MENA::Norden is a project of artistic exchange with the Middle East. It was initiated and developed by Arts Cabinet.The project’s preparation took over 2 years during which important partnerships were established with Higher Education, Culture and Development, National Institutes of Culture, arts and culture organisations across 5 European countries and 3 countries in the MENA region. The co-conceptualisation of the project led to sustained engagement activity and in-depth research into best practice for artistic exchange, in particular in areas of artistic residency practice, collaboration between art and research, and the connection between art and global issues. The project was submitted to Creative Europe for funding and although it was not supported, it was recognised as a highly relevant project and the partnership that was formed is thriving and collaborating to making the project happen in different ways.
The MENA::Norden project takes as its point of departure the urgent need to create a platform which supports artistic exchange between the Middle-East and Europe and which takes into account the complexities of the current cultural and political context. Whilst it is true that events across the Arab region have substantially informed the key elements of this project, MENA::Norden is not endemically regional in its ambitions and adheres to the practices of artists in the contemporary global market. The challenge for MENA::Norden lies precisely in establishing the right ethical balance between artists as political activists, who generate a powerful agency of the image through their use of revolutionary visuals in support of their ideals, and artists who seek to promote the common good by opening up debate and dialogue with an attempt to fill the fragmented and fragile civil societies or the ‘third space’ that lies between governments on one hand, the globalised world and people. Through its varied programmatic elements, MENA::Norden proposes a shift in how we calibrate and understand the relationship between art and politics and brings to the fore a model which unites freedom of speech with safety, research with engagement, dissemination with meaning, local with global. This model takes into account that artists’ practices are no longer centred only on aesthetic qualities and also engage in and with an increasingly pluralistic, globalised, networked and interconnected world through a variety of media. Our understanding of art relies on our ability to discern its responsiveness to issues and its power to break through barriers and discover alternatives to the present order of things. The desire to construct a new model of exchange was fuelled by the need expressed by artists, curators, and practioners (both in the MENA region and in Europe) in a wide range of fora, to establish a framework that could address the role art in context, re-examine and critique the role of the Institution, identify new methodologies that support art and enquiry, rethink ways of disseminating content and knowledge and find meaningful articulated relationships at different levels: artist to artist, artists and researchers, institutions and independent practioners, people and policy makers…The contributions assembled by different partners and interlocutors to this project over the last 18 months generated the necessary productive tension to identify a model which folded sense, reference and meaning together. Recognising the importance of artistic research as a mode of questioning, the contributors to this project also sought to situate the model in the field of artistic residencies, as residencies, uniquely, offer sites for extended activity over time, supporting processes of enquiry as opposed to other models of artistic exchange based on events. This models posits therefore a fundamental proposition which positions artists’ residencies as focal points for research, international exchange and cooperation.
Arts Cabinet’s specific interest was to look at the proliferation of art work that had emerged in response to the 2011 Tunisian revolution, and examine the effects of conflict on artistic representation. During the revolution and immediately after, artists from Tunisia became sensitive translators of reality and often participated in the awakening of consciousness giving rise to ‘untranslatable voices’ or un-representable’ visions of democracy. Initial contacts made by Arts Cabinet with Tunisia were facilitated by the Head of the International Federation of Arts Councils and Culture Agencies (IFAACA) in December 2013. Discussions with officials then in charge of culture and cooperation at the Ministry of Culture in Tunisia led to a proposal to develop jointly a bilateral artistic residency exchange between Tunisia and Scotland, provided this activity would support and enhance freedom of expression and the notion that art and artists empower change. These discussions led to the development of the proposal into a multilateral programme of artistic exchange between the Maghreb and the Nordic countries. This collaboration was enthusiastically received amongst partners in the Maghreb as it offered artists the possibility of a fresh and innovative approach and provides opportunities for new institutional collaborations.
A series of workshops were developed as part of the preparatory phase of the project:
Workshop 1: Brussels: 9 April 2014: Hosted by the British Council;
Workshop 2: Paris: 23 June. Hosted by British Council;
Workshop 3: Rabat: 13 November 2014, Le Cube;
Workshop 4: Edinburgh: 27 February 2015, Edinburgh College of Art;
Workshop 5: Tunis: 20 April 2015, The British Council Tunis;
Workshop 6: 27 August 2015, Edinburgh College of Art;
The initial research and development work undertaken by Arts Cabinet in 2013, was made possible with financial support from Creative Scotland. We are also grateful to ifa – Institut fur Auslandsbeziehungen for assistance towards the costs of the Brussels Cultural Experts workshop in February 2014 at More Europe, which substantially informed the development process of this project.
The continued support of the Norwegian Culture and Development organisation Mimeta made it possible for us to start the crucial engagement process with partners across North Africa. The University of Edinburgh College of Art, key partners in the project, has been incredibly supportive and collaborative in hosting a series of meetings and funding a workshop in February 2015 in Edinburgh, and co-funding a workshop in April 2015 in Tunisia and hosting the final international preparatory workshop in August 2015.
The EU consortium is formed of the following partnership:
We are grateful for the generous financial support from the following institutions: