‘Dëshmi e asaj që ishte por që s’mund e s’duhet të jetë’: Bunk’Art, History as Touristic Itinerary, and the Infantilization of Collective Memory on the 70th Anniversary of Liberation: A Placeholder

I call this a placeholder in the sense that it represents a set of very preliminary ideas about a topic that I think no one can effectively respond to only a day after it happened. Still, all analyses have to begin somewhere, at some point. Call it a rant, but one that is intended to spur conversation—and to further my own thoughts about the issue—and by no means to exhaust the rather vast number of things that could be said about Bunk’Art. As always, insights are welcome.

Yesterday, so the official story goes, Albania took another step on a long and painful road of transition, out of the obscure darkness of its communist past and into the light of transparent democracy. A vast underground bunker constructed in 1978[1]—during the country’s socialist period—to house the leaders of state in the event of an atomic attack by the Soviet Union or America has been transformed into museum and artistic installation space that will be open to the public until December 30. The installation opened yesterday, with a ceremony that included speeches by Minister of Defense Mimi Kodheli and Prime Minister Edi Rama. The American ambassador Arvizu and German ambassador Hoffman were present, among other dignitaries.[2] Today some 2,000 visitors (including, as the Albanian media and the Bunk’Art website excitedly proclaim, numerous foreign tourists) made the trip to Tirana’s periphery (in a special, free bus leaving from alongside the National History Museum) to visit the site. The event (again, as enthusiastically reported by the Albanian media) has already begun to receive attention in the foreign media.

Perhaps the most salient image from the opening event was of Rama delivering his speech, standing on a stage littered with four concrete domes that recall the thousands of concrete bunkers that inhabited (and in some places still inhabit) even the remotest reaches of Albania’s communist landscape. These concrete domes were colorfully decorated with painted images recalling children’s drawings—floating flowers, puffy clouds, and simple boxlike houses with picket fences.[3] On a backdrop behind Rama loomed the logo for the installation, a semicircle fractured into irregular planes of pure, bright color, with a red door at its center topped by the red star of communism. Below this logo, the name of the exhibition, BUNK’ART, was accompanied by the phrase “70 vjet pas çlirimit” [70 years after liberation], a reference to the liberation of the country from fascist occupation. If the connection between the country’s more than 40 years of socialist history and a stage with several concrete bunker-forms covered in childish imagery was not immediately apparent, I can only assume that this was part and parcel of the confusing and confused spectacle orchestrated at the opening (and, it seems, endemic to the installation as a whole). There are certainly any number of insightful analyses to be made of Bunk’Art, and the present discussion is meant to focus on only a few: the diagnosis and treatment of past traumas through the model of the touristic itinerary and the infantilization of the notion of collective memory in the process of navigating this itinerary.

Insofar as I find it difficult to find a spot to begin an analysis of Bunk’Art, even having set the above limits upon my investigation, I would like begin rather arbitrarily with a curious translation. During his speech, Edi Rama made the (tremendously fraught) statement, “Sot, ne jemi dëshmitarë se kemi çelur derën e një thesari të kujtesës sonë kolektive.” [My translation—certainly a bit awkward: ‘Today, we are witnesses to the opening of the door to a treasure of our collective memory.’] When the BBC reported on the event, Rama’s speech was glossed with this quotation: “We have opened today a thesaurus of the collective memory that presents thousands of pieces of the sad events and life under communism.” Now, the term ‘thesaurus’ does literally mean ‘treasure’, so that the translation of the word ‘thesar’ (Albanian for ‘treasure’) is understandable, if awkward and not, I think, true to Rama’s intention. Nonetheless, this confusion—emblematic of the whole confusing scenario of the opening and the installation in general—is a productive one, since it invites us to consider Rama’s quotation more closely. For what could be more appropriate than the image of past not as treasure but as a treasure-house of words, of concepts, and what more fitting counterpart to the confusion of the installation’s concept than he image of flipping through a thesaurus, looking for the right words, getting lost in a sea of synonyms and losing any straight line of thought.

The most cynical response to Rama’s statement—and the obvious one—is to pass it off as evidence an undisguised and callous greed: Bunk’Art, already a hit with Albanians and especially with foreign tourists, if we can believe the media, is a ‘treasure’ in the most banal sense of the word: a source of actual and symbolic/cultural capital on the world stage.[4] Cynical though it may be to take this reading, it is also, I think, very much what Rama is getting at. In his speech, he asserts, “Këto mjedise janë trashëgimi e një kulture të jetuari që, ju siguroj, do të tërheqin shumë herë më tepër turistë sesa ç‘mund të tërheqë ajo Shqiponja e tmerrshme që kanë vendosur tek rrethrrotullimi i doganës.” [‘These premises are the inheritance of a cultural way of living that, I assure you, will draw a good deal more tourists than that awful eagle at the traffic circle at Dogana [imports].’] On Twitter, the day of the opening, Rama declared “Bota e nendheshme e diktatures do kthehet ne nje haperise atraksioni historik, kulturor e turistik pa asnje dyshim” [‘The underground world of the dictatorship will, undoubtedly, turn into a historic, cultural, and touristic attraction.’] Thus, the language used by Rama (who has, in the media, already become the de facto curator and author of the exhibit, despite the fact that the idea has numerous sources and has been under discussion in a number of circles for some time) describe the opening is that of history-as-touristic-attraction. This is the ‘treasure’ of the bunker and the collective memory it supposedly embodies.

I am being more than a little unfair, for I am attributing to Rama’s rhetoric a confusion it may not really contain, that between history and memory.[5] However, it is undeniable that the two intermingle in Rama’s speech, sometimes emerging as interchangeable and other times as separate. The question of collective memory will concern me below; what I wish to examine first is the idea of traversing history (one’s own history, or another’s) as a touristic endeavor—for that is precisely how Rama characterizes Bunk’Art. “Është vetëm fillimi sepse ne kemi një projekt për të krijuar një intenerar historik dhe turistik të nëndheut komunist dhe njëkohësisht për ta kthyer këtë intenerar, në një intenerar të imagjinatës krijuese, duke synuar nga njëra anë çlirimin dhe nga ana tjetër pjellorinë e kujtesës sonë kolektive.” [This is just a beginning because we have a project to create a historical and touristic itinerary of the communist underground and at the same time to turn that itinerary into an itinerary of the creative imagination, with the goal of both liberating and harnessing the fecundity of our collective memory.’] The project of coming to terms with the past is the project of establishing a touristic itinerary—what could be more profoundly and problematically Modern than this project? Were not many of the exemplary Modernist projects (we need only think of the relationship between the colonial, the primitive, and the past in so much Modernist cultural production) precisely the projects of ‘tourism of the creative imagination’? Now, Rama emerges as the quintessential Modernist-as-statesman, a role he has long courted (though I think he has never been forthright about its modernity—for it is, I think, in no way ‘post’-modern).[6]

The Modern touristic itinerary is certainly open to a number of different ‘tourists’—from foreigners, to Albanians living (or born) outside of Albania, to those who live within in the country, and who may or may not remember the Hoxha years—but what is unavoidable in this model is the transformation of history—lived or otherwise—into capital fueling the global tourist industry. Tourism has been an important aspect of Rama’s time in office—his policies have often been focused on Albania’s coastal regions, but here the language of touristic development falls squarely in line with a project to mine the imaginary of a people (here conceived as having such a unified imaginary, or ‘unconscious,’ if you prefer). As he puts it, the hope behind Bunk’Art is ‘to create new spaces: new spaces of the imaination, of thinking, of living together, through the power of art.’  [“…për të krijuar hapësira të reja [:] Hapësira të reja të të imagjinuarit, të të menduarit, të të bashkëjetuarit përmes fuqisë së artit.”] This is certanly a worthy goal, and one in keeping with Rama’s prior projects, at least at the level of its rhetoric—what is new is the idea that the primary way to orchestrate this encounter is through the vague distance and ignorant enthusiasm of the tourist: not just the tourist of someone else’s past (that is an easy enough position, I can tell you, as someone who has often been a tourist in Albania), but as the tourist of one’s own past.

It is not only the transformation of the encounter with (communist) history  into a touristic itinerary that is key to Rama’s project—it is also held together (insofar as it holds together) by a psychoanalytic model of collective memory, as I have already mentioned. Thus, traversing the itinerary of history is more than a simple hermeneutic exercise; it is self-diagnosis, self-diagnosis of the collective of its own imaginary, through the consumption of the past-as-commodity (in this case, the communist past as commodity). The ideal consumers for this commodity, however, are not so much adults—in Rama’s rhetoric—as children. Here (what I can only imagine to be) the logic of bunkers decorated with childlike drawings becomes clear. Rama makes it very clear in his speech that Bunk’Art is, in an important way, ‘for the children’—for those who cannot remember the time of communism, who cannot understand what the isolation of communism was like.[7] Thus, in a way, Bunk’Art as an itinerary is not only about the Modernist project of tourism—it is also about the Modernist ideal of a return to youth, to innocence, to ignorance of the past that only adults can know. And yet here we come to the impasse: if Bunk’Art is about coming to terms with history, how can it also be for those who did not live that history, who do not remember it, unless the goal of its diagnosis is to make its tourists children, so that they may both forget and be taught again how to remember?[8] In other words, collective memory will be most effective when it returns to the imagined zero-point of childhood, among the flowers and puffy clouds and box-houses,  and then consumes history as touristic itinerary.[9] From this perspective, what seems ‘infantile’ about Bunk’Art—the fanfare, the bright colors, the bright lights, the confusion, the desire to do everything all at once—must be considered quite intentionally so: part of its explicit goal it to infantilize the collective memory of the Albanian people.[10]

Having been at pains to find a place to begin, I am also at a loss as to how to end, so I will simply say that this analysis—provisional, as I have said before, all too desperately retreating from saying anything really controversial—is meant as one attempt to think critically about Rama’s project and the real and symbolic appropriation of the communist past in Albania. One hopes that other, more thoughtful and thorough, analyses are already being written. [Thanks to certain acquaintances more well-read and attentive to the discussion of this issue than I am, I would like to draw attention to two thoughtful analyses of the issue: here at Postbllok and here at Peizazhe të fjalës.]

I intend to return to these thoughts in the coming week(s), but for now they stand as they are—a call to think critically about Bunk’Art and what it means to treat the past as tourism, to infantilize memory.

[1] The tunnels were begun earlier, in 1972.

[2] Several news clips show Rama guiding Arvizu through the various rooms of the bunker, explaining them (in English to Arvizu).

[3] One can only assume that some pun on communist dictator Enver Hoxha’s assertion that Albania was a “fushë me lule” [field of flowers] was intended.

[4] This is not the place to enter into a deep discussion of the way the communist past has been and is being appropriated as cultural capital in Albania. Suffice it to say that—unsurprisingly—this practice is very much ubiquitous at the moment. There are others more qualified to comment on this at length and in detail than I am.

[5] This too is a debate that I prefer not to enter into here—so I will instead merely gesture at its existence and go blithely about my way.

[6] Most recently, at Creative Time, Rama trotted out his now rather repetitive tale of his time as mayor of Tirana and his artistic projects there. One (read: I) feels an almost painful nostalgia for those days, looking at the image of him standing before flowery bunker-forms.

[7] “…që s’e kanë jetuar atë kohë. Nuk mund ta imagjinojnë, edhe duke ua treguar me fjalë, sesi Shqipëria e vogël mund të ishte një botë e tretë e izoluar nga dy botët e tjera, nga Perëndimi dhe nga Lindja, që luftonte, në mënyrë imagjinare, me imperializmin amerikan dhe me social-imperializmin sovjetik.”

[8] Apologies are no doubt in order for the truly egregious use of italics.

[9] I am reminded of a quote often attributed to the author Henry Miller: “The thing is to become a master and in your old age to acquire the courage to do what children did when they knew nothing.”

[10] In case it is not clear, I am quite suspicious of all claims of collective memory, and I am not claiming that Rama’s project ‘distorts’ some ‘true’ collective memory—rather, it is one way of most assuredly creating it. the problem is that this is not how it is being discussed.

2 thoughts on “‘Dëshmi e asaj që ishte por që s’mund e s’duhet të jetë’: Bunk’Art, History as Touristic Itinerary, and the Infantilization of Collective Memory on the 70th Anniversary of Liberation: A Placeholder”

  1. The other night a panel of “experts” were brought together by Rudina Xhunga to discuss the topic of the war, history and tourism. A brief transcript can be found here: http://www.top-channel.tv/lajme/artikull.php?id=288464#tab

    Her opening lines about the Hoxha House are indeed interesting, relative to Rama’s speech and the framing of Bunk’Art in general.

    “A mund ta përdorim për turizëm, a mund ta përdorim për të na shërbyer? A mund të çlirohemi nga komplekset e historisë sonë duke e përdorur historinë dhe jo më duke u përdorur prej saj? A duhet ta trajtojmë shtëpinë e Enver Hoxhës këtu në Gjirokastër si një shtëpi për turizëm apo do ta fshehim si shtëpinë që nuk duhet treguar dhe shkelur?”

    First, I find very peculiar the immediate evaluation of historical objects only in relation to their tourist potential. It is as if they otherwise hold no other meaning and relevance for Albanians and others. It tries to imply that for 20 years we either ignored them as useless junk, or were held hostage (perdorur prej saj) by their historical significance, dark memories and couldn’t not approach them with any objectivity . This is simply not true.

    Rama and his ministers made several references to “secret” nature of this bunker. I understand that its odd it took this long to bring it to light but I am not sure its a secret, it may have been then but now I don’t think anyone went out of their way to keep it a secret. It simply wasn’t known! Heck, many people in my town don’t know there is a tunnel in one of the hills surrounding it. This doesn’t make it a secret by any means. By referring to it as a secret Rama is trying to add allure to the object, therefore increasing its tourism potential, and his initiative to bring it to the public… ever the benevolent caretaker. Also, by hinting to it being kept a “secret” he is attempting to place blame on the Berisha government for being inactive and disinterested in uncovering it, until now. This way Rama gets to claim brownie points for having had the uninhibited courage (çlirohemi nga komplekset) to open it, with the help of his friend Carlo Bollino, of course.

    Xhunga interestingly provides only two options in dealing with Hoxha’s house (tourism or hide it in a dark corner of history); a loaded question with options that represent extreme viewpoints. There must be something between these two and the answer lies in precisely that which Rama is entirely uninterested, and frankly unequipped to do! He places a lot of blame on historians for failing to guide us but forgets that a nations memory and history is not shaped and owned by historians and even less by politicians. He again only gives us these two alternatives, ignoring all the other voices who rightly can claim and contest how we remember, write history, inspire and ultimately find something unique to tell the word that would attract them to visiting Albania.

    From transcript of the discussion at SHQIP it is clear to me that by presenting these extreme positions, anyone who rejects the tourist opportunities comes off as an idiot. Never mind that a great deal of people would be OK with exploring the tourism potential if it is done in a manner that isn’t entirely exploitative and kitschy. But Xhunga, her “experts”, and Rama above all, are not interested in anything other than immediate conversion of these objects into pastiche precisely so that they are stripped of their many contradictions (Vehbiu makes note of the ones inherent in the antinuclear bunker) and sterilized for tourist consumption. Faced with this alternative anyone in their right mind would rather just lock these places up and throw away the key.

    For 20 years we refused, failed, or rather meandered through pretending to have a healthy debate about our past, and now in less than one year we have been put through a mental boot camp forcing us through a series of “exercises” to make up for lost time. We are in a race to “open” spaces both real (Vila 21, Matalurgjiku, Bunk’Art to mention a few) and imaginary (DOSJET). It all is so rushed that it makes me think it is to deliberately exhaust us and immediately free them up so we can extract maximum tourist value.

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