Chronicling unconscious behaviour | Alex Attard

While the Renzo Piano city gate project continues to inspire discussion and heated debate, the regeneration of Valletta’s entrance – complete with a new parliament building – has also inspired artistic reflection. Photographer Alex Attard speaks to us about his latest exhibition, The Overlooked Performance, which took its initial cue from the on-site workers labouring at the site’s interstices. 

Alex Attard
Alex Attard

What did you find ‘missing’ from the Renzo Piano project debate that you felt you could address with your work? 

One topic, which in my opinion has not been given due significance in the debate, is the meticulous attention given to the energy efficiency aspect of the building. There is a whole series of photographs under the name of ‘The Skin Beneath The Face’ at The Overlooked Performance exhibition, that deals precisely with this wall of insulation underneath the new Parliament building facade. Through this artistic expression, the viewer will be reminded, and hopefully awareness raised, of this all important, now hidden, aspect of this building.

Yours isn’t the first artistic response to the Renzo Piano project. Why do you think it has struck a chord, even among artists? Do like the level and pitch of this creative response, and how do you hope to contribute to it?

The new Parliament building forming part of the Valletta City Gate project is a site of national and historical importance, noted for its social and cultural significance. It’s a unique opportunity to experience such an architectural intervention in our Capital and, to watch Piano’s design unravel before our eyes, slowly taking shape and exciting new spaces being born, and this without taking anything away from the beauty of the City itself.

Such endeavors inspire artists who seem to have responded through the different landmark stages of this project. Bettina Hutschek’s documentary short film Diary of Demolition and the multimedia Transit project, are both historical references adding to the interest, discussion and depth to the ongoing debate.

The Overlooked Performance takes yet another approach. It draws its inspiration from the unconscious behavior of workers at the worksite. It seeks to interpret the key concepts of chance, reality and perception in these unconscious performances and it aspires to explore the inconsequential as an aesthetic and attempts to find meaning in chaos and a reason for being.

It is both an artistic expression and a reference to what lies beneath the surface of an historical architecture project and about the temporality of man at his workplace.

What led you to focus on the workers' perspective, and how did you proceed from that starting point?

Being a Valletta-born person who lived there for a good part of my life, I developed an affinity for the project from the very beginning. Instinctively I knew something was going to develop although it was not clear from the beginning.

I used to spend time watching from the terraces of the social housing building across the road. I was completely fascinated when they started to envelop the steel structure on the west facing facades with insulation panels and overlapping these with waterproofing membrane and applying rubber sealant over the joints. Then, one afternoon, the magic happened. The sun had just turned enough round the building into Republic Street and that silvery-lined façade came to life, shimmering in light in stark contrast to the random patterns created by the pitch black rubber.

They reminded me of centuries-old Japanese ink brush painting, and thoughts started to roll in my head. This inspiration connected to a wall I had previously seen on the east elevation that was painted with thick bitumen paint over its concrete surface. Again here the nature of the workers’ task was such that it did not require an aesthetic finish, as it was to have a secondary surface over it. Furthermore I realised that, in this case, the paintbrush and the paint had a greater influence in this performance and the haphazard splash and splatter markings and drippings registered the temperament of the worker who was not fully in control of his movements.

These were all multi-layered acts of raw expression and the common denominator was the unconscious behavior of man when working on a surface that was going to have another surface applied over it.

Following this observation about what was occurring came the realization that I was looking at an ‘overlooked performance’. These situations gave rise to chance happenings. Being aesthetically unimportant, these performances are not acknowledged for having any qualities other than the obvious and appreciation of any possible visual appeal is very often ignored. Yet, they exist, and if they exist they communicate, not least, through being observed, giving rise to interaction, interpretation and perception.

From there on, it was a matter of following the path and opening my mind to the art around me.

How does a photographer go about exploring the narrative of an architectural space? How did you go about it at least, and what impressions did it give you of the place itself? 

Personally, my way of exploring the narrative of a space is by letting it come to me. It is essentially a sensory experience and you have to be in a state of awareness to be ready to receive it. By this I do not mean you have to be in some trance-like state, but your senses have to be heightened enough for your sixth sense to kick in. This empathy with the space reveals possibilities and as you wander through the different spaces, possibilities develop into inspiration that in turn spark all kinds of connections in one’s psyche. The questioning comes later. The exceptionally high health and safety standards on site certainly contributed to make this easier.

What kind of lasting impact do you hope Overlooked Performance will have on the way people perceive the Renzo Piano project? 

The Overlooked Performance, like you mentioned, is but one of various artistic responses inspired by the Renzo Piano project. Collectively they tell a story during its journey into reality. The Overlooked Performance has many interesting sides to it that give it depth and meaning. I believe its strength lies in that it communicates at various levels to different people. The images are both a memory and a trace in the project’s young history. They are art photographs of an unconscious performance… traces of reality embracing chance, and they are art photographs as perceived by this photographer. Presented as they are to the viewer for their interpretation, I believe they positively contribute to the perception of the project, and they open up other avenues of appreciation, creativity and perception.

The Overlooked Performance will remain on display at St James Cavlier, Valletta until April 7. For more information, log on to: