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category: Culture,Gazette

The Catalyst

Wednesday, October 15, 2014 by

‘Our goal was to state clearly, through a symbolic, emblematic act, that culture in Europe needs to be one of the strengths in the construction of Europe.’ - Jack Lang, Former French Minister of Culture, Creator of the European Capital of Culture

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So we’ve done it. We have achieved European fame in the one way all Maltese agree that we deserve to; we have won the Eurovision Song Contest for 2018. Citizens of Malta, feast upon the spoils and glory that come with crushing our opponents in this singing contest; the prestige that will envelop our streets once our hero returns to saunter the paved roads that were hitherto so lacking in culture; positively bask in our increased stature and international political clout. Now we are a real cultural powerhouse; all the informed, unbiased European voters have told us so.

Oh, wait, no, my mistake – we actually lost the Eurovision, but won the bid to become European Capital of Culture for 2018. Maybe it’s just me, but being part of the European Capital of Culture just doesn’t have the same kinda ring to it as Eurovision Song Contest winner. However, it would be prudent to see exactly what the European Capital of Culture (ECoC) is before making an informed judgement on its importance, or unimportance, to our nation.

Shall we commence?

What Is A Maltese European Capital of Culture?

You could say that it is a community initiative, a participatory event involving everyone from the bigwigs at the European Parliament, the EU Commission, and the Council of Ministers, to the Maltese state and local governments, the artists and cultural operators of Malta, and the average Maltese cultural consumer.

You could also say that it is a celebration of the Maltese strand of European culture and its local creative economy, presenting itself as a congratulatory pat on the back for being so awesome while also giving the designated capital the perfect platform for socio-economic long term regeneration and growth.

You could even go so far as to say that it is a great opportunity for Malta’s creative culture to show what it can produce, and, more importantly, how we as a nation are going to create a legacy that will provide a good framework and infrastructure for a creative economy to really take off in Malta.

In truth, it is all these things and more. An initiative providing funding and mass marketing power, along with city twinning (which Maltese towns are already good at) alongside the Dutch city of Leeuwarden, the other ECoC for 2018 – and a true bastion of high culture if there ever was one – it is equal parts cultural and artistic as it is economic.

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As counterintuitive as it seems, a city is not granted the title for its historical assets, nor even its current culture. It is awarded the title for its future plans. The success of being the ECoC does not depend on getting the bid – the success relies on the preparation of the programme, and its lasting legacy. Jason Micallef, the Valletta 2018 Foundation Chairman, said that ‘the legacy of Valletta 2018 is important as much as the build-up to it is’. Previous culture minister Mario de Marco (who oversaw the successful bid) spoke along the same lines: ‘the success of 2018 depends on the legacy which will be enjoyed after it has passed.’

And this is a key point – according to a study undertaken by an EU watchdog, 80% of previous ECoC’s say that not only have they benefited from a cultural point of view, but also from a socio-economic perspective. Apart from having all the different subcultures that form a city come together to promote their hometown under one banner, putting differences aside, it also provides a sizeable increase to the amount of tourists that visit during that specific year and a nice fiscal boost to the local economy.

Even though what we will be seeing is mainly arts in the streets and entertainment all around, a celebration of Maltese culture in as tasteful (hopefully) a way as possible, one must remember that if there are no economic returns, this initiative will be deemed a failure. This whole scheme has a respectable budget, provided by a variety of sources, from EU level to local level to public funding to corporate sponsorship, and needs to provide a boost to the local economy while increasing the quality of life for residents – otherwise it’ll all have been a waste of time.

One must also bear in mind that although officially we scored the title of ECoC under the banner of Valletta as the city in question, due to Malta’s size, all of Malta, Gozo, and the smaller islands are included in this initiative. While Valletta is most definitely the focal point, this programme is aimed at affecting all of Malta.

As President of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso recently said that as Europeans, “we need to move more resolutely towards an economy based on creativity, knowledge, and innovation”. This most certainly holds true for Malta. Not only will a strong creative culture increase the joys of living in Malta as a resident and provide a massive boost to the tourism industry, but other sectors like the services industry, film industry and other entertainment industries will gain an upper hand when competing on an international level – which, never forget, we are constantly doing.

So, What’s The Plan?

‘ECoC recognises that consumers of culture are not passive, not just recipients, but are building a legacy that will have lasting effects. Hence, to have a successful ECoC, you need a balance between the cultural community providing an innovative programme, strong local government support providing secure financial support, and a stream of private financial support.’

-European Capital of Culture Panel, 2008

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In the run up to the V18 bid, the bid to engage Valletta as the ECoC for 2018, there was a lot of lofty talk about how this initiative will cause shifts in mentality, challenge us to experiment, and raise our cultural expectations. By breaking through our insularity, which, sadly, affects pretty much every aspect of Maltese life, V18 would hope to inclusively appeal to different communities, and change the way the average Ċikku tat-triq sees culture as purely a representation of tradition and the past.

And this is great. God knows we need to shake up the way we react to what we call culture in Malta. If I am invited to one more Eurovision Party like it’s some sort of high art exhibition, I will not only commit crimes against humanity on a genocidal scale, but I will also turn myself in an hour before Eurovision starts just to make sure I avoid it at all costs.

I mean, when a whole entire country sees a three minute generic pop single as the be all and end all of Malta’s yearly contribution to European culture, you know we’ve got a national problem, ya dig?

However, due to a few movers and shakers, V18 may be the answer we are looking for, and this is how they plan on doing it.

The Events

From now until 2018, and even a couple of years after, there is a full programme filled with festivals, exhibitions, training seminars, cultural dialogues, projects, artistic events, and all the other nice things you can associate with an EU-sponsored cultural regeneration event. Obviously these events will peak in 2018, with just under 19 million euros (out of a total of nearly 49 million) being spent on operational costs of the event that year alone.

Many of these events will be held in Valletta and the surrounding area and harbour – however, there will be events held all over Malta, Gozo, Comino, and one particular event, the “Stubnitz in Med”, will involve a former East German fishing vessel swimming around the Mediterranean promoting our culture in Barcelona, Athens, Tunis, Alexandria and Beirut with Valletta, Sicily & Sardinia as her shared homeport. These events will be the main short-term products of the programme.

While I applaud these initiatives, I cannot help but wonder if the board in charge of creating the events could not have been a bit more experimental. While they do celebrate Maltese culture, there is a lack of innovation and specificity in fringe (and not so fringe) genres that form part of contemporary Maltese culture, especially youth culture. It seems, as in all things Maltese, the board has opted for the safer, family friendly routine.

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The Themes

The events have been tailored around four main themes.

  • Generations – With an inclusive focus on the future, not the past, this theme highlights Maltese culture in the light of European culture, and shows the progress in values Malta’s first EU generation has provided.

  • Routes –  Highlighting Valletta’s evolution from “a city built by gentlemen for gentlemen” to a more communal and diverse open space, it will show Valletta as a European City that is still influenced by core Maltese values such as familial ties, volunteering, and generosity.

  • Cities – Valletta was designed down to the very corner, but in the future it will become more open to diversity and creativity, to allow citizens, designers, artists, urban planners, architects and residents to collaborate and contribute to the rethinking of Valletta as a creative city.

  • Islands – Valletta is many things apart from a city; it is a fortress, a safe haven, and a port, and this is all due to the sea. V18 seeks to explore this key factor in Valletta’s formation as it is today, and celebrate the impact it has had on Maltese life in general.

The Goals

It’s like the creators of the V18 bid had read PATRON’s last issue; the main goal of V18 is creating novel and holistic soft and hard infrastructure. We have the creative types, we have the spaces – we just need to create the infrastructure to garner the full potential of their creative explosion all over our faces and island. Apart from bettering our physical infrastructure by utilising the spaces we have and advancing our digital infrastructure via the web to overcome the limits of our territorial space, one of the goals of V18 is capacity building. That is, as mentioned before, challenging the predominant idea of culture as tradition.

Imagine if cultural consumers started paying for all artistic shows. Imagine if artists had the time to regularly take to the streets and stages to engage the public audience with their riveting pieces because they didn’t need to answer phones all day due to a British company’s outsourcing manoeuvres. Imagine if an ecology of public investment in project grants were given to quality amateur and semi-professional cultural organisations to invest in instruments leading to professionalisation, development and entrepreneurship.

Imagine, imagine, imagine – it is no wonder that the ECoC bid was called Imagine 18. This endeavor should hope to create more than a cultural sector; it would aim to create careers out of the cultural sector. Establishing Valletta as a creative centre will provide social, economic, and cultural regeneration, and our multilingualism, heritage and diverse social fabric will cement our international reputation. And if we can do all this while nurturing a sustainable relationship with our environment, so much the better.

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The End of an Era…or the Beginning?

Like I said before, lofty talk. However, one cannot but be filled with a sense of hope and possibility for the future. Who knows, maybe we are on the cusp of a renaissance for the Maltese man, a new dawn of artistic invigoration the likes of which haven’t been seen in Malta since…well, since ever.

Valletta is a city undergoing change – whether it likes it or not. V18 is part and parcel of the evolution of our capital city, both a sign and symptom of the times. These pages will be dedicated to deciphering what Valletta’s successful bid as European Capital of Culture really means, or really will mean: a new beginning, or another Eurovision.

If I am in jail in 2018, you’ll know exactly which one it turned out to be.

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Words by Johnathan Cilia
Photography by Matthew Grech

Category Culture,Gazette

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