The history of 20th-century art is littered with manifestos. Noisy, strident, and utterly contradictory, they resonate with the absolute conviction that art can and should change the world. More than 50 founding texts of disparate art movements, both celebrated and obscure, became a cacophony of voices in Julian Rosefeldt’s multiscreen video installation Manifesto (2015). Playing across 13 large screens scattered throughout the cavernous Park Avenue Armory Drill Hall, Manifesto consists of 13 vignettes, each starring a chameleon-like Cate Blanchett who disappears into appropriate characters as she declaims the various calls for revolution.
Operatic in scope (and indeed Blanchett occasionally lapses into song) each vignette conjured a complete world. The texts operated like librettos woven together from related manifestos. The section titled “Situationism,” which includes the Situationist Manifesto of Guy Debord, along with several similar texts, is envisioned as the ravings of a homeless man as he wanders through post-apocalyptic ruins of Berlin’s Teufelsberg listening station, ranting about the bankruptcy of the bourgeoisie and the failures of capitalism. At the other end of the social spectrum, Futurism is embodied by a sleek broker who keeps her eye on the computer screen as she extols the beauty of industry and the machine. Vignettes were timed to begin and end at the same time, so viewers could move seamlessly from one mini-narrative to another. Elsewhere in the room, a tattooed punk drifted in and out of a drug-induced haze to recite the anarchistic rants of the rather obscure movements of Stridentism and Creationism, while a scientist in a white hazmat suit advocated Suprematism’s escape from objective reality. Looking like something out of Arthur Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey she moves through a futuristic building, ultimately finding herself in a windowless room where she confronts what appears to be the hovering monolith from that film.
Sometimes the choice of character and setting reinforced the message of the manifestos. Other times they subtly countered it, as when a woman working the controls in a gritty garbage incineration plant recites and sings the utopian calls of various architectural manifestos, or when a suburban mother turns Claes Oldenberg’s call for an art of the everyday into a creepy pre-dinner prayer. In other notable turns, Blanchett appears as a CEO at a private party who brings out the casual elitism inherent in Abstract Expressionism and its Expressionist precursors, in dual roles as a TV newsreader and reporter—the latter on location and rain soaked—who turn Minimalism and Conceptualism into a volley of emphatic pronouncements, and as the orator at a funeral who uses the occasion to excoriate her listeners with Dadaist insults. The final screen provides an epilogue in which a teacher assures her young charges that, in the words of Jim Jarmusch, “Nothing is Original” before letting them out for recess.
Manifesto offers an utterly absorbing crash course in 20th-century avant-gardism. The prescriptions for art vary widely, ranging from calls for anarchy and the destruction of the past, to an immersion of the material world, to the embrace of spirituality and the rejection of objectivity. The common thread is a rage against the status quo and a passion for art that has a mission in the world. In the end the cacophony is less confusing than bracing, underscoring the alluring promise of change that inspires each new generation.