“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.


  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).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: