Terra di me - Land of me
Daria Filardo and Costanza Meli in conversation with Bianco-Valente, 2018
 

Costanza Meli
Before entering the world of your work and reflecting on the investigation itself, I would like to begin our conversation with the initial inspiration that you communicated to Daria Filardo and me: the choice of working on a map. Your project began as an encounter with old geographical charts in the Fondazione Sicilia collection. It developed through an awareness of the finiteness of the map itself and of the necessity of going beyond its limits to extend, update, and give new life to the way we look at the Mediterranean and the geography it represents today.
I would like to ask you, then, how this process came about. If we want to think in more theoretical terms, we know very well that cartography is a complex domain; it has always used shapes and codes to “write down” our surroundings, but in order to do that it must necessarily carry out a process of selection. Every map, then, is a coming together of representations, the crystallization of a vision, of an ideological framework, utopian and political. Artists, historically attracted to such important objects, have redesigned them, questioning and altering them in a thousand ways. In your reflection on the Mediterranean and your further encounters with these maps, what route did you take? What led you to “open” the map to make it a vehicle, an object of relationships more than of representation? What were you imagining at first and what did this geography tell you, once you had begun to travel through it?

Bianco-Valente
The first maps created by man, when he was still a nomad, probably described routes rather than territories. They were represented by nursery rhymes or actual songs that articulated the succession of particular features in the terrain they observed when following pathways connecting different areas, as Bruce Chatwin suggests in his Le vie dei canti (The Songlines).
When humans settled down and became stable, maps took on new functions, principally representing territories, indicating borders agreed upon at the edges of different areas of group settlements.
The sea has always been a separate area of discourse, where knowledge of routes made the difference between life and death, between poverty and wealth linked to possible commercial exchanges between different populations.
When we sail away from the coast, familiar shapes on the horizon are no longer visible, and therefore we turn our eyes to the heavens, in particular to the stars and constellations used for determining directions. These became recorded in fantastic tales, created to inspire fear in those not familiar with knowledge of navigation, who imagined encounters with sea monsters and dangers of every kind, as Elio Cadelo describes so well in his Quando i Romani andavano in America (When the Romans Went to America).
So once again, maps were connected to the experience of travel. However, with the rise of private property, everything seemed to crystallize in a graphic form that took into account only a succession of places on the mainland or of islands in the sea but no longer told stories or spoke of the exchanges that linked places together.
Our work with cartography has always consisted of providing other levels of reading maps that have investigated the links between people and exchanges rather than borders. This is our point of departure for Terra di me, which we intended as a way to reflect on the way our collective imagination is bound to the Mediterranean and on how it has been tragically transformed from antiquity to the present, from the time when this sea was the means by which Western culture as we know it was born and disseminated to today. We are now at a moment when some people compare the Mediterranean to an impassable wall, forgetting that mankind has always stopped in different places on the planet in search of better opportunities. And it is precisely this continual mixing of peoples, languages, cultures, customs and the need to overcome difficulties that generates progress.

Daria Filardo
A little foreword (before all the contemporary geographical, historical, and post-colonial studies that question our present era and its multiple and conflicting points of view): Fernand Braudel begins his book The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II by talking about the Mediterranean in terms of the mountainous borders that stretch between all the countries surrounding it. He goes on to write about the plains and the hills, then the desert, the Sahara (but not only the Sahara – he also speaks of the routes coming from east of the Anti-Lebanon Mountains, where the Syrian desert begins, and from north of the Black Sea, that opens onto the southern Russian steppes, which both overlook the sea).
His extraordinary geographic description tells of a very strong unity that seems forgotten in today’s world.
Throughout history, the Mediterranean was an internal sea, a space of communication, of movement of merchandise and people, an epic theatre of the imagination, of warfare, the site of the stratified development of our civilisation.
Today we seem to have forgotten this, and the Mediterranean has become a fluid boundary where it is impossible to build any wall. Paradoxically, the global world, in which masses of human beings move away from zones of mistreatment and warfare, has more borders than the ancient world, which recognized similarities among peoples.
Your work on the collective imagination of a shattered Mediterranean in the story of people compelled to cross it, who, once they’re on “this side”, find themselves obliged to start all over again with no common history, bears witness to our misunderstanding of the Mediterranean.
Your method of investigation – based on your having always been interested in maps, in movement, in encounters with other communities, in southern connections that don’t happen by chance – finds itself, in this project, faced with a Mediterranean that is no longer the one we thought we knew. We are confronted with a barrier that almost prevents us from speaking, because the stories to be told are too difficult to translate and demand special sensitivity. How are you able to reconstitute a common map of the Mediterranean? Which issues were the most pressing ones to discuss, or perhaps the least able to be discussed because we examine them too much from a hegemonic Western point of view?

Bianco-Valente
Our first contact with a group of immigrant young people whom we met in Palermo was based on an out-of-date vision of the phenomenon of immigration. We are both from families that emigrated and whose family ties are still spread through northern Italy, France, Switzerland, and Germany. We thought this gave us a common basis on which to construct a way of thinking. We were completely wrong.
The generations that preceded us, emigrating from small communities in southern Italy, almost to the point of emptying them out completely, weren’t risking their lives in moving from one place to another. It is impossible, then, to compare them to the epic flux of men and women who reach Italy from sub-Saharan Africa by any means and due to tremendous pressures, driven by war, privation, and unbearable social disparities that are almost always triggered by economic and strategic interests of foreign powers or multinational corporations.
It took only a few sentences, silences, disarming glances and smiles to make us understand that we were completely off track in imagining the true depth of the existential drama hidden in the hearts of the boys and girls that we have harboured in Palermo.
These young people, having undertaken a voyage that may have taken months (but more often a year or two) and risked their lives several times while crossing the Sahara in makeshift vehicles, or while working in Libya to make enough money to pay human traffickers, or at the mercy of the open sea on an inflatable raft, crushed against others like them from whom life seems to have taken everything away – after all this they finally arrive in Italy, where they quickly discover they have lost their identity and are not real people for some Italians but only a generic problem that needs to be solved somehow.
This condition could make anyone crazy, but they revealed incredible pride and kindness that shone through their eyes, their smiles, and their gestures, and this encounter shocked us and stopped us in our tracks. We are used to engage with groups of people, and, at the proper time, to weave their experiences and feelings into a work of art. However, in this case, the experiences they have lived through are too diverse and of a scale too enormous to be shared immediately. Their personal histories each belong to History with a capital H, to a phenomenon that in its entirety is destined to change Europe rapidly, probably within a few generations, and it is a phenomenon that can’t be stopped. We are only deluding ourselves when we try to do so by passing laws or building walls and barriers.

Daria Filardo
I seem to see a collective author in this work. You seem to recognize yourselves in the community that, together with you, has created itself. Are there themes – voyages, emigration (although under different conditions) – that have resonated somewhat with the communities of immigrants that you have encountered?

Bianco-Valente
The Palazzo Branciforte still houses the historic wooden structures of the Monte dei Pegni di Santa Rosalia (Santa Rosalia pawnshop), a truly fascinating place, a symbol of the state of poverty that at one time characterized Palermo and the south of Italy.
We decided to visit it together with the immigrant boys and girls, and it provided an opportunity to speak of the years from the end of the nineteenth century to the beginning of the twentieth, when families were about to set off for the Americas. As their last act, they went to the Monte dei Pegni to leave their sheets, their mattresses, their tablecloths and other household objects, receiving in return a little money to take with them to the New World.
While Federica, our production assistant, was talking about this, we saw the amazement growing on their faces. They didn’t know this history – that even from Italy people had left on such long voyages and couldn’t foresee returning to their homeland.
This was an important moment, in which the group moved from a first phase of reciprocal knowledge to a second phase in which it was possible to consider the themes that would bring us to the creation of new works.
We decided not to investigate their personal histories or the stories of their journeys in order to avoid more pain. Instead, we concentrated on the image they had of Italy before their voyages and how this either matched or clashed with the reality that they found once they had arrived at their destination. Another idea that emerged from the group was changing one’s point of view, looking toward the future rather than remaining pointlessly focused on the past.

Daria Filardo
I think that the narrative dimension of your work, together with the visual synthesis, makes us understand the story of the times and the richness of the stories hidden in your images or in the videos. Can you tell us about the role of words in your work? What guided your choice of parts of the body – hands or parts of the face – in the photos and the video?

Bianco-Valente
Hands and written or spoken words are recurring themes in our work, because they refer to two key moments in the evolution of the human species in which it became differentiated from other primates. Standing erect liberated our ancestors’ arms and hands from use in walking, and it was precisely with their hands that humans began to shape their existence. The other key moment occurred with the development of language, which increased individuals’ ability to bond in the first social groupings. In this way, they could share experiences, information, and visions linked to dreams and the transcendent. Joseph Campbell, taking inspiration from the Jungian theory of archetypes in his The Hero with a Thousand Faces, suggests that it is precisely at this moment that the first myths were born and began to be transmitted orally, myths that we can find traces of in every human culture and religion.
The human brain evolved in this way, developing a marked propensity for acquiring information by listening to others’ experiences and creating an extremely close relationship between words and mental images, a process that continues every time we begin to listen to or read a story. We have a kind of “dependence” on stories that can already be seen in us when we are little, when we ask a parent to tell us a bedtime story before we go to sleep. As we grow, we begin to leaf through our first illustrated books, and then we move on to TV, with its cartoons, and so on, with novels, movies, TV series, and the pleasure of sharing our experiences with our friends, always told as stories, finally arriving at social media, large-scale infrastructures created for telling our personal stories while enjoying others’.
Supporting this natural need, when we come together with groups of people in the development of a new work, we take a step backward, becoming a pathway, a kind of catalyst, allowing the work to emerge from the network of experiences that people relate to us. Obviously, in this process words are always involved, in recounting one’s own experiences or in making an aspect of one’s imagination visible to others.

Costanza Meli
I fully agree with Daria’s ideas and with her reflections on the importance of a narrative dimension. The inadequacy of a map, defined by a geographer like Franco Farinelli, as a “miserable” model of reality (because it “sacrifices” everything just to convey one piece of information), corresponds precisely to the insufficiency of a solely representative or spatial dimension. According to Farinelli, the Mediterranean represents an enormous contradiction, seen in today’s geopolitical and social realities, in the dynamics of trying to manage the process of human migration. The contradiction is due to the fact that space is indeed a Mediterranean invention (widely exported afterward), but there never has been space in the Mediterranean. The Mediterranean is the exact opposite of isotopic space, rational and centralized, from which nations have constructed their own image and a map of the relationships among peoples. The Mediterranean is a space in which no man’s lands exist, city- states, contiguous zones, special rules, small political units, “nonmaterial” economies. The Mediterranean is a “membrane” between the internal and the external, between what separates people – like national identity and the ealities of local production – and what brings them together, in other words, trade. In many recent studies, people speak of globalisation as a phenomenon that is not contemporary but rather endemic to a model that originated precisely in the Mediterranean. A model that cannot be reduced to the logic of countries that are still trying to govern their territory through the stiffening of borders and further separation. The Mediterranean systematically belies a political vision founded on national identities. The encounters I have had in recent years, working on dialogue between migrant people and local communities, through participatory artistic experiences, have almost always been characterised by the gathering of memories, narrations, and testimonials of those who have lived along the Mediterranean, who have crossed it, or who had never seen it before taking their own journeys to Europe. I believe that what you have experienced in Palermo is a very particular state of affairs: you, Mediterranean people par excellence, have begun to work in Palermo, one of the places in which this condition of heterogeneity is most present and visible today, together with a group of people of diverse origins. You did not ask them to tell their stories. Narration, in your investigation, is not linked to direct testimonials but to a kind of thread that crosses through you and the group, creating a conversation. This thread is what you have chosen to weave, with sensitivity and an inner sense of responsibility that I would like to underscore. So I, too, therefore would like to ask you something about narration and telling one’s story. The people with whom you have developed this journey have not necessarily shared the Mediterranean, have not always lived along it, have not always felt they were part of it. We are all the Mediterranean, in an historic and simultaneous here and now. When we search for origins, we always return to this non-space of belonging, from which every fundamental search for connections is born.

Bianco-Valente
Historically, the Sahara Desert has been a natural barrier, a sort of inland sea that has divided Africa into two distinct parts. In the past, it could be crossed only by camel caravans that kept up the trade between the peoples of the Maghreb and the countries of sub-Saharan Africa. Even if it is now possible to cross the great African desert relatively easily, in trucks on asphalt roads, the concept of Mediterranean, with everything it entails relative to a kind of cultural identity that transcends national boundaries, remains almost unknown to the inhabitants of sub-Saharan Africa, who make up the majority of the migrants seeking better living conditions in Italy and Europe.
So you are right, Costanza. Our new concept of Mediterranean is here and now – one entirely to be built. For example in Palermo, that has always been a place capable of hybridizing the souls of different cultures facing onto it (from the foundation of the city by the Phoenicians, then by way of the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II who demonstrated how much beauty and richness may be generated by intercultural dialogue). All the way to our present times, where all of Sicily and Italy are practically on their own in facing this epochal migratory phenomenon that, depending upon the perspective one chooses to view it from, seems to be an insurmountable problem to some (whereas we are amongst those who consider it a great opportunity). And this is especially true for a country like ours, one reporting a huge demographic deficit and the drama of inland areas emptied out for decades by departures of no return. The dialogue that we have tried to establish with the young immigrants we have met in Palermo is based above all on the great respect we have for them as human beings and for the history that they bring with them. Chronicling the difficulties they experienced in trying to reach our country has never interested us as much as what remains truly important for them after their countless ordeals. We asked them to look inside themselves and to imagine the most important thing, the thing that they would like to hold onto forever, and how we could make it visible for a moment, drawing or defining it in words on the palms of their hands, which they then closed and placed over their hearts. One of the videos in the exhibition will be a montage of this, through which we will come to understand the altruism and deep sense of values that these men and women possess.

Daria Filardo
The overall Terra di me project moves back and forth between the idea of an utopia and its opposite, the actual encounter and the collective journey that you have made together with the migrants arriving from across the sea. In this dialogue, the different works that you create take shape and tell us more about this journey.
There are many shades of blue in the collage inspired by the reading of Croatian author Predrag Matvejević’s Mediterranean Breviary, an infinity of hues that form our collective imagination of places along the Mediterranean. A kind of map made of strips of paper. Of what utopia are you speaking in your work?

Bianco-Valente
Matvejević seems to write the uninterrupted flow of his thoughts on the “middle sea”. His story never seems to arrive at a conclusion, continuing instead to provide new reflections, quotations, and considerations that are almost poetic. We were particularly struck by a section of the book in which the author speaks of the colour our sea takes on. Suggesting the similarities (but also many differences as well) that characterise the diverse communities that border one another, he goes on to enumerate the countless hues that it is possible to admire in observing its waters, according to the location, the time, the section of the sea floor, or the colour of the sky above reflected in it. All of these varying hues come together to compose the image that we associate with the word Mediterranean, which each of us enshrines in his mind and which, if one looks closely, probably varies from one individual to another. Advertisers understand this well, using images from advertisements to try to give a single voice to this evanescent vision. The only colour the sea in a given location can be is what pushes us to leave (choosing one destination instead of another), if only for the subtle pleasure we feel in comparing (superimposing) what we imagine with reality, as Marco D’Eramo explains so well in his recent book Il selfi e del mondo.
Basing our work on these assumptions, we wanted to create our own personal Mediterranean Breviary, starting with photographs advertising seaside locations or tourist resorts published in travel agency brochures, in which the sea and sky always appear in incredible shades of blue, green, etc. We cut up many, many photos, obtaining thin strips with different background colours that we glued next to one another to compose a large collage intended to summarize our visual concept of the Mediterranean. What fascinates us in this work is that it looks at first like a digital work even though it was entirely created by hand.

Daria Filardo
In one of the videos you made for the exhibition, I was struck by the flood of names the participants say, with only the bottoms of their faces framed. The migrants list their names and those of the people they are most closely connected to, and we have no idea if they are here with them or not. From the number of names, we can guess that, in most cases, they are far away. They are the community they left behind, and the migrants don’t know if or how they will be able to reconstruct it. The simple act of saying names is a cry of pain, of longing, and at the same time a way of keeping the strength of these ties alive. All these names recreate the world and insist on recognising the individual and collective identities that each of them carries inside him or her, which seem to disappear when they arrive here. Can you tell us what drove you to want to investigate identity?

Bianco-Valente
We have already hinted earlier at the fact that probably the greatest stress for each of the young migrants who arrives in Italy and the rest of Europe is strongly reaffirming his own individuality, his own personhood, in every predicament. Each must obviously struggle to meet the demands of everyday living, remain afloat in the great sea of bureaucracy that always seems to want to drown him rather than help him. But the worst threat is depersonalization, discouragement so great that the person begins to feel like a generic problem rather than an individual.
So, on one of the days of our investigation, we suggested creating video sequences in which each person slowly and continuously repeated his own first and last names, expressing and reaffirming his or her individuality.
But what characterizes us as individuals is also our network of relationships (family, friends, colleagues, etc.) that we weave and strengthen as we make our way in the world: it allows us at every moment to know exactly who and where we are. For a second sequence of the same video, therefore, we asked each person to call to mind the people to whom he or she felt close ties – it didn’t matter if they were here with them in Sicily or far away, in their native land or other parts of the world – and to say their first and last names. This allowed them to evoke the existence and strength of these ties that nothing in their difficult lives can break.
Since antiquity, humans have shown that words can be used not only to transmit information but are also a pathway for energy and healing. This is why rituals are composed of words and not just actions, and it explains why there has always existed a healer in human societies who has tried to cure people with words, a figure who, with the passage of time, has evolved into today’s psychologist. All this is to say that even the simple act of repeating one’s name or evoking those of other people is more than it appears. It potentially has very deep repercussions on a person and his or her energy.

Costanza Meli
In reading your answers, it’s always clearer to me how the way you conceive of your studio reveals a kind of meeting of theory and practice in your work, making the studio a place not only for discovering others but also for the validation of every idea completed up to that moment. Your experience with workshop methods does not allow a structured approach. On the contrary, it requires awareness of the need to remain open, to listen, to welcome change, and to allow yourselves to be amazed and sometimes even to contradict yourselves. Tell us, then, about your workshop. How did your encounter with this group of migrants come about? How did you create trust and choose images together? How did your relationships change and grow from time to time? Did you have to try to change your points of view? If so, at what moments? Most of all, how did each person feel about the idea of taking part in an artistic investigation?

Bianco-Valente
We were contacted by the Fondazione Sicilia, which was about to organise an exhibition of ancient maps of Sicily and other parts of the Mediterranean in its collection. Knowing that our work was often involved with the idea of voyages and the concepts that form the basis of cartographic representation, they asked us if we would like to take part in the exhibition, thus creating a link between our work and these geographical and nautical charts drawn since the beginning of the mid-1500s.
Obviously, we were enthusiastic about the proposal and responded immediately. We suggested broadening the focus to examine how our way of looking at the Mediterranean Sea has changed over the course of the centuries, from ancient times when it represented the equivalent of our Internet (with everything that goes along with cultural and commercial exchanges) to today, when there are individuals trying to cross it by any means and other people who want to make it an impassable barrier.
We are living through a key moment in the relationship between Europe and Africa, and there are no seas, deserts, walls, or religious wars that can stem this tide.
If one considers the phenomenon on a superficial level, one might think that the engine generating this movement is economic disparity. In reality, the difference we need to look at is deeper and more demographic. Europe is made up of countries with the lowest birth rate in the world, while Africa is one of the youngest continents.
Allthesepeoplearethereforemovinginresponsetothenecessityofrebalancing this enormous difference. It is therefore a natural phenomenon that has more to do with biology and anthropology than with politics and economics. Of course, war and social disparities are the origins of this phenomenon, pushing people to abandon everything and leave their native lands.
In order to study these arguments more deeply, we asked if we could structure our participation in the exhibition as the result of two sets of encounters with a group of 15 people who had crossed the Mediterranean and with whom we would interact for the creation of some of the works to be presented.
The first day we met in Palermo was a real shock for us. We spent the entire first week of our investigation without the clarity we needed to conceptualise our work, because the encounter produced such powerful emotions and feelings of empathy. The second time we met, we announced our decision to abandon the project, but thanks to a suggestion on their part, we agreed instead to continue. It was a real stroke of luck, because our experience in Palermo turned out to be one of the most engaging we ever had, on a human and artistic level.

Costanza Meli
One of most sensitive elements of an intercultural experience is language and, consequently, translation. Translation not only of words but of the thousands of diverse ideas and emotional meanings they contain that are often untranslatable, making a depiction of oneself difficult. In the case of a piece of work conceived as an artistic experience, this involved not only the language spoken by the group and by the individuals who comprised it but also employing different forms of language from those used in simple narration. I think that this is always a decisive factor in making the passage from a moment of exchange and of sharing experiences to one of creating a new version, an interpretation, of reality. How did this passage work in your case? Was it a fluid process, an opportunity for internal dialogue, or a process that you achieved in successive stages?

Bianco-Valente
More than different languages, what could have undermined our dialogue with the group was lack of trust, the suspicion that our work might not be sincere, that we might be there only to draw out the umpteenth obsessive account of the ordeals of their crossing to put on display in an exhibition. We received a great deal of help from the cultural mediators and the production assistant, who reassured the participants of our intentions, allowing us to break the ice more quickly and open ourselves to dialogue, always in Italian, English, or French, and to the clarification of certain points expressed in local languages we didn’t understand.
During the first few days, we showed them some examples of works generated by our relationships with groups of people or entire communities, explaining that in this case, the works created would also be born of the interweaving of experiences and visions that emerged from the group.
Then, during the second week of the workshop, more than a month after the first, stimuli emerged that allowed us to give form to the work. At this point there was open dialogue among members of the group, and we always explained the deep meaning we intended to give every action we asked them to perform. Their responses have always been based on their total awareness and personal determination.

Daria Filardo
I would like to ask one last question about an object that is both light and extremely heavy at the same time, that links all of the migrants’ voyages together: a large network of strips of paper covered with words that tell about things they left behind or brought with them. Each participant’s handwriting is mingled with the others’ and tells us something. In a long voyage like this, what one brings along and what one leaves behind are very important. In what context did they decide to share the intimacy and the difficulty of this choice? Did you all do this together or did each one leave his silent testimony in writing, creating a collective sculpture?

Bianco-Valente
During the workshop in Palermo, after allowing ourselves the time needed to get to know one another, we learned that the chronicle of their voyage and of its difficulties wasn’t important. What mattered was the women and men with whom we were sharing that place and that instant in time, their thoughts and their perceptions regarding that historic moment and themselves.
One of the actions we suggested was to describe on a very thin piece of paper, in a language that they thought of as their own, the image they had of their destination before their departure and during their long voyage: what they expected to find once they arrived in Italy and how the image they had created clashed with the reality of foreseeing a life that seemed to promise so little. Using a particular printing technique, we recorded their narrations on gold leaf (in complete contrast with what they had recounted), and we then threaded it between the strips of paper, composing a weaving that at first appears precious because of the glittering that we all know so well, but whose true preciousness comes from the aspirations, the disappointments, and the powerful determination that shine through the interweaving of all these stories and visions.
Speaking of visions, we discovered that the people who seem to have the clearest long-term vision of the phenomenon of migration are the cultural mediators, who, working as volunteers, do an incredible job serving as a support and an interface between the migrants, institutions, the bureaucracy, and society. We owe them all a great deal.
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Taken from the catalog of the show "Terra di me - Land of me" Silvana Editoriale, 2018

 
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