The dream gets concrete | Karsten Xuereb

Aware that ‘V18 will flit in and out of consciousness’ as Valletta gears up to become European Capital for Culture in 2018, Valletta 2018 Project Coordinator Karsten Xuereb tells us that focusing on the urban environment of Valletta (and beyond) is the key to keeping the ambitious project alive and kicking.

Karsten Xuereb: “How do you successfully regenerate urban spaces in a lasting, and enduringly relevant way?” Photo by Elisa von Brockdorff.
Karsten Xuereb: “How do you successfully regenerate urban spaces in a lasting, and enduringly relevant way?” Photo by Elisa von Brockdorff.

Ever since Valletta was in the running to become European Capital of Culture for 2018, it was always made clear that the spoils of victory - confirmed last month - would be spread across Malta as a whole, with Valletta standing as a starting point, and an enduring metaphor, of Malta's cultural prowess as it prepares to live up to this prestigious title.

But precisely because it is a starting point for this endeavour, the capital city has been put into focus once again by the Valletta 2018 Foundation last week, with a seminar on Monday highlighting the direct impact of events like Valletta 2018 can have for cities... the implication being that they have the potential to directly influence urban development.

"The heart of the matter is this: how do you successfully regenerate urban spaces in a lasting, and enduringly relevant way? What we discovered is that for this to happen, you really need to be in touch with audiences and what they want and need. Otherwise you risk having a repeat of those places where a lot was done for the buildings themselves, but the people were not really taken into consideration," Valletta 2018 Project Coordinator Karsten Xuereb tells me, the morning after the aforementioned seminar.

The tall and lanky Xuereb, his mostly-cheekbone face framed by a pair of thin glasses, effects an image of calm, unassuming efficiency (so that it's no surprise to learn, for example, that he had previously been responsible for cultural matters at the Permanent Representation of Malta to the EU).

It is perhaps this characteristic of his demeanour that allowed him to parry the many questions (and complaints) put to him during question time in Monday's seminar, where he gave an opening presentation on the Valletta 2018's plans for Valletta before handing the floor to Dr Andrew Smith from the University of Westminster, who spoke about the concept of events as catalysts of urban regeneration in a more wide-ranging academic context.

READ MORE: Valletta announced as European Capital for Culture 2018

Though it was expected for the seminar to take a more theoretical bent - discussing abstract ideas that would underlie and drive and developments, as opposed to the developments themselves - and for the Valletta 2018 Foundation to hold back on announcing and talking concretely about any Foundation-sponsored projects (there are, after all, six more years to go), after the seminar's presentations were through, it was made clear that people had plenty of 'real' concerns about the future of Valletta vis-à-vis the V18 project.

Some complained about parking and related issues of accessibility, others pointed out the neglected state of lower Valletta. Others still expressed concern over Valletta being drained of its younger population - a factor in it being a 'dead' city at night? - while one audience member thought it imprudent that the Valletta 2018 initiatives were made to co-exist with the 'jarring' spectacle of Isle of MTV...

Is the Foundation listening to these complaints? According to Xuereb, listening is an  integral part of what the whole initiative is about.

"Making sure that people feel represented, as well as challenged, is a top priority for us. And our interest is not driven by a belief that we're in any way 'better' than the communities or initiatives we're considering. On the contrary: when we go into various communities, band clubs and schools, we are the ones who are learning," Xuereb says, explaining that a priority for the team right now is to determine the best way groups, communities and artistic initiatives can be made to work coherently.

"For example, we're always on the lookout for crossover opportunities between sports and art, or pairing environmental concerns with the exploration of national heritage... all of this is already being done, but right now, it's really about coming up with a coherent plan for all this."

On the topic of coherence, Xuereb is also keen to point out that the Valletta 2018 Foundation is making an effort to 'clarify' certain important issues.

"There's the problem of hundreds of people vying for the same small pot of funds... we also need to manage the stream of funds in a way that they become more accessible.

"There have been other 'strong trends' within the Foundation itself. One of them is the use of public spaces, specifically: the re-appropriation of spaces which were 'out of bounds', or complicated to use. The case of St George's Square in Valletta is interesting. There have been cases of people complaining to us that they had problems organising an event there, or gaining access to it, while others never found any problems going through the appropriate steps and gaining permits... so our main aim is really to clarify what needs to be done."

'Public spaces', and all they imply, are set to remain on the Foundation's agenda as the project moves forward. Xuereb splits the process into two time periods, with the years 2012-15 being the 'pilot project phase', which would make way for the "project proper" to kick off in 2016.

"During the pilot phase, we're interested in looking into the theme of accessibility and mobility: both on land and on sea. But another thing which we'd also like to explore - and which comes about as a direct consequence of the feedback we've received - are those private spaces which border on being public spaces.

"Take band clubs, for example. They don't explicitly keep people out, but they are very specific to the community: it would take you some time to truly integrate yourself within that milieu. So this could be interesting to explore, even by professional researchers, because it would provide an opportunity for people to 'discover' each other better..."

But as Xuereb already implied, it's not that easy to crack your way into tight-knit communities like band clubs. To say nothing of the thoroughly unsexy image of a 'cultural arbiter', be-suited with a clip board firmly in hand, 'recording' the activities of exotic 'locals'...

"What you're pointing towards is something very sensitive, in fact, and it doesn't only apply to band clubs but also to matters related to building and infrastructure, or to, say, the Ramblers' Association and where they choose to walk... as always, our solution is not to dictate from on high but to simply find the people in charge of any given initiative and engage in a regular dialogue with them, making sure we know what their key concerns are.

"Should we address these tight-knit communities as something to preserve, or is it something we should try to open up, albeit in a sensitive way? By constantly asking these questions and engaging with the people involved, we aim to create something that genuinely arises out of a healthy consensus..."