‘Our aim is to amaze’ | Bettina Hutschek and Raphael Vella

Artist-curators Bettina Hutschek and Raphael Vella will be representing Malta at the Venice Biennale, after the duo’s transmedia collage concept ‘Homo Melitensis’ won the competition to lead the Malta Pavilion at the prestigious contemporary art event. They speak to us about the various dynamics that will be motivating this intriguing work in progress

Raphael Vella and Bettina Hutschek
Raphael Vella and Bettina Hutschek

What was the thought process behind Homo Melitensis? What were the initial stages of it like? 

The title ‘Homo Melitensis’ actually came right at the end. We came up with it a few days before submission of the proposal to the Arts Council. During the preceding weeks, we were too busy talking and writing about different possible themes and curatorial approaches to think about the title. Essentially, we agreed quite early during our brainstorming process that ‘identity’ has become an unavoidable issue in a political climate which increasingly regards the ‘other’ as a threat to one’s own cultural, linguistic, religious and ethnic make-up.

The immigration issue can be explored from the perspective of the immigrant: this is necessary but has already been and is still undertaken by many artists and other activists. We thought of looking at the issue from the other, ‘defensive’ side of the fence. Which aspects of their identity are some people scared of losing as a result of this influx of immigrants? Are they worried about a possible Islamification of their culture, for instance? Then we asked ourselves, what do we do with our most priceless cultural artefacts when they are placed at extreme risk due to war, invasion and possible plunder?

As we know, museums and cultural institutions store or hide their most priceless objects during times like this to avoid senseless destruction, vandalism and looting. Museums also prepare detailed inventories of everything they own. So we thought of working on an exhibition that provides us with an ‘inventory’ or archive of everything that is supposedly Maltese or endemic to the country, everything that different people may think is at risk of being lost as a result of the perceived threats of immigration and/or globalisation.

By displaying these individual elements in a spatial arrangement composed of compartments that are conventionally associated with museum displays, libraries or archives, the exhibition meshes ideas about territory and nation with the spaces of culture and juxtaposes past and present to create a picture of knowledge that is encyclopaedic but also fluid, ironic and somewhat eccentric.

Which aspects of the so-called ‘Maltese identity’ are you taking as your starting point? How did you define it for your purposes, and how do you seek to deconstruct it?

At the moment, we are using a relatively simple coding system that helps us to categorise perceptions about national identity extracted from texts, websites, newspaper articles, artefacts, photographs and so on. Homo Melitensis will be a large installation that will bring together objects from past and present, found material, artworks and non-art elements in a non-hierarchical, non-chronological arrangement.

The exhibition will include works by artists based in Malta, works by artists from the Maltese diaspora, folk artefacts, works from private and national collections, photographic and video-based documents that follow the democratic spirit of Malraux’s ‘museum without walls’, and contemporary newspaper clippings that reflect Maltese social realities.

Our intention is to deliberately mix artefacts and objects related to different eras, different materialities, different value systems and different economic classes in a manner that undermines the idea of a single Maltese identity.

Now that it’s been selected, what’s the next step for Homo Melitensis? 

The bibliographic, historic and other research will be complemented by visits to a variety of collections in different venues. We will also visit artists’ studios and initiate discussions about the inclusion of possible works. At a later stage, the design thinking process and an online transmedia element will be discussed with other team members.

The exhibition architecture and display cabinets will be built in collaboration with Tom Van Malderen and Architecture Project. Following content and categories, the display shall incorporate elements of traditional museum displays and archives, of viewing cabinets, as well as include typical formal elements of Maltese architecture. In addition to the physical space of the exhibition and the publication, Homo Melitensis will be augmented through a transmedia storyworld developed in collaboration with Stefan Kolgen. In this online space, visitors worldwide can thus explore and even contribute to the narrative. This storyworld will provide a parallel exhibition space, accessible online to worldwide audiences, even beyond the duration of the exhibition.

What do you hope to achieve – both in the short- and long-term – with this opportunity?

Our aim is to amaze – with objects that take the visitor back in time to reveal crucial pieces of history that are still relevant today, through a series of geological and biological marvels, to folk art, up to contemporary works, providing a unique choice of intriguing objects, like a temple of knowledge everyone can relate to.

But we also want to take a political stand about the fluidity and problematics of identity, patriotism and nationhood that transcends the formal quirkiness of specific artefacts. In this respect, we are convinced that the work of contemporary artists who already explore such themes will enrich the exhibition by subverting assumptions and re-imagining social realities.

Given the global implications of current debates about identity, national and human rights, we also hope to appeal both to local and international audiences and provide a playful yet thought-provoking approach to a serious question.

Why do you call yourselves artist-curators?

It means that we are both artists and curators in our practice. Even if we are taking on the role of curators for Homo Melitensis, we bring in our artistic visions and our creative thinking, playing an active role in the production of the exhibition.

The exhibition we are planning is not only content-based but also epistemological and museological; in simple terms, we want to understand how we come to know whatever we consider to be the ‘truth’ about ourselves and how such ‘truths’ are presented in public displays. This emphasis on presentation highlights the curatorial aspect while the importance of reconceptualising presentations highlights the creative, artistic aspect.

The Venice Art Biennale will be held between May 13 and November 26, 2017. The international call for the engagement of a curator/curatorial team to curate the Malta Pavilion at the 57th International Art Exhibition at the Venice Biennale in 2017 was published by Arts Council Malta, in its capacity as Pavilion Commissioner, in collaboration with MUŻA (Maltas National Museum of Fine Arts, Heritage Malta), under the auspices of the Ministry of Justice, Culture and Local Government