Art in Public Space. A case study of FRAGMENTA Malta told in its own words

View original post on: http://interartive.org/2017/06/art-in-public-space-hutschek/

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(page from leaflet by Sonya Schönberger, distributed during Fragmenta event FIELD TRIP, January 2017)

The loudspeaker system of the ferry terminal announces in a solemn female voice: “There is nothing that man fears more than the touch of the unknown”.

Ferry users are slightly irritated. What happened to the soothing commercial spots about bathroom interiors?

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Public space is now speaking to you dear listener …

“What did I just see? What happened?”

John asks Holly, Clarissa asks Paul, or the other way round.

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Maybe this: A generous spreading of space and floating display … a doubling of seriousness and subtle irony … and a plethora of materials and its inherent meanings, playful ideas. A yellow glass bowl meets an ornate plate, meets a fake flower, meets a lamp holder stuck in vegetation, meets the mineral ground. The objects had all been assembled from thrift shops and flee markets during the artists’ stay in Malta, now placed on the dissection table of the sun. Exactly at that same spot – 450 years earlier than FRAGMENTA – this spot had been setting for the bloodiest fight between Ottomans and Maltese Knights during the Siege of Malta in 1565, a fact which in no way influenced the show. 

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Let’s talk about public space. Public space in cities is the network of streets, squares, and parks that constitutes and represents urban communities. In Malta, public space on the one hand is available to all and truly and fully public space: during festas or other celebrations, streets are turned into a continuous big living room, where all citizens meet and hang out. Sometimes, however, public space is misunderstood as “since it is public, part of it is mine and I can therefore claim this parking space/ this lot of land close to the beach/ this rock/ this cave/ this boathouse (you name it)”.

Faced with this dichotomy and ambiguity of interpretations regarding public space, FRAGMENTA was founded in 2013 as a platform to present contemporary art or other events in public or semi-public spaces on the Maltese Islands. As project space without physical space, FRAGMENTA’s mission is to offer experiences in form of events, which happen in different locations or settings in and around Malta, lasting a maximum of 24 hours, offering the public and random passers-by an opportunity to engage with art and some of the relevant, complex issues of our time.

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How do we move through public space? How does our perception work?

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Rules tell us how to behave: no naked bodies should be presented in public space. No boobies. No sexual intercourse. Swearing is to be kept low. No murder, no stealing, no insults. Rules by law, rules by religion, rules of good practice. The distance between bodies is to be respected except if you are in an elevator or an overcrowded bus or cue. No dogs at the beach. No bicycles in parks. No BBQ – well that one failed massively, we would say.

No parking, no parking, no parking; or else: you park we tow; you park you die; you park, we’ll throw eggs on your car.

Rules on this archipelago are there to be sometimes used, but mostly to be extended and to be bent, but rules are rules, and rules are especially valid if you believe they are valid. Rules determine the use of space.

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What if we reconsider this use, if we repurpose public space for something else, what if … ?

Did you know that Sunset on Mars was blue?

On another day, at another event, things started with a story: “All day long the little boy worked hard in field and barn and shed; but every day, when the work was done, there came an hour which was all his own…”

This storyline was the perfect starting point for an event that was in a challenging way a culmination of the FRAGMENTA “rule”: you have to be at the right place in the right moment. If not, you’ll miss the event. If you get your coordinates aligned you will discover the treasure: with you, as visitor, the story of the Golden Windows became a metaphor for discovery, growing up, learning to live in the world we live in, and learning to observe. Visitors witness more than perform the rite of sunset-worship, while FRAGMENTA is piggybacking on the natural occurrence of sunset. The event becomes the horizon itself.

Then again, another day, another event:

It started with the Old Testament, as many things did: “My sister, my spouse, is an enclosed garden, an enclosed garden, a fountain sealed up,” and while Hortus conclusus literally means “enclosed garden”, FRAGMENTA was not hiding but rather taking shelter in a cloister in Rabat. There was no unicorn in the FRAGMENTA-garden, but magic was still around: A real birds nest became manifest in a gryphon’s nest; the Cathedral of Siena was supported by a wooden pallet; Monks were caught surrounded by squirrels and fishing in the countryside on a detail of Agnolo Gaddi’s 14th century fresco; Simone Martini’s noble knight Guidoroccio da Fogliano was riding along the balustrades of the cloister, and other small surprises were tucked away in corners and niches, …

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La fantasia è un posto dove ci piove dentro. / The imagination is a place where it rains,” says Italo Calvino in his book Six Memos for the New Millenium (1988).

Surprises, love, violence, rules and anarchy overlap in the public spaces of such a small country like Malta, with an area of 316 square kilometers and a population of around 450,000, thus making it the most densely populated in the European union. Things we expect in this space are not always what they seem. This contested and precious space turns into an active participant, turning into a life-long learning center for us early-school-leavers, providing us with possibilities to voice, hear and shape opinions. Concurrent with statues and some questionable three-dimensional positions in public space, FRAGMENTA seeks to redefine not only what art, but what humans could do in such a space.

“In front of the Ghajn Tuffieha watchtower, a beautiful young woman approaches the visitor and invites him to have a look inside. He startles – it looks as if an invisible man with a white (visible) hand was strangling her. Yet, her smile is reassuring. This is not a funny religious sect; it is likely to be a contemporary art exhibition. Indeed, upon entering the tower, he meets the artist, who is wearing a T-Shirt with the words “PUNCH ME IN THE FACE”, which he wisely ignores.

A steep staircase made of glass and metal leads to the upper floor of the tower. From here, a 4m long wooden plank protrudes outwards, like an invitation. John steps on the wood. He hesitates. He does not know what it is … was somebody walking the plank before him? Is this for real? Walking and jumping would inevitably result in his demise, or severe injury. This cannot not a physically interactive work … what’s the point …?”

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Public space is when a private house becomes a camera obscura or when an artist is taking viewers on a walk where he talks about Outside Development Zones, and the connection between kohlrabi (ġidra) and political decisions.

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Who does public space belong to, now, or in a week, or in the future? Public space becomes activated when visitors experience a story under their own feet, when the things they read about in the news becomes part of the display they are looking at, or when they feel that they are being touched in an intimate, sensitive, emotional way. FRAGMENTA suggests acts of connection, acts of repurposing sections of public space for a brief moment, to use space in a different way. FRAGMENTA piggybacks on sunsets, ferry terminals, tourist locations and churches in order to benefit from an increase of audience members and welcomes those that are therefore highly confused, maybe even disturbed and annoyed. Symbolic justice towards arts elites. We thus become users but never owners of public space, inviting usership as a potentially powerful tool, as Stephen Wright suggests in his publication “Towards a Lexikon of Usership”.

“Walking out of the tower, the cliffs have turned from a beautiful setting into just another death reminder in John’s head… he is experiencing the feeling of having swallowed a big question mark.”

The question really is: Can art actually make a difference? Or can culture and its artefacts, and by extension art only provide fleeting meaning in an insecure world?

Waving good-bye to you, we chuckle. It is good to be confused. Confusion can possibly create a first step towards a different perception, a vague awareness, a new usership, away from pure passive spectatorship.

And we try once again to evaluate our own position in this very instant…. over and over again. We use the country as our own map. 30_Y95A6673_A_fragmenta_web

VALLEY OF 1000 PLEASURES. Picture Samir Ramdani

PS: Of course, health and safety issues are not always adequately followed, but exhibitions are accessible and open to all visitors. Nobody has ever fallen off the rocks, which is a good thing, and everybody has so far left our events safe and sound – thinking of islands and other things.

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