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Amsterdam - 14, 15, 16 November 2002

Around a solid sea

Stephano Boerie
(this article was published in Archis Magazine,
in the special November Flow-Issue

Materials for a research programme on contemporary flows through the Mediterranean.

Multiplicity/Stefano Boeri and John Palmesino

1. Solid Sea
What is happening in the Mediterranean? The great basin of water that for centuries has been described as the cradle of civilization, the hub of thousands of traditions and the meeting point of various cultures, is changing. The Mediterranean is becoming a ‘Solid Sea’, a territory ploughed by predetermined routes and insuperable boundaries and subdivided into strictly regulated bands of water. A solid space, crossed at different depths and in different directions by distinct flows of people, goods, information and money.

Whoever enters the Mediterranean today must assume a precisely defined identity, a ‘costume’ that will not abandon them until the end of their journey across the water. Clandestine immigrants, cruise tourists, armed forces, fishermen, sailors, submarine and rig engineers, cross the Mediterranean waters every day without communicating and often without even noticing one other, locked into their own identities and their own predetermined course.

The Mediterranean is turning into a large continent interposed between Europe, Asia Minor and Africa. The only ‘certain territory’ of this part of the world where borders and territories are constantly shifting. A liquid continent cut to differing depths by impenetrable corridors and subdivided by high barriers in which specialized enclosures and vast, uninhabited plains alternate. Its borders are perforated by funnels of entry and exit that increasingly respond to the logic of exclusion and separation. It is a new continent, the map of which we are still unfamiliar with.

Surrounded by regions of deep turmoil and conflict, by areas of uncertainty and rapid political transformation, the Mediterranean Sea is today crossed by a multitude of specialized trajectories, each governed by specific technical and organizational procedures, courses and paths that never come in contact one with the other, that do not become the occasion of cultural encounters: the Mediterranean Sea is becoming a controlled, rationalized space. When the courses of these travellers accidentally intersect, when a short circuit in the Solid Sea suddenly connects different cultures and identities and puts different sea depths into contact one with the other (as happened with the shipwreck of the ‘ghost ship’ off the Sicilian coast), paradoxical and dramatic effects are frequently the result. This novel situation has implications for the identities of the people who inhabit, cross or surround this vast space, this insurmountable obstacle between Europe, the Middle East and North Africa.

2. Towards an Eclectic Atlas of the Mediterranean Basin
With ‘Solid Sea’, Multiplicity aims to promote research into the new nature of the Mediterranean, and to produce an up-to-date atlas of its topography and turbulence. With the help of a series of case studies – local studies of emerging social, economic and cultural phenomena – a new human geography of this area is outlined, one increasingly dominated by techniques of separation and control.

3. A Xenographic Approach
The new eclectic map of the Mediterranean basin aims to represent – or better still to ‘write’ – the differences which are crossing and exacerbating the situation in this part of the world. To write the differences means above all to describe the trajectories that criss-cross this area and the identities of the people who follow these trajectories.

Trajectories: The rationalized and standardized space of ports, the precise routes of military patrols, the intermittent incursions of tobacco smugglers, the complexity of energy distribution systems, the intricacy of underwater infrastructures for telecommunication are only some of the subjects of a geographical investigation. Connections between different rationalities of specialists and standardized routines will form the basis of the new atlas. Special attention will be paid to the infrastructural interconnections between the Mediterranean and Europe.

Identities: The intensification of the flows of people, money, energy and information that cross the Mediterranean Sea has a deep impact on the cultural, social and economic identities of the populations that inhabit and navigate this area of the world. ‘Solid Sea’ will investigate the relations between the shifting, uncertain national identities that surround the Mediterranean and the increasingly immutable character of this liquid basin. A series of portraits of the new identities - oil rig technicians, cruise-ship tourists, yachtsmen, clandestine immigrants, smugglers, fishermen, sailors – will encapsulate the transformations in the social landscape of the Mediterranean Sea.

This intensification of flows is rapidly reconfiguring the assets of the Solid Sea. Its new geography is governed by clearly defined and separate routes, differentiated rhythms and intensities, which together form a stratified landscape.

To map the new configuration of the Mediterranean we must describe not only the major routes, the highways, the nodes, the clearings, the points of compression, the main flows, the points of stasis and turbulence in the Solid Sea, but also the entry and exit points.

4. Coastal Biopsies: a preliminary list
The first stage of this research, a few samples of which are presented in these pages, concerns an attempt to record how the flows are forging increasingly impregnable gateways to the Mediterranean Sea. How the global energies flowing through this environment encounter local resistance and specific obstacles; and how the flows themselves are re-written by the local spatial conditions of the different entrances to the Solid Sea.

Indeed, some of these entry points act as funnels (see the Vlorë-Otranto case, but similar situations obtain in Gibraltar, in Sicily or in the Peloponnesus) where mono-thematic flows are compressed before entering the liquid scape. Normally these kinds of flow are unidirectional. But sometimes, when they constitute an exchange of goods, of people or of ideas and images (as in the Tunisia-Mazara del Vallo case), the Mediterranean Basin is still capable of producing bridging points where a process of osmosis occurs between different parts of its hyper-differentiated coastline.

Other entry points act as collision points (see the Nicosia case), where different flow typologies are forced to exaggerate and to radicalize their difference; places where the population groups involved in these flows are constrained to accentuate their origins and cultural-religious roots.

Elsewhere, we find entry points that still try to bring together and combine the different flows, at least in geographical terms. Many old port cities of the Mediterranean basin (see the example of Genoa, but there are analogous situations in other Mediterranean cities like Marseilles, Alexandria, Thessalonika) still act as compression points. Here the differences are forced to share a circumscribed local space, to cohabit within a reduced local condition, producing conflicts, but also, sometimes, unexpected osmosis.

Some old port cities are indeed trying to differentiate the flows, producing a system of parallel bands which distinguishes flows dedicated to tourism, to maritime activities and to freight traffic, from those involved in illicit activities like goods and people smuggling. Barcelona is an example of this hyper-planned and hyper-controlled tendency.

Other parts of the coast act as inflection points, where the mainly mono-thematic flows (containers in the case of Gioia Tauro, clandestine immigrants at Malta) are halted by a temporary compression. These are places where the flows of goods or people encounter a pause, a time-suspension, before resuming their usual course.

But there are also large sections of the coastal perimeter that are simply empty of flows. They are peripheral places, even when centrally located, that appear as clearings in the Solid Sea. And then there are areas that act as superposed nodes where (as in the Strait of Gibraltar, some parts of the Adriatic Sea, or in the Suez Canal) various mono-thematic flows are superposed without ever establishing contact with one other because each flow has its own predetermined course, schedule and altimetric position in the liquid environment. When different flows do happen to interconnect in such areas (see the ‘Ghost Ship’ case), the result may be a sort of short circuit which dramatically interrupts the continuity of the trajectories.

We can also observe the growth of several coastal places which are interconnected by the intensity of a particular, recurrent flow of goods or people. These coronae of entry points (like Monte Carlo, Barcelona, Ibiza, Algiers, or Venice, Athens, Istanbul, Alexandria on the cruise ship routes) are characterized by the intermittent yet never-ending touch of global flows.

A similar phenomenon, but with a different – seasonal – rhythm has transformed the nature of several Mediterranean coastlines, like the Costa Brava or the Adriatic Coast. Such places are periodically submerged by tidal waves that occupy the entire territory and colonize everything.

The ‘Solid Sea’ research project is a network of case studies, of identities and of researchers. Its aim is to mirror the contemporary condition of the Mediterranean. Supported by a sort of collective intelligence (made possible above all by the presence of the Internet), a network of researchers will undertake simultaneous investigations in different geographical areas and on different subjects. The continuous interaction between the members of this network (formed by visual artists, architects, sociologists, geographers, economists, urbanists, historians...) will result in new methodologies and investigation techniques. By remaining continually alert to the physical dimensions of the observed phenomena, the various local case studies will become part of the general research structure while retaining their specificity. The outcome will be an Eclectic Atlas of the contemporary Mediterranean Sea.

Multiplicity consists of: Stefano Boeri, Maddalena Bregani, Francisca Insulza, Francesco Jodice, Giovanni La Varra, John Palmesino, Giovanni Maria Bellu, Paolo Vari, Maki Gherzi, Armin Linke.

updated Monday 31 March 2003
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