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.