Valletta 2018: We are not alone | Rudi Wester

While Valletta gears up to serve as European Capital for Culture in 2018, it’s worth remembering we will be sharing the honour with another city. In this case, the fellow ‘ECoC’ of 2018 will be the “middle sized” city of Leeuwarden. We speak to Rudi Wester, coordinator and international cultural advisor of Leeuwarden 2018, about how the two cities can work hand in hand to ensure 2018 is a culturally enriching year for both parties.

Rudi Wester: “Open up to Europe and take a risk”. Photo by Jonathan Borg
Rudi Wester: “Open up to Europe and take a risk”. Photo by Jonathan Borg

Could you tell a bit about how your collaboration with Valletta 2018 started, and what kind of tangible collaborative projects we can expect from Valletta and Leeuwarden in the near future?

I started visiting Malta at the beginning of 2012. Valletta was already selected as European Capital for Culture by that time, but Leeuwarden was still competing among – far larger! – cities in the Netherlands. Nobody could imagine that we would win, but we ended up securing the title in September 2013. Though we were still just a candidate city at the time, we had already signed a Memorandum of Understanding between Valletta and Leeuwarden in 2012, and we had started to develop some ideas.

So we already had some ideas in the bag by the time we were selected; and there were three main areas in which we chose to collaborate in. In terms of the visual arts, we will be developing the curatorial school established during the Valletta Visual Arts Festival earlier this year. Then there’s the focus of literature and agriculture – as exemplified by events like ‘L-Ikla t-Tajba’ and the ‘poetry for potato’ initiative. The third collaboration will be based on a project we’ve already started in Leewarden – ‘Behind the Front Door’.

We will be giving cameras to youths from underprivileged districts and encourage them to document their experience. The idea is to empower these youths by giving them a chance to engage with their urban history. A similar project has been kick-started in Bormla.

You’ve mentioned that Leeuwarden is comparatively smaller to the other candidate cities in the Netherlands. What would you say led to it being chosen?

We focused on three themes: sustainability; the relationship between the countryside and the city; and community and diversity. These themes were historically significant to our region in particular – Friesland – since in the 11th and 12th centuries, the region was mostly based around water in some way or other: shipbuilding, fishing and so on. This fostered a strong sense of community, and the idea that you have to cooperate in order to survive. However, there’s also a dark side to this: the tendency helps to strengthen ties within the community, but also fosters fear of the outsider. So when we presented our bid, we made it a point to emphasise that we intend to open up our community to the rest of Europe.

This is particularly pertinent to our contemporary community, since in Leeuwarden alone you’ll find over a hundred different nationalities: among them Moroccans, Turks, Poles and countless others. We hope to establish a way in which we can improve the relationship between the ‘old’ community and the ‘new’ immigrant communities.

So, the jury were impressed by this angle. We are now commandeering 41 projects to fall under these three themes, which we aim to develop from now until 2018.

How did you get your artists to ‘fall in line’ with these themes?

First question of the bid book is: why do you want to become ECOC? First thing we started discussing: why, then HOW do you want to achieve those changing. So it's not about 2013, but 2018 so you want to make necessary changes. So we named those 3 issues.

Crucially, the first question of the bid book was: “Why do you want to become the European Capital for Culture?” This was the first thing we started discussing: what changes we need to implement in our artistic programme, and how we’ll set about implementing them. We chose the three issues I mentioned earlier, as we deemed them integral to our community.

So we made sure that all the projects we approved are relevant to these themes. You have to have a strict idea of what you want to be. There’s also the fact that, while Frisian people can be very innovative and original, their attitude can be quite ‘enclosed’ sometimes. So we want to help them link up to the international scene, as well as develop their full potential as artists.

Malta’s cultural sphere will always face a problem when it comes to audiences – which is understandable given the island’s size. Are there any solutions to this?

Well, I don’t know the bid book of Valletta by heart, I have to say, but for eg. I put into those themes always one 'blockbuster'.

Well, I can’t say I know Valletta’s bid book for 2018 by heart, so I’m not sure what exactly is in store. But having a ‘blockbuster’ event is crucial, I think. The kind of event that a person from Spain, or Germany or wherever, says “I have to go to Malta to see or experience this before I die”.

In our case we have a skating tour which encompasses 11 cities in the region, and which can only happen when the ice reaches 50cm, to accommodate the flurry of tourists – as well as locals – who will be taking part. But we’ve also recently started asking international artists to sculpt fountains out of the ice while the event is going on, and some of them have been wonderful. For example, as Spanish artist based in Chicago painted a large face on an apartment block, and positioned the mouth of his figure just by the fountain, and the renowned performance artist Marina Abramovic will be creating a fountain of blood.

So I think that Malta should pinpoint equivalent events: something that has broad international appeal and that is strong enough to draw people to the island on its own steam.

Another thing is: export. Export your artists! My motto is that “Quality always pays back”. To use literature as an example: you don’t have to be a writer of ‘literary’ fiction to focus on quality. Even, say, a thriller writer, needs to have a strong grasp of the language and of his or her literary style. So focus on quality, open up to Europe, and take a risk.

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