Pete Farrugia walks the streets, exploring Passiġġata l-Birgu’s innovative audio guide.
Malta is a place where eternity is in love with the productions of time, and Birgu, Città Vittoriosa, is a perfect example of the uneasy relationship between transformation and enduring identity that has characterised the island in recent decades.
Passiġġata l-Birgu, coordinated by performance lecturer Aldith Gauci and sociolinguist Ian Jones, is a fresh look at an old medium, the audio guide.
Now, the image conjured up by those words is decidedly naff – the iconic, awestruck tourist insulated by headphones on either ear, a camera glued to one eye and a dog-eared map balanced under one arm. GPS tours, mobile guides and electronic downloads are doing their bit to rehabilitate the purpose behind this technology.
The project, a year in the making, sets out to negotiate stereotypes and bring something new to bear on old expectations.
“We’re special tourists,” says Gauci, talking about the people who will make use of these Maltese language recordings, a part of the city and apart in some essential ways. The guide includes candid interviews with people who live and work in Vittoriosa, set against a soundscape of activity.
Sparsely led by Gauci herself, characters are allowed to come to the fore while sharing their thoughts and contributing to the patchwork narrative.
“Speaking to the locals here, they think of visitors who come to work in the city as immigrants,” says Gauci, “it’s a playful relationship.
A lot of the people who work here don’t live in the city anymore. Prices go up, space is at a premium, they’ve moved into other areas but still keep ties with their old home.”
“What goes on behind closed doors? What’s the life of a baker, a band club president, a barber like... these are all things a normal tourist wouldn’t ever know,” says Gauci.
“It’s a fly on the wall look, a voyeuristic peek at the life behind Vittoriosa’s imposing facades and spidery street ways.
Performative aspects frame the action, giving the project life beyond the guide. When the city begins to perform, spread herself out as more than the sum of her heritage and history, the unique qualities of this tour become apparent.
Constant construction means that some roads will inevitable close - the guide will lead you down dead ends and ask you to stop and stare at empty holes where houses once stood, listening to ghost voices of a generation doggedly at odds with the upheaval.
Gauci says speaking to younger people in Birgu was more challenging, that they are rooted in a different attitude to their grandparents, even their parents. The city they inhabit couldn’t be more different.
The gentrification of the waterfront is marginalising locals at the expense of visitors. People who once fished and walked there are pushed out to make room for restaurants, gallery spaces – economically motivated pursuits not easily squared with the importance of what had come before. It doesn’t help that many compare the exclusion to a period when the British closed off the area entirely.
The audio guide becomes a time capsule, and the voices are strangely distant, speaking to us across a space of choices made, paths taken and ignored. The difference between what is and what was becomes more provocative because that quintessential quality, nostalgia, stands shoulder to shoulder with the most vibrant aspects of change.
“This nostalgia is in stark contrast to how happy the people here are that the area is growing. But they don’t like that things are being lost,” says Gauci. Whether this is the case with Birgu or indeed all of Malta, the audio guide highlights a fundamental relationship the Maltese have with the past. In looking back, some are pushed to take action while others are pleased to melt away in the comfort of tradition.
Nobody is unmoved. By attempting to locate the heart of a city within society, this project takes a look at what that identity itself ought to mean. When the guide is done and we are left standing outside closed doors, where should we turn but to our own half-forgotten past, and the promises of an ultimately uncertain future?
The audio guide and the maps are available for download from www.passiggatabirgu.com