SF Art Review: Julian Rosefeldt’s “Manifesto” at MAC

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I was in Montreal in October and visited the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal (MAC). As much as I love art galleries and museums, I didn’t anticipate seeing an exhibition that I felt worthy of a blog review; art and science fiction don’t often cross paths in my experience. But fortune favoured us. We stumbled upon “Manifesto” (2015),  an experimental art/film series by Julian Rosefeldt.

I confess to not knowing who Rosefeldt was before viewing the exhibit. However, I will not soon be forgetting the name. This 13 part film installation shook me. I have never had such a visceral reaction to a piece of art before, and that in itself was memorable. But the content of the films stuck with me, and I found myself mulling over the imagery and dialogue for weeks afterward.

The star of “Manifesto” is the instantly recognizable Australian actress, Cate Blanchett, who plays 13 different characters in 13 separate short films in which she delivers magnificent monologues made up of snippets of artists’ statements from the past 100 years. I know, the description sounds bizarre, but it really works. Each scene and character seem to embody a particular art movement, from Dadaism to Abstract Expressionism to Futurism.

The exhibit itself is a darkened theater, and you walk in to see a huge screen with a firecracker burning in slow motion while Blanchett begins the titular “Manifesto”. As you move further into the theatre room, you see twelve different screens set up around the room, each at slightly different angles to one another, so that you are only ever standing directly in front of one screen. Blanchett is on every one of them, working her way through some everyday situation while continuing the Manifesto.

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The films are playing simultatiously, so that each monologue creates a kind of dialogue between artists. The most powerful part of the exhibit are the moments when Blanchette’s characters each deliver their monolgues in a monotone at a different pitch. The films are timed so that the monotone segments all play at the same time. So you’ll be immersed in one particular film when all of a sudden these other voices swell up around you and the sound is so surreal and all encompassing that you feel like you are there, or like the film has come off the screen and surrounded you. The first time it happened I physically felt it over my whole body. As I said before, it was not an experience I’ll soon forget.

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So what does this have to do with Science Fiction? Maybe not much. Except some of the films themselves had SF vibes to them. Situationalism felt post-apocalyptic, and Constructivism is a kind of nostalgic mod-SF feel. Ironically, Futurism was depicted by a stock broker on Wall Street.

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And in a way, the conversations that these montages of manifestos were having, in the words of artists over a 100 year span, had a kind of science fiction-esque aura about it, too. One of my favourite parts of science fiction literature is how hilariously it “dates” itself in terms of how quickly our cultural visions of the future evolve. Those disparities stand out and funny, embarrassing almost, as we get to experience first hand the naivety of our cultural imaginations. It’s an uncomfortable reminder of how clueless we really are about our current world and future prospects, no matter how sure of ourselves and our lives we think we are.

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Here were all of these artists, the voices of their times and cultures, speaking about art and particularly, the future of art. And what I noticed, rather than the disparities between past and present ideas of what art is and what art should be, were the similarities. There was a distinct shift in the conversations as we watched how the artists expectations for the future actually did affect the evolution of culture and art. And it didn’t matter what order you watched the films in, it would be the same. Past and future artists seemed to support one another and speak with one voice about what art is.  As past molded future, so too did the future seem to shape the past–or our experience of it, at least.

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And I began to think about Science Fiction. If you’ve read SF for a while, you’ve likely experienced moments where you realize that you are currently living in the time that some of your favourite SF writers were writing about. Noticing how they got it right or wrong can be entertaining and, sometimes, eerie. The genre does become a kind of dialogue between the past and future.

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It often amuses me how similar the themes of retro SF can be with modern writing, and how different they look once the mask of cultural expectations is applied. And they’re all right! That’s the best part. Even if we make mistakes in our visions of the future, what we are saying about ourselves with that vision is true. This is why I continuously surprised myself by thinking “I agree” with one artist’s views and then turning around to also agree with the opposing view of another, within a span of about 15 min. Either that, or I’m just really susceptible to well delivered arguments, haha.

Anyway, I had wanted to write about this and tell you guys my half-formed thoughts on the matter. And I promised myself I’d be more disciplined with posting here. So there it is. Has anyone else seen it? Or seen the trailer and wondered about it? I think each of the individual films is available on Julian Rosefeldt’s website HERE. Check them out and talk to me!

Thanks for reading if you made it this far…