Striving for the fantastical but skipping the fantasy | Glen Calleja

Glen Calleja – poet, book-binder and Artistic Director of the ‘Five Five’ online art exhibition – speaks to TEODOR RELJIC about this latest project, a collaboration with the duo behind Solid Eye, which invites viewers to experience a speculative future Malta

The Boats Are Coming (Chernobyl, A Remembrance) - inspired by the Lazzarett, Manoel Island
The Boats Are Coming (Chernobyl, A Remembrance) - inspired by the Lazzarett, Manoel Island

Apart from your interdisciplinary mix of artistic inclinations, you also run Studio Solipsis: could you give us a snapshot of what that implies and entails, and how it has been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic? How do you hope to get a more healthy rhythm going as we get back to relative normality?

For the past three years, Studio Solipsis has served as a meeting place for various organisations and is also home to Kotba Calleja, the bindery that I run, and to Giola Cassar’s photographic studio. We have held exhibitions, talks, readings, workshops and all sorts of informal meetings. So the studio’s identity has always been as a place of encounter and exchange between various art and cultural practices.

When the pandemic broke out, we were just finishing some refurbishment works. So now we have three new rooms but haven’t had the opportunity to welcome anyone in them yet. We will probably be back with some events towards the end of the summer when things have calmed down a little.

Glen Calleja
Glen Calleja

What does being an Artistic Director for a project like Five Five entail? Which of your skills and experiences are coming in particularly handy as you undertake this task?

My professional practices are very eclectic. The collaborative work I typically get involved in generally involves text, books and some audiovisual and performative elements. The common denominator between all of those is the orchestration of imagery.  That, to me, translates into a conscious attempt at adding value for the viewer or the reader or whoever comes in contact with our work. So artistic direction to me is mostly about adding value.

The approach I prefer is to look for direction as the work develops. What I ask from the team members is not to aim for a specific final product, but to follow some simple principles and then I regularly check in with them.

So my role in Five Five mostly revolved around minor interventions on issues of composition, referencing and visual and textual narrative. My work with Roderick and Josmar, the designers from Solid Eye, was mostly based on simple technical and narrational challenges such as what happens to the whole picture if the raven looks more to the viewer? Or, can we shift the compositional elements of a picture to enhance contrasts, rhythm and introduce a clearer narrational hierarchy between elements in the picture?

Artistic Direction is playful and exploratory, collaborative, dialogic.

Underground Island (Or, ‘The Golden Hive’) (inspired by the ‘Madonna Taz-Zejt’ in Kercem, Gozo)
Underground Island (Or, ‘The Golden Hive’) (inspired by the ‘Madonna Taz-Zejt’ in Kercem, Gozo)

Five Five is not the first ‘futurology’ project that you have undertaken. Could you tell us a little bit about your previous plunge into similar waters – the Archived Futures Harvest – and how it now informs what you’re doing with Five Five?

Yes, that’s correct to a large degree. Every project has its own challenges of course and there’s no one methodology that is universally applicable to all projects that fall into the ‘futurology’ category.

Archived Futures Harvest was a project we participated in as a studio. I personally learnt a lot from the methodologies used in that project. Eventually I led the Subjective Maps (2016-2018) project where I developed a four step methodology on which to build different types of maps that layer past, present and future in one map; the what-once-was, the what-is and the what-could-be.  The three layers follow each chronologically.

Similarly, in Five Five we constructed our visuals and texts following extensive research. Thanks to the professional staff of the National Archives of Malta we managed to find some really interesting stories and historic photographs on which we then built our narratives. Our work, both visual and textual, always aspires towards the magical but is rarely wildly fantastical. There are exceptions, of course, but in general we did not venture too far out into the territory of fantasy.

What was it like to collaborate with Solid Eye on this project, and how do your respective disciplines and approaches mesh together?

We were constantly feeding each other ideas. In fact, every step of the Five Five project was collaborative. The starting point was on site. That’s where our discussions and ideas started.

The guys from Solid Eye are experts at visualising narratives and creating environments. That’s similar to what we do in poetry and creative writing. The main difference is that they are using CGI while I use the word. So we would be on site and consider anything from texture to seasonal changes, atmospheric light and mood.

From there, we started sketching, and a long process of note-taking, drafting, revising. The first drafts of the visuals were then created and, one by one, we started finalising them. It was always the team’s decision to say that a picture was ready or needed more work. That’s how it went.

The Stallion Of Il-Mandragg (inspired by the ‘Il-Mandragg’ area of Valletta)
The Stallion Of Il-Mandragg (inspired by the ‘Il-Mandragg’ area of Valletta)

What do you make of the local cultural scene? What would you change about it, covid or no covid?

I tend to be positive and optimistic, frustrated and fed up, all at the same time. I think we would enjoy healthier practices if there was some serious cultural journalism. As things stand, one hardly receives any real criticism on public platforms. This leaves our audiences with very few tools and skills to engage critically with artistic products.  One would expect that there are competent scholars to lead these critical endeavours in the public sphere. But, sadly, academia is notoriously self-serving.

What’s next for you?

At the moment I have a bunch of writing projects with lots of loose ends which I need to give some attention to; some poetry, a collaboration on a children’s book and a non-fiction project.

At the studio, Kotba Calleja has been commissioned to lead some very interesting projects which will see us venturing into new territories; more work with paper sculptures and installations and a new line of handmade notebooks.

On top of it all, following the encouraging feedback we received for our work on Five Five, the designers at Solid Eye studio and myself are currently looking at taking it to the next level, but it’s all too early to speak of concrete plans.

To view the full online exhibition, log on to: Five Five is supported by Arts Council Malta