Published on Thursday 11 November 2021

A Research Associate at Arts Council Malta, Neville Borg’s role involves developing and managing the Council’s research programmes via qualitative and quantitative research while gathering quality statistics and data mining, analysing cultural practices, and monitoring cultural participation tendencies, production and consumption for decision-making purposes. He is also a founding member of Wikimedia Community Malta. He talks to Kevin Saliba about the Council’s Digital Research & Development RESTART Scheme, the troubles with Wikipedia in Maltese, the state of art criticism in Malta, local gender divides in cultural participation and the end times according to Slavoj Žižek.

“The most important thing I did at home during the pandemic was fixing up my garden. Otherwise – like most people perhaps – I didn’t really do anything productive. As soon as the pandemic hit there was a lot of false hopes around: we all initially thought that finally we can be truly creative, finish-off long-delayed projects and whatnot. But admittedly it was a bit like living in the end times, to borrow a phrase from Slavoj Žižek,” says Neville Borg as he reflects over these past surreal months.

Nonetheless at times the worst of times – as Charles Dickens would have it – is also the best of times. Truth be told, Borg’s professional life certainly didn’t follow such an apocalyptic trajectory. In fact, during lockdown he has held Armageddon at bay by planning the dissemination of a recently completed cultural survey, developing new research studies and overseeing the Digital Research and Development RESTART Scheme. His efforts seem to have paid off: “During lockdown we had to make hay while the shone. We have addressed issues we’ve been meaning to address for many years. We focused quite heavily on research and development, online migration and the now pivotal role of digital technology within artistic and cultural practices. Eventually we issued a special Arts Fund call, to which local artists responded with unprecedented alacrity with a remarkable number of tech research-based proposals,” says Borg. He sounds relieved. Yahoo, in the end times we are not.

Meanwhile the Research Associate turns his attention to a much-cherished side-project, namely Wikimedia Community Malta. Launched in early 2016, this ongoing endeavour seeks to encourage the uptake of wiki activity among Maltese-speaking communities via several wiki pursuits, projects, training and outreach events such as monument photography, female art wiki coverage as well as Wikipedia editing and translation workshops. “As an organization we focus very much on Maltese language content as ours is one of the smallest and most problematic Wikipedias around, especially in terms of quality and impartiality. Besides, in terms of engagement and quantity we’re still lagging far behind other small countries such as Wales and Iceland. Perhaps due to the voluntary nature of such undertakings, finding an adequate number of committed suitable editors has so far proved difficult,” Borg laments. He also notes, quite legitimately, that the lack of serious art criticism is yet another spanner in the works. “Top-notch critics in Malta are regrettably a rare breed, especially when it comes to contemporary works. If we’d had a body of critics reviewing local works our wiki editors would also have had a solid corpus of critical literature to refer to and possibly to build upon. Alas, this is not the case,” remarks he.

I ask him straight away whether he thinks that local critics – presumably due to social and professional concerns – seem to prefer to lie doggo. He doesn’t mince his words: “A few local critics I’ve met literally told me that they steer clear from writing bad reviews. Some say they feel bad about hurting other people’s feelings. Others prefer not to make enemies. I feel it’s a shame really, but in fairness to them I also reckon that in a such a tiny country like ours – in which we’re all often roughly one degree away from everybody else – upsetting the apple cart is no mean feat. Let’s face it: most local artists depend heavily on peer support and public funding. They’re afraid that if they speak out they might end up cancelled, ostracized and, worse still, not considered for funding. Nonetheless, nobody benefits from such a lack of honest informed feedback, least of all the Arts Council for that matter,” he bluntly remarks.

The discussion then turned to cultural participation trends in Malta, specifically apropos a recently exposed gender divide amongst theatre attendees. “One previous cultural survey suggests that women are generally more interested in attending cultural events, particularly theatrical ones. That being said, the survey only looks at passive modes of engagement. We still don’t have a broader understanding of local gender trends as regards active participation. It is also yet unclear whether this is also reflected in most project proposals submitted to the various ACM funding schemes. That’s one of the things we are currently focusing on in our latest cultural survey analysis,” rounds off Borg.

The next thing we knew our time ran out. “We almost reached the end of time,” I joke over Zoom. “Indeed, but hopefully not as your Žižek intended,” he sanguinely retorts. “May we all see the best of times...”