Grasping at the contemporary | Vince Briffa

Visual artist and lecturer Vince Briffa speaks to TEODOR RELJIC about his participation in the collective exhibition Contemporary Inside 2018, which will also inaugurate a new exhibition space at the G.F. Abela Junior College

Between A Kiss And The Naked Truth dual PAL video loops, no sound, CRT monitors 2009
Between A Kiss And The Naked Truth dual PAL video loops, no sound, CRT monitors 2009

What would you say is the main driving ethos behind Contemporary Inside 2018, and how does your contribution in particular reflect this?

Contemporary Inside 2018 seeks to establish further dialogue between local contemporary art practice and higher education. The project, which is a joint collaboration between GF Abela Junior College and Troupe 18:45 under the curation of Trevor Borg and the co-ordination of Roderick Vassallo, has spurred the refurbishment of a formerly underused large room into a wonderful, multi-purpose, pavilion-like space at Junior College in Msida, where one could exhibit art of a sizeable scale. The space and consequently the exhibition are strategically planted at the very centre of sixth-form life, where formation of character takes root, and where the process of complex thinking and questioning of the most significant issues that characterise contemporary societies start being explored.

The words ‘Contemporary Inside’ in the title of the show are not coincidental. They play upon and affirm two interesting facts: through this initiative, contemporary artistic production and local contemporary artwork are given a dominant place at the nucleus of one of our main educational institutions, claiming ground with all the other subjects taught at the college. The building that houses this exhibition is also a statement that challenges the ever-growing concept of the old making way for the new, promoting restoration as a viable alternative to reconstruction.

I am showing three works from different phases of my production. I have chosen these works as they are a personal reflection on different realities in one’s life, with two of the works also having relevance to life in Malta. The works are meant to create debate with the students, and more importantly, to highlight the fact that contemporary art deals with real issues and exposes the realities that we live in today.

Vince Briffa: “I am a great believer a holistic ecology for the visual arts”
Vince Briffa: “I am a great believer a holistic ecology for the visual arts”

Nar-Nir (for AB) of 2017 is a work from a series entitled The Caricaturisation of Confrontation. It references art itself, acting on an art historical level by sourcing post-war conceptual artist Alighiero Boetti’s (AB) concern with colour and language structures in his body of work I Colori (1972), similarly appropriating the typical material criteria of the new redefinition of art, particularly sculpture and installation of the 1960s. The CCTV surveillance installation is a comment on our propensity to gravitate towards extremes, particularly zoning on the island’s strong political divide of red and blue. Through what can be poetically described as a mediatic silencing (of RGB colour values to grayscale), the work becomes a metaphor for the indistinguishability of both extremes when reduced to their fundamental monotone, as it drowns the colourful attributes Nar and Nir to voiceless obscurity by divesting them of their dominant characteristic, the vibrancy of their hue. Nar-Nir therefore turns us into colour-blind observers, depriving us of all meaning and neutering all cultural colouring that has taken civilisations millennia to garner.

Immigrant of 2003 is a photographic documentation that borders on forensic photography aesthetics, of an apartment following the tragic death of its occupant. The body of work exposes us to the harsh reality of death faced alone and invites us to piece together the life of this person through the distressing remnants evidenced in the photos. The work places the viewer at the scene of the crime, where one is only faced with clues of another life.

The photographs hint at the tenant’s quick getaway. Like a refugee or irregular immigrant she has been uprooted violently with no time to make amends, leaving only traces of a secretly lived, solitary life. These ordinary objects, untouched since the dreadful evacuation, radiate the aura of relics; of remnants so ripe with symbolic meaning.

Immigrant was strategically first exhibited at the Museum of Fine Arts in Valletta during the Christmas period, in 2002, where some metres away in the main thoroughfare of our capital, people were heedlessly buying presents and making merry. This work was included in Contemporary Inside due to its relevance to today’s social issues.

The third work is a dual video monitor installation entitled Between a Kiss and the Naked Truth of 2009. The work appropriates iconic film clips and rethinks their aesthetic of conventional beauty and tempo to create an alternative reality, far removed from their originally intended meaning. It reworks the film’s primary reading of narrative by juxtaposing these excerpts on two screens, freezing and slowing down perceptive time and blanking out any accompanying sound. The work makes use of Hollywood romances of the black and white era which never show more than a mere kiss to hint at further sexual activity, a strategy intended to trigger the viewer’s imagination to fabricate a perceived reality.

How would you describe your fellow co-exhibitors for this exhibition, and why do you think their contribution to the overall discourse on Maltese contemporary art is important?

The artists showing in this exhibition are all established practitioners, with years of involvement in contemporary art at a local and international level. They are all also, to varying degrees, involved in art education. This dialectic between one’s own practice and one’s engagement with art education takes its nourishment from the very fact that the educator is also committed to a strong practice, and looks at him/herself as an artist that is also involved in education and not only an educator. Sustaining a practice that remains relevant in contemporary art terms for a long time, as in the case of all of the persons exhibiting, is no mean feat. Its discussion with such a young audience therefore remains apposite and evergreen.

Nar-Nir (for AB) text, plastic, paint, steel, CCTV cameras, CRT monitors 2017
Nar-Nir (for AB) text, plastic, paint, steel, CCTV cameras, CRT monitors 2017

As someone who has both an academic and practice-based experience of the local contemporary arts scene, what kind of phase do you think the country is currently at in that regard, and what kind of art would you hope to see in the near future?

Through some steps taken in the right direction in the last decade, particularly on a tertiary education level, students are being better equipped for professional practice and for further research in the visual arts. Arts funding has also increased, and many more opportunities for professional development are available.

Although one can argue that there is much more that can be done, my priority goes to the rethinking of artistic education of the very young in the light of what contemporary art and design will require in the years to come. A more holistic artistic education that supports the artistic process rather than the end product through informed experimentation and reflective thinking needs to be implemented at a very early stage of artistic education in order for the student to enter effortlessly into an already established framework of practice-based research at a tertiary education level.

Furthermore, just like we make so much effort on textual literacy, in an increasingly visual world, our students need to become visually literate not only in the traditional visual arts, but particularly in an increasingly digitally mediated one, and this must also start in early education.

There is also the paramount issue of the time allocated to creative activity which needs to be seriously addressed. Due to its complexity, artistic experimentation requires a lengthy gestation period and our students should be given a fail-safe environment where this process can be fully nurtured.

It is with a common holistic vision that promotes this culture of informed practical research and experimentation and affords time for such growth throughout the entire artistic education, that we can give our students the right toolset that can guarantee excellence in today’s art world. We seriously need to commit to addressing this deficiency for the further flourishing of local contemporary art.

Given that Valletta is currently serving as European Capital for Culture, what kind of hopes and ambitions do you have for the visual arts scene in that regard?

Personally, I am a great believer a holistic ecology for the visual arts, one that caters long term for creative development and artistic excellence. Apart from the events, festivals, exhibitions and one-off experiences which are synonymous with such a title, the European Capital of Culture should contribute to this ecology by bequeathing legacy. My hopes are that the infrastructural projects for art and design financed by ECOC will be contributing in no small way to achieve this.

What’s next for you?

Apart from an already quite full local and international exhibition and residency programme for 2018-9, which include residencies in Holland and Italy, and exhibitions in Malta, Austria and Japan, I’m looking forward to dedicating more time to my practice and research, and to travel more.