"May You Only Take The Trouble To Practice Poetry"

By Aswathy Gopalakrishnan

The film installation Manifesto by German-born filmmaker-visual artist Julian Rosefeldt is a tribute to the power of art and a reminder about the role of artists in a society. A powerful mix of cinema, theatre, poetry, and performance, the film has Oscar-winning actress Cate Blanchett brilliantly portraying 12 characters – ranging from a homeless man to a kindergarten teacher, and delivering monologues with lines borrowed from manifestos written by different artists in different points of time in the history.

Shot in Berlin, Manifesto is a visually stunning, wild movie. There is rarely a synchrony between the scenes and the monologues. Yet the absurdity that it results in, is thoroughly enjoyable. As a doll-maker, holding a miniscule version of herself, Blanchett tells the camera, "May You Only Take The Trouble To Practice Poetry" – a line adapted from André Breton’s Manifesto Of Surrealism. It is effortlessly humourous. To a class of kindergarten students, she says (with a straight face), “Nothing is original... I want you to remember what Jean-Luc Godard said, ‘it's not where u take things from, it's about where u take things to’.” And the kids nod in agreement.

Commissioned by the Art Gallery of NSW and ACMI, Manifesto was first shown in Melbourne (9 December 2015 – 14 March 2016). At museums, the film was screened on 13 screens with Cate delivering monologues from each of them, and the audience is given a catalogue which guides them through the whole film.

Manifesto was screened at the 46th International Film Festival Rotterdam.

Deep Gold

What inspired you to make Manifesto?

Almost six years ago, Cate Blanchett and I were introduced to each other by a mutual friend at the opening of an exhibition of my work in a museum in Berlin. That evening, we had an idea to collaborate in a project. It took me two years to figure out what I wanted to do. I was then researching for another project, Deep Gold, during which I came across two manifestos written by a futurist artist from France. I enjoyed the energy of these texts and went deeper into readings manifestos, written not just by artists, but architects, filmmakers, writers, and political scientists. Thus I found what I had been looking for. These manifestos have a peculiar utopian, yet useful visionary energy.

Isn't it surprising that these texts, written in such a far away past, still hold true?

In Manifesto, there is one line from Communist Manifesto which was written in 1848. "All that is solid melts into air". Others are from manifestos written in the beginning of the 20th century. Nevertheless the texts sound are of contemporary relevance. They make a lot of sense because I think they teach us that artists can be seismographs of the time. They sense something is going on in the world, and they express it in their way.

These texts have the rebellious spirit and the potential to fuel changes in history

Some of these texts contradict each other. That was the way I worked on these texts. Like a bunch of friends sitting around a table and having a heated discussion, not agreeing on everything, but sharing ideas and a common spirit. These texts have the rebellious spirit and the potential to fuel changes in history.

Most of these texts were written by the artists in their formative age, says Julian.

When you see the list of artists whose manifestos I have used in the film, you might feel that they are all well known, accomplished personalities. But in fact, the manifestos were written when these artists were just starting to find excitement in life. Before they created the works we now know them for. They wrote these texts, maybe, at the time when they were just moving out of their parents' house, when their life was not very secure. There is a newly discovered anger in their voice. That age is very typical.

Language of poetry

In an age of selfies, internet revolution, and a dangerously narrow political discourse which is shaping up, manifestos are all the more relevant, says Julian.

Now we have the frightening culture of populism. There is a monopolisation of information by a certain party that could brainwash huge sections of the population. For me, this project is also a lesson in intelligent talking, in having the courage to talk in the language of poetry, and in taking risks. Like what André Breton says, "May You Only Take The Trouble To Practice Poetry".

Speaking of populist culture, is it becoming increasingly hard to filter good art, with the flood of images online and offline?

There is definitely an increasing flood of images in general. That started with the invention of internet and private television in the 1990s. Some of my earlier works were around it – on found footage etc. Not everything put online is art. Some of them are just images – like visual noise.

We are living in a very privileged context

I do think there is a problem in the cultural world anyway because we are talking to an audience that agrees with everything we say. That's a problem. We have many interesting things to talk about, but we don’t address the right people. We are living in a very privileged context. Producing works in a very privileged context.

Is that why you decided to take your work out of museums and bring it to a space like cinema?

Yes. The genesis of this project was slightly different. In order to finance the installations, which were my main focus in the beginning, I had to get more people on board. Also, it is interesting to widen the audience, to talk to a new set of audience. Manifesto, the work itself, is a manifesto of manifestos which should be out there, in front of a bigger, wider audience. Cinema makes that possible.

I have been working for almost twenty years in this field now. I guess there is a lot of new tendencies that I observe – Aa certain tiredness in actors, directors, writers, and also on the audience’s side, watching the same kind of films. They want to experiment more, raise the bar and find new styles of cinema.

Cate Blanchett

Was Blanchett's casting a conscious choice because the art field, in general, has always been dominated by men?

Definitely. The 90 percent of the manifestos that I quote in the film were written by men. The 20th century was a very male-dominated chapter in art history, unfortunately. In Manifesto, I am giving this testosterone-driven texts to a woman who performs it with an electrifying energy. There is a feminist aspect in it. It is also another method of peeling out the true essence of the texts. They have thick layers of art history on top of them. And by giving them to a woman performer, incorporating the texts in contemporary situations, we rediscover the core essence of these beautiful texts. They are mostly pure poetry.

And there is something really fascinating about this woman (Blanchett) beyond understanding, as you can see on screen. She is extremely focused and dedicated. She delivers with the precision of a scientist. She is very curious, has more questions than answers about everything.

 there is something that makes her the extraordinary artist that she is

Beyond talent, experience, and all that, there is something that makes her the extraordinary artist that she is. We had a great time together during those 11 days of shoot. She completed the portions of homeless man and news reader on a single day. It was unbelievable because she had to change accents, not just costumes and teeth. Since we had a very tight schedule (we had to change the set more than once everyday), she would have lunch with her make-up on, and would use that time to rehearse for the role.

One of your earlier works, Asylum, has a theme which is very much about the refugee crisis the world is facing at the moment

I made Asylum in 2000, a time when the first refugee wave had arrived from Western Africa to the Europe. Unfortunately, the basic issue has not been solved at all. It’s a completely imbalanced world, plagued by greed. The biggest crisis in this world, for me, is greed. The origin of all evils. It’s complex. I don’t know if a world without political borders is ever possible, but the borders on the mind can certainly be broken.

Similarly, I don’t know if art can do something to make the world better. It’s an utopian wish. But what we can do is consciously insist on the importance of education. And eventually, we might have a little impact on the decision-makers who might hardly make it to

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