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Simply a collective moment

The poet Jelili during last year’s event. Photo: Jacob Sammut

The poet Jelili during last year’s event. Photo: Jacob Sammut

The second edition of Utopian Nights takes place over the coming week and will culminate in a temporary museum put together by the public. Ramona Depares interviews Elise Pisani about the focus of this edition – borders.

What is the idea behind Utopian Nights?

Utopian Nights is quite simply a collective moment, a space for sharing opinions and sensitivities on political issues. We do spend months of work to make this moment possible, but I think it is worthwhile. It is a time of true interdisciplinarity, not only merging art and academia (both words I belong to) but also bringing in the scene the public in its complexity. I am still thinking about ways to make the public not only a spectator (although being a spectator is also important to have the space to think) but also a constituent actor of the performance. We always conduct a great deal of interviews, encounters and workshops before to render possible such collective moments.

How was the concept born?

I was inspired by two women, Kathrin Schödel and Dominique Malaquais. Kathrin introduced me to Utopia, that fantastic land where we can discuss possible futures collectively. I suppose what convinced me at once was that we agreed that what was missing desperately in our societies was an alternative to capitalism and privatisation. Many people, including environmentalists for instance, or even academics and artists, still think in terms of private capital and commodification.

The crucial question these days is always how much does it cost or how much do I gain? Kathrin is a passionate and very diplomatic person. She gave me, and others, the hope that through debate and collective actions, we could get rid of the general helplessness felt towards immigration issues, for instance. Or even regarding labour laws or urban development.

Utopia might not be ever achievable, but thinking constructively and collectively of an alternative to this world is essential to move forward.

The second woman is an anthropologist and art historian, Dominique Malaquais. I owe her the idea of bridging artists and academics for an evening. She represents a feminine alter-ego of Walter Benjamin, who insisted that art should not be politicised (instrumentalised by politicians) but that, on the contrary, it can only be political.

For me, any art piece, because it challenges the order of things, is political. Dominique is both American and French; her father was a great writer exiled in the US from Poland and then from France during the war. For a long time he was stateless. I think Dominique has always experienced exile as a way of living. She has promoted extensively African artists like sound artist Emeka Oghbo and performer Jelili Atiku, whom we invited last year to the first Utopian Night.

I suppose what convinced me at once was that we agreed that what was missing desperately in our societies was an alternative to capitalism and privatisation

This is the second event in the series – how was the first event received?

The first Utopian Night was a success, although it was our first attempt at bridging eclectic people. The theme was displacement. Interestingly, we encountered practically what displacement means in terms of visa since our main artist, the Nigerian performer Jelili Atiku, who had just arrived from the Venice Biennale, was  first refused the right to come to Malta by the Italian embassy. He was declared a “so-called artist”!

Getting the permit to present his powerful performance in front of the national siege of power, the Auberge de Castille, was also a challenge. Coordinating and producing such event can be very stressful at times.

But the reward, for us, was to see Jelili standing between the two cannons at the top of the stairs in his shiny, golden feminine dress, wearing an African mask of his creation. He stood there for a moment that seemed an eternity, brandishing a totem representing the wheel of life and human migration A very memorable moment.

Who is the target audience for this event?

Everyone, including kids, grandparents and tourists. The point of Utopia is that we go beyond the usual fragmentation of population. I believe that this fragmentation is a problem in itself. Everyone has a right to build a utopia. If we exclude a social group we will build another all-green and bourgeois utopia, a garden-city, a gated community. The main challenge for us is to think radically in terms of equality.

The idea behind this event is to build a camp – what made you pick the particular venue?

Malta is very short in venues and artistic infrastructure. We spent months looking for the right venue. Finally, we were very lucky to meet with the mayor of Mdina, who allowed us to use Howard Gardens and the streets of his silent city for the performance Geography of Lives (by Alberto Favaro).

To me, it was among other things, the possibility to camp facing a fortress. It was a way to explore the many facets that camp has, one of which, and probably historically the first one, is the military camp. We want to occupy the gardens, and somehow mount a great siege that will only last a week. Facing such imposing bastions, we found that the environs was very complementarty to the theme ‘Inside the border’. Borders are never just a line, they are filters and they are thick. Inside a border there is always a camp, and a camp is defined by its borders. I owe this idea to Alberto Favaro and our many inspiring discussions.

What about the actual exhibits? What can we expect from those who choose to take part? What nature of exhibits are you expecting?

There are many activities happening along the week. Apart from the actual collective building and inhabiting the camp, we propose two photo studios, film screenings, discussions, storytellings and an array of performances. It is impossible to give a fair tribute here to all the artists, professionals and amateurs, that are contributing. I am really thankful to all of them.

Finally, the museum is very much a work in progress with the public – and I hope that everyone will contribute with images, thoughts, poems and artefacts on encampment, utopia and borders. I will just be presenting a mood board in the walls of the Temporary museum in the first days. But, by the end of the week, these walls should be covered with people’s desires and fears.

What are the biggest challenges in bringing together an event of this nature?

Thinking collectively takes time and patience. It is much more risky than to invite an established artist or even to borrow a finished art work. Keeping an artist’s direction while coordinating the production and communication has proven very challenging, but I hope that we will manage. The main challenge is to trust people’s imagination and desires. The art of directing artists is to support their vision while dealing with the logistics and the general theme of the event in order to offer a meaningful experience to the public. I see it as a constant dialogue between ideas and production constraints. For instance the embassies's decisions to some times reject visas makes it difficult to bring artists from abroad but thanks to the Valletta 2018 Foundation we have succeeded to bring artists from third countries. However not all artists could be present. This year, it was the turn of Kenyan poet and slammer Checkmate Mido to be refused a visa by the Austrian embassy in Kenya; the reason remains unclear to us.

Do you feel that events of this ‘interactive’ nature are still lacking in Malta?
There are quite a few nice 'community' projects this year, like the Ondamarela music project for instance, I also really appreciated the Alto Fest project which took place in the homes of Maltese people. The interaction between the artists and the public was very rich and creative. I am sure that it will leave a trace in the Maltese society.

What is next for Utopian Nights?

The next Utopian Night will be addressing the need for commons. Continuing with the idea that privatisation is ruining social and ecological environments, we are inviting a handful of international speakers, experts on commons, to discuss with several Maltese activists. Of course the public will be offered a space to sit, listen and intervene. It takes place over two days, November 22 and 23, and we will be speaking about the necessity to address labour laws in more inclusive ways and to reclaim heritage as a public and shared space.

Utopian Nights: Inside the Border is funded and organised by the Valletta 2018 Foundation and runs until August 6 in Howard Gardens, Mdina. A full programme is available online.

www.facebook.com/utopiannights/

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