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MEDMACH - 'Machinery Rooms' of the Mediterranean, 1800-present: Images and Visual Archives of Movement and Acceleration

ERC Consolidator Grant, April 2023-March 2028

The aim of MEDMACH is to consider the history of the Mediterranean after 1800 through images of movement: infrastructures and machineries of acceleration such as airports, train stations, motorway bridges, industrial ports, and engine-driven ships. These sites are often overlooked in overarching narratives of the region. The Mediterranean after 1800 typically appears either in decline or romanticized, therefore this ‘machinery room’ has never been at the center of attention.

However, these sites of movement are connected to all the aspects which make the Mediterranean an emotive, politically relevant place today: migration, colonization and decolonization, the relation between Europe and the Islamic world, environmental and economic crisis. Conceptualizing the modern and contemporary Mediterranean through its ‘machinery rooms’ of movement will slice through the divisions of fragmented national histories, and provide a basis for a differentiated, yet connective history.

This history will be based on images and image archives: After 1800, images are increasingly made for distribution and circulation. They are entangled with the ambivalent notions of movement and acceleration. They are also ideal carriers of transnational and transregional knowledge. MEDMACH will work with a visual approach to establish a new, systemic historical understanding which is urgently needed in current debates on travel, transit, migration, environment, and cultural encounter.

Images of accelerated movement are a productive source of visual analysis of the Mediterranean after 1800. For instance, the Suez Canal’s Mediterranean ports were a popular photographic motive, marking a moment of transition for travelers on their Grand Tour after 1869. The railway bridge which connects the Venetian lagoon with the terra ferma was only very briefly considered worthy of picture postcard fame after its completion in 1846. However, it strikingly changed the eco-system of its environment and it has remained a political symbol of division or connection throughout its existence. The surreal image of the Costa Concordia cruise ship, lying alist in the Tyrrhenian Sea between 2012 and 2014, embodied the excess of fossil fuel driven mass tourism and decadence. It very quickly became an icon of cultural decline, as it even featured symbolically in Paolo Sorrentino’s movie “La Grande Bellezza”. At the same time, the modest shipwrecks left behind by African and Near Eastern migrants in the ship graveyard of Lampedusa are a monument to the dire reality of Mediterranean migration today, and they have become a subject for activist art.

This exemplary set of sites and images shows that there is not one linear and universal history of a modern and contemporary Mediterranean – but rather multiple histories. They happen at different speed levels, move into different directions and lead to cross-cultural encounters or conflicts. Thus, the aim of MEDMACH is to reconsider the Mediterranean after 1800 through images of movement. It will establish a visual approach in to sharpen the current political and cultural discourse about the region, its internal and its global connectivity.

The project will determine a place in Mediterranean historiography for the infrastructures, pathways and vehicles which enable mobility, acceleration, and encounter. In order to do this, it will seize the specific potential of visual sources and archives for interrelated histories of movement and acceleration to, from and across the Mediterranean.  

If we put these two objectives in relation to each other, they shed light on two interrelated factors of the modern and contemporary period: Never before have natural and geographical spaces been more closely connected and more profoundly altered by mass movement and human interventions – and never before has history been more systematically documented, narrated and broadly circulated through images.

MEDMACH will focus on the time period from ca. 1800 to the present, and it does not privilege one historical moment or periodization relevant to one nation or culture. Instead, it interrelates technical, political and cultural cesuras such as the invention of the steam engine, the climax of modern colonial projects, and the rising global progress in visual techniques such as modern printing press and photography.

MEDMACH understands acceleration in its broad historical sense, referring to the technical possibility to speed up movement beyond the pace determined by the human body. This paradigm is however not to be applied in a universalizing or affirmative manner. We rather use it as an epistemic category to investigate the interrelations between topographies, people and images: Different parts of the world (and different shores of one body of water) were more efficiently connected, more people travelled, and images circulated faster, in lager numbers and in multiple directions – but the impacts of these developments may have led to different outcomes in different places. Modern technologies of both accelerated movement and of image-making can be entangled with empowerment, but also with political violence and environmental predicament. While this is not unique to the Mediterranean, this region has been a hub for global travel as well as a subject of intense iconographic interest. There is a particular wealth of formal and informal visual archives either around or in relation to the Mediterranean, even more so as the 19th century also saw the birth of the modern archive.

MEDMACH will use case studies to look at diverse yet interconnected visual archives that are of significance for transnational and transregional perspectives on the Mediterranean as a space of interaction. What do images, visual practices and visual archives tell us about the machineries of movement and acceleration from the 19thto the 21stcentury across, to and from the Mediterranean?

MEDMACH will look particularly at the place of vehicles, vessels, train stations, port facilities, airports, bridges, water dams, channels and other infrastructural elements in the visual fabric of diverse Mediterranean sites. In the visual practices surrounding these sites, the complexity unfolds that is needed to understand past and present, heritage and progress in relation to each other: For instance, the Suez Canal’s opening to the Mediterranean in 1867 has incited a surge of romantic Orientalist imagery. But it also appears as an iconographic element in Egyptian Surrealism; as a strategic point on a military map; a site of water engineering caught on photograph; the opening motive of an imperial travel account; or as many other things throughout its history up to its very recent blockage through the container ship “Ever Given”. Mapping out the interrelations and the functions of such images will significantly re-shape our understanding of places and networks around the Mediterranean.

MEDMACH will put particular emphasis on sites where movement and acceleration are related to cultural encounters, thus challenging essentialized views of the Mediterranean. Looking at one site or sub-region will literally always lead somewhere else and reveal cultural contact, and conflict: The same device that provides movement and acceleration for one person or social group can be a limiting factor for another. Tourists have travelled to and from the Mediterranean across the transalpine Brenner railway line for more than a century; recently this very same route has become a hotspot of migration between the global south and north. The railway networks that gave way to cosmopolitan travel in the 19th century were an integral part of the history of genocide in the 20th. Mobility is thus always time- and context-bound. Accordingly, the term ‘acceleration’ is not a progressivist trope, it is rather subject to critical analysis. Uniting a number of sites and dynamics related to accelerated movement in a group project will connect them critically to a network of constellations that is not conceptualized from a progressivist Eurocentric point of view. On the contrary, it will direct the gaze towards the role of cross-border circulation in the Arab World. This includes a re-appropriation of the concept of the Mediterranean beyond its colonial and imperialist connotations. In this sense, the project also works against ‘naïve’ notions of mobility or entanglement.

For more information: Medmach Hypotheses

PI: Prof. Dr. Eva-Maria Troelenberg
Postdoctoral Researcher: Dr. des. Anna Sophia Messner