In the Palm of our Hands

How do you help children adjust to living with diabetes? For Clayton Saliba, a Master of Fine Arts in Digital Arts graduate, the solution lies in the palm of our hands. By combining digital arts and medical information Clayton developed Digitus, an app designed to help children better understand diabetes symptoms. 

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Art on the cloud

Virtual nature tourism by Letta Shtohryn

Author: Daiva Repeckaite

‘I find it quite interesting that the transition [from face-to-face to digital communication] is uneasy for some people. For me it’s all the same,’ says contemporary artist Letta Shtohryn. Although her artistic practice suffered when three exhibitions she was to take part in were postponed, her working methods remained unchanged when communication moved online amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Already in 2019, three of her artist residencies were fully digital. 

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Dark themes go places

Student films

Author: Kieran Teschner

Film is a medium that preserves life’s nuances for the future. It stimulates our senses in ways no other medium can, giving a unique, multilayered experience. Even a small-scale project can speak directly to people’s hearts when made with devotion to the filmmaking craft. The desire to capture a glimpse of the world through someone else’s eyes drove two groups of students to international recognition. 

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Designing success

Sticky notes

Author: Daniela Quacinella

Picture the following. You are a museum director or curator who wants more locals in your space. You are confident that your next art event will attract them: a prestigious artist from London, a series of exciting talks… You are certain it will be a success, because your passion and knowledge are behind this activity. On the day, as you stand near the entrance with excitement tingling across your fingertips, you slowly begin to despair. Despite a great marketing campaign, the local residents congregate anywhere but the museum. What went wrong?

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Busting out of the box

Magic wand
Aesthetic physician and artistic consultant Dr Joanna Delia traces her journey from medical student to successful business owner, telling Teodor Reljić that her experience at the University of Malta helped her resist excessive industry specialisation.  

Modern life is rigidly compartmentalised. Perhaps this is more true of the West than anywhere else, where the materialist, rationalist models that have aided efficiency and technological advancement also require us to absorb vast amounts of knowledge early on, and specialise later.  

Many educational systems reflect this tendency and the Maltese model is no exception. From a very young age, exams come in thick and fast, and cramming to pass them replaces a more holistic education. 

Dr Joanna Delia is not a fan of the word ‘holistic’—preferring the term ‘polyhedral’ for reasons that will be explained later—and has enjoyed a career trajectory that has flouted excessive specialisation. A doctor turned aesthetic physician with an interest in the world of contemporary art, Delia’s journey is an affront to such restrictive notions.

While she assures me that her own time at the University of Malta (UM) was nothing short of amazing, in recounting the roots of her intellectual curiosity, she is compelled to go even further back. 

‘Like every excited little girl, my dreams used to alternate and metamorph somewhere between wanting to be a writer like Emily Brontë or Virginia Woolf and a scientist who would make incredible discoveries and change the world like Marie Curie,’ Delia recalls. ‘I also wanted to be a doctor who would cure people in war-torn countries, yet fantasised about being Alma Mahler or a young Chanel surrounded by philosophers, drenched in fine clothes and surrounded by white rose bouquets…’

Delia recounts this awareness that we’re shaped to view these inclinations as contradictory. But for her, the intuitive desire to learn about and closely observe scientific phenomena matched the heights of aesthetic appreciation.

Vella’s own student enthusiasm did not come as immediately as all that, however. While she is now secure in her three-pronged role as writer, performer, and translator (also acknowledging her former role as a lecturer), forging an early path as a student meant first squinting through the fog. 

‘I just loved learning the science subjects… figuring out protein synthesis and DNA replication literally made me feel giddy, light headed, downright euphoric! I was a real geek,’ Delia says with disarming self-deprecation. ‘To me, it was just the same as reading an incredible work of literature or staring at a work of contemporary art alone in one of the silent, perfectly lit halls of a museum.’

Given this internal push-pull across various disciplines, Delia confesses that in terms of pursuing the later strands of her formal education, she ‘floated into medical school’ without feeling the need to strategise things much further. It was only upon graduation that the realities of being slotted into a specialised discipline dawned on her with an ominous pall.  

‘The day I graduated I felt a suffocating feeling: the thought that I had somehow sealed my fate,’ Delia says, though the sense of regret which followed did not linger for much longer.

‘Looking at one’s future through a tunnel vision perspective based on the imaginary restrictions of one’s degree is just that a self-imposed illusion,’ Delia observes. 

Her University years were active and inspiring, with Delia having happily taken on extra-curricular activities and also quietly rebelled against the notion of boxed-in specialised disciplines.

University and beyond  

‘University was amazing! I would repeat those years ten times over,’ Delia unapologetically enthuses. Though she does acknowledge that the Medicine course was challenging to begin with—citing the ‘competition among students’ as an additional factor—she looks back on both her time there, and her association with the UM’s Medical School, with immense pride. 

‘My lecturers were charismatic and experts in their field, which of course garners respect and made us feel honoured to be part of that system,’ Delia says, while also recalling her involvement in additional campus activities.

‘I was the chair of the environmental committee at KSU and served two terms as the Officer for the Sub-Committee on Refugees and Peace within MMSA. I loved my time on campus, and encourage all students to participate in campus affairs. We never stopped organising fairs, events, fundraisers, workshops, and outreach programmes with the community…’

Hinting at an essential discomfort with the idea of overbearing specialisation, Delia believes ‘the Maltese education system does not proactively encourage sharing knowledge’, but also notes that she did find hope, solidarity, and inspiration among her peers, from various faculties.’ I socialised with students from the architecture department, and attended their workshop parties. I was invited to history of art lectures and tours. I organised panel discussions to reduce car [use] on campus and lobby for [a] paperless [campus],’ Delia says. All these activities contributed to ‘a feeling of a hopeful future’. 

Adjacent to Delia’s academic efforts were her course-related travels abroad, which contributed to expanding her horizons. ‘I did internships in Rio De Janeiro and travelled to India and Nepal through the Malta Medical Students’ Association (MMSA), both of which were incredible experiences.’ During this time, she gained a keener interest in art.

‘My sister was studying history of art and eventually read for a Ph.D. in Museology. I followed her as closely as I could; her subjects fascinated me and a lot of her excitement about art rubbed off on me…’ 

But first, her early medical career needed seeing to. Delia admits that medical students in Malta are somewhat privileged since they enjoy a relatively smooth changeover from academic to professional life. However, the change happens very rapidly.

‘Young doctors in Malta have the advantage of an almost flawless transition into a job. This also turns out to be the toughest time in your life, but at least there there is a continuity of support at the start of your profession,’ Delia says, citing the diligence and discipline instilled into her and her peers by their University tutors and lecturers. This rigour was crucial to ensure that those early years went on as smoothly as possible.

Pausing to reflect, Delia feels compelled to add that a culture that leaves more breathing room for exploration and enquiry could only be beneficial for the future of Maltese medicine. ‘I wish we had a stronger culture of research and publication in Malta. We need to somehow find time for it as it will not only improve the reputation of the institution but also nurture us as students, alumni, and professionals, and keep us on our toes,’ Delia says, adding that these ideas reflect the same culture of hard work that her course promoted, which rewards diligence and depth. ‘I believe in constantly keeping astride with knowledge by reading publications and actively pursuing ‘continued medical education’. I wish that the institution instilled more of this into its alumni,’ Delia muses.

This approach of constant enquiry arguably gave Delia a fount of knowledge and inspiration to draw from when she found herself at a forking road in her medical career. 

Expanding horizons  

”After a few years of working at the general hospital, I was lucky enough to be chosen to pursue some level of surgical training, but by that point I had realised that the life of a surgeon was not for me…’ 

This was an ‘extremely tough decision’, with regret once again raising its ugly head. ‘However, the 80-hour weeks, and above all the realisation that my professional life would be all about facing and treating ill and dying people, forced me to make a decision to leave the hospital,’ Delia says.

This pushed Delia to explore other careers, and she now juggles her love of both medicine and aesthetics in a sustainable way.

‘After I stopped working as a hospital doctor, there were too many things I was hungry to explore – one of them was medical aesthetics. I started pursuing training in London and Paris, and essentially spent years of salary training with the best doctors I could find.’

Joanna at work as an aesthetic physician Photo: People & Skin

After working at a reputable local clinic, Delia finally managed to go at it independently, opening up her own place.

‘It was nothing short of a dream come true. I had to search hard within myself and build up entrepreneurial and management skills. I learnt the hard way sometimes, business-wise, but I was also fortunate to find help from my friends who excel in other fields like marketing, photography and architecture, to help me build my brand and clinic,’ Delia recalls.

In the end, her resistance to rigid specialisation helped her to open a thriving business called Med-Aesthetic Clinic People & Skin. She couples this work to her position as head of the Advisory Board at the newly-opened Valletta Contemporary, a boutique showcase for local and international contemporary art run by artist and architect Norbert Francis Attard. 

Which brings her story back to a ‘polyhedral’ conception of the world. 

‘I believe everything in life is polyhedral. I prefer polyhedral to ‘holistic’. Every square, or rather, every cube we think we’re trapped in, can be pushed out and reconfigured to welcome other disciplines. I don’t believe any of us purposely split the two fields, but I believe we don’t allocate enough time to explore all the wonders we could discover if we used both their lenses to analyse the world. After all, even Einstein believed that the most important thing in science is creativity…’ 

Architecture: A dying art?

Making smart choices for our current urban fabric through architecture requires a massive understanding of all the moving parts of the industry. But is it time to go back to basics? Cassi Camilleri speaks to Prof. Antonio Mollicone and the talented people at AP Valletta to come up with an answer.

The changes in the Maltese landscape over recent years has been drastic. All over social media, petitions keep being shared to prevent one original building or another from being torn down and replaced with contemporary apartments. This has ‘resulted in discomfort for many,’ says Prof. Antonio Mollicone, an architect lecturing within the Faculty of Built Environment (University of Malta). 

Prof. Antonio Mollicone

The discomfort is multifaceted. On one level, it has to do with the physical climate within buildings. Over the last few decades, Malta has seen a shift in the property types people buy, and these properties seem to be leaving people hot or cold in their own homes.

Through his research, which used an old Maltese farmhouse as his case study, Mollicone found that ‘a property’s orientation, double skin (having two layers of brick walls), ceiling height and window measurements all have a role to play.’ Mollicone points out that ‘orientation is most important.’ In an ideal world, based on Malta’s position on the globe, ‘houses should be north-south facing and rotated clockwise to east by eight degrees to get the best of the sun in winter and the least of it in summer.’ Higher ceilings can create a four-degree difference in the temperature inside a room. As for the floor to ceiling windows you see in all the glossy magazines, Mollicone finds them problematic, noting the costs involved in terms of energy efficiency when replacing stone with glass. ‘Certain basic techniques in design are being lost in the fast-paced world of today,’ Mollicone asserts. 

Konrad Buhagiar (AP Valletta)

On this note, founding partner of AP Valletta, Konrad Buhagiar, says that with the ‘era of radical pragmatism’ we are currently living in, ‘the commercial aspect of a project is paramount,’ adding, ‘It will always be so. It is the nature of the industry.’ But with this being said, effort needs to be put into giving buildings and new projects a depth that ‘connects [them] to [their] context.’  

Even with the best of intentions, challenges still arise. Mollicone laments the flashy features he sees added to a building’s façade before a thought is given to function. ‘It’s make-up for buildings. Nothing more. I call it lipstick architecture.’

Luca Caruso, an environmental architect at AP, also speaks frankly, noting that the ‘construction sector is the least innovative worldwide.’ However, by putting an emphasis on quality and criticism, this can change. ‘Criticism is important in order to raise awareness about the possible consequences of Malta’s ‘uncontrolled’ growth. […] Debate can lead to new, innovative ways to inspire decision-makers while respecting local characteristics.’ 

The reality, as Caruso states, is that ‘Malta has undergone massive changes over the last 30 years, and this is a process that requires some more years to mature.’ Buhagiar announces himself a cynic, saying that ‘to produce something excellent, you need an enormous amount of thought and discipline, rigour, and dare I say, sacrifice, all words that do not describe the current culture in any way.’ But Mollicone has hope that common sense will prevail. ‘All we need is to take more time to think about things. Create mindfully. That’s all.’  

Safe haven?

Dr Trevor Borg

Some refer to the Venice Biennale as the pinnacle of the international art world. Last year, feathers were flurried by the Maltese delegation and their representation of Maltese identity. This year, the works question a specific part of the Maltese narrative. 

‘We are working around the theme of MALETH,’ says Dr Trevor Borg, artist, curator, and University of Malta lecturer. Maleth refers to the ancient word for Malta. ‘It is also called HAVEN and SAFE PORT.’ These were all terms used in reference to Malta over the centuries. But is our island really that? This is the question being tackled by Borg and his colleagues. 

Immigration has been a critical issue in recent years, creating an inflammatory divide in Malta. Borg is using the first immigrants, the animals that travelled to Malta during the ice age, to make his point. ‘They travelled here because of the heat our island provided and the food that came with it. But as the ice in the North started to melt, sea level rose and they were unable to return.’

What is the relation between an (apparent) safe haven and a heterotopia? Here, heterotopia refers to Michel Foucault‘s notion of the ‘other place’. Heterotopias are described as ‘worlds within worlds’, connecting different places. They are places that constitute multiple layers of meaning, that accumulate time, that can be both real and unreal.

To represent this visually, Borg is going to create an archaeological find with hundreds of objects from history. Animal remains will feature, as will unusual artefacts and other strange finds. Borg was inspired by Ghar Dalam and used it as a starting point, but this work is not about history. ‘My work begins at the cave. But I will then leave the cave behind and delve into a distant world that never was! The work responds to fabricated histories, museological conventions, historical interpretations, and hypothetical authenticity. It is based on pseudo-archaeological objects and imaginary narratives,’ he explains. 

Collaborating on this work, bringing the artefacts to life is Dr Ing. Emmanuel Francalanza (Faculty of Engineering). The process began at the National History museum in Mdina. ‘Together we selected and scanned a number of animal bones from their archives,’ Francalanza says. This included femurs, teeth, and skulls among others. ‘I then supported Trevor in reconstructing the 3D model and preparing it for printing.’ 

For Francalanza, this was a chance to apply engineering technologies in new ways, to allow artists to express themselves. But not just. ‘At the same time, this opportunity provides us engineers and scientists with an avenue to explore concepts and even utilise thinking patterns which are not traditionally associated with our disciplines. It helps us be more creative and open to innovative practices.’ 

Working together, Borg and Francalanza are blurring the lines between what is real and what is fake. By recreating the original artefacts in such a way that a viewer cannot determine whether what is being seen is authentic, the project is poignant commentary for the post-truth era we are living in. 

Conjuring the ultimate art space

Author: Dr Joanna Delia

Form follows function. This is the maxim that rules modernist architecture and industrial design: the shape of an object or building is determined by its use or purpose. Around 10 years ago, contemporary artist and architect Norbert Francis Attard embarked on a project that would see the two merge together in a perfect marriage. 

Attard envisaged a space within Valletta’s walls that would serve as a focal point for anyone wanting to experience the world of contemporary art. He wanted a place where established and emerging artists could come together to trigger dialogue with the community and its visitors.

A few years and several permits later, three warehouses were purchased and transformed. Carefully-designed excavations and beautifully-proportioned internal apertures created triple-height spaces, interrupted only by lightweight steel stairs and floors, or glass railings. The result is a sublime canvas ready to bring art to life and inspire others.  

Note: Valletta Contemporary (VC) is open from Tuesday to Friday and admission is free of charge. VC recently published its first book, Valletta Contemporary 001, which includes a compilation of VC’s 2018 exhibition program alongside all show catalogs.

Openness: The case of the Valletta Design Cluster

Valletta should be a unique experience, open to all. This is Valletta 2018’s key vision for the bustling capital. A group of people focused on making this a reality is the Valletta Design Cluster team. Located at the Old Abattoir site in Valletta, the initiative is going to create a community space for cultural and creative practice. Words by Caldon Mercieca.

According to Anna Wicher from the PDR International Centre for Design and Research, design is ‘an approach to problem-solving that can be applied across the private and public sectors to drive innovation in products, services, society and even policy-making by putting people first.’ This people-centred approach to design is not just a theoretical framework, but a concrete method that engages people in a co-creative process. 

By bringing together people active in the cultural and social spheres, we want to have a concrete and meaningful impact on Malta’s diverse communities. We aim to provide support for students, start-ups, and creative enterprises and give social groups the necessary tools to empower those with different interests who nonetheless share the common purpose of using creativity for the social good. We also want to provide a new networking space for everyone. From students, to cultural and creative professionals, to residents, budding businesses and civil society groups, everyone will be welcomed at the Valletta Design Cluster.  

This philosophy of openness and diversity is one that has permeated every aspect of the project from the very beginning. Over the past three years, we have consulted with residents, students, schools, higher education institutions, artists, makers, and creatives to build the vision for the space. A range of public and independent organisations are also contributing to the project, providing both expertise and generous support. 

Work in progress at the Valetta Design Cluster

Thanks to the support from the European Regional Development Fund, the physical space for the Cluster as well as the urban public spaces around it are currently undergoing serious regeneration. Once finished, the Cluster will have a range of facilities, which were decided on following consultation with potential users. It will include a makerspace, coworking spaces, studios, a food-space, several meeting rooms and conference facilities, an exhibition space, and a public roof garden. All of these facilities have benefitted from input contributed by various potential users, by residents, and by organisations that have been interacting regularly with the team working on the Valletta Design Cluster. 

We believe that a community can only truly reach its potential when it opens itself up to collaborations which share a common goal. This does not mean turning a blind eye to the challenges faced by the community on a daily basis, or to the ever-evolving scenario that surrounds it, but rather cultivating a readiness to learn, an aptitude to develop networks built on trust, and a capacity to address problems with a practical, positive, can-do attitude. 

One valuable experience we are developing with our community stakeholders is Design4DCity. This annual initiative, which the Valletta Design Cluster team started back in 2016, sees creatives, residents, and local authorities joining forces to rework and improve a public space. We worked with the Valletta community in 2016, and continued with the Birżebbuġa community in 2017. In 2018 we plan to work again in Birżebbuġa as well as in Siġġiewi, and will involve children and young people in our public space projects. Such initiatives are providing very important insights into the application of collaborative, co-creative approaches involving multiple stakeholders. 

But the work of the Valletta Design Cluster is not restricted to the restoration or transformation of space. For the past three years, we have collaborated with the Malta Robotics Olympiad, teaming up with artistic curators and student organisations from the University of Malta (UM) to design and construct the pavilion for Valletta 2018. By the end of the project, participants had constructed a fully-recyclable 300 square meter pavilion and presented it to the public. This year we also supported SACES, the architecture students’ association at the UM, through a number of design and construction workshops. Branching out, we have done work with a number of creatives from various backgrounds in projects involving video-capture, artifact-curation, narrative development linked to cultural identities, and flexible use of available space through appropriately constructed spatial modules. 

Several workshops have also been held where project stakeholders were fully involved in training sessions, with the aim of building skills in user-centred design, applied to specific contexts. This meant interacting with students, researchers, creatives, residents, and organisations in developing what the Cluster can offer. One tool used in this process is the construction of a user persona, where the characteristics, interests and concerns of the user are gathered through interaction with potential users of a service. Students from a number of faculties have also provided their input in this process through dedicated workshops at the UM.

They also stressed that the Cluster needed to serve as a catalyst for networking and for strengthening entrepreneurial skills for people working in the creative sector.

All of this has become possible thanks to continuous collaboration and international networks which have contributed their resources to our projects. To assist us in this, the Valletta 2018 Foundation has joined Design4Innovation, an Interreg Europe project bringing together eight European countries all working towards using design to benefit society. 

While we have been on the receiving end of a lot of support, translating our philosophy of openness into practice involved an element of risk. During a series of tours that we organised on site for potential users of the Cluster, we had to be open to various views and perspectives about what the Cluster could be. Participants highlighted issues related to accessibility and affordability as key concerns. They also stressed that the Cluster needed to serve as a catalyst for networking and for strengthening entrepreneurial skills for people working in the creative sector. In some cases, we had to revisit some of our plans and open new discussions with the architects to made adjustments. On other occasions, we called people in again to discuss their ideas further and see how we could integrate their suggestions into our vision. 

Although we speak of cultural and creative industries, we should realise that the average number of people working in any single company is two. Indeed, 40% of designers in Malta are actually freelancers. The challenge for the Valletta Design Cluster here is to ensure flexibility and adaptability both in the physical infrastructure as well as the management of the Cluster. In this way, we can make the facility relevant for our users’ current needs, as well as cater to future ones. 

The next stage in understanding our community of potential users better is to work together on the creation of a Design Action Plan. The Design Action Plan will highlight concrete actions to be undertaken by the Cluster during the first three years of its operation. It will serve as the main reference tool to structure the Valletta Design Cluster’s interaction with its community of users, practitioners, enterprises, and beneficiaries. Based on this open process, the Valletta Design Cluster aims at establishing itself as a new community-driven platform for cultural and creative practice in Malta.  

Author: Caldon Mercieca