Manifesta purposely strives to keep its distance from what are often seen as the dominant centres of artistic production, instead seeking fresh and fertile terrain for the mapping of a new cultural topography.

During the opening events of Manifesta 12 Palermo, Italian artist Matilde Cassani organised a daytime fireworks display that blasted colourful slips of paper with messages and images into the air, engaging the local residents and contributing to an official day of celebration. Photographs of the event were later exhibited as a testimony of the celebration, establishing Tutto as collective memory.

The city of Palermo was chosen to host Manifesta 12 because of its representation of two important themes that identify contemporary Europe and have an enormous impact on our cities: migration and climate change. Palermo’s multi-cultural society at the heart of the Mediterranean area has originated from a long history of occupation by almost every European civilization and from its connections with Northern Africa and the Eastern Mediterranean.

Director Hedwig Fijen invited the Rotterdam-based Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) to undertake an urban study of Palermo, a first in the biennial’s history. This urban study, titled Palermo Atlas, brought together the views of local observers , along with critical texts by Marina Otero Verzier, Nora Akawi and Giuseppe Barbera, to ask whether Palermo might serve as an urban prototype for a future world. This study was the foundation of the biennial, serving both as a blueprint for Palermo to plan its future and as a research framework to ensure that Manifesta 12 achieved a long-term impact on the city and its citizens.

The project by Nigerian artist Jelili Atiku is a processional performance that incorporates festival rituals of walking with the transport of plants and soil, sound making and the carrying of sacred sculptural objects, to present allegorical and metaphorical statements on the issues of migration and immigration. Inspired by the procession of Catholic Santa Rosalia festival in Palermo, as well as by the figure of the ancient religious archetype of the Green Man.

The renovation and re-opening of the Chiesa di Sant'Euno e San Giuliano and the Teatro Garibaldi, two years before the opening of Manifesta 12, transformed a historical church and an abandoned theatre on the crumbling Piazza Magione into publicly accessible venues that also functioned as offices for the biennial. Through Aspettando Manifesta, a multi-layered pre-biennial programme designed to raise awareness among Palermitans about the events was coming to their city, a social hub was created in Teatro Garibaldi, where staff, artists, local citizens and international visitors could engage with each other.

The multi-layered and deeply condensed history of Palermo – being occupied by almost every European civilization and having long-term connections with Northern Africa and the Eastern Mediterranean over the last 2000 years – has left its traces throughout this multi-cultural society at the heart of the Mediterranean area. This provided the setting for Manifesta 12.

Manifesta 12 also encompassed a two-year Education and Mediation Programme that experimented in its attempts to share the decision-making, creation and mediation processes. Its methods included field research, sociocultural mapping, pilot community projects and collaborations with educators, students, social workers and artists. The education programme was focused on the contested recent urban history of Palermo and the relevance of culture in conditions of educational and economic poverty, as well as the potential of social practice to change cultural institutions.

Instead of being merely a temporary intervention, disconnected from any specific practical commitments to the local context Manifesta 12 strived to create a more inclusive, pragmatic and sustainable biennial format.

Palermo Procession by Italian artist Marinella Senatore was developed in a workshop process open to all, which focused on the principles of non-hierarchical learning, self-training and the creation of an active citizenship. The procession involved over 300 non-professional performers who danced through the streets and lanes of the old city centre.