“The Fountains of Za’atari” as Extraterritorial Site: Margherita Moscardini

Margherita Moscardini and Giovanna Manzotti in conversation


Za’atari refugee camp was created in 2012 in Jordan, in a semidesert at the Syrian border, in the wake of the humanitarian crisis caused by the Syrian civil war. It reached a population of 150,000 in two years, becoming the second largest camp in the world by size, and the fourth city in Jordan with commodities and infrastructures. Margherita Moscardini spent a long period in this camp, working with local artists to collect visual and technical data of sixty-one fountains situated in courtyards there. With her project titled The Fountains of Za’atari hosted at Collezione Maramotti in Reggio Emilia, Italy, the artist aims to establish a system through which municipalities and institutions across Europe can buy life-size replicas and install them as extraterritorial sites.


GIOVANNA MANZOTTI: Before we talk about The Fountains of Za’atari—your challenging artistic project currently on view at Collezione Maramotti—tell me about your personal experience of living in a refugee camp. What are the moments that will stay with you? The memories and the difficulties of your residence there?

MARGHERITA MOSCARDINI: I frequented Za’atari camp for several weeks, on two occasions. Visitors are not allowed to spend the night inside the camp, as it is militarized, but it didn’t prevent us from taking part in its daily life and accessing some of its secrets. Despite its fragilities, it is extremely vibrant. We shared stories with one group of residents in particular, with whom we defended the chance to establish relations outside the mediation of camp authorities or humanitarian organizations. We are in touch and we will see each other again. The last days also produced disappointment. Despite what infrastructures and huge investments had led me to hope, I did not find a strong vision from the managers—no real perspective on the transformation of the camp into a better reality.

GM: Where does the beginning of this project situate itself, also with reference to your studies? I know that in 2015 you were an artist fellow at the Italian Academy for Advanced Studies at Columbia University in New York. Reading some of your notes and looking at the selection of documents and cultural references you display on a pedestal at Collezione Maramotti, I discovered that while auditing the course Architecture. Human Rights. Spatial Politics at Columbia’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation (GSAPP) led by Felicity D. Scott, you got closer to Hannah Arendt’s and Giorgio Agamben’s writings as well as a range of literature about camps and emergency architecture. In what ways did these philosophical approaches affect the theoretical development of your current project?

MM: At the time I was auditing that course, all the evil of the world was concentrated on Syria. War had already claimed thousands of victims, and the “world heritage,” as we say, was becoming sand ready to serve the desert. We learned that right there, civilization arose four thousand years before Christ through the urban revolution, the invention of the city. The war in Syria began as a revolution in 2011, but by 2015 it was concerning all of us. As thousands of Syrians fled toward Europe, for the first time since the 1985 Schengen Agreement the continent was split between countries ready to host asylum seekers and those that started to defend their borders and build walls—the premises of the current sovereign drifts.

Arendt and Agamben’s work allowed me to suffer—let’s say “properly”—that moment of history. It allowed me to understand the importance of those events and transform them into a work that, although it is articulated on a precise territory like Za’atari camp, looks more broadly at the need to imagine another way to see citizenship—by which I mean a model of citizenship that is adequate to serve the needs of the present time, maybe founded on the very condition of statelessness. Arendt recognized statelessness as the paradigm of a new historical consciousness, which the modern nation-state had excluded from its own foundational principles by delegating the safeguard of human rights to a supranational organism.

GM: The Fountains of Za’atari aims to establish a system through which local governments and civic institutions can buy life-size sculptures reproducing sixty-one different fountains in courtyards at Za’atari refugee camp, for display in different public spaces in Europe. Royalties will be paid to the original designer, thereby creating a virtuous system that supports the camp’s economy. The first step of this complex project was presented in 2018 at Fondazione Pastificio Cerere in Rome after it won the first Italian Council competition, promoted by the Directorate-General for Contemporary Art and Architecture and Urban Peripheries (DGAAP) of the MiBAC, the Italian Ministry of Cultural Heritage and Activities. How has this research developed and gained new levels of complexity over time, and how has it established itself as a fully functioning system?

MM: The Fountains of Za’atari was formulated between 2015 and 2016, but it wasn’t until fall 2017 that I went to Jordan thanks to public funding from MiBAC, jointly obtained with Fondazione Pastificio Cerere, with which I collaborated for one year. In Jordan—where I worked with journalist Marta Bellingreri and a team directed by engineer Abu Tammam Al Kedewi Al Nabilsi—the inventory of the courtyards with fountains was produced and then exhibited in Rome together with the first sculpture prototype (a 1:1 reproduction), which currently is part of the art collection of Museo MADRE in Naples. In the months since, the project has been presented through lectures and workshops at universities and museums. Between 2018 and 2019 the work continued with Collezione Maramotti, which produced the legal research, the first public fountain, as well as a publication that will be launched soon as a commercial, legal, and theoretical tool to be provided to European cities interested in the purchase and reproduction of courtyard models. So, thanks to Collezione Maramotti, the project has been fully activated. Now sculptures have to be spread to Europe.

GM: This first fountain you mentioned was installed as a public sculpture in Parco Alcide Cervi in Reggio Emilia in mid-April 2019, and should soon receive a special jurisdiction that includes elements of extraterritoriality, which over time would qualify it as a space not subject to the law—black hole and power vacuum on national soil. In your words, “The Fountains of Za’atari project is a device, acting in the present time, creating a place that is not subject to the sovereignty of any state.” Can you elaborate on the concept of extraterritoriality and this “in-between stage” you bring into play with your artistic practice as a form of negotiation through which to create and analyze processes of transformation, mutation, and negotiation?

MM: Extraterritoriality means nothing in legal terms, but at this stage it’s a valid term for my purposes, as it indicates a space that differs from the national soil it occupies. Legal experts were commissioned to formulate a procedure to be applied to the sculptures in order to qualify them as spaces like the high seas, one of the few territories on the planet that is not subject to the sovereignty of any state. This is my ambition. Can we talk about an object that materializes the stateless condition? Let’s imagine changing the present territorial divisions of the planet into a model of citizenship founded on statelessness. Let’s imagine a citizen who is not a citizen due to his or her own appurtenance to a territory, but rather is a resident and a foreigner at once, who inhabits cities that are regulated through agreements of reciprocal extraterritoriality. And can a sculpture become a kind of foundation stone of another concept of citizenship? At the moment, a process of attribution of immunity is ongoing. We proceed step by step.

GM: Tell me more about how the fountain was designed and realized.

MM: The courtyard catalogued as n. 32 was reproduced as a 3D model through data collected at the camp. Later, the 3D model was reproduced in marble by robots. Compared to the original model, it is installed upside down. By this I mean that if normally the courtyard works as a pedestal for the fountain/pool, in Europe these relations are reversed, and the fountain becomes the pedestal of the courtyard. The side where the pool is fixed is in contact with soil so that it communicates the whole object as a sculpture, a walkable space separated from the ground. In this sense, the sculpture materializes the principles that I mentioned before: to be foreign and resident at once. The water system is fixed to the central axes of the pool and works some hours per week. In the future, one institution can purchase more than one model, to reproduce and store them in vertical position, until the juridical process is not applied. It would mean to have an arsenal. It is an image that I would love to see.

GM: Za’atari camp is divided into blocks and districts, and the general infrastructure hosts activities and services, from education (school, child, and family centers) to health facilities, security offices, and warehouses. Do you see this camp as a virtuous example for future cities?

MM: For sure Za’atari camp is a settlement where huge investments have been made (water and solar systems, a graywater plant, clinics, schools, recreational centers, et cetera) and where new systems of distribution for primary goods are experimented with (for instance e-vouchers that allow people to withdraw cash at mobile ATMs, or to pay through iris identification). Cash circulation, especially, has allowed the development of a vibrant internal economy involving more than three thousand shops, restaurants—all sorts of businesses. But as long as the built environment stays informal, Za’atari camp is a slum: a slum and a foundation city at the same time. Za’atari’s future is unpredictable. I personally believe that it will grow as a city. But in order to turn the slum into an urban model, it should be considered a terrain of experimentation in terms of both urban life and governance. Once it is emancipated from central government and grows economically so that it does not need subsidies, it could resemble a revolution, maybe.

GM: According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), refugee camps remain in use for seventeen years on average. That’s a long period. What do you think about this phenomenon of constructing “temporary” emergency architecture that actually lasts for years, and might even be expected to evolve into a permanent settlement? The climax in your notes is clear:

  1. a) 2012: homes are tents
  2. b) 2013: homes are caravans
  3. c) 2014 ~ : caravans become rooms which are moved around a void. Homes are “courtyard houses” with fountains.

MM: I’m not an expert on refugee camps, but I agree with those who insist on the need to rethink camps as cities that last beyond the short run of the humanitarian emergency. Some Palestinian camps in Lebanon or Amman have existed for fifty, even seventy years. Forced mass displacements and mobility are our future. Due to wars, climatic factors, or economic reasons, today more than sixty-five million people have fled their countries of origin. People go toward cities, slums, or are organized within camps. For a long time now, experts in the humanitarian field, international law, designers, economists, and academics have produced literature and pragmatic proposals to rethink camps as cities.

Some experiments are ongoing, like SDZs, Microcities, Riace. They are different models, but I believe they could benefit each other. I imagine areas where investors and the world’s most brilliant minds could test new methods and technologies related to education, health, infrastructure, the built environment, services, production, and most of all governance. Because the facts show that the more a city emancipates itself from the central government (in terms of economy and governance), the greater its possibility to work. Can we imagine a new urban model that is also a new model of citizenship? If it works, it can be exported. Each epoch has generated its own urban model, aimed at answering its own urgencies. Yes, the most recent iterations have failed because they favored design over human beings, but there is no time—nor good reason—to believe that new visions built through the best means we have cannot work.

GM: In the collection of documents accessible in the show, an excerpt from a text by Giorgio Agamben titled “Beyond Human Rights” (1993) caught my eye. In it, Agamben quotes Hannah Arendt’s “We Refugees” from Menorah Journal, no. 1 (1943): “History is no longer a closed book to them [refugees] and politics is no longer the privilege of Gentiles. They know that the outlawing of the Jewish people of Europe has been followed closely by the outlawing of most European nations. Refugees driven from country to country represent the vanguard of their peoples.” In your opinion, to what degree can the condition of being a refugee be analyzed today?

MM: First, Arendt recognizes the stateless condition as the paradigm of a new historical consciousness with which all of us should identify. Beyond juridical definitions (refugee status, stateless status, et cetera), the condition of people who seek refuge, who live in exile, today mirrors a time of extreme mass mobility (not necessarily forced) and rapid change that leads each of us to leave our countries, to move from country to country. In accordance with philosopher Donatella Di Cesare, autoctonía is a myth that does not hold. Humankind moves since ever. The refugee is humankind. It is ridiculous to think of the refugee as a category. Belonging to a territory can be a bond of affection, not a criterion for the attribution of rights.


at Collezione Maramotti, Reggio Emilia
until 28 July 2018

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