“It’s Very Exciting to Talk about Artist-run Countries”: Edi Rama, the COD, and the Problematics of Celebrating the Artist-Politician [Archival Recoveries]

This analysis was originally published on December 22, 2016, as part of a blog residency at the now-defunct Blog at ARTMargins OnlineWhen ARTMargins Online’s website was restructured, its blog archive became unavailable, and as such the essay has not been available. In the wake of the destruction of the National Theater in Tirana on May 17, 2020, it has again become clear how few resources exist online offering a critical view of Edi Rama’s political actions and their intertwinement with art (and artwashing). For that reason, I am re-publishing this piece here. It was originally written in order to come to terms with the global artworld’s uncritical reception of the opening of the COD (Center for Openness and Dialogue), and in order to present a context for the few voices in the artworld who had openly questioned Rama (such as Eriola Pira, who confronted Rama at the reception for his show at Marian Goodman Gallery in November of 2016). I publish the essay here without any editing, merely to document its existence and to make it available to those who find its analysis and information useful. It was certainly not the first such critical view, and it cites some of earlier efforts to challenge the valorizing narrative of contemporary Albanian politics. It also provides a timeline of portions of Rama’s career and the early period of the COD, which may be useful to historians and critics alike.

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  1. “It’s Very Exciting”

The dream of the artist’s involvement in politics is not a new one. For well over a century, artists and critics have been engaged in debating the ideal combination of an ever-growing number of approaches: realism, aestheticized politics, politicized art, art-into-life, relational aesthetics, art-as-industry, and artivism, to name just a few. In the early 21st century, the avant-garde’s desire that the artist might take up an active role in political processes continues to exercise a strong sway over curators, theoreticians of art, and artists themselves. It should come as no surprise, however, that many of the apparent examples of artists involved in politics are drawn from geopolitical peripheries, sustaining an image of small and geographically distant cities, nations and regions as ‘research and development’ zones for debates that are then carried out at a remove in Western Europe and the United States. In this post, I examine the problematics around one particular example of an artist’s involvement in politics: the case of Edi Rama, once mayor of Albania’s capital city, Tirana, and now Prime Minister of the country.

Rama’s friendships with well-known contemporary artists such as Anri Sala, and curators such as Hans Ulrich Obrist, have made him a popular example of the possibilities of an artist entering the contemporary political realm. As Obrist put it in his introduction of Rama at a talk associated with an exhibition of Rama’s work Marian Goodman Gallery in New York, “In the artworld we talk about artist-run spaces, but it’s very exciting to talk about artist-run countries.” It may certainly be ‘exciting,’ but the actual dynamics of contemporary art, space, and political power in Edi Rama’s Albania are far more complex than Obrist’s overtly celebratory discourse would imply. In fact, in many ways, Rama’s recent artistic policies represent a retreat from the kind of utopian urbanism that characterized his earlier career. This retreat is evident only in the kinds of work Rama has recently exhibited in spaces like the Marian Goodman Gallery, but also in his recent project to transform parts of the first floor of the Prime Ministerial building into an exhibition space. Understanding the full implications of these relations between contemporary art and politics complicate our understanding of politicized aesthetics, and problematize the celebration of art-as-politics for its own sake.

 

  1. “You Don’t Get It”

On the evening of November 12, 2016, following the opening of the solo exhibition of Edi Rama’s drawings and sculptures at Marian Goodman Gallery, a conversation took place featuring Rama in conversation with internationally renowned curator Hans Ulrich Obrist and artist Rirkrit Tiravanija.[1] The conversation focused (ostensibly) on the relationship between politics and art in Rama’s career and work. Rama first gained notoriety as an artist-politician during his term as the mayor of Tirana in the early 2000s, when he initiated a project to paint the facades of several socialist-era apartment blocks along one of the city’s main roads with bright colors. The project was documented by artist Anri Sala, in Sala’s video Dammi i Colori (2003), and this fusion of politics, urbanism, and art subsequently made Rama a hero for a that segment of the transnational contemporary art establishment that desires to proclaim a continued political relevance for the arts in the age of global neoliberal capitalism. Since 2013, with Rama’s election as Prime Minister of Albania, he has also begun to more actively integrate his artistic activity into his political narrative; he has increasingly emphasized not only his interventions in urban space but also the importance of his colorful drawings in his planners and on official paperwork. These images—much more intimate in scale, yet chromatically akin to his painted buildings—have provided a kind of artistic synecdoche for Rama’s political work in Albania. That is, much to the delight of the aforementioned art establishment, they appear to provide a way to talk about the possibilities of art’s effects on the political reality of Albania without actually—to put it bluntly—talking about the political or artistic reality of Albania.

Despite the fact that there is ongoing criticism of Rama’s use of art as a kind of spectacle to mask a neoliberal and autocratic tendency in his politics, this criticism largely comes from a fairly limited circle of artists, critics, and curators based in or closely associated with Albania. This critique has, at least thus far, made essentially no impact on the celebratory discourse around Rama in artworld centers such as Paris and New York. Thus, it visibly came as a shock to Rama, Obrist, and Tiravanija when art historian and curator Eriola Pira pointedly addressed both Rama and the gathered audience in the open Q&A session following the talk. Pira asked two questions, one aimed at those in attendance, and the other at Rama, and they are worth quoting in full:

“As has been evident through out the discussion this afternoon, Rama’s art is deeply intertwined with politics. But, this primarily refers to his status as a politician and not his politics. In fact, as the art
attests, it is because of his status as a politician, who dabbles in
art, that we are gathered here. Politics, and especially his politics
, are entirely absent, invisible, or art-washed. And, since Rama has of
late gained a reputation of dismissing his critics and dissenters, be
they of the opposition or civil society, I will direct this question to all of you: How many of you do know his
politics beyond the ‘painting the town,’ which as he just told us was really just an affected behavior?

 

Let me help you
out with this. There is: systematic dismantling of public institutions such as higher education, which has led to the jailing and prosecuting of student protesters; corruption at the highest level of government and systematic collusion with the construction and narcotics mafia; autocratic control over mainstream media, which has been followed by censorship of alternative and social media; and lastly […] the use of art as a propaganda tool to aestheticize all these problems, [which] has put art in the worst position it has been in, including the [previous] eight years of [Democratic Party leader Sali Berisha’s] right-wing government.”[2]

 

When Rama responded by asking, “So, where is the question, or is it just a speech?” Pira added, “How do you suggest artists counter all of this politics, how do they protest these politics, without, you know, being jailed?”

And now we arrive at the curious occurrence I forecasted at the outset: faced with a series of quite harsh accusations about the policies that have characterized his time as Prime Minister and a question regarding the possible responses open to artists operating in Albania, Rama’s response was—as he put it—“very simple.” “You don’t get it,” Rama claimed, after citing the fact that Albania had recently received a recommendation from the European Commission to open accession talks with the European Union. “I think they get it; you don’t get it.” He added, “And also, you know, it’s a very […] vibrant society in terms of freedom of speech, as the European Commission stated, […] and you are the most outstanding representation [of that] here today. Nothing will happen to you. You’ll be a very happy citizen, […] so don’t worry.” What is curious about Rama’s response (and I am of course setting aside the belligerence of his answer and the not-so-veiled threat implicit in his assurance ‘so don’t worry’) is that he did not once mention art. In fact, he was almost admirably clear in stating his position on Albanian culture: the goal should be European integration at all costs, and Europe is the best judge of the state of Albanian society. (The inescapable irony, of course, is that this attitude is directly opposed to the one he claims for himself in the narrative of his role as mayor. Earlier in the evening, Rama had repeated his oft-told story of an enraged European Union representative telling him he couldn’t use EU funds to paint the buildings bright colors, because it was against European standards.)

This answer, however, clearly caused a certain discomfort in the representatives of the artworld present, although the only response the audience managed to muster—aside from laughing and clapping at Rama’s response—was Liam Gillick’s question to Pira: “Who are you?” Obrist, however, hastened to raise a quite obvious subject that was notably absent from Rama’s explanation: the Albanian Prime Minister’s recent transformation of part of the first floor of the Prime Ministerial building into the ‘Center for Openness and Dialogue’ [COD], a combination library, project space, and exhibition venue. Obrist first cited Rama’s involvement of Tiravanija and Gillick in his painted buildings project, establishing a connection between Rama’s activity as mayor and his current projects. Obrist then brought up the recently established exhibition space and collection associated with Rama’s own government building, a space that includes works by Carsten Höller, Thomas Demand, and Philippe Parreno, asking Rama, “Could you talk about this new form of commissioning art, and bringing art into your government building?”

For the remainder of this post, I’d like to discuss the COD, [3] but it is worth pausing to consider the full import of the Rama’s response to Pira’s question, and Obrist’s rather desperate intervention (accompanied in grand style by a lot of hand-waving). Rama—either because he was too nonplussed by the question or because he simply did not care—chose to say nothing whatsoever about the role of the arts in Albanian society, neither about his own role as an artist nor about the role other artists might play in that society, and instead opted to privilege the viewpoint of an external bureaucratic organization (the European Commission). In response to this apparent rejection of the very premise of the conversation—that art and politics are productively intertwined in Rama’s Albania, that “it’s very exciting to talk about artist-run countries”—Obrist pitched Rama the topic that the Marian Goodman Gallery had in fact framed as a major conceptual facet of the exhibition. (The press release for the show asserted that Rama’s drawings transformed into wallpaper decoration—as Rama has used them in his building and as many of them appeared in the Marian Goodman space—“made sense in the context of his transforming the wider building from what had been a bureaucratic, sequestered stronghold into what’s now entitled the Center for Openness and Dialogue—including a contemporary art space, viewing rooms for public regeneration proposals, reading rooms and a lecture theatre.”) Even in pitching the talking point, however, Obrist couldn’t avoid a rather blatant retreat from what was supposedly under discussion (a productive relationship between art and society). Ultimately, his question—which not coincidentally named only foreign and quite successful artists like Parreno and Demand—was about a traditional avenue of art historical enquiry, but one that is less commonly raised in discussions of relational aesthetics and supposedly emancipatory contemporary art: the government commission of art and the integration (not to say appropriation) of that art into official state spaces.

The disjuncture between Rama’s response and Obrist’s attempt to redirect the tone of the conversation reveal the contrast between the ways that state-run contemporary art spaces can (and in this case, do) function in places like Albania, and the supposedly emancipatory possibilities that the transnational contemporary art establishment associates with these spaces. Needless to say, the import of Pira’s question at the Marian Goodman talk was precisely to reveal how out of touch with the ‘on the ground’ reality that art establishment is, and the import of Obrist’s answer was to reveal how far that establishment would go to maintain—however haphazardly—the spectacle of ‘peripheral’ contemporary art spaces as bastions of art, democracy, and dialogue.

 

III. “An Open and Transparent Encounter”

The question arises, then: what exactly is this Center for Openness and Dialogue? Following Obrist’s prompt, Rama went on to proclaim the space as a haven for protestors seeking to have their say? (He even, almost as an afterthought, invited Eriola Pira to have her say in the space, adding rather coldly, “But be prepared, because there will be also answers. And in Albanian you’ll be answered much better.”) However, his description was circular: “it’s not only art…it’s a center for openness and dialogue,” begging the question: what is going on with the art in this political space of supposed openness and dialogue?

The Center for Openness and Dialogue, frequently known by its acronym ‘COD,’ first opened in July of 2015. The center is housed in much of the first floor of the Prime Ministerial building located on Tirana’s axial central boulevard, the Boulevard of the Martyrs of the Nation. It is comprised of multiple exhibition spaces, a ‘minilab,’ a library and digital archive, and a forum area. Rama’s primary speechwriter, Falma Fshazi, directs the space, and its board includes political aide and journalist Alastair Campbell as well as artists and curators like Anri Sala, Philippe Parreno, and Christine Macel.[4] At the time of its opening, the COD was one of series of projects undertaken by Rama’s administration to open spaces that had previously been—for various reasons—inaccessible to the Albanian public. Before the COD, there was Bunk’Art in November of 2014 (a multi-purpose museum and art exhibition space opened in a large communist era anti-atomic bunker on the outskirts of Tirana), and the House of Leaves in January of 2015 (a museum housed in the former center of surveillance and torture under socialism). Bunk’Art closed for a lengthy period after its first opening, then re-opened under the private ownership and management of Italian journalist Carlo Bollino, who owns several media outlets in Albania. House of Leaves closed quite soon after a much-publicized opening to which several foreign dignitaries were invited; it has yet to re-open.

In contrast to these two architectural spaces, which relate explicitly to the socialist past and its traumas, and which were opened as part of the touristization (and consequent monetization) of Albania’s socialist-era history, the COD’s building has a longer history in relation to Albanian politics. Designed under the fascist occupation of Albania in the 1930s, the façade of the building bears a socialist realist relief executed by a group of artists that included Rama’s father, one of the most significant and celebrated sculptors of Enver Hoxha’s regime. (The fact that his father Kristaq played such an important role in shaping socialist ideology through his role in monumental government commissions is something that has curiously been left out of conversations on Edi’s relationship to politics and art.) Under previous administrations after the fall of socialism, the building functioned as most state institutions do: that is to say, it was not particularly accessible to the public.

The COD’s website proclaims that its primary goals are to “offer an open and transparent encounter between various forms of public dialogue, aiming to demystify an institution which up until now has been closed to Albanians, despite the fact that it has a tremendous effect on their lives.” It aims to function as “a laboratory that investigates the very threshold where different fields of art, politics, and research meet and their potentials overlap.”[5] As Rama pointed out in his discussion of the space at the Marian Goodman conversation, the space has housed not only art exhibitions, but also lectures, book signings, and award ceremonies—to say nothing of numerous press conferences. In fact, the opening of the space itself coincided with the visit of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s visit to the region, and documentation of her presence in the space for conversations and a press conference with Rama produced a kind of ideal media pseudo-event. Thus, the role of the space as a tool in a particular kind of political propaganda was evident almost from the start, and this tendency has been discussed elsewhere, in more detail than I can manage here.[6]

Rather than discussing the COD and its exhibitions spaces as an element of Rama’s political propaganda, I’d like to think in a general way about the model of art’s relationship to politics that the COD has produced in the nearly a year and a half since it opened. To anticipate: the COD evidences the increasing localization and partition of the utopian urbanism that Rama’s earlier painting of the Tirana buildings represents for curators like Obrist. The localization of art and art’s politics in the COD itself cannot really be treated as a fusion of art with society, unless it is imagined that society’s significant actions can be located in a particularized governmental space in which viewers encounter a certain kind of contemporary art. The COD does not just passively perform this function: the exhibitions that have opened in the space represent an active incorporation of exterior images, events, and actions, and their subsequent transformation into ideas and objects that escape the full weight of their political consequences ‘outside’ in Albania. In other words, the COD performs a quite essential function in linking Rama’s earlier urban artistic interventions (which now belong to a whole different stage of his career artistically and politically) to a kind of scaled-down and ironically de-politicized kind of art-politics that the transnational art establishment can turn to without becoming entangled in the real consequences of art or politics.

When the COD first opened, it featured a collection of works by three well-known contemporary artists: Thomas Demand, Carsten Höller, and Philippe Parreno. Three photographs by Demand—Sign, Attraction, and Tribute—were displayed in the main exhibition hall immediately within the entrance of the center. One of Höller’s mushrooms (Giant Triple Mushroom) was installed in a grassy patch immediately to the right of the main entrance. Finally, in what was (and continues to be) the most eye-catching aspect of the COD, one of Philippe Parreno’s glowing marquees (Marquee Tirana) placed over the entrance. (These latter two works were donated to the center by the artists and are thus, one assumes, permanent features of the space.)

The precise visual and ideological interaction of these three works has been analyzed elsewhere,[7] and so I would like to emphasize just a few points. The first is that there are both parallels and contrasts between the COD and Rama’s painted buildings: that project, like the COD, expanded to include the participation of other artists, although these artists were foreign, and already well known. (The list of other artists who deigned painted buildings in Tirana includes Liam Gillick, Olafur Eliasson, and Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster.)[8] However, Rama’s narrative of the painted buildings has always emphasized it as ‘an undemocratic means to a democratic end’—according to him, the success of the project was that the citizens of Tirana began to take more ownership of their shared spaces, including the facades of their buildings and their green spaces. At least, this is Rama’s narrative—it is a quite separate question how to evaluate if the project was really successful in this way and to what degree—if at all—that success has been sustainable. In the case of the COD, from the beginning, it was decidedly more ambiguous precisely what kind of ownership citizens could take of the space, aside from taking part in the various official book signings, lectures, and award ceremonies held there. The fact that one must pass through a tall grey metal detector—a form that oddly mirrors the geometry of Parreno’s Marquee—as one enters the space makes it quite clear that certain kinds of authority are wholly surrendered by coming into the COD, and certainly does not facilitate mindset from which one might productively critique authority within the exhibitions.

The second point is that the initial works on display in the COD tried to stage a fusion of the center’s exterior spaces and its interior, while subsequent exhibitions have focused far more precisely on demonstrating the variety of spaces and objects that can be experienced—apparently fully—within the walls of the Prime Ministerial building itself. Parreno’s Marquee Tirana and Höller’s Giant Triple Mushroom can at least be viewed without going into the space of the state, but subsequent works have made the space increasingly only referenced the outside while in fact reinforcing the space as a self-contained interior, a microcosm with only tenuous connections to the ‘exterior’—the whole world of Albanian society and transnational politics. (Incidentally, this is precisely the relationship that has developed with Rama’s recent return to emphasizing his drawings: there is a presumed relationship between these ‘interior’ images, apparently produced out of Rama’s subconscious, and ‘exterior’ politics, but the relationship is left totally ambiguous.)

The second exhibition to open in the COD in fact heightened the degree to which the building’s urban surroundings are made to appear as fundamentally extraneous to whatever interaction of “art, politics, and research” is supposed to occur within the space. In January 2016, the COD opened its second season with a show of paintings by Edi Hila, a painter who represented Albania (together with his student, the well known artist Adrian Paci) at the 2014 edition of the Venice Architecture Biennale. Hila, whose peculiarly surrealist versions of socialist realism were harshly criticized under socialism, in the early 1970s, was clearly intended to lend the space an air of ‘resistance’ to state power. In his speech at the opening, Edi Rama spoke of Hila’s significance as an artist who showed the socialist regime its own image through the distorted mirror of painting. The cycle of Hila’s recent paintings presented in the COD was entitled Apparitions of the Boulevard [Vegimet e Bulevardit], and it focused on various architectural features of the Boulevard of the Martyrs of the Nation: the Prime Ministerial building, the fountain in Mother Theresa Square, and the University building located at that same square.  These objects all represented, in some way, the vacuity of previous political regimes, or at least of the violence inherent in certain architectural and urbanistic interventions in the boulevard’s plan. However, the object of this critique was firmly located in the past, and the ‘ghostly’ grey aesthetic of Hila’s paintings solidified a sense of chronological distance. (Of course, Hila’s subdued palette also reified the notion that the appropriate objects of aesthetic critique are chromatically dull, rather than vibrant.)[9]

Further, Hila’s cycle of paintings—with its evocative title—also had the very simple effect of implying the spectral character of the very real spaces and objects that shared the boulevard with the COD (including the exterior of the Prime Ministerial building itself.  Hila’s works, devoid of human presence, nearly devoid of color, presented the actual urban space of the boulevard not only as ideologically violent but also as ontologically vacuous. (Shkëlzen Maliqi, a Kosovar writer and curator, and a political advisor to Rama, wrote—in a curatorial statement—that the subjects of Hila’s paintings were represented “at an ontological zero-level.”)[10] Thus, the presence of the works within the COD did not imply the vibrant political possibilities of Tirana’s urban spaces—quite the opposite. It staged the center as a node from which the adjacent boulevard—as site not only of official buildings but also of parades, protests, and other spectacles—appeared as something de-realized. In other word, the COD itself appeared vital and vibrant in contrast to a vision of its exterior surroundings as the apparitions of ideologies past.

In May of 2016, the COD opened the third exhibition in its main hall, featuring works by Kosovar artist Alban Muja and Albanian artist Olson Lamaj. The exhibition, entitled Qiell, mbi, nën [The Sky, above and below], featured works that conceptually spanned a much broader elemental purview than the previous two exhibitions. In contrast to Hila’s predominantly grey palette, the chromatic unity of The Sky, above and below derived from a shared exploration of the color blue. Muja’s works primarily focused on the sky and aerial views: his drawings and paintings were made based on sketches produced while travelling by plane to and from the US. Lamaj’s works, on the other hand, dealt thematically with both the sky and the earth, and aimed to blend politicized content with a poetic, metaphysical viewpoint achieved through color.

The Sky, above and below continued to present the COD as an abstract microcosm of its surroundings, this time one including not only its immediate urban context but also metaphorically the sky as the realm of utopian dreams and the earth as a space of concrete action.

Perhaps the most interesting work in the exhibition, and the most exemplary of the COD’s ability to transform political dissent into aesthetic objects, was Olson Lamaj’s Blue Meteor, an installation of twelve paving stones—in a vitrine—from the pedestrian area immediately in front of the Prime Ministerial building. These stones had been thrown in protests on December 8, 2015—protests organized on the 25th anniversary of the student demonstrations that contributed to the fall of socialism in Albania. The protests had in fact damaged Parreno’s Marquee Tirana, necessitating its repair. In these demonstrations, the protesters had also hurled blue smoke canisters at the entrance to the Prime Minister’s building, and it was from this act that Lamaj drew the idea of coloring the stones a deep blue that paradoxically recalled both the immaterial materiality of Yves Klein’s IKB (International Klein Blue), and the precious materiality of lapis lazuli.

For Lamaj, Blue Meteor was an investigation of the degree to which objects of political resistance could maintain their critical possibility within the space of the COD, and for him, the work demonstrated the continued vitality of concrete political action despite the state’s attempt at cooptation. From another perspective, however, Blue Meteor was a continuation of the COD’s assimilation of political dissidence and its transformation into art that is both highly conceptual and highly lyrical. In a quite literal sense, the work showed that the COD was a space that could absorb even the most material critique against it. (This was made quite clear to me when I visited the exhibition in the summer of 2016. As I was looking at Lamaj’s Blue Meteor, the security guard from the entrance approached me. “Those stones, they’re the ones they threw in the protests.” He laughed, and returned to his post near the metal detector. Any sense that I had had that the work might disturb the institutional authority of the space evaporated, at least for me.) In Rama’s discussion at the Marian Goodman Gallery, he stated, “There are two ways to deal with power: to consume it or to be consumed by it.” There is a way of seeing Blue Meteor as the consumption of a kind of political power, its processing into art and its re-deployment within the institutional framework.

The most recent exhibition in the COD’s space opened in October of 2016, and is organized by the space’s new official curator, Erzen Shkololli. Shkololli, a Kosovar curator and artist, draws the exhibition’s title, Duke Qëndruar Pezull [Just Hanging Around] from an included work by Kosovar artist Flaka Haliti. Shkololli explains that “the title of Flaka’s work, Just Hanging Around is a watchword and at the same time, the key to openness and dialogue with the aesthetics of contemporary art that, even in seemingly ephemeral subjects, finds the seeds and spices of the sublime.”[11]As Tirana-based philosopher, artist, and curator Vincent WJ van Gerven Oei argues, the works in the exhibitions “literally appear to be ‘just hanging around,’ never—with one important exception—questioning the space or context in which they are displayed. Upon entrance, the exhibition, though well-produced and properly executed, exudes an utter harmlessness.”[12] For Van Gerven Oei, the most significant artwork in Just Hanging Around is Nathan Coley’s A Place Beyond Belief, a work that can be construed precisely as a reference to the COD’s remoteness from the actual Albanian social situation, to the confusing ambiguity of its place in relation to any historical events or political situations, local or transnational.

I would like to return now to the argument I offered at the outset. In repose to the question about what the COD really is, I posited that it is a space in which the narrative of the artist’s involvement in politics can be safely partitioned and transformed into a highly localized utopia that avoids all the messiness of politics.[13] In fact, politics itself increasingly becomes framed as something ‘external’ to the space of ‘openness and dialogue,’ but at the same time politics is always susceptible of being transformed into something far more narrow and devoid of explicit content. This makes it, in fact, an ideal example for replication and citation in the discursive networks of the contemporary art establishment. To put it bluntly, the COD allows curators and critics like Obrist to retain the illusion that artist-politicians like Rama are working for ‘democracy’ and ‘community’ and ‘change’: if they do not care to investigate the broader political situation in a country like Albania, they can simply point to COD as an apparent microcosm of the country. The COD, over its lifespan, has increasingly become a space where institutional critique is in fact made all the more difficult (if not impossible) because it disorients both art and politics. The press release from the Marian Goodman Gallery is quite explicit in this. The statement compares the COD itself to Rama’s transformation of his drawings into wallpaper for his office, explaining that upon encountering Rama’s office walls covered with his colorful sketches, “local visitors or international heads of state are immediately disarmed, even momentarily distracted by their surroundings, thus initially open to lateral ideas.” Distraction and disarmament—especially when they are wielded by state institutions and governments—sound like far less desirable possibilities for an art that aims to productively bring about political change.

 

  1. “It’s Art in a Pure State”

Why, we might ask, does all this matter? On October 25, 2016, Hans Ulrich Obrist delivered a keynote lecture at the Creative Time Summit, held this year in Washington, DC. The theme of the summit in 2016 was “Occupy the Future,” and the conference—perhaps the best known international conferenced focused on the fusion of art and social activism—aimed to explore ways that artists and activists alike could occupy power in order to transform it. Obrist’s lecture,[14]entitled “The Case for Nonsense,” aimed to trace a lineage from Dada’s disruption through to more contemporary examples of artists attempting to produce new (political) realities in opposition to power. Obrist cited Fluxus, Joseph Beuys, John Latham and the Artist Placement Group, Edi Rama, Eileen Myles, (among others) as key figures in this trajectory. Of course, it was Rama’s actions as mayor that interested Obrist the most (though he relied on the fact the Rama is now Prime Minister to lend weight to the real possibility of artists entering politics. Obrist explained, “Anri Sala told me that very early on, Edi really wanted to rethink democracy.” Interestingly, however, Obrist chose to cite a quotation from Rama that emphasized instead the ‘purity’ of art, rather than political content: “Being the mayor of Tirana is the highest form of conceptual art. It’s art in a pure state.”[15] There was obviously still a great deal of confusion in Obrist’s use of Rama: he was at once called upon to stand for the continuation of an avant-garde model of engaged art (the return of Beuys in a new context), the transformation of aesthetics into a purely political act (the painting of the buildings as community-building rather than art), and the apotheosis of politics into “art in a pure state.” This same confusion was evident Obrist and Tiravanija’s conversation with Rama at Marian Goodman in November, although the emphasis on Rama’s drawings and Obrist’s desire to bring the COD into Rama’s narrative seemed to privilege the latter possibility: that Rama exemplifies the possibility that art can consume (political) power and turn it into pure art, and all the problematic politics will fade away.

Obrist concluded his keynote by showing a video in which Cuban artist Tania Bruguera announced her campaign for president of Cuba in 2018. Bruguera’s statement was, of course, largely performative: she called upon viewers to imagine themselves as potential candidates for president in 2018, and thus to demand something more from Cuban politicians. She asked, “What if we actually had that power? Who would we be? What would we do?” The question is certainly an urgent one, and it is all the more urgent when we are faced with concrete examples of who artists are and what they do when they become politicians. The problem is precisely that these questions are seldom really asked, and the realities of Edi Rama’s uses of art and politics in Albania are not examined critically in some of the artworld contexts where they are also most frequently held up as exemplary. Eriola Pira’s question to the audience of Rama’s talk at Marian Goodman, and to Rama himself, should serve as a reminder that alongside, behind, and above the ‘purity’ of art, there are political situations that also demand analysis. History provides us with a wealth of examples of artists involved in politics, as does the present: we must have the courage to really try to understand what is done with political power in the name of art.

[1] A video of the conversation and the subsequent Q&A session is available at https://www.facebook.com/pg/mariangoodmangallery/videos/?ref=page_internal (accessed November 27, 2016). Subsequent quotations from the event are taken from the video.

[2] For Pira’s consideration of the significance of Rama’s talk in New York, and its relationship to political speech and censorship in Albania, see “Më e Keqja e Censurës Është…,” Peizazhe të Fjalës, November 19, 2016, https://peizazhe.com/2016/11/18/me-e-keqja-e-censures-eshte/ (accessed November 27, 2016).

[3] There have been several different recent online articles and posts devoted to the COD. For varying perspectives, see: Nicola Pedrazzi, “Angela Merkel a Tirana, lo ‘show’ di Edi Rama,” Osservatorio Balcani e Caucaso, July 13, 2015, http://www.balcanicaucaso.org/aree/Albania/Angela-Merkel-a-Tirana-lo-show-di-Edi-Rama-163040 (accessed August 10, 2015); Gentian Shkurti, Alban Hajdinaj, and Eriola Pira, “Parreno i Kapur në Monolog,” Peizazhe të fjalës, July 13, 2015,: http://peizazhe.com/2015/07/13/parreno-i-kapur-ne-monolog/?fb_action_ids=10207294564751530&fb_action_types=news.publishes (accessed August 10, 2015); Vincent WJ van Gerven Oei, “All That Frustration,” Berfrois, July 13, 2015, http://www.berfrois.com/2015/07/ vincent-w-j-van-gerven-oei-all-that-frustration/ (accessed August 10, 2015); Erion Gjatolli, “Art në oborr,” Reporter.al, July 16, 2015, http://www.reporter.al/art-ne-oborr/ (accessed August 10, 2015); Raino Isto, “Image//Anti-Image,” afterart, July 18, 2015, https://afterart.wordpress.com/2015/07/18/image-anti-image/ (accessed August 10, 2015); Romeo Kodra, “Center for Openness and Dialogue … COD-i ia bën muuuuu!!!: Pjesa 1,” AKS Revista, July 24, 2015, https://aksrevista.wordpress.com/2015/07/24/center-for-openness-and-dialogue-cod-i-ia-ben-muuuuu-pjesa-i-romeo-kodra/ (accessed November 27, 2016); and Jonida Gashi, “These are (not) the things we are fighting for!”, Reporter.al, November 29, 2015 (accessed November 27, 2016). For the most complete analysis in English of the COD as an aspect of Rama’s political propaganda, see Vincent WJ van Gerven Oei, “Give Me the Colors…And the Country: Albanian Propaganda in the 21st Century,” Art Papers (March/April 2016), http://artpapers.org/feature_articles/2016_0304-Albania.html (accessed November 27, 2016).

[4] See the COD’s website, http://cod.al/?page_id=21 (accessed November 27, 2016).

[5] See the COD’s website, http://cod.al/en/?page_id=1434 (accessed November 27, 2016).

[6] For a clear summary in English, see Vincent WJ van Gerven Oei, “Give Me the Colors…And the Country: Albanian Propaganda in the 21stCentury,” Art Papers (March/April 2016), http://artpapers.org/feature_articles/2016_0304-Albania.html (accessed November 27, 2016).

[7] For a more thorough consideration of the visual interplay of the works, see Vincent WJ van Gerven Oei, “All That Frustration,” Berfrois, July 13, 2015, http://www.berfrois.com/2015/07/ vincent-w-j-van-gerven-oei-all-that-frustration/ (accessed August 10, 2015).

[8] Strangely absent from many discussions of Rama’s ‘painted buildings’ initiative (and completely absent from Obrist’s framing of the project at the Marian Goodman talk) are critical works by Albanian artists Gentian Shkurti and Alban Hajdinaj, both of whom made video works that responded to Rama’s project. Shkurti’s video work was entitled Color Blind (2004), and it chronicles a conversation in which a woman tries to explain to a colorblind man what the facades of Tirana’s buildings look like in the wake of Rama’s project. Alban Hajdinaj’s Eye to Eye (2004) considers the disorientation of the city’s inhabitants from the perspective of a citizen whose apartment window opens onto one of the painted facades.

[9] On Edi Hila’s exhibition in the COD, see Romeo Kodra, “Edi Hila dhe manierizmi,” AKS Revista, February 12, 2016, https://aksrevista.wordpress.com/2016/02/12/edi-hila-dhe-manierizmi-romeo-kodra/ (accessed November 27, 2016).

[10] Shkëlzen Maliqi, “Vegime Bulevardi,” COD: Center for Openness and Dialogue, http://cod.al/?page_id=1485 (accessed November 25, 2016).  Translation by the author.

[11] See the description of the exhibition on the COD’s site, http://cod.al/en/?page_id=1657 (accessed November 25, 2016).  Translation slightly edited for grammatical clarity.

[12] Vincent WJ van Gerven Oei, “Erzen Shkololli’s ‘Just Hanging Around’: A Place Beyond Belief?,” Exit.al, November 3, 2016, http://www.exit.al/en/2016/11/03/erzen-shkololli-just-hanging-around-a-place-beyond-belief/ (accessed November 25, 2016).

[13] It is also worth noting that, so far at least, Rama has avoided being seriously and critically compared to figures like Bogdan Bogdanovic (the architect, sculptor, and urbanist who served as Belgrade’s mayor from 1982 till 1986).

[14] The lecture can be viewed online at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MQS5CU8WmJg (accessed November 25, 2016).

[15] This quotation, often cited in discussions of Rama’s painting of Tirana’s buildings, appears to come from an interview Rama gave in 2008. Some of the earliest sources that cite the quotation are “The art of re-imagining a city for the future,” The Irish Times, March 14, 2008, http://www.irishtimes.com/culture/the-art-of-re-imagining-a-city-for-the-future-1.903237 (accessed November 25, 2016), and “You’ve Got to Tear this Old Building Down: Tirana’s Mayor: An Artistic Politician,” International Special Reports, January 12, 2002, http://archive.li/cYgGD (accessed November 25, 2016).

Contemporary Art in/and Public Space: An Interview with Pleurad Xhafa [Archival Recoveries]

This interview was originally conducted and published in 2016 as part of a blog residency at the now-defunct Blog at ARTMargins Online. An edited version of the interview was also published in Albanian on Peizazhe të Fjalës in 2017. When ARTMargins Online’s website was restructured, its blog archive became unavailable, and as such the English version of the interview is being re-published here. The interview took place via email between November and December of 2016, and was was conducted in Albanian; the translation is by the author.

Pleurad Xhafa is an artist living and working in Tirana, Albania. Xhafa studied in Bologna, and graduated with an MFA from the Academy of Fine Arts, Bologna in 2012. Xhafa works primarily in video, photography, and installation, and his works address the politics of public space, commemoration, and labor in contemporary Albania. We spoke about the state of contemporary art in Albania, the relationship between art and public space, and the possibilities for contemporary art as a form of critique under neoliberalism. 

Pleurad Xhafa, creating Negative I-II-III-IV, 2015. Work created with the support of the Department of Eagles/Departamenti i Shqiponjave. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Raino Isto: What importance does contemporary art have—or what importance can it have—in the development of society’s consciousness of public space? Can you discuss a little bit about public space (or its disappearance) in Albania in recent years?

Pleurad Xhafa: In order to speak about contemporary art and its significance in society, let me first try to offer a diagnosis of the pathologies of public space in Albania. For the 45 years of the communist regime in Albania, private property was completely forbidden; no one had the right to own private property. Property belonged to everyone and no one at the same time. Every institution and natural resource was public, and only the political regime had complete access to them and control over them. I think that this factor altered and deformed the socialist citizen, who—after the change of the regime in 1990—rushed to swallow up that which had been denied to him for some many years. In the almost complete absence of a state, large cities underwent a fundamental change in demographics. People despoiled the factories; they destroyed and stole everything that they had previously considered communal property. They build houses that did not conform to construction criteria, and established businesses on every available corner. At the beginning of the new century and the empowerment of state institutions, the destruction of public space was further exacerbated. The surgical knife of sophisticated neoliberalism, with its mafia character, interfered in the legal system, privatizing both natural resources and public institutions. This phase, from my point of view, was the most dangerous one, as it infected absolutely every cell of society.

Over the course of the 26 years since the fall of communism, Albanian society has never been able to construct a middle class. Only 3% of Albanians are extremely rich, while the rest are poor or living in absolute poverty. For this reason, the lower classes and those living in poverty are forced to accept every compromise that the violence of capital imposes on them, just so that they can survive, even if it fundamentally distorts their way of living. The infection of public space is heightened to psychological and spiritual level, and manifests itself in high doses of anger, aggression, and fear directed at different ways of thinking. Precisely in this kind of infected terrain, I think that engaged contemporary art can be considered as a kind of emergency treatment, that it should play the role of an antibody that can break through the callouses caused by shock therapy. Maybe I’m wrong, but I think that the artist needs to leave the prison of mental masturbation and to create the necessary space for debate and for interaction with ordinary people that live in the cities and in the periphery. Only then can we really begin to talk about the role of art in relation to social consciousness. Until then, everything I just said remains at the level of a wishful theory.

Pleurad Xhafa, Monument to Falure, January 28, 2016. Work created in cooperation with MAPS (Museum of Art in Public Space). Photo courtesy of the artist.

RI: Can you discuss a little bit about the connection between art and politics in Albania today? I know this is a question that is already worn out from overuse, but I’m curious to know how you see the role of the artist in relation to politics.

PXh: Contemporary art in Albania is completely in a state of crisis. The form of this art is illuminated only by the reflection of [political] power located on the first floor of the Prime Ministerial building, in the COD [Center for Openness and Dialogue], while its content is buried in the graves of Sharra [1], and one cannot even find this grave, since the bronze letters of the tombstones have been stolen at night by those living in poverty, to be sold for scrap. In my opinion, the majority of artists that could be considered ‘active’ today in Albania have been transformed into marionettes of political propaganda. This situation is at once concerning and desperate, especially since criticism, as a field of action, is nearly nonexistent. Even when criticism does appear, it comes from artists who are operating essentially as individuals. I’m quite happy to see the recent actions of the street art collective Çeta [2], who have been able to stir the stagnant waters of the Albanian art scene, but it remains to be seen whether or not they will survive the test of time.

To return once more to the question of the importance of contemporary art in raising the consciousness of society regarding public space, and to link that with the role of the artist in relation to politics, let me talk about an example that happened recently in Tirana.

Pleurad Xhafa, Monument to Falure, January 28, 2016. Work created in cooperation with MAPS (Museum of Art in Public Space). Photo courtesy of the artist.

The neoliberal policies that the current Albanian government has been following resulted in a reform in the education system that used taxpayers’ money to benefit the private university sector. This reform has been protested for several years by the “Movement for the University” [3]. As part of this protest, during an activity held to promote FRESSh (The Forum of Eurosocialist Albanian Youth [4]), student activist Mirela Ruko poured a bottle of tomato sauce over the head of the Minister of Education, Lindita Nikolla. This action could have cost the student 3 years in prison. In my opinion, this action came about not only as a result of the reform in the education system, but also as a response to policies of privatization and to the general lack of democratic representation in the country. However, if the student’s action gave rise for the first time to a debate on the issue of education, dividing citizens into camps for and against, raising questions about the ethics of protest and about how far democracy and the freedom of expression can go, this still makes me wonder, and it pushes me to raise a fundamental question when it comes to artists: are contemporary artists in Albania really able, with their forms of expression, to incite as important a debate?

Pleurad Xhafa, creating Negative I-II-III-IV, 2015. Work created with the support of the Department of Eagles/Departamenti i Shqiponjave. Photo courtesy of the artist.

RI: Some of your recent works (I have in mind Monument to Failure and Negative I-II-III-IV) have to do with both memory and with monumentality. What role do you think monuments currently play in Albanian society, and what kind of relationship does contemporary art have with official monuments (whether from the time of socialism or the years after socialism) in public space?

PXh: I think that Albania is the only place in Europe that celebrates their Day of Liberation from Nazi occupation on two separate dates, depending on the political party that is in power. When the Albanian government is controlled by the PD (Democratic Party), we celebrate liberation on the 28 of November; when the PS (Socialist Party) is in power, we celebrate it on the 29 of November. This anomaly is the product of the political forces that attempt—at all costs—to maneuver and regulate Albanian history. Likewise, Albania is the only country among the former communist nations of Europe that still hasn’t really confronted its own past. The dossiers detailing the crimes of those who formerly collaborated with State Security forces and the secret police still haven’t come out of the dark nooks and crannies of the archives. There are still today public prosecutors, judges, and politicians who were directly responsible for approving macabre executions in the name of communist propaganda. This hypocritical relationship to history can be seen directly in the cases of monuments and memorials that spring up like poison mushrooms, commissioned by private citizens in cooperation with the party in power, using funds from Albanian taxpayers.

Tirana Mayor Erion Veliaj planting a tree at the site where Monument to Failure was installed. Photo from the Facebook page of Erion Veliaj, January 28, 2016.

When I decided to create Monument to Failure [5]—which commemorates the judgment regarding the Gërdec case, where 26 people were killed—I thought of the work as a gift, as a missing monument for the city of Tirana [6]. During the process of the monument’s creation, I was trying to make a prediction; I was convinced that the bronze plaque wouldn’t stay on the tree stump very long, since bronze is a valuable material and it would probably get stolen. For a secondary documentation of the work, I decided to stick the plaque to the stump with glue. Everything went far beyond what I had predicted, however. A few weeks later, the mayor of Tirana [Erion Veliaj] pulled up the monument personally, along with the whole remaining tree stump, completely destroying the monument. In its place, he planted a new seedling tree. This action is clear evidence of the relationship that the current political regime creates with history, and the modifications of public space that the regime carries out in the name of political aestheticization.

Pleurad Xhafa, creating Negative I-II-III-IV, 2015. Work created with the support of the Department of Eagles/Departamenti i Shqiponjave. Photo courtesy of the artist.

RI: Many Albanian artists have told me that the absence of galleries devoted to contemporary art in Albania is a significant problem for the country, but it also seems to me that (in the neoliberal context) as soon as an artist exhibits in a gallery, his or her work—together with any critical message it might carry—is immediately in danger of being assimilated by the authority of the institution. What do you think? Is exhibiting in a gallery still important (at least as regards the political or critical message of the artwork), or are actions undertaken in public space more important?

PXh: It’s true that art, especially critical art, is in danger of being assimilated by the authority of the institution, even moreso when it becomes intertwined with the chains of capital. However, in Albania there is a fundamental difference, since here there is no art market, properly speaking, and as such no galleries and no collectors. I have a different kind of concern regarding art spaces in Tirana. (I’m focusing on Tirana because in other cities in Albania, contemporary art and art spaces are almost inexistent.) Spaces that have an independent viewpoint, independent especially from dominant political structures, are extremely important because that help shape critical thinking. In my view, those few art spaces that currently operate in Tirana are headed for capitulation. They can’t manage to include the wider public. This isn’t only the responsibility of the institutions, but also of artists. The low level of interest and small number of people who attend exhibition openings is in danger of creating a tight, vicious circle in which no one realizes that this system limits the possibilities for creating dialogue.  Personally, I believe that the artist—with the support of these institutions—needs to create political tactics to temporarily take control of public spaces, transforming them into ephemeral platforms for autonomous debate that are open to anyone.

RI: Several of your works also have to do with the concept of ‘justice’ (a concept that is frequently discussed in Albania, generally in debates on the war against corruption, ‘the rule of law’, etc.). Could you speak a little bit about how you conceive of the idea of ‘justice’, and about what connections contemporary art can make with justice? Do you believe that justice is something that primarily belongs to the sphere of political functions, or is it an element of all relations or connections between people in society? Is justice something that ‘acts’, or is it more of a situation or condition, and what does art have to do with this (either with the ‘action’ of justice, or with justice as a condition)?

PXh: Justice and art do not have any direct connection, but justice can be the subject of the work of art. Negative I-II-III-IV is a work that has justice precisely as its subject matter [7]. The work is about the protests of January 21, an event that is not very distant in collective memory, and which left behind four dead on the Boulevard of the Martyrs of the Nation. On January 21, 2011, Edi Rama, the leader of what was then the opposition party in Albania [the Socialist Party], led hundreds of protestors in a protest against the government headed by Sali Berisha. This protest developed as a response to a video scandal made public in the media, involving Ilir Meta, Foreign Minister and leader of the Party for Socialist Integration, which was at that time in a coalition with Berisha’s [Democratic Party] government. In the video, Meta was caught on tape wrapping up a corrupt business deal. On the day of the protest, four citizens were shot to death by soldiers of the republican Guard, shooting from the windows of the Prime Minster’s building. During the elections in 2013, something surprising happened: two political opponents, Edi Rama and Ilir Meta, entered into a coalition and won the election. Rama became the Prime Minister and Meta became the Head of Parliament, which gave him immunity to prosecution by courts. The only sign that today remains from the shootings of January 21 are four bronze plaques that are embedded in the sidewalks of the boulevard, right along the edge of the sidewalks in the exact places where the four protestors were shot.

The primary condition for Albania’s membership in the European Union is the “Justice Reform.” Under the supervision and with the recommendations of the EU and the USA, this reform was unanimously approved in July of 2016, approved by all the political parties in the country, the same parties that produced the events of January 21, 2011. What made an impression on me in this whole series of events was the fact that all of these scandals and machinations are completely publicly ignored by all political and social actors. Perhaps the inaction of justice has created a situation that primarily aims to preserve the status quo of the regime, a status quo in which—by means of verbal abuse—that regime has stunted and corrupted society’s conscience.

RI: You’ve created several works in close proximity to official state buildings located along the boulevard of the Martyrs of the Nation; have you encountered any problems from security guards or from the police during the creation of these works? Have the police ever monitored you afterwards?

The “21 January” Memorials by 51N4E. Photo by Pleurad Xhafa.

PXh: When I decided to create Negative I-II-III-IV, I faced two difficulties. The first was an institutional one, since to do anything with the bronze memorials; I had to get permission to act from the relevant institutions. One of those was the Municipality of Tirana. For about five months, continuously, I personally went to the offices of the municipality in order to get permission, which they never did give to me. This is understandable, since the mayor of the city at that time was Lulzim Basha, who—at the time of January 21 shootings—was the interior minister, and in all likelihood the order to shoot at the protestors had to pass through him. The second difficulty had to do with the technical realization of the work. For the work, I commissioned a professional sculptor, but as soon as he learned about the realization and the themes of the work, he withdrew immediately because he didn’t want to get involved with the debate about the shootings. After several meetings with him, I managed to convince him to take part, and the first thing he had me do was to take measurements of the memorials, which would assist in creating the structural molds for the poured plaster.

After I went and took the measurements of the memorials, I noticed—as I was returning to my house—that I was being followed by someone. Later, I assumed it was just my own paranoia, coming from the delicate nature of the event that was the subject of the work. Some time later, when we went to pour the plaster to take the negatives of the memorials, not only were the police present, but also the man who had followed me earlier, when I took the measurements. He approached me and asked me what I was doing, and what the purpose of these sculptures was. The only protection I could muster at that point was ‘Art’. After he took my personal documents, he continued to insist that I should not be getting myself involved in these issues, that art shouldn’t have anything to do with these kinds of things.

Pleurad Xhafa, Negative I-II-III-IV on view in ‘Teatri i Gjelbërimit’ at Galeria FAB, Tirana, 2015. Photo courtesy of the artist.

RI: Many of your works are—in some way—indexical. What I mean, for example, is that the photograph indexes light and with it a piece of reality in a particular moment. The sculptures that constitute Negative I-II-III-IV index the bronze plaques installed in the sidewalk of the boulevard.  The idea of art as an ‘index’ (often an imperfect or incomplete index) has been frequently discussed in theorizations of contemporary art. Could you speak a little bit about this? Is there something that attracts you about the indexical character of art?

PXh: If you think about it, it’s very interesting, because the memorials to January 21 are bronze replacements for specific pieces of the Boulevard of the Martyrs of the Nation, or the “Avenue of the Empire,” as the Italian fascists called it when they constructed it in 1941. In “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Walter Benjamin analyzes the way that totalitarianism uses the experience of art as a way to control the masses by means of the aestheticization of politics. Thus, those memorials are nothing more that an imitation of the totalitarian concept. If we think about the index as the performative concept of a physical process, then in the case of the sculptures (Negative I-II-III-IV) taking the same form in the negative generates another viewpoint, that of the pointing-finger, where the signs in plaster materialize denial: the denial of justice, the denial of transparency and of accountability, and the denial of responsibility.

RI: It is often difficult to talk about ‘the working class’ or about ‘workers’ in Albania, because the concept of the worker has been so closely tied to the ideology of communism. But, at the same time, in a neoliberal-capitalist context, we need to talk about workers and the working class. Do you think that contemporary artists have a duty to address (insofar as it is possible) the issue of the worker? How do you see your own works in terms of the neoliberal/capitalist context?

Pleurad Xhafa, still from ‘Tireless Worker,’ video, 43min, 2013. Image courtesy of the artist.

PXh: In the communist regime, the working class was society itself. Although in a fiction, the working class had the most important position in the creation of the ideological dream of communism, while today, in the neoliberal context, the (under)worker is both unrepresented and positioned totally in the service of business owners, to the point that workers are forced to give up their own fundamental rights just in order not to lose their job. The absence, or more accurately the lethargy, of unions is a primary point of concern with regards to the organization of workers to demand their rights. This isn’t something I’m saying; our own Prime Minister said it in television broadcast in Italy, in which—on live TV—he issued a call to Italian businesses to come and invest in Albania, because unions are nonexistent and labor is cheap. [8]

In my work Tireless Worker, tried to show the hierarchical dynamics between the past and the present, the issues I was discussing a bit earlier. Completely by chance, I found out about a factory that produced bunkers [9] under socialism and now produces paving tiles for sidewalks. The terrible working conditions there, and the advanced age of the workers made me feel a duty and responsibility, as an artist, to document this reality, which exists just a few kilometers from the center of Tirana.  The work was gradually degrading and deforming these workers both psychologically and physically. What pushed me to continue the project was the life of a particular worker, Haxhi Xhihani, who had worked in this factory since 1973. During the communist regime, he had been decorated by the brigadier of the factory with a ‘Tireless Worker” Medal of Honor, for his contribution to collective work. The painful irony of this event was that after the fall of the communist regime, the brigadier became the owner of the factory, privatizing it in his own name. Currently, Xhihani makes $3.00 a day.

Pleurad Xhafa, still from ‘Tireless Worker,’ video, 43min, 2013. Image courtesy of the artist.

RI: In several instances, you have played the role of the documenter. How do you see the connection between contemporary art and the genre of ‘documentary’? I’m curious to know if you conceive of your artistic practice in relation to the tradition of realism (beginning in the mid-19th century), or with the tradition of documentary, which began later.

PXh: In nearly all the works I’ve made, the subject or argument that I’ve been interested in developing has in some way determined the language of the medium. When I work with moving images (in film or documentary), I prefer to maintain a position at some distance from the subject. The film Tireless Worker, for example, is significantly influenced by neorealist Italian cinema from the postwar period. The workers in the film aren’t professional actors; they play themselves in the film. The worker Xhihani places his own body in the service of the narration, and through him the viewers become acquainted with the dramatic landscape of contemporary Albania.

Recently, I’ve been in the process of documenting (on video) various protests that take place in Albania. The force of these images derives precisely from the weakness of the voice of the protest. All told, I’ve gathered about 3TB of digital material but I still don’t know exactly how I’ve going to use it. Maybe I won’t ever use it, but maybe after many years it will be valuable material to teach us something about today’s world…

RI: The problems that engaged artists face today in Albania are also problems that other artists throughout the world are facing, whether they are working in other countries in Eastern Europe, or outside this region… Based on to your experience,  is there anything that we can learn in general from the situation of artists in Albania? Are there any tactics, any experiences that you believe to be important for contemporary artists everywhere, in the conditions of global neoliberalism?

PXh: I don’t know if there exists a precise formula for how an artist should act, but what I think is most important is the attempt to create platforms for debate, and an insistence on problematizing the conditions in which we live and work, regardless of where or when we live.

[1] Sharra is a village on the southwest outskirts of Tirana. The grave of the Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha was moved from the Tirana Cemetery of the Martyrs of the Nation—the large partisan cemetery overlooking Tirana—to the small cemetery in Sharra in 1992. The village is also home to the Sharra landfill. In August of 2016, 17-year-old Ardit Gjoklaj, employee of a private waste-processing company, died in the landfill. His death was seen by many as evidence of the deplorable conditions for workers in Albania, and of the lack of accountability for private companies that the Albanian government has increasingly supported through public-private partnerships. For more on Gjoklaj’s death, see “Ardit Gjoklaj’s Death Continues to Haunt Veliaj,” Exit.al, November 2, 2016, http://www.exit.al/en/2016/11/02/ardit-gjoklajs-death-continues-to-haunt-veliaj/ (accessed January 8, 2017).

[2] See my interview, “The Politics of Street Art In Albania: An Interview with Çeta,” at http://www.artmargins.com/index.php/interviews-sp-837925570/782-the-politics-of-street-art-in-albania (accessed January 6, 2017).

[3] The “Movement for the University” (Levizja për Universitetin, in Albanian) is a group of students and activists dedicated to advocating for free and quality public university education in Albania. The group, associated with the Leftist “Political Organization” (Organizata Politike) of students and citizens, aims to combat the ongoing privatization of universities in Albania. It advocates “an idea of the university as a state institution directly financed by state funds, but with an internal organization in which decisions are made by professors and students.” See the Facebook page for the group, here: https://www.facebook.com/Për-Universitetin-651561178215203/?fref=ts (accessed January 4, 2017).

[4] FRESSh, the Forum of Eurosocialist Albanian Youth (Forumi Rinor Eurosocialist Shqiptar) was established in 1992. According to the organization’s website, its goal is “to bring Albanian closer to the European mentality regarding democracy the establishment of the state, as well as European enlightened social democratic ideas more generally. Recently, the organization has used the broad umbrella of “European social-democratic ideas” as a way to draw youth into the current Albanian Socialist Party (Partia Socialiste). See http://fressh.al/fressh/kush-jemi/ (accessed January 6, 2017).   

 [5] For documentation of the work, see https://vimeo.com/153532057; a further description is available at http://www.the-maps.org/assets/pressrelease-9_amonumenttofailure.pdf (accessed January 6, 2017).   

[6] For further information on the work, see Xhafa’s interview with Fatmira Nikolli: “Pleurad Xhafa: ‘Gërdeci’: aksident teknologjik, një monument dështimi para presidencës,” BalkanWeb, March 3, 2016, http://www.balkanweb.com/site/pleurad-xhafa-gerdeci-aksident-teknologjik-nje-monument-deshtimi-para-presidences/ (accessed January 6, 2017).   

[7] For documentation of the creation of the work, see http://departmentofeagles.org/portfolio_page/sculpture-in-negative-i-ii-iii-iv/ (accessed January 6, 2017).   

[8] For more on Rama’s claims about the positive aspects of a country without unions, see Vincent van Gerven Oei, “Urban Politics: The Unofficial View of Tirana (87),” Berfrois February 17, 2015, http://www.berfrois.com/2015/02/vincent-w-j-van-gerven-oei-urban-politics/ (accessed January 6, 2017).

[9] Between the late 1960s and the early 1980s, Albanian’s socialist dictator Enver Hoxha ordered the construction of concrete domed bunkers throughout the Albanian territory. Approximately 220,100 bunkers were planned, but only about 173,300 were actually built. On the bunkers, see Michael L. Galaty, Sharon R. Stocker, and Charles Watkinson, “The Snake that Bites: The Albanian Experience of Collective Trauma as Reflected in an Evolving Landscape,” The Trauma Controversy: Philosophical and Interdisciplinary Dialogues, ed. Brown Golden, Kristen and Bettina G. Bergo (New York: SUNY Press, 2009), pp. 171-87; Emily Glass, “A Defence Dictated: The Changing Role of Mushroom-Shaped Communist Bunkers in Albania,” paper delivered at the Modern Conflict Archaeology Conference, University of Bristol, 2009, https://mcaconf.com/about/2009-2/;  and Alison Reilly, “The Following is a True Story: Fiction, Bunkerization and Cinema in Post-Socialist Albania,” KinoKultura 16 (March 2016), http://www.kinokultura.com/specials/16/reilly.shtml, (accessed January 6, 2017). These bunkers continue to dot Albania’s landscape (although many of them have been removed or gradually covered over by the landscape itself), and they have become one of the most iconic symbols of the paranoia of Hoxha’s regime. The precise statistics on the number of bunkers constructed are drawn from informational texts at the Bunk’Art museum in Tirana, Albania (https://www.facebook.com/BunkArtAlbania/, accessed January 6, 2017).

“Për këtë është i nevojshëm botimi i më shumë artikujve, studimeve…”: Nëndori 5 and 6, 1971

Today’s post includes two scans of material from Nëndori, the monthly literary and artistic journal published by the Union of Writers and Artists in Albania during the socialist era. I’ve recently spent some time with several critical essays published in the pages of Nëndori [later Nëntori] in the late 1960s and early 1970s in preparation for a paper I presented at ASEEES 2019 (and an associated journal article), and I wanted to share two resources that I’ve found particularly useful.

The first is an essay by the critic Andon Kuqali (who I’ve discussed in other posts) entitled “Art dhe Revizionistë: Shënime për artin sovjetik të viteve të fundit” [“Art and Revisionists: Notes on Soviet Art in Recent Years”], published in Nëndori 5, 1971. This essay is one of the more interesting and thorough attempts to point out the ideological and aesthetic shortcomings of late socialist art in the Soviet Union, from the point of view of non-aligned Stalinism (the path Albania had taken by this time). In it, Kuqali argues against both what he calls “monumental falsity” [fallsitet monumental] and the so-called “strict style” [stili i rreptë in Albanian, surovyi stil in Russian], as well as against the “mysticism” of Soviet artists such as Dmitry Zhilinsky. The essay is one of the few pieces of writing published at the time that is illustrated with examples of some of the works criticized (albeit in poorly-reproduced, black-and-white images), and it shows Kuqali engaging with specific works and pieces of writing published in the Soviet sphere.

The second scan today is the following number of Nëndori, which contains the reports on the discussion of the first annual national meeting of architects, which took place on May 6, 1971. This selection of texts includes the main address given by Sokrat Mosko, a member of the directorial committee of the Union of Writers and Artists, as well as shorter speeches given by architects, artists, critics, and writers, including Fadil Paçrami, Kristaq Rama, Enver Faja, Valentina Pistoli, Petraq Kolevica, and Foto Stamo. Just as interesting as these discussions–which give a vital snapshot of the state of architectual and urbanist discourses in Albania at the outset of the 70s decade–is a portfolio of photographs that follow the reports. This selection of photos documents a plethora of socialist modern (and modernist) buildings constructed in Albania in the first decades of the communist period. These range from factories to apartment buildings to hotels, from bridges to a lapidar.

Of particular interest is the fact that Maks Velo (the architect of the lapidar commemorating Misto Mame, juxtaposed in the portfolio against his equally modernist architecture for the ‘Emin Duraku’ School in Tirana) is also featured on the back of this volume of Nëndori, with a primitivist illustration of women dressed in folk costumes.

 

 

Happy reading!

Klasa Punëtore në Artet Figurative/ The Working Class in the Figurative Arts [1977]

In honor of May 1, today’s post features a full scan of an art album published in 1977 in the People’s Socialist Republic of Albania: Klasa Punëtore në Artet Figurative [The Working Class in the Figurative Arts]. This book represents a kind of companion to the earlier Ushtria Popullore në Artet Figurative [The People’s Army in the Figurative Arts, 1969], and indeed there is some inevitable overlap between the themes of the two, since socialist culture aimed to emphasize the direct cooperation and interdependency of the development of working class consciousness and the legacy of partisan military organization.

The cover of the book, featuring Hektor Dule’s “Në njërën dorë kazmën, në tjetrën pushkën”

The book contains a wealth of images of painting, sculpture, drawings, and prints (unfortunately nearly all reproduced in black and white) focused on workers in both industrial and agricultural settings. It includes scenes of work and leisure alike.

Vasil Kaçi, “Me këtë parti, me këtë pushtet, nuk na tremb ansjë termet”

The earliest images in the book are focused not so much on workers as on the founding of the Albanian Communist Party (later the Albanian Party of Labor) and the partisan struggle, while the later images (especially the prints and poster designs near the end) are keyed to specific political events (i.e. the 7th Congress of the Albanian Party of Labor).

 

Danish Jukniu, “Në kantierin e dritës”
Hasan Nallbani, “Tekstilistja”

Happy reading!

Eduard Guxholli, “Mobiliet dhe Estetika e Banesës” [1983]

Today’s post is a scan of the 1983 book Mobiliet dhe Estetika e Banesës [Furniture and the Aesthetics of the Home] by Eduard Guxholli. This slim volume offers a comprehensive overview of the components and arrangements of domestic space in late socialist Albania. It analyzes the relationship of furnishings to apartmental architecture, considers the optimal proportions and arrangements of furniture, and offers a series of projects allowing readers to create furnishings for their own homes.

Guxholli (also the author of a book on famous artists, Mjeshtër të Pikturës [1990]) does not provide a long history of the development of interior furnishings, but instead focuses on practical matters. He lays out the prevailing standardized models of apartments in socialist Albania, and suggests how different pieces of furniture may be grouped and distributed throughout the rooms of apartments. He considers the emotional impact each space should have: “the living room should create the feeling of comfort and warmth, the guest room [dhoma e mysafirëve] that of welcome, the kitchen that of cleanliness, the bedroom the feeling of calm, and so forth” (p. 14).

Evident throughout Guxholli’s text is an emphasis on the rational arrangement of modern space as a key aspect of domestic comfort and productivity. Published in the 1980s, a period when socialist Albania had cut off most of its prior ties to other socialist nations, the emphasis on self-sufficiency– educating readers on how to create their own furniture to match their standardized living environment–is particularly noteworthy. Although produced during the final decade of Albania’s socialist period, Guxholli’s book provides a glimpse into the project of socialist modernization, and specifically the effort to provide Albanian citizens with the knowledge to function as socialist citizens, optimizing their surroundings in the spirit of modernity’s emphasis on efficiency and productivity. Often at the forefront of Guxholli’s considerations are those to do with avoiding waste (either in the form of material or space). He is also, however, concerned with personalization, and the avoidance of monotony (the perennial accusation raised against socialist material culture by its critics). This text will be of interest to scholars of socialist architecture, material culture, and domestic space in socialist Eastern Europe. It will also be of interest to those broadly concerned with the implementation of modernist rationalism in socialist contexts.

This scan comes to us thanks to Kreshnik Merxhani, who tracked down a copy of the book.

Преглед на Спомениците и Спомен-Објележјата во СР Македонија [Overview of Monuments and Commemorative Constructions in the Socialist Republic of Macedonia], 1986

Today’s post is a full scan of the 1986 publication Преглед на Спомениците и Спомен-Објележјата во СР Македонија, a book compiled by Gjorg Trajkovski detailing monuments, memorials, commemorative plaques, museum-houses, and other commemorative objects in the Socialist Republic of Macedonia, dedicated to events and personages ranging from the period of the National Awakening to the antifascist National Liberation Struggle and the rise of socialism.

The publication contains extremely extensive reference information (although it is of course impossible to know if it is comprehensive), including not only the names of monuments, their locations and dates of inauguration, and the names of artists and architects, but also information on the reasons for their construction, lists of names of those commemorated (in the case of cemeteries, for example), etc.

The visual documentation in the publication is minimal: a few key works are highlighted in the final section of the book with photographs, while most of the entries are not visually documented. In this sense, the book presents a different kind of publication than others I’ve uploaded here, many of which sought primarily to present the visual dynamism of socialist monumental art and commemorative architecture. Here, instead, the goal is a careful cataloguing of monuments and their basic information. Nonetheless, the resource is invaluable for anyone studying monumental sculpture in the former Eastern Europe more broadly, or in Macedonia in particular.

Happy reading!

Kujtim Buza, Kleanth Dedi, and Dhimitraq Trebicka, “Përmendore të Heroizmit Shqiptar” [1973]

Today’s post is a scan of Kujtim Buza and Kleanth Dedi’s  Përmendore të Heroizmit Shqiptar [Monuments to Albanian Heroism], (Tirana: Shtëpia Qëndrore e Ushtrisë Popullore, 1973), with photographs credited to Dhimitraq Trebicka. This publication presents documentation of monuments constructed in Albania through the early 1970s. Most of the monuments and memorials appearing in the book were constructed during the socialist era, although some (by sculptor Odhise Paskali) date from earlier periods.

Like Mircea Grozdea’s Arta monumentală în România socialistă [1973], Veneta Ivanova’s Българска монументална скулптура: развитие и проблеми [1978), and Juraj Baldani’s Revolucionarno Kiparstvo [1977], Përmendore të Heroizmit Shqiptar represents a socialist nation’s viewpoint on the history and development of its own monumentality. Published in 1973, the book comes precisely at the historical moment when socialist Albania turned decidedly against ‘foreign influences’ in art and culture (after a period of openness and in some cases experimentation in the late 1960s, a period during which the country had also aligned itself ideologically with China’s cultural revolution). In the 1960s and 70s in particular, a huge number of monuments were constructed in Albania (in many cases to correspond to the celebration of the 25th anniversary of liberation from fascist forces, in 1969).

The Four Heroines of Mirdita Monument. By Fuat Dushku, Dhimo Gogollari, Andrea Mano, and Perikli Çuli. 1971, Rreshen. [now destroyed].
These memorials included both lapidars, architectural and sometimes sculptural ensembles that were dedicated to the martyrs and heroes of the National Liberation War (the Second World War), as well as traditional figurative sculptures commemorating Skanderbeg, independence from the Ottoman Empire, the War of 1920, and so on. Monuments existing prior to the socialist period, especially those commissioned by the regime of the Albanian interwar leader King Ahmet Zogu, are absent–with the exception of works created by Odhise Paskali, whose messages were considered to be purely nationalist, and therefore ideologically amenable to the project of socialist nation-building in Albania. (The opening text by artist and critic Kujtim Buza and historian Kleanth Dedi discuss the memorial landscape prior to the rise of socialism as a blank slate, primarily attributing the rise of materialized history in Albania to the socialist regime. This is of course inaccurate–several memorials from prior regimes were destroyed by the socialists for ideological reasons.)

Relief from the Lapidar dedicated to the collectivization of land. By H. Beqiri, 1962. In Gore, Lushnja.

*Unfortunately, the version of the book that I scanned was a misprint and included a section of repeated pages. Thus, some images (for example, of the martyr’s cemeteries in Librazhd and Fier) only appear as thumbnails in the back of the book, but not as full-sized photographs. At some point, I will scan these pages from another copy of the book, but for now they are not present.