Ποιειν Και Πραττειν - create and do

Valletta 2018: creative use of space

There took place in Valletta, Malta the conference “Cities as Community Spaces” on Nov. 23-25, 2018. 1 Since the designation of the ECoC title to Valletta in 2013, every year a key conference has taken place. The first one had the charming title “small city, big dreams”. They are designed to assist the foundation V18 in charge of preparing for the year 2018. One key purpose of them is to gain in knowledge about the creative use of space for cultural events. Under the research coordinator Graziella Vella, this includes cultural mapping exercises, surveys and studies done by academics. It extends as well to the enhancement of 'creative clusters'. As part of official policy of the Maltese government, it falls under the jurisdiction of Caldon Mercieca with Oleg Koefoed from Copenhagen advising. For another aim of these conferences is to strengthen the network capacity of the V18. Engaged are either well known scholars like Pier Luigi Sacco 2 or else organisations such as the Roberto Cimetta foundation 3. However, the main aim became more explicit during the conference of 2018. It is to strengthen the outreach of V18 to communities which constitute Maltese society.

Hence participants were introduced at the start of the conference through five different routes to various communities making up Valletta. For example, orientation visit 2 took them to the Covered Market (Is-Sud tal-Belt) in the Arcipieru area. The latter includes beside the covered market, now under major renovation about which more needs to be said, one huge social housing complex. It consists of 150 families residing in a building which was used formally during the times of the knights as a prison. Such a tightly knitted community is hardly noticeable to tourists who walk mainly up and down Republican street running through the centre of Valletta. All these communities feature football clubs, local shops and above all the yearly religious festival. To get an idea of their architectural morphology, one of these areas near the grand harbour was used in 2017 as a film set which re-created Istanbul of another era. The set included many small shops at street level while houses stood out with their typical external balconies. All this sets free creative energies.

The conference itself had three levels of interactions: keynote speakers, presentations of the participants in again five parallel sessions and panel discussions. The last panel discussion touched upon the crucial question about education of the youth and level of literacy around the Mediterranean. One speaker reminded that the Arab world used to be known for the excellence of scholarly work while nowadays this is no longer the case. The topic reflects the potential Malta has due to its geopolitical location. It can further youth education by mediating between Europe and the Middle East. This is best done by giving space to youth where they can make mistakes, in order to learn. Interestingly enough this is an integral part of the bid book of V18 when applying for the ECoC title.

A variety of projects all dealing with space and local communities were discussed during the two day conference. An outstanding example of cultural mapping was presented by the artist Tania El Khoury from Beirut. In a dingy boat taking her and a crew along the coastline of Beirut, she demonstrated what type of ownership blocked the access to the sea. Even though these peculiar property relationships are created by a coalition of politicians and investors, and which block access to the sea, the public pays scant attention. As she sought to expose this through media coverage of her action, interestingly enough her mother viewed it not as artistic expression but as a 'protest'. Yet she does not mind such a misunderstanding between being an artist and a political activist as long as the message comes across. Her example shows that artists are able to communicate another use of space by making visible the problems to the public. The latter needs to remain attentive if to make a difference in the lived quality of life determined not only in terms of ownership, but use of space.

Extending this thought, Jonas Būchel pointed out in his keynote address another kind of inaccessibility of space. He did so on hand of a photo which he took at Gun Point of the shore line which exists just below the fortification wall. There a rock formation creates a natural border between land and sea. He showed how this rare space of nature has been made inaccessible due to the many cars being parked there. Indeed Valletta has a huge problem in terms of transportation and parking space. In the city most of the people work in governmental ministries, but live outside of Valletta, thus making daily commuting by car a necessity. It forces the people to get up as early as four o'clock just to make it in the daily race to find a parking spot. According to Jonas Būchel this needs to be resolved best done by banning the car completely. Instead everything from local shops to meeting places which are vital for community life need to be sustained. He thinks Valletta 2018 with its emphasis upon community spaces can make a huge contribution to Europe's overall development as communities are vital for democracy to flourish.

Although the artistic programme for 2018 is still largely unknown, one cultural action in preparation is already becoming visible. It is the flagship project MUZA. Organised by the national museum under the direction of Alexander Debono, an amazing curator of visionary capacities as to how technology and display of artefacts can be combined, 'community curating' is used to prepare for alterations in the national collection. Members of the various communities in Malta are asked to select three items which they bring to the museum. By explaining what has meaning to them in workshops, they connect these objects with the artefacts which exist already in the national collection. Suddenly new linkages to art altogether are being discovered. The process has already shown how collective memory work can find a way to express itself through such active participation. By becoming engaged, it alters the relationship to the national museum. Certainly this promises to keep Maltese identity alive as it overcomes the usual split between national and local level.

One crucial questions emerged out of this encounter with the reality of Valletta of today, namely the risk of gentrification. In one parallel session the issue was addressed by South Korean artist Boram Lee - Artists against Gangnam-style gentrification. She started her presentation by showing the deeper implication of stars with huge incomes becoming property owners in Seoul. Over time they have created luxury quarters. The latter crowd out those who cannot afford such expensive apartments. She showed also how property owners can evict tenants even though they have achieved an incredible community project.

As for Valletta itself, there is a real fear that gentrification has set in already due to a higher attractiveness of the city because of being ECoC in 2018. Critics point out that the renovation of the former market hall reflects best this trend. Planned is apparently a new gourmet centre to be modelled after Covent Gardens in London. If so, the fear is that prices in the new establishment shall be way out of reach of the local population. The latter had used the old market hall as their local meeting place. Since such a space for communication is of vital importance if an active social and cultural life is to be sustained in the community, the loss would have huge ramifications.

Another indication of gentrification is that already real estate values have risen considerable within the past few years. Added to this is the arrival of a creative class Richard Florida talks about and which advances models of city branding bordering on 'kitsch' and a way of life having nothing to do with traditions and the culture of local communities. Already a kind of cheap richness is leaving its marks. If the aesthetics of the city swings fully in that direction, the foundation V18 responsible for organizing the cultural programme of 2018, will have its work cut out.

Valletta 2018 may succeed in off-setting this trend if capable of promoting an aesthetics based on a clear epistemological orientation. Cultural policy suffers repeatedly under a lack of clarity of terms due to the use of very general concepts such as 'creativity'. Instead cultural knowledge about the creative use of space needs to be shared with all. Karsten Xuereb, project manager of V18 understands quite well, that such an epistemological orientation can only be worked out, if culture does not succumb solely to economic and political interests. Only then integrity of space shall not be jeopardized immediately nor in future. In brief, Malta as an island of 450 000 citizens faces a huge set of challenges with Valletta 2018 playing here a key pivot role.


Hatto Fischer

Berlin 26.12.2016

Note: This was written first for the Journal of the University Network of European Capitals of Culture

1For a documentation and programme of the conference, see http://poieinkaiprattein.org/conferences-symposiums-workshops/cities-as-community-spaces-in-valletta-malta-23-25-nov-2016/programme-3/

2 Pier Luigi Sacco (2011) Culture and the Structural Funds in Italy. Paper written on behalf of the European Expert Network on Culture (EENC) for DG Culture and Education


3The Roberto Cimetta Fund is an international association funding the mobility of artists and cultural operators in Europe and the Arab world. www.cimettafund.org

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