Interview with 3Package deal artist Jimmy Grima

Artist, curator and researcher Jimmy Grima (1983) grew up in Malta, but traded a peaceful rural context for modern city life in Amsterdam. In 2018, he started at Das Theater, where he graduated this year. He has a great interest in contradictions; between nature and technology, between old and new. We live in rapid societies filled with information, technology, development and human intervention. How do these things affect not only nature but us as well, our collective memories and old, local and undocumented knowledge? Jimmy Grima’s work approaches these topics head-on – and he spoke about it with our curator Petra Heck.

(For our coalition Public Realm, Jimmy Grima is selected this year as artist for the 3Package deal of the AFK in collaboration with Das Graduate School and Over het IJ Festival. The 3package deal connects performance and theatre to the public domain.)

Hi Jimmy, can you tell us a bit about yourself, as a person and an artist/curator, where you grew up and your relationship to the Netherlands?

I was born and raised on the Maltese Islands. The most southern part of Europe and the most occidental part of the Arab world. Politically, we are part of the European Union. Culturally, we are at the gates of the Arab World and the Western World. I was born in 1983, 10 years after Malta became a republic (1973) and independent from the British Empire. I was raised as a strict Catholic (like most of the other Maltese) until I encountered the arts. That turned my faith upside down and I quickly abandoned the church for the stage and the gallery. Musical education was my first formal art-education, then came drama (theatre) and later, I self-taught myself the realm of visual art. Contemporary theatre and the Maltese history of art and theatre have a very particular context over there. In theatres, Shakespeare is played in English and the pantomime (a traditional British Christmas play) is the show that runs the most. Maltese culture remains amateur. So ‘running’ away from the island for inspiration has always been present in my life.
Before moving to Amsterdam for good, my most memorable experience of running away was my stay in Alexandria, Egypt; where I felt very close to home (Malta was Arab for centuries and Maltese is an Arabic language written in Latin alphabet with a lot of Latin and English stolen vocab). I was supposed to be there for 5 days however I overstayed 9 months out of pure curiosity.
Upon my return, I started to create projects and frameworks independent from institutions to gather artists and share resources. Warehouse No.8 was an independently-run venue in a warehouse on an industrial estate, and afterwards came The Rubberbodies Collective. Rubberbodies began as a reason to come together and developed as a theatre and art group. It was initiated on the island of Malta in 2009. Committed to being an evolving cast of contributors, in 2020 we installed temporary collaborative structures to create and foster performative situations on the island and elsewhere. I have led the collective for 10 years and collaborated with artists and non-artists who were always in the independent scene, and sometimes I collaborated with institutions.

In 2015, Ira Melkonyan – currently the artistic director of the collective as well as my partner and collaborator – moved to Amsterdam. She was accepted as a participant at Das Theater (the Academy of Theatre and Dance, red.) and I followed her a year later; first to the Netherlands and then to Das, where I was also accepted in 2018 and have now graduated from. I moved to Amsterdam in 2018. I came here because I was in need of a spark. My fire was about to be extinguished as the context is tiny over in Malta.

I draw a lot of my inspiration from the Maltese islands, especially through the things that remain ancient and Arabic; the quality of life (slow, good food, sunshine) and the remarkably closely-knit network of family and friends who are always around and present.

Can you elaborate a bit on your practice and the thematics you work in?

My practice is interdisciplinary. I have worked on paper, for stage, film and video and lately also audio. I am also an organiser at times of events, debates, talks, organisations and spaces; I do not easily fit in one category or field. I have a strong background in visual arts, graphics and new media. This is primarily because in Malta I could not ever – and I think not even today – be dedicated to one thing, as that was not sustainable. Before moving to Amsterdam, I was mostly directing and leading artists and non-artists to create works inside and outside of institutions. Currently, I am spending most of my time investigating and intertwining concepts of sites or locality, knowledge and memory.
Today, people call me an artist-curator or an artist-researcher. It’s true that I have developed a trans-disciplinary practice which is very much involved with the politics of memory and archiving. I grew a particular interest in the disappearance of local and undocumented knowledge and developed an affinity for the relations between humans and nature.
What goes into history books or is acknowledged as valuable knowledge has everything to do with power. Working with archiving is therefore often trying to have different forms of knowledge (oral, traditional, emotional, dreams etc.) infiltrate existing archives. I come from an island where nature is everywhere and completely intertwined with daily life. Nowadays, this is changing and nature is secondary as first comes development and modernization. Similar to the controlled and adapted to human scale nature in the Netherlands, I guess. I think we are living in the peak of human-made disasters or technological disasters, due to our race for economic growth, not just in Malta or in the Netherlands but everywhere in the world. I feel we are just at the end of all this and this topic has somehow started to infiltrate my interests as I feel the urgency to speak about it. More than ever. Through stories and myths, scientific data and archives I am trying to create contemporary fables that reconnect humans to their natural environment. Moving to Amsterdam and embedding myself in the city, makes this desire stronger.

“My grandfather predicted how the wind would blow by looking at our cat’s position at sunset.”

Stichting NDSM-werf has this partnership with Over het IJ Festival and Das Graduate School to team up for the 3package deal of the AFK Fund wherein we can propose and select an artist. Our coalition is called Public Realm, connecting performance and theatre to the public realm. For the upcoming edition (2020-2021) we selected you and you wrote a proposal for that. Can you elaborate on that plan a bit, the relation it has to the context of Amsterdam North, etc.?

Water is everywhere in the Netherlands – same in Malta, we are surrounded by water. I am not from here and I know that in Malta there is a lot of poetry around the notion of water and also a lot of history. In keeping with my research on technology and human interventions on nature, I proposed to explore the notion of water, particularly looking and starting from the histories of how men conquered this water. The Great Flood in the Bible is why humans were so scared of venturing to the coast and the water in the first place. It was considered to be the unfinished work of God, where God did not save after the Great Flood (Noah’s arc). At the same time, 14th century Holland was considered to be a land that was raised from the waters and blessed by God. This started the great and successful economic history of the Netherlands. A book that tells more about this is The Lure of the Sea by Alan Cobain.
I would like to bring in histories (national and personal) of how men interact with water in these lands which relates to some sites in the North, particularly NDSM and Overhoeksplein. Both places have a history of housing workers which had a direct/indirect relation to the sea. NDSM was a wharf where some of the biggest tanker ships were launched and Overhooksplein was owned by Shell, who had conquered the waters for transporting gas and oil, which was extracted sometimes from the sea (the North Sea since 1991).
Due to the current absence of these activities and workers (Shell is present still with offices and research department) (and most of the North) being gentrified and having totally different scopes, I wonder about the ghosts still lurking there and their stories. I am basically looking for poetry within the highly commodified water (primarily for economic reasons). For now, I have not yet found this poetry.
Two anecdotes stayed very much in my head with regards to this because one of them links back to Malta, and the second one comes from a new fascination I am developing about the world of scientists, after having spent the past year delving into the topic of induced-seismicity (human-made earthquakes). Scientists spend a great deal of their time observing and experimenting. This I find fascinating because to spend time observing in today’s fast world is a great virtue and through their observations, great discoveries are often made.
The first is my father’s recollection of a memory from his school days (1960s) where in one of his school books there was the story of Holland. A boy saved the country from flooding by blocking a small hole in the dam with his fingers and staying there for days until adults came to his rescue and reduced the country by fixing the leak. It was most probably a translated version of the short story from the book in Hans Brinker, or The Silver Skates. Who was that boy? Why can’t I find anyone from here who seems to know about this story?
The second one comes from a news feed of Waternet, claiming that scientists detected Corona in the waterways of Amsterdam. I wonder what stories these databases of analysis hold in regards to the waters of the city – what other things were found in water apart from viruses? What stories can the water tell us – stories of our omnipresence gradually having a greater effect on the largest and the vastest natural resources we have as humans. They say there will be more plastic than fish in our waters in the coming future. Although I am very keen to strike a collaboration with this department, it will all depend on their willingness to allow a foreign artist in there, which might not be an easy task.

In this work, you concentrate on a few subjects that are recurring in your work, such as the elements (water, air, etc.), storytelling, and locality. Could you elaborate on your fascination for these themes and how you are dealing with it in your work? How is Malta, the place you grew up in, related to this?

The complex relationship between technology (human-made) and nature has been gradually growing inside me for the past years. In Malta I tapped into these subjects for the sake of re-connecting; as I said before, the country is in a race of development and modernisation, most Maltese have lost or are losing their rural connections. I was brought up in a suburban area, while both my parents come from rural villages on the periphery of the island. So, the outdoors and nature are very much in my blood. Moreover, the island is a very small but wild place and the connection between human and nature is something that fascinates me. My grandfather predicted how the wind would blow by looking at our cat’s position at sunset, and my father has the skills to sing and call like all the migratory birds that pass over the island. When I came to be, there was this urgency to improve and modernise the quality of life and slowly I have experienced how the community at large on the island started to distance itself from the wilderness, from nature. Installing AC’s rather than sleeping on the roof under the stars, cable TV instead of spending evenings outside by the sea, supermarkets instead of the local bakery and the local fishermen. All of this contributed to a general amnesia of our roots, of where we came from and of what we knew. All of this knowledge started to be looked down upon (as peasants) and I really believe that the people lost their connection and in return lost their well-being. So, to collect undocumented knowledge was a priority for me back then. And to involve the rural communities where this knowledge has survived time and development as they are isolated and peripheral localities. Knowledge survived through passing orally from generation to generation.
Between 2015-2017 I organised and curated the Museum of the Winds, a long-term multiple-site community-led research project, harvesting local knowledge on wind in Malta. Song of a Bird (since 2018 and ongoing) is a live archive, documenting the collaboration with the microcosm of nature enthusiasts who can sing and call like migratory birds: the Maltese bird trappers.

You also work a lot with communities, with as you call it vocational experts, can you write about this aspect of your artistic practice, the process behind your work?

Maybe it is important to mention that at the beginning I was very resilient to work with communities, as at the dawn of the 2000’s it became standard if you were an artist in Malta and abroad. Artists were being funded to go and create work in communities and art became another commodity with a specific pedagogical role in society – to teach drama or to create theatre games with communities on the peripheries or communities that were fragile in societies. I think all this happened because of some policies laid out by governments in terms of funding the arts. So in the beginning, I did not want to tap into this as I was scared that such works completely ruin and disable the power of the artists, poetry, imagination and risk.
So, I think that my first ‘community’ or as I would rather call it ‘locality-based’ research came from my interest in learning about ‘obscure’ undocumented knowledge which certain workers might have, especially in rural settings. Technology implies an act of humans and it is these workers (vocational experts) who am interested in. In Malta, it was the fishermen, the farmer and the baker, as I was looking for old-time traditions and oral knowledge which was about to get lost. I was looking into specific localities that I grew up with in which I knew something did not fit with the rest of the development in Malta (urban vs rural). Some of the people (workers) I collaborated with were mostly all retired old people, some had given up on their work and some had passed away just as I was finishing or finished the research. So, in Malta, the main aim remained mostly to be about collecting and harvesting this knowledge which otherwise would have been lost.
This knowledge can be regarded as obscure or not up to date with the times we are living in and that is the main reason why I felt the urgency to collect it and then to involve and work with the ‘informants’ in manifesting our research to the general public; sometimes in public spaces and other times using the spaces that art and theatre provide (the theatre and the art gallery).
This shifted a little bit and so I started to look at the scientists and engineers. I am not a local person here. I am a newcomer and I do not think that it is my space to take in looking at the specifics of a locality, I also do not know much. Here, I am looking at things from a meta-level and from the perspective of a southerner who moved to the North. Here, I am impressed by how engineering and science got a strong hold on nature and how people relate to that.

How do the people involved in your projects respond to your work, what role do they have?

People are my research, my collaborators and my audiences. Some of them end up being all three in one.

In what ways have the current circumstances surrounding Covid-19 affected your way of thinking, working, etc. in general?

This is a tough one. I think that in the least, the pandemic has been very demotivating on a lot of levels but hey, I also learnt a great deal of new things from it. There was a moment where I thought to myself that now that I had developed my practice skills and finished DAS theatre, performance and live gatherings are over. I really thought that and although it did not completely happen, last year was a devastating year for my work in Malta and here in Europe. Work was cancelled or postponed. I am not sure how to reply to these questions as sometimes in life bigger things happen, bigger than us. Nature is bigger than us, no matter how much we advance and how technological we get. I think this is something I am keeping in my mind and I think it is finding its way in my work. Kerogen Voices directly relates to this. I often learn by looking back. I found a solution to go back to formats which have lost their popularity such as the radio play. I think there are still ways and means to create events and gatherings for collectives. One has to be very careful and invest a lot of time and resources to deal with the imposed measures by the authorities and to make sure to create safe places for the people who are participating. I think the most important lesson I learnt is that people need the arts; somehow the most missed out of everything, was the collective live experiences and gatherings. This gives me a lot of hope.

What other future plans do you have in mind? Any upcoming project or idea you want to share?

There is Kerogen Voices – my most recent research on human-made earthquakes. Right now, it exists as a sound object as the pandemic did not allow me to explore a collective experience with a live audience and a full cast on stage. So, I would like to find a means and a way to produce it further. I would also like to and am very interested in creating a localised version of Kerogen, hopefully in Groningen and in Dutch.
In Malta, I will be premiering a new work based on the research of different explosions in Malta. I am searching for unwritten histories on bombs, religious or ritualistic, such as the traditional manufacturing of fireworks by locals. I come from a family of 3 generations of firework makers. I do not make fireworks :). Military bombings (British) in particular were an an obscure practise which lasted decades of target practise by British and US air and navy platoons which lasted until the late 70s. And finally, crime (home-made bombs and car bombs) another history which lives in the shadows. I am trying to bring these three together in a semi-documentary work.
There are more curiosities popping up in the city of course. This year I will start my research on Water in Amsterdam and I am hopeful that it will take me to places and realms which I cannot even dream of right now.

Do you have an idea, or ritual or thought you want to share to keep people sane and flexible these days? Something that might help you?

I try to wake up before sunrise and watch the sun coming up. Every time I manage to do this it gives me a lot of hope for the day and it allows me to realise that it is a new day which just started, leaving all the hardships that currently surround us more than ever, behind me. Similar to this, I try to watch the sunset and allow all the negative and bad things that come my way to sink together with the sun into the vast open ocean. I also often find a lot of peace and harmony in cooking meals for myself and even better, for others. There is nothing better than having a conversation with friends around food and wine.

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