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.