Creating a network beyond mental and physical borders

In March 2017, a group of participants from around the Middle East/Euro-Med region gathered and worked together for the first time. The workshop was hosted by the Maxxi National Museum of the 21st Century Arts in Rome, an architectural gem designed by Zaha Hadid. The spacious Guido Reni room on the second floor of the museum was transformed into a “pop-up studio” for one week. Tall yellow wooden “totems” on wheels divided the space into intimate working corners, and served both as a “moving wall” and as presentation boards.

In this unique setting, a group of 30 designers found an extra-territorial and welcoming space, enabling them to engage in dialogue and perform collaborative creative processes over the course of five days. The list of participants was very diverse, including junior and senior designers and architects from all over the Middle East/Euro-Med region, students and designers from the Middle East who are now studying or working in Europe, and a few European social designers and entrepreneurs who are actively involved with the issues at stake.

On Wednesday March 1, the participants arrived and met each other for the first time. They worked online during the research phase, but this was their first opportunity to cross personal and political boundaries to meet in person. From the moment they entered the room, high creative energies filled the space. After an opening session and greetings from Hou Hanru, the artistic director of the Maxxi and from Pippo Ciorra, a senior curator at the Maxxi, they immersed themselves in the working process.

The curator, Maria Alicata, formed the invitation and the program for the event, and the design curators, Merav Perez and Ezri Tarazi, defined the five design challenges and constructed the methodological framework. According to the design challenges, the participants formed five trans-disciplinary groups, focusing on generating concepts and visual proposals that address challenges relevant to the Middle East, such as borders, religious diversity, migration, water and food sources, information transfer and cultural exchanges. The workshop’s objective was to restore the conditions that allow civil imagination to thrive, by creating a framework in which one can imagine diverse and yet-to-come forms of governance, coexistence, ownership and alliances.

The working process reached its peak on Saturday night, when the public was invited to the studio for an open event, moderated by one of the participants, the interdisciplinary artist and researcher, Dr. Orkan Telhan. The five groups presented the first results of their intense process, which stimulated a discussion on the possible future impact of their intriguing concepts, like an open-source religion or data harvesting and visualization tools that could undermine stereotypes and promote social cohesion.
The panel was chaired by Max Borka, the director of State of Design Berlin, and Doreen Toutikian, the director of Beirut Design Week. Max and Doreen responded to the presentations and shared their own wide perspectives on Design in the Middle. The second part of the evening was dedicated to three presentations of participants from the “Nomadentity” group, who shared their projects and perspectives on immigration – from survival to the day-after-immigration and cultural acceptance. The architect and urbanist Ghiat Al Gebawi, talked about the narration of borders, Laura M. Pana, the founder of Migrationlab spoke about her personal journey that led to the inauguration of a non-governmental organization, and Narges Mofaharian presented the prototype of her award-winning AGRIshelter project.

The last morning of the workshop was dedicated to a group discussion about future developments. Max Borka joined this session and expressed his enthusiasm about Design in the Middle as an inclusive initiative that pushes the boundaries of the design scene. He also invited the project to join State of Design Berlin in June. The participants expressed their eagerness to further develop their design proposals, and to facilitate and join future workshops and activities.

During the last session, we all sat on huge gray poufs that looked like parts of a disassembled concrete wall, made out of a soft and spongy material. It was an appropriate metaphor for the event. The aim of the workshop was to bring creative individuals, who cannot meet in their countries of origin, in order to create a network beyond physical and mental borders. Gathering around a creative process proved to be productive, enabling effective communication over complex and even explosive design issues. The energy in the room was so intense that it almost felt like a substance, and each of us carried a piece of this substance-like energy back home. Everyone in the room felt obliged to facilitate the next event as soon as possible in order to maintain this miracle.