Cultivating a cultural capital | Imagine 18

The proof will surely be in the pudding a fistful of years down the line, but if preparations for Valletta’s bid to become European Capital of Culture are anything to go by, a couple of interesting projects are currently brewing.

Still from a video promoting Valletta candidature as European Capital for Culture 2018.
Still from a video promoting Valletta candidature as European Capital for Culture 2018.

Organising a conference - any conference - at Verdala Palace in Buskett is bound to put visitors in a good mood.

My own mood was certainly neither testy nor combative, as the coach which took us to the idyllic venue opted for the scenic route, allowing us to soak in the beautiful day as we headed to Imagine 18 - a spontaneous think-tank of sorts, inviting artists, writers, filmmakers and others employed in the cultural sector to discuss and workshop ideas pertaining to Valletta's candidature as European Capital for Culture in 2018.

But even the brightest of days and most illustrious of venues can't mask justifiable scepticism.

Entering the palace for the second day of the conference (its first edition was held at the Manoel a day earlier - May 30), you're faced with the usual who's who of artists, performers and pundits - which only cements just how dangerous it is for Maltese culture to risk becoming insular, indulgent and - at worst - irrelevant.

One participant sidles up to me during the pre-conference coffee break to confess that this is his second cup of java that morning: "I need to prepare myself to face the cultural mafia," he tells me, with only the slightest hint of irony.

But as the morning conference rolls on, you get a sense that while everything being discussed is tentative and preparatory, the Valletta 2018 Foundation have made some effort to create a streamlined environment where ideas can be discussed in a free and inclusive way.

It remains to be seen how many of the projects and initiatives proposed during the two-day event will come to fruition when Valletta - and, by extension, Malta - becomes a well-publicised hub of cultural activity in five years time, but the presentations I got to sample tended to be either perceptive or promising, and the five-year cultivation period should at least provide enough time to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Packed into the relatively brief conference, the a substantial number of short talks and workshops were organised under four 'Thematic Areas'.

Headed by Keith Sciberras and Konrad Buhagiar, the 'Urban Caravaggio' session proposed using V.18 to revitalise Valletta as a cultural hub, in a discussion that incorporated artists, urban planners, architects, designers and citizens.

Similarly homing in on Malta's historical and natural resources, the session entitled Water & Life - coordinated by Elise Billiard and Timmy Gambin - discussed the island's maritime history, and how it could be transformed into viable cultural projects that both educate and take advantage of Malta's unique, evocative geographical location.

Among the potential projects that cropped up during the informal discussion following the talks was an illustrated children's book detailing Malta's run-ins with corsairs - "what could be more exciting to children than pirates?" one participant asked - while filmmaker Rebecca Cremona gave an illustrated talk on large-scale visual projections in public spaces.

Among the spaces flagged up as a backdrop for projections was the Evans building in Valletta, owing to its size and the fact that it's located right across The Malta Experience venue.

Led by Clare Vassallo and Marie Briguglio, the 'Living Well with Diversity' session focused on intercultural dialogue as a way for Valletta to improve its cultural output, as well as incorporate other areas into the mix - like culinary history, and involving children in transmedia projects.

Owing to the ever-growing presence of online media, the 'Digital Generations' session - coordinated by Alex Grech, Malcolm Galea and Edward Duca - focused blogging, social networking and other digital media as a way of making culture as inclusive as possible.

Grech, a social media researcher, spoke about blogging as medium that either disrupts - though it sometimes reinforces - traditional 'power systems' in Malta, suggesting that V.18 could serve as a good 'empowerment' tool for bloggers.

In the same session, playwright, director and V.18's dramatic coordinator Galea spoke about an ambitious project which aims to encourage young people to get involved in theatre.

Galea's proposal aims to take advantage of underused but structurally sound theatres scattered around Malta's villages. The project - entitled '18' - hopes to use the venues to stage home-grown plays written by young people based in the same communities - specifically focusing on youths which would be given the tools and training to create their own theatre pieces and stage them by the time they're 18-years-old.

This would serve as a welcome alternative to the myriad productions based on British or American scripts that characterise the typical Maltese theatre season, as well as help build a more tangible perception of what culture is amongst the communities.

It'll be interesting to observe how these projects move ahead as the V.18 deadline approaches.

If nothing else, seeing which projects fail and which of them thrive under this kind of pressure will serve as a telling indication of where Maltese culture is right now.

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