“For those who, like me, grew up on its shores, let alone on its islands, the Mediterranean is, first of all, a sea—the Sea. Il mare, we say . . .” So begins an essay that figures in a project that the Italian artist duo Invernomuto created for Manifesta 12, the edition of the nomadic European biennial currently stationed in Palermo, Sicily.
The ever-so-inviting words, evocative of nice dry heat in sun-streaked southern climes, were written by Alessandra Di Maio, a scholar and professor of postcolonial studies in Italy and the United States. But Invernomuto’s project—a series of sonic interventions and multimedia presentations assembled under the title Black Med—takes on a disquieting air when regarded in its proper context: as a sort of analogue to the Black Atlantic, a haunted conception of waterways marked by the slave trade and migration between Africa, the Americas, and Europe. First conceived by the English writer Paul Gilroy in his book The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness in 1993, the idea was extrapolated by Di Maio in “The Mediterranean, or Where Africa Does (Not) Meet Italy,” a 2012 essay about a documentary film on passage from North Africa to Sicily’s southernmost point—and, thus, to Europe.
“The Black Mediterranean is a transnational site of globalization,” Di Maio writes, after making her debt to Gilroy clear. “Black is the color—or rather, non-color—in which all shades merge, that which the sea assumes during the crossings pursued by the million migrants who have ‘burnt’ it in the past three decades.” (The metaphor of “burning,” she explains, is common among North African languages to connote crossing borders and traversing other lands.)
Invernomuto—the name the Milan-based artists Simone Bertuzzi and Simone Trabucchi have used for their work together since 2003—picked up on the idea and applied it to a collaborative practice that has focused often on matters of cross-cultural melding and how they can be charted by way of music. (Invernomuto is the Italian word for “Wintermute,” a form of artificial intelligence in William Gibson’s sci-fi novel Neuromancer.) As they wrote for Black Med, “The Mediterranean Sea, once understood as a fluid entity aiding the formation of networks and exchange, is now the scenario of a humanitarian crisis and heated geopolitical dispute.” And as they said of the project in an interview via Skype, “The idea is to analyze the idea of the Mediterranean—the people who crossed it in ancient times and through contemporary migratory routes—from the perspective of sound. (Since the two artists create and present their work together, all quotes have been attributed to them both as one.)
Commissioned by Manifesta, whose theme this year is “The Planetary Garden. Cultivating Coexistence,” Black Med has taken the form of an online portal and a related series of talks and presentations during the biennial’s run in Palermo (through November 4). The web component features sound collages by musicians and theorists that play for two weeks at a time, akin to a DJ mix with ideas to impart. The lineup so far has included heady electronic-music artists like Kareem Lotfy (from Egypt), Lamin Fofana (Sierra Leone), and Rabih Beaini (Lebanon), as well as Paul Gilroy (the “Black Atlantic” auteur) and Daniele Baldelli, a pioneer of the storied ’70s-era Italo disco sound. The current mix, playing through October 21, is a survey of Greek hip-hop by Bill Kouligas of the enterprising electronic-music label PAN. Presentations related to the project in Palermo have included live talks with Di Maio (who is a collaborator on the project as a whole) and listening sessions with work by figures including Jace Clayton (a.k.a. DJ /rupture), who made a what he called a “radio intervention” enlisting sounds from around the world.
“Sounds travel and people travel, and you can get complex cultural information from sound that you can’t receive or transmit in any other format,” said Clayton, who first met Invernomuto while working on a music project in Casablanca. “Sound is a discursive medium in and of itself.” (Clayton is also the author of the 2016 book Uproot: Travels in 21st-Century Music and Digital Culture.)
Clayton and Invernomuto—along with an increasingly large network of likeminded would-be musicologists charting global migrations of sound—share an interest in finding new ways to present their findings in the context of art. For Invernomuto, that has taken the form of movies, sculpture, video projects, records, books, and so on. One representative project is Negus, a 2016 film, exhibition, and publication devoted to what they call “the convergence of history, myth, and magic” in connections between the Ethiopian emperor Haile Selasie I, the Italian occupation of Africa during years of fascist rule, and reggae in Jamaica. Presented in an impressionistic travelogue format, the film delves deep into little-known history and been spun out into related artworks that Invernomuto has shown in the context of exhibition display. It also features one of the more indelible cinematic images to be captured anywhere on the planet in recent years: reggae legend Lee “Scratch” Perry, with a scraggly beard dyed bright red, chanting and singing in the midst of jets of fire and ice in a plaza in small-town Vernasca, Italy.
After Negus, it was natural to take up issues related to migration for Black Med, Invernomuto said, “because it’s talking about the same thing but from a different perspective. “For Negus the research behind the movie and the exhibition was very important, and this project is mostly about research. Because it’s a new concept, we want to focus on research more than formalization of the work. That’s why it’s a website, a platform, and not an exhibition yet. Maybe it will be, maybe with a movie or something—we don’t know yet. And we are not really stressed about that, because we consider it more important and urgent to do research for now.”
Another related project is Picó: Un parlante de Africa en America (2017), a 60-minute documentary about picó sound-system culture in Colombia and the outlandishly painted speaker cabinets that help broadcast it to the world. Popular in cities like Barranquilla, a home for Afro-Colombian culture, picós and their accompanying musical sounds—often with chopped-up African samples turned into abstract dance music of the kind gathered on a mind-boggling compilation called Guarapo! Forty Bangers from Barranquilla—are homegrown points of pride. “These are bright colors in order to make the canvas flashier,” one picó painter says of his decorations for a speaker cabinet in the film, calling them tools for “an aggressive kind of art to help distinguish them from their rivals.” Another picó artist, in front of a painting of a man in a spacesuit jamming on a fantastical orange and yellow guitar, says, “This kind of painting could be described as folk art.”
“There’s a lot of research behind their work, but it’s never documentary—never just an ‘engagement with the archive,’ ” Clayton said of Invernomuto’s wide-eyed art. “It always has some sort of personal slant to it, and an embrace of the ridiculous. They’re very much in the contemporary art world thinking about broader philosophical questions, but there’s a lot of delight in their work, and this wonderful spirit of playfulness and interest in play as a form.”
That same spirit suffuses Black Med, which has come and gone online—each sound mix, after its two-week engagement on the web, has been taken down, and the talks at Manifesta have all happened in real time in real space. But it will likely all live on in some form or fashion, in an accessible archive and/or as part of other ways the project might continue.
In any case, Invernomuto—whose work is also currently on view at MAXXI, Italy’s national museum of contemporary art and architecture in Rome, as part of a show of the finalists for this year’s MAXXI Bulgari Prize—hopes that consideration of the Black Mediterranean as a concept will widen and grow. “There is a narrative now about how the Mediterranean is a barrier or a border,” they said, “instead of a space for communication and sharing sounds and ideas.”