The Malta Independent 15 November 2018, Thursday

The future of Strada Stretta

Wednesday, 23 September 2015, 13:18 Last update: about 4 years ago

Nikki Petroni 

 

Last June the Department of History of Art organized a public lecture by Prof. John Maciuika, Professor of Art and Architectural History at City University of New York (CUNY), called 'Infrastructures of Memory: Historical Reconstruction, Cultural Heritage, and Architectural Culture'. The talk was on the rebuilding of the royal palace in Berlin, also known as the Berlin City Palace, which is currently being reconstructed and completion set for 2019.

The debate presented by Prof. Maciuika is one which is quite troubling, a sensitive topic which deals with the collective historical memory of a community and its future identity. He analysed the conception of history as embedded within architectural form and how that form comes to represent a collective image and cultural perspective. The case of the Berlin palace is an interesting one as it changed appearance and function several times throughout its almost 600-year history. After being demolished under the GDR in 1950, the façade is being faithfully reconstructed according to its former glorious Baroque aesthetic.

The only problem is that this mimicking of the past will result in the copying of a former style, a style representing a past which precedes the turbulences of Germany's 19th and 20th century history, and so referring to the ideals of an archaic community rather than the present population, a good number of which would have witnessed or remember its destruction. This acceptance of inauthenticity I find to be rather disturbing, especially in a time when we are so conscious of history itself and of its radical, sudden and dynamic changes. A Baroque building reconstructed in the 21st century is a reconstruction of the image of an ideal, but not of the ideal itself. Or, even worse, a platonic copy of a copy, which actually makes the palace architecture superfluous to the present.

This conundrum has been contentiously debated in Malta in relation to the designs for the former Royal Opera House. The endurance and antagonism of this particular debate is enough to demonstrate how problematic the confronting of historical memory is. Another of these problems has now presented itself, which deals with the use of a space whose historical reputation is now obsolete. This space is Strada Stretta, The Gut, a street which used to host all those aspects which one would never associate with the conventional Maltese identity due to its cosmopolitan and immoral nature. Hence, it was a truly counter-cultural street which is as significant to Valletta's past as is that which occurred on the main, civilized roads of the city.

No longer do British and American sailors occupy the bars of Strada Stretta, most of which are now closed. Cabaret performers, drag queens, music halls are today absent, much to my dismay. But it would make no sense for them to exist again, at least not as they used to. Such a recreation of the past would be superficial, and superficiality is very evidently false no matter how much make-up is used to cover it up. The recent poster for the Stretta Festival happening this weekend is a case in point.

I realized that the establishing of the Strada Stretta Concept would be a challenging project for these aforementioned reasons. However, with Dr. Giuseppe Schembri Bonaci as artistic director of the project, it is already taking on new form without being distanced from the cultural identity of Strait Street. Dr. Schembri Bonaci grew up in the area and so Strada Stretta is a very familiar place. He is tackling the project with great sensitivity to the street's past, but is most importantly looking forward to creating a future home for art and creative individuals.

Apart from its notoriety, the street was a significant creative hub. The arts flourished within this community of professional performers and musicians, and the proximity of the music halls and clubs fostered healthy competition between them. Today Malta has no collective space for artists from all disciplines to interact on a regular basis, which is a necessity in the arts.

This is why the creative regeneration of Strada Stretta is so important. It must become a common space for both national and international contemporary artists. So far the events organized by the Strada Stretta Concept have included all forms of music (including a group of Żejtun għanejja), poetry, visual arts and cinema. Several proposals are being submitted for collaborative projects, even ones from abroad, including from artists who are participating in the Mdina Biennale. This means that people are drawn to the idea of having an artistic public space at the centre of the capital city. Such a spirit is not imposed but organically cultivated.

A place like Strada Stretta breeds creativity not only because of a constant stream of events, but also because it is a social space where people can spend the night discussing, artists can meet the audience and vice versa. Such a space is essential for art. Isolation is detrimental to any culture, and with the response the project has received, Strada Stretta is clearly overcoming this barrier.

It is not only Strada Stretta but the whole city of Valletta is currently undergoing great changes. There are constant developments which are injecting the city with new life. It is evident that Valletta's new creative spirit is seeking new definitions and thus an infrastructure must be established for these to thrive.

New definitions, new understandings of the world, can never be encapsulated within old forms no matter how great a memory of a place or time is. Nostalgic hangovers blind us from seeing the present and what Charles Baudelaire calls "the fleeting beauty of present-day life" which truly expresses the contemporary age. The present and the past must be allowed to collaborate harmoniously without the latter impeding the growth of the former.

Nikki Petroni is a doctoral student in the History of Art Department, University of Malta. She is also a member of the organisational team of the Mdina Cathedral Contemporary Art Biennale which will be held between 13 November 2015 and 7 January 2016. APS Bank is the main partner of the Mdina Biennale


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