I've been asked by a few people what the Pigeon Project is all about. Well maybe art is like jokes; if you have to explain it, it can't be that good. But I'll try to explain it anyway.
There are several facets to the Ħamiema project. It is, on the surface, described as a participatory project. But the method of participation, and what is asked of participants, is quite strange, so it’s not likely that anyone will actually take part. In fact (in case it’s not already obvious), most of the uploads on the project’s social media page purporting to be from members of the public, are, in fact, from non-existent participants, drawn from a non-existent community. The project describes itself as a community project, but then it calls on all of the ‘citizens of Malta’ to participate; such a broad call, that is scarcely conducive to community-building.
This element of 'non-participation' is a reaction to the recent profusion of community- or participatory- art projects calling for participants; where are all these participants to come from, and why should they take part? In her essay Your organization sucks at “community” and let me tell you why, Rhonia Holmes describes a certain amount of soul-searching that arts organisations should go through, in order to answer the statement in her title. One challenge, she says, is “the arrogance of believing that these communities want or need or should invest in these offerings.” (2016). The Ħamiema project is, in its way, that arrogant community project; participants should take part because they are asked to, and not because this is a long-term grass-roots project with their interests at heart.
Today, in 2018, the project also serves as an exercise in observing a side-effect of the gentrification of the city of Valletta. A few years ago, when the project was first conceived, dead pigeons were two-a-penny in some areas of the city. These days, it’s not easy to find enough material for the project’s social-media page! Are pigeons, then, a casualty of the city’s rapid clean-up? Do they get swept up as soon as their demise occurs? Or have they moved on, and if so, to where?
The Ħamiema project is really a comment on how lightly we can see death on the street without turning a hair. Pigeons are not small birds; they’re big, bloody and meaty. When they’re run over they make a sound, and when they’re left on the street, they make for quite gorey viewing. And yet, nobody seems to mind side-stepping around a bloody flattened carcass. No tears are shed, no children’s eyes are covered. It’s our mortality right there in front of us on the street, but nobody seems to notice.
The call ends with the statement that the citizens of Malta do not have much respect for each other. (For once, Malta is ahead of the curve - we’ve been rude for angry for centuries, but the Guardian’s only just caught up.) So I suppose, what the project’s saying here, is that if we can’t be civil to each other, we could at least, pause in our day for these pigeons.
So that’s it; non-participation, animal rights, and some pigeon trivia, all rolled into one. Make sure you download the template and keep your eyes peeled!
Themes of over-construction and the too-rapid change in the Maltese landscape have, in the last few months, come to the fore in contemporary art in Malta. This trend mirrors a wider feeling of unease towards the construction industry in Malta as a whole, but is far from the cri de guerre that might be expected from an artistic community.
Protest art in Malta is generally of the ‘gentle’ kind (no FEMEN or Pussy Riot here), and while recently a few exhibitions have reflected a certain discomfort over this construction-fever, the overall resultant message is moderate, almost already-defeated.
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’. 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.
More recently, 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.
And indeed, it seems that of the three works mentioned so far, Camilleri’s 1999 work is by far the most dramatic, large-scale and daring. The huge gold boulders, covered in 22 carat gold leaf, sent to all four points of the Maltese archipelago, certainly made a physical impact.
Thirteen years later, and on the scene of one of Camilleri’s Stones, Bettina Hutschek’s work City Gate from 2012 was a video-documentation of the destruction of the old Valletta City Gate. Bizarrely, (and in a scene that calls to mind the recent demolition of the Fortina Hotel in Sliema) diggers work on top of the old gate, while old yellow buses serenely circle the Tritoni. Dust and debris fall to the ground, but the feeling is one of documenting the inevitable, not of protesting against destruction; indeed, watching the scene is referred to as a ‘meditative practice’. So the artist, here, chooses to document without comment, and to bear witness to change and the passing of time.
More hands-on, and more direct, was the intervention, curated by Hutschek herself as Fragmenta Malta, by German artist Erik Göngrich. Leave Me Alone I am an ODZ Hiding took the form of a walking-tour around the now infamous Outside Development Zone at Zonqor Point and questioned if art has or should have any say at all in Outside Development Zones, or in politics at all. Göngrich also produced a series of drawings and prints - sort of personal maps of the area, detailing local landmarks and developments. This type of work comes closer to activism, or participatory work as we know it, and indeed it was developed through direct contact with work being done at the time by Front Ħarsien ODZ and various NGOs, against the development of the land.
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.
Recently-sighted around Malta, and hopefully generating some conversation, is an unassuming work by Syrian-German artist Manaf Halbouni, curated by Maren Richter as part of the Dal Baħar Madwarna exhibition. Nowhere is Home takes the form of five small, run-down cars, parked at various locations around Malta. The cars have been converted to be habitable; commenting on the gentrification of Valletta, and the possible resulting state of homelessness; this is possibly the most visible comment on the changes in Malta’s landscape in recent years, ironically commissioned by the V18 project, itself responsible for much of the gentrification of the city of Valletta. This is a direct political statement by Halbouni; the work is clearly saying; those who can no longer afford to live in this city will one day become (metaphorically, if not actually) homeless, and will have no more personal space than if they lived in a car.
Meanwhile, other initiatives attempt to come to terms with these sudden changes in Maltese towns and villages. The Valletta Design Cluster project, Design4DCity endeavours to engage with citizens of various locations, to convert empty or overlooked spaces into places that can be used by their communities. The Blitz-lead project Transformer, while being ostensibly a mobility and artist-exchange project - uses this transformation as grounding theme for the project.
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? For now, it seems that Maltese artists will stick to the latter; their projects manifest themselves as reflections attempting to come to terms with over-construction and the destruction of urban heritage. They contemplate, but they don’t make a fuss, they might gently raise a finger, but they never raise a fist.