Julian Rosefeldt on making Manifesto: 'Contemporary art has become a circus'

Rosefeldt: 'I don't really think in categories. Even the label video artist sounds like pencil writer to me' Photograph: Julian Rosefeldt/ACMI

Cate Blanchett and I first bumped into each other through a mutual friend a few years ago and decided we wanted to do something together. What an offer! It wasn't that I needed a Hollywood star. There are artists who have worked with celebrities and it becomes all about that: the celebrity performing. I had zero interest in that. For what I had in mind, I needed a very good actor.

I came across the idea of re-working artist manifestos while researching another project. I started reading whole collections of them. I'd viewed these statements as part of art history, but all of a sudden I was reading them as the voice of a young generation that not only changed the art scene, but the whole world.

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Remember that moment when you move out of your parents' house – the only context you've ever known. You want to define and express yourself; understand where you are in life. As you get older, you find out a bit more. You don't need to be so angry. Your corners are probably not so sharp. Well, these manifestos are seen as history because many of the artists who wrote them became super famous and ended up in the Museum of Modern Art in New York. But they were originally written by people – mostly men – in their early 20s.

The undertone of a manifesto can often be negative: a call to stand against something; to tear something down. But pure poetry is how I read these. Not as documents in a vitrine, but as a person talking. Most of them are bursting with testosterone; that macho energy particular to the beginning of the 20th century. I thought it would be interesting to give those male voices back to a woman – not so much for the feminist aspect, but to make them new again – and readable. Make a male voice female and it blossoms in a new way.

Cate Blanchett in Julian Rosefeldt's Manifesto: exclusive trailer

Once I had the idea of re-enacting these manifestos in new settings, I started to collect scenes in which a woman speaks a monologue: an angry speech, a family prayer, a newsreader on television. I collected about 60 of these situations, of which 13 make it into Manifesto. I already knew I wanted Cate to play them all.

The undertone of a manifesto can often be negative: a call to stand against something​​; to tear something down

When I first presented the idea to her, I think she was a bit shocked because it was so text heavy. But she is very curious and it kick-started something inside her. In some scenes, the translation of the manifesto would be metaphorical. With the futurists, I thought about their fascination with speed. The obvious parallel today is the world of finance – Cate plays a trader. With others, it was more about peeling out the beauty of the original words.

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The shoot was done in just 12 days, shortly before Christmas in 2014. Cate came straight from shooting another film and we started work the same day she arrived. She decided to bring the whole family to Berlin with her to have Christmas in Europe. Her husband Andrew Upton and their three sons – Dashiell, Roman and Iggy – ended up in one of the scenes. Cate plays a Texan mother, reading the pop art manifesto as a family prayer around the dinner table. The clue is in the salt and pepper shakers – they're very pop!

I know there will always be some harsh wind blowing in my face. People will say: "Why a Hollywood actress? Why not an unknown?" But I hope the work shuts those doubts down. Cate's experience and talent contributed so much – but I'd say the same for the make-up artist. The final work is very collaborative.

I don't really think in categories. Even the label "video artist" sounds like "pencil writer" to me. The reason you choose one medium over another is simply because it appeals more. I couldn't paint. Film is the instrument I use to manifest my ideas. But the way I do moving image probably has more to do with painting than 90% of video art today, which is more about grabbing or observing – it's more journalistic.

The trouble is that journalists normally do that kind of work better. It's not enough for an artist to say "I'm so concerned" about something. You want to make work about the Fukushima disaster? Either you need to shut up and let the journalist or scientist do the research and publish it. Or go ahead, talk about it, but use your own artistic language.

Blanchett in Manifesto. Photograph: Julian Rosefeldt/ACMI

There was definitely a kind of nostalgia in making Manifesto – when I read these texts, I wished myself back to a time when things were somehow clearer. I was born in Munich in 1965, so lived my teenage years in the late 70s and early 80s. This was cold war times. There were all these demonstrations against nuclear energy and Europe becoming a battlefield for the eventual next world war. It was much easier to say where you stood and what you stood against.

The art scene is so huge there's not that same urge to scream out: 'Hey, this is what I think!'

Now everything has been centred. Yet there is this ugly new radicalism on the left and even more so on the very right. I read the news about what is happening in France and I'm shocked. Where are we drifting? All this populism is frightening.

Contemporary art has become an internal circus. We have all these new ways of expressing ourselves, but the art scene is so huge there's not that same urge to scream out: "Hey, this is what I think!" We direct our political ideas to an audience who already agrees with everything we have to say. Where's the sense in that?

There is also this prison of the white cube. In some ways, the art gallery can be a very undemocratic space. Although museums are open for everyone, you need a certain degree of education to access them. You need to be raised in a way that means you have the urge to go to a museum on a Sunday afternoon. It can make what we do feel so futile and insignificant.

Blanchett teaches the words of the past to a new generation in Manifesto. Photograph: Julian Rosefeldt/ACMI

Then there's the other end of my food chain: the art collector. Normally he has a lot of money because he has blood on his hands. That sounds dramatic, but it's impossible that all those people who go to Art Basel made their money in a good way – just impossible. And this is who finances my politically engaged art. Isn't that perverted? The world is so unbalanced. We pretend that art is innocent but it's not at all. The art market is exactly that – a market.

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At the same time, artists have the potential to be far more radical than most politicians showing up again and again on these game shows, selling their brand instead of talking anything that makes any sense. Politics has become showbiz, and maybe culture is where the real politics happen now.

Perhaps I should write a manifesto and send it to the papers. It's still amazing to think that the futurist manifesto was first printed on page one of the Gazzetta dell'Emilia. No one would publish it nowadays – they'd only think of the $60,000 that it cost. Can I buy a page of the Guardian and say whatever I want – if it's not racist? You tell me.

  • Manifesto is showing at Kraftzentrale, Landschaftspark in Duisburg-Nord, Germany, from 13 August to 24 September as part of the Ruhrtriennale.

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