When a work is adapted to another medium, it almost always loses something in translation. Julian Rosefeldt’s Manifesto started its life as a multi-screen art installation. I had an opportunity to see it here in New York at the Park Avenue Armory. There were 13 separate screens, each featuring a monologue by Cate Blanchett as different characters. (Technically it’s 13 performances on 12 screens; the introductory projection is Blanchett’s voice over the image of a fuse being lit.) The characters’ monologues are remixed political, ideological, and aesthetic manifestos. While each monologue is disparate, there’s a moment when the images and audio on all of the screens sync up, and all of the manifestos come together into a single beguiling harmony, like a kaleidoscope of autotune butterflies aflutter in the installation space.
When I noticed this for the first time in the exhibit, it was an oddly sublime moment that called attention to the nature of each screen in concert. These were a series of dissonant discourses joined not by an ideological thread but by their need to declare something through a persona and a performance. The language blurred into music.
There’s an uncanniness to the Manifesto art installation that a single feature film cannot convey or recreate. I wonder how I’d feel about Manifesto the film had I not seen the art installation first. But that might be the point.
Director: Julian Rosefeldt
Release Date: May 10, 2017
The art installation version of Manifesto takes just over two hours to complete if you were to watch every screen. As a film, Manifesto is only 90 minutes long. Rosefeldt chops up many of the monologues, and only a handful of them get to play out on screen in their entirety. There’s only one moment of synchronized harmony at the very end of the film, which probably doesn’t make much sense to people who haven’t seen the art installation. I couldn’t stop comparing the film to the art installation. Yet I think that’s a fair comparison since Manifesto was an art installation first and its strengths as an art object are unique to that medium.
As a film, Manifesto brings the texts of the manifestos and the brilliance of Blanchett’s multiple performances to the forefront. Blanchett leaps from persona to persona seamlessly, playing a Russian vagrant, a garbage crane operator, a punk nihilist, and so on. During a funeral, a veiled Blanchett delivers a stirring eulogy by way of the Dada Manifesto. In a class full of children, Blanchett warmly instructs the minds of future through the words of Werner Herzog, Jim Jarmusch, and the Dogme 95 Manifesto. One of the standouts is her dual performance as a cable news host and a field reporter. Blanchett nails the cadence and rhythms of news, which is all false gravitas, falser sincerity, and manufactured conviviality. Both the installation and the film reminded me a lot of Cindy Sherman’s work and how she portrays herself through shifting personas.
Rosefeldt’s able to do a few fun things with editing that simply couldn’t be done with the art installation. One segment features Blanchett as a God-lovin’ housewife leading her family in grace before supper. She goes on and on about the ideal art she wants in her life and the lives of others. The film cuts away and returns to this domestic tableau multiple times, drawing out all the laughs it can from the interminable prayer and the bored looks on the faces of her family.
And yet while the text and the performances are important, I couldn’t help but feel Manifesto is also a work about time, space, and the way its audience organizes and interprets the experience of the installation in their heads. People who see the art installation can wander if they want, and divert their attention to other screens, or to other people, or even to the potential synchronicities of different manifestos being recited simultaneously on separate screens. For instance, standing in the center of the Park Avenue Armory during the harmonious synchronization of all the screens, I noticed a lone voice at the end of the harmony. Cutting through the silence was Blanchett the Dada Manifesto mourner. She said, “Nothing, nothing, nothing” into the void of space. That’s an experience that felt so personal and even so secret--as if only I noticed it, and as if Rosefeldt set that moment up just for those people who happened to be there and I was momentarily a co-conspirator, a member of this clandestine treehouse art club.
I loved the way that armory space and my own ideological hobby horses played a role in my attention to Manifesto as an art installation. That’s impossible to recreate as a film. Rosefeldt’s is bound to guide his audience down a set path rather than giving the audience the ability to get lost in the experience of the various screens. Thinking about it in terms of game design and video games, if Manifesto the art installation is an aesthetic and intellectual sandbox, Manifesto the art film is an ideological rail shooter.
Given what’s lost in the translation, there were times that I felt like Manifesto the film was a supplement to the art installation rather than a fully realized art object in its own right. And yet maybe that’s where the dimension of time and space comes back into play. I think what I think about Manifesto because I saw the art installation before the film. A work by an artist and an actress in conversation with another work by the same artist and the same actress.
Manifesto the film might be considered a response to Manifesto the art installation. In other words, a 14th screen.
Even when I thought Manifesto the film loses the unique aspects of time and space that made the art installation work so well, I am now forced to consider new dimensions of time (the order in which I saw the different iterations of Manifesto, the runtime of each) and space (the venues in which I saw each work, the strengths of the two different mediums). I may have a strong preference for one version of Manifesto over the other, but I’m glad to have been engaged and enthralled by each in their own way.