Imagining & depicting Phantom Islands

Looking up definitions for „island“, one finds a fairly coherent body of depictions. Pretty much always including something similar to „A tract of land surrounded by water and smaller than a continent“. If the “water-surrounded bit” is less dominant definitions similar to the one used in the „Encyclopedia of Islands“ will pop up:

“An island (or isle) is an isolated piece of habitat that is surrounded by a dramatically different habitat (such as water).”

If one is looking up „phantom island“ coherence drops dramatically. Already the number of different terms in use become more complex: „phantom“, „lost“, „vanishing“, „imaginary“ and „fictional“ islands – somehow differentiated from each other, yet with significantly blurred boundaries. Which makes looking up the topic even more interesting… (We really recommend a bit of digging into the subject, it’s fun. It’s imagination raising. Supporting lovely journeys in the mind).

The “Phantom Island of Thule”, between Orkney and Faroe Islands. Detail from Carta Marina (1539) Olaus Magnus (1490-1557)

We noted a reccurring distinction between „lost“ and „phantom“ islands. „Lost islands“ have been claimed (or known) to be once existing but have been swallowed by the sea or otherwise destroyed, whereas „phantom islands“ don’t need to provide any pointers showing „materialized“ existence at any stage. They can be anything between purely mythical, wildly speculated or coming into existence due to faulty positioning of actual islands or other geographical errors.

Lists of “phantom islands” found on the internet cover a wide range of examples, often starting with famous Atlantis reaching to much lesser known ones like an island called Crocker Land – invented as a hoax by an Arctic explorer in order to gain further financial support from George Crocker, one of his previous backers. Why should older means to please those with the money be any different to the mechanisms in use today? One of the various definition we liked the most:

„Phantom Islands are the products of imagination, deception and human error“

Malachy Tallack, The Un-Discovered Islands

A definition and a description which became a perfect starting point for our engagement with the Farfara2031 project.

Farfara2031 is a project, a research process, initiated by Margerita Pulè, Maren Richter, Karsten Xuereb and Toni Attard. The project name was chosen in reference to an island that sporadically appeared and disappeared, close to Malta, on maps from the 16th century.

The project examines ideas around “What if?“ the mythical Maltese island becomes the center of an application for the title of European Capital of Culture 2031?

„What if…” the island of Farfara were to become a potential host? How would currently entrenched approaches to the location, execution, programming and management of such cultural events change if no real-physical venue for them existed? What might a cultural program for digital communities look like that goes beyond spatially-located thinking? How do we make an island? How do we unmake it? What is an island in the net? Can a European Capital of Culture be virtual, now that we have all learnt to live hybrid?

World History Archive – early map of the Maltese islands, with a mystery island called Farfara that no longer exists.

Questions which will, without any doubt, need quite some time to find (various and diverse) answers for. Questions though, which can be started to be tackled in an online futuring exercise “(Un-)Making an Island“, which seemed appropriate for imagining and thinking about a virtual island. We had the pleasure, together with a number of participants, to create some first sketches of phantom islands.

We started with an overarching inquiry inviting participants to consider attributes of all sorts of islands. Reaching from those ones one can travel to in person – either being surrounded by water or surrounded by bits and bytes to those being imaginary orfictional, legendary or mythical, islands full of adventurous stories, entire archipelagos, submerged islands, lava spitting islands growing from the seabed, inhabited, deserted or invaded ones… and asking what would make islands desirable, attractive, romantic, repulsive and what makes them problematic.

Screenshot during the Futuring Exercise (Un-)making an island – 24.06.2022

In a subsequent step we were asking the group to think and dream about aspects of the island. We looked at its characteristics, the components found, characters inhabiting it, competences available on it and challenges facing it as an island coming into or being in existence in 2031.

A fair number of Phantom Islands, named for instance Hyphaesus, Ghetto Baba – Toxicity, Catertrack, Ġejsi, Ecopia, Liquidia, Possible Odyssey, Here-Maybe, Wock & Melta (just a few) came into existence. Participants sketched some basic characteristics of each individual island, covering some components being found on them showing the difference to now, listing some challenges fictional characters of the island are facing as well as thoughts about competences needed to face challenges considered.

In a final step of the exercise we were inviting the participants to choose one of the characters (non-human or human) they came up with and write up, illustrate or mediate otherwise a tiny story, a narrative probe, allowing them and us al to get an idea of the imagined island by telling a story about a fictional cultural event happing on the island in the year 2031.

Even though three hours for such a dense program is indeed rather short, the results gathered are inspiring and motivating, hopefully to be continued. We want to thank all participants for their engagement: Charlie Cauchi, Caldon Mercieca, Raffaella Zammit, Gabriel Zammit, Keit Bonnici, Florinda Camilleri, Greta Muscat Azzopardi, Zoe Camilleri, Charlene Galea, Kristina Polidano, Tom van Malderen, Leanne Ellul, Matthew Attard, Margerita Pulè, Maren Richter, Karsten Xuereb and Toni Attard. Without them not a single “phantom island” would have been imagined.

We are really keen to see how the entire project is going to develop. And even more keen to play a continuous role in it. And if we may add – if anyhow possible outside the virtual world!


This “Futuring exercise” is feeding our research within Curiouser and Curiouser, cried Alice: Rebuilding Janus from Cassandra and Pollyanna (CCA), an art-based research project of Design Investigations (ID2) at the University of Applied Arts Vienna and Time’s Up, supported by the Programme for Arts-based Research (PEEK) on the part of the Austrian Science Fund (FWF): AR561

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