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Anna and the hypermobile Icarus ︎︎︎

Anna and the hypermobile Icarus

آنا وإيكاروس الذي لا يهدأ

︎︎︎This text was written on my way to Barcelona airport, from where I was flying to Boston to present NACMM_North Africa Cultural Mobility Map as part of the TransCultural Exchange's 2016 International Conference on Opportunities in the Arts: Expanding Worlds.

February 24, 2016

Comings and goings to and from the airport are almost always annoying: the sun always shines too much, the coat is always too thick, you always have the feeling of forgetting something, you are unable to remember what it is… And everything else: those close to you are left behind, farther away at each stop of bus 46, which goes too slow and stops without remedy during endless bouts of end of February, mid-week traffic.

︎︎︎ 'Although the amount of time people have spent in motion has remained constant since 1950, the shift from walking and riding bicycles to using cars and planes has increased the speed of travel fivefold. This results in the twin effect of creating both a wider and shallower environment of social activity around each person intensified polarisation between rich and poor, more anonymous and less convivial communities and the degradation of our physical environment brought about by high-speed traffic'. Adams, J (2011) The Social Consequences of Hypermobility [online] Available at: [Accessed Day 16 June 2020].

The first image that comes to my mind is the view of the vast, silent wheat fields, infinite yellows under the sun on a hot windy day. I feel almost like Anna Christina Olson in the meadows, in the middle of that hot summer of 1948, looking with terror and envy at the black mansion far away. Inside, she is paralysed.

Anna’s exhaustion in the middle of such an exuberant field, and her unfulfilled desire to enter the black mansion, remind us of Icarus, the son of the master craftsman Daedalus, falling. At the heart of Icarus’ story is his attempt to escape from Crete, using wings that his father constructed from feathers and wax. As the myth would famously have it, he ignored instructions not to fly too close to the sun, and the melting of the wax caused him to fall to his death. The legend of Icarus suggests that the very idea of mere mortals using such means of travel is impious.

︎︎︎'As we spread ourselves ever wider, we must spread ourselves thinner. If we spend more time interacting with people at a distance, we must spend less time with those closest to home, and if we have contact with more people, we must devote less time and attention to each one. In small-scale pedestrian societies, everyone knows everyone. In hyper-mobile societies old-fashioned geographical communities are replaced by aspatial communities of interest: we spend more of our time, physically, in the midst of strangers'. Adams, J (2011) The Social Consequences of Hypermobility [online] Available at: [Accessed Day 16 June 2020].

The myth of Icarus is usually interpreted as a tragic example of hubris, or failed ambition, an unnecessary moral lesson, or maybe the symbolic vengeance of the countryman. Icarus drowns but the world goes on,  unaware of his life’s brevity. Not even a single trace of the myth catches the attention of those who work with their hands. As myself, Anna Christina Olson feels invisible too.

According to Brueghel
when Icarus fell
it was spring
a farmer was ploughing
his field

the whole pageantry
of the year was
awake tingling

the edge of the sea
with itself
sweating in the sun
that melted
the wings' wax

off the coast
there was
a splash quite unnoticed

this was
Icarus drowning

Sonata (2016) [Video, 5’38] Various locations: Catà, P.

Exhaustion and Exhuberance

الكد والحيوية

Although he does not say so explicitly in his seminal text, Jan Verwoert was probably on the verge of a breakdown when he wrote Exhaustion & Exuberance. Tired of performing, affected by hyper-mobility and self-sabotage, he documented a condition that most of us, in and beyond the creative and scholarly circles, have at one time or another found ourselves in. Indeed, until recently for certain contemporary artists and curators, the urge to travel has been often driven by the belief that professional advancement and recognition are proportional to the frequency with which we are away. Besides the global pandemic, Verwoert’s discourse still makes total sense in our neo-liberal societies, as much as it did one thousand years ago in the lives of Islamic scholars and mystics in search of the Ilm.

Indeed, back in the 9th century, privations, hardships and hunger assailed men of letters in the solitude of their bare rooms or on the endless road of their quest for knowledge. Far from what is commonly understood, high-performativity and hyper-mobility, or exhaustion and exuberance, as Verwoert would say, were also predominant in the practices of the rihla and the siyaha. As Houari Touati has argued,

Indeed, after spending endless hours listening to the exuberant discourses of the masters, attending halaqah after halaqah, at night most men of letters and scholars had to write their learnings by the flickering of an oil lamp, often stopping only at dawn, exhausted. Several accounts suggest that men of letters remembered their nighttime studies as a traumatic experience.
With lack of sleep compounding lack of proper nutrition, these travellers in search of knowledge often suffered from stress and desperation. Personal sacrifice was an integral part of the rihla, and even more so of the siyaha. These practices responded to the human ideal of the time, the principal components of which were endurance, abstinence, voluntary privation and a spirit of sacrifice. Ahmad ibn Hanbal, a well-known Iraqi traditionalist from the 9th century, dramatically affirmed:
“We have acquired knowledge in humiliation.''

There is in this message an affirmation of the self, within a Stoic morality of effort, challenge and exhaustion. The statement can be also understood as a magnification of Science and its exuberant knowledge, accessible only to a self-referential elite of legitimate holders. A huge price had to be paid, however. Abu Yusuf al-Fasawi (d. 890) knew what he was talking about when he said:
“I began to weep over the distance that separated me from my family and over what was going to escape me in the way of knowledge.”

As for many contemporary artists and curators, hopping from one residency to another, from one conference or workshop to the next in a pre-pandemia context, we were freed from the unusual constraints of family and societal obligations but, like religious men of letters, we often lived in the unbearable lands of social solitude.

These cross-temporal resonances can also be sensed in the way raḥḥālas and sa'ihuns of the 9th century, and artists and curators at the turn of the 20th, perceived and interacted with the local communities they encountered through endless travel.
Indeed, the exotic and nostalgic gaze of the raḥḥālas and sa'ihuns upon the Bedouins’ alleged 'lost purity' resonates a thousand years later, in the exotic and rural idyll-seeking impulses that drove artists and writers to seek out art colonies and contemporary rural art residencies throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. The expectations that motivated those artists, researchers and curators, much like those that drove the raḥḥālas and the sa'ihun, were often met with disappointment. As Vytautas Michelkevičius states in Rooted and Slow Institutions Reside in Remote Places (2019),
“while artists saw themselves as escaping from modernity into a more organic, innocent world, they were at the same time responsible for much of the place-mythology and cult of the ‘undiscovered’ that opened up one of the most compelling forms of twentieth-century modernity: the world of modern tourism.”

Indeed as he underlines, some small village communities have started to close their doors in response to the increasing flow of incoming artists. In fact, oftentimes, locals are left with the impression that
“ they do not need another passer-by-researcher who wants to help the secluded community to overcome their isolation and capitalise on their knowledge to present the artwork later on the art market.”

Michelkevičius goes a step further when he states that there is a danger that art residencies may be turned into promoters of
'local exoticism and not-yet-discovered culture and localness.'

His statement goes quite in line with what Jan Verwoert rightly suggests:
'uncooperativeness may well be the revenge that uncreative people take on creative society by wilfully stopping it in its tracks.'

At this juncture, it is worth highlighting one of the questions that is currently shaping contemporary debates on art residencies, much as it preoccupied scholars back in the 9th century: What exactly is a local community? Does such a thing really exist, or is the term just another way of framing ‘Otherness’?

As we have seen and as we will further stress, the fictionalisation of the Other is not a modern phenomenon: it was also a key aspect in the raḥḥālas’ and sa'ihuns’ obsession for the search for gharib al-lugha, the ‘rare and obscure’ words, in the early Medieval Islamic era. However, a number of key distinctions do separate the raḥḥāla travellers and the sa'ihun from the 19th- and 20th- century European artists who left their homes in search of stereotypical localness. In their vast expeditions, the raḥḥāla travellers and the sa'ihun were not indulging escapist impulses, nor searching for time and space away from their everyday preoccupations. Practised as a way of life and as an institutional requirement, their expeditions in search of knowledge were geared towards metamorphosis. And in that quest, it was not enjoyment they expected, but pain.