Marianna Vecellio: Right from the start, your professional experience was characterized by a strong curatorial approach. What strategy did you adopt for your directorship of Artissima? How far can one’s curatorial practice be pushed within a fair setting?
Francesco Manacorda: In 2009, when the Fondazione Torino Musei offered me the post, Andrea Bellini had already taken the fair to a level of curatorial innovation akin to that of a festival, with a wide-ranging fringe program and a major budget. Artissima thus represented a very rare opportunity for experimentation, as the fair setting entailed a number of restrictions, but the mandate I was given by the Fondazione was left to my own discretion: a virtually unthinkable situation in any public museum institution. For these reasons, the challenge laid down before me had wide-open possibilities, and room for unimplemented projects, or at least ones unimplementable elsewhere. These were the parameters that brought about the curatorial projects House of Contamination and Approssimazioni Razionali Semplici, both thought of as investigations of museum models or prototypes of imaginary institutions. Besides the curatorial projects, a curator also had the chance to rethink the very framework of the fair, and in this sense alter its structure in order to bring in aspects of research or valorization that had not necessarily originated in the marketplace. This synergy led to the emergence of Back to the Future, for example.
MV: Indeed, you were highly praised for having introduced this section—to this day the most distinctive—to Artissima, a fair that has always been characterized by a propensity toward the up-and-coming. What process led you toward its creation?
FM: The idea came from a constant fixation of mine that I apply to various curatorial contexts, namely, the notion of time travel as a metaphor for understanding artistic processes—both their creation and their reception. In 2010, when we were preparing the first edition of Artissima in which I was serving as director, rediscovering artists of the 1970s in particular was coming to a head, with a first round of international shows and various biennials. This phenomenon was at the heart of a practice of historical-artistic reevaluation and rewriting, aiming to bring to light practices and geographies that had been overlooked, with a view to defining a more global, inclusive, and complex history of art. The fair had an already well-known section dedicated to the discovery of today’s emerging artists, and the main idea for me was, by contrast, to place the new Back to the Future section at the heart of the fair, like a time machine bringing a portion of the past back to the present. It felt crucial to highlight the contemporary nature of the artistic positions despite their historiographical dating. The emerging artists and the “re-historicized” ones shared a lot from a curatorial point of view, and that was my guiding principle: that the impact and relevance of two works of art may be equal, even if decades separate their respective dates of creation.
MV: In your opinion, what makes Turin and its fair a place that curators love to visit and discover?
FM: The experience of discovery, the chance to find new perspectives, is what makes Artissima one of a kind. Younger artists have a safe place in which to take risks, because the market pressure is not all-pervasive and overwhelming. At Artissima, the artists feel protected and not under such close observation, in a position of dialogue and comparison akin to that of a group show. This aspect of comfort and authorization to take risks makes the fair a hotbed in which the first conversations with curators are more authentic and transparent.
MV: Have you continued to follow the fair scene? If yes, what has changed since you were head of Artissima, and what kinds of developments do you think we might foresee?
FM: More and more fairs have emerged as places for more than commercial exchange, although the economic part remains the driving force and the most decisive element. What has become more consolidated is the richness and complexity of the fringe programming. I’m not referring so much to what is managed and financed by the fairs themselves, but rather programming put together by other institutions around the fairs. I believe that fairs, starting with Frieze, that have invested in curatorial programs with strong identities has stimulated the entire ecosystem revolving around the event, making the fair calendar an annual opportunity for the deployment of artistic programming for a whole city. Fairs have become a sort of tinderbox ready to set off a whole powder keg: opportunities for institutions to increase their audiences and unleash their creativity and excellence in programming. This synergy might also give rise to hybrid production and distribution in the future.
MV: After your experience with Artissima, for many years you were the artistic director of Tate Liverpool and now of the V-A-C Foundation. And in November the Taipei Biennial will open, which you are co-curating. Clearly you have had the chance to look at the art world from various points of view, also in geographical terms. As a curator, what themes are you fascinated by at the moment, and where do you think are the most interesting centers of production?
FM: In my opinion, the most interesting themes right now concern the implications of the digital revolution on our relationship with the planet and its nonhuman elements. Rather than post-internet and post-human, I see our relation with the digital prostheses we use constantly (even as I’m writing now) as the new phenomenology, a new way of mediating between thought, our emotional life, and the world around us. This mediation has opened unexpected channels and interpretations, and completely changed our way of understanding and conceiving objects. The world of art has played a key role in defining the relationship between being and the “usable instruments,” as Martin Heidegger would say. Even geographical supremacy has altered a great deal thanks to digital networks. In this moment, the centers of artistic production no longer necessarily correspond to the geopolitical centers such as New York or London. Connectivity has made it possible for marginal realities to be present and establish ongoing exchanges. A situation like in Russia, where the artistic community has been subjected to partial isolation, takes on a huge potential in this new dialogue framework. I believe that the future holds surprises in which political, social, and economic restrictions will provide an unexpected boost for creativity.