A Dynamic Mediterranean. Creative Networks, Representation, Mobility

Herman Bashiron

Universidad de Barcelona

Art can lead to understanding between the two shores of the Mediterranean, reduce indifference and transform its societies; in other words, go beyond its aesthetic function. At present, artistic works are conceived to awaken viewers’ emotions as well as their critical sense of existing issues. For this, distinguished committed artists foster cultural projects, art exhibitions or exchange of mobility between artists in search of a possible language and a common creativity in the region. The fundamental objective of these projects is social and cultural transformation through art and the rediscovery of the Mediterranean as an area of creative and heritage effervescence. All these actions are developed through two axes: on the one hand, the representation of the Other, the reference to external culture, and, on the other, mobility, which reduces the prejudices between the two shores.   

Artistic expression has always been one of the most important tools for communication between human beings. Cultures, civilisations and different peoples have used art in distinct times to define, question and differentiate themselves and also to relate and widen their horizons. By means of the development of its ethical, social, anthropological and political function, in addition to aesthetics, art, through its multiple experiences, can best help to unravel the complex reality in which we live and further explore the differences without falling into the easy opposition between two terms. Art can take an important step towards a beneficial development of intercultural dialogue, can stimulate knowledge and understanding, relieve fear and distrust that often exists towards the different and the unknown and return an aura of “normality” to people, places and concepts frequently presented and described as strange and very distant. All these tasks are not at all easy or obvious, but if we analyse the development of contemporary artistic practices in detail, we will quite immediately notice that the concerns of current artists and researchers go far beyond the strict aesthetic and formal interest, embracing critical territories of a broad spectrum.

Moreover, exhibition curators and critics today assume a much more important and risky role than in the past: they must not merely select a series of works on the basis of their aesthetic ends, but also find a geopolitical and social relationship between them. They must compose associations of meanings that can influence the viewer, both at a visual and emotional level, and that foster the emergence of a broad and open critical sense to address the multiple processes of radical changes experienced by the contemporary world. The means used by the artist change, the aim of the work and the role of everything surrounding the work change and, finally, the attitude of the viewer towards the work and its meaning is transformed. In the plural space of the Mediterranean, a territory in which we locate our research, there are new challenges launched and pursued from the ambit of art and contemporary creativity.

Although we know very well that there is no homogeneous Mediterranean culture, and much less a uniform Mediterranean art, we can, in any case, identify some axes, some main themes that are recurrent and concern many artists and creators linked to this geographical and mental macro-space.

Creative Networks

One of the most common characteristics is the will to create new links, new critical thoughts and new relations. The constitution of creative networks, the creation of micro-universes of international relations – which include artists, theoreticians, socio-cultural researchers, associations, groups, art centres, etc. – now forms part of the primary objectives of all subjects related to the territory of contemporary artistic theories and practices.

Art for social transformation, art for meeting, connection and intercultural dialogue, are some of the common denominators in many of the projects that have been carried out over the last few years. One of the clearest examples in this respect is, undoubtedly, the creative activity of the Italian master Michelangelo Pistoletto. From the beginning, his art has focused on a form of social responsibility that can transform the environment and human beings themselves. In his long career, Pistoletto has left aside the individual to discover the collective, has passed from the “one” to the “multiple”, from the “I” to the “Other”. The paradigm of the Pistolettian utopia is constituted by Cittadellarte,1 an old textile factory converted into a great City of the Arts, from where creative projects and networks of international collaborators are developed and spread with the end of delineating and driving forward a “geography of transformation”. Many of his creations and projects follow in this direction, and the Mediterranean, as a space and above all as a concept, is very present in his work.

Pistoletto has left aside the individual to discover the collective, has passed from the “one” to the “multiple”, from the “I” to the “Other”

From the creation, in 2002, of Love Difference – Artistic Movement for an Inter-Mediterranean Policy2 until today, the Mediterranean has become one of the main axes of his work. The table-mirror of the Mediterranean is the work that symbolises the movement and its desire to become a space of meeting and reflection on the different cultures of the Mediterranean countries. Among the projects developed by Love Difference, it is interesting to note the drive for the creation of the Mediterranean Cultural Parliament, promoted during the meeting “Intercultural Dialogue: Utopias and Situations” in Strasburg in June 2008. According to the declarations by the Italian artist Michelangelo Pistoletto, promoter of the Parliament project, art inspires social and cultural transformation and through it a common language can be created between the Mediterranean diversities. Artistic activity seeks political and social ends and thus becomes artivism: “By way of our ARTIVISM, Art as the source of a new humanism, we propose to rehabilitate the intrinsic values of the Mediterranean, a place of cultural diversity that embodies a forceful premise for the establishment of a citizens’ parliament. This new citizen-centered entity will draw upon human and Mediterranean values to transform current practices, for it has become urgent to develop a common language that rests upon responsible choices, be they ethical, cultural, social, economic or political. This is the sense of the experimental proposition of a Mediterranean Cultural Parliament – a process that intends to strike a partnership among individuals, cultural organizations, institutions and all the other actors who, in different ways, strive to vest reality with art and creativity, fundamental tools of responsible social change. […] The time is ripe to contribute through art to a new Mediterranean civilization that will draw upon all the cultures of the basin. The Mediterranean Cultural Parliament will express the themes of its political involvement publicly thanks to a presence of art at the heart of all areas of the governance of the society.”3

The initiative of the Mediterranean Cultural Parliament inspires new life and unleashes new dynamics, above all in those places apparently weighed down by their old heritage. Rediscovering the Mediterranean as a formidable continent, container and motor of art and culture; having the capacity to extract the Mediterranean from its unique and eternal condition of sea of Antiquity and also represent it as the sea of contemporaneity, where a continuous flow of innovative ideas are mixed with the most recent and original artistic creations and expressions; composing a new image of the Mediterranean, as Iain Chambers also suggests, author of studies on the Mediterranean multiplicities,4 constitute the most notable intentions of various artists and creators. It is, therefore, about entering the Mediterranean through one different gate (or port, as we are talking about the sea), guided by the artistic expressions that offer and show us itineraries and distinct routes.

Numerous art centres, institutions, organisations, groups of artists and alternative galleries are currently working horizontally and rhyzomatically to create interconnected networks and produce, through the languages of art and creativity, new critical meanings. Projects of exchange and residencies, the development of seminars and workshops, exhibition programmes and production of works are some of the common denominators of many of these art venues around the Mediterranean. From the Townhouse Gallery5 in Cairo, the Beirut Art Center6 and the Ashkal Alwan7 in Beirut, Makan House8 in Amman, the A.M. Qattan Foundation9 in Ramallah, l’Appartement 2210 in Rabat, Can Xalant11 and Hangar12 in Barcelona, to the most recent and still at activation phase AllArtNow13 in Damascus or Caravansarai14 in Istanbul, these centres and, with them, many more, show an important creative activity that is also based on the value of exchange and the emergence of new communicative paradigms.

Some recent exhibitions held in Barcelona, such as “I Like to Be a Resident”15 – an exchange between La Capella and the Jerusalem Center for Visual Arts –, “Centri/fugacions” 16 – an exchange between Can Xalant, Centre de Creació i Pensament Contemporani in Mataró (Barcelona), and the Platform Garanti in Istanbul, or “El Uno y el Múltiple”17,in which Egyptian institutions have participated such as Townhouse, Artellewa and Medrar and Spanish institutions such as Hangar, LABoral and CAN (Centre d’Art i Natura) in Farrera (Spain), are clear testimonies to the results of this poetics of exchange.

The initiative of the Mediterranean Cultural Parliament inspires new life and unleashes new dynamics, above all in those places apparently weighed down by their old heritage

The intensification of residence programmes, therefore, is necessary to create bridges between the cultures of the Mediterranean and produce artistic projects not only with exhibition ends, but also for critical reflection and social transformation. In any case, the phenomenon of meeting and exchange must go beyond simple folkloric representations and political interest, as happens on certain occasions of a more “institutional” nature. The “exhibition” of diversity and exchange in themselves is not effective if it is not active and does not encourage critical reflection.

Other examples reside in some exhibition events of greater scope that embrace the whole of the Mediterranean territory, such as the Biennial of the Young Artists from Europe and the Mediterranean. Since 1985, starting with the city of Barcelona, this association has organised 14 biennials in different Mediterranean cities. The event is different from other festivals of young art and creativity for its peculiar capacity to bring together, in the same space and during the same period of time – 10 days –, hundreds of artists and cultural operators from more than forty countries in the Euro-Mediterranean arc. The Biennial of the Young Artists from Europe and the Mediterranean is conceived as a unique relational event in its category, which can interconnect a significant number of people and associations and stimulate collaboration, cooperation and creation between them. The holding of the Biennial contributes, moreover, to changing the appearance of a whole city, enveloping it in an atmosphere of creative inspiration, as happened with greater impact than previously in the last two held in Bari (Italy) and Skopje (Macedonia).

The reasons for considering this Biennial as one of the events of contemporary art most committed to the meeting between cultures are many, and as its organisers put it: “We hold that providing incentives for artistic practices including collaboration, co-production and employment mobility for young people can create spin off effects for development, not only of the social fabric of a community but also for its cultural and economic heritage. The Biennial is a concrete example – in every event for over ten days the spin off generated was notable and the surrounding territory completely sold out in terms of all types of accommodation and space. A city completely invaded by the creative inspiration of young people from all over, who abandoned their own territory to come face to face, in every possible way, with their colleagues of every cultural and geographic extraction. Extraordinarily, we found people from Palestine collaborating with Israelis, Greeks with Macedonians, Serbs with Bosnians and so on. We call this intercultural dialogue but perhaps we have all the requirements to talk about cultural peacekeeping which is a theme which should be further explored.”18

The “exhibition” of diversity and exchange in themselves is not effective if it is not active and does not encourage critical reflection

The conversion of the exhibitions, biennials or contemporary art events into spaces of meeting, dialogue and participation is ever more frequent. As well expressed by the art critic Nicolas Bourriaud: “Art is a state of meeting.”19 Another interesting example in this respect is the 8th Manifesta. The event, developed in 2010 in the Spanish cities of Murcia and Cartagena, was defined as the European Biennial of Contemporary Art in Dialogue with North Africa.20 Three different groups of curators participated in it (Alexandria Contemporary Arts Forum, Chamber of Public Secrets and Tranzit.org) who contributed their distinct approaches and perspectives in the urban framework and the political, social and cultural fabric of Murcia and Cartagena. The basis of the conceptual and artistic proposal is to establish a dialogue with North Africa, with which the Mediterranean, the unnamed protagonist, is at the centre of this symbolic bridge between the two shores, represented by the Biennial itself.

The ways and means of talking about this territory, its languages, the continuous meetings and lack of meeting of its peoples are quite numerous. A creative example is the artist of Palestinian origin Emily Jacir. In the project Stazione, conceived for the 53rd Venice Biennale, Emily Jacir performs an exercise in Mediterranean dialogue. It is an intervention in the stations of line 1 of the vaporetto, which covers the whole of the Grand Canal in Venice, in which the artist has added the numbers of the different stops in Arabic. A work of translation that goes back to the story of relations between Venice, the Arab world and Palestine. A history of richness, meetings and cultural architectonic and trade exchanges, countered by a present, in Palestine, of poverty and maritime deprivation. Unfortunately, the intervention was cancelled at the last moment and only the photographic records of the idea of the work remain.

The interest in translation is one of the most specific elements of Emily Jacir’s work – consider, for example, the poster she made in black and white with large-scale lettering, Translate Allah – and the artist is aware of the immense value of communication and the distinct importance and meaning that different cultures give to the same terms, expressions and words.


The themes of representation of the Other, of recognition, interpretation and translation, are very interesting in contemporary artistic production. Investigation into the different communication systems, the exploration of the dark sides of information and language, the questioning of the limits of representations and the research on the construction of concepts and meanings becomes the labour of many artists/researchers interested in analysing the existing communicative models, subverting them and proposing other paradigms.

As Néstor García Canclini affirms, artistic communication has an open, unfinished form: “Various current artists, without denying the conflicts, see in their works the opportunity to speak of the fecundity and uncertainties of transactions. The experience of migration can be expressed epically because there is confrontation. Also melodramatically, because in all relations with the different there is a drama of recognition. And perhaps another step is the exercise of translation. When it is not about affirming a true culture against another that also seeks to be so, the question is how to communicate what some say in one way and others in another. This has nothing to do with the aspiration to make art into a language of universal reconciliation. Rather as a place to experience differences, the impossibility of the full translation and the occasion to get to know something different. As in the works of Antoni Muntadas, relating different ways of seeing and naming in diverse cultures. This means, as in Borges’ aesthetics, abandoning in the arts and cultures the idea that there can be original and definitive works. `The concept of definitive text,´ he said, `only corresponds to religion or boredom.´ In secular societies, in a plural world, it is possible to conceive all cultural works, all questions and all answers, as drafts, as first attempts to speak.”21

Many artists/researchers are interested in analysing the existing communicative models, subverting them and proposing other paradigms

The video work On Translation: Miedo/Jauf, by Antoni Muntadas, is a very subtle exercise about multiple phenomena related with perception, emotions, feelings, the influence of the media and technology, construction of stereotypes and physical and conceptual frontiers between North and South, between Africa and Europe, between public and private. Through a broad series of interviews, Muntadas circulates through all these phenomena and the ambits of the social and the political, guiding himself with the notion of fear. The work also seeks to “try to understand and perceive a hope in a continent ‘forgotten’ by the western world, Africa, as a future hope.”22 This staging, this example of different perspectives and points of view, shows us how the phenomenon of representation and recognition of the Other are very relevant today. As the artist Khalil M’Rabet says: “recognising and accepting others, both in their opacity and specificities, seem to be essential commitments to the globalisation underway.”23

Station by Emily Jacir, Venice

In this respect, if we look at the Mediterranean context we can say that an orientalist perspective persists, a perspective based on the conceptual reduction of reality in two distinct and opposed blocks. As Patricia Almarcegui analyses, following the line of the famous study by Edward Said, in relation with the orientalist discourse, “the whole of the East was homogenised in its values and images and was presented as an object that could be analysed and understood. This objectualisation made the East a static space, invariable, as against a dynamic and variable West.”24 This Manichean division is what must be checked, both through the artistic practices and new and distinct communicative mechanisms.

The role of art in contemporary intercultural contexts also consists of drawing new maps, making clear the complexities and obstacles present in the territory, providing new forms of relations and cultural translation. A dynamic Mediterranean means a heterogeneous space, where East and West converge in a “continuum” without fractures.

A dynamic Mediterranean means a heterogeneous space, where East and West converge in a “continuum” without fracture

The artistic and creative forms to counter the hegemony of the monolithic visions and the dominance of the stereotyped viewpoints are numerous. It is not only a question of reflecting on the abstract exotic vision of the Other, but also the generalised ideas around concepts such as danger, evil, civilisation, terrorism, etc. In this respect, it is interesting to cite a video work by the Turkish artist Fikret Atay, entitled Theorists, which subtly questions the frequent association between terrorism and Islamic theory. Just with the title, the artist seeks to provoke a feeling of estrangement, because the English pronunciation of the word theorists is very similar to that of terrorists. The images show a habitual scene inside a school in which various people are walking, repeating and memorising the verses of the Koran. The association between images and the title of the work, feeding and provoking some confusion, seeks to highlight above all how easy prejudice is.


Mobility is another of the most current concerns in the Mediterranean artistic panorama. As already mentioned, contemporary art manages to represent the numerous and distinct facets of contemporary mobility, and of the social transformations of the era of globalisation, because it moves in a multidirectional and multi-rhythmical way.

The theme of mobility is approached through different perspectives: the profound social changes provoked by the continuous human, trade and other movements are researched; reflections on the benefits and drawbacks of mobility are developed; the most usual problems of mobility between the countries of the Mediterranean for reasons (or non-reasons) of a legal, political and economic character are questioned; and the themes of diasporas and exile are explored in depth. As well summarised by Adel Abdessamed with the installation Exit, presented at the 52nd Venice Biennale, exile can represent a way out, or vice versa.

Infrastructures of support should be created for artists and researchers in search of funding for their projects, and create mechanisms, to give continuity to projects already underway

In any case, beyond the perspective from which it is decided to approach this theme, it is important to strengthen the structures responsible for the artistic and cultural mobility projects and create the right conditions to lead to beneficial exchanges and dialogues in these ambits. To improve these mechanisms, infrastructures of support should be created for artists and researchers in search of funding for their projects, and create mechanisms, such as virtual platforms, to give continuity to projects already underway. Advocating a network culture and sustaining the creation of an interdisciplinary centre on contemporary art and creativity in the Mediterranean should be some of the other primary objectives of the political cultures in the region. The bodies responsible for artistic mobility in the Mediterranean, such as the Cimetta Fund or the Delfina Foundation, undoubtedly carry out excellent work, but in any case it is necessary to increase the offer in a territory where the demand is growing very rapidly. As also shown by the “Istikshaf” seminar, in the Safar mobility programme, these themes are increasingly more central in the new intercultural Mediterranean and, in this context, contemporary artists and cultural researchers have the same function as the travellers and men of letters of the past: these are the figures who allow contact with the Other, establish dialogues between cultures, settle conflicts and translate differences.

Therefore, the value of exchange and mobility is absolute. Through it, the stimuli are multiplied and the reflective and critical capacity is fed by useful new mechanisms to develop new theories and new thoughts. The hegemonic model is set against the channel of differences: a channel accessed through the path of exchange, cultural contamination and the intensification of mobility. It is, finally, about identifying this Mediterranean dynamism, provoking it, stimulating it and fuelling it continually, using the most innovative tools of communication, the languages of artistic creativity and the new technologies that spread without frontiers and activate the curiosity of the young generations of the whole Euro-Mediterranean area.


[1] http://www.cittadellarte.it/

[2] http://www.lovedifference.org/

[3] Pistoletto, Michelangelo. “The Birth of the Mediterranean Cultural Parliament”, in Various Authors, Dialogues. Michelangelo Pistoletto. Parlement Culturel Mediterranéen, Apollonia, Échanges Artistique Européens, Strasburg, 2009, p. 53.

[4] Chambers, I., Mediterranean Crossings. The politics of an interrupted modernity, Duke University Press, Durham and London, 2008.

[5] www.thetownhousegallery.com

[6] www.beirutartcenter.org

[7] www.ashkalalwan.org

[8] www.makanhouse.net

[9] www.qattanfoundation.org/en/

[10] http://appartement22.com/

[11] www.canxalant.org

[12] www.hangar.org

[13] www.allartnow.com

[14] www.caravansarai.info

[15] http://www.bcn.es/virreinacentredelaimatge/castella/02070920_.htm

[16] http://www.bcn.cat/lacapella/castella/02090921.htm

[17] http://www.bcn.cat/lacapella/castella/100515.htm

[18] Stillo, A. and C. Grassi, “Creative Mediterranean: Instructions for use”, in Various Authors, Creative Mediterranean, Editrice l’Arancio, Bari, 2009, p. 15

[19] Bourriaud, N., Estética relacional, Adriana Hidalgo editora, Buenos Aires, 2006, p. 17.

[20] http://www.manifesta8.es/

[21] García Canclini, N., “Artes y migraciones: preguntas sin respuestas”, in Exitexpress, no. 25, February 2007.

[22] Muntadas, A., “On Translation”, in: Various Authors, Muntadas, La construcción del miedo y la pérdida de lo público, Centro José Guerrero, Granada, 2008, p. 82.

[23] M’Rabet, K., “Arte Contemporáneo ¿Occidente de Oriente?”, in Culturas. Revista de Análisis y Debate sobre Oriente Próximo y el Mediterráneo, Fundación Tres Culturas del Mediterráneo, no. 5, 2009, p. 24.

[24] Almarcegui, P., “Orientalismo: Veinte años después”, in Quaderns de la Mediterrània, no. 4 – Los Mediterráneos. Visiones contrastadas, IEMed – Icaria Editorial, Barcelona, 2004.