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header above: © Filipa César, The Embassy, 2011

In Search Of Europe: Considering the Possible in Africa and the Middle East is an interdisciplinary research project at the ZMO (Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient) in Berlin funded by the German Ministry of Science and Education (BMBF) from June 2010 to May 2014. In tandem with the six researchers, Daniela Swarowsky – the curator and producer of the ISOE exhibition – is working on an artistic exhibition project scheduled for 2013 at the Kunstraum Kreuzberg/ Bethanien in Berlin.

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The art and exhibition project with the working title ISOE functions as an equal partner with academic research. With its own empirical means and in collaboration with the participating researchers, the issues of In Search of Europe are systematically and critically elaborated.

At the center of ISOE is the question of self-perception in interaction with the Other. Our interest thereby is not how people in Africa and the Middle East see Europe, but how they see themselves, their lives, and their plans for the future. How do they shape their lives? What scope of action do they project in the face of difficult living conditions? How do they experience the constant necessity to measure themselves against standards set by the West?

With In Search of Europe we have launched a project that decisively crosses borders by embracing different geographical regions and historical periods within this research project, crossing disciplines through collaborations between researchers from the fields of anthropology and Islamic studies and also visual artists. It is not about a specific region or group of people, but about a specific historical experience, which is shared by many in various parts of the world. We are trying to understand the importance as well as general aspects of this dynamic by zooming in on specific moments in history as well as in the present. We want to show with this project that this dynamic surpasses local and national contexts and has trans-local facets.

The goal of the project is to gain an interdisciplinary, empirically based, and theoretically reflected understanding of the interactions with "Europe" as a metonymy of the possible, in both its affirming and its negating forms. A metonymy is a rhetorical figure that replaces one expression for another, whereby the two stand in a real relationship to each other. In other words, starting with Europe as an existing entity, the project investigates its expanded meanings and how these are manifested. The focus thereby is on interaction with differing spaces of action and possibilities.

As a consequence of shifting power relations, colonial expansion, and post-colonial dependencies, people in many parts of the world find themselves in a situation in which their search for social reforms and a better life is deeply linked with having to compare themselves with Europe and other power centers. The standards are still set there: through economic supremacy, military force, the hegemonic use of specific languages (and the exclusion of many others). But also through the worldwide spread of originally European logics of urban planning, education, and statehood, just to name just a few.

Simultaneously, exactly these experiences create a rich soil for creative reflections on how to project possibilities for one’s own future on a personal as well as on a societal level. "Europe" thus often comes to represent the things that people consider possible, desirable, dangerous, or inevitable in their own society. With this project, we therefore want to remove Europe "as such" from the center and instead focus on the search for points of orientation and spaces of action that, from the point of view of the people involved in this search, may allow them to realize social development, economic prosperity, space for cultural expression, and personal happiness. What unites these political, social, and personal engagements is the creative and critical moment of a search for aspects of agency in the midst of powers that are felt to be inevitable.

Anthropological and historical studies on Egypt, Ottoman Empire, Mozambique, France, and Spain open up a better and deeper understanding both of Europe’s role from an external perspective and of the societal significance of the interaction with what is possible as such.

But does Europe still set these standards? Was the world ever cleanly divided between
a center and a periphery? With an eye to creativity, political ideologies, travel, and migration, the research group addresses selected moments in history and the present. The point thereby is to develop a better understanding of how people remember the past, strive for a better future, or think about alternatives in a world that is unequal,
but constantly changing.

The theme taken up by the research group is especially suited for creative and artistic forms of rendering. So the research project will be accompanied, from the beginning, by an art project.