ENCORE – Issue 16 | Editorial

So, the sixteenth issue of ENCORE Magazine, which I have been editing since it’s eleventh edition, should soon be out and about in its designated pigeon-boxes across Malta and Gozo, after having debuted last Sunday – nestled as it was in between the pages of the Malta Independent during a particularly torrential day.

Below is the text for my editorial for this issue, which covers the period of March-May 2019. Being a quarterly magazine, the trope of the seasons is difficult to wriggle out of when writing these things, I’ve realised. But then again, why even bother? In the end, what is more enveloping than the climate? We Maltese Islands-dwellers learnt this the hard way last weekend, and the world will have to lean into its realities even harder once climate change truly hits a stride…

But in the meantime! 

Here’s the editorial.

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An apposite atmosphere of fresh beginnings wafts over this edition of Encore Magazine, and I for one could not be more glad at the aura of promise that this brings about for the Maltese cultural scene at large. We delve into not one, but two, art spaces in Valletta: MUZA and Valletta Contemporary — showcases of the visual arts whose legacy, angling and approach may be different, but which nonetheless stand as a testament of both an active visual arts scene with no small modicum of both public support and enthusiastic private patronage.
The two entities, both in their early stages, could also be seen as craning up (chin held firmly up) as the smoke of Valletta’s tenure as European Capital of Culture begins to clear.
But it is not just cultural initiatives that are rising from the ashes of the busy and hectic year that was 2018. Even the island’s most prominent public cultural body looks forward to some refreshing changes, as is evident from our interview with Mary-Ann Cauchi, the new Director of Strategy at Arts Council Malta, who outlines her vision of a holistic and democratic approach to public funding and support for local artists.
But neither are we forgetting about the roots of the matter — that is, the education of budding artists, now given a boost thanks to the additional availability of so-called VET subjects. A student fills us in on the revealing progress of pursuing an educational path less taken, and that allows for flexibility and uncertainty: such a necessary component of any honestly-undertaken creative endeavour.
Speaking of generational developments and creative flexibility, we also delve into the perception of nudity and sexuality in the Maltese visual and theatrical arts; in what can serve as an addendum to our consideration on the evolving attitude towards censorship in a previous issue. And in another further gentle jolt to preconceptions, the latest edition of our Encounter running feature pits a tattooist against a filigree artist, in a conversation that shines an interesting light on the blurry fault lines between ‘art’ and ‘cosmetics’.
This is, of course, all counterbalanced by insights into the exciting events that lie ahead during the Spring of 2019, reminding us once again of the truly refreshing pleasures of new beginnings.

Enjoy.

Teodor Reljić

As ever, I would like to thank Encore Magazine director Ruben Zahra, proofreader Tricia Dawn Williams and the team at Kuluri (Reuben Spiteri and Daniel Borg) for helping put together this challenging (read: post-Christmas) edition of the magazine. Thanks also go to our many contributors. The magazine can also be viewed online

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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. 

Organised Chaos and Disinfectant Tang| Apocalesque

Burlesque, where you’re often left wondering just what you’ve gotten yourself into (again).

Burlesque, where (yes, it’s a place)… where a 3am Messenger missive calling for “unicorns and ceremonial knives” is entirely in line with established procedure.

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Kevin Canter. Photo by Jacob Sammut

Burlesque, where the same established procedures established themselves c. 2009, and, barring an odd hiatus here and there that’s also in line with the shambolic nature of this beast anyway, remain very much in force.

Burlesque, where ‘organised chaos’ is not the perfect method, but it’s the only one we know.

 

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Run-through wind-down, 14.05.18

Burlesque, which in our case isn’t even technically burlesque but kind of is and the vibe is there so we just go with it.

Burlesque, which is more of a fringe theatre event set up to provide some breathing room and colour in an island stifled by so many things, so often.

Burlesque, which we’ve run through yesterday against the antiseptic tang of a freshly-washed “alternative” cinema — whose slippery cleanliness a high-heeled centaur was very much apprehensive about.

Burlesque, which starts up again in three days (And runs for three days.)

Apocalesque, our latest iteration, needs you.

Book your tickets

Find out more here and here

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

Post-book launch post | Managing clutter

Marsamxett reading spot

I’ve blogged about this spot before, and not too many posts ago. But a lot has happened since my last post (at least it feels as though it has) and I’ve found myself gravitating towards the place again.

It felt significant because my head was in a hectic, accelerated mess that day – peace seemed like a hardly achievable goal and then, I sat down in my favourite nook to read – for just under an hour – and the whirling clutter in my head decided to take a break.

I was glad to come across a particularly memorable passage, too.

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“I knew him well enough to know that if you asked him the right way, at the right moment, he would do almost anything; and in the very act of turning away I knew he would have run after me and hopped in the car laughing if I’d asked one last time. But I didn’t. And, in truth, it was maybe better that I didn’t – I say that now, though it was something I regretted bitterly for a while. More than anything I was relieved that in my unfamiliar babbling-and-wanting-to-talk state I’d stopped myself from blurting the thing on the edge of my tongue, the thing I’d never said, even though it was something we both knew well enough without me saying it out loud to him in the street – which was, of course, ‘I love you’.” – Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch

*

It’s still early days, but I’m happy with the local reception of the novel so far. This being Malta it’s inevitable that your first (and possibly last?) readers be your friends and acquaintances, which complicates things somewhat as you’re never sure how honest they’re all being while dishing out praise. But luckily, some have qualified their praise quite convincingly, and I’m glad that others haven’t felt the need to sugar-coat what they didn’t like about it either.

I’m also glad that the review which came out in last Sunday’s edition of The Times of Malta was solid and balanced – neither a hatchet job nor an unmitigated torrent of praise that nobody would be convinced by.

But what makes me especially glad is that the reaction to the things I prioritised the most in the novel – atmosphere, ambiguity – is positive. I would hazard to say that this is the best a writer can ask for.

I’ll be keeping busy with collaborative projects in the meantime – the inherent loneliness of writing a novel doesn’t inspire me to dive into the process again so readily – but there is something about the process of long-haul writing that I do miss, at least at this relieved-that-it’s-over distance.

It becomes an organising principle; something to either dread or look forward to each passing day, week, month: regardless of whether you’re in a good place with it or not, it’s there, waiting. At its best, it keeps the relentless clutter at bay – it’s the space in your head that’s yours, and nobody else’s, and there is something thrilling about bringing a chunk of that shapeless aether out into the world.

So perhaps, despite my initial protestations, a second novel may be in the offing. Even if I write them in ten-year lapses like the aforequoted Donna Tartt…

Valletta Walk: The rock and sea, your only companions

“He said that the geometry of the dream-place he saw was abnormal, non-Euclidean, and loathsomely redolent of spheres and dimensions apart from ours.” – HP Lovecraft, ‘The Call of Cthulhu’

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Perhaps it’s not exactly loathsome, but there is something non-Euclidian about this place. It’s a place that fascinates me and yet, I don’t even know its name. A resident of the city told me that it probably falls under the Marsamxett Harbour, but he didn’t sound certain enough for my liking.

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The sea-and-weather beaten soft stone shaped in undulating, irregular bumps and curves. The remains of metal features, structures, now so completely rusted they look more like rancid fauna than a man-made imposition on the landscape.

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The man-made features that do retain a discernible function – the staircases connecting the the haphazard, treacherous space – are almost a parody of themselves. The entire area is so precarious that you feel stairs shouldn’t be there in the first place – walking through it shouldn’t be encouraged.

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Then there’s a kind of stone clearing; there comes a point when there are no longer any bridges or staircases, and you can get a level, clear view of the sea.

But this is only partly true, because the last staircase you see is also the largest one in the whole place. And the most obsolete. It stands like an obelisk, though it’s pinnacle is now boarded up by a iron gate (it’s new, as far as I know, but at a distance it looks thin, brittle). It amplifies its uselessness by simply being there – standing proudly to signify nothing.

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Around the staircase, another inviting paradox. The place is both anonymous and open. It faces the sea, and from a certain vantage point – i.e., its neighbour across the sea, Sliema’s Tigne – it is the most exposed part of the entire city.

But in truth, it’s so removed from the rest of the city that it provides a quiet, strange sanctuary. Perhaps this is why it’s a favourite spot for fashion photo shoots. It has a disquieting, undisturbed glamour. Or maybe its draw is that it’s one of the few places by the sea that more or less guarantees isolation. Logic: the droves that crowd to the sea at the first sign of decent weather aren’t going to brave this treacherous terrain so eagerly.

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But although the place is finally open – going by just this one snapshot, you’d be hard-pressed to distinguish the area from Sliema’s ever-popular Surfside – it remains treacherous. Even if there are no longer any cramped, suspiciously sturdy stone staircases to make your way through, the rock here is entirely exposed to the sea, and the visitor is forced to negotiate through puddles now. Puddles that are really little ponds – the liquid inside them the dark green of fairy tale illustrations, where frog princes dwell. (Imagine slipping, now. Imagine falling on your back – the city where humans mill about to either side of you but so far, far away.)

These pods sometimes grow – they widen; not just puddles dotting the rock but a space big enough for a daring spirit to swim in.

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Turn a corner and find a shanty town; green doors caked with dirt and chipped with age, a family around a formica table, the patriarch with a blood-red bald head and hands flaked with a dazzling coat of white hairs. You imagine his fingers to be chapped, leathery like the rest of his skin.

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The water assumes the shape of a canal now. Below the shanty town it’s an emerald green, almost as if to mirror the doors. And on it float bread crusts – ten of them, then around twenty and then thirty, before they thin out to two or three as you walk on. There are no fish to disintegrate them, at least not now.

The cramped shanty town contrasts with its mirroring view. The sea opposite is a vast gulf framed by another mirror image: Valletta and Sliema sit at either side of your peripheral vision, as if ready for a duel.

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And then you walk under a tunnel, and what was wide is now thin again (the city’s familiar grid. You knew this interruption to its structure couldn’t last). You pass through this rounded maw of brick and you find yourself assaulted by fruit flies and saints: a commemorative collection of holy pictures stuck together, with an artificial candle standing vigil. The fruitflies are as multiple as dust mites.

You’re back in the city, and the only way forward is uphill.

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