Who are the local stakeholders of the European Capitals of Culture programme in Malta? What is the legacy of the programme from their point of view, and how can they access, influence and carry on this legacy? How can they participate fully to shape this legacy?
In recent years, there has been a growing interest to involve cultural operators and local communities in cultural programmes and policymaking. Collectively, all these approaches are labelled as participation.
Accordingly, when we try to understand what participation means in relation to the European Capitals of Culture (ECOC) programme, we encounter a wide variety of definitions and practices under the collective term. In a recent paper Tommarchi, Hansen and Bianchini listed four altering concepts of ‘participation’ in relation to ECOCs in research: participation as a tool of audience engagement; volunteer participation; co-creation and participation in the overall process.
Most of the participatory and community projects I have encountered in the framework of Valletta 2018 fall under co-creation category, where citizens take part as co-creators of cultural content. Some of these programmes were locality-based such as Altofest, Subjective Maps, Bodies in Urban Spaces, Ġewwa Barra and Design4DCity; while others were focusing on various subcultures and age-groups, such as Exiled Homes, KantaKantun, Playspace and Deep Shelter.
Nevertheless, in a wider understanding participation can also be applied for the overall process: for the planning, implementation and evaluation of the programme.1 In my research and praxis in the framework of Local Operators’ Platform (LOCOP), I follow this understanding, where participation in its most general form means the adoption of an open approach. In these processes the communities – who will be affected by a given programme, project or planning process – become participants not only as an audience, but they also actively participate in the planning, implementation and evaluation of the given programmes and projects.2 3
To address participation in this widest understanding, we have organised a series of workshops under the title Policy Making Through Participation, in collaboration with the Research Department of Valletta 2018 Foundation and the Valletta Design Cluster. The workshops were held four times between April and October 2018, the main outcomes were presented at the Sharing the Legacy Conference.
On the one hand, the aim of the workshops was to identify topics that local operators – people active in the local cultural and social field – would like to address in a participatory, collaborative, action-oriented manner.
On the other hand, we aimed to create an opportunity for informal discussions between participants from various backgrounds – artists, cultural practitioners, researchers, and activists – over a longer period of time.
The first workshops were held in April 2018, and the participants were organised into three focus groups, addressing three topics: Culture, Politics and Capital in Urban Transformation; Renewal of the City and The Unintentional Legacy.4 During these focus group sessions, we have followed a focus group format based on participatory action research methodology to address the topics and to form action-oriented groups.
Below I will focus on the main issues which emerged from The Unintentional Legacy focus group, as I contributed to this group as a moderator. Throughout the four focus group sessions, we have developed our main approach around the Empowerment of Self-Organised Groups.
To address the issue of how to (self)empower grassroot organisations and collectives, the participants identified the lack of collective representation for cultural workers as one of the central issues of the local cultural field. Leading to this problem, we have identified three main sources:
The origins of this issue were recognised in the perceived lack of initiative and engagement from the artistic community and the wider civil society.
The lack of collective term/terminology for local operators they could identify with, and also the lack of collective identity as a group was identified as another issue. This was further discussed in relation to the problem, that the collectives are generally associated with discourses of national identity building or political parties.
Next to the lack of intrinsic motivations and approaches, there were some extrinsic problems to note, such as the lack of institutional support structures, and the lack of legal structure for alternative enterprises.
The identification of these issues leads to our central problem: the lack of collective representation for the cultural workers. With this central case in place, we could name further interlinked problems, such as the temporality of collaborations, lack of shared resources and the lack of full-time devotion, to name a few. Altogether, the above-mentioned problems are leading to the constant insecurity and precarious situation of the cultural field in Malta.
As the problems were mainly focused around collective and systemic issues, we have addressed them with different approaches:
The suggested solutions for the lack of support- and legal structures were mainly focusing on a wish for better strategic support for artists and cultural workers, in terms of logistical supports, affordable consultancy (accounting, legal issues, etc.), resource centres and long-term funding strategies. These solutions were expected to arrive from an official institute or organisation.
Establishing a collective was recognised as a long-term strategy. The positive, supportive strengths of a collective/collectives were recognised in the possibility of sharing work and responsibilities; sharing resources/ expenses and equipment; stronger representation and lobby activity as a group and the cross-fertilisation and knowledge production capacities of groups. Nevertheless, the actual steps towards forming collectives at this stage were rather blocked by the recognised lack of engagement, lack of initiative and lack of a collective term.
A solution to bridge this gap between systemic and collective solutions was recognised in two actions.
These included the establishment of temporary collectives for intermediate aims, such as claiming a site for cultural projects/ works. A cultural/ art space could have the gravity to bring together a community; it can provide security and stability both physical and support group sense; it could provide consistency; therefore it could be a good solution against the fragmentations of the cultural field.
On a pragmatic level, it could help with time-management; logistical and legal support; and could offer diversified facilities. All in all, a cultural place, that would be based on self-leadership of the group, and clear, independent leasing terms, could provide plannability and sustainability for the collective while providing a physical space and a think-tank for collaboratives.
The group also recognised the strength of smaller, micro-collectives around various topics. This suggestion was further explored in an open workshop about Collective Action and Sharing Economy, in collaboration with Valletta Design Cluster. The event was organised as a community think-tank to discuss various community-based sharing economy initiatives and to map needs and resources – tools, knowledge sharing, emotional needs, etc. – on the local level. The overall aim was to increase participation, self-reliance, and community resilience.
These micro-scale group-forming actions continued in various directions based on the mapped needs and resources in the form of The Hatchery Initiative. The initiative is a local action/ social innovation support system, with the aim to inspire and gather seeds of initiative that reside within the communities.
These actions can grow to strengthen the incentives to take initiatives and engagement with local issues, but also to take and share responsibility to be the initiators of the changes within the local cultural scene. Furthermore, a transforming cultural scene – that constantly renews itself to address cultural, economic, social and political challenges – can be the context in which cooperation supersedes competition.
Szilvia Nagy is a cultural researcher, project manager and curator from Budapest, Hungary and Essen, Germany and a founder of Local Operators' Platform (LOCOP), a network and research platform to facilitate dialogues between researchers, local operators and cultural practitioners. LOCOP’s overall aim is to highlight the importance of collaboration, participation and evaluation for a sustainable long-term development of the European Capitals of Culture (ECoC) programme.
She is a PhD Candidate in Film, Media and Contemporary Culture Studies at the Eotvos Lorand University, Budapest and holds an MA in Cultural and Visual Anthropology and an MA in Political Science.