Tuesday, 27 March 2018

Orfeo and Majnun: on love, loss and longing

Perhaps like many people in Europe, I was vaguely aware of the story of Orpheus and Eurydice. Orpheus makes a trip to hell to plead for the return of his beloved, but he misses out when, against instructions, he looks back at her before she has escaped the underworld. But I did not know about Layla and Majnun except through Western adaptations of the story such as Romeo and Juliet. So I was intrigued when I saw that Valletta18 were including on their programme an opera called Orfeo and Majnun, and were calling for interested citizens to be part of the process leading up to the event in October. 

I have a background in Community Cultural Development and I believe that communities are strong to the extent that people engage with others in the continuous process of creating their culture. So ever since Malta initiated the process of becoming European Capital of Culture, I have looked out for ways in which I might contribute with other citizens to this year long celebration of creative communities. Evaluations of previous European Capitals of Culture are beginning to indicate that a significant measure of success is the extent to which local people are engaged as creators as well as spectators. Orfeo and Majnun appeared to be offering an opportunity to get involved in creative ways.

The first hurdle was the on-line form that I had to complete. One of the requirements was fluency in Maltese language. If I didn't tick the box, I could not submit the form. So I decided that honesty about deception was the best policy. I ticked the box and later, in a more open section of the form, I explained that I couldn't speak Maltese but was interested in the process being used in this project. I expected to hear no more. After all, my application to be part of the grand opening event had resulted in stony silence after I admitted that I was 74 years old and had little head for heights.

So I was excited when towards the end of 2017, I received an invitation to a workshop with one of the creative directors of the opera, Aaron Berg. I had no idea what to expect but I skimmed the two-page summaries of the myths of Orpheus and Eurydice and of Layla and Majnun compiled by Valletta 2018 Foundation and walked over to Palazzo de la Salle. 

The workshop was a delight. Many years have passed since I have enjoyed the collective buzz of creative energy gathered together and inspired by a challenging project where each participant can draw on their own spark to build something new. Dancers, visual artists, movie makers, storytellers and writers responded to two tasks on the theme of love, loss and longing. The first task was an individual response drawing on a personal experience of loss and leading to a presentation to the group. I used song and story to recount the loss of a loved one that I talk about more fully in my second book, Songs for a Blind Date (2014).

The second task called for small groups and required us to choose a moment in one of the two myths and prepare something on that moment. I worked with a young woman who was also a writer and we chose separate but linked moments from Layla and Majnun. My co-worker wrote from the perspective of Layla and the process of her death. I wrote from the mind of Majnun, trying to imagine the moment in the desert when the two lovers meet and decide to separate for ever. What was in Majnun's head, after being driven mad by love for Layla, that he denied any possibility of realising his love? Again, I used song and story:

In her eyes I see the Universe. I see the stars at night, the sun in the morning on the edge of a barren plain. She loves me and I drown in the truth of her eyes. I long for her love and I flee from the truth of her eyes. Her eyes are greater than my songs. They consume me. I cannot stay to drown in the truth of her eyes. I cannot go back to the songs of madness and the bark of dogs. Her eyes turn me and I walk away.

I was exhilarated by the workshop but did not expect to hear further. Again I was surprised and pleased to be invited to another meeting with Aaron Berg, along with project administrators and other artists chosen as workshop leaders in the process that was intended to build a parkour atmosphere in the streets surrounding Teatru Rjal where the main opera was to be staged. This time the emphasis was not on creative engagement but on the practicalities of matching the workshop leaders up with interested community groups. Now, my critique of the stories, in terms of the focus on male protagonists with women only as the object of loss and longing, was underlined by the apparent composition of the community groups, that seemed to be weighted in favour of men and boys. I advised that I wanted to work with a women only group. So now I am waiting to hear if there are groups of women in Malta who are interested in seeking to imagine how our myths and legends might be different when told from the perspective of women. How is love, loss and longing different when a woman is telling the story? Let me know if you'd like to be part of a group exploring that idea.

Thursday, 8 February 2018

Is public art fair game?

Two things have got me thinking about the role of public monuments in the everyday lives of citizens. The first is the impromptu memorial to Daphne Caruana Galizia, whose horrendous murder over four months ago has fuelled the divisive bitterness of Maltese politics. The second is the  installation project funded by Valletta 2018 that draws on Maltese sayings to inspire quirky statues around the streets and squares.

Malta has long held a tradition of roadside memorials and street niches that are established and maintained by local people. My friend, Olive Allison, in her excellent book, Streets of Valletta, describes in detail most of these memorial sites found on a walk around our capital city. Olive is currently updating her book in response to the enormous changes in our streets and squares, fuelled in large part by processes set in train by Valletta 2018.

The impromptu memorial to Daphne Caruana Galizia, investigative journalist and editor of glossy style magazines, has some of the characteristics of these roadside memorials but also differs in that the collection of posters, candles and flowers has come to represent a social movement calling for change in the way Malta is governed. The location of the memorial, at the foot of the Great Siege Monument with the three allegorical figures of Faith, Valour and Civilisation, and opposite the Law Courts, is particularly supportive of the demand for justice, rule of law and good governance that is the legacy of Daphne's murder. The memorial is also a constant reminder of the subsequent failure of government to act swiftly and openly in uncovering the threads of corruption, money laundering and shady deals that appear to be linked to her assassination. The collection of candles and flowers has grown steadily in inverse proportion to the paucity of evidence in the investigation. It has also attracted criticism on the grounds that it detracts from Malta's reputation and defaces a National monument. An older woman in a red coat attempted unilaterally to dismantle the memorial, and powerful men have asserted that candles and flowers vandalise our heritage. The memorial remains resolutely in place and there is now an on-line survey seeking public support for a permanent memorial to Daphne to be erected in the same square or elsewhere. Opinion appears to be fairly evenly divided. My own leaning is that focussing on the erection of a permanent monument at this stage is a distraction from the central issues of systemic corruption and good governance.

Public monuments are often used to promote particular issues or causes, here in Malta as elsewhere. A few years ago, ZiguZjag, our splendid annual children's festival, challenged the gatekeepers of culture by dressing the new statue of the founder of our Capital City, La Vallette, in a colourful, modern costume. The statue, a recent addition funded by a local bank, is boring, dominates the square and was enlivened by an overlay of childish exuberance. Nevertheless, several Maltese dignitaries were outraged. More recently, the dressing of several monuments in the T-shirts of Occupy Justice, the women's organisation that has been pivotal in the upsurge of protest since the death of Daphne Caruana Galizia, drew condemnation from politicians and cultural organisations on the grounds of vandalism.

So what happens when Valletta 2018 commissions an artist to create temporary public monuments that celebrate the quirkiness of Maltese language sayings? Over the weekend, white plaster statues popped up on the streets and squares of Upper Valletta. A slender, white figure with a prickly pear for a head looks at his watch next to the ancient Knights' water trough behind St James Cavalier. The viewer is reminded that time ripens the prickly pear. A clutch of chicks hatches out next to Daphne's memorial reminding us not to count our chickens. A thinker sits on a pile of round breads next to the statue of Manuel Dimech and announces that the man who goes to bed hungry dreams of bread. The outrage from the usual suspects about tackiness and the wasting of public funds was countered by the number of Maltese families who laughed in delight, took photos of their children sitting in the eggshells and examined with pride the small plaques describing the Maltese sayings represented. But before the weekend was out, tails, ears and horns were broken off cats and cows, and holes were punched into the bottoms of bending human figures. Jason Micallef from Valletta 18 was quick and correct to denounce the vandalism. Only five days after they were erected, the statues have been removed for repair.

Perhaps the repaired statues will re-appear in different venues around Malta. But the impermanence of these visual representations of traditional folk sayings has already generated discussion, delight and controversy. Turning them into permanent monuments would add nothing.

Tuesday, 23 January 2018

The party's over. Let the year begin

I never made it to the grand launch of Valletta 18 on Saturday. I intended to go but when I saw the size of the crowd on FB live I decided to stay home with a glass of red and watch it on my computer. The attendance estimate has been reported as 110,000, a quarter the size of the entire Maltese population.

The build up to the event buzzed on the streets of Valletta since before Christmas when the Republic Street lights went up and remained in place. The lights were beautiful even though, as someone pointed out today, they were recycled from some other European country. The banners for the Feast of St Paul also went up early and most of the streets in lower Valletta were dressed in the colours of the local feast. The workers on Triton Square raced the clock to have the restoration complete in time and the day before the opening I chatted with a young woman who was the operator of the right foot of the giant humanoid figure that lay on its back next to the fountain. A few weeks ago, I had completed the form applying to be part of the Triton event but heard no more probably because there was no place in the flying acrobatic event for a 74 year old with concern about heights!

In squares across the capital, enormous sound and light towers were put in place, barriers and stages went up, wires snaked across pedestrian routes under yellow rubber conduits. Some residents pointed out the dangers for their children that lurked in the unattended scaffolding platforms and the tangle of electrical junction boxes hanging in the back streets. Some of the workers who come into Valletta every day grumbled because they were excluded from their usual lunchtime seat in the sun on Pjazza San Gorge. Photographers took whimsical photos showing how the huge stage and mobile toilet crowded out the 7th June statue and how the scaffolding in Castille square imprisoned the statue of Manuel Dimech.

The preparation for the opening of Valletta 2018 was a mammoth task and the organisers must be congratulated for pulling it off. The spectacle has been praised by people across Malta and beyond. The Maltese diaspora has found something more to be proud of in their heritage. One of my neighbours shared a meme created by Daniel and Yleria that included the words, "We are not just 'hamalli', 'injuranti', 'Keshin', we are normal people who love our city and are proud of its history and its people." A powerful outcome indeed in terms of community cultural development.

In the wash up, there have been mutterings about the inadequate supply of public transport to get 110,000 people home in the middle of the night. Some are also mutterings about circuses for the masses. I walked around the streets on Monday and was impressed by how clean everything was and how the vast collection of scaffolding, lighting and staging was already coming down. Now I am looking out to detect evidence of a concern on the part of Valletta 18 organisers for the vital aspects of public space that enable the cultural exchange between people in support of creative change: safe and pleasant walking routes, accessible public squares and gardens for sitting and dreaming, public transport and commercial delivery systems that keep vehicles to a minimum. Otherwise, the spectacle remains just that.

Tuesday, 9 January 2018

Small and Nimble. Forget about Great.

In 2017, the earth was trampled in the clash of the greats. Everyone wanted to make their nation great again. We were promised great experiences if we just purchased this or that. We would feel great if we just did this or that. I have lost interest in great. I think the world, and Malta in particular, would benefit from the cult of the small and nimble.

Next week, I have three friends, Michael, Ludmila and Ella Doneman, visiting me from Australia. They are founders of Edgeware, a company that supports skills development for small, creative startups in the arts or social spheres. They will be in Malta for two full days only and have offered workshops for anyone involved with creative or social startups and looking to brighten up their business. Ella and Ludmila also offer a workshop called Creating Stories for Resilience aimed particularly for carers, supporters and mothers of people living with disability.

I have known the Donemans for decades and have participated in small projects with them, including community theatre for older women. Whilst I was in Brisbane recently in 2017, one of my first ventures was to attend the launch of Ella's website for her new small company working with the families of people with a disability. Michael, Ludmila and Ella decided they could come to Malta at the last minute because one of the booked workshops on their European tour fell through. They are currently in Belgium giving workshops and have completed sessions in Eastern Europe and Vienna. The possibility of visiting Malta emerged just before Christmas and I jumped at the opportunity. After all, I am small though perhaps not as nimble as I was. Their available dates were 17th, 18th, 19th, 20th of January, including travel to and from Malta. People who live in Malta cannot help but notice that this timing coincides with the opening week of Valletta 2018!

My first reaction to the dates was that this was exciting serendipity. Surely this alignment of great and small would be beneficial for all. My view is that the much flaunted legacy of Valletta 2018 would lie not only with the revamped cultural buildings but in the small, collaborative undertakings of artists and cultural workers given a boost of confidence by a year long celebration of their work.

Amongst my small, immediate circle of friends, I found enough interest to justify running at least one, three hour workshop. Most people particularly liked the sound of Rethink your Business based on tools for transformation and growth. I set off to locate suitable venues and see if there was interest in the wider cultural sector. Of course, everything immediately went quiet over Christmas and New Year.  When 2018 arrived, I still had no venue and no wider interest.

I don't want to dwell on my sad round of quest as I visited established cultural organisations and tried to track down the right person to talk with about our small venture. Applications were required months in advance and/or on-line. Venues were already booked out and/or decision makers had the flu. But I'm happy with our small outcome:

Thursday, 18th January, 10.00-1.00, Rethink your Business, Upper Space, Fortress Builders, Valletta
Friday, 19th January, 10.00-1.00, Extending the Rethink (subject to expressed interest), Volunteers Centre, Melita St, Valletta

If you want to find out more, visit our facebook page, Rethink your Business
If you're interested in joining our workshop, email joburden@bigpond.com

We don't promise great things but we do support small, nimble efforts to build a better world!

Thursday, 4 January 2018

Is-Suq tal-Belt. It's all done with mirrors.

Today, the restored market on Merchant Street was opened to the general public. This is the first Valletta 2018 flagship project to be launched. Sufficient time has elapsed since the closing of the old market for the stories of the former market traders to become part of the nostalgia for an old Valletta that no longer exists. The old butcher who had a framed letter from the King of England has re-established in a modern new shop round the corner from my flat, the other butcher who lives in my block has found a place near Freedom square, the old Deli has set up on Archbishop Street and the old fish shop moved to Gzira but may return somewhere in Valletta.

The process of restoration of the old market has been marked by complaints from Valletta residents whose sleep was destroyed by all night drilling and concrete laying. The whole block has been a mess of parked cars, lorries, construction bins and heavy machinery. The confusion on Merchant Street has been exacerbated by new restaurant outlets riding on the back of the promise of gentrification offered by the new market and by established restaurants grabbing more public space for tables and plastic tents. In the evenings, the cars of restaurant diners joined the government vehicles parked in the square and down the side streets next to the market so that it became impossible to walk through without feeling threatened by cars looking for a park or opening doors in your face.

Further outrage erupted when a large aluminium and glass covered area sprouted at the front of the roof level, masking the old lines. I was even more concerned about the cantilevered structure at the back jutting onto St Paul's street so that the traffic lane was narrowed, the local bus stop disappeared and pedestrians were forced to cross the road on rapidly fading crossings originally painted for Malta's Presidency of EU at the start of 2017. When the railings appeared on this cantilevered construction, it became obvious that we would no longer be able to walk through the market from Merchant Street to St Paul's Street. This walk through had been one of my delights in the old market.

As we got closer to opening, a ramp appeared on St Paul's Street and I thought perhaps pedestrians would have a safe covered footpath past the back of the market with an entry to the food shops at the basement level. But no, this was to be for truck delivery and unloading. I adopted the Maltese practice of "We'll see" with a slight inclination of the head. I determined that my interest lay in how the new market would work in practice. Would there be benefits for the local community in the convenience of supermarket shopping?

And today was the big day! I walked down St Paul's Street after the declared opening time of 10.00am. Two restaurant workers in black aprons stood on the cantilevered projection smoking cigarettes. I called out a cheery, "What time do you open?" They stood on their cigarettes and went inside. I walked down the ramp, thinking I might be able to get into the basement food shops but the back door was closed. At the other side of the ramp, three more workers were smoking cigarettes and dropped their ends on St Paul's Street as I approached. I walked down the side street to Merchant Street.

The front of Is-Suq tal-Belt  was vibrant and busy. Outdoor heaters were on in one of the front open air spaces with mostly Maltese people sitting over coffee. Others were coming and going at the entrance gathering in small groups to chat. I felt heartened. Perhaps people will make this renovation into a community space after all.

Inside, the food hall was as busy as any other shopping mall anywhere in the world. The only difference was the line of wine bars down the centre. I made a circuit and then headed down on the escalator to the food market. I was hoping for individual outlets but was not surprised by the kind of upmarket supermarket that I found. Most people were doing the same as me, walking around to check things out without buying anything. Mirrors covered the back entrance that I had hoped would offer a route through the market from Merchant to St Paul's street. The up escalator wasn't working so I walked up and then discovered the lift. Maybe I could explore the upper levels that were scheduled as art and social spaces. The lift was limited to the basement and ground floors. The upper floors are not yet complete. I had to be content to gaze up from ground level at the beautiful iron supports and ceiling and try to imagine what might go on up there. The internal wall of the roof level verandah on Merchant St is also covered in mirrors. So I will have to wait to see how this will work in practice. As I looked up, a young restaurant worker came out of one of the food stalls dragging a huge black plastic bag. He got into the service lift and presumably went down to the basement and up to the side street where I spotted a large collection of black plastic rubbish bags waiting for collection when I was walking home.

I will continue to wait and see how Is-Suq tan-Belt will work out in practice. It is clear that it has opened before it is finished and that systems for disposing of rubbish and enabling employees to smoke their cigarettes without polluting St Paul's street with smoke and cigarette ends have not been put in place. It is also clear to me that we have allowed a supermarket into Valletta streets without really considering the unique heritage of individual traders that the old market had nurtured. But other people in the housing block where I live are already saying how nice it is and how they are glad they have somewhere to buy fish again. I want to see it work out in practice and hope that it is not the nail in the coffin of small local businesses.

Sunday, 31 December 2017

A year in the life of the City, Valletta 2018. The Story begins.

The bells are ringing out the old year and we are promised a mighty celebration throughout Valletta to bring in 2018 when Valletta will be European Capital of Culture along with Leeuwarden in Holland. We are promised a year of festa, hundreds of cultural events, involvement for all across Malta and a legacy to make us proud. So I have promised myself a year of story-telling via this blog about how the year unfolds on the streets and in the culture of the residents of Valletta.

I have lived in Valletta now since before the bid for the title was made. I was involved with the community consultation process that was undertaken in drawing up the proposal. Since then, the community consultation dried up for a while but I kept my finger in the pie by attending the annual conference for Valletta 18 and getting deeply involved in the community consultation process undertaken for the proposed Valletta Design Hub at the Bicceria, the old Knights abattoir in Lower Valletta. The Design Hub is one of four flagship projects undertaken for Valletta 2018: MUZA is the recreation of the museum of Fine Arts as a museum of Community Art located in the Auberge d'Italie; Is-Suq tal-Belt will open its doors next week to a new life as the food and art hub of Valletta; and Strait Street has been "rebranded" as an upmarket night spot with some interesting alternative venues including the old Splendid Hotel.

Over the years, as lines of suited men announced this and that, I struggled to keep abreast with all the organisational changes at Valletta 2018. I observed how the gentrification of the city was speeding up, how restaurant tables and car parking were taking over the spaces that I loved to stroll, and Boutique hotels were mushrooming so that rents for ordinary residents were becoming impossible. I toyed with the idea of becoming a volunteer with Valletta 2018 as a way of staying engaged. In the end, I decided to remain independent and participate wherever and whenever I could. In 2017, I've been to workshops with TimesUp, Gewwa Barra, Transparadiso, and Orfeo and Majnun. I'll write more about all of these projects as the year progresses.

Here is the start of my year in Valletta. I hope it will be a creative and inspiring story but I'm not going to gloss over the tension.

Thursday, 29 June 2017

Endings and beginnings

I have discovered that blogger will not allow me to write beyond a certain number of words so I am unable to edit the ending of my last blog. This is a pity because the post ends in the middle of a sentence and it is the ending that I intended to bring me back to the personal. So here I am, starting with the ending of my previous post. If you want a theoretical perspective, read 'The politics of growing things.'

I told the story of my friend in Brisbane, Australia, who grows endemic plants on the verges of the footpath outside her home. Further north on the Sunshine Coast, local people have joined together to grow food in public spaces. Local authorities worry about loss of control, about public liability, about registering these personal initiatives. Instead of working with communities to determine the boundaries of projects that seek a pathway linking care for people with care for ecological parameters, the authorities have stepped in to bulldoze those gardens that are not registered. It is a sad example of the tension between government and citizen even in democratic systems. The rule of law is not always the best way to determine boundaries.

Which brings me to my personal ending of seven weeks in Brussels as a citizen journalist with the Maltese Presidency of EU. Yesterday I packed up the household that has nurtured me during my stay in this fascinating and contradictory city. I gathered my herbs, flowering plants bought on a whim, ferns saved from death in the foyer of Justus Lipsius, which has been my workplace across town in the European quarter. I carried them through the backstreets of my local community where men sat in cafes on the footpath or hurried in their robes to the local prayer room. I left them with Juliette in her atelier, Orbany (see previous posts), so that she can pass them on to the Start Up in Les Tanneurs who are planting a community garden in the park across the road. Juliette is interested in visiting Malta, perhaps after the birth of her baby and sometime during 2018 when Valletta is European Capital of Culture. She would have a lot to contribute. My plants perhaps won't survive long in the robust environment of communal space but I like to imagine that my action is part of a wider pathway that helps to maintain safe pathways through our troubled world.

Last night was also the final cultural event of the Maltese Presidency. It was a concert of high culture held on the other side of town in pleasant suburbs. I walked, grappled with the metro, took a bus for eight winding stops and arrived at the huge community hall with time to spare before we were expected to be in our places. I spoke to no-one as the foyer filled with women in evening dresses and men in suits. The foyer continued to fill long after the time we were due to be seated. Outside, the driveway filled with large, black cars. In the end, I decided that my job was done and I got back on the bus. I have learned a lot about Malta whilst I have been in Brussels but that will need some reflection and perhaps another blog.