by Tomáš Hudák
In her latest short film Manifesto, awarded the Dutch critics’ KNF Award at IFF Rotterdam, artist and filmmaker Ane Hjort Guttu examines the institution of university, power relations, and the idea of utopia. Stylized as a documentary, the film focuses on a Norwegian art school that has recently been integrated into a larger university. With staff and students struggling to keep the spirit of the former academy alive despite attempts of the new heads to make it more corporate, Guttu satirically reflects on post-Bologna changes in European higher education.
Architecture is an important aspect of Manifesto. The film is set in, and never leaves, a cold, nondescript modern building where the art school now resides. It is a space divided into cubicles that students use as their studios, a space where they are not allowed to prepare their own food (which means they need to buy it in a newly-established cafeteria) or even open the windows. The environment is designed to discourage any communal means of living, mirroring corporate environments. As one character in the film points out, it is built in such a way that “it can be transformed into a consulting firm at any time”.
Just as Guttu’s previous film Four Studies of Oslo and New York (2012) reflected on the ways capitalism curbs access to the sunlight for the poor, Manifesto reveals how architecture (and urban planning) can shape our lives. Architecture in this case is an expression of uneven power relations that even invites surveillance. It is one of many means to change the culture inside the art school, where students are increasingly treated as customers.
However, students and staff have created a parallel institution within the university – one that has its own leadership and holds seminars in place of the official ones. They are not fighting back against the university, but rather creating their own world inside of, yet completely independent from, the university. The fact that the university is not really interested in governing the art school, that it is not sensitive to the school’s specific needs and only uses standardized processes that apply to everyone, paradoxically made this grassroots movement possible. As long as everything appears to follow the general rules, the university is indifferent.
This is not the first time Guttu depicts a school’s rebellion to question institutional power in her films. Similar in style with its calm, undramatic pace, her 2015 film Time Passes discusses the personal, ethical, and political responsibility of an art student while demonstrating the art school’s inability to support the struggling student. The student thus becomes an outcast. Similarly, Guttu’s early short Freedom Requires Free People (2011) follows an eight-year-old boy who questions the nature of rules in his elementary school and cannot understand why everyone accepts them. While Freedom Requires Free People positions the boy’s disruptive behaviour as a “fight” for personal freedom, Manifesto goes one step further and imagines collective action and a sort of utopia that frees their members – even though they still live inside an oppressive system. At the same time, the characters in Manifesto do not succumb to nostalgia; as the title suggests, they look forward instead. Despite preferring the art school before it was integrated into the large university, they do not romanticize the old academia, realizing it is traditionally deeply hierarchical and elitist. One of the outcomes this leads to is a cleaning lady being elected the unofficial dean.
In the interviews, characters describe how the school is functioning within its walls; we learn next to nothing about the heads of the university, their lives outside the school, or even their artworks. Community is key, and a secret DIY kitchen created by students despite a ban on such places by the university becomes a central point of both the film and the art school. Not only does it defy the corporate rules, but more importantly, it creates a space where students and staff can meet and interact. At the very end of the film, we see this lively space full of people eating and chatting. Then comes a wider shot and we realize the communal kitchen is only a few square meters in the middle of vast and empty space.