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.
The 9th edition of Manifesta took place in Genk and fostered a complex dialogue between disciplines and generations, rooted in the city’s history, heritage and collective imagination. This was the first time that the biennial deviated in such a large scale from its original principle of commissioning only emerging contemporary artistic practices.
Genk is part of the Campine natural region, formerly a significant coal mining area of Belgium. Throughout the 20th century Genk and its surroundings were transformed into a geographical-ecological “mining machine” with garden cities, new landscaping plans, canals, roads and railroads, all catering to the coal mining industry. This complex economic restructuring became the starting point for Manifesta 9 to examine the role that art, heritage and culture can play in society, specifically in the context of industrial capitalism as a global phenomenon.
Manifesta 9 took a new direction in choosing to hold the biennial in one single venue, the large-scale industrial complex of the former coal mine of Waterschei, a suburb in Genk. The remains of the mine became the stage for the exhibition, with works dispersed over three sections within the former mine building, integrating heritage, art history and contemporary art production in this local context.
The contemporary section focused on aesthetic responses to the global economic restructuring of the production system. The historical exhibition contained artworks from the 1800s to the early 21st century, reflecting their aesthetic relationship to the industrial era. The third section incorporated a multidisciplinary cultural programme involving local institutions and organisations; the aim was to activate and capture collective memory and to preserve the material and nonmaterial heritage of coal mining in the region.
Manifesta 9 was significant for redirecting the course of the biennial, away from an emphasis on curatorial self-consciousness and “direct cultural action” and towards a new reflexivity about art production within the context of history and previous generations. The exhibition addressed the complex mediations of artworks, images, historical information and cultural institutions that have taken place in the development of modern and post-industrial ways of thinking. It attempted to explore the way art and culture are inherent to social processes, allowing specific social formations to be recorded and transformed.