Mobile version available soon!

The journey︎︎︎

The Journey


Since the 1990s art residencies, as places offering time and space for artists and researchers to create and exchange, have expanded exponentially on a global scale. In line with this unprecedented development, a comprehensive process of self-assessment has simultaneously taken place within the field. The multiplication of seminars, conferences and monographs on the theme of art residencies speaks to the newfound drive to interrogate the model’s foundations.

︎︎︎Some examples are the ‘Summer Wells’ symposia, seminars and meetings held in 2015 and 2018 at the Saari Residence (Finland); the symposium ‘Residencies Reflected,’ held at HIAP Suomenlinna in 2016 and co-organised by HIAP Helsinki International Artist Programme; ‘Reconstructing Rurality,’ organised by Rejmyre Art Lab and Nida Art Colony in 2017; Res Artis Meetings in Copenhagen, in 2017 and Rovaniemi, in 2018; ‘Hospitality and Tolerance,’ organised by SICA and Trans Artists in Amsterdam in 2010; the ‘Retooling Residencies’ international conference, organised by A-I-R Laboratory CCA Ujazdowski Castle in 2009; or the Cairo Residency Symposium, titled ‘How to develop honest reciprocity?,’ which took place in Cairo, Egypt in March 2009, to name but a few.

Thanks to the studies recently undertaken within different cultural policy organisations, art residency networks and think tanks alike, we now have more comprehensive documentation of artists’ mobility within the European context. All the same, as several studies have remarked, further research is needed: both in terms of empirical data and conceptual re-imaginings. Indeed, the art residency model in the 21st-century is in need of a thorough and thoughtful re-evaluation, as processes of artistic homogenization, privilege and ecological impact are undermining the positive contributions that art residencies have achieved so far.

Besides the timely debates taking place as these lines are being written, there is an essential area of inquiry that has not yet been properly addressed: that is the invisibility of non-Western approaches within the narrative that currently frames the history of art residencies.

The lack of an edifying body of work critically reflecting upon the history of art residencies from a cross-cultural perspective suggests the limitation of the established narrative. A consequence of this gap is the development of a discourse that is comfortably stuck in Western-centrism and narrowly grounded in relatively simple and unchallenging approaches.

The lack of complexity in the discourse that currently shapes the history of art residencies becomes evident if we consider how, willingly or not, the rich tradition that intertwines the relationship between traveling and knowledge within Arab cultures has so far been neglected. The primary aim of An event without its poem is an event that never happened is precisely to address and challenge this absence.

In this task, the burdensome issue of epistemic entitlement - that is, the question of the space of enunciation from which a narrative is constructed -  has been persistent. Is this project yet another example of the tradition whereby the Same speaks for Others without their consent? Indeed, as Edward Said pointed out thirty years ago when reflecting upon the state of knowledge and its institutions in the Arab world: ‘our history is mostly written by foreigners.’

Noting the sharp contrast between the knowledge produced by outsiders and those within the Arab world, Said affirmed that ‘we [in the Arab world] rely on personal and disorganised collective memory, gossip almost (...), a teeming history off the page, out of sight and hearing, beyond reach, largely unrecoverable.’

An event without its poem is an event that never happened is undoubtedly inflected by a particular gaze, that of the Other, the foreigner. As such, the journey on which you are about to embark cannot elude Otherness as its structuring ethos. Far from contributing to the construction of Otherness, however, the alternative history this research proposes is not told from the position of the self-assuring connoisseur, nor from that of the knowledgeable outsider. On the contrary, this narrative prefers to remain, as Said would put it, ‘concisely personal,’ tending towards speculation. Thinking about art residencies and their histories through this prism will allow for the emergence of new ways to understand and imagine alternative pasts and possible futures. Being open to discontinuity and the 'what ifs' means asking ourselves if it is possible to retool the value embedded in established discourses. Furthermore, by speculating over bygone models, this project seeks to contradict traditional modes of conceiving the history of art and its institutions. And so, An event without its poem is an event that never happened is a project framed by fragility as, in the journey between the Same and the Other, sameness will be othered. In other words, this project proposes to provincialise sameness while advocating for the emergence of other art residency histories.

It is precisely the question of who is being excluded from the current genealogy that provides the starting point for this speculative proto-history of the Arab art residency proposed in the following pages.

To do so, this project transgresses the methods usually found in the realm of historical analysis, adopting experimental and experiential inquiry through artistic research. This exercise requires a rethinking of seemingly self-evident terms and the institutions they name. At the same time, a set of novel concepts are introduced: they are concepts framed by mobility, the journey, and the knowledge produced through its narratives. In this way, the speculative proto-history of the Arab art residency proposed here endorses fragility both in its content and in its form. Content-wise, in the following pages the reader will find a combination of different narrative voices, namely auto-ethnographic diaries, semi-fictional micro stories, conceptual frameworks and contemporary case studies, all supported by visual content. These different voices emerge from both literature analysis and collaborative action research.
Indeed, fieldwork and the practice of journeying have been fundamental as means to test, question and enquire about the art residency format within the geographical and cultural context of the Arab world. As crucial as these collaborative practices have been, the adoption of intuitive and creative approximations to research through intimate and personal accounts, has become also fundamental to the elaboration of An event without its poem is an event that never happened. In formal terms, each of these narrative voices translates into a design approach that is based on paratext and diagrammatic writing.

︎︎︎These accounts were created over the course of retreats at the El Miracle Monastery in inland Catalonia, at the CCDS–Centre Culturel et de Documentation Saharienne in Ghardaïa, southern Algeria, and during a residency as a research fellow 19/20 at Darat al Funun in Amman, Jordan (November 2019–March 2020).

While paratext stresses the idea that texts are never finished but are always susceptible to further commentary, diagrammatic writing challenges the very principle of normativity within writing practice, all the while proposing alternative ways for the form to reflect content.

In short, through a cross-temporal and cross-geographical approach to Arab intellectual legacies, the journey proposed here will bring the reader to the Damascene scholarly circles of the 700s, to meet the raḥḥālas, the scholarly globetrotters of the age. We will then visit the Syrian desert solitudes and the sa'ihun vagabond saints, only to continue on a sojourn to a zawiya, or Islamic monastery, to participate in the hafalat, the intellectual gatherings that spread throughout the Medieval Maghrib from the 1300’s onwards. We will then travel to the 1400s Anatolian literary salons, or majālis, finally tracing the journeys of several artists, scholars and diplomats from Meknes and Cairo to London and Paris, through al-rihla Siffariya. We will also meet their European counterparts, the grand tourists, who travelled, for example, from Nuremberg and Edinburgh to Jerusalem and Istanbul between the 17th and 19th centuries. Our journey will end at a small artists’ colony in northern Germany, at the turn of the 20th century. In other words, our history of art residencies will finish where the official one currently starts.

This project aims at functioning as an unfinished constellation, laying bare the traces of a path in need of restoration. Indeed, An event without its poem is an event that never happened should not be understood as a self-rewarding narrative, nor as a conclusion. Instead, what the reader will find in the following pages is the documentation of a journey, a map in the making, the traces of a long-lasting research process. The edges that define this path will not always be discernible nor evident but want to function as dynamic guiding lines. On one side of this path, the margins open to an eclectic array of conceptual and creative landscapes in which to rest and reflect upon alternative genealogies to the journey. On the other side, finding absences and neglected structures, the wanderer will have the chance to follow detours and look for alternative routes. Through this journey, the reader will engage in eclectic encounters and anachronic dialogues, while delving into intimate sceneries. Ultimately, through an experimental archaeology of globalisation, this research seeks to demonstrate that it is only by unsettling the grounds on which established discourses currently stand that epistemic diversity can emerge. As V. Y. Mudimbe rightly states in The Invention of Africa, ‘Stories about Others, as well as commentaries on their differences, are but elements in the history of the Same and its knowledge.’

Indeed, the emergence of a common future, within and beyond the art residency field, needs to be achieved by way of a return to our shared pasts.

Background image: © Pau Catà, Project Beyond Qafila Thania