Dream of a space for art, objects and words of collective memory that reaches beyond borders. The current exhibition in Collective Edinburgh brings an exciting project by a Casablanca-based art initiative to a Scottish audience. It shows how attempts to revive abandoned public entertainment sites have developed into a physical museum of collective memory.
Casablanca is an ever-changing city, and like many others, its functions and identity are transformed through urban development. This often happens without its residents having a say or being given any notice to bid farewell to the spaces that might be important to them for any reason. Identifying as an urban person, being from Istanbul and living in London, I have had similar experiences with some places which are the background image to my life. Without them my personal history would be missing, and I would feel rather like a cardboard cut-out doll.
The citizens of Casablanca have been losing their favourite spaces over the last couple of decades. After their beloved Aquarium closed down in the 1980s as construction of a new mosque caused the water to drain, co-founder of L’Atelier de l’Observatoire, Mohamed Fariji created an artistic response. He started a creative research project The Imaginary Aquarium, which attempted to reactivate this mythical leisure place for the people of Casablanca. He used ephemera; fish catalogues, post cards, sardine shaped stamps, posters and photographs… Fariji’s following attempt to revive a public site was Yasmina Park, an abandoned children’s amusement park in downtown Casablanca. The artist and his team fixed some of the fairground rides and reinstalled them in other parts of the city. It is a rescue project for another forgotten place that once brought joy to its visitors. We see a video of this operation and how children ecstatically enjoy the rides in their new locations. This is when L’Atelier de l’Observatoire decided to expand his research with public participation. The Collective Museum: Citizen Project for a Museum of Collective Memory starts with an invitation for the public to donate their own things to recover civic memory. Donating objects to a museum can be seen as a wish to communicate with future generations. This call indeed attracts people from different generations and professions; residents, activists, children and artists come together to exchange of memories and have discussions about the future. An artistic and educational programme for children and young people from marginalised neighbourhoods is developed. Photography workshops take place looking at architecture and urban design; animations, documentary productions and oral history recordings are made to be used in the museum. Collected objects are shown as museological displays in pop-up containers, taking up position in the streets, and the project expands to eight districts of Casablanca. Collective Edinburgh shows this ongoing process in the exhibition with objects, videos, writings by the artists, ephemera, vinyls, postcards, drawings, sound archive, and tells the stories of these districts.
The museum project has been developed in collaboration with Collective Edinburgh. These two organisations and cities can easily be heard holding great conversations about their respective experiences. Collective was established as a grassroots organisation with a focus on artist development in 1984 and recently moved to its current location, the top of Calton Hill, a cultural and historic heritage site. It has repurposed the hill, transforming it into a public art space that includes the restored City Observatory, and saw a 550% increase in its visitor numbers within the first year of moving to their temporary place on Calton Hill. The director of Collective Edinburgh, Kate Gray, says that there was a strong synergy between the two organisations. Besides sharing experiences in creating a public space of heritage and developing audience-focused and educational agendas, their artist research programmes, Madrasa and Satellite have also been collaborating.
The experience of Casablanca speaks to the local people of Edinburgh as it did to me. Gray says that the way Edinburgh’s city centre is used these days has created controversy. It frustrates the locals by becoming an airbnb-town; to some, the Fringe Festival and Christmas Market are among those to be blamed. Changing cities change the people of those cities. Some might say that our methods of living and entertainment have been changing unrelated to urban development and that the cities simply adjust. I tend to believe that a children’s amusement park would make any child happy. I remember taking my five-year-old nephew to my local ‘Luna Park’ in Çınarcık, a seaside town in Turkey, and despite its almost abandoned stage -waiting for visitors, its rides are on standby and the lights are off- it never fails to fascinate my nephew.
Artists and residents creating a museum of public memory is refreshing, and according to Gray, how it should be. “A collective museum of a city, that is built by its residents rather than its government is significant. You need to listen to understand what is important rather than declaring what is important.” Casablanca’s Collective Museum is an ongoing project and will be built into a physical museum with an ambitious research and education programme. It will continue to empower local residents by creating a platform to share their memories of the city.