Capital of Culture blues | Sebastian Olma & Karsten Xuereb on Valletta 2018

Running a Capital of Culture is bound to be something of a handful, particularly in the case of a small island like Malta, for whom the opportunity — to be seized by Valletta in 2018 — also comes with an added pressure of expectation.

Many believe that being pushed to be European Capital of Culture gives us no excuse but to “upgrade” our cultural product (in all its forms)… not least because it all means a healthy injection of funds all-round.

But, as tends to happen with any initiative in which the long arm of centralised government tends to have a large stake in, the exigencies of ego, propaganda and the natural cycle of a capitalist system that needs to reduce even the most outwardly ephemeral and transcendent things into tangible free-market puzzle pieces will ensure that a particular kind of rot sets in and muddies the enterprise.

And over the past couple of weeks, two interviews I’ve conducted and written up for ‘the day job’ go some way towards addressing the matter; coming at it from varied angles of specificity and intention.

Karsten Xuereb: “Taking people for a ride”

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Karsten Xuereb

Suddenly and somewhat mysteriously removed from his post as Executive Director of the Valletta 2018 Foundation, Karsten Xuereb — otherwise a researcher into cultural policy — had a frank chat with me about how the Foundation’s efforts appear from the outside, looking in.

He had particularly salient things to say about how the Valletta 2018 project appears to be playing it safe — and pandering to the lowest-common-denominator — by pitching the entire endeavour in the key of ‘celebration’, or festa… somewhat redundant given how Malta’s stuffed with them already. But the systemic drive to reduce everything to what is the most “popular” is an even more grave concern.

“I think it’s taking people for a ride. It just dumbs down the idea of excellence with the excuse of making cultural events more accessible. The line of thinking seems to be, ‘Yes, excellence is important, but we also need to reflect society’. To me, the two things aren’t mutually exclusive.”

Read the full interview

Sebastian Olma: “Market value has become the overriding factor”

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Sebastian Olma speaking during the launch of his latest book, In Defense of Seredipity, at the V2_Lab for the Unstable Media, Rotterdam (Photography by Gustav Velho)

And in the very same edition of the paper (i.e., last Sunday’s) I got a chance to interview the writer and academic Sebastian Olma, whose interest in the evolution of urban spaces resulted in wonderfully expansive replies that, perhaps unwittingly but most certainly ironically, ended up “pointing the finger where it hurts” when it came to how initiatives like the Capital of Culture impact their communities.

(Ironic, because the interview was conducted ahead of him speaking at a Valletta 2018 organised conference — Living Cities, Livable Spaces Placemaking)

“At the core of the Creative City paradigm is the notion of intercity competition, which means that the success or failure of a city depends on how attractive it is for investors and tourists. This has led to an incredible homogenisation of our urban environments because market value has become the overwriting factor for urban policy making.

It has made our cities less creative and innovative as the habitat for cultural difference – what traditionally we refer to as public space – is quickly shrinking. This is what happens when culture and the arts have to dance to the tune of the market because the market is by its very nature a force of homogenisation: it makes differences disappear by expressing diverse phenomena in the only language it understands, i.e., money.”

Read the full interview

Summer

I never look forward to the Maltese summer. It’s both a popular and unpopular statement, or stance to take — depending on the level of commitment and intensity involved. Many will jeer at me for being a party-pooper, for missing the wood for the trees and even — which is both fair and unfair — for being ungrateful: other countries don’t get to enjoy this much sunshine, and neither to they have our abundance of easily-accessible beaches to dive into when it all gets a bit much.

I’ve come to understand the other’s position a bit more now that I’ve recalibrated my life in a way that suits me better; i.e., now that I am a remote-working freelancer and am at least spared the morning (and equally punishing, evening) commute to work on crammed buses whose air-conditioning is either malfunctioning or too strong: strong enough to give your body a system shock that will doubtless lead to a nasty summer cold as soon as you step out of the vehicle.

Yes, summer is in many respects a beautiful time of year — a culmination of all that we look forward to in our leisure time here: the ability to go for a swim in the sea that is readily available and abundant for us, and the ability to enjoy balmy summer evenings with friends — be it at an open-air event of some kind, or a rooftop barbecue…

But in other ways, it’s a time of year that grinds everything down. Makes it soupy, ugly. Leisure-time in summer is great — or at least, lends the impression of being postcard-perfect great — but the daily routine still remains (we’re not in schooltime-Kansas anymore) and work is compromised by the stifling heat. The heat that signals to you that you should, above all, seek shelter and rest.

But of course, the system we all operate under does not allow for that. But it should. There is something beautiful in the notion of us meeting summer the way it demands to be met. For us to let the heat consume us and — to use a phrase beloved by self-help gurus/websites — to ‘listen to our bodies’ and do what it will.

In the way that it short-circuits human efficiency, summer is a reminder to us to remain humble, because we are at the mercy of the elements — the heat being the most predominant element in Malta. Where the milder climes allow themselves to be shoved aside to facilitate our attempts at economic survival, ingenuity and the comfortable pursuit of our ambitions at our own pace, summer forces all that to grind to a halt.

Summer demands worship. But we are continually barred from simply prostrating ourselves.