If I had to describe this project in a single word it would definitely be ambitious, ambitious as fuck! Like always we started thinking about it in March and the intentions were small. The very first plans involved a small patch of abandoned land in Pembroke which consisted of a couple of small dilapidated buildings connected by a grassy path. We were thinking of doing a small exhibition this time round based more on installations and theatrical character narrations connected to the art works. The themes we had in mind were sketchy but we knew that we wanted something on life and death worked on by a small team of artists. The original target was July/August 2006 and we started doing some research on the area we wanted to use and see from where we could get all the necessary permits. Unfortunately we discovered that the land belonged to a political party and this put us off the whole thing since we never wanted to get close to those people in any way.
Then in July I was discussing the project with Martin and Jean-Paul and both of them came up with two ideas that took the whole thing in a new direction. Jean-Paul suggested we stick to the theme of death since to work on both life and death was a bit too wide for anybody to think on and if it’s on death we could have the project in November kicking it off on the 1st, the feast of the dead. Martin was thinking more in line of what kind of place we could do it in and his suggestion was to contact CityPro, the Valletta based real estate agency and see if they could find us an old house in Valletta we could use for the project. I immediately got hooked on both ideas and discussed everything with Stan and Kari, they thought it could work but we needed the house, without the house it couldn’t be done. We set up a meeting with CityPro in Valletta and luckily for us it turned out much better than we had expected. The people involved in CityPro were big art lovers and also fans of our previous works so when they heard our ideas for this new project they got on board without any hesitations and started looking around for us and asking owners if we could use their house. The only problem was that the owners of the houses didn’t turn out to be as sympathetic as the company was.
It took them the whole of August and September to manage to find us the most suitable people sympathetic enough towards the Maltese art scene to let us take over their house for an exhibition. These people turned out to be Mr. and Mrs. Strickland. Maria and I went to meet the Stricklands at the end of September and the discussion was quite a peculiar one. We didn’t want to tell them that the exhibition was going to be about death because we already knew that they would definitely be put off from the whole thing so we had to be as vague as possible without actually lying in their face. On the other hand even though they were willing to give us the place for a month they had no idea of why we wanted such a place instead of a regular exhibiting hall. They kept warning us that the place was a disaster, uninhabitable, dangerous, wet, full of garbage and weeds with the odd rat here and there and with no running water and electricity. The place was simply the least possible venue to have an art exhibition in. Ironically that was exactly why we wanted it so we signed a contract saying that we took all responsibility of anything which happened inside the house for the 2 months we were going to be using it and we also agreed that we would be bringing in an architect to carry out an inspection of the place to guarantee its safety for the public, and they gave us the keys.
From that moment onwards it was a rolling ride back to the good old ‘merely a stain’ days yet this time round we wanted to have two major differences in this project. First of all rather than having artists working on their own work and then we simply ‘pick up’ all the finished works and put them in a collective exhibition we wanted the artists themselves to work onsite as much as possible and be involved in converting the place as much as they were involved on their own individual art works. The second factor that we wanted to implement in this project was that the exhibition wasn’t going to be a collective exhibition but a collaborative exhibition. This means that the artists weren’t simply told to work on their own piece but to form small groups of two or three and they had to work on a ‘room’ together. The art works had to be the product of a collaborative approach inside a designated room which they could manipulate and work in with any mediums they wanted and in any way they agreed on. These two qualities of this project made it a very different one to our previous initiatives since it actually brought a lot of unknown artists together to actually collaborate hands on for a number of weeks rather than simply meeting up on opening night to congratulate each other on each other’s work.
Another different approach we took with Memento Mori was that we specified a defined theme; death. This was both gratuitous and necessary. We needed to have such a defined theme since we were urging artists who never met each other before or worked together before to actually collaborate artistically together, it was like we needed to give them something to talk about together just in case they don’t end up tongue tied. This way it was much safer to ask for collaboration since at least you know already there’s going to be a focal point on which they’re going to meet. It was also meant to cover up for the problem of ambiguity and discontinuity we had in previous projects were the art works had no common ground at all even though it was supposed to be a somehow focused collective group exhibition. But logistical reasons apart the idea of death was very personal and almost obvious. From day one of our artistic existence, all the ‘darkness’, the black moods, the dead tree, the gloomy site, everything, was somehow pointing its bony figure to the inevitable beyond so we decided that it was about time we embraced the damn thing and get it over and done with.
Putting the whole thing up wasn’t easy, as the Stricklands had honestly told us the place was a filthy wreck with no electricity. We spent whole weekends simply cleaning up the rooms, ripping the weeds, removing patches of mud and gravel and sweeping the place over and over again. We decided to roof the central courtyard with plastic so we could use it even when it rains and of course we had to have electricity installed and actually wire the whole place up with a series of bulbs and extensions. This operation couldn’t have been done without the help of my uncle, Laurence Bonnici, who got us the necessary inside contacts to actually get electricity installed in the place and Chris Gatt of St. James Cavalier who sponsored all the necessary expenses of lights and wiring and extension plugs and everything. The final costs ran into the hundreds so it was literally impossible for us to manage from our own pockets (like we always do and still did in this project for everything else) luckily St. James forked out all of the cash with the agreement that they’ll get everything back themselves to be recycled in the arts centre itself. We couldn’t be any happier. This was another ‘Strangers’ positive repercussion. The artists themselves didn’t have an easy time at all at putting up their works. What should have taken months of preparation was being done in weeks so the tension was quite high and many ideas had to be compromised or simply left out due to lack of time. But the place itself brought everything together beautifully and when we saw the house we had managed to put together it gave us the satisfactory feeling that once again we pulled something off. Yet the greatest difficulty of all was still coming up; keeping the whole place up and running and attracting a constant stream of visitors for a whole straight month.
The fact was that after all the work we did into getting everything and everyone together and pulling off such a project we didn’t want to open it up for a week and then that’s it, it’s gone. So we decided to keep the place open for a whole month including both weekdays and weekends. We wanted to give the project enough chance to be viewed by as many people as possible and also give everyone the chance to meet up in the place not just for the exhibition but also as a meeting point for artists and art lovers. What we did was that in the courtyard we set up a makeshift bar with tables and chairs and everything and apart from the exhibition itself we planned a series of events scattered throughout the whole month which would happen inside the house thus attracting people to the same place for different reasons. The program was as creative and ambitious as the exhibition itself. We had nights dedicated to music with live performances from Pink Pube, a film weekend on the theme of death, a small experimental theatrical performance, a discussion meeting between scaremongering.net and members from the S.T.A.R.T. art initiative, the launch of a solo wire sculpture exhibition by J.P.Azzopardi, the infamous set of 6-course dinners in the presence of death, and the final bang, the live debut of ‘il-Brikkun’, an unforgettable gig that brought everyone who had been there together for one last show.
All of this happened in the weeks between the 1st of November and the 30th, practically having something special every Wednesday and on every weekend. Throughout the week there was a constant trickle of people, especially students from the school of art who used to drop by right after school, and there was always that group of five or six that gathered around a table everyday for the cheap beer and wine. But on weekends we always had a crowd of 150 to 200 people, with recurring faces and new ones alike. The commitment, dedication and work this thing involved was simply unbelievable. The strain was both mental and physical, apart from keeping the whole place together (remember that it was already falling apart to begin with) we also had the constant organizational responsibility of putting together the next event, and the next one, and the next one…Not to mention the candles, we bought, replaced and set up boxes of bloody candles every week, everyday going round and putting in the new ones. When we did the final financial report of the whole thing the candles turned out to be the greatest expense we had second only to the electricity set up. You can imagine how we all felt by the end of it all. Everyone was literally sick with exhaustion.
This project could be considered as the perfect ending to the first phase of scaremongering.net. Of course this was never planned, there was never any conscious decision to have a phase of one type of projects and then we’ll start with another but once we went through the whole ordeal that was Memento Mori we all became aware that this was it, this was the end of something. It was like Memento Mori embodied everything we were capable of doing and we were aiming at since our first exhibition. The innovative way of presenting art, the emphasis on space and place and atmosphere, the collaboration between artists, the different mediums, the constant active approach of events and versatility and the bold daring approach towards ideas that most would consider as unbelievable and simply too much.
With the great qualities evident in this project there was also a very clear and distinct downside. The individual art and artists themselves, their ideas, their concepts, their aims, got lost in everything. There was no conscious reference whatsoever to the discussion being promoted by these artists, or to their views, and there was also a big question mark on whether any of them actually had any. Of course they had one might say but how should we know? One of the regular comments we get for our projects is that there always is a sense of style over substance or atmosphere and tone over real content to intellectually interact with. I believe that this is a very valid comment even though there always was the odd piece or particular artists who gave a lot of importance to this in their works but it was definitely not our intention as a group. This lack of focus on the art itself gave way to another problem in this project in regards to its ambivalent identity. Was this an art exhibition or an alternative party venue that had art on as decoration? Well our intentions were clearly the former, we wanted to do and art exhibition but throughout the month especially on particular days the definition became slightly blurry and the priorities might have shifted uncovering the inconsistencies in our own ideas.
Ultimately the final fact that we all had to face together was what’s next? What can you do next after this huge exhaustive thing? Should there be a next? Could there be a next? We suddenly realized that this was a group of people brought to work together on a particular project for a number of weeks and that’s it, once it’s over we are going back to our separate ways and wait until the next idea comes our way. We had been working like this, living like this, from one project to the next, from one idea to the next, for three years, since 2003. At the end of Memento Mori we found out that we couldn’t carry on like this, and what’s more that all that could have been done like this, in this method, was done, this was it, if we wanted to do something else, something more, than we had to figure out a new way for scaremongering.net to be. This is why Memento Mori was so important for our initiative, this was the project that took us to our limits, forced us to see our end and gave us the opportunity to meet the people we needed to see beyond.events, exhibitions, retrospective |