Mining is still one of the main economic activities
Looking at the current miners' protests in Spain: Obviously the miners' situation is still a very inflammable one, and therefore quite often an initiation of political protest. Do people in central Europe tend to forget that still (coal) mining involves a field of intense political sensibility and also one of the industries with more exploitative conditions occur around the world?
It is in fact extremely interesting that Manifesta 9 is taking place at the time when coal miners in Spain are taking a stand against both the peril of the industry and the loss of social and labor rights derived form the new economic policies in Europe after the financial crisis. On the one hand, indeed, the situation ought to show the shortsightedness of the dominant representation of contemporary capitalism, which tends to conceal the complex relationship of forms of production, regional economies and social eras that interact in the current world economy, in a simplified view of what is current and what is old. By emphasizing the relationship between social memory, artistic practice and the present we wanted, precisely, to indicate the density of the social structure of the global industrial civilization. It is not only the case that some of the most important economies (the USA and China) rely on coal to produce electricity: the idea that Europe is uniform a post-industrial region is easily put into question by the way mass worker's movements like the miner's mobilization in Spain reflect another economic structure.
The situation becomes even more complex once we look beyond Europe, where mining is one of the main economic activities, which has been rising recently given the demand of metals and chemicals in the expansion of industries and cities in Asia. However, the current miner's crisis appears is different from the miner's resistance movements from the 60s, 70s and 80s. It appears articulated with a moment of mass protest against the irresponsible and brutal nature of financial capitalism, the irrational demands neoliberal policies pose to local economies in terms of transferring the losses provoked by speculation and profit to the state sector, and in terms of questioning the passivity of governments towards the dictates of the financial powers. I am sure the continuous relevance of the miner's role in contemporary social issues will keep on feeding cultural practice in the future.
The exhibition reminds us to the fact that the conditions of working always define the conditions of living, even this relation is sometimes a complex one. There is this special kind of (male) heroism in coal mining which is also visible in the exhibition. How would you describe the relation between this typical collective work ethic on the one hand and the capitalistic exploitation on the other?
Indeed, once after coal mining was restricted, at least in Europe, in the mid 19th century, coal mining came to define a whole iconography and ethos that is gendered. Coal mining communities were defined by the efforts, perils and working class culture of men underground and communities of families and services aboveground. However, such division of spaces and tasks also empowered the moments where representation is turned over to other gender positions: the extraordinary painting by Cecile Douard on the poor women coal searchers in a slag heap that we exhibit in the historical galleries is, for instance, an attempt to transfer the epics of poverty and labor on women. Besides that, in cases like the ideologies of Stakhanovism in the Soviet Union in the 1930s, there were attempts to created female referents of heroes of production as is visible in the film The Radiant Path by Aleksandrov that we also show in the exhibition. Finally, there are several works in the contemporary section, by the likes of Marge Monko, Aglaia Konrad or Bea Schlingelhoff which openly refer to issues of femininity in the history of work, theory or modernism.
Feminist studies put emphasis in demonstrating that capitalism relies on exploiting the hidden economy of female labor to be operative, as one of the spheres of non-capitalist economy and values it pillages in its development. One of the paradoxical issues of capitalism that the history of coalmining is, however, the way it both creates and dismantles forms of identity along its history. I think that one of the issues that one can think through the works in Manifesta 9 is, precisely, the ambivalence of those identities in relation to the history of production. At the time, however, the dominant forces of financial capitalism rely on dismantling almost any form of solidarity and collective action. Thus the political importance that any number of social identities have in terms of the oppositional forces that we witness today.
At various levels mine industry and coal production seem to be very relevant subjects till today – this is what we can obviously learn form the success of Manifesta 9. Or how would you interpret all the positive reactions of the visitors?
It is always hard to interpret the reaction to an exhibition. In general terms, as you suggest, we have had a very welcome reaction to M9 both in terms of the reviews in the press, and the reactions of visitors. I do however feel that the reactions are not only related to the relevance of the subjects we chose. I am very pleased with the way several commentators and visitors have been able to relate to the internal structure of the exhibition, the knitting of specific historical and contemporary artworks, and the discreet relations between images, materials and ideas that run through the exhibition, that the team spent a lot of time working at. There is also a significant attention that has been put in relation to the way this biennial tries to make a difference in relation to a field which has been concentrated well too much in identifying size and power.
The fact that the exhibition as such is both tailored to be seen in a single day, the effort to introduce a sense of comfort for the viewers in terms of the use of space and the rhythm of the exhibition, the decision to make it all happen in one single venue, is something that people value given, also, the fact that this makes their visit to Genk more able to produce a moment of intellectual concentration. I have also heard good reactions to the diversity of the exhibition: the novelty of many of the artists involved, the complexity of the forms of cultural production presented in the heritage section. There is even the significance that several people have attributed to the way sound and music permeate the exhibition all along it, giving it a evolving and metaphoric presence well beyond the individuality of the exhibits. I would want to believe that the relation between a more down to earth form of curating, with a certain respect for the participants and artists, and which evolves through an approach that is both emotional and epistemological in kind, are the elements that make this event worth visiting and discussing.