Every story begins at a specific point in time, in a place where the dynamics are set by the local context. This is also the case with Malta Festival. The first edition of Malta began in Poznań in 1991.
It was the year of the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Warsaw Pact, which for decades had defined the political order behind the Iron Curtain, was dissolved. Two years after the turn of ’89, when communism collapsed and the first democratic elections were held, Polish citizens gained the right to visa-free travel to Germany, France, Italy and the countries of the Benelux. Poland was admitted to the Council of Europe. Freedom bloomed in new shades and demanded new forms.
In this context, Malta Festival was born. Malta is named after the artificial lake created in 1952 on the right bank of the Warta River. After the World Canoeing Championships, which took place in Poznań in 1990, the city authorities were wondering what to do about the vast areas around the newly renovated rowing venue. Michał Merczyński, at the time the manager of Orkiestra Ósmego Dnia at Teatr Polski, suggested the area could become a venue for outdoor performances. The first edition of the festival took place on June 11-16, 1991. Although the programme included only eight performances, from the very beginning the festival was co-created by foreign ensembles (Teatro Tascabile di Bergamo and Teatro Nucleo di Ferrara from Italy, La Burbuja Teatro from Spain). Alongside them performed local theatres (Teatr Polski in Poznań and Teatr Ósmego Dnia) and guests (Scena Plastyczna of the Catholic University of Lublin). Clashing different aesthetics, exploring differences between the social and cultural backgrounds of artists performing in Poznań, exceeding the expectations of the audience, celebrating urban life: these values remain important for Malta to this day.
In the early nineties, the concept of public space was different than it is today. After decades of communist rule, during which the streets were a venue for both official parades and demonstrations suppressed by the authorities, subject to political oppression and everyday surveillance, public space underwent a revival and took on new meanings. The breakthrough in 1989 reopened public space. In the first few years of the festival, the areas around the rowing venue and Lake Malta witnessed colourful marches and large-scale stage performances by theatre companies from all over the world. Markets, streets and squares were transformed into stages for intimate, spontaneous happenings involving random passers-by. For the duration of the festival, at the turn of June and July, Poznań changed into a huge outdoor stage powered by the energy of crowds and artists: circus performers, actors and dancers. Open-air projects were accessible to all kinds of spectators, including people who were interested in becoming part of a community much more than the theatre. Malta provided a venue for free expression and fostered an important collective experience. Poznań-based creators of non-institutional theatre were a vital constant in the programme of the festival. The presence of such companies as Teatr Ósmego Dnia, Strefa Ciszy, Biuro Podróży, Usta Usta and Teatr Porywacze Ciał and important independent companies from across Poland, including Scena Plastyczna of the Catholic University of Lublin, Teatr Wierszalin, Komuna Otwock and Akademia Ruchu grounded the programme in local activity.
Over the next decade, Malta underwent intense program development, and actively sought out new spaces for the theatre. Apart from the enthusiastically received colourful outdoor shows, Poznań hosted some of the most prominent artists who set the trends in new theatrical languages. Malta was, in fact, the first venue in Poland to present the productions of artists like Pippo Delbono, the La Furadels Baus theatre group, and Romeo Castellucci, all of whom remain a major point of reference for the younger generations of viewers. Apart from theatre, Malta embraced music, film and dance: fields without which contemporary culture would be difficult to envisage. The festival became an ever-growing, multifaceted affair. Malta responded to the changes in the socio-cultural reality and the status of theatre itself. As the distinction into institutional and independent, experimental and popular theatre blurred, the program began to include projects representing various aesthetics, traditions and frameworks, which went beyond the stage and defied the traditional definition of a theatrical event. More and more boldly, the festival penetrated the fabric of the city, entering post-industrial buildings and public spaces. Only selected parts of the program took place on the shore of Lake Malta.
Open-air concerts gradually became massive events that united thousands people in a shared artistic experience. They quickly became the hallmark of the festival, making Malta “the most theatrical of music festivals, and the most musical of theatre festivals”. World-class musicians performed at Lake Malta, on the courtyard of CK Zamek, in the grounds of the Poznań International Trade Fair, and in the post-industrial spaces of the Old Gassworks, including the Goran Bregović Ensemble, Buena Vista Social Club, Beirut, Antony & the Johnsons, CocoRosie and the Animal Collective (Americana naMalcie), Elvis Costello, Sinead O’Connor, Nine Inch Nails, Faith No More, Manu Chao, Portishead, Kraftwerk, Damon Albarn and Laibach.
Dance has become an increasingly important element of the program. It had already been a constant thread in the festival, interwoven into the public space of the city. However, the Old Brewery New Dance project of Art Stations Foundations curated by Joanna Leśnierowska brought dance to the forefront. The Old Brewery New Dance section of the festival featured performances by Yvonne Rainer, Boris Charmatz, Xavier Le Roy and Raimund Hoghe. Thanks to the varied programme that included projects of various scales, the audience’s expectations evolved. In the second decade of its existence, Malta made a conscious effort to support debuting artists and seek new perspectives on performativity. The New Situations trend in the years 2006-2013 premiered the projects of many young Polish artists who operate in site-specific spaces, whose efforts in the city go viral and interact with the audience.
For the 20-th anniversary of the festival, the structure of the program was reshaped once again. Based on the interdisciplinary program, each edition was assigned a main theme – the Idiom – that tackles contemporary issues of social and cultural life. This trend, proposed in 2009 by Kasia Tórz, a festival programme designer, was born out of the need for a space for exploration within the festival; a kind of laboratory that would make it possible to grapple with the violent transformations of the world around us. The task of each Idiom is not only to help the audience learn about the key contemporary cultural themes and phenomena that deserve attention and representation, but also to actively involve the audience in the process. Since 2010 Malta has had the following Idioms: Flanders (2010, curator: Sven Åge Birkeland), Excluded (2011, curator: Kasia Tórz), Asian Investments (2012, curator: Stefan Kaegi), Oh Man, oh Machine (2013, curator: Romeo Castellucci), Latin America: Mestizos (2014, curator: Rodrigo García), New World Order (2015, curator: Tim Etchells), Paradox of the Spectator (2016, curator: Lotte van den Berg), Balkans Platform (2017, curator: Goran Injac and Oliver Frljić), Leap into Faith (2018, curators: Grace Ellen Barkey, Jan Lauwers, Maarten Seghers), Army of the Individual (2019, curator: Nástio Mosquito). In 2015, Malta Festival Poznań was the only festival from Poland, and one of twelve in Europe, to receive the EFFE Award for the most trend-setting European festivals. The EFFE Jury considered Malta Festival Poznań „the most innovative festival in Poland: having begun as a theatre festival, five years ago it began inviting leading artists to curate specific programmes around a particular theme or idea.”
Despite a considerable focus on the Idioms, Malta has never forgotten its roots. In 2013, following the suggestion of Katarzyna Mazurkiewicz, the first curator of Generator Malta, the festival moved to the Freedom Square (PlacWolności) located in the heart of Poznań, inviting the residents of the city to a joint celebration. Generator Malta, a makeshift town built on the square for the duration of the festival, is open to everyone who wants to see the performances, listen to concerts, participate in workshops and debates, as well as take part in various artistic and educational projects. Admission to all events in the square is free. Generator Malta presents alternative forms of leisure, supports dialogue between generations and integrates the inhabitants of the region through democratic, collective celebration of art. Since 2014, the curator of Generator Malta has been Joanna Pańczak. The generator has gradually extended its activity; it organises residency for artists, brings neglected buildings back to life and restores their cultural significance, it cooperates with creators, activists and residents of many districts of Poznań. Taking place in the Freedom Square are the Forum, a series of discussions between artists, journalists, writers, and philosophers concerning the contemporary world, the program of which is prepared by Dorota Semenowicz; Malta Stage, a series of theatre performances presenting small stage forms; and the silent disco, a late-night club beloved by audiences.
Malta Festival Poznań is a celebration of the dynamics between city and art. The philosophy of the festival is openness to dialogue, embracing the need to establish new urban communities, local and international exchange, manifestations of creativity, and conscious reflection on the contemporary world.
The director of Malta Festival Poznań since its inception is Michał Merczyński.
In the years 1993-2012, the artistic director of the festival was Lech Raczak.