Capital of Culture Fallout | The legacy of the Valletta 2018 Foundation

I’m currently snuggled up the sofabed nursing the remnants of a hangover following yet another spectacular edition of the Reljic NYE house party, as well as the beginnings of a cold which I’m thankful appear to have hit me later than most — late enough, at least, to allow me to enjoy said party virtually unimpeded.

With that in mind — and with Issue One of the latest Conan the Barbarian series from Marvel seductively calling to me on the Comixology tab — I am in no real condition to do a coherent round up of 2018’s professional highlights — though it was certainly an eventful, satisfying and exhausting year in equal measure.

I will, however, leave you with my latest and most substantial journalistic contribution: my article on the legacy of the Valletta 2018 Foundation and all of its works, according to some of the most relevant players in the local cultural industry.

READ: ‘After Valletta 2018, we will never be the same again’ 

It was a satisfying piece to put together — not least because I had a comparatively leisurely amount of time to work on it, giving me a taste of the ‘slow journalism’ I so desperately crave and want to do more of in the future, though it doesn’t look like the realities of the industry will be able to allow for that any time soon.

But I’m also glad to be able to tackle such a contentious topic with a varied array of voices to serve as a buttress; though a large clutch of diplomatic replies were expected, I was very grateful to receive the kind of honest — and sometime searing — responses from people who either bore the brunt of the Foundation’s more questionable practices, or felt shoved to the wayside as it continued its colourful, gentrifying churn across the capital city (and by extension, island as a whole).

Click here to read the full article

Wishing all of my readers an excellent 2019. 

Palermo & Other Pulp

Haven’t updated here for a while (he says, as if we’re still in Livejournal-world, as if our ‘updates’ aren’t energetically diffuse and many across various platforms now), though I’ve been wanting to for quite some time.

It hasn’t happened for the usual reasons — as ever, time and energy — though a meditative pit stop over at the blog would have been just what the head-doctor ordered (if I still visited one, that is, so this is all speculation).

Hectic times require a time-out, but sometimes a time-out is not possible because hectic time leaves very little time for anything else. As the current leader of our supposedly “free” world might say, “Sad!”.

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So while my nerves are in a slightly calmer state at this point in time, as I sit back at home freshly showered and returned from a long weekend in Palermo, the mind remains scattered, and this blog post will be scattered too. In fact, I will use it in an attempt to un-scatter the mind as much as possible. It will be bitty. It will be chaotic. But it will also be, I think and hope, true. 

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Speaking of scattered, ramshackle, shambolic and words of that type — pejoratives designating ‘chaos’, as the Pedant Mind would perhaps put it — I have thoughts on the Tom Hardy-starring Venom. Though this is mostly because I’ve been paid to have them, and the result of all that can be read through here at your leisure should one be so inclined.

But beyond what I thought about this uneven and certainly messy corporate love child between Sony and Marvel, the reaction to the film also gave me feelings.

A big fuss was made on how audiences and critics were divided on this one — with the punter giving the thumbs up while the boffins gave it a thumbs down — this isn’t really the talking point that impressed me the most. Though it’s certainly interesting that the divide was so great this time around, what got to me is how critics in fact kept bringing up the issue of ‘tonal consistency’ as the main problem with a film like this.

Colour me unconvinced, because tonal consistency is the last thing I’d expect from a film like this, and if that really is a sore point for you in a film about a gloopy black alien ‘symbiote’ looking for a human host to get psycho with (on? through?) then, you know, priorities.

If anything, tonal consistency is really something we could do with far less of in mainstream cinema. The Marvel Studios film may hit the mark way more often than when they miss, but it’s hard to deny that their over-curated approach hampers style and invention.

A recent example of the opposite approach worming its way into the mainstream is Gareth Evans’ Netflix Original feature Apostle. Sure, it’s a mess that outdoes Venom on the ‘grace and coherence’ front — feeling more like a mini-series cut down to feature length size (while remaining lumberingly sizeable all the same) and whose sudden shifts and escalations will have one believe Evans way maybe — just maybe — taking a teensy bit of a piss as he hammered out the script for his own feature.

But it’s also a delightfully bonkers ride that plays with your feeling with the same intensity it juggles genres. Anything can happen in the manic micro-climate that Evans has created, and very often it actually does.

It strikes me that ‘tonally uneven’ stories are actually the best suited format for popular narratives. Are the folk tales we told ourselves by the campfire for centuries ‘tonally consistent’, for example? (They may be formally rigid – but that’s another thing entirely.)

I want my mainstream blockbusters messy. Because anything the alternative appears to be a deliberate flattening of nuance and the random energy that seeps into a work and makes it its own.

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Hope does show up in strange places, though. Just as we were about to board the flight to Palermo, I decided to go against my usual habits and actually pick up those collated Panini UK editions Marvel appear to have designed specifically for airports.

One of these anthologised and slapped-together storied featured a Ghost Rider-Venom hybrid. Now that’s the kind of pulpy chaos that I wanna see in these things.

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Speaking of things that are best left messy, Palermo was an utter delight. One does not want to romanticise decay and deprivation too much, of course, but coming off from our own Capital of Culture year — an initiative that actually extols the opening of over 40 boutique hotels in Valletta as something positive — witnessing the crumbly decadence of Sicily’s capital city, especially during their own run at an international contemporary arts festival (Manifesta 12) was nothing short of inspiring.

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While similarities to Sicily and Italy certainly abound — though the climate is ever milder and the Arabic influence is very much felt in the architecture too, sliding into the Maltese language instead over here — my impression this weekend is that where Malta is over-curated, Palermo runs on a kind of studied neglect.

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I couldn’t imagine the Maltese artistic establishment to ever work up the nerve to display artworks in an exhibition commanding international renown with as casual and lax an approach that we found at Manifesta 12; weaving through palaces long past their hey-day, and — one assumes — walking a precarious tip-toe across health and safety regulations.

In Malta, we are perhaps a little bit too afraid to fail. But that fear clamps down any nooks and crannies of possibility that may open up.

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Back in Malta now though, and a crazy week of deadlines will hopefully give way to a long-awaited month to geeky opportunity and plenty. First out of the gate is a talk my dear friend and collaborator Stephanie Sant and myself will be giving at Malta Comic Con, concerning out short film ‘Camilla’, which you can read more about here.

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‘Camilla’ (dir. Stephanie Sant) stars Irene Christ (left) and Steffi Thake, and premieres at the Malta Book Fair on November 10

But wait! The real hook here is that the event will also serve as the trailer premiere for our short! So should you be at Malta Comic Con this weekend — and you definitely should be, given that it’s the 10th anniversary edition of one of the most enthusiastically put together and consistently strong celebrations of comics and pop culture on the island — do stop by on November 3 at 15:00 to watch the trailer and hear us speak about the evolution of the project.

I will also have a table at the Con all weekend, and would very much appreciate chatting to whoever passes by (I mean it — despite my lowkey misanthropy still going strong after all these years, these things can get dull for long stretches, to the point where human interaction suddenly becomes a welcome prospect).

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More stuff! 

I will be chairing the Literature in the Diaspora conference at the Malta Book Festival on November 7 at 19:00. I will then be having a one-to-one live interview with one of the conference’s participants; the fiercely intelligent Croatian writer Nikola Petkovic, on November 8 at 17:30.

‘Camilla’ will then premiere on November 10 at the MA Grima Hall of the Mediterranean Conference Centre in Valletta. The show starts at 20:30, and also forms part of the Malta Book Festival.

And after that’s done, I jet off to Glasgow to see Slayer and a bunch of other nutcase-loud bands. But that’s a story for another day — should I survive it, and whichever shambolic shape I’ll be in at the time.

 

No Sleeping Beauties | Steve Hili on The Adult Panto

Anyone interested in the general direction of the Maltese ‘arts and culture’ scene is bound to have formed an opinion about Valletta 2018 — better known colloquially as “V18”, though its overstaffed PR machine has been keen to quash that tag of late, deeming it off-brand.

I’m writing this at the tail end of a balmy pre-summer’s day, after having actually enjoyed a V18-supported event, so I’ll keep both the ranting and mild hypocrisy down to a minimum here. But I will say that the focus on branding is starting to grate a little on me, along with the feeling that somehow, the whole initiative seems to be characterised by an insistent tendency to miss the wood for the trees.

This, along with the fact that consistency and sleek branding seems to run counter to the behaviour and reputation of V18’s Chairman Jason Micallef.

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Valletta, when it’s allowed to just do its thing.

No doubt already slotted in as a gaffe-prone, politically-appointed chair-warmer by a large chunk of those with an eye on the island’s cultural scene, the man is clearly a political animal, with a crude but nonetheless effective ability to tap into ready-to-burst emotional veins among the supporters of his political-ideological home base.

It creates something of a critical impasse, where anyone criticising Micallef and the Valletta 2018 Foundation is branded an elitist and, as the above-linked example involving Mario Vella suggests, something of an ingrate. Add a dash of that peculiarly Maltese brand of “If you don’t agree with what I’m doing it means you’re just a stooge of the other political party” into the mix – et voila!

But like I said, I’m amenable to take all of this philosophically, and even to wring out some positives from an equation whose results seem to be either a churn of deafening quietism (a large percentage of artists in Malta and Gozo are somehow tied to V18, and therefore contracted to remain silent on any shortcomings), or a pile of broken promises.

It creates something of a critical impasse, where anyone criticising Micallef and the Valletta 2018 Foundation is branded an elitist and even, perhaps, something of an ingrate

Because at the very least, V18 appears to have created something resembling a ‘mainstream’ under and against which other more independent-minded initiatives can emerge. It may all sound like scraping the bottom of the barrel of hope, but I think it’s a matter of focus and perspective that feels important.

It certainly had an impact on our devising of Apocalesque!, a comeback show for our little burlesque/cabaret troupe after a four-year hiatus. Somewhere down the line of devising scripts and planning rehearsals with our resident director Nicole, I was struck by the realisation of how most of our shows — having been performed during a time when the centre-right, ‘Catholic-Democrat’ Nationalist Party was still in power — would previously be concerned with issues of ‘public decency’ and censorship.

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Backstage at the Apocalesque, 17.05.18 (dress rehearsal). Photo by Jacob Sammut

We knew we were pushing an envelope that had more to do with matters of morality and antiquated laws — which have thankfully now gone the way of the dodo.

This time, however, the motivating factors had less to do with easily-understandable cries for freedom, and more about puncturing a zeitgeist based around gentrification and the grandstanding so eagerly offered up by Micallef and his ilk. With V18 swallowing up so much of the cultural oxygen, we felt compelled to blow some of our own air out.

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Undine LaVerve at the Apocalesque, 17.05.18 (dress rehearsal). Photo by Jacob Sammut

And I’m glad to see that we weren’t the only ones. Fresh off our show — and sharing one of our own performers, the inimitable Undine LaVerve — this year’s edition of Steve Hili’s Adult Panto puts the tale of Sleeping Beauty through its crude-and-rude wringer, and the go-for-broke approach was actually born out of a desire to swerve away from mainstream practices and do something loud and fun instead.

Throwing some insights my way, Hili recounts how the ‘Adult Panto’ series — now five editions old — in fact started off while he and other cast members would be goofing off backstage while taking part in the traditional Christmas pantos.

“I had been in a couple of traditional pantos and there always seemed to reach a point in rehearsals — when everyone was tired because we were in the middle of production week — that we would be messing about and coming up with our own jokes. A lot of these jokes were very very naughty, and we would always lament the fact that we could never actually use them in to what to all intents and purposes is a kiddies show!”

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The cast of Sleeping Beauty: The Adult Panto. Photo by Sergio Morana

That simple prompt led to a series of raunchy shows existing at the periphery of the local theatrical scene, but performed with what I suspect is the same devil-may-care gusto of our our burlesque acts.

Being largely based in the UK these days, Hili — previously an energetic fixture of local radio — extols the “DIY” approach to comedy, and believes this to be, ultimately, the most liberating approach to the material that one can adopt.

“I have found that creating my own work and shows really works for the type of comedy I enjoy doing and I am good at. You would hope that artists here would feel the urge to adopt a DIY spirit. As part of V18 or as a response to it. That would be quite a legacy.”

In fact, turning his guns on V18 in particular, Hili laments how the Foundation and everything associated with it has not been successful in fostering the kind of freewheeling atmosphere of creativity that he describes.

“The way I had hoped that V18 would work was like the Edinburgh International Festival works,” Hili says.

You would hope that artists here would feel the urge to do adopt a DIY spirit

“I had hoped that there would be lots of high-brow culture but that this would breed fringe events… I would hope that V18 was (and still is) a great opportunity for artists to take the bull by the horns and to create fringe events that offer alternatives including perhaps a way of dissecting the current political scene in a way that is free of the toxic environment that seems to have taken over the islands.”

Ultimately, however, Hili zones in on what will always motivate him to keep creating rough-diamond shows like this.

“We feel like we are thumbing our noses at authority. And I love it.”

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Photo by Sergio Morana

Sleeping Beauty: The Adult Panto will be staged at Spazju Kreattiv at St James Cavalier, Valletta until June 15. For more information, click here

Writing and Rebuilding | Motivational Roundup

I’m just emerging from a nasty tussle with the flu, so I write this with a paradoxical mix of mental battle-weariness and an eagerness to Get Things Done, given the powerlessness that I’ve been forced to operate under for the past week.

It often shocks me just how much we underestimate the mental defenses we have or don’t have; how quick we are to forget that the intellectual constitution we build up is important to our day-to-day. Getting sick, even with something mundane as the flu, will remind you of all that real quick. At a certain point during the worst of the fever-dream deluge, I was actually facing a demon tempting me into oblivion — the oblivion of giving up whatever I was doing and going into a 9-to-5 kind of setup, that is — while a terrifying pool of black ink just unspooled around its horizontal, muscular form that continued to dwarf and dwarf me further. Yeah.

So now that all that’s more or less (thankfully) over, it feels apt — even, that derided and often ill-used word, “natural” — to take stock of some of the stuff I’ve been up to over the past few months.

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One of the main steps forward I’ve undergone professionally since October is accepting to return to a feature-writing gig at the olde homestead of MaltaToday. Well, I say “step forward”, when it actually constitutes something of a return to the stuff I used to do for them while full-time. But doing it at a freelance basis changes the dynamic somewhat, and actually reminds me why this particular facet of the job was always so satisfying.

That’s because it’s great to be given wider berth to explore topics that lie just outside my immediate comfort zone of the local arts and culture scene, given how a bulk of the features I’ve been writing concern issues like immigration, education, public transport and gentrification. Here are a few of my favourites from that batch.

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‘My father was embraced with open arms by the Maltese – if that hadn’t been the case, I wouldn’t exist’

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Omar Rababah. Photo by James Bianchi/Mediatoday

Syrian-Maltese social worker Omar Rababah sat down for a chat about the double-standards that enable Maltese racism to thrive. As someone with foreign blood but who was also raised — if not, like Omar, born — in Malta, I found a lot with which to identify in his story, something that certainly comes out in the article itself.

Click here to read the article

How neoliberal capitalism shaped Tigné Point to sell the Valletta view

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Another piece that ended up being quite close to home, in more ways than one. A precis of an academic paper about the geo-economic dynamics of my old neighbourhood of Tigné in Sliema, the article details how the area gradually shifted from being primarily a place of, you know, basic human habitation, into a place that exists primarily to cater to the needs of economically steroid-pumped neoliberal capitalism.

Click here to read the article

Homophobic hate speech in Malta has decreased. Why are foreigners still a problem?

A recent report has shown that while homophobic tendencies have thankfully been on the decline in recent years — in large part, no doubt, to the LGBTIQ-friendly measures implemented into government policy — xenophobia remains rife as ever. The reasons for this are both predictable and revealing.

Click here to read the article

Can social media launch the revolution against our national dependence on cars?

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Out of the box, into the box: Parking Space Events

As a non-driver myself, I’ve experienced the ins-and-outs of the local public transport system through its many permutations over the years. It’s been challenging, but still not challenging enough to convince me to take up driving, particularly in as densely populated and heavily-motorised island like Malta. However, I’m in the vast minority on this one… a problem that this article addresses by speaking to a few individuals who are thinking outside the box in an attempt to circumvent the traffic problem.

Click here to read the article 

The view from the other side: Arnold Cassola on the Magnificent Süleyman

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Arnold Cassola. Photo by James Bianchi/Mediatoday

It always gives me great pleasure to puncture through any instances of jingoism, and in Malta’s case The Great Siege stands as just about the loudest of that genre of political rhetoric. I’ve done it in the past, and the latest publication by historian and politician Arnold Cassola gave me a chance to do it once again — albeit in a reduced, more subtle capacity. It’s a history from the perspective of the person that the kitsch-populist narrative will have you believe was the “villain” of the piece, and it makes for a great and necessary insight.

Click here to read the article

‘It’s bizarre how some people in funding bodies perceive critique as an affront’

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Karsten Xuereb

I’ve flagged up this chat with Karsten Xuereb — former Executive Director of the Valletta 2018 Foundation — not too long ago on this very venue, and it remains one of my favourite of this bunch so far. Namely because it’s so refreshing to hear someone speak openly about the systemic failures and own-goals of a project that was meant to deliver long-term success to the local cultural scene, only to be degraded into what looks to be — for the most part — a shallow display of crowdpleasing.

Click here to read the article

Turning ourselves into human capital

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Wayne Flask. Photo by James Bianchi/Mediatoday

And now for something a lot closer to my usual wheelhouse. I spoke to my good friend Wayne Flask right before the launch of his debut novel, Kapitali, published by Merlin and launched during last month’s Malta Book Festival. Though I have some reservations about the novel’s narrative structure — reservations that I’ve openly voiced to its author when prompted, I hasten to add — there’s no mistaking the urgency of its satirical ‘mission’, and I’m truly glad that it seems to have found an audience.

Click here to read the article

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There’s been some other stuff along the way too, and there will — of course — be more of it coming each week. Sickness or holidays, ours is a profession that never sleeps. But beyond all this, I’m also — as ever — eager to get back to a horror movie screenplay, whose on-the-page writing has finally kicked into earnest gear after years of treatments and synopses.

And in the wake of the very successful Malta Comic Con 2017, I’m only more eager to finish off MIBDUL — which, despite the many delays that dogged it, remains a beacon for me and, I’m sure, my collaborators. But another idea also hatched while chatting to some Greek creators over coffee and minced pie on that first comic con morning, so that needs seeing to as well…

Hey, we need to keep that black demonic pool at bay somehow, right?

More later!

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