The Cultural Politics of Projective Memory: Marseille Provence 2013


Michelle Stewart

date de sortie



Histoire moderne

In official and casual local parlance, one often hears Marseille referred to as the Phocaean city, a reference to the Greek sailors from Phocaea, who established a trading port (Massalia) there around 600 B.C. Never mind the pre-existing Ligurian tribes (or the locals who had been living there for tens of thousands of years), the founding of the city (figured as the first flush of civilization) is tied to these maritime colonizers. This need to reference the Greeks as founders marks the habit of thinking of Marseille as an outpost of western civilization, clinging to the periphery—a portal between West and Orient, North and South—between frugality/industry and cowardice/decadence. Marseille amplifies the complexity of its status as a port town—as a city of migration and cultural mixing, but one that conjures ambivalence in official accounts and tourist guides—between its ancient historical connection to ‘Western civilization’ via the industriousness and maritime skills of the Phocaeans and its contemporary cultural ties to North Africa and the Mediterranean.


The research that I undertook during my residency at IMéRA elucidated a politics of projective cultural memory that emerged during Marseille European Capital of Culture 2013 (MP2013). Projective cultural policies reanimate debates about history with the aim of projecting recent social/cultural memory into the past and the future with the hope of affecting a different vision of collectivity in the present. Projective memory institutes modes of historical reflection that pointedly emphasize shared pasts and shared cultural influences in the hopes of mitigating contemporary conflicts and cultural flashpoints.


For MP2013, Mediterranean culture stood at the center of the proposal to make Marseille a European Capital of Culture (ECoC). As the organizers of MP2013 put it: “Over and above local issues, the European Union awards the title to promote the meeting of people and cultures. It is an opportunity to learn about our diversity but also to understand what unites us as Europeans, through our culture, history and values. It is an opportunity to feel like we belong to a community – the community that is the foundation of the European Union” (Vassiliou 5). In the process, Marseille was pitched as a bridge between Europe and its Mediterranean neighbors by virtue of its Mediterranean culture and existing trade. The various visions of Mediterranean Culture in the strategic positioning of the city to be an ECoC were already shot through with a sense of Marseille’s potential economic transformation. Given these stakes and ambitions, this paper explores the interpretation of Marseille as a capital of Mediterranean culture evinced by the visual culture supported by the ECoC year. Beyond the cynical pursuit of mere trade, a cultural politics of projective memory mobilizes cultural projects to suggest the intertwined fates of the colonizer and colonized, of the global north and the global south, in new postcolonial matrices of power.


The visual programming of MP2013 fleshed out some of the competing notions of Mediterranean culture and its significance for Europe and France. An analysis of some of the most popular exhibitions of the year might shed some light on whether the notion of Euro-Mediterranean culture addresses something beyond the bid for economic rejuvenation and easy trade. What is the Euro-Mediterranean community coming into view via the cultural policy, programming, and specific artworks of MP2013? How does cultural policy intervene in these overlapping spheres of influence and what shape does cultural identity take in discourses and policy targeting new cultural forms?


The notion of Mediterranean culture put forth by the array of visual events offered under the auspices of MP2013 is necessarily diverse, yet poignant themes emerged across the yearlong program. On the whole, the programming contained several broad frameworks for the expression and interpretation of Mediterranean cultures: 1) Pluralizing notions of the Mediterranean, 2) Historical Re-membrance, 3) Dialogue/Narrative identities, and 4) Projective Memory.


In preparing the cultural ground for MP2013, it is important to note that two key events of 2013 involved the resituating of cultural events and institutions from Paris to Marseille, specifically, the Rencontres des cinémas arabes (which opened at the Villa Méditerranée) and MuCem, born of the “musée national des Arts et Traditions populaires,” originally located in Paris.


Pluralizing notions of the Mediterranean

The first Rencontres internationales des cinémas arabes fulfilled local film association, AFLAM’s, long desire to have a version of Paris’s biennale des cinémas arabes in Marseille. While the Parisian biennale—held at the Institute of the Arab World—ended with its 8th festival in 2006—AFLAM hopes to hold the Rencontres des cinémas arabes every spring, with the second already scheduled for April 2014. The launch of the first Rencontres was held at Villa Méditerannée (May 28, 2013) to a packed theater in the new building. AFLAM, accustomed to holding smaller festivals, received strong support from MP2013 to mount a festival of this scale.


In the opening ceremony, President of AFLAM, Marcel Siguret emphasized the importance of this plurality: « “Aflam”, en arabe, signifie “films”. Marcel Siguret insiste sur ce “pluriel essentiel”. Il préside une association qui depuis sa création, il y a dix ans, a présenté plus de 600 œuvres au public de la région. “Notre territoire revendique une vocation euroméditerranéenne, mais affiche une méconnaissance profonde des cultures de l’autre rive”, juge-t-il. “La Capitale européenne de la culture pourrait toutefois permettre de remédier à cette lacune.” » (Kahn)


Indeed, the municipality initially resisted funding the project, arguing that it didn’t want to give one community more pride of place than another community residing in Marseille (Kahn). The PACA Region and the MP2013, however, supported the significance of France’s most important minority in its significant subvention of AFLAM’s expanded festival.


Mort à vendre (2011) by Moroccan director Faouzi Bensaidi played to a packed house at the Villa Méditerranée with dignitaries Jack Lang, Michel Vauzelle, and the president of AFLAM, Marcel Siguret, among others, in attendance. While almost all of the dignitaries mentioned Mediterranean people and culture in the singular, AFLAM’s president, Marcel Siguret, pointedly reminded those gathered that not only did we need the plural, “cultures,” but that, of course, Arab cultures extend beyond the Mediterranean. To wit, the Rencontres prominently featured films from Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates, Yemen, and from Arab Europeans, particularly, films from French Maghrebis. The recognition of internal diversity, then, highlights the importance of the Mediterranean for Europe.


Multicultural recognition

Mutlicultural recognition requires an historical approach, one that polemically positions the Mediterranean as central to European history and recognizes the sources of cross-fertilization (amidst contests for power and great historical violence) between Mediterranean civilizations: “Il faut, pour cela, nourrir un mouvement d’échange et d’appropriation de nos sources culturelles communes : sources gréco-latines de la culture arabe, sources arabes de la culture européenne” (Latarjet).


MuCem brought with it from Paris the ethnographic mission of emphasizing art and popular culture. In the context of Marseille, MuCem emphasizes a “comparative and multi-disciplinary” approach to the Mediterranean, which explores Europe’s role in the world via its contact to other cultures bordering the sea: “The aim is to reflect the ‘world culture’ that characterises the Mediterranean in order to extend this beyond its geographical confines: the blend of Latin culture and Christianity extends to the Americas; the Muslim world unfolds from the Saharan tip of Africa to the borders of Indonesia, through the Middle East; Jewish culture has spread to all continents, and the Orthodox world, starting with Greece and South Slavic Europe, has penetrated as far as Siberia” (MuCem).


This historical re-membrance in turn lays the groundwork for a rapprochement between Islam and Europe, and more to the point, Islam (already) in Europe.


« “Nous portons en nous à la fois les décombres amoncelés et l’inlassable espérance” est-il plus précieux que jamais? Parce que le fossé des inégalités et des incompréhensions se creuse, parce que le “lac de science”, comme le désignait Berque, pourrait devenir une frontière de la peur, parce que le “côte à côte” pourrait se transformer en “face à face”… [N]ous sommes menacés par la spirale de l’intolérance et de la violence. » (Latarjet)


To address the menace of spiraling intolerance, programmers drew attention to conflicts in the Middle East with exhibitions and works from Lebanon, Palestine, and Israel. Palestinian artist, Larissa Mansour’s Nation Estate: Living the High Life (2012) was one such “salvo to the future” included in MuCem’s, “the Blue and the Black” exhibition. A pointed and beautifully executed video, Nation Estate imagines the dystopian consequences of the logic of the wall, turning the occupied territories into a high-rise condo cut off from all natural geography.

In addition to Palestinian films shown at the Rencontres, throughout the year, Palestinian films, photographic exhibits from Lebanon, Syrian cinema, all linked the far reaches of the Mediterranean to Europe, suggesting the moral imperative to attend to the fraught politics of the Middle East and the Arab Springs. It suggests, perhaps, a moral parti pris, a central one for the future of the region, but also for Europe’s relationship with the Arab world.


As a corollary, this too means recognizing both historical and contemporary sources of migration and resultant cultural change. Themes of migration and crossing in Mediterranean art are manifold and were well represented in MP2013. In the “Traversées” section of The Blue and the Black, for example, one finds an immigration guide in Arabic (Zineddine Bessai, 2010). Also featured is a large-scale sculptural work by Michelangelo Pistoletto, Mar Mediterraneo (2003-2007). It consists of a mirrored table in the shape of a map of the Mediterranean. It is a call to eating together, much along the lines of the southern, Mediterranean principle of slow food, recreating community via concerted attention to healthier, more local forms of production and consumption.


Alongside this utopian vision hang Yto Barrada’s photographs of the Straits of Gibraltar, The Strait, Notes on a Useless Nation, documenting the economic consequences of borders and inequality between the global north and south. Barrada pictures Mediterranean culture with images of travel brochures in hand, children staring longingly at a vacation advertisement, and close-ups of the accumulating waste of capitalism—in a tangle of faded plastics—along the coast. The Mediterranean, in this sense, is not the facilitator of dialogue between Europe and her neighbors, a bridge for cultural and economic exchange in the most positive light, but also a frontier if not a wall, a historical pathway for migration that now seems closed and that marks great physical peril and inequality for those who try to cross it. This oscillation between promise and failure constitutes the polemic of the exhibition, if not the museum itself. It is meant as an open call to work towards a different, collective future.


Dialogue/Narrative Identities: “Le partage des midis”

L’Europe est née de la Méditerranée. Valéry pensait que les civilisations meurent comme les hommes. Celles qui ont éclos sur les rives de la mer commune ont survécu au temps et aux luttes. Elles se sont affrontées mais n’ont cessé de dialoguer. Dialogue millénaire entre Athènes, Jérusalem, Rome, Cordoue; dialogue du monde grec et orthodoxe, du monde latin et du monde islamique; dialogue de la raison et de la foi; dialogue d’une pensée de la dignité humaine et d’une pensée de la transcendance; dialogue de la liberté et de la loi. (Latarjet)


Bruno Ulmer’s exhibition, Plus loin que l’horizon was commissioned as one of the permanent parcours (journeys) of Villa Méditerranée, the second concrete institution to emerge on J4, the quay that still serves as the chief arrival point of cruise ships arriving from the Mediterranean. The will to bridge north and south took primacy of place in the programming of MP2013, positioning Marseille as a positive Mediterranean conduit for dialogue, exchange, and movement. In this vein, exhibitions like Plus loin que l’horizon wove together voices of migration and mobility from across the Mediterranean. A powerful and fitting “parcours,” Ulmer’s exhibition traces the movement of workers and goods across the sea, to agricultural shantytowns, and to market via video interviews visible amidst shipping containers, hanging on fences, and projected on nylon sheets that constitute the walls of migrant workers’ makeshift domiciles in “welcoming” nations. As such, he brings to life the politics of Mediterranean mobility—commercial, agricultural, personal, and human—via the narration of his subjects.


Thierry Fabre, Director of Cultural Development and International Relations of MuCem, also stresses the relevance of narrative identity in contemporary culture. Against a museological interpretation of culture built upon frozen notions of patrimony, Fabre counterposes the meeting of immigration, circulation, and urban narratives, averring that the real thread of a common Mediterranean, then, will have to be spun from popular narrations of the significance of the Mediterranean.3 The transfer of the collection of the musée national des Arts et Traditions populaires to Marseille suggestively relocates national popular culture to the shores of Marseille. In his words, “we can’t leave Marseille to the side. It’s a big city with many of its inhabitants located in the northern neighborhoods.” The mission of a popular, citizen’s museum has to be tied to the inhabitants of the city, which for MuCem means valorizing Marseille, a city he considers to have been “underestimated.” Yet the city needs to be recognized as a significant Mediterranean city and for its diversity, two elements that were key building blocks of the MP2013 proposal.


The inaugural exhibition of MuCem, The Blue and the Black, traces visions of Mediterranean culture through a wide sweep of history and via many art forms. Through paintings in black and blue, historical paintings of the Mediterranean, to photos of war, steamer posters, tourist imagery, to films, sculpture, to the “Reinvention of the Mediterranean” by thinkers represented in small aphorisms and extracts, The Blue and the Black sets in motion a polemical exhibition. Those that expected artworks linked simply by chronology and provenance, or even by the theme, “Mediterranean” would have been disappointed. Indeed, Rowan Moore, critic for The Guardian, called the exhibition a “muddle,” missing the polemical ambition of the exhibition to play at the contradictions of Mediterranean cultures.


Thus, the exhibition includes fundamental repeating truths and questions about the Mediterranean, histories of religious intolerance, of conquest and civil war, of nationalism, cultural contraction and withdrawal, racism and genocide, while not ceding the moments of scientific invention, revolutionary and utopian thinking, exchange and cosmopolitanism, the Mediterranean, as a crossroads, fueled by migration and syncretism might be exemplary of new solidarities (Latarjet) or fall into corruption and disparity. The curatorial commentary asks whether the dream is shared, with a question mark, suggesting it is a dream that is shattered and reinvented, again and again. This Mediterranean appears like a limit point, a horizon that recedes as one approaches it.


These contradictions—violence and enlightenment, despair and hope—color the “dark years of Mediterranean,” but also pose a question that constitutes the polemic of the exhibition and an ambitious gamble for visual programming: Can the visual culture of the Mediterranean help build a more sustainable and equitable shared future? What kinds of remembering and testimony promote the dialogue necessary to unseat long held platitudes about “southern” cultures, Islamophobia, and ongoing religious incomprehension at this, the watery crossroads of Europe and the “Orient?”


Projective Memory

A cultural politics of projective memory is erected via project-based policy. It is programming that makes “memory work” its theme and mission, revisiting and retelling histories of migration, conquest, colonization, independence struggles, and civil wars. As such, it is actively polemical, tendentious, and often utopian. In MP2013, programmers linked a notion of “Euro-Mediterranean” culture to “sharing the south” (sharing “souths” in French) in part to address the negative association of the European south (as corrupt, languid, inefficient, poor), the French South (Le Midi), and the rive sud of Mediterranean cultures, all of which share these prejudicial representations in differing degrees and with different cultural implications.


In my larger project, I argue that Marseille, which is neither perfectly linked to global culture nor to national, French culture (which takes Paris as its center), is perhaps an ideal locus for examining how cities and their denizens respond to overlapping and occasionally competing national and supra-national cultural policies as they are brought to bear on specific communities. As a host city for the European Cultural Capital in 2013, Marseille is interesting because it is not a global city in the sense that Sasken outlines. It is not a center of global finance nor a major depot for multinational corporations, nor cultural trends, necessarily (unlike New York, London, Tokyo, and Paris). It is a second city with a more ambiguous and ambivalent position between the global, the national, the subnational and the local, with its traditions of regional languages and migration.


The attention to and support for MP2013 situated regional politics in the Mediterranean, bypassing nation (France) and Supranation (Europe) in some senses. The imagination of the Mediterranean as a site of historical and contemporary dialogue, then, encompasses a tacit will to supersede nationalism, to reconcile histories of immigration and futures of more equitable circulation and exchange.



Kahn, Fred. “Festival Communautaire ou événement stucturant?” The 8th Art. 12 May, 2012.

Moore, Rowan. “Museum of the Civilisations of Europe and the Mediterranean (MuCEM) – review.”


Vassiliou, Androulla. “European Capitals of Culture: A Successful Initiative for Europe,” Avant-Programme MP2013 Dossier de Presse, 5.


Michelle Stewart is Chair of the School of Film and Media Studies and Associate Professor of Cinema Studies at SUNY—Purchase College. Her most recent research monograph, Film Circuits: Cinema, Cultural Policy, and Multiculturalism in France concerns film policy and minority cinema in Europe, with an emphasis on immigrant filmmaking in France. Her teaching extends this interest in the political impact of film and media to new forms of community media, recent world cinema, new documentary forms, and issues of identity in global popular culture. She has been a Fulbright Scholar, Kempner Distinguished Professor at Purchase.


Études culturelles
18/05/2013 - 31/07/2013
01/12/2013 - 31/01/2014