Cate Blanchett and Julian Rosefeldt talked to Evening Standard about how artistic thought can survive the digital age. Their film Manifesto is being screened live from Tate Modern (UK) tonight. Enjoy the reading!
Here’s why Cate Blanchett thinks we should all write a manifesto
“You are all idiots,” Cate Blanchett says to a funeral full of mourners.
She hasn’t actually gatecrashed a memorial to the dearly departed. These are the words of Tristan Tzara, a founding figure of the Dada movement, and Blanchett is in one of the 13 personas she inhabits in Julian Rosefeldt’s film, Manifesto.
In just over 90 minutes, the Australian actress delivers manifestos of over 50 artists and thinkers, peerlessly manifesting herself to become a homeless man, a tattooed punk, a scientist and a Russian choreographer. The two-time Academy award winner collaborated with German artist Rosefeldt, known for his opulent video installations, to trace a lively history of artistic thought.
It makes for a passionate tribute to the tradition of manifesto writing, and a clarion call to contemporary creatives to really, really think. It also makes for a very intense watch. When I met Blanchett and Rosefeldt to discuss the film, she told me that after making it “I thought my head was going to explode.”
As a duo, they are refreshing company. They have a habit of seamlessly passing a thought between them as they push it further and further, and playfully pass questions on to each other (“That one’s yours!” “No, that’s yours!”). It’s easy to see how they could end up making such a rich and challenging piece of work together.
Manifesto – initially made as a multi-screen art installation in 2015 before being made into a feature film – has been created with the apparatus of digital technology, and yet it’s largely concerned with pre-digital age thinking. It’s a fitting contradiction for a form of writing which is full of them: destruction pitted against creation, arrogance next to insecurity, the future against the past.
“Manifestos are about assembling the past and spitting it out, being presently engaged and asserting what the future could possibly hold,” Blanchett tells me. “It’s a call to engagement.”
There’s the adversarial aspect too, Rosefeldt adds. “There’s a lot of ‘down with’, ‘down with’, ‘down with’. There’s a lot of anger in it definitely, but I’d also say there’s a lot of insecurity and fragility in it too.”
Many of the artists, from Wyndham Lewis to Andre Breton, were very young at the time of writing, which “makes them even more beautiful to read,” Rosefeldt says. “The fragility beautifully balances the anger, and the security of ‘I know exactly how the world should be’ and ‘down with the past’ and ‘let’s see what the future brings’.”
These writers weren’t even particularly interested in the future, Rosefeldt says – it was about changing things right now. Our particular here and now happens to be very much at odds with the conditions in which many of these manifestos were created.
“I wonder, what does the blogosphere leave room for in terms of an artist’s manifesto?” Blanchett asks. “Because we’re constantly asserting what we think and what we feel – and doing very little. Whereas these artists were actually making work prior to the manifesto. They went on to become extraordinarily influential pillars of what we now know to be various stages of modern art. They didn’t put out a manifesto every second Wednesday.”
But Blanchett doesn’t think it’s just the relentless bombardments of social media that are troubling, but the fact that it requires no action from us. She names Snapchat as another medium that removes accountability, “You say things, then they disappear and you don’t have to answer for them. People can say outrageous things and say ‘but I didn’t mean that, I didn’t say that’.”
Rosefeldt agrees, and adds that these endless outlets for expression aren’t actually very good at helping people express themselves. “You drop off a word here, a word there – so you are constantly getting rid of energy. For these early manifestos, that wasn’t the case – people were piling up a lot of energy until there was an outburst. And a manifesto needs that. It’s not something that somebody invites you to do.”
Writing a manifesto – words like “to the electric chair with Chopin!” (Manuel Maples Arce, 1921) – is something you do “because you have to do it,” Rosefeldt says. “Many of the texts for me are more of a self-declaration, or an effort to explain yourself – ‘where do I stand now? What do I wanna do? What do I wanna break with?’”
Yet now, Rosefeldt argues, the search for self-expression too quickly becomes the curation of a personal brand, with the vanity of immediate online feedback discouraging serious thought. “You tweet something out and it’s, ‘yeah! Finally somebody says it!” Rosefeldt says. “That’s very dangerous because it encourages you not to think it through and come up with stupid silly nonsense.”
The fast pace of digital platforms has given Manifesto a different meaning in the last two years, Rosefeldt thinks, a change he has observed in post-screening Q&As. People are keener to talk, to get involved again and not give up.
But he concedes that the art world is “a very closed circuit of well-educated people who don’t really need to be convinced of something.” It clearly troubles him; he describes it as “a kind of prison”.
Blanchett combats the idea that it’s the artists themselves who are the elitists. “It’s always talked about like, ‘you don’t have access to that therefore anyone who does is an elitist. It’s not – there’s something wrong with the structure of the education system, not the people making the work.”
The idea that many of society’s problems could be solved by offering equal access to education is something Blanchett and Rosefeldt are in passionate agreement about. “All museums should be free,” Blanchett firmly says.
“Some people walk into a cathedral, not because they’re particularly religious, but because they just want a breath. They want space to think a longer thought,” Blanchett says. “What these manifestos allow you to do is think these longer provocations, and that’s what often happens in a museum or an art gallery. It’s often the only time people can step outside of what they’re doing to think a longer thought.” In our information-rich age, where we are constantly bombarded by notifications and Netflix series’, who would have time enough to reflect on their own artistic manifesto?
In her 1997 book I Love Dick – which Rosefeldt’s wife is reading and Blanchett immediately notes the title of down on her phone – Chris Kraus questions the notion of authorhood. “Who gets to speak and why? That is the only question,” she writes. The question returns upon watching Manifesto; although it is Blanchett speaking the words, the majority of them were written by men.
The dissonance of character, setting and text, of a female face speaking male assertions on art “produces a particular tension and invites that question, I think,” Blanchett offers.
?“One of the most currently provocative thoughts said by any of the characters in any iterations of the manifestos is by a woman,” Blanchett adds. It’s Mierle Laderman Ukeles, writing in 1969: ‘After the revolution, who’s going to pick up the garbage on Monday morning?’
So what is an artist or writer to do, today, trying to spark thought but short circuited by scrolling through social media?
“I wish there would be more risking of ideas, as in these texts,” Rosefeldt says. “That’s why I believe in the inspiring character of these texts. They spark ideas. They show you how inspiring an intellectual discourse even with yourself can be, bringing back the importance of creativity and intellect and public discourse in a political landscape which is definitely lacking that.”
“As an artist it’s really important about what you choose to do and how you engage. Nothing is inconsequential,” Blanchett adds.
And anyway, as Jim Jarmusch wrote in 2002 and is quoted in the film, “Nothing is original”.
Blanchett replies quickly. “That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t bother!”
Manifesto is released in UK cinemas on November 24.