The Maltese Time Machine: Magna Żmien

As I write this article, a box full of 8mm film has just been delivered to our studio. On these tapes is local home footage featuring carnival celebrations from the 1960s, a visit by the UK’s Queen Elizabeth II, and an assorted series of family events recorded around the Maltese Islands. These films are valuable historical records opening a window onto the unfiltered and uncensored perspective of Maltese citizens.  Magna Żmien is a Valletta 2018 project coordinated by artistic director Andrew Alamango and a collective of like-minded individuals. The purpose of the project is to collect and preserve historic Maltese content recorded on home sound, image, and video equipment over the past century. Left neglected, these personal documents containing evidence of Malta’s changing landscapes—physical, social, and political—might have been lost and forgotten. Instead, the team is reusing them, reinterpreting them through art. 

Armchair Voyager Wistin (Jacob Piccinino)

The move to digitise and make available fading analogue memories is physically manifested through ‘The Magnificent Memory Machine’—the Kapsula Merill, designed and built by Matthew Pandolfino, Andre Vujicic and Late Interactive. In the driver’s seat is Armchair Voyager Wistin (Jacob Piccinino). Behind the scenes is the professional studio that makes it all happen, digitising open reel tapes, audio cassettes, vinyl, Super 8 and 8mm film, photographs, negatives, and slides at high resolution. Since February 2018, we have digitised over 2,000 items from 51 different donors, in addition to receiving a further 600 digital files from private collections.

An eager viewer going back in time!

The collected material has many stories to tell. Our performance events throughout 2018, including at Science and the City and Malta Café Scientifique, only scratch the surface when it comes to the sheer volume of material we have been allowed to copy by donors. 

One thing we often encounter is the personal voice message—greetings between diasporic Maltese. Dating back to the 1950s, these appear most frequently on open reel and audio cassette tape, but also on special vinyl discs. One particular recording is by a man named Charlie who recorded his message in a Calibre booth on a platform at London Waterloo station. In the message, Charlie sends wishes to his family and regales them with tales of all the football matches he is attending, one of which he is particularly excited about: England vs East Germany. Some minor detective work has revealed that this recording was made on 24 November 1970 when England beat East Germany three goals to one. 

Messages such as these may seem inconsequential, but of all the voice recordings we have heard, they are perhaps among the most honest. Recorded in a busy, alien environment under strict time constraints, the speakers didn’t have the luxury of retakes before their voices were forever fixed on vinyl. 

Magna Żmien will continue to collect sounds, images, and videos like these, and present its research in innovative contexts beyond 2018. We want to continue engaging citizens in the technical and cultural components at the heart of our project. Agreements are also underway to establish a formal association between Magna Żmien and the National Archives, ensuring the longevity of this material as public documents are accessible to all. What we collect, after all, belongs to the Maltese people at home and abroad. The recordings contain an essence of our national identity that cannot and should not be lost.  

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Author: Andrew Pace for the Valletta 2018 Foundation

Urban Utopia

Valletta is living proof that major cultural and artistic events can breathe new life into the city. When Malta’s capital was granted the title of European Capital of Culture for 2018, all hands were on deck to prune and preen, reversing decades of decay to make it ‘worthy’ of such a prestigious title. Now, after years of intense effort, the hard work has paid off. City Gate now provides an appropriately magnificent entryway into Valletta. Dingy, long-shuttered venues have been restored and reinvigorated. The once sleepy city has roared back to life with the wealth of events being organised. Valletta is no longer a stop on the hop-on hop-off bus; it is a bustling melting pot of old and new with an inescapable siren song.

This shift has created positive momentum in the arts scene. But not all outcomes have been positive. Valletta’s overhaul can look very different for the ones who call the city home. The burst of activities may have disrupted some people’s day-to-day business, while also contributing to the congestion and noise. The solution is in identifying ways to effectively balance the discomfort brought about by social change and the valued benefits that same change brings.

Jaakko Blomberg

Finnish social activist, Jaakko Blomberg knows the struggle. He founded the NGO Yhteismaa (Common Ground) in Helsinki in 2012. Yhteismaa specializes in new participatory city culture, co-creation, and social movements. ‘In the beginning, many municipal officers in Helsinki were against our events and projects; they just didn’t have any procedure for handling them, so we kind of had to find a new way to do things.’ Leaving room for people to share their ideas and expressing themselves is also essential, he says. ‘There should be different kinds of roles and tasks for people to take on; all changes are scary, so it’s important to inform people and make them feel like they’re part of the process. For example, many people are prejudiced against street art, but when you explain more about it and give people the chance to take part in the process, their attitude becomes much more positive. Organisers have to provide enough information and make participation easy. It’s important that it’s not just about a small circle of activists, but about the whole community.’

Residents often felt ‘helpless and disowned of their spaces.

Victor Jacono

Closer to home, project leader of the Ġewwa Barra initiative, Victor Jacono, tells us how Valletta residents often felt ‘helpless and disowned of their spaces.’ Ġewwa Barra was created to address precisely that issue: to empower residents and give them ownership of their community, using artistic tools to get a glimpse at the cultures affecting their lives and help them express the needs and dreams that shape their experience in the capital city.

‘We seek to encourage creativity, but also responsibility. We hold creative workshops conducted by different facilitators and artists to give people the chance to look at themselves through the aesthetic lens of the artworks. Currently we are engaging the residents of Duwi Balli in a process of creative place regeneration, through a collaboration between architects Maria Cerreta and Franco Lancio, the Valletta Local Council, and the Valletta Services Directorate. It is not simply a matter of approaching the residents and asking them what nice things they would like us to do for them. It is a matter of asking them what they wish to express with our support, of providing them with tools and opportunities to respond creatively to the changes affecting their lived spaces,’ Victor says. In 2017 and 2018 Ġewwa Barra is going to extend its reach even further in order to involve residents from across the capital city, with different artists conducting a series of creative workshops that will culminate in an exceptional performing arts event.

Ġewwa Barra was created to […] empower residents and give them ownership of their community, using artistic tools to get a glimpse at the cultures affecting their lives and help them express the needs and dreams that shape their experience in the capital city.

While Victor is realistic about the forward march of change, he believes it is unjust and unacceptable that changes are engineered by a handful of stakeholders, whose decisions everyone else simply has to accept— especially when such changes are going to affect Valletta’s residents’ lives dramatically. Much like Jaakko with Yhteismaa, he believes that the fear of change can be lessened if people are informed and included in the process. ‘The voices of those stakeholders with lesser means need to be amplified and given the importance they deserve. The arts can contribute greatly towards this. Ġewwa Barra is not so much about single events, but the mainly bottom-up processes engaging the residents creatively. I believe it is the experiences brought about by such processes that will leave an important and long-lasting legacy with the inhabitants of Valletta.’

Jaakko Blomberg and Victor Jacono are keynote speakers at the Valletta 2018 conference titled Living Cities, Liveable Spaces: Placemaking & Identity. More information on this conference can be accessed at Registration ends on 12th November. Discounted rates are available for students. 



Cultural Regeneration through Urban Spaces and Places

The effects of a European Capital of Culture are felt through both the cultural activities that take place and through the interactions people have with each other as well as the space around them in their everyday lives.

The Valletta 2018 Foundation has been working tirelessly on several projects preparing Valletta for its title as European Capital of Culture in Malta in 2018. More so, it is researching how these projects are changing the lives of people.

These interactions between communities and their surrounding space are key issues being investigated by the Valletta 2018 Evaluation & Monitoring research process. This is a five-year research study examining the impacts of the European Capital of Culture on Malta’s society and economy.

Dr Antoine Zammit, with the Valletta 2018 Foundation, has been studying the relationship between community inclusion and space in cultural infrastructural projects. His research focuses on four specific infrastructural projects taking place in Valletta as part of the European Capital of Culture: The Valletta Design Cluster (il-Biċċerija) and its surrounding neighbourhood; Strait Street; the relocation of MUŻA – Mużew Nazzjonali tal-Arti (Malta’s National Museum of Fine Arts) – to Auberge d’Italie and Pjazza de Valette; and the area surrounding the Valletta Covered Market (is-Suq tal-Belt).

The four projects are in different stages of their implementation, and have been dispersed throughout Valletta in a way that allows them to collide with many of the different districts of the capital. While none lack cultural significance, each project has displayed different strengths in implementation. The Valletta Market and Strait Street Projects have a particularly strong commercial value, while the Valletta Design Cluster is aimed at creative design and encouraging entreprenuership. MUŻA, more overtly than any of the other three projects, is an attempt at traditional forms of cultural engagement and regeneration through the development of a national, community-driven musuem of art. Zammit, together with two M.Arch. (Architecture and Urban Design) students—Daniel Attard and Christopher Azzopardi—carried out extensive studies to gain a deeper understanding of the sites.

“Quality urban design has increasingly become about creating these habitable places. It is ultimately all about the quality of life of residents.”

Attard developed a matrix in order to score the different types of interactions within each site. Split into categories such as ‘aural’, ‘user categories’ and ‘actual use of space,’ the sections help identify emerging patterns and traits from the implementations of the projects. The Biċċerija and Strait Street all score high in the ‘aural’ category, meaning various elements that contributed to noise, or the lack of it, were observed. MUŻA and the Covered Market both qualified for the ‘user categories’ section, meaning that a relatively diverse demographic was observed making use of the place. The Valletta Design Cluster was noted for having a higher level of human interaction take place daily (balcony conversations, loud conversations in general, and so on). Finally, all four sites qualified for the category of ‘actual use of space,’ meaning that people actively show awareness of the space by taking photos, complaining due to lack of public conveniences, construction work, and shops setting up or closing down, among other things.

On the other hand, Azzopardi focused on the spatial quality of the sites by looking at their accessibility and permeability, perception and comfort, and the vitality of the four sites. Of the four, Strait Street, more specifically the intersection with Old Theatre Street, scored highest, followed by MUŻA and the Valletta  Market. The Valletta Design Cluster obtained the lowest score, suggesting that the site in its current state is poorly perceived and somewhat inaccessible. Matching Azzopardi’s findings with statistical data, obtained at a neighbourhood level through the NSO’s evaluation of the available 2011 Census Data, Zammit has determined some relationship (but not statistically significant), between the buildings’ current state of repair and the community’s achievements in literacy, education, and employment.

Museum of the People

Naqsam il-MUŻA is a branch project inspired by MUŻA. Currently in progress, participants in the Naqsam il-MUŻA project were selected from different communities around Malta and taken to see the art collection of the National Museum of Fine Arts. They will then exhibit their choice of artwork from the museum in their localities. It brings the museum to the people, rather than the other way round.

The diversity of the four sites were key to Zammit’s studies. He studied the effect their differing cultural infrastructure had on the cultural regeneration of Valletta. ‘Cultural infrastructure entails those interventions, which generally have some kind of physical implication, in an urban space which tends to enhance and broaden people’s cultural appreciation,’ explains Dr Zammit, ‘but I see it as requiring an added value. In my opinion, art for art’s sake in these cases doesn’t mean anything. Which is why the question which I try to answer in my research is, “what will that infrastructure give back to the community at the end of it all?”’ Other research, similar to Zammit’s, holds that more than just creating spaces, cultural regenerative projects should aim to create places which result from quality urban design. ‘Over the past two years, I started to realise that the real difference is ‘between places that are alive, versus habitable places,’ comments Zammit, who thinks that, ‘quality urban design has increasingly become about creating these habitable places. It is ultimately all about the quality of life of residents.’ This issue of liveability is key to being a European Capital of Culture. Its goals are to create high-quality cultural and artistic activities while improving the quality of life of communities through culture. Zammit’s study highlights many potential issues such as an increase in noise pollution, gentrification resulting from a rise in property values and rental prices, and other potential impacts on Valletta residents. The Valletta 2018 Foundation is discussing these issues in its upcoming conference Cities as Community Spaces in November 2016, which will bring together a number of international speakers to explore how different communities make use of public spaces for creativity, contestation, and interaction. 

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Spaces & places

Cities are constructed from spaces pulsing with energy. They rely heavily on culture and innovation, which act as their lifeblood. Cities are in constant flux as they would stagnate without change. The role of the city is to drive the whole country forward. When it comes to city growth, culture is pivotal, be it in the form of art or phenomena that impact culture, such as the economy, or widespread immigration. Word by Victoria Galea.

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The Mediterranean: a history to be shared

Professor Mostafa Hassani Idrissi will be one of the keynote speakers at the First Annual International Conference on Cultural Relations in Europe and in the Mediterranean, organised by the Valletta 2018 Foundation with the support of the University of Malta, which will be held at the Valletta Campus on 4th and 5th of September.

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