On activism, belonging and shades of grey

On activism, belonging and shades of grey

Some coping strategies for a very confused Malta

Never have I felt a bigger need to ‘do something’, than in these last few weeks since the horrible assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia. I’ve been struggling quite heavily with the state of the country for the last few months, frustrated particularly with our national fear of open criticism and real public debate about the things holding us backward.

I work within the arts sector, one that is traditionally rebellious, free thinking, a leader in successfully pushing for change. Yet I’m frustrated with the close ties art has to the public sector where the vast majority of artists in Malta somehow depend on the government for their daily bread. Any activism within the arts comes at great personal courage and the knowledge that you will be seen and treated like a traitor by the institution you work for and all its networks. We expect people to be chastised for questioning, for speaking out, for challenging the status quo, and they often are. Caring for jobs became the holy grail of artists grateful for being able to live off their craft, never mind selling their soul in return.

I expect that the situation is similar in other sectors given that this country is so tiny that everyone knows everyone and we tend to react to opinions voiced in public with attacks on the person voicing them rather than on the arguments put forward.

The pattern often goes like this: person writes article / makes public comment.

If person is foreign we tell them to go back to their country since if they chose to come to Malta, they must now love all its flaws and not in any circumstances talk about them or try to change them.

If person is local, we accuse them of being pl or pn supporters, because of course affiliation with a party immediately invalidates the person’s capacity to think freely. They are now simply puppets furthering the party agenda, unable to make their own personal judgement on any issue. And don’t get me wrong, many are just that.

As humans, we want to belong. We can sense the strength of the group and the protection being part of a crowd affords. We want to be part of something bigger than us.

Here in Malta we cling to our clans with fervour. Families, band clubs, festas, the church, political parties. We’re used to public shows of unity and standing up for those within the clan without question. Upset one of ours and our inner mama bear pounces. Never mind what we think about the argument.

The thing is though, many of us are feeling the cracks in this process and struggling with them. We’re looking around for our clan, for our people, our leaders, our heroes and there are none. We long for a virtuous strong leader to get us out of this mess, we long for impartial orators who can help us make sense of the mud we’re living in, yet we reject everyone who dares enter the field. And many times for seemingly good reason. Dig for 5 minutes and find a scandal. A political affiliation, a link with ‘the enemy’, a history of lack of honesty, a public flop, flaws big and apparent that take centre stage and invalidate every argument.

Suddenly there are no heroes to look up to. No person we can hand over our thinking capacities to and get on with our crazy busy lives. Everyone is a shade of grey. Some darker than others but none without a tint of some kind.

We feel we’re doomed.
How can we cope?

To be honest my most automatic reaction is to shut it all out. I can’t cope with the contradictions, I feel like I can’t possibly trust anyone and I know that everything I say or do is being watched by a mob ready to point out my flaws and motivations. And of course everything gets recorded in the little black book that will at some point come out to haunt me. The easiest thing to do is to sit at home and avoid the news. It’s all fake anyway and we’re all doomed. Or destined for glory, depending on your viewpoint.

Yet there’s a bubbling inside me that I cannot shut out. A frustration, an itch I can’t reach. A mountain of naivety that refuses to budge. A sense of possibility that keeps singing resolutely. And every day I see signs of other people who hear the same song. I see people following their values despite the difficulty, I see people being brave and truthful even when attacked, I see that every shade of grey is made up of white and black in varying degrees and I cannot ignore the good things that are inside the mayhem. Which of course brings me to a state to confusion over which direction I’m supposed to be throwing rotten tomatoes at.

The following are some strategies that seem to help the situation:

Sticking with discomfort.
When frustration bubbles, breathing and giving yourself time to feel out your own biases to the situation rather than running off. Some things are so entrenched they need serious effort to overcome. Like our national resistance to activism. Our inability to protest. Our need to discredit the speaker before the argument. What if we choose to act differently? What would that feel like?

Building open, inclusive communities.
We’re at a place where our sense of belonging feels homeless. We see serious cracks in practically every organisation. We see and feel more struggle in doing the things that we took fore granted a few years ago. Like drive to work. Or be able to afford a house whether rented or bought. Or be able to make a living out of things that don’t make us feel dead inside. This is a time to stick together. This is a time to collaborate, this is a time to have conversations over how we want to live and work on making that happen. This is a time to come outside of our work-home comfort zone to do the things that feel important to us. To examine what strategies help us live better, help us be more ourselves, help us engage with those around us to be able to see what resources we have available and make better use of them between us. How we can better support each other. How we can give our sense of belonging a meaningful home. This is a time to get off our phones and hang out in the streets more. This is a time to fully support good initiatives, even if we feel we’re different from the people who started them. By joining and participating we can create something better.

Embracing not knowing.
Let’s face it, we’re in crisis. Our water resources are dwindling as is our ability to produce local food. Our economy is based on dubious practices, many of which rape the little resources we have available at the fastest pace possible with zero thought about long term consequences. We’re losing our ability to provide affordable housing for ourselves. Our institutions are dinosaurs that have no idea how to cope with the fast changing pace of things. Our politics are tribal and all over the place. Our law enforcement is a joke. Let’s all accept that things are not pretty at the moment and that we mostly don’t have solutions. Or at least not the fast simple ones we all crave. They are just not there. The more we get comfortable with not knowing, the more we can openly speak about things as they are rather than feel the need to sugar coat them because we’re afraid of admitting we don’t have a solid plan. Guess what? No one does. The whole world is in the same boat and we’re all trying to swim through murky waters. Mostly obstinately pretending we can see the way or worse still not realising that our navigation tools are just mirrors looking backwards that are absolutely no use now. Let’s all accept that we have no idea where we’re going even if we can feel that things can and should be different, better.

Encouraging courage.
Rather than throw things at whoever dares speak out, let’s listen and engage truthfully. Let’s give each other our ears. Let’s lend each other the platforms we’ve built to make ourselves heard. Let’s build a culture that encourages people to speak out truthfully. Let’s create space for that in every place we have an influence on whether it’s at home, school, work, social media, public life. We must have patience. People need time and encouragement to find their voice, sometimes we will be met with silence, sometimes with confused voices. Let’s leave space for that anyway and have conversations that help focus, question, improve our arguments. Let’s collaborate publicly together. Let’s train ourselves in the art of accepting criticism publicly, of making criticism publicly, of separating the idea from the person and accepting that ideas change, transform, expand, contract and migrate to unexpected lands. Let’s challenge each other to bring out our best.

Taking time out.
These are testing times and we need our wits on. The solutions we need are multifaceted, systems oriented, needing overviews and big picture approaches. We need to find ways to drop the barriers to collaboration and connection. The more we exhaust ourselves in the hamster wheel, the less we can work together to build a new solar powered structure that runs without the need for us to spend all our time struggling with it. Walk, read, stare, do nothing. Be resolute in your decision to make space for yourself. Identify the practices that slow time down for you and be ruthless in making sure you make time for them. Play, dance, sing, paint, sleep by the sea in the sun, do the things that make you feel alive, for this is the most important thing you came here for. The next piece of the puzzle will emerge when you let it.

If not art, then what?

If not art, then what?

Valletta 2018 Curatorial School


The Duck / Rabbit

I think the Duck / Rabbit could be crowned the mascot of this year’s Valletta 2018 Curatorial School. Sebastian Cichocki, chief curator at the currently nomadic Museum of Modern Art Warsaw was the one who introduced the character on Monday during his lecture on Curating Art Beyond Art.

Cichocki explained his curatorial practice as ‘catching duck/rabbits’. Fragile creatures that need particular habitats to thrive. Practices that have a high co-efficient of art (as described by Stephen Wright in Toward a Lexicon of Usership), but cannot be recognised as art because they have ‘escaped’, they have taken the cape they are identified through, off.


Perhaps, even today, we do not deal with art. We might have overlooked the moment when it transformed itself into something else, something which we cannot yet name. It is certain however, that what we deal with offers greater possibilities.

Jerzy Ludwiński – Life in Postartistic Times, 1971


Cichocki described art as the stickly liquid between different disciplines. “Art is absorbing different fragments of reality”, he explained, “the whole world becomes a museum”.


Limits of the exhibition

This was very much picked up by Mick Wilson, Head of the Valand Academy of Art at the University of Gothenburg, during his lecture about Exhibition/ Non-Exhibition. The lecture explored the dialogue between exhibitionary and extra-exhibitionary modes and what it might mean to conduct research through an artistic process with the curator as a fellow traveller, a collaborator. Wilson referenced Robert Barry’s piece “During the exhibition the gallery will be closed”, a statement against the urgency of production that puts the refusal to show itself as the exhibition. What are the limits of exhibition and how does its centrality limit the transformative agency of art that Cichocki talked about earlier?

Speaking a day later, Bassam El Baroni, a curator and writer based in Alexandria who tutors at the Dutch Art Institute, picked the same topic up, mentioning the limiting capacity of exhibitions, a factor that can stop art reaching wide audiences.


Neo-liberalism and the myth of the self

During his lecture about curating from theory to art and vice versa, El Baroni explored the curator’s role within neoliberal systems, using Foucault’s analysis of Neoliberalism as the state being under supervision of the market rather than the opposite as liberalism originally proposed. The individual is therefore seen as a permanent and multiple enterprise, an entrepreneur for himself who produces his own satisfaction, thus removing the need for state safety nets. In Travis Holloway’s words, “how to depart from the prevailing neoliberal culture of self-entrepreneurship in order to live a meaningful political life with others?” The curatorial can be seen as any public exercise undertaken to research the possibilities, inhibitors and methodologies of achieving such a political life.

I was fascinated by El Baroni’s introduction to Thomas Metzinger’s work. Author of the voluminous ‘Being No One” and the more accessible “The Ego Tunnel”, Metzinger bridges philosophy and neuroscience to propose the absence of the self. “We become conscious whenever our brains successfully pursue the ingenious strategy of a unified and dynamic inner portrait of reality”, a model so perfect that we recognise it as real. Self-consciousness is in itself simply a model in the brain.


Art as a way of providing space and time for people

Both Fulya Erdemici, curator of Cappadox in Turkey and Maren Richter, curator of Valletta 2018’s visual art exhibition The Island is What the Sea Surrounds, brought forward ideas of art as a possibility of care for communities, a means of connection and a playing field for dealing with issues relevant to people.

Illustrating her experiences in curating the unfamiliar during Cappadox, Erdemici highlighted the challenges of making meaningful connections when landing in a new place. She spoke about her slow but steady learning process that made the most of the “few good men and women in each city”, the more accessible ones who were then the gateway to understanding and connection with the rest. I was fascinated with the beautiful results of collaborations with locals that made the most out of and highlighted local knowledge and traditions by presenting them using artistic processes.

Richter focused on the aesthetics of populist movements such as the Occupy movement that mobilised masses to express dissatisfaction by bringing cultural techniques and intellectual capacities together. Togetherness is used as a space to be with each other, to learn from one another, making the most of the critical mass. Within these contexts, artistic practices and methods can be put to the service of communities and movements, creating new possibilities of engagement, expression and communication. Art can be a way of exploring situations and experiences that are too vast to understand, creating moments within which we can figure something out. Moments of sharing and communication that are shared resources rather than academically proven methods.

Which of course brings us full circle back to duck / rabbit spotting in events such as the recent women’s marches and in works such as Standing Man in Istanbul, merging the boundaries between art and not art, just as the boundaries between literally everything in the world are dissolving, creating a soup within which absolute realities are obsolete. A soup that requires collaboration and cross-pollination to navigate through, a field that perhaps the duck / rabbits feel at home within.



This was my second edition of the Valletta 2018 Curatorial School that I first attended in 2016. The experience opened the doors to many things I had been craving but could not quite define before last year. As a newcomer to the arts scene I did not come equipped with a mental database of landmark works to reference (though the database is now growing) or a built-in art-speak generator (which I am happy about the absence of). Despite this, my curiosity, enthusiasm and excitement have been fed with an endless amount of inspiration, further readings and so many crossovers with things I have been thinking about, researching and questioning during the past months.

This year’s edition, again expertly curated by Prof Raphael Vella, was titled Researching Curatorial Practices and brought excellent morning lectures by Sebastian Cichocki, Alfredo Cramerotti, Nick Wilson, Bassam El Baroni, Fulya Erdemici and Maren Richter. Afternoons were deep dive workshops with one of the curators around a particular theme. We ended with a joint mini exhibition that very much reflected the themes of the week and went well beyond limits of site, materiality and objecthood most often tied to exhibitions. This created a rich, multisite experience that managed to weave together the themes discussed with the backdrop of the rapidly changing Valletta.

Valletta old girl, we’re killing you.

Valletta old girl, we’re killing you.

This morning I came across this article from two years ago (don’t ask my why the photo is there, perhaps Valletta’s face is changing so much it’s now not Valletta anymore). It speaks of rents driving out people who can actually afford to live here, the loss of hawkers and small shops that make the city a pleasant place to live in, not to mention breathe life into the stately streets. A quote by Malta’s then prime minister, “The profit motive must not become the predominant one: look at Sliema, Dr Gonzi said, with its seafront all taken over by the profit motive.”
Two years down the line the situation is many times worse. Every day more tiny rooms get a fancy renovation including a colourful door and a quaint name and a listing on AirBnB. Every day more of the old shops disappear making way for character-less chains and imagination-free tourist products.
The soundscape is now 70% construction noises, 20% traffic and 10% everything else. The pigeons still rule the overground, the cats and cockroaches compete for the underground kingdom that has not yet been turned into overpriced weekend accommodation. The rubbish still piles up in the corners day in day out.
Once in a while I encounter some signs of life. Some signs of humans who are interested in more than just money. Humans who own property that they prefer to rent out to those who will actually be living there (shock, shock, horror, horror!). Shops that seem to want to do things ethically and creatively. Artists still managing to exist within the madness of the old city. People going about their daily business as if none of this madness even exists.
Most days though, I walk the streets trying to ignore the development notices on every second or third door because I cannot bear to see another pool on the roof, boutique hotel or residence to offices conversion happening. Sometimes I complain about it to whoever might be inclined to listen but to be honest I’m even tired of my own rants, void of some sort of solution as they are. 

Can we not, for once, decide that perhaps we have enough?

That perhaps we can actually afford to leave a portion of that block of flats available to those with a lower income who will contribute to the place feeling like home rather than 3 sets of tourists rolling in luggage every week? That perhaps it would be beneficial to all if we look around to make sure that we manage to keep the things that make the city a good place to live in? The little food shops, the ironmongers (possibly the only non-endangered species thanks to all the construction going on), the workshops with people making and repairing things often with their shutters open, the random bazaars, the tea and pastizzi shops, the old stationeries.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think we should press the stop button on time or change. That never works. But neither does this do-nothing approach that lets market forces decide which things die and which live. Yes, in 50 years time perhaps people will realise that a museum city is not really that interesting and the bubble will burst. Perhaps Valletta will just become another Venice, a sinking relic in the midst of throngs of day-trippers on the hunt for cheesy souvenirs. Perhaps we’re already practically there.

Or perhaps we can use the experience of countless other cities and do something about that which is inevitable unless we drastically change course. It’s not like we don’t have clear examples of what gentrification does to cities without even glancing at the many local studies conducted. Can we possibly not create something different for ourselves? Are we actually so incredibly unimaginative as to simply plod along known roads to mediocrity?

In a small island like this one, where it’s practically impossible to avoid eventually swimming in the sewage you have yourself thrown out, can we not actually work together to create something we actually want? Valletta is a city born out of a collective effort of some of the best local and foreign minds and purses of the time. A city planned out meticulously before it was built. Surely over 400 years later we at least owe the old girl some thought over what will make her once again truly alive rather than a polished shell for a rotting interior fabric.


And in case you’re wondering what you yourself, tiny person can do, there’s plenty.

If you own property, consider capping the rent to what you feel is enough, whatever that means for you not the estate agent. Consider renting to people who will live in the city and make it better.

If you’re renting, speak out about unacceptable prices for tiny dark rooms. Create a relationship with your landlord.

If you’re visiting, stop by one of the small shops or peer into the workshops. Wander beyond Republic Street.

Have conversations with tourists, locals, builders, garbage collectors, bar owners, developers, share a cup of coffee with a stranger. You never know what new realities you might learn about.

Read some of the development notices and decide whether they are helping create a more liveable city. Act on those thoughts by contacting the Planning Authority or even searching out the owner and having a good old conversation where you might agree to disagree.

If you’re an architect dare to give the feedback that’s on the tip of your tongue about how to make a better living space and why it’s not ok to turn every square metre into tourist accommodation. Dare to have standards for yourself.

If you live here, get some plants going, take the garbage out at the right time, speak to your neighbours and see if they are ok even if they seem grouchy.

Seek out the artists and support them, they make the place better for everyone.

If you’re in a position to influence even small things, use it well. Have that conversation, check that situation out, do your homework and stand up for what you feel is right instead of repeating the same old excuses everyone is tired of. You can actually do better.

We can all actually do a lot better.

Experiments with enough – Day 100

Experiments with enough – Day 100

It looks like I’ve made it to day 100.  Surely there’s something appropriately special in store for this last day. Is there?

My brain has been thinking about a post listing the things I’ve learnt from my 100-day diary but right now it’s trying to wriggle out of it. “It’s too late for coherent thoughts now”, “This should be done properly tomorrow”, “What you write now will be rubbish”.

Which I guess brings me to the first thing I’ve learnt:

What I do is better than what I don’t do.

In the sense that it’s all well and good to have high standards for yourself. To expect great things. Yet if this expectation stops you from actually doing anything then it’s just getting in the way. I’ve had good posts, bad posts, decent posts. Most importantly I’ve had the experience of writing and sharing a diary for 100 days. If I only posted the great entries I would have missed the whole thing.

I find it harder than I imagined to be frank about some things.

I’m a very open person (much to my mother’s dismay) and usually have absolutely no problem talking about my most personal, difficult days. I find the practice interesting and it always reveals something new to myself. Yet being frank with my thoughts about things I’m doing when that involves other people I’m working with I find more challenging. I often erred to the side of caution when I felt that things would create issues related to others. Finding the balance there as been difficult.

I’m realising I have this freelancing thing more sorted than I thought.

There are a million writings out there about how unglamorous freelancing is, how difficult it is to earn a living, how no one ever pays decently, how it’s actually all about working your ass off for nothing. And don’t get me wrong, it is all that sometimes. Yet there are also many days in which it works beautifully. Freelancing lets me explore things on my own terms and tweak processes as I go along. I’m embracing the fact that I’m a generalist and that having the flexibility to change tack at will is priceless. I’m completely open to other models of working that also include this flexibility but I don’t think that I am really be happy and fulfilled without it.

I actually love writing every day.

Despite the fact that some days I’ve been epically busy, other days I just did not feel like lifting a finger, writing daily has been a helpful and enjoyable practice. Some days I felt like I was only capable of writing rubbish but I wrote anyway and the practice of writing helped develop things in my head. Words help me make sense of things and writing them down feels both slow and deliverate, giving each one more attention, creating a space for observation.

On this note I’m winding down this 100th day of my freelancing diary and bringing the series to a close. I would like to sincerely thank all of you who have been keeping me company by reading occasionally or everyday. Your attention, comments, encouragement have spurred me on in moment where I felt this was a silly idea. I am very, very grateful.

My mind is already thinking about what’s next and it will come soon. In the meantime, thank you. I hope that you have also enjoyed the ride and found it somehow meaningful.

Experiments with enough – Day 99

Experiments with enough – Day 99

Today was mostly about our Parking Space Coffee morning. Wake up, little mini yoga session, breakfast, shower and making coffee, packing table, chairs, cups and biscuits in bags.

It took us a good 20-30 min to find a white parking space in Valletta. The one we eventually encountered was a motorcycle space in St Paul Street. Thanks to the press this week we were instantly recognised by a neighbour and also had a biker 🚴 join us. You can read about the whole experience here. I really enjoyed the two hours we spent there chatting, stopping passers by, drinking coffee and hanging around with some very interesting people. Today was the first time that the event took on a life of its own. Each of the people who joined had their own version of events. Their own idea of what it is and what we were all doing there. This made it an even richer experience for me.

The rest of the day involved lunch at home with friends, roaming around Valletta, and eventually a little unexpected trip to Marsascala where we observed the pro seaside picnickers doing their thing.

Experiments with enough – Day 98

Experiments with enough – Day 98

I did very little work today. The day programme involved a ferry to Sliema, sitting for Zvezdan Reljic, an amazing photographer and print master, and finally a rather big dose of wedding outfit shopping. This year I have definitely done more shopping than the last 4 years combined (still minute when compared to the average). I guess you could see it as an update of the basics that can then be with me for a long time. I try to buy things that are well made, from small artesian brands rather than mass market. Things that I can see myself wearing again and again and again. I’m also slimming down my wardrobe in the process. Anything that’s not top favourite gets charity shopped in an attempt to minimise my possessions and be lighter. There’s always an edge to my feelings when I buy things, so I try to make my money support good things that I want to see thriving and growing. Sometimes I just buy things that are not the best in terms of environmental or social impact. I’m not particularly proud of that and I’m trying to do that less and less. There are always alternatives if I look hard enough.

In the afternoon I dared look at my bank account to see who had paid and who hasn’t from my last batch of invoices. I somehow seem to work with a very timely-paying set of customers in general. My longest so far have definitely been government bodies (about 3-4 months!). Only one payment came back from the last batch I invoiced so it’s time to do some chasing. I find the whole system of credit bizarre. We buy things on a cash basis every day. You would not dream of going to the supermarket, taking your food and then paying them within 30 days (sometimes longer). Why would anyone expect a freelancer or a company for that matter, to give credit? Based on what premise?

In the evening Jo and I hopped over to feed the cats at the other house (I feel a little fancy saying that even though I clearly own neither). In the beginning they were naughty, antisocial, jumpy. We hung around for an hour or two and played, talked, cuddled and just sat close by. The change by the time we left was incredible. We left two sleepy, calm cats cosy in their sleeping corners. How much difference a little focused attention and time can make!

Experiments with enough – Day 97

Experiments with enough – Day 97

I’m in bed at 11pm, both sleepy and tired. I emerged from the cocoon that is Bahrija today where I spent the first half of the day.

I’m happy with the progress we made over the last two days and it feels good to be moving on to other things for bit. I really enjoy the variety.

This evening I had a meeting and a book launch of three books by EDE that quite a few people went to. Several people spoke about being exhausted on a Thursday evening which highlighted the fact that I actually felt completely relaxed and fresh after a few days in Bahrija. I had not really noticed before then.

It seems that exhibition production might be on the cards for the next few months following today’s meeting. I’ll need to balance it out with some decently paying work (the gov pays a measly hourly rate in general and my tax and NI need to come out of that) but I am really excited about the encounters, new ideas and experience that this will bring into my life.

In happy and completely unexpected news, Parking Space Events was featured by Lovin Malta today. Something about this project seems to have captured the imagination of many. I’m really enjoying the exploration.

Experiments with enough – Day 96

Experiments with enough – Day 96

I could seriously get used to this. Another Bahrija day at a relaxed but steady pace. Morning walk, some sweeping, meditation. Breakfast, some more cleaning and settling down to my computer mid morning to write some documentation with Peppi. We eventually stopped for lunch, then did some more work till 4pm when we started to make dinner, showered and eventually went for a walk up on the cliff and admired the para glider overhead.

This is how life can be for all of us if we decided to work together rather than segregate our resources and and worry about how we will all be jobless and moneyless very soon. We can all make our lives simpler and more in tune with the things that will support human beings in the long term. We can have the time and the possibility to enjoy the things that are already around us. To enjoy each other. To really live.

Why do we so often choose the hamster wheel instead?

Experiments with enough – Day 95

Experiments with enough – Day 95

Permaculture Malta day. To facilitate my work I’ve moved to Bahrija for just over two days. It feels easier to dedicate myself to something when I’m in it. Distractions seem to have less effect. I managed a site update on Permaculturemalta.com, there’s still much to be updated there but it’s definitely progress. Tomorrow it’s documentation and writing up new projects with Peppi.   

Photo: The sunset I missed because I was absorbed in my computer. Oh well! Taken by Johannes Buch who did not miss sunset.

Experiments with enough – Day 94

Experiments with enough – Day 94

I’m writing this diary the next day, which I guess is a little against the rules. Or is it? It’s helpful to see what I can remember of the day, what stuck. The evening bus to Rabat and dinner in Mdina is definitely a lot more vibrant in my memory than the morning working from home, calmly and without any rush responding to requests, planning for jobs that are coming up soon and doing some social media work I had pending. There’s something about this slower period that screams ‘in between’ as my mind is used to things being a lot more hectic or to panicking so much when things are quieter that I end up being more stressed that when things are busy. Not this time though. I am now taking my time and getting through things at a nice, calm, dare-I-say reasonable pace. And I like it.