Divago Festival Public Art Festival + Workshop Genova, Italy

Shibboleth exists to provide meaningful work for underrepresented members of the society through publishing.


By way of visual books, we aim to expand the quantity of information within the literal and metaphorical field of vision of communities affected by cognitive and educational disadvantage. Our projects for the page are a reflection of our projects for the people as together, we explore the possibility for images to replace words in a shared system of signs and symbols and for the book to dissolve illiteracy and cultural disparity through a democratic dissemination of knowledge.


Projects for the People


As a legal entity, Shibboleth is a 100% member-owned cooperative under Italian law. Its goals as a social enterprise are realised by investing a proportion of trading profits back into the communities with which our members collaborate long-term. This is why our Statutes accommodate both A-type and B-type activities, i.e., profit- and non-profit. The former facilitates the latter: the capital feeds the wonder.


Based on the principles of comradery and cooperation, Shibboleth is owned and controlled by the people it serves, and shares any surpluses on the basis of each member’s cooperative contribution (as a volunteer, worker or consumer) rather than their capacity to invest financial capital. We build economic democracy by creating the conditions for projects designed for the people to develop in line with our research on language as an expression of the same three-tiered system on which our cultural enterprise rests: interpersonal, communal, and contractual.


Projects for the Page


As a publisher of visual books, Shibboleth is interested in dismantling the idea that an image is inevitably a document: this allows for it to be severed from its socially prescribed function as record or narrative and for it to be used as a letter in an alphabet or a word in a sentence, questioning the function of “names” and “pictures”, and ultimately of meaning based on cultural convention. Our projects for the page develop outside and inside communities characterised by an unconventional use of language owing to cognitive impairments, e.g., neuropsychiatry patients; or a limited access to education caused by socio-political hardships, e.g., second generation children. Our catalogue comprises visual translations of out of copyright fiction, visual proverb calendars, visual dictionaries, encyclopaedias, postcards and photo tabloids.


Our catalogue contains propositions for a progressive shift from a verbal to a visual language system, hijacking traditional genres and formats to camouflage our artistic research in non-artistic contexts. Linguistic ambiguity is purposefully preserved to emphasise the use we make of images as elastic: how far can an image be stretched until its meaning breaks?


Shibboleths and Tomatoes


A shibboleth is a term that identifies individuals as being part of a group based on their ability to pronounce one or more words.


In a Biblical story, the word “shibboleth” was first used as a password to distinguish Emphraimities (whose dialect lacked a /sh/ sound as in “shoe”), from Gileadites (whose dialect did). To this day, shibboleths are used in armed conflicts across the globe to recognise friend from foe based on their pronunciation of a specific term, most frequently the name of a food, e.g., banadoura (Arabic for tomatoes), ciciri (Sicilian for chickpeas), palianytsia (Urkranian for bread). However, shibboleths are also single sign-on lynchpins that enable members of a community to access an online resource without revealing their individual identities. In this sense, the word “shibboleth” bears two opposite meanings: denial and acceptance.


The semantic capacity of a single word to cover polarities (denial and acceptance) indicates the generative contradictions that language allows, which are the focus of Shibboleth’s research as a social publisher: inclusion and exclusion; proximity and distance; understanding and misunderstanding; dialogue and silence; acceptance and rejection; instinct and insight.


To visualise the concept of “shibboleth” we use the symbol of a tomato which recalls the “to-mah-to” / “to-may-to” couplet in a song written by George and Ira Gershwin for the 1937 film Shall We Dance, often used to dismiss one’s adherence to an alternative standard, or to suggest that something is a distinction without any difference.


We grow a tomato archive in a dedicated section of our online presence as a way to record the openness of language. How many things fit in a name?


If you would like to contribute to our growing archive with tomato pictures, feel free to send us an email.