One Bunker After Another

The order is not rationalistic and underlying, but is simply order, like that of continuity, one thing after another.—Donald Judd, “Specific Objects”

The fortification, once an object, tended to become a “subject.”—Paul Virilio, Bunker Archaeology

Recently the question of the bunkers returned with a vengeance in Albania, and indeed now it is beginning to seem that it never really left. It is almost certainly the case that the frequent, if unsystematic, documentation of the bunkers, together with commentary on them and attempts to appropriate them in various ways all play into an unfortunately all-too-common brand of post-socialist Orientalizing (especially when this commentary and documentation comes from the West). The bunkers are easy ruin porn, and they lend themselves straightforwardly to generalized collective psychological diagnoses about the mentality of peoples that once lived ‘under’ communism—that is in fact precisely what the phrase “bunker mentality” is able to convey.[1] However—despite the fact that many of the Albanians I have met who live outside of Tirana largely regard the bunkers as something to be forgotten or something to store tools in—it seems that the bunkers remain strongly contested in their political, metaphorical, and aesthetic relation to Albania’s past.

To (very) briefly recap:[2] over roughly a ten-year period beginning in 1972, Enver Hoxha, Albania’s socialist dictator, ordered the construction of approximately 750,000 dome-shaped concrete bunkers throughout the entire country. Ostensibly built to shelter the population and provide defensible structures in case of a foreign invasion, the bunkers effectively served as an ever-present reminder of the regime’s paranoia—and continue to do so today, since a large number of them remain in situ. This number is shrinking, thanks to both the landscape itself (which is gradually displacing, upending, or covering over many bunkers) and the concentrated efforts of individuals and companies (many of them foreign, as I understand it[3]) to destroy and remove them.

Even if the bunkers are (very) gradually disappearing from prominence in the Albanian landscape, they continue to live on as both material and symbolic resources for commentary on and re-appropriation of the socialist heritage and past. Bunkers have been the subject of works of art (ex.: Anila Rubiku’s Bunker Mentality/Landscape Legacy, at the First International Kyiv Biennale ARSENALE in 2012). They have been the subjects of theses (ex.: Emily Glass’ A Very Concrete Legacy: An Investigation into the Materiality and Mentality of Communist Bunkers in Albania [2008]) and book chapters (ex.: Michael Galaty, Sharon Stocker, and Charles Watkinson’s “The Snake That Bites: The Albanian Experience of Collective Trauma as Reflected in a Changing Landscape,” in The Trauma Controversy [Albany: State University of New York, 2009]). They have been the subject of projects to mobilize the socialist architectural heritage to create hostels for tourists (ex.: Elian Stefa and Gyler Mydyti’s Concrete Mushrooms, and Iva Shtrepi and Markus Pretnar’s [award-nominated, though to my understanding never completely carried out—not sure how that works] Bed & Bunker), and they have been documented in several photography projects (ex.: Alicja Dobrucka in conjunction with Concrete Mushrooms and David Galjaard’s Concresco). They have lent their name and image to music events (ex.: Bunkerfest). More recently, they have been incorporated into monuments (as in Fatos Lubonja and Ardian Isufi’s Postbllok memorial along Tirana’s main boulevard, installed in 2013). Finally, they lent their image and name to the (now closed—indefinitely?) furiously publicized opening of Bunk’Art, a museum/installation venue/all-purpose-space house in a huge underground bunker on the outskirts of Tirana, originally constructed to house the nation’s socialist leaders in the event of a nuclear attack.

Photo by Carrie Ann Morgan
Photo by Carrie Ann Morgan

Then, just a few weeks ago, construction began on a new bunker, modeled on those that still dot the countryside, in the center of Tirana, in the space near the National Theater and the Transport and Interior Affairs Ministries. Vincent WJ van Gerven Oei offered a lucid and searing critique of this new bunker in a recent post on his Unofficial View of Tirana blog; at that time, henoted that there had been little public protest of the new bunker construction. Subsequently, however, the bunker was itself ‘fortified’ (surrounded with metal panels and covered with a sheet), and there have been protests and public pushback against the ‘mushroom.’

Finally, yesterday, the artist Ardian Isufi, one of the two people behind the Postbllok monument, wrote a quite violent condemnation of the new bunker, taking the opportunity to draw a firm line of demarcation between the use of the (pre-existing) bunker in Postbllok and the construction of the new bunker in the center of the city, presumably on the entrance to the network of underground space beneath the square.

Photo by Carrie Ann Morgan
Photo by Carrie Ann Morgan

I would like, quite briefly, to raise certain questions about the bunkers (and about the construction of the new bunker in the center of Tirana) that I do not think have been fully examined in the recent commentaries and protests.[4] It is not so much that I disagree with any of the points raised thus far—although, as it will become clear, I have serious issues with the way Isufi tries to distinguish Postbllok from its new cousin—but rather that I think the discussion can be enriched by considering more carefully some of the possible modalities of experience that are actually being presented. At the outset, I will say that my own reading of the bunkers—or ore precisely of their recent appropriation in pseudo-events like Bunk’Art’s opening (and even in Postbllok) is relatively strongly invested in interpreting the bunkers as part of an aesthetically modernist project. Put simply, the bunkers are often treated in a hermeneutical way: as Jameson put it, “the work in its inert, objectal form is taken as a clue or a symptom for some vaster reality which replaces it as its ultimate truth.”[5] This is, I have argued elsewhere, certainly the case with Bunk’Art, which strives to recover the modernist depths of memory in the touristic perambulation of the underground bunker. It is also, I think, the case with Postbllok, which likewise uses the instantiation of a particular “triptych of artifacts” (Isufi’s term) to lay bear a deeper truth about the experience of the dictatorship. (Isufi himself writes that the bunker in Postbllok is “a metaphor of the ISOLATION and the VIOLATION OF THE RIGHTS OF THE INDIVIDUAL” [Isufi’s emphasis]”—that is, it is in keeping with modernism’s metaphorical approach, which asserts deeper meaning, as opposed to postmodernism’s metonymy, which is lateral as opposed to essentializing. Let me be clear: I am not (as some might) using the term ‘modernist’ in a pejorative sense in relation to either Bunk’Art or Postbllok—I simply think that it is necessary to recognize that they bring with them a certain baggage that all models of depth-thinking do. Namely, they really believe in the hermeneutic model; they believe in underlying structures and truths; they believe in deep, shared experiences that pre-exist and underlie surface appearances.

This position, however, is a difficult one to sustain in the case of the bunkers, since they are—fundamentally, also first and foremost a surface phenomenon: they map out a cartography that is lateral and grid-like as much as it is oriented to the depths (of the territory or of the psyche). Thus, the bunkers are useful to think with precisely because (both materially and ‘metaphorically’, if I may be allowed the term) they straddle the seeming schism between depth-models of epistemology/aesthetics and surface-models of the same.

What I am getting at is that I do not think the new bunker under construction (the ‘outer form’ of which is already, apparently, being changed) functions in precisely the same way as either Postbllok or Bunk’Art. (On this much, at least, Ardian Isufi and I apparently agree.) This difference, however is not one between memorializing and aesthetic violence, nor is it one between authentic originality and kitsch inauthentic production. In fact, the dismissal of the bunker as ‘kitsch’ is one of the least convincing points Isufi’s condemnation makes: there is almost nothing sentimental about the new bunker, and the use of the bunker form is hardly some acquiescence to mass taste.

However, what is more problematic is Isufi’s reliance on a model of original/copy to describe the relationship between the bunker in Postbllok and the new bunker under construction. He asserts that the bunker in Postbllok is an “ARTIFACT” (his emphasis), dating from 1976, placed at the entrance to the ‘Bllok’ (the elite section of socialist Tirana) at that time. In other words, he says, the bunker in the memorial is a site-specific work of art, and as such it carries with it a historical, artistic, and hermeneutic authenticity that cannot be produced by a bunker constructed with new concrete, with new iron, by new workers in the center of the city. Setting aside the rather obvious (I think) point that the aims of this new bunker are in no way memorializing, I find Isufi’s privileging of authenticity to be problematic, precisely because it misses an important aspect of what the bunkers are—namely, they are the kinds of structures that are not copies of a privileged original, and that even if they once were copies of such an original, they are now all—as Rosalind Krauss puts it, “multiple copies that exist in the absence of an original.”[6]

Thus, privileging the historical circumstances of any particular bunker (say, the one in Postbllok) as if they made it more closely and authentically linked to traumatic memory is nearer to the kind of misunderstanding inherent in kitsch sentimentality. This is, of course, not to argue against the importance of historical preservation, or a denial of what we can learn about the past and present through concrete engagement with objects. Rather, it is to deny the inherent and underlying link between objects [of heritage] remaining in the present and any particular past. Such links are always in the process of being constructed, or at best re-constructed. The bunker in Postbllok is not a hermeneutic device for confronting and understanding traumatic memories (if indeed it is such) just because it existed in the past. Furthermore, the past (and its emotional or existential valence) is not simply something that can be “revealed” with “transparency.” Isufi seems to like the idea, set by other models, of using transparent materials for monuments to the traumatic past, in order to show an effort at “transparency and tolerance”; I would argue that this version of transparency is essentially a reiteration of the depth-model: it believes both that it is possible to make the veil separating us from the past transparent and that the pasts and presents revealed by this transparency are deeper and truer than those characterized by opacity.

This, finally, brings me to a point about the kind of memorial (and remember: it still seems fairly clear to me that the new bunker in Tirana is not meant as a memorial, but also that, for Isufi, it represents the wrong way to memorialize), or even the kind of public intervention in space, that might be appropriate in contemporary Tirana. It seems quite clear to me that many of the protests related to the bunker relate to the fact that it is divisive, even violent: it stands as a mockery of certain members of the population, who were persecuted under the socialist regime, and it prevents a safe and shared public space from developing. It is, to adapt Isufi’s language intolerant.

However, the dream of tolerance, of shared remembrance, of the role architecture or public art could play in the peaceful cohabitation of public spaces, is as dubious as it is important. What is ultimately at stake here, I think, is the vision of democracy that one hopes to advance. Is it a democracy based on shared and essential conditions, including the shared understanding of a traumatic past (the socialist one), based upon the belief that mutual respect and rational discussion between subjects will bring about an ideal political condition, one in which “the rights of the individual” are paramount? This is a popular image of democracy, one that is—I would argue—both quintessentially modern and quintessentially neoliberal. An alternative would be the model of democracy as agonistic, one that does not dream of installing a permanent consensus, either in the present or with regards to the past (I am of course referring to the kind of democracy advanced by Chantal Mouffe and Ernesto Laclau, among others). If this second model of democracy, one that recognizes the persistent possibility and indeed necessity for conflict in the public arena, is more appealing as a radical possibility against the incursions of global neoliberalism, then we must—I think—abandon the depth-model of historical epistemology, especially in cases like the bunkers.

I began this consideration with Donald Judd’s famous quote on order and repetition because I think it encapsulates, quite well, the logic of the bunkers both in the past and in the present case of the new bunker under construction in Tirana. “The order is not rationalistic and underlying, but is simply order, like that of continuity, one thing after another.” The bunker, in other words, is not always deeply and essentially linked to a memory, or an identity, or even a history, and treating it as such will never fully combat either the violence or the constructive work it can do. The logic of the bunkers was and is both the logic of modernist depth and the logic of postmodernist surface: they both are and are not ‘rationalistic and underlying,’ and they are not originals and copies, but simply ‘one thing after another.’ Although I do not much like (from what I have seen and read of it in the media) the new bunker in Tirana, I do not think that arguments about its psychological violence or lack of historical authenticity, its ugly or kitsch aesthetics, are very credible in the contemporary world. Indeed, if nothing else, the new bunker has shown us what Miwon Kwon asserted over ten years ago now[7]: that the notion of “site-specificity” continues to be hotly contested, and that no straightforward return to essentialist models of site and community will sort out the conflicts surrounding public space and art or architecture.

[Right around the time I initially published this piece, Vincent WJ van Gerven Oei published a second post dealing with the background of the Tirana bunker in greater depth than previous articles. It is invaluable for its speculations on the political role (and reason, or lack thereof) for the bunker’s construction. However, I still think that it takes the talk of “redering the past transparent” too much at face value, and thus some of what is important about both bunkers is missed.]

[1] I should say that I am not in any way condemning the use of the term “bunker mentality,” which has now almost become a kind of vernacular. The phrase itself neatly encapsulates both the dangers of extending descriptions of psycho-spatial states to collectives, and also the concise explanatory power that such psycho-spatial concepts can hold.

[2] The following overview of the bunkers does not intend, in any way, to be comprehensive. The point is simply to give a bit of history of the bunker as both a material entity and a symbol.

[3] For example, I have heard –though cannot verify—that foreign firms were contracted in the large-scale removal of bunkers from the fields in the south of the country, near Gjirokastra.

[4] I also fully realize that I have not had time to read everything on the subject, and thus—as always—welcome comments that would direct me to other sources that have already made the same points I make here, or raise questions I have not adequately addressed.

[5] Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham: Duke University Press, 1995), 8.

[6] Rosalind Krauss, The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1986), 152

[7] Miwon Kwon, One Place After Another (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002).

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