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 British artist Jeremy Deller organised as part of Manifesta 5 a social parade on Donostia-San Sebastián’s central boulevard during the opening ceremony of the biennial.

The parade presented a cross-section of the city and the many invisible communities that form the city.

Moving away from the original aim to build bridges between East and West in post-communist Europe and its historically isolated artistic communities, Manifesta 5 focused on the historical North-South divide underlying globalisation in the 21st century. The choice of Donostia-San Sebastian as the host city, with its geographical position in Southern Europe, provoked a stronger North-South balance in Manifesta’s activities, extending to the composition of the board, curatorial teams and artistic representations.

Six venues across the historical quarter of Donostia/San Sebastián and the neighbouring industrial port of Passaia hosted the biennial.

The curatorial collective, consisting of Marta Kuzma from the USA and Massimiliano Gioni from Italy, formulated for Manifesta 5 a conceptual framework on the basis of a careful investigation of the Basque metropolitan region and its surroundings. This led them to interpret the area as a zone of contingency, part of a more complex interpretation of Europe. They came to view the city not only as a seaside resort dominated by tourism and the leisure industry but asstratified territory in the Basque Country, where a prolonged and tumultuous struggle for autonomy is a source of pride, conflict and tension. One means of highlighting the visual contrasts between the different areas of the city was to locate artists’ projects both near the idyllic seafront in the city area and in the industrial setting of the neighbouring port of Pasaia, just five kilometres away. In so doing, Manifesta 5 attempted to diversify the everyday experience of both communities, at the same time as reinvigorating one of the most impoverished areas in the Basque region. With this in view the curators of Manifesta 5 also founded the Office of Alternative Urban Planning (TOOAUP) in September 2003, in conjunction with the Berlage Institute in Rotterdam. Together with a specially designated team of architects, led by Sebastian Khourian, the curators investigated the built environment as well as the traditional dynamics in local political structures.

The Belgian artist Jan de Cock took over a deserted space in the neighbourhood of Ondartxo, a former shipbuilding warehouse. The work Denkmal 2 evolved in relation to the architectural features of the building’s interior and the more polemical reality of its exterior and revitalised the complete area.

This biennial broke with Manifesta’s earlier tradition of concentrating mainly on the work of emerging artists. This time there was an additional focus on important and overlooked works by artists from the 1970s and 1980s who had been active both in Europe and beyond. The curators attempted to reaffirm the binding relationship between the viewer and the object by presenting works that operate on a visceral level, without the need for complicated exegesis. The exhibition also questioned the arbitrary distinction that is often made between the “established” and the “emerging.” Thus Manifesta 5 was grounded in a constant dialogue between elements of the past and future possibilities and set out to create a synthesis of the two.

The late Turkish artist Hüseyin Bahri Alptekin reproduced signs of Basque hotel names (such as Hotel Odessa, Hostal Balkan, Hotel Baghdad) from a well-known alley in Donostia-San Sebastian called “rape alley”. These signs not only illuminated the dark street but instigated a critique of the urban neglect of violations of women. Ironically, the signs were vandalised not long after installation.