Manifesta, the nomadic biennial, has come to Murcia—a southern Spanish region once associated with mining, parched landscapes and desperate poverty, but now better known for tourism and irrigated agriculture of soft fruits. In the last decade, the (largely Moroccan) immigrant population of Murcia has increased dramatically, to rates that are twice the national average. However, the espoused aim of Manifesta 8, ‘to investigate a dialogue with North Africa’, is complicated by the ‘new extensive collaborative model’ adopted this year—the biennale has been overseen by three curatorial collectives: Alexandria Contemporary Arts Forum (Egypt, USA), Chamber of Public Secrets (Italy, Middle East, Scandinavia, UK) and (Austria, Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia). The result is an unwieldy mélange of different critical positions and art works that range from sensitive to self-regarding.

Fifteen venues in Murcia and the neighbouring city of Cartagena have been divided up between the three curatorial teams, who between them invited the participation of more than 100 artists and contributors. in both cities, the teams have made good use of atmospheric disused buildings, such as the former autopsy pavilion used by the Chamber of Public Secrets (CPS) to screen Paris-based artist Laurent Grasso’s 16mm film ‘The Batteria project’, 2010. Grasso’s work addresses the ramparts, fortresses and modern military installations that repelled historical invasions of Cartagena’s harbour, and Spain’s conflicted modern day role as both a border guard and bridge to North Africa.

CPS also secured the use of another loaded site in Cartagena, the former San Anton prison, where prisoners were held in the wake of the Spanish Civil War. The powerful atmosphere of this setting demands rigour from the participating artists, which for the most part is unfortunately absent. In one cell, French artist Thierry Geoffrey / Colonel attempts to excite controversy by affixing hastily drawn signs on napkins and scraps of construction paper to the walls, ‘inviting’ North African artists to show in his ‘Penetration Space, for northern Africans only’, 2010. Elsewhere in the prison, Lebanon-born artist raed Yassin presents his ‘immigration Forecast’, 2010, a series of five spoof weather reports, representing recent attempts by immigrants to cross European borders, with cartoonish icons of the hazardous methods employed. Madrid-based Brumaria, whose edited collection of writings ‘Expanded violences’, 2010, by authors including Saint Matthew, Antonio Gramsci and Alain Badiou, is stacked in boxes in the hall, offers some of the considered content we might have hoped to see exhibited here.

In contrast, a dense, almost sociological approach dominates’s sprawling exhibition in the elegant, semi-deteriorated buildings that were once Murcia’s artillery Barracks. Although often thought provoking, the presentation is hampered by a surfeit of explanatory texts, such as ‘the Constitution for Temporary Display’ composed by the curators themselves, ‘to challenge the normativity of the curatorial and institutional strength, and to initiate a social action’. Elsewhere in the warren of interconnected rooms and passageways, New York-based artist Emily Roysdon invites the audience to read a lengthy essay describing her ‘project, practice, partial philosophy and set of strategies’, entitled ‘Ecstatic resistance’, that ‘develops the positionality of the impossible alongside a call to re-articulate the imaginary’. A significant proportion of the work on show in the artillery Barracks is buttressed by some kind of verbose pamphlet, like the pages produced to accompany Stephan Dillemuth’s installation, entitled ‘the hard way to Enlightenment: a dramatization of a lecture on the academy and the corporate public in two parts’. A feeling develops that true engagement with much of this work will have to be postponed until, assuming that there enough time and patience, all this stuff can be read and perhaps understood.

However, within’s selection there are several more immediately involving works, such as the Otolith Group’s characteristically intelligent film, ‘Drexciya Mythos, part 1: The deserts of our future will be deserts of water’, 2010, which explores the myth of a neo-Atlantis, peopled by the sub-aquatic descendants of drowned slaves. Elsewhere, Loulou Cherinet’s elegiac film work ‘La Verdad Sobre Esta Obra’, 2010, pieces together found images of skyscrapers, landscapes viewed from the window of a moving car and zoo animals like zebras, elephants and lions. The narrator stoically observes, ‘I came here in search of a better life, but nothing has changed. I got no raise—everything is the same.’ The plight of those who work sin papeles (without papers) also shapes Portuguese artist Carla Filipe’s installation ‘Desterrado’, 2010, which occupied a shadowy and dank former toilet and shower block and incorporated found objects from the streets of Murcia, such as lost clothes, adverts for vacant jobs, and examples of graffiti. On the wall, a single ungrammatical sentence alludes to problems of immigration and assimilation. ‘Where they are now is better where they are from.’

Across town, Alexandria Contemporary Arts Forum (ACAF) takes possession of the former central post office of Murcia. ACAF characterise their approach as being guided by a ‘theory of applied Enigmatics… an interface that reshapes the relational bond between the curatorial, the political, the cultural and the practices of artists’. Here, in this once magisterial, crumbling building, one of the most compelling works in this year’s Manifesta is on display. Willie Doherty’s ‘Segura’, 2010, is shot over 24 hours on the underside of a motorway bridge crossing Murcia’s main river. Doherty’s film captures the changing light conditions of the underpass, from cold white dawn, to blazing midday sun, to the sudden black of night, illuminated by a small bonfire. The constant background thrum and zoom of cars passing overhead, and cracks in the concrete of the bridge, makes understated reference to the environmentally damaging water-transfer scheme used to divert water from the Tagus River to Murcia’s Segura River, for irrigated agriculture, and to feed the demands of tourists who flock to the golf courses, theme parts and holiday apartments along the costal strip. ‘Segura’ is devoid of tedious meta-language and speaks only of a place with a growing population and not enough water.

Elsewhere in the old post office, the art collective Common Culture, originated in Liverpool, contribute a new work entitled ‘Production: The new El Dorado in Murcia’, 2010. It is one of the very few works to display any self-aware humour. The action centres on three garishly dressed Spanish men, conversing on the subject of Manifesta 8 in a Murcian discotheque. The most negative of the three states that the biennial is ‘just another type of colonialism that only pays lips service to the locals’, before going on to equate art galleries with casinos as both are ‘playgrounds for the bourgeoisie’. His two companions accuse him of cynicism and of being blind to the potential of art to act as a catalyst for social change. These arguments are particularly pertinent, given that the aim of Manifesta 8 ‘to engage with Europe’s present-day boundaries with northern Africa’, remains largely unattained. Too much of the biennial is developed with neither the local audience nor the local context in mind. Rather, it is directed at a myopic audience of roving curators, collectors and journalists who have already moved on to the art space casinos of another city.

Sarah Lowndes is a writer living in Glasgow