Experiencing Deja vu?

Romeo Roxmann Gatt, Charlie Cauchi, Slavko Vukovic, Emma Mattei

What can we glean from the older generation of creatives? Those who were there before funding was a given? How does this modern idiom affect the newer generations? What is gained or lost when some have already foraged ahead and found a path? We know there is a lot more to do but is there utility in capitalising on the experience bought through the sweat of those who came before? When the sector starts stabilising what are the issues that still plague it? Is the progress just a surface or has real change been enacted?

501- Strategies of Intent

Emma observes that the creative environment has become richer with new opportunities through funding and education. She also reflects that because of this a certain degree of gumption is being lost by the newer participants in this space. This is, if anything, an indication that the space is becoming a better version of itself, but reinforcing being resourceful and having a strong inner system of self-critique would make the space even better. The idea of marrying the bootstrapping approach of older generations with the richer space of today would benefit everyone. This illustrates a key issue, one of strategy. How can one impose and maintain a strategy on something that is by definition emergent? We are talking about a strong cultural policy here, especially because of how the idiosyncratic limitations of Malta’s size seem to function as fundamentally inimical to this being implemented effectively.

502 – Play to your strengths

Understanding the limitations of our environs and implementing solutions that are tailored to those limitations seems to be an obvious idea. It seems evident that simply lifting strategies from larger places and presenting them as local solutions is a doomed enterprise. Beyond the problem of economies of scale, we have a public that is largely alienated from the artistic sector. This might be due to a public that has an overly utilitarian sensibility, “if it doesn’t make money we are not interested”. Therefore specially tailored solutions need to be put in place. We cannot force the public to participate but similarly, we cannot expect to have the economic performance of the artistic sector be solely shouldered by the artists. The other side of this is that applying too little pressure to perform will inevitably not create the necessary engagement with the public.

503 – Smaller slices from a bigger pie

Our size should facilitate the coalescence of a centralised community, however, this seems to work in the reverse. Romeo observes how lacking fundamental exercises like crits are glaringly absent from our artistic sector. To illustrate further there seems to be very little outreach taking place at the level of the community.  There seems to be a sensibility where one needs to be insular in order to protect one’s work. At its base it seems that the anxiety comes from audience size, the rationale is that your ideas give you your unique selling proposition and should there be other iterations on the same idea you would be losing market share. This seems to stem from a very real feature of the sector and its size. The question is how can we create systems that help incite collaborative attitudes that will result in a bigger audience – as the tired analogy goes – have a smaller slice of a bigger pie.

504 – Trust issues?

Reflecting on the isolation that comes as a matter of course when working, Roxmann illustrates the importance of sharing parts of this with others. This brings up the challenge of having a place, by implication a community, that can act as safe haven for exactly this. The issues of insecurity, trust and fear are all valid concerns when looking for such a place. It is important to note that when an artist is engaged in their process is when themself/their work is at its most vulnerable.  The issue of competition is yet another issue to juggle into the situation. Starting from the premise that there is a net value in artists pursuing their work, how can we build structures of support in a spot like Malta where increasingly the viability of such a pursuit is becoming harder to make viable?

505 – Manifesting Manifesto

The disparate voices and attitudes that are features of a vibrant sector mean that disagreements are inevitable. This, however, should not discourage coalescence. Building a more sophisticated understanding of how even though individuals might not gel together but still participate within the larger community is vital. A higher order set of values that scale to every member of the artistic community might be a useful exercise. These values should be implicitly scalable and non-contentious but if structured correctly might act as a point of focus for the artistic community and its prospective audience can refer to.

506 – Highly Unrealistic

Because of how unstructured the artistic sector is there seems to be a perennial issue with budgeting. Any job worth doing should be remunerated accordingly but it seems that running a project for example always hits the uncanny valley of legitimacy. This could be easily fixed by having a standard rate or percentage imposed de facto by funding bodies. Moreover, it would be a point of focus for negotiation should this be deemed too high or too low. Moreover, it needs to be understood that all endeavours have a degree of risk baked into them. The degree of what is unknown is never zero and one may argue that within the creative disciplines this is more emphasised.

509 – Policy implementation and other dragons

The role of a cultural policy should be, at least in part, to create the conditions for professionalism. By this, we mean the growth of a sector where participants can make a living doing their work and not resort to working part-time to pursue their calling. The policy should grow a sector through the education of the public on the role and value of art in society. The growth of a marketplace for practitioners is what makes the sector viable. At the base of this is the trust the institutions have in the practitioners themselves. The practitioners should not only be vetted on how risky their work is because we know that real innovations exist on the cusp of what is traditionally called viable.

510 – Managing Risk

Striking the balance between what is an acceptable amount of risk for a project to be funded seems to be a necessary conversation that needs to be had. The sensibility of practitioners and funding bodies is at odds here. On the one hand, we see a sensibility on part of the funding bodies to make sure their funds are not squandered but at the same time, we have to square off with the idea that because of their size these are in a unique position to act as a bulwark for a potentially promising fundee. Understanding how to manage this with the intent of moving the dial forward is imperative to move the sector in the right direction. Playing it too safe comes at the expense of the really disruptive or innovative project as it would probably be deemed too risky to fund.

511 – Building Trust

The application process relies too heavily on the quality of the application. The reality for many creators is that this is a poor representation of themselves. A more proactive approach by ambassadors of the institutions could be implemented so that a rapport is built between the institutions and their prospective fundees. Our size makes it so that such a thing can quickly snowball, putting the institutions squarely at the centre of a growing and vibrant community. This of course relies on the proactive approach the institutions have. If the institutions, from their position of power, make the first step it would send a clear indicator of goodwill.

513 – Cultural Clashes

Cultural actors, this includes independent as well as institutions, share the space they inhabit. Currently, these feel like they are in competition with each other but this isn’t necessarily the way forward. Understandably the realities of coordination are such that it is difficult not to clash. On the other hand, a more centralised approach may add value to the proposition each of these entities is offering. Having dates where multiple events are taking place within a reasonable distance of each other (Valletta for example) may create a more vibrant tapestry for the audience. The idea of having a cultural calendar that is widely spread and coordinated by a centralised organisation might be a step in the right direction.

514 – Crits

It is probably a feature of how small and relatively young the sector is (the sector being described as Art as a possible career pathway rather than it being relegated to a part-time endeavour) but we have yet to find the correct place for constructive criticism. Reflecting on how beyond our shores students and practitioners create time and space for crits, the practice of getting together and criticising each other’s work, it is evident that this practice is practically nonexistent here. This might have to do with any number of reasons but it is nonetheless a need if we want to continue to grow our sector.

515 – Perceived Threat

The role of artistic endeavours one might convincingly say is that of exploration, to peer into the unknown and pull from it a fresh understanding. New perspectives arise, ones that challenge the status quo. These fresh perspectives are by necessity not fully formed and as such require an iterative process to coalesce and become useful to society. This is exactly why artistic practice needs to be left in as a maximal state of freedom as possible. Institutions need to become increasingly agnostic of the content itself and put as little pressure on the subjective as possible. This is especially true when a project is perceived to be too high risk. The reality is that institutions are in a position of power and as such require to understandably allow the underdog enough space to explore with as little tethering as possible and not perceive this as a threat

516 – Autonomy & Provocation

Observing at the organisational level how the arts are fragmented in different ministries gives a clear message – this is not a priority for the authorities. It is not contentious to make a comment on how little priority and faith is put on the local creative sector. Moving the Arts Council to Mriehel for example, ie from the capital to an industrial estate sends this message implicitly. We, as practitioners, invest our time in our practices and hope for a better environment. But the reality is that artistic practice can never (and should never) be framed as an entrepreneurial activity. Using art as a marketing device to pull tourists is yet another disservice, this is not to say it shouldn’t happen but rather that it is not the goal. The authorities’ decisions reflect that very few at the level of government value the local creative sector or really understand what the role of art in society is. We can never have a vibrant (and eventually independent) sector before understanding the role and implicit value of this. The artistic sector’s role is to tell the story of a nation first, where it was, where it is and what it aspires to be. The nation is not just its history and traditions, it is also its present and its collective aspirations. How can this role be fulfilled when the great majority of the population does not partake in its contemporary art?

518 – Humour & Accessibility

On the creative side accessibility seems to be a good way to make the content accessible and attractive. This comment needs to be tempered by the understanding that this does not mean that practitioners should give up on their voice and replace it with a more humorous timbre. Rather, this uncovers the observation that having an emotional response on part of the audience is vital for the art to thrive. This rather obvious observation seems to be worth highlighting as it is all too common to hear how little understanding most people have on how to experience art. The tired comment of not knowing how long to stand in front of an art piece exemplifies this perfectly.  Understanding how the artpiece is really playing out to its audience is a sobering experience for any practitioner, but if a good culture of critique is engendered poor performance can be better internalised and remedied too. Audience growth needs to extend beyond the niche of people who are already part of the in-group.

519 – A call to arms

As creatives we need to be more ready to support each other. The reality is that competing with each other in such a small environment is almost by necessity adversarial. Should that combativeness be turned into a central call where have each other’s back, by going to events outside our usual purview, for example, we can help engender a better environment for greater success. This attitude is that this should be perceived as a marathon, not a sprint.