‘The Project Is the City’: How Curators of Europe’s Roving Biennial Manifesta Took Inspiration From Their Sicilian Host City

Manifesta 12 puts the movement of people, capital, flora, and fauna taking center stage.

Forensic Oceanography. Photo: Wolfgang Trager, courtesy of Manifesta 12, Palermo.

“Rather than writing a project proposal and bringing it to a place, the project proposal is the place,” says architect turned curator Ippolito Pestellini Laparelli, ducking out of a sudden, unseasonable downpour in the Sicilian city of Palermo. “The project is the city.”

While Laparelli is nominally just one of four curators of Manifesta 12, as a partner at OMA/AMO, the Rotterdam-based architecture and research bureau founded by Rem Koolhaas, he has played a foundational role in the flavor of this year’s roving European biennial. The defining preliminary gesture for Manifesta 12 was an urban study conducted by OMA/AMO which produced the book Palermo Atlas. That in turn generated the interdisciplinary mix of the biennial itself and a curatorial approach that Laparelli describes as “maybe more ecological or holistic.”

Palermo Atlas and the resulting Manifesta program “The Planetary Garden” is an attempt “to explain Palermo as a place that has now reconciled the global with the local,” says Laparelli. “We call it no longer a city but rather a node in an expanded geography of flows of many types.” Among these flows: people, data, animals, capital, germs, goods. “In a way all of these flows of a planetary scale intersect in Palermo: Palermo is one of the few places where you can discuss the refugee crisis, you can discuss climate change, you can discuss gentrification and rapid economic development, mass tourism. The pressures are very evident here.”

Work by Laura Poitras at Manifesta. Photo: Wolfgang Trager, courtesy of Manifesta 12, Palermo.

Flow, change, and coexistence are the order of the day, commission-wise, in a program that is, as Laparelli admits, rather low on artist-participants compared to other biennials. Alongside Laparelli, Manifesta 12’s other “creative mediators” are Dutch documentary filmmaker Bregtje van der Haak, Spanish architect Andrés Jacque, and Swiss art curator Mirjam Varadinis.

This division of labor is reflected in commissions that one might characterize as art-adjacent. Among them is new work from documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras; from Forensic Oceanography, nautical siblings of Turner Prize-nominated research project Forensic Architecture; from Fallen Fruit, an LA collective that plant and map public fruit trees; from James Bridle, author of the New Dark Age, who while kissing distance from the art world could equally carry titles of theorist and technologist, and from Cooking Sections, architects turned climavores and observers of the long tail of Empire. (The executive digest? Manifesta 12 is feeling pretty thinky.)

The timing is not coincidental. At the opening press conference on Friday, Palermo’s mayor Leoluca Orlando—renowned, currently, for his defense of migrant rights and historically for tackling the city’s mafia—put it baldly, saying: “I would not have invited you here 15 years ago, because 15 years ago we were not ready.”

Work by Filippi Minello at Manifesta. Photo: Wolfgang Trager, courtesy of Manifesta 12, Palermo.

“Manifesta would not be here if the city was not also in transition. It is getting richer, it’s gentrifying to a certain extent,” agrees Laparelli, for whom deep, lasting, integration with the city was a curatorial imperative. “Maybe what we will be able to do is to install certain prototypes, even methodologies that can be eventually scalable, replicable. The other ambition is that certain perspectives on the city will be shifted.”

In bestowing the formative role for an art biennial to an architecture bureau, perhaps Manifesta is merely reflecting back the universal driving forces for such events: urban regeneration, civic engagement, economic stimulus, fresh perspectives on the city spaces, and a new position on the world culture map. And hey, maybe some art too?

“The Planetary Garden,” Manifesta 12, June 16-November 4, Palermo, Sicily, various venues.

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