The Unofficial View of Tirana (83)

Today’s essay—an examination of Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama’s recent speech at Creative Time—is a guest post by Vincent W.J. van Gerven Oei, the 83rd in his ongoing Unofficial View of Tirana series.

While local journalists were once again busy regurgitating worn-down, coma inducing positions about yet another spectral appearance of Enver Hoxha at the celebration of the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Tirana, very few cared to analyze the rather remarkable speech of PM Edi Rama at the 6th Annual Creative Time Summit on November 15 in Stockholm. According to the Creative Time website, an internationally operative (public) art organization based in New York, Edi Rama “led important post-Communist reforms, including the vetting of government officials to reestablish civic trust.” This “Get To Know” catch phrase seems to suggest that the entire period up to Rama’s advent to power, including the previous 8 years of Sali Berisha’s reign, can be labeled as “Communist.” As for civic trust, let’s hope that the currently developing scandal around several tenders handled through (or dumped on) the Ministry of Culture will not break its spell. A pull quote on the same page cites Rama as follows: “I’m not sure I am a politician. I would say that I am still an artist, and I’m trying to use politics as an instrument for change.”

Each year, ArtReview publishes the “Power 100” list, comprising the most powerful figures in the global art scene. This year’s most powerful person is Nicholas Serota, director of the TATE in London, followed by gallerists David Zwirner and Iwan Wirth on positions 2 and 3. But who on this list wields a fully functioning army, the nominal monopoly on violence across a territory the size of Belgium, and an annual spending budget of about 3.35 billion euros? Who on this list gets to reorganize city centers, decide immigration policies, and negotiate with the Worldbank? This is not to say that Rama wields all this power personally, but with a nearly absolute majority in parliament, an unquestioned authority within his own party, and an opposition that is scattered, desperate, and simply a sad joke, none of the above has proven particularly difficult to pull off. While Neue Slovenische Kunst invented a state “in time,” without territory but also without temporal finitude, whereas my colleague Jonas Staal travels to communist enclaves in the Philippines, Azawad in Mali, and Syrian Kurdistan in search of the “stateless state,” Edi Rama has captured what could have well been a “failed democracy,” and has turned it – with barely anyone noticing – from the “state art” of socialist realism into the “art state” of realist socialism, with Tony “Third Way” Blair as its counsellor. Considering this state of affairs, we would do well to look closely at Rama’s speech (which has not been published on his homepage), keeping in mind that his audience here consisted precisely of those artists, curators, intellectuals, writers, who are not featured in ArtReview’s Top 100.

Edi Rama in a fluffy yellow frame, his desk on the background.
Edi Rama in a fluffy yellow frame, his desk on the background.

Edi Rama is explicitly introduced as someone (an artist) in the position to act, that is, different from the regular artist down the street who merely contemplates, incites, reflects, suggests, complicates, and mirrors, someone who can have things done. His presentation therefore necessarily begins with an image of the place where he gets things done: the desk in his governmental office (I wrote about his desk before in the Unofficial View of Tirana 70, which unfortunately has been removed by my previous host continent.), his colored pencils in focus and the Albanian flag and founder of the nation Ismail Qemali in the blurred background: the prominence of the symbols of art is emphasized over those of the state. This is an image that will be constantly reaffirmed by Rama’s speech, which otherwise features no other images but his painting of Tirana’s façades when he was a mayor. This desk is therefore the only image of his contemporary political practice.

I have transcribed his entire lecture  in full from the video recording on the Creative Time website, and provided it with a running commentary between the different sections.

We are all, whether a country or a human being, a product of our past and of what we learn from it. A product too of our character and our ambitions. I am a prime minister now. I developed from what I was to become what I am. I am the same person doing different things. I was an artist. I still like to paint and draw, I just have less time. But in politics too, I try paint a canvas. I visualize how I want our country to be, to feel. How I want to change as the world changes around us. I am not saying that all prime ministers should be artists of course, far from it. It is good if politics is a gathering of people how come from a variety of backgrounds. From Reagan, who was an actor, to the Swedish prime minister, who is a welder, to variety in experiences is amazing. And even when the variety in professional backgrounds is less striking – Margaret Thatcher was a chemist, Angela Merkel a PhD in chemistry – their brush in the larger tableau is far from being similar, but both impressive. I think the skills we have in one field may help or hinder in another, though, in spite of all, the artist in me is never still.

The opening paragraph sets up the main metaphor of Rama’s speech, namely the idea of politics as “painting a canvas,” something he will later connect to the metaphor (if not cliche) of the “big picture.” At the same time, he suggests that not only artists would be able to engage properly in this politico-artistic act. He names a variety of politicians with vocations different from artist: an actor, a welder, and two chemists. That by far the majority of the politicians from the US, UK, Sweden, or Germany never had any other vocation than being a politician–bureaucrat–corporate manager is ignored, or maybe Rama intends to suggest that “professional” politicians would be unable to engage the political canvas on the same terms: the ancient idea that politics should never be someone’s profession.

The examples listed by Rama, supposedly from a left-wing party, are surprising. The first politician he names is none other than Ronald Reagan, hardly a thinker with left-wing aspirations, who is than followed by other right-wing hardliners such as Margaret Thatcher and Angela Merkel. Typically, the working class representative among the politicians remains nameless (his name is Stefan Löfven, from the Swedish Social Democratic Party). Adam Curtis, among others, already suggested that the Third Way advocated by Tony Blair and Bill Clinton at the end of the 1990s was nothing but a continuation of the neoliberal politics of Reagan and Thatcher. That these two names – and we again keep in mind that Blair is a close advisor of the Prime Minister – reappear in this context as contributing to the “variety of backgrounds” creates a certain discomfort as regards the type of canvas that is supposed to be painted with this “amazing” “variety of experiences.” Why not  Polish prime minister Ewa Kopacz, a pediatrician? Or what about José Mujica ex-guerrilla fighter and president of Uruguay or Evo Morales, anti-War on Drugs campaigner and president of Bolivia? In other words, the friendly sounding term “variety” here is used to obfuscate that his examples do not suggest any variety whatsoever – they all point into the same political direction.

Two pages of Rama's doodles: a calendar page from December 11, 2006 (when he mayor of Tirana) and a printout from the French Socialist Party's website from 2005.
Two pages of Rama’s doodles: a calendar page from December 11, 2006 (when he mayor of Tirana) and a printout from the French Socialist Party’s website from 2005.

Once I met someone who got really offended because I was drawing while we were talking in my office. Regular visitors are used to this, I do it all the time. I doodle all over my daily agenda. My office table is somehow my atelier. But the visitor who became offended by my drawing, thought I didn’t care about what he was saying. He said: I came here and I have a problem, so don’t draw while I’m talking to you. I apologized, put down my pen, discussed the issue, he bowed to me and he left. The next time I met with him, I remembered the offense he had taken so I push my pot of pens to the other end of the desk and I did not draw. Yet, still he was not happy. At the end he said: I feel that you are not listening. You are looking at me, but you are not here. And I said: You see, allow me to draw if you want me to concentrate. If you want me to listen to you and be myself.

This anecdote reveals several aspects of Rama’s politico-artisthood. His drawing and doodling is a compulsion. He does it “all the time,” and without it, he is not himself. Drawing here is a necessary supplement to listening, as he cannot “concentrate” without having a pen in his hand, sketching out the conversation. There is thus a direct mediation between the conversation partner, who puts forth his “problem,” and “drawing the picture” – a mediation that is thoughtless and effortless. Because of the position of this morality tale, which is at the same type an example of his political ethos and a warning not to disrupt it, just after the introduction of the canvas of politics, this image suddenly becomes much more concrete. While engaging in politics, discussing the issues of the country, studies for the larger canvas are doodled on his agenda and memos. Continuous artistic production therefore slowly contaminates and erases the minutiae of administrative language. Contrary to the slow trickle-down of bureaucracy, Rama authoritatively transforms the concerns of the citizen immediately and without interruption into the bigger, political picture. Doodling here becomes a sovereign gesture that cancels out bureaucratic and administrative procedure. It is therefore not difficult to imagine an absurdist scene in which dozens of government officials are peering over Rama’s colored notes, interpreting the colors, shapes, and forms of the doodles as if they were divining a sheep’s liver or the drivel on the bottom of a coffee cup.

The first time in my life that entered a state building in Albania was when I assumed public office, when I became Minister of Culture. It happened in a moment, in very extraordinary circumstances. Life takes many turns, and this was not one I had expected. But this is a story for another day. It was 1998 and I settled into this new life. I imagined I buried the painter in me. But then two years later I stood for elections for Major of Tirana. And I won, and I saw a city facing so many challenges. In front of us such high expectations of my campaign. That is when I felt my political impulse, the desire to offer people a better future, fused with my artistic impulse. I oversaw a plan to splash brightly colored paints on drab and soulless buildings in the city’s main entrance roads. To me it was political action with colors. Not with words, either with legislation.

Our analysis of the first anecdote is corroborated by the next story. The surface of papers, agendas, and memos is replaced by the “drab and soulless” surface of the buildings in Tirana. The unstoppable “artistic impulse” to doodle on the face of and equally “drab and soulless” bureaucracy is combined with a “political impulse, the desire to offer people a better future.” What constitutes here a “better future” – not to mention that which would have “soul” – remains utterly vague, but if we are to take a cue from the politics of the only other politicians mentioned in the speech – Reagan, Thatcher, and Merkel – this does not bode very well for anyone who had hopes that this prime minister would be true to “socialism” in any form or function. That he painted his own party’s headquarters into a fuchsia pink instead of the traditional red, has been the first indication for this, and yet the present opposition seems utterly blind to it, bleating about communism and enverism at Rama’s every move. The problem is that, different from Thatcher or Reagan, this clear political ideology is obfuscated by exciting language about “artistic impulse” and unorthodox practices of “doodling,” spoken at a conference of like-minded artistic souls, who all feel the desperate need “to act.”

When we painted the first building by splashing the red and orange on the somber gray, something unimaginable happened. There was a traffic jam and a crowd of people gathered as if it were the location of some spectacular accident, or the sudden sighting of a visiting pop star. The French EU official in charge of the funding rushed to block the painting. He scratched(?) that he would block the finances. But why?, I asked him. Because the colors you ordered do not meet European standards, he replied. [laughter] Well, I told him, the surroundings do not meet European standards too [more laughter], even though this is not what we want. But we will choose the colors ourselves, because this is exactly what we want. And if you do not let us continue with our work, I will hold a press conference right now, right in this road, and I will tell people that the old censors of the communist era have been reincarnated as EU financial officers [laughter]. He was kind of troubled and asked me for a compromise. But I told him, I am sorry monsieur, compromise in painting, in colors, is always grey. And we already have enough grey to last us a lifetime. So it’s time for change. The greens and yellows and purples and oranges that we splashed around our formerly communist capital were not going to make people less hungry or more prosperous, but this first big act had to be something telling that the space they lived in was their space. So these colors did make them feel better about the place where they lived and it made them see possibilities in a space where there appears to be no space. It made them see that change could come in different ways, in spite of the city budget, being nothing comma something.

In times of austerity, of empty national and municipal pockets, what can a mayor do? Bring some colors into people’s lives, make them feel empowered (to do what, consume, enjoy?), and “better.” It is true that Rama became mayor of Tirana under desperate circumstances, in the years following a complete breakdown of the economical system, which itself was an immediate and disastrous effect of the shock doctrine imposed on Albania after the fall of the Soviet Block – a direct consequence of the economical policies of precisely those people that Rama now seems to court. But the problem is that the current state of affairs in Albania is incomparable to the state of economical emergency that existed in the early 2000s. The tale of colorful hope and rebellious attitude now seems more like an act of simple propaganda, aiming to make people feel “better” without actually improving their economical conditions. Rama is no longer mayor of Tirana, with very limited means to increase his budget; he is the prime minister of a country with ostensibly full control over the taxation system and government budget. What in his former function was an act of resistance and defiance, would in his current function just be a sugarcoating. It is thus typical that all the images in the slide show accompanying his speech, except for the image of his desk, are from his period as Tirana mayor. He continues to bank on this rebellious image, pleasing his audience with the depiction of canvases larger than they could ever imagine – to paint an entire city! But it would have been more honest if he would have also shown all the urban projects he and a number of affiliated contractors are undertaking in every major Albanian city. The audience would then perhaps be moved to ask questions about budget allotment and tender procedures, about corruption and nepotism. Nevertheless, all these thorny, pressing, and actual issues are effectively shielded behind the happy façades of Tirana city blocks.

The exchange with the figure of the French EU bureaucrat, who becomes a caricature of petty procedural nitpicking, complaining about the paint while the “pop star” artist–mayor is completing his latest “spectacular accident,” has a similar rhetorical function. Albania recently became candidate member of the EU, and Rama has been actively lobbying for it. EU MPs and ambassadors constantly and arrogantly interfere with Albanian internal politics, and are devoutly listened to. So Rama’s rather shocking comparison between EU bureaucrats and Soviet censors is either sincere, in which case Rama’s EU aspirations are purely opportunistic, or he is disingenuous and just aiming to please his audience of fellow politico-cultural travelers. Like myself, most of the listeners in his audience were probably skeptical toward the enormous bureaucratic apparatus of the EU, which remains largely outside of any democratic control. Siding with them against they the “drab and soulless” EU bureaucracy (and drab and soulless it is) is a safe choice, which masks the serious economic and political dependency of Albania on the EU.

When I was spending most of my time as an artist, mainly in Paris, I was anti-politics, at least politics of the Albanian–Balkan kind. I think most artists are. But is through the years as mayor that I understood, and as party leader and as prime minister, I became quite sure that politics at its best is a worthy and meaningful activity which makes the world a better place. And art does the same, in different ways. I have been so happy to be in a position to bring the two together. As an artist, as a politician, or as an artist and politician, I don’t just argue with EU bureaucrats. I once had an argument with a Worldbank guy too, when I told the Worldbank director many years ago that I wanted them to finance a new reception hall for citizens to engage with public services as part of a campaign against corruption. They did not understand me. They were quite confused when I was telling that beautifying and dignifying public space would be a great contribution against corruption. But people who are waiting in long queues, under sun and under rain, in order to get a certificate, or just a simply answer from two tiny windows of two metal kiosks. Their reply to the request was met by a voice coming from this dark hole and on the other hand a mysterious hand coming out to take their papers while searching through the documents for the bribe. The system was working for the corruption, not for the people, who, if they wanted to skip the queue, had to pay the bribe. We could change the invisible clerks within the kiosks every week, but we could not change this corrupt practice. Thankfully I finally persuaded the Worldbank to fund this idea. So we removed the kiosks, built the bright new public space of reception hall that made people, Tirana citizens, think they had traveled abroad, when they entered to make their requests. We created an online system of control and so speeded up all the processes. We put the citizens first, and not the clerks. And we proved something which was very helpful. It’s not about genes. It’s not about somebody being with a high conscience, and some others not having conscience at all. For example, we cannot imagine an Albanian emigrant in Germany driving without a seatbelt. But I have seen German embassy people in Albania doing so. It’s not about genes, it’s about environment and respect, and it’s about system and partnership.

Repeating the tropes of artist-become-reluctant-politician (“I developed from what I was to become what I am”) and the “drab and soulless” bureaucrat who can only think in terms of monetary incentives, Rama again positions himself as out-of-the-box bigger-picture thinker, who in a seemingly innovative way considers architecture as an important influence on people’s behavior, and manages to convince the bureaucrat to think beyond his efficiency targets. This once again masks the obvious fact that architecture already for a long time, perhaps since its origins, has been used by those in power to influence human behavior and regulate populations. The entire restructuring of Tirana under the Italian fascist occupation would be an appropriate example, as well as the recent restoration of part of the city center along the lines of precisely this fascist template. The only difference in Rama’s example is that in his case he needed to get the funding to do so from the Worldbank, instead of from his “own” budget. If anything, this tale is therefore not a story of luminary insight into the role of art in society, but rather displaying his prowess as negotiator with institutions that practically hold the Albanian economy hostage.

So now as prime minister, I am once again trying to improve the environment in which people go about their daily lives. We are once again bringing down illegally constructed buildings, we’re once again trying to put art and culture at the heart of our economic and social renaissance, and to make culture part of our governance. And our ongoing project is to transform the Council of Ministers building into a mixed use [building]: first floor for culture, second floor for governance. And this I know, that just as politics can be a force of bad, so it can be a force for good. And at its very best it can be transforming for the world, as art can, because art encompasses the [inaudible] for change whilst it is about understanding, as Kafka once said. Artist must strive to interpret the world, being the changers of perspectives within it. So must politicians. Artists are providers of hope. So must be politicians.

Still no word about economic policies. We hear about cleaning up public space, mixed-use buildings, creative innovation (and don’t forget: economic precariousness)! Perhaps Rama is aware that artists don’t like economics, perhaps he doesn’t like economics, hell, I don’t like economics! But he is the prime minister of a country, and the Worldbank financed a whole lot more than his public reception building in Tirana, for example as a hydropower plant that threatens a protected nature reserve in Përmet. And no Kafka will be of any help in negotiating with them. Whether you like it or not, “changing perspective” and “providing hope” requires quite a budget, but again this is of no concern to his audience, which is right now imagining itself close to the real source of political power, just one floor below the prime minister’s office in a very modern mixed-use building, drafting plans in brotherhood with politicians to reshape the entire nation according to a sublime vision!

How often throughout the years have we heard political leaders talking about the need to focus on the big picture. What is the big picture? It is the vision we have for the world. What does this vision constitute? It is made of the big bold strokes that are combined to deliver the change we need for the world. What does the artists have in mind as he paints a picture? He has in mind a vision of a finished work. So today as he leader of my country, I have a vision in my mind for a country that is more modern. A country whose people are more prosperous. A country whose public servants serve the people, and not those who run them. A country where public space becomes a common space. I know what it feels like and through my leadership and decisions we now make I am trying to turn this vision into reality. These are the big pictures trying to grasp the right moment to create space where there appears to be none and even impossible to have one. Think about it and you will find a lot of examples in world history. The creators of the European Union are written down in history as people with a vision but also the ability to make it become real through politics as a force for good. We can see them as the painters of a very great tableau of nations and histories and people who put their own and their country’s narrow interests in the service of a very greater idea.

Rama here returns to his initial metaphor of “painting on the canvas of politics.” The “big picture” is a “vision […] for the world,” consisting of “bold strokes […] combined to deliver the change we need for the world.” This vision is “modern” and has to be turned “into reality.” But once again this turning into reality requires an act of interpretation. There is no immediate and self-evident link between the doodle, painting, canvas, vision, etc. and political reality. Rama gives us merely a political esthetics without ethics. He only tells us that he acts, not how he acts – the only hint of the quality of his action is prefigured in his doodling: crossing out, erasing, coloring in – bureaucratic text as palimpsest. Or in his own words “to create space where there appears to be none and even impossible to have one.” This is not an emancipatory politics of creating new “truths” or following “ideals,” this is a politics that cleans up and makes way: open the bunkers, open the archives, open the country! The only reference point I can summon here is Walter Benjamin’s text “The Destructive Character,” inspired by his banker (sic!) friend Gustav Gluck:

The destructive character knows only one watchword: make room. And only one activity: clearing away. His need for fresh air is stronger than any hatred. […]

The destructive character has no interest in being understood. Attempts in this direction he regards as superficial. Being misunderstood cannot harm him. On the contrary, he provokes it, just as oracles, those destructive institutions of the state, provoked it. The most petty bourgeois of all phenomena, gossip, comes about only because people do not wish to be misunderstood. The destructive character tolerates misunderstanding; he does not promote gossip.

A separate article would be needed to hold Rama against the description of Benjamin’s banker friend. But his continuous emphasis on breaking down buildings and bold strokes, combined with the utter disregard he has for his political enemies, other country’s prime ministers, and the terrific amount of slander he faces on a daily basis make it difficult to ignore the parallels. If anything, Edi Rama continuously “tolerates misunderstanding.” Benjamin makes the other suggestion that “[t]he destructive character does his work; the only work he avoids is creative.” We should take this qualification of the destructive character seriously, especially since Rama continues to claim he is an artist. But if we were to inspect his doodles as we would inspect a regular work, how much of it would withstand artistic scrutiny? Indeed very little. As simple art works his drawings are as significant or creative as George W. Bush’s shower paintings, and the latter may even show a higher level of artistic introspection. In fact, except for the enormous compulsion and drive they are a witness of, they are hardly different from the doodles we all make in our notebooks.

The metaphor of the political canvas here threatens to break down. How to actually link his own doodles with the bold strokes of politics? How are we to think the erasure of bureaucratic texts with the creation of a new beachfront walkway in Vlorë? And how are we to see the grand vision of the European Union if indeed it is now made up of petty bureaucrats? Benjamin, once again: “The destructive character has the consciousness of historical man, whose deepest emotion is an insuperable mistrust of the course of things and a readiness at all times to recognize that everything can go wrong. Therefore, the destructive character is reliability itself.”

Another part of my picture is of a new Balkans, a peaceful, prosperous Balkans. Now that surely would be a space such as never existed before. But think, this year, we commemorate the 100th anniversary of the First World War, but also this week there is the commemoration of the end of it. A war which started the Balkans, which spread across continents heralding death and suffering that is hard to imagine for our generation. And this year, 2014, we have the first year of peace in every border of our region, as never before. And I come to you here today in the same week as I became the first Albanian prime minister in more than sixty years to visit Serbia. The peaceful, prosperous Balkans, a strong Albania as part of a strong European Union. These are big bold strokes that I long to make part of our big picture. It is a vision that inspires me, inspires me to work, day and night, to make it happen. And these two parts of the same vision hang together: a peaceful, prosperous Balkans would be good for the European Union, just as the European Union, despite the occasional overzealous bureaucrat, is good for the Balkans.

Think of the forces that have led to the scaring of Europe: racism, nationalism, xenophobia. Together we can beat them. Together we can create a space for a multiplicity of cultures, beliefs, and identities, to live side by side. And here is where my life as painter and my life as a politician diverge. When you do a painting, or when you do a doodle, when I doodle in my agenda, there comes a point where it is done. The job is finished. But in politics, the picture is never fully completed. Trying to paint we never have complete control of where the brush may leave. So, still we must hold on to the vision and persevere. And when people say, as far too often they do, that politics can never bring change, I say they are wrong. It can and it does. But of course we know that just as politics can deliver change, so politics can hamper change. Just as politics can bring peace in between peoples, it can bring conflict. Every step on the way we face choices, just like the artist: This color or that color? This brush or that brush? This space or that space? What is the picture we’re trying to paint?

In this penultimate section, after some quotes for international news agencies, we witness the final breakdown of the “big picture” theory of art and politics, namely on the decisive question of finitude: a picture is finished, politics never is. The “bold strokes” of the founders of the European Union, Edi Rama’s grand “vision” of Albania, all of it depends either on some version of the mistaken idea that politics is a finite process, in other words, utopia, or reduce politics to the very bureaucratic, results-oriented processes with manageable targets that Rama seems to despise. Therefore, it only seems fair to once again pose the question how he reconciles the finite with the infinite, the work of art with the work of politics, the creation of an image and the creation of a state – both are finished with a final stroke, but in case of the latter, the cost will be in human lives. Rama seems unable to pull himself out of this conundrum as he ends this paragraph with a series of rhetorical questions which on the one hand suggest bureaucratic procedure (“This color or that color? This brush or that brush? This space or that space?”) and a utopian vision (“What is the picture we’re trying to paint?”).

And if ever any of you would come to Albania and you come to see me in my office and you notice me doodling, please do not be offended, as that man once was. It is part of who I am, the hand that moves freely, creating space where there appears to be none. That is not a bad way to think of how we make progress. Thank you.

The “And” of this final paragraph is misleading. There is no continuation here, nor a logical conclusion, but rather an attempt to cut through the entire problematics encapsulated by the skewed “big picture” metaphor in art and politics: a complete regression to the subjectivity of the artist, “the hand that moves freely, creating space where there appears to be none.” It is no longer a question of communal canvas painting. Instead the bold stroke of the single artist creates the canvas, the doodle creates new policy, the hand creates the vision. “It is part of who I am”: Edi Rama is essentially this authoritative, modern, freely moving hand, making way no matter what: “What exists he reduces to rubble – not for the sake of rubble, but for that of the way leading through it.” Is this indeed not a bad way to think of how progress is made?

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