The informative picture of the anticipated St Petersburg Manifesta is formed not so much by official press releases but by status updates on Facebook: that's how it usually happens under the conditions of war or civil conflict in the world's "hot spots". Yet we are not at war: the only thing that has happened is that a famous European biennial has for the first time crossed the borders of the European Union and has become many more complicated to organize. Among the strange new fruits of the hybridization of the contemporary biennial and the traditional large museum is a loss at the media competition. From the fact that the slow time of the museum working for eternity and the demanding two-year rhythm of the travelling biennial have come to interact, one gets the feeling that the Hermitage is in no hurry at all. The two parts – classical art and contemporary art can accommodate each other only with difficulty – as much as it is at all possible in Russian conditions. A museum of a 250-year-long history is accommodating a 20-year-old Manifesta, for which nomadism and mobility are perhaps the distinguishing traits.
The first to make an announcement was Ekaterina Degot: on 22 February of this year, this famous Russian art critic announced on her Facebook page that Manifesta 10 is to take place in St Petersburg, and only five days later an official press release followed. The Hermitage at first promised with certainty that the curator's name of the main project will be announced by the end of spring. Time passed, the management of Manifesta managed to announce, on 22 May, that Zurich will be the venue for the biennial of 2016 (this news was considered by some as an insurance policy against a possible failure in St Petersburg). Only on 28 June, the indefatigable Degot, using the tag "leak", published the name of Kasper König and after that the website "Artgid" released the name of the project "From the time St Petersburg got its name". From then on it all became an open secret, yet the Hermitage held its own, from time to time, officially announcing, for instance, about a presentation of Manifesta in December, at an international cultural forum entitled "City as an Exhibition Space" (which, possibly, may still happen). The candidacy of the curator and the theme of the project were probably determined way before the legal harmonization measures, which took up another couple of months. One can only speculate on their complexity, but on 15 August a contract was signed with Kasper König. The press conference, which usually accompanies such events, must take place another three weeks after that – on 5 September, at the Hermitage. In the meanwhile, the opening date of Manifesta 10 has long since been determined: 28 June 2014, so there is very little time left.
The moment when the contract is signed with major curator of Manifesta 10, Kasper König. Photo: Hermitage XXI Century Foundation
The first news about Manifesta in St Petersburg was followed by a question asked by Degot: "How in the world will it square with the law on gay propaganda, Lolita phobia and other Orthodox hysterics?" To formulate one of the main problems that the organizers of the biennial will face no special insight was needed: the law originating in St Petersburg "On the Prohibition against Gay Propaganda", just like other discriminatory laws, was adopted at the federal level. It is quite possible that here, under the cover of mass media hysterics, the traditional Russian indifference will emerge as has often been the case, yet the creation of an intolerant public atmosphere was taken seriously by the entire world.
When the St Petersburg Manifesta began to take on a real shape, a petition appeared on the Change.org website calling to not hold the biennial or boycott it as a sign of protest against this violation of human rights and of support of the LGBT community. Its author was the Irish art critic and curator Noel Kelly. For additional clarity, he illustrated his call with a picture of Kiril Kalugin, the gay man who went out on Palace Square waving a rainbow flag against a squadron of commandos. It is obvious that the author of the petition bases his judgements about the situation on what appears in the mass media and hardly understands the local context. Under the intelligent, emotional and interested text by Kelly, more than fifteen hundred people left their signatures. One would think that hardly all of the signatories are trying to prevent Manifesta from being held in St Petersburg, although the idea of boycotting a city that has adopted such a homophobic law, has been voiced before. In all likelihood, these people simply do not want to sweep the problem under the rug, and this also distinguishes a petition for Manifesta in St Petersburg, which appeared later and has hitherto gathered only a few signatures. Its author is Elizaveta Matveeva, an M.A. student at the Smolny Institute of Liberal Arts and Sciences, who, in contrast to Noel Kelly, finds herself in the thick of it and would seem to have a better understanding of the existing problems. Her text is smooth and diplomatic. Her emotions appear only on her personal Facebook page: for instance, urging her friends to sign the petition, Elizaveta writes with sincerity: "Something must begin to move here. We, of course, live in a swamp, but it's a nice swamp." Moreover, this student of art history characterizes the supporters of the protest petitions as simply a "foreign art community" as if she had no idea that there is no such single (and ill-intentioned) "art community", but there are groups of people with differing positions. Having an adequate understanding of the reason for the protests, she does not express her own attitude to the adopted laws. Her clichéd text closes in the spirit of a note from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs: "We are calling on all of you to sign this petition in support of holding Manifesta 10 at the Hermitage in the summer of 2014. Otherwise it may have irreversible consequences", -- one has to wonder what those may be?
Two oponents: Noel Kelly ...
... and Elizaveta Matveeva
Director of Manifesta, Hedwig Fijen, responded to Noel Kelly by promising to take a stand as soon as possible and expressed a positive attitude toward the initiative of the biennial supporters. It is no accident that the official position is worded in the same diplomatic, soporific tones: "Manifesta does not do propaganda, it does not aim to shock and does not delve into the cultural contexts of a country and considers its main purpose and task to convince and show the need for tolerant, sympathetic and aware cultural policies." So far it is not clear how this goes together with the unequivocal pronouncements of Kasper König quoted in the press: "I think it is important to fight for one's intellectual independence day in and day out. I have always preferred the critical leftist aristocrats to petty bourgeois legislators." At the moment, it is difficult to guess what meaning the curator will place with the theme of the Hermitage biennial. Given the situation, many will expect from the St Petersburg Manifesta, a stance on the current political problems and there is no doubt that in case of disappointment sharp criticism will follow. Kasper König, the former director of the Ludwig Museum in Cologne, may go against all expectations and suddenly turn the discussion over to the museum. Yet the biennial, working with the local context as a Manifesta, must not only change it but actually explode it. This is what everyone expects – both those who signed the protest and those who expressed their support. The statements by Hedwig Fijen now shift to different emphasis: "All those who demand that Manifesta not be held in Russia, in St Petersburg, are thereby demanding that the cultural isolation of East European countries be continued. Within the existing borders, what chance for a common cultural development do we leave for us and countries that live by different rules?"
This process of organizing Manifesta at the Hermitage looks like a repetition of the storyline where Western values are received by Russian mentality and reality. A widely held opinion is that this is the main feature of contemporary art in Russia (but the aforementioned Ekaterina Degot actually considers this entire project "colonial"). Who could sort it all better than the director of the Hermitage – which is not just a large museum, but a "state within a state", just like the Mariinsky Theatre and Peterhoff? Mikhail Piotrovsky is very confident and expresses his support for powers that be...