Production, not Protest

Reflections on Perch, by Keit Bonnici, Is-Suq Tal-Belt, Valletta, 2018 /

Filmed by: Yellow World Media
Edited by: Keit Bonnici

The city is roused by a whir. Wheels click on hard tarmac and cobble stones. Out of sync with the winter afternoon’s wind down, the pace and echo are dialed up. An unidentifiable structure in tow, a figure in passing. Their presence announced, unavoidably etching into the awareness of passers-by and cafe-goers sheltering from the breeze under plastic palisades. The curtains are drawn on an unassuming parade – a journey caught in its interim, unaware of how or where it began, unknowing of where it will go and why. 

In one instance that follows, a wholeness comes into focus. The trailed structure is docked into an approved landing site and its identity is revealed: a chair perched on a ledge. He takes a seat on the odd looking chair, unlike any of the sprawling, standardised seating around here. Its front legs are awkwardly shorter than its back pair, but it rests perfectly at the base of Valletta’s Is-Suq Tal-Belt. This is a tool which confesses to have been crafted specifically to traverse the hard edge of this catering outlet’s platform. 

Lifted to the customer’s eye level, he sits half in, half out, inviting curious looks and conversation – something which perhaps this insular palace of consumption denies to a thirsty community. Yet the feeling cannot be shaken – there is an air of unease stimulated by a man and his strange chair. He doesn’t move much until he pulls from under his chair, a hidden thermos. A warm brew is poured out, and with this slow gesture, the feeling of being held suspect dissolves. He is not here to interrogate or provoke. He lifts his cup and takes a gentle sip. Perhaps he is just waiting.

Perch is a 2018 performance by local artist Keit Bonnici with two conspicuous protagonists – the artist with his chair and Is-Suq tal-Belt – and a third unknowing and indifferent protagonist – the Public, who are arguably the main focus of this performance. The three participate in scripting a narrative addressing themes of agency and public space from an unexpected perspective: a critique of a ‘Public’ that has forgotten how to be public.

Keit has described his work as being concerned with loss, “humans have created rituals on how to deal with grief when a person dies. I have created my own ritual to what I call spatial grief. Part of the grieving process is acknowledgement, and here I am in that process.” The work has often been portrayed as a protest piece1 – a reaction that reads too literally into the artist’s ‘violent’ transgression of boundaries. Because while the work does hold undertones of protest, it also attempts to surpass that by offering new perspectives, new ways of seizing the everyday and the mundane, and indeed facing the loss of difference in our spaces. In this aspect, Perch is every bit about birth as it is about death.

Although the performance starts in the streets of Valletta, the ritual begins in the workshop where the chair is first conceived in the artist’s mind, in the sketches and in the mock up models he uses to tease out a site-specific object. The curation of this object to address a particular urban condition is a key turning point; it changes the expected convention of this chair from one of utility to an overtly political gesture. It permits watching, but is equally watched. It scrutinises the take up of public land for private interests. And it holds responsible a Public that is complicit in neutralising its own agency. In stitching this rich set of complexities to the simplicity of an everyday article, Perch offers an ironic, playful dig at the public that is insecure when faced by performances other than shopping.

The drum and whir of a chair’s wheels against the cobblestones on one winter afternoon echoes in a million other little acts of unconscious production elsewhere. The towels laid down onto hot concrete under a scorching sun. The fisherman’s buckets laid onto the pier’s periphery. The doorsteps of households that become pedestals for conversations that spill out into the night and equally onto the street. Perch tickles a reminder of how objects and architecture can indeed be enacted to define and create meaningful experiences.

1. Artist’s creative protest against is-Suq tal-Belt’s occupation of public land, Times of Malta, 9th January 2020