that Manifesta leaves to Palermo citizens? “Manifesta created a network of people, from university professors to migrants, who worked together on the same project. First, we leave Palermitans this network. We also tried to change the typical biennial audience, bringing Manifesta to a public that is usually not exposed to this kind of events. From that perspective, we hope to leave them an artistic awareness. We leave small urban interventions, both in the city center and in peripheral areas. The atlas is also a tangible legacy, an alternative guide to Palermo of nowadays.”
The 12th edition of the Manifesta exhibition is planned to be continued until Nov. 4, 2018. The next edition is expected to be held in Marseille, France, in 2020.