To escape from the unpleasant sight and sounds of new developments, we flock to the sea, averting our gaze from land and thus silently allowing more exploitation to happen.
by Charlene Galea
Collage by the author
As the transformation of streets, squares and alleys into an ever-expanding construction site is reaching a new—unbearable—level, it begs a question: how are we coping with the continuous noise, clouds of dust and the demise of open space? As I’ve discovered, the answer is simple and intricate at once. To escape the suffocating grip of construction cranes and cement mixers, we turn our gaze to the sea.
Our daily lives are increasingly regimented by digital technology and we often rely on a mobile’s screen to learn about the outer world, meaning that our direct experience of the physical world is becoming dimmer and more distant. I, too, felt alienated from the world outside my home and the people with whom I shared it.
I could barely remember the last time I spent strolling around my home area in St. Paul’s Bay—it has become too unpleasant for walking. Still, I decided to get out of my home and reconnect with the world out there, to witness the ongoing metamorphosis St. Paul’s Bay was going through. I spent the summer of 2018 walking down to the seaside area regularly, struggling through heaps of junk on the narrow pavements and squeezing between badly parked cars. Walking was a way to observe the surrounding space and reflect on the life I was living. I wondered how others around me were experiencing this space we inhabited.
As I walked and looked around, my home town began revealing a striking pattern which I had not been aware of before.
Separated by a narrow busy road, there lay two distinct, contrasting worlds: the one of the tower cranes and apartment blocks, and the other of the sea. So close and yet so far, they could not have been more different. While the overexploited urban area reverberated with the roar of jackhammers, the sound of the sea was soothing and revitalising.
I could not take my eyes off the horizon—that blurred thin line where the sea met the sky—the only unobstructed view I could find. This was the ultimate landscape I was searching for, but could not find on land; the only refuge from the chaos of the claustrophobic, densely built up town. Not only did the worlds of land and sea look so unlike one another, but—most fascinatingly—people there seemed as though they were two different kinds of humans. Influenced by tower cranes and noise, people’s attitude varied from indifference to agitation, while, by the sea, they seemed at ease and more aware of one another. In other words, they were simply more humane by the sea.
Being here, by the sea, was the only chance to experience public space once again; to be connected with one another and with nature.
People flocked to the sea, immersed themselves into it and populated the narrow stretch of coastline, squeezed between the water and the construction sites. They sat there contemplating the horizon, talking, socialising: the coast was the place where life was happening. Being here, by the sea, was the only chance to experience public space once again; to be connected with one another and with nature.
I approached a few individuals with a question whether they would prefer to move away from the area due to the routine discomfort. They said they would rather stay. Although the proximity of the sea itself is one of the reasons for overbuilding—more apartment blocks and extra floors trade in the view —people do not seem to mind it, as long as they could spend more time by the sea. The sea absolved all numerous inconveniences which complicate day to day life in the area and was also mentioned as the major source of happiness.
While talking to my respondents, I could not help but be aware of all the noises permanently hanging in the air—drilling, traffic, music from the bars—but my respondents appeared not to notice the bustle. Instead, they looked at the sea. And as they turned their gaze to the expanse of deep blue, they also turned their back to the land. This was my eureka moment! Finally, I understood what was happening: as people sought the sea’s revitalising power, they simultaneously ignored the abuse happening behind their back—on land.
Here is the way we have been experiencing Malta for the past two decades, spinning in a vicious cycle. The breathtaking view is treated as a financial asset, packaged into a dull swarm of apartment blocks and sold to the highest bidder while chipping away at our livable space. To escape from the unpleasant sight and sounds of new developments, we flock to the sea, averting our gaze from land and thus silently allowing more exploitation to happen. The sea seems to be our last refuge, but at the same time, this escapism prevents us from protecting the few open spaces remaining on land.
We choose to see the sea because looking at the land hurts—it has become hostile and uninhabitable.
We are busy stuck in traffic, with eyes and fingers glued to the screen; we are overworked and caught up in a capitalist vicious cycle which leaves us with no time to reflect on what is happening on our streets. Can we possibly call it progress? The noise and stress of the heavily urbanised island are chasing us away from towns, all the way to the sea—our only remaining pavement—but where do we go from here? And how do we find courage to face the land and reclaim it for living, not mere surviving?
Charlene Galea is a multimedia artist whose concepts intersect digital culture, everyday life and performance art. Her studio is outdoors where she often engages with individuals through dialogues and documents the interaction between people and the environment. She is currently pursuing a Master’s degree in digital fine arts.
This video was originally presented to the public at the festival Utopian Nights: The Commons curated by Elise Billiard as part of Valletta 2018 programme.