Presentation given at the Impact of the Arts seminar presented by AMASS (Acting on the Margins, Arts as Social Practice), in response to the provocation:
"Are we expecting too much from artists and culture? Funding bodies frequently assess artistic proposals on the basis of their perceived impact on specific social groups, their ability to address communities’ needs or factors like audience development and the participation of various stakeholders in the creative process. The EU-funded project ‘Acting on the Margins: Arts as Social Sculpture’ (AMASS) implemented over thirty creative projects around Europe in order to analyse and promote the role of the arts in the mitigation of societal challenges experienced by groups facing different forms of discrimination. It also aimed to generate new forms of civic engagement and to address the marginal positioning and under-representation of some groups and communities in Europe. In this symposium, different speakers moderated by curator Maren Richter will discuss the role of social engagement in AMASS and other similar artistic projects and the perils of instrumentalisation. Socially engaged practices shift the attention of the public towards creative processes that encourage participation, collaboration or activism. But are artists allowing themselves to be instrumentalised when they engage in practices that have social purposes? When does the notion of ‘empowerment’ become problematic?"
Rules of Engagement
When I began to work on this presentation, I printed the provocation as I often do, so I could read it without looking at a computer screen. And as I glanced down at the printed page, I misread the words ‘role of social engagement’ as ‘rule of engagement’. This got me thinking.
In this climate of ever-present war, we quickly become used to military jargon. Just this week, for example, we all learnt that a leopard is not an animal, but it is, in fact, a highly sophisticated tank made by Germany, and distributed to by used by the militaries of many different countries.
Military culture and language can infiltrate many areas of life; take, for example, the commercial kitchen hierarchical framework which is directly derived from the first large-scale cooking enterprises that serviced Europe’s armies during the 19th century.
More insidiously, phrases like the cloying ‘hearts and minds’ seem to have morphed from the carefree or careless Blairite whitewash-speak of the Iraq war, to bland advertising and populist ‘bread and circus’ politics.
How, then, to speak about socially-engaged art – which is, as its best self, inherently caring, nourishing, creative and uplifting – in a language of destruction, violence and devastation? And, more importantly, can doing this help us tackle the questions posed to us this afternoon “Are artists allowing themselves to be instrumentalised when they engage in practices that have social purposes? When does the notion of ‘empowerment’ become problematic?”
Let’s get stuck in, shall we?
Broadly speaking, the rules of engagement of a military operation outline the internal rules afforded military forces (or military individuals) that define the circumstances, conditions, degree and manner in which the use of force, or actions which might be construed as provocative, may be applied. They also provide authorisation for, and limits on, the use of force and the employment of certain specific capabilities. Rules of Engagement will not normally dictate how a result is to be achieved, but will indicate what measures may be unacceptable.
If the aim of a socially-engaged project is to ‘empower’ a community, what are the rules of engagement with which an artist can work?
First, there is recruitment. This is a word we actually used quite often during AMASS; ‘the recruitment process’, and obviously it’s a sort of shorthand for the lengthy process of identifying who may be interested, available, and willing to take part in a project. But against the backdrop of large-scale mobilisation of Russian conscripts the word takes on a more sinister and cajoling meaning.
Then, depending on how much time is available, the artist may become ‘embedded’ in the community. Bringing to mind the 1990s news broadcasts of journalists embedded with military troops in the Middle East, the term somehow implies an ‘on-safari’ adventure, dossing-down with insurgents in a heroic and selfless sojourn away from home.
At the end of the project, hopefully, there is a positive outcome; and if the aim of a socially-engaged project is to ‘empower’ a community, we come to the crux of the matter; that is ‘power’; in whose hands is it, and into whose hands to we want to place it? If we empower a community, does that automatically disempower others? If we live by the two-sided systems of our modern economy, when one side of the scale goes down, the other must go up, and rarely is perfect balance achieved.
All this, is not to imply that participants of socially-engaged creative projects are a hostile entity; on the contrary, ideally, the artists and participants are very-much on the ‘same side’, even if conflict does, occasionally flare up.
If there is to be a cold war, or a sense of tension with a partner, I would suggest that it is the authorities that often act in bad faith, those that damage (sometimes mortally) communities with misguided policies or planning, and then attempt to place a sticking plaster over a gaping wound by allocating small amounts of funding to artists who are tasked with picking up the pieces.
Artists then have no choice but to resort to sleeping with the enemy, approaching funding bodies, in an attempt to secure support for their work. Thus, artists find themselves almost held hostage by funding authorities, who demand ever-more proof that their work is of value; rations and kit are issued against documented and tangible deliverables, which themselves demand time and valuable resources.
The question we ask ourselves then, is “does art and creativity find itself caught in the cross-fire, between good intentions, economic cynicism, and a universal desire to live a good life?”
I am aware that using this military language brings in a sense of conflict, of hostile opposites, and of winner and loser. Possibly, one solution is to refer to the conflict of a no-man’s land, or a buffer-zone, where fighting cannot take place. This doesn’t work however, because a buffer-zone is a vacuum, empty of conflict, as well as empty of life and empty of any sort of activity.
We can also think of words like armistice, cease-fire, truce, which imply a laying-down of arms, but these also maintain a sense of tension; the anticipation that hostilities may start again at any time, as they just have in Palestine in the past week.
To come back to the question; are artists allowing themselves to be instrumentalised when they engage in practices that have social purposes? Maybe the artist’s only solution is to act as double- or triple- agent; pretending to be on board with policy-makers and funders, while always making the health and happiness of the communities they are working with a priority.
I know it’s Saturday night, but I’m going to get one quote – or paraphrase – in at least – from Chomsky; that is, to think as a pessimist and act as an optimist. Maybe by using military language to explore the ugliness of humanity, can move us to mobilise our tanks for the good of our communities.
The exhibition Light is Time Thinking About Itself is a solo show by Antje Liemann. It opened briefly at MUŻA in March 2021, but was closed due to Covid-19 restrictions. It has been rescheduled to open again in August 2021.
“la luz no absuelve ni condena,
no es justa ni es injusta,”
Samuel Beckett’s one-act play Endgame creates a scenario of doomed characters in a doomed world, the moment before extinction. Two characters cannot leave the bins to which they are confined, another is blind and confined to his wheelchair, and the play’s only mobile character eventually abandons his master to his fate. They are the sole survivors of an undefined apocalyptic event; as Hamm says, “Outside of here it’s death”. His servant Clov prophetically opens the play with the words “Finished, it’s finished, nearly finished, it must be nearly finished.”
Living through the global events of the last twelve months, and witnessing reports of devastating environmental damage that has increasingly come to light, it is tempting to read Beckett’s work as prophetic, and to believe that we are drawing ever-nearer to a world that is – as Clov describes it - ‘corpsed’.
Ice is retreating, permafrost is melting. Water-levels are rising, and we are told that human-made materials now outweigh the Earth’s entire biomass. How can we attempt to process the enormity of this information, and of the disastrous self-inflicted situation we find ourselves in?
Perhaps the first step is post-anthropocentric thought – that is, imagining a world after humans, allowing us to acknowledge the imbalance of power that has come to exist between humankind and the natural world, which may allow us to recognise our colonisation and capitalisation of all of the Earth’s resources and rethink our relationship with the natural world.
Thankfully, the human spirit has the capacity for to imagine a world where the humanity has managed to destroy itself, and to imagine it as a positive place. Without human industry, nature – here seen as Zoe, or life - can thrive and reassert itself on the planet.
Our default vision of the end of the world is usually dystopia – a Bladerunner-like tangle of the wreckage of post-humanity, or a less dramatic but equally bleak Beckettian world. But the egocentricity in this vision assumes that without humankind, the Earth is somehow impotent and unable to regenerate. (It also assumes that in wiping itself out, the human race will take the natural world with it.) The restrictions which societies have placed upon themselves in the face of the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic have given us a glimpse of what might happen in the natural world if humans were not necessarily free to roam at will. For a moment in time, reports of birds finding mates more easily, wild animals approaching previously out-of-bounds areas, and domestic animals taking over villages abounded. Nature had seen an opportunity, and grasped it.
Antje Liemann, takes a glimpse of a post-human world and pushes it to extreme, imagining what will happen after the humankind’s dominion over the Earth. Will that be the end of the world? In Liemann’s imaginary, familiar landmarks have been taken over by gargantuan species – Fungus Rock has become an apiary of gigantic proportions, while the ancient site of Mnajdra is repossessed by giant orchids. Zoe has made herself at home. So no, is the answer, because, ultimately, the earth abideth forever. . . The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to the place where he arose. Without the destructive Anthropos, the sun also rises, the earth continues to turn on its axis and Zoe will again have space to thrive.
However, while it’s tempting to read these works as an acceptance of what is to come, Liemann’s work does not predict, or dictate – rather it proffers an idea – not what will happen, but what may come to be. It may be tempting also to apply a moral reasoning to humankind’s behaviour, but the Earth does not exact a judgement. Nor does it benevolently react, Gaia-like, to perpetually sustain life.
Liemann’s film documentary askes four pertinent questions around humankind’s relationship with the earth, and the – egoistically inconceivable - possibility that our existence on the planet may not be infinite. Thus, presenting a multiplicity of answers, she is asking us to think about the questions asked, and to grapple with the answers ourselves. She is not show-and-telling – she is setting us along the path to reason for ourselves.
While Liemann’s proposed scenario was spurred by a very recent phenomenon, she is working here, not in hours, weeks or years, but spanning millennia – light-years. We know that to look up into the night sky is to look far into the past. And that the light of the sun when it reaches us is tens of thousands of years old. Mnajdra and Ħaġar Qim were built many millennia ago. And it may take many more millennia for humankind to reach its final demise – so long, that light and time become intertwined, the sun also rises, the world still turns, and light rebounds upon itself, and self-reflects; light becomes time thinking about light.
Liemann’s objets-trouvés are reminiscent of an abandoned world – they are the detritus of a bourgeois life left behind, from when mass-produced china figurines – courting couples, woodland creatures, even the powerful eagle - once adorned a 20th century sitting room. Now, though, they are left alone; but through Liemann’s intervention, they are reborn, reminiscent of ancient hybrid beings existing in a part-humanoid, part-natural state. Their switched heads inadvertently allude to megalithic headless statues found in Ħaġar Qim, with hollows indicating that their heads were purposely interchangeable, but also hint at something more sinister. Their endgame has provided them with freedom, and they now exist in their own menagerie with a double-banishment of sorts, from both the natural and the human world – a ceramic blade-runner; anthropos and zoe combined.
The dream-like state of the stasis of lockdown ad absurdum has caused all of us to lose a grip on our own versions of reality. Do these figures represent us, or do they live in our collective, yet isolated imagination? Perhaps they speak of the millennia over which humankind went from living in proximity to the natural world, to our current, industrial-digital state.
Humankind is mirrored by Endgame’s once-enthroned Hamm – the guilty-party, destined to be abandoned. “Yes, one day […] there won't be anyone left to have pity on you.” Humankind has been pitiless in its domination and colonisation over the world and virtually all its natural resources. Is it therefore inevitable that it self-destructs?
Whether humanity survives, is – in the grander scheme of things – immaterial. Nature is neutral about morality in general. Extreme weather events leading to loss of life, are not nature’s judgemental retribution, but ultimately have their roots in human activity. Similarly, light does not absolve or condemn; la luz no absuelve ni condena – no matter if artists in particular, have long seen light as closely linked to morality.
In her interview with Liemann, ornithologist and environmentalist Marie Claire Gatt says that ultimately, our future here on planet earth, is “very closely linked with the decisions that we take today, to keep the world inhabitable tomorrow”. What’s needed, she says, is “a strong paradigm shift in our values.” Extreme self-awareness and self-questioning can walk us towards post-anthropocentric thought, which, in turn, may allow us to acknowledge that the longevity of the human race is not guaranteed. Like light, we must travel impossible distances over millennia, to imagine many possible futures. Because ultimately, what happens to us will depend not on Gaia’s judgement of humanity, but on our actions on the Earth today.
 Paz, Octavio. La vista, el tacto, A Balthus. In Árbol Adentro. 1976 - 1987
 Beckett, Samuel, Endgame, 1957
 Laville, Sandra. Human-made materials now outweigh Earth's entire biomass – study. The Guardian 9 December 2020
 Ecclesiastes 1:5 “The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose.” King James Version (KJV)
All photos: Elisa von Brockdorff
I’m can’t offer solutions. I was asked to speak about outreach and sustainability. I won’t speak about funding and strategies, since there are plenty of other conversations going on about this, among people much better qualified than me.
And I can only talk about my experiences as curator, cultural manager, visual artist, writer – I can’t claim knowledge of the performing arts sector, apart from a very superficial knowledge that putting on a performance is an expensive undertaking. So, my intervention will throw out a few ideas, give a few thoughts that can spark off ideas and thoughts from some of you.
For those of you who don’t know me, I have a masters in Fine Arts from the University of Malta, and I’m founder of Unfinished Art Space – a nomadic project that works with contemporary and experimental artists here in Malta. I also work as a researcher on a Horizon 2020 socially-engaged arts research project at UM, and I have my own practice as artist and curator.
First off, without wishing to generalise, we do live in a society that tends to view art as something which provides, rather than something that exists. So straight away, we tend to leave artists to their own devices when it comes to earning an income – by which I don’t mean that no public funding is available, but more that worldwide, more pressure is being put on the arts to fund itself. I am suspicious of discourses that put the onus on creative professionals to somehow simultaneously act as entrepreneurs, marketing executives and start-ups. While the image of the artist creating alone in an attic bedsit somewhere is unhelpful, the creed that everything can and should be monetised is equally disingenuous, if not outright dangerous to the arts.
A few days ago, I was listening to a speech given by the folk singer-songwriter Janis Ian say “It’s hard to be a commodity. And yet the only way to earn a living as an artist is to be a commodity of one sort or another.” This rings true for many artists, but also tends to leave a bitter taste in the mouth – and I can think of few more depressing strategies for an artist to develop their practice, than to try to become a commodity.
For this discussion, I tried to find examples of how the arts flourished historically during times of crisis or economic depression. We may have ideas of rock and punk coming out of young unemployed dissenters, or radical performance art being borne of struggle and hardship, but the reality is less romantic. One example I heard was the moving poetry that came from the trenches of the first world war, but I think the disastrous and murderous events of that period is not what we need to become creative again. What I can say at some level is that if – at a fundamental level - art needs a counterpoint against which to rail, then hard times – in terms of economics, civil rights, freedoms – provide this – without it, one may argue that art becomes reduced to mere decoration.
But that argument can be reductive – art also involves a process of research, experimentation, and thinking (which is underestimated these days) which can’t necessarily be billed on a company charge sheet. Without these periods of intense training, thought and exploration, art would – again – be reduced to a mere background decoration and a repetition of what’s come before.
This morning I listened to an interview with the acclaimed Lebanese live-arts artist Tania El Khoury. Asked about sustainability in the arts, she said “Many of us who are perceived as having a successful career, that’s because we jump from one festival to another, from one project to another, barely having time to rest or pause. This is neither a sustainable or a healthy way of living and making.” And the point she was making is that artists need to have time to work between works. And somehow, they need to be paid for that.
We’ve read a lot recently about how the arts have reacted to the world going online. Good luck to those artists that work in digital media – they are working in a ground-breaking area, that sees humanity – as it has always done – bring technology and the arts together to the advancement of both. But for those who work in more live arts, what was trumpeted as the solution to the lockdown, served largely to increase the distance between the audience and the arts – there’s nothing sadder that watching a performance, and knowing that the atmosphere, the smells (good and bad), the feel of the theatre seat and the environment are beyond your reach.
There are upsides; the critic Waldemar Januszczak has praised the experience of viewing rooms for art fairs, instead of the hectic live version. And Greek theatre director Elli Papakonstantinou has used the shift online to experiment with zoom-enabled performance to create a live, immersive, experimental performance, to a limited audience. So, the online can be seen as a tool, but not the solution.
I was asked to give some examples of how I, and organisations I’m involved with, have endeavoured to find solutions to the current situation we find ourselves in. And I’m using the phrase ‘endeavoured to find’ deliberately – we looked for solutions, but can’t say we’ve found the answers.
One organisation I’m involved in – Magna Żmien – of which I’m a founding member, went back to its roots as it were. Rather than organising outreach events, as we had planned, we focused instead on catching up with digitising collections, improving the metadata that we have on our collections, and continuing the background work that is the backbone of what we do. We were also able to collaborate with artists, meeting and giving access to some material online. We are lucky to have an ISO grant from the Arts Council, which allows us to engage some people to do this work – otherwise it would be down to just us, very slowly, on a voluntary basis.
I’d like to quickly mention our audiences, and how we relate to them as artists. We have gone through such a period of intense change, in how people relate to one another, how they socialise, how they spend their money, that the arts have been inevitably, and irrevocably affected. If I can go back to the interview with El Khoury, she said “If this pandemic is teaching us anything, it’s about taking some time to slow down and reflect on our ethical responsibility towards our audience.” Looking at how artists work with audiences – is there an opportunity her, to work more intensively, more closely with smaller numbers of people? Would society be willing to make this change? Would audiences meet us in the middle? And would something like this remain in the hands of a small number of repeat audiences, or could we take the opportunity to involve all sectors of society in a new way of engaging with art.
We also do need to nurture the next generation of artists, those that are just graduating and just finding their way in the world. Otherwise we’ll find ourselves stagnating with no-one new coming up behind us, feeding energy into the sector, and leading to a sense of continuity and legacy in local art practices.
Linked with this: equality in arts practice. Because Malta is so small, we tend to think of it as a more mobile society, but this isn’t true of the arts. We need to allow opportunities within the sector – without being patronising, without being cynical – for everyone to feel they can work in the creative industries.
Lastly, a glimmer of hope, that I can offer comes in the form of solidarity, collaboration and a sense of camaraderie. Last year, I was lucky enough to be invited to quite a meaningful gathering of inspiring artists and creative practitioners, who met in a very open, sharing and trustful environment. Nothing formal came out of this, but during lockdown, a group of us met again – this time online. I was sceptical about meeting online – mostly I just wanted to chat with friends and colleagues, share a coffee and discuss ideas – not talk awkwardly over zoom with inadvertent mute buttons and connection interruptions. But what came out of the meeting was uplifting. Friends and colleagues open to sharing and collaborating, and approaching the same challenges without hidden agendas and outside of a formal environment. Some informal projects have begun, slowly to develop from this meeting – I hope more meetings and more collaborations will follow.
In this strange half-online, half-conscious quarantine time we live in, I came across a phrase that I think is pertinent to our situation: “The next revolution will not be funded”. Actually, it’s the title of a conference organised by curator and writer Jürgen Bock in 2012. Although it dates from 2012, the message is relevant to these times. We must brace ourselves for hard times ahead – not just economically, but also socially, environmentally, and politically. We need to think in terms of a creative revolution, and look to our ourselves and our practices to sustain us and others around us, emotionally and intellectually. Some of us think of our art practice as our baby; in that case, I’ll give you some advice I got from a friend’s mother when I had my first child; At the end of the day, it’s just you and the baby.
This intervention was presented as part of Arts Council Malta's Covid-19 Taskforce, September 2020.
“We shall not escape these weeks. They recapitulate, always varied and always fresh, always doing and never alone.” Hilary Mantel, The Mirror and the Light
As we venture back out into the world, bleary-eyed and cautious, it’s easy to minimise what happened to us over the past few months - how lockdown changed our perceptions of who we are and who we thought we were.
Looking back – in admittedly an irritable state of mind – I wonder why I wasn’t more productive during that time; why I didn’t start that new project that had been on my mind, and why I didn’t do all that reading that had been piling up. The short-term pressures of meetings and project management had gone, and luckily, I didn’t have to worry too much about money, so why did I find myself sinking into a lockdown-induced torpor?
Slowly I realised that it wasn’t inherent and irrevocable laziness that doomed me to permanent inactivity.
I see now that what was gone from my life during that time, along with live events and in-the-flesh meetings, was my sense of my own identity – a sense of who I am as a person, and I suspect I wasn’t alone. That identity that each of us builds and maintains, every hour of every day through an infinitesimal series of actions, words, work, meetings and networks, is more important to us than we care to admit. We curate our identity consciously and unconsciously through our interests, friends, clothes, and beaten tracks to create something that represents who we’d like to be and how we’d like to be seen.
From being always-busy and always-planning-the-next-project, we were all thrown into a stillness that stripped us of our working identity, and I for one, was left adrift and bereft – going from (as I perceived it at least) curator, cultural manager, Maltese, mother, artist, Irish, mistrustful of authority, an active member of the cultural sector, to simply mother, home-school teacher, and maniacal podcast consumer – almost overnight our world shrank, and our sense of ourselves shrank with it.
You think you know who you are until you don’t.
And without that sense of identity, it was difficult for us all to carry on functioning as we had been. In that nebulous atmosphere, any sense of purpose floated away – particularly for those of us working in the arts, where, almost by definition, an audience is a necessary part of the artistic creative act, and the world around us provides the impetus for creative production.
In another artist-in-lockdown-anomaly, the role of the artist as outlier and disrupter came to feel slightly superfluous. This wasn’t the time for pandemic-parodies or art-as-protest; to survive a pandemic, we were told, we had to stay at home, behave ourselves, and obey orders. All very sensible perhaps, but not exactly in line with the rebellious, critical artist’s identity.
In an interview given during this time, writer and activist George Monbiot spoke of the relief provided by the opportunity to admit that we are vulnerable, rather than constantly achieving. He was right – in particular when he said that this may be the perfect time to strengthen friendships and community bonds. But these changes don’t happen overnight - it takes time to reset our internal rhythms and our reasons for working; if I don’t know who I am, then how can I know what I’m here for?
So, what happens now? The world has started turning again, shops and cafés have reopened for business, and yet…. even now, as communities re-open, we question the act of returning to an earlier version of ourselves. We can’t go back to being who we were before, but how can we rebuild an identity that we now know can be so easily erased?
Written for Arts Council Malta's Covid-19 Blog Series. August 2020
In advance of Rotot: Mediterranean Routes through Intercultural Dialogue, co-hosted by Inizjamed and the University of Malta on 27 March 2019, I interviewed Moroccan artist Noureddine Ezarraf .
Published in The Times of Malta on 25 March 2019: Art in Times of Disquiet.
On an orange and blue screen, figures turn and run. Some look as if they’re throwing something – but the figures are overlaid over each other, so it’s difficult to make them out. They are running, but at the same time, they are floating on a lunar plane. I’m viewing the work of Moroccan artist and poet Noureddine Ezarraf and speaking to him about his practice. Ezarraf’s work is multi-disciplinary, contemporary and not easily described. As an economics graduate, he examines power dynamics, identity politics and forms of dialogue through performance and video work, working in his native Morocco, but also in Spain, and more recently, in the UK. His work includes the collecting and archiving of social media videos uploaded during the so-called ‘Arab Spring’, as well as performance works in public spaces.
He enjoys talking theory and experimentation. I ask him what it means to be an artist - particularly a contemporary, multi-disciplinary artist - in his country. He says his practice places him outside familiar models of how are artist should behave and gives an example of the figure of a poet in a village; a familiar figure, using a familiar form of art. Ezarraf himself certainly does not fall within this definition; his work places him firmly outside the familiar, to local audiences, as well as local authorities.
This brings us to discuss the role of the artist and of public art in society. The ‘publicness’ of performing in a public space, even just the act of reading poetry out loud, in a public space can be a politically-charged act in itself. Ezarraf speaks about the importance of the ‘gesture’ of a work of art; whether it be an archiving process, a public work, or the process of struggling with bureaucracy to produce a work.
A few months ago, Ezarraf travelled to London to participate in an exhibition and reflection-project on the poetics and policies of hospitality. He speaks of the irony of having to apply for a visa and go through the visa process while participating in such a project. Information is gathered, biometric date is recorded, a profile is drawn, all in return for permission to enter a country. Does this process negate the artistic act? Or is participating in the project and going through a visa application process a political gesture in itself? Is it, therefore, a part of the artistic work? To Ezarraf, the distinction between art and its context is blurred.
Ezarraf is constantly curious about his surroundings and interested in understanding his environment; his practice is an exploration of how the world works politically. Art, for him, means taking part in a political ecosystem – it is a form of communication. Creating art in a public space requires a transformation of the body from the personal to the political; in a public space, the body becomes public property, open and vulnerable to the public gaze.
His recent project, Eaux Incendieres, recently exhibited in Brussels, is an archive of videos taken during the political uprisings in northern Morocco and more broadly the Arab Spring. In this project, Ezarraf combines and manipulates footage that were disseminated through social media during this time. He talks about the temporal importance of these images; how they contributed to political uprisings in many countries, but also how short-lived they were by their very nature. Video work itself is temporal, and, in a way, self-renewing. The video ends and the image fades but after a moment of loss and mourning, it reappears and continues anew.
As a visual artist, this use of the visual – the still or video image – holds a special significance for Ezarraf, particularly in relation to democracy and accountability. The eye and the act of looking, he says, is objective, and demands visual evidence; as opposed to listening, which relates more to obedience and allegiance. Social media can further universalise this visual accountability, and when used democratically, can provide a synchronisation of a common search for truth.
When we speak about Malta and the Mediterranean, Ezarraf tells me how important he feels dialogue is in this part of the world. He describes the Mediterranean as a sort of common borderline, between all the countries and cultures that share its shores, and artists, he says, have the potential to create a new form of dialogue between cultures. Whether it’s through performance in public space, video art, or through straightforward conversation, it is intercultural dialogue that might somehow carve a way forward in these times of disquiet.
A paper delivered at the 12th UNEeCC Conference
Culture: Invented or Inherited?
7-9 November 2018
University of Malta
“Free societies...are societies in motion, and with motion comes tension, dissent, friction. Free people strike sparks, and those sparks are the best evidence of freedom's existence.” Salman Rushdie, 1988
In this paper I would like to engage in an examination of contemporary participatory art practices as a metaphor for a belief in, and identification with, the values of what we can call the ‘European Project’.
I would define participatory art practice as a form of art that “directly engages the audience in the creative process so that they become participants in the event” (definition given by The Tate), or “an approach to making art which engages the audience in the creative process, letting them become co-authors, editors, and observers of the work”.
I mean specifically participatory art practice, as opposed to community arts practice, which is, in my understanding, more concerned with art as a tool for integration, therapy or other social positives.
By the term ‘European Project’, I mean the European Union and a feeling of ‘Europeanness’ in its journey from post-World War II Europe, to its peak, possibly in the early part of this century.
I would also like to expound the importance of participatory art practice within the context of a European Capital of Culture, but also outside that structure, and how this can contribute – or not – to a more common European value and to a prevailing over current populist trends.
I would like also, on a practical level, like to address the challenges of a successful participatory art practice project within a European Capital of Culture project, particularly when that ECoC itself does not necessarily share these same European values.
From the Treaty of Rome in 1957, and the creation of the European Economic Community, to the formation of the current European Union with the Maastricht Treaty in 1993, the EU has grown to a population of over 510 million in an area of 4,423,147 square kilometres with 65,993 kilometres of coastline and over 24 languages. Interestingly, the EU claims no formal connection with any religion, although individual countries do so, and until now, the prevailing culture has been and has remained a Christian culture.
On a political and practical level, the EU operates through a combination of supra-national or ‘umbrella-like’ and with inter-governmental decision- and policy- making. It does this through necessarily large decision-making bodies; these are the European Parliament, the European Council, the Council of the European Union, the European Commission, the Court of Justice of the European Union, the European Central Bank and the European Court of Auditors, the titles of many of which we have become quite familiar with in Malta in recent months and years. In terms of culture, the EU recognises the importance, not only of the arts, but also the importance of culture and the arts as a tool for cohesion and a sense of common good.
The EU and a belief in ‘Europeanness’ are generally seen to be increasingly under threat from various historical, contemporary, external and embedded factors. These include Brexit, the instigators of which are struggling to find a solution, currently faltering on the backstop agreement regarding the Irish border, right-wing tendencies in Hungary seeing the country being admonished by the EU itself for ‘breaches’ of core European values, and Italy currently bristling with populist rhetoric and an increasingly anti-immigrant stance. External stresses to the EU include, very obviously, an unpredictable and inconsistent US leadership, episodic unease and conflicts in the Middle East, as well as the election of a president widely understood to be conservative and right-wing in the largest country in South America, Brazil.
And this is where my comparison can take off from; the participatory aspect of the EU, compared with participatory art practice, and how the latter can perhaps, or not, have a positive influence on the former.
I’d like to refer here to a project which took place here in Malta this year, curated by curator and researcher Maren Richter, who was also involved in Linz 2009 ECoC, and one of the curators of the Maldives Pavilion in Venice in 2013. This project is Times of Dilemma, by Transparadiso. Transparadiso was created by Barbara Holub and Paul Rajakovics as a transdisciplinary practice between architecture, art, urban design, urbanism and urban-artistic intervention – between practice and theory. Times of Dilemma was described by the artists as ‘a participatory urban intervention’.
The project’s call to arms stated: “The dream of utopia seems to be over, in spite of the many times we proclaim a desire for “change”. This general call for “change”, which aims at counteracting the growing inequality in our global system, addresses a wide range of contradictory interests. We do not want to defer utopias to some distant time or planet. Instead, we want to address them here and now by furthering the engagement with people to create visions and take action in their specific situations.
Through a series of workshops with local academics, artists, writers, għana singers, and, let’s say, ‘normal people’, the participants were asked to talk about;
What I miss
What I am afraid of losing
What I find problematic
What I treasure
What I am proud of
What I want to change
The contributions to these workshops served as the basis for texts by Malta-based writers, and were then transformed into contemporary Għana dialogues young għanneja. According to the artists;
These contemporary Għana dialogues reposition the (today under-recognized) tradition of folk singing in “high culture”, and explore Għana as artistic method for addressing conflicts in an open process, which highlights the potential of poetics as subtle means for activism. This is a big challenge for the authors as well as for the għannejja, since Għana today still performed is usually “spirtu pront”, which means spontaneous improvisation. To perform a scripted text asks the għanneijja to commit to a new format - and it equally required the confidence of the renowned Maltese authors to offer their texts to be transformed into a Għana dialogue. In this way “Times of Dilemma” does not only address burning questions of the Maltese society, but also transgresses the borders of “high culture” and “folk culture” in a unique format.
For the performances by the għannejja, Transparadiso built two large megaphone-sculptures, offering a dialogical sound transfer of 320 meters between St Michael’s Counterguard, next to St. Roche Chapel in Valletta, and the only public land on the mostly privatized Manoel Island, which will be transformed into an exclusive new urban development for the rich. The locations relate to times of leprosy where the patients where quarantined in a hospital on Manoel Island. A priest would hold his prayers for the hospital from across the channel at St.Roche’s Chapel. The dialogue from the two locations now addresses a contemporary plague, namely uncontrolled urban development in Malta.
The themes addressed by the għannejja which, remember, were brought up by the participants of the workshops ranged from The Political System, Development in Urban Areas, Life in the Community, Education and Culture
At this point, I’d like to go back to the European Project. The next European Parliament elections are to be held in May 2019; already a certain amount of positioning is taking place in the run-up to the campaign season proper; over 700 MEPs will be chosen to represent 500 million-strong European Union. The issues that surfaced during the Times of Dilemma project were not, we imagine, dissimilar to concerns of many of the voters in the next European elections. However, Times of Dilemma served to acknowledge these concerns in a framework that did not seek election, but rather gave voice to them, literally ‘broadcasting’ them across a harbour. The deliberate placing of these concerns, first within the context of għana, that is, a ‘common’ culture, but then elevating both to the context of a ‘high’ culture, give a significance and a dignity to citizens’ concerns outside of a political or propogandist context.
It could be suggested also, that the placing of these concerns within a contemporary art project, somehow allows an immunity and a freedom of speech that may not be allowed in other contexts; because it is ‘art’, it is allowed to criticise in ways that normal society may not. This freedom is important, obviously, to a free society; this is something that a participatory artistic practice can foster. The participatory art project allows a certain safe space for the “tension, dissent and friction” described by Rushdie as the “best evidence of freedom’s existence” without, possibly, deteriorating into physical tension or violence.
The irony of course here is when the content of the practice project is diametrically in contrast with the body that commissions it, and with the rhetoric of the communication around it. And if we understand the European Capital of Culture project as a tool of the European Union to promote European cohesion, and promote values of freedom of speech, equality and openness, then there is a risk in allowing individual Capitals of Culture a free hand over their programmes and their communications policy.
Another participatory art practice perhaps also at odds with a populist and placatory outlook was Uprooted by Syrian-German artist Manaf Halbouni. Halbouni placed what can best be described as ‘Car-Homes’ around Valletta and Malta, in the context of the same exhibition curated by Maren Richter. While the cars, which were modified to allow someone to sleep, eat and store their possessions were in place, visitors – or participants - could book the vehicles to spend the night in the installation. This was a participatory element in a different form; the participant did not dictate the form or content of the work, but rather was invited to experience it after it was created, and to interpret it through this experience. It can be defined as a participatory project because of the form of that interaction; the participant had to do more than simply approach and observe the work; the interaction was over a relatively long period – around twelve hours – and had to be booked with the purpose of spending the night there.
The work invited participants to confront experiences of forced, restricted and chosen mobility. It referred to displacement caused by war and natural disaster. But it also confronted difficulties caused by social changes caused by gentrification and social inequalities. The work referred to all these difficulties, but also offered a space – a personal utopia – that could be created within the space of the car itself.
The success or otherwise of projects like this cannot necessarily be measured in figures. The experience of the individual spending time within this restricted space is cannot necessarily be quantified. On the opposite scale of this experience however, is a small anecdote related to the setting up of this project; originally permits were issued by the Local Council, in collaboration with the organisers. However, when the town managers realised that the installation was, effectively, what looked like an abandoned car that someone could live in, a request was quickly made to shift the car to a less visible area. This somehow betrays the intentions of town planners; public and participatory art is acceptable and accepted, but only to a certain point, and in a certain context. If it does not fulfil its expected role of beautification, or town enhancement, then it is quickly shifted and hidden. This act of hiding something that is not ‘acceptable’ in the eyes of some is, unfortunately, reminiscent of the removal of refugees sleeping rough in the capitals of some European cities. In July 2017, over 2,000 refugees were moved from the centre of Paris, for example. The police removal of migrants saw people being loaded onto buses and shipped to temporary centres outside the centre of Paris; the act was alternately interpreted as a humanitarian move, and as a cynical move to ‘cleanse’ the city’s centre.
I’d like to mention one other participatory art practice temporary located in Malta over the last year or so; that is Cabinet of Futures by the collective Time’s Up. According to the artists, the project is “an attempt to collect an intertwined mesh of interdependent future visions”.
The project engaged the public in playful experiences designed to explore alternative, possible, plausible and most importantly, preferable futures. Similar to Times of Dilemma, it placed the artist in the role of broker, mediator, interpreter, and almost therapist, working with participants to allow an opportunity for structured dialogue on contemporary concerns. Again, the project allowed participants a certain amount of freedom; to speak within an art project is to speak within a less constrained environment. During the creative meetings, participants shared imaginative scenarios, dreams and concerns that explored diverse visions of local, regional and global futures.
The resulting site-specific exhibition created a scenario of a future port-town, complete with bar, visitor-centre, information on local ‘future’ wildlife and food and a printed gazette. While the project can be described as ‘playful’, there is an utmost serious in the environmental and social realities that it confronts, and in the possible futures and physical realisations that it creates. Its scenarios are imagined, while also being imaginable, and, crucially, experienceable. This immersive, walk-through exhibition creates a ‘proto-scientific’ real life laboratory atmosphere, lending it a believability that affects its audiences as well as its participants, and opening the possibility of what is currently only imagined, becoming real at some time in the future.
Similar to a European Parliament election – or any election really – which sees candidates offering alternate (and improved) realities to their constituents, this project allowed participants to discuss and demand another version of their future. The essential difference, however, is in the intent; while a political candidate seeks to become elected, at least as a means to an end to carry out a common good, the artist seeks to engage the participant in an equal and hopefully meaningful future-imagining.
So, in conclusion, I would like to put forward participatory art practice as providing an alternative democratic context for citizen participation, common discussion and free and creative thought.
However, I would like to issue a plea to the European Commission. As long as the European Capital of Culture programme is left in the hands of local politicians, the prevailing and popular outlook of the day will be allowed to prevail. The ECoC programme can only reflect those who create it. If the local politicians who control it are inclined towards right-wing ideas disguised as left-win laissez-faire economics, then that is what the ECoC programme will reflect. The European Commission must somehow design a structure that protects against this right-wing ego-style politics. Otherwise it will descend into being something that is no more than a tool in the hands of those who are the very antithetical to its ideals.
Nothing to See Here; Protest under the Guise of Art
A paper delivered at the Reconfiguring the Aesthetic Conference, Engaging the Contemporary 2018, Department of Philosophy, University of Malta.
1 - 2 November 2018
“It is not the office of art to spotlight alternatives, but to resist by its form alone the course of the world, which permanently puts a pistol to men’s heads.” (Adorno, 2003)
So, in this paper, I’d like to discuss what this form is, that tries to resist the course of the world. It’s quite a fatalistic statement - the course of the world - it implies that this is the way things are, and there’s nothing that can be done to stop them.
Anyway, the form. The form that resists. It’s quite easy, when there’s so much happening, and with ubiquitous social media, to somehow take the most notice of the most obvious form. That can be, quite often, in an urban environment, graffiti. And of course, it’s eye-catching, it gets its message across, but quite often, it stops there. And even when the graffiti or street-art is more sophisticated, it provides some symbolism, but maybe nothing more taxing than that.
And in the ‘agreed’ understanding of ‘what is art’, the more aesthetically sophisticated the work, the more it is allowed to cross over from a perceived act of vandalism to being officially a work of art.
This is a work I created - maybe not an artistic work per se - but on a visceral level - something I felt had to be said. This year is the European Year of Cultural Heritage. Ironic no? So, this was a personal act of subversion. No-one really knows about it. But it was a personal act of subversion not only against the local construction industry, but also against the European Commission that somehow things that creating this branding campaign will somehow conserve our cultural heritage.
My practice has come to fall somewhere between conflict-tourism and a visual search for stability in an increasingly unstable environment. My work attempts to exist outside the conventional structure and aesthetic of the exhibition space; its seeks to interact and gain meaning through other modes of existence. Over the summer, I worked with Parking Space Events to create Il-Kamra ta’ Barra. The kamra ta' barra holds an important place in the traditional Maltese household. It plays the role of the salott, or 'parlour', and allow the household to show its best side to the outside world. In 'Ambivalent Europeans', anthropologist Jon Mitchell refers to the threshold of the household as "the boundary between the opposed categories of ‘inside’ and ‘outside’, ġewwa and barra". The old neighbourhood of Sliema which houses many of these parlours is under attack from rapid over-development, with little regard for quality of life or neighbourhood aesthetics. Bare concrete walls have replaced elegant facades, while behind them, kmamar ta' barra are obliterated to make way for car-parks.
Here, I think the form of the work, was less direct than maybe holding a banner up. But it still created a space that was used in some other way, (positively, I might add), and maybe allowed some visitors to think about that space in another way.
By nature, I am attracted to art works that are direct and dramatic in their protest, and in their statement, for example Katharina Cibulka’s work. Katharina Cibulka is a performance and visual artist who, in a site-intervention, embroidered the scaffolding on the front of the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna. She uses embroidery - there is the direct reference to a female endeavour, but in the context of a building site, and on a much larger scale.
Or Pussy Riot storming the pitch at the World Cup final this summer. As you know, Pussy Riot became famous in 2012 for a protest at Moscow's Christ the Saviour cathedral. They are recognisable now through their colourful balaclavas, wearing mini-skirts and tights, and their message is largely one of criticism of Russia's authoritarianism - they demand for judicial, educational and cultural reform. Their most famous performance took place at Christ the Saviour on 21 February 2012, when 5 members broke into the cathedral, performing a "punk prayer" from the altar. This song, titled Holy Shit, was a condemnation of the Russian Orthodox church's close ties to Putin. "Holy Mother, Blessed Virgin," they sang, "chase Putin out!"
Even though these don’t fall under the Rancièrian definition of political art as an aesthetic experience that does not produce “rhetoric persuasion about what has to be done” (Rancière, 2008).
And I admit, sometimes I get impatient with artists that don’t rage or don’t wave their politics at us like flags. I get frustrated that they’re being too gentle, too diplomatic.
So recently, I began looking at other artists in Malta than engage in some sort of protest against construction, or over-building.
In Between Obliterations by Maxine Attard, at the Gabriel Caruana Foundation in January of this year, was a beautiful collection of works, made with soil and debris gathered from building sites in Gozo, and in ‘response to the ongoing demolition of houses which are replaced by new construction’. This is 5-20 Triq G.Vella, Nadur, made of debris collected from the site. The title lays Maxine’s message bare - it’s clear that to her, these demolitions are, quite literally, obliterating the buildings they are building over, and in the process, obliterating the history and memories contained within them. The grid-like format of her work mirrors a map, or even a building site-plan, while the straight lines contrast with the rough texture of the debris, which contains stones, soil, pieces of plastic and wood, and even hair.
Isaac Azzopardi’s Ħaġraisland, at the Malta Society of Arts, this March, claimed to be ‘collection of reflections about the changing aesthetics of Malta’. There’s not much anger here, more a gentle meditation on changing iconographies and their contexts. Even the aesthetics of the work itself is quite gentle; the tones are subdued, and contrasts are muted. The only bold piece is the large gold breeze-block in the centre of the exhibition, which, along with a gold piece of rock, references Austin Camilleri’s 1999 work Stones.
Interestingly, in recent interviews, (with Eve Cocks & Teo Reljic respectively), neither Attard, nor Azzopardi represent themselves as particularly angry about this over-construction. While Azzopardi speaks about a certain amount of frustration, it’s not quite the raw anger one might expect from a young artist concerned about the aesthetics of his homeland. Attard, too, is almost accepting of the demolition she is representing; ‘that’s the pace of life’ she says and seems unsure as to whether she is criticising it or not.
Also hosted by the Gabriel Caruana Foundation, is Fluid Space, a collaboration between artists Duška Malešević, Raffaella Zammit, Aidan Celeste, and curator Nikki Petroni. Indeed, Zammit, one of the founding members of the Foundation, has become preoccupied with these sudden changes in Malta’s urban landscape and the destruction of local heritage. The project is ‘an exploratory journey of Malta’s urban fabric; its forms and the way in which we construct and shape our environments’. But it’s also described as ‘an introspective venture’, so, while the resultant photographs and videos are no doubt be beautiful, they are not provocative or challenging to the status quo; nor, I think, do the artists themselves want them to be.
So, is it then, the duty of our artists to protest on our behalf, and to rage against the machine on our behalf? Or is it enough for art to document, process and create for us an aesthetic experience from what it sees around it?
Recent work that I find quite refreshing, is that curated by FRAGMENTA Malta. This is an image from Subversive Semiotics with photographer David Pisani. David’s work consisted of a large image of the back of the billboard, on a billboard. Ridiculous, you might think. But actually, wow! What a great subversion of images, of the laws of the billboard, of consumerism, of the road network, of the artworld even! The event that took place was a combination of black-tie art event, complete with blondes accompanying the artist, and an outdoor picnic on the side of the road. Was the message clear? Absolutely not! Was is confusing? Completely! But it said something, even if we don’t know what that something was!
A Fragmenta event that took place just last weekend was Kemmuna Nation with Mario Asef. Several buildings were appropriated to present the design of “Kemmuna Nation”, with a inaugural speech, a presentation of Kemmuna Coin cryptocurrency, and a short tour on Comino’s ecosystem. No, nobody says this is going to suddenly bring down the hegemony and ingrained systems of the anthropocene age. But that’s obviously not the point.
Kemmuna Nation speculates with the idea of a global nation constituted by non-humans entities, which organize themselves creating their own economical and political system based on the structures of specific pre-existing interconnections between species.
Jelinek: Most contemporary art that claims a politics or ethics is so riddled with artistic and political cliche that it fails both as (interesting, innovative, important, ambitious) art and as effective activism, so that neoliberalism remains unchallenged as a form of totalising discourse. (Jelinek)
So, what should we do? Just give up? Accept that we are brain-washed by the status quo of neoliberalism and not even try to resist?
I am planning, this coming Sunday, to walk, with a bandalora, in front of a cement truck along Sliema Seafront. And in the preparation of this work, I had to get a letter of no-objection from the local police station. The Superintendent was very helpful, but at one stage, he did ask me “Why are you calling this an artistic event? This is a protest.” And I found it very difficult to explain to him why this isn’t a protest, but, let’s say, a work of art.
“It is not the office of art to spotlight alternatives, but to resist by its form alone the course of the world, which permanently puts a pistol to men’s heads.” (Adorno, 2003)
And when I was thinking about why I want to do this work, that’s what I can refer to. I’m not spotlighting alternatives, or even spotlighting what’s wrong. I’m performing something that is similar to other things, but different. There’s an element of the ridiculous, and element of farce, of pathos maybe. And we’ll be handing out these cement breads. Maybe the reference there is obvious – we’re eating cement, ok. Which, I believe is a horrific dereliction of duty by our governments. (and I specifically say governments in the plural).
The work is also a reference to recent protests – there have been regular gatherings in the past 12 to 14 months, not least in then wake the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia, but also in reaction to the felling of an excessive number of trees – then there are political rallies also. I wanted to refer to these. To question their efficacy. Their aesthetic (if that’s the right word) – their form. Is the simple act of standing with a banner, enough? Was it ever? Or is it a question of critical mass?
It’s also a comment on festas – the reference is obvious right? A comment on how these various and different acts of walking, of claiming public space (taking over roads through building / protesting / celebrating a feast) are perceived. And I guess that’s what a lot of my time is spent thinking about. What’s the difference between a work of art and an act of protest.
So if art should “resist by its form alone” (Adorno, 2003) the current Maltese hegemony which provides a narrative of economic and cultural success of the nation, I would like my work to do this. It’s the form of the work, in a way, rather than the content (if there is a difference between the two) that resists. It’s not symbolic; it doesn’t say ‘this represents that’ and ‘this stands for that’. Instead it sort of takes one step to the side, to be something else, something like what you know, but not quite.
If I have time, I’d like to look at a few works that came about through the ECoC programme, and the work of some of the artists that came to work in Malta during this time. There are a lot, and there were many, many different programmes and projects, so it’s impossible to generalise or make one statement about them. I’d like to pick just a few of the more politically engaged projects. First off, Susan Phillipsz’ Who By Fire. The work was installed in the cistern in front of the Law Courts on Republic St. It was a combination of several recordings of Susan singing Leonard Cohen’s Who by Fire, (which contains lyrics from the Book of Atonement, when sinner’s fate is sealed at Yom Kippur), along with recordings of an old bell that had been damaged during World War II. This work is maybe not overtly political, but its opening and installation coincided with a press event commemorating Daphne Caruana Galizia. Susan was photographed lighting a candle a few metres from the entrance to her work.
So if, as Jelinek says, “Many artworks shown in museums and at biennial exhibitions explore anti-capitalist themes, denouncing its various exploitations; yes many of these same artists also maintain aspects of neoliberal ideology as if it is natural common sense and non-ideological” (Jelineck pg 21), it’s maybe over-simplistic to prescribe this characteristic to all artists across the board.
And the, to examine how politically and socially engaged art manoeuvres in this contemporary Maltese context, and how, if at all, it manages to challenge this narrative. Let’s look at Manaf Halbouni’s Uprooted consisted of four cars, amended to be liveable, and you could actually book them to sleep in them. There were two in Valletta, one in Gozo and one in Birzebbuga. The work confronts displacement - displacement for different reasons; migration, gentrification, urbanisation. It offers a future alternative, and provides an uncomfortable truth. There’s a paradox of something quite novel and fun (camping under the stars), with the reality that without any choice, sleeping in a car is not a good situation to be in.
What’s ironic about this work is that, while it speaks about gentrification and a community losing its home, it is itself, commissioned by a project that is part of the cause of this gentrification. So it is, in effect, being paid for by the narrative that it’s trying to challenge.
Likewise, Sejjaħ lil-Malta by Tania el Khoury, and Transparadiso’s Times of Dilemma; both of which addressed difficult topics, but at the same time, wittingly formed part of a larger project, with a less sensitive agenda.
Oh, and then we come back to mean old Jelenek!. She says “There are cliches of resistance, like collaborative practice, or working with ephemera, or street art, or involving illegality, such as squatting or trespassing or fly-posting or grafitti. While it is true that these types of practice have been fruitful in producing interesting art, they have also been sites of tired cliche and sites where repressive or exclusive norms have been replicated.” I don’t know if these works are cliches, or if they’re reproducing repressive or exclusive norms.
What do Ireland’s Pavilion at the 2017 Venice Biennale and the last Fragmenta Malta event have in common?
Witches, that’s what!
Tremble Tremble by Irish artist Jesse Jones was a large cinematic-installation collaborative work, created with theatre artist Olwen Fouéré, and sound artist Susan Stenger. In an interview with RTÉ’s John Kelly, Jones talks about investigating what justice might mean from a female perspective. Tremble Tremble, that’s now on show at the Project Arts Centre in Dublin, presents the figure of the female disrupter; as Jones says “staging a feminist version of the law” by an artist that is part of the “20th generation of women since the witch trials”.
Public folklorist, scholar and performance artist Kay Turner was invited to perform in Malta by Fragmenta’s Bettina Hutschek. Her work, Goddess, Madonna and Witch, took the form of a creative procession in Tarxien Temples; prefaced by a short insight into the legacy of these three female figures. All three resonate in many parts of the world, but Turner told us that Malta is one of the few places where all three co-exist so closely!
Malta and Ireland – islands off the European mainland, both once ruled by Great Britain and both once strongly Catholic countries – have their own, quite different witch legends and folklore. But, at the risk of oversimplifying, it seems that the female self-determination is still something that artists feel needs addressing.
PS, I can't resist a small mention of the iconography of The Pageant of the Seas, held in Malta's Grand Harbour a few days after the Fragmenta event - a huge, slightly droopy, headless female figure, presumably a representation of the 'Venus' statuette found at Ħagar Qim. The figure seemed to be hung by the neck from a crane on a barge in the harbour; so much for female self-determination.
In a speech given in 1912, Polish-born American Socialist and Feminist Rose Schneiderman, labour union leader said “What the woman who labors wants is the right to live, not simply exist — the right to life as the rich woman has the right to life, and the sun and music and art. [...] The worker must have bread, but she must have roses, too. [...]”. That last sentence became synonymous with the struggle for respect and dignity as an integral part of workers’ rights. Women who have take part in suffragette and women’s rights marches during any time in history have been able to imagine a different future, an alternate way of living and of sharing power. They have used discourse as well as a form of public performance to challenge unfair and ill-balanced status quos.
I’d like to talk about four performative elements of The Island Is What the Sea Surrounds, curated by Maren Richter; Heba Amin’s OPERATION SUNKEN SEA, Times of Dilemma by Transparadiso, Tanya El Khoury’s Sejjaħ lil Malta, and the beautiful Who by Fire by Susan Philipsz. All four interventions somehow spoke about alternative worlds, of utopias or non-utopias, or promised lands and of heavens and hells. All brought the female to the fore too, whether through artists-as-protagonist, or through undercurrents or themes which ran through each work. Unfortunately I haven’t yet seen Kristina Borg’s No Man’s Land, and I’m unable to comment on the main The Island Is... exhibition objectively, so I’ll stick to these four elements.
I remember just over two years ago working intensively on a call for the curator of a “high-profile multi-site exhibition and cultural project” worthy of a European Capital of Culture (yes I’m aware of the irony; hindsight is a wonderful thing). The call went out worldwide, the proposals came in, and we were lucky to meet Maren Richter, (previously co-curator of the Maldives Pavilion at the Venice Biennale and Artistic Director of the Festival der Regionen in Austria) and hear her thoughts and dreams for the project. I remember seeing her on skype for the first time, and I think we all knew; this is the one - this is our curator. After all the plans, dreams, tears, artists, theories, determination and venues, The Island Is What the Sea Surrounds was finally opened - mainly due to the determination - or ‘labor’ - of some really strong women.
“I am a woman among men” said Heba Amin during her performance OPERATION SUNKEN SEA. Her composure was unbreakable, her shoulder pads angular, and her speech pointed and perfect. “As China is building a new Silk Road” she declared, “and Turkey building a new canal connecting the Black and Marmara Seas, we too shall explore the capabilities of human progress in a feat of poetic engineering, and sink the Mediterranean Sea.” In a perfect straight-laced satirical and commanding performance, Amin drew on the speeches and actions of dictators to formulate a manifesto for an audacious infrastructural intervention unparalleled in scale; to relocate the Mediterranean Sea within the continent of Europe, simultaneously providing water to the deserts and creating a ‘super-continent’ made of Africa and Europe. Amin researched her speech extensively, and drew from many megalomaniacal sources to create an almost fembotic super-speech.
And it worked; it was believable because Amin made it so. Her assurance, her certainty in the plan, made the audience believe in it too; so much so that when her performance was finished we had to shake ourselves a little bit to remember that no, she’s not being serious - it’s all an act. There were flowers (if not roses) in her performance; the display on the lectern in front of her was created to look exactly like that used by Robert Mugabe during one of his infamous speeches.
Transparadiso also encroached on male territory, through the contemporary-għana dialogues in Times of Dilemma, a medium traditionally more dominated by men, but here shared equally by both genders.The għana was sung-broadcast between Manoel Island across to St. Michael’s Counterguard in Valletta, 320 meters away. The għanneja sang from song-sheets composed through workshops during which participants discussed the contradictory interests between economic prosperity and community values. And while singing from song-sheets may not have come naturally to the għanneja, their conversations travelled over the sea and fell into a rhythm; a verse loud and clear on one side, answered by a faint response from across the bay, followed again by a clear verse on our side of the bay.
It’s impossible to separate the process and intent of the lyrics from the performance, and here, maybe, some irony or regret crept in; noble lyrics, thoughtfully formulated were being broadcast out to the sea to be heard only by the few who turned out to listen, or by bemused tourists making their way back after a day at sea. In the end Manoel Island will still be privatised, Valletta will continue its journey to a soulless tourist city, and the beautiful loudspeakers glinting in the sun sending the għanneja’s voices over the sea, will become a distant memory. Rose Schneiderman’s bread may have arrived in Malta, but it’s relentlessly pushing the roses out of its way to get here.
Also on two shorelines was Tania El Khoury’s Sejjaħ lil Malta. Sea shells from Tunisian coastal city of Sousse contained a voice, partly giving information about the Mediterranean - a leisure-destination for some, a death-trap for others - and partly telling the moving story of how the art-piece itself came to be. On a water taxi, Mohamed Ali “Dali” Agrebi gave some insight into the history of exiles to Malta, while in on the other side of the harbour, Chakib Zidi’s understated performance recalled the title of the piece ‘Call Malta’. The background of the work was ambiguous; perhaps deliberately so (whose voice is contained in the shell, and is what she’s saying true and personal to her?) but the message was clear; the Mediterranean is a multi-layered space, inviting suffering for many people who live on its edges, while others are oblivious to their ordeals. (As I write, the BBC World-Service is efficiently relaying the news of 46 Tunisians’ drowning in the Mediterranean today).
Lastly Who By Fire, by Susan Philipsz. A word of warning if you intend to go; only look up. Don’t look down at the lights, the wires and the fire-extinguishers. They’ll remind you that you’re in the real world. If you only look up and listen, you’ll believe you’ve been transported somewhere else entirely. The cistern in which the work is located is dramatic in itself - strange roots hang down from the ceiling, and a dignified arch rises to meet them. Light streaming down from a small grate in the street above is the only reminder that a busy bustling street exists still exists somewhere up there.
Then comes the sound; bells, which are followed by a recording of Philipsz herself singing Leonard Cohen’s ‘Who by Fire’. The song is loosely adapted from the melody of a Hebrew song chanted on Yom Kippur, supposedly listing all those who will die in the coming year. But you don’t need to know all this to be moved by the sound, by the crystal-clear voice singing in the cold underground air. The sound echos, it’s a beautiful sound you don’t want to hear anything else. As you surface, Valletta seems superficial, overbright, lurid. You want to go back down underground, seek refuge in that voice, those words, in that womb-like space.
And so we come back to Rose Schneiderman’s words, “The worker must have bread, but she must have roses, too”. There were many ‘women who laboured’ for The Island Is What the Sea Surrounds. From the curator, project manager and programme manager, to the artists, female għanneja, protagonists and producers, they all worked to somehow represent an alternative reality, or suggest a different way of being. Their work called for bread - and roses - and much more, for many women, of course, but also for migrants, for local communities, whole countries and at a stretch, for all of humanity. Here in Malta though, the home of The Island Is…, it seems that while bread is not hard to come by, the roses have either disappeared entirely.
More info here:
OPERATION SUNKEN SEA, Heba Amin; www.hebaamin.com/works/operation-sunken-sea/
Times of Dilemma, Transparadiso: www.transparadiso.com/cms/index.php?id=114&L=1
Sejjaħ lil Malta, Tanya El Khoury: taniaelkhoury.com/sejjah-lil-malta-call-malta/
Who by Fire, Susan Philipsz: vimeo.com/262645934
Maren Richter: www.youtube.com/watch?v=jAyjqUTH3ak