WE INTERVIEWED THESE CONCEPTUAL ARTISTS SO YOU DON’T HAVE TO: An Interview with the Congress of Conceptual Art

This interview was conducted as part of the first official plenary meeting of the Congress of Conceptual Art (CoCA), in the studios of the Art Department at the University of Maryland, College Park, on May 1, 2017.

CoCA, Class of 2017. Photograph by CW Brooks.

DJT: (audio recording) I mean if Andrew Jackson had been a little bit later, you wouldn’t have had the Civil War. He was…he was a very tough person, but he had a very big heart. And he was really angry that he saw what was happening with regard to the Civil War. He said there’s no reason for this. People don’t realize, you know, the Civil War…if you think about it, why. People don’t ask that question. Why was there the Civil War? Why couldn’t that one have been worked out? (switch to news anchor commentary)

RI: So, thanks to everyone for being here. I’m going to speak in a pretty informal fashion, for my part, but please everyone chime in. Let’s just start with the name: Congress of Conceptual Art. Could we speak about the significance of the name of the organization? Where does it come from? Where is it going?

KH: Ok, so I was not the one who came up with the name, but I want to say the name is kind of an appeal to legitimacy, which at this point our group perhaps needs, but also all of the other artistic congresses that have happened, I’m sure at some point they were just three or four people sitting around trying to figure out what the hell they’re doing. So it could very well be that this is simply the form that this takes.

CB: And of course we do need to appear legitimate, but of course Conceptual Art as the basis of this organization demonstrates our legitimacy clearly. The problem comes when you get the Formalists involved. And the Formalists have their own agenda. And this stuff scares them, doesn’t it?

KH: I think Conceptual Art scares the general public. So that legitimacy doesn’t hurt. Or maybe doesn’t scare, but most of the people I know who aren’t in the art world don’t understand Conceptual Art. Like they can look at something that just has formal qualities and appreciate ‘that must be art’, but once you start to bring concepts in, especially once you start to have concepts be the main part of an artwork, people are lost.

RI: Or do they understand it too well? And that’s why it scares them. And why it scares the Formalists.

CB: Well, Formalists would never admit this, but most art these days is conceptual art, fundamentally. People don’t realize it; it hides under the banner of painting or sculpture or whatever, but there is a huge amount of conceptual art out there that isn’t recognized as such because that recognition, that admission, it doesn’t….keeping formal control keeps power in the ‘correct’ hands, and we’re interested in dismantling that system, I believe.

KH: So do you think that an education context like this one should have a Concept Department?

CB: Absolutely. I mean at least in theory.

RI: You’ve already hinted at this, but I wonder if you could discuss the structure of CoCA. How do decisions get made, and how do collaborations function? Is the organization with a firm structure, like the Formalists, or a kind of loose network?

CB: I’m not sure decisions do need to be made.

RI: I mean I certainly feel that I don’t think that in my involvement, I’ve ever been part of a decision-making situation. Lots of things have gotten made, but decisions, not so much.

KH: I know there’s been at least one occasion when I was doing something, and wanted to invoke the Congress of Conceptual Art, and specifically sought group approval, but for the most part it’s mostly been us operating independently under the aegis of Congress of Conceptual Art, and feeling somewhat free to speak on behalf of the congress.

CB: Independently or collaboratively.

KH: There has been a lot of collaboration. In different pairings within the network.

RI: Do you think those collaborations have been formalized, or it’s just sort of not that important for them to be discussed as collaborations?

CB: Depends on how much we want to share the credit.

RI: That raises the question of what kind of organization is CoCA? An art collective? A business venture? An internet startup? A social media entity? Tax break scheme?

CB: I think that looking at the history of Conceptual Art probably provides a pretty good answer to that. Conceptual Art, one of its goals was the dematerialization of the object, and I think that that lesson can be directly applied to this organization.

RI: I think that pretty much answers it. I mean, it’s an organization whose main goal, by any means, is that dematerialization. Why this return to Conceptual Art at this point in artistic and political history? I mean, we began this discussion by listening to what’s arguably a great work of Conceptual Art, namely: the speculative rearrangement of Andrew Jackson’s significance in history, and his chronological point. But, what can Conceptual Art teach us this particular historical moment?

KH: I think, the performance that started this meeting is maybe…highlights the need for the Congress of Conceptual Art. So, what we’re doing emphasizes the value of ideas, which I think is an important thing to do right now because so few people have them.

CB: A lot of people think that Conceptual Art just isn’t relevant anymore, and if you go back and look at the framing of Conceptual Art by Sol LeWitt and Lucy Lippard and others, I can understand why that’s the case. Like we said, Conceptual Art has been integrated into a lot of art practices. However, I don’t think that we are aware of how that impacts not only the way that we make art and consume art, as well as live our lives. It has instead been pushed under the rug. The Congress of Conceptual Art, one of its prime missions is to push, no, I’m sorry, not push…to create a new, clear structure that explains why Conceptual Art is relevant to artists, to viewers, and to society in this day and age. And that has not been articulated.

RI: Right, do Formalists have the tools our contemporary world, and the argument would be no. You give a Formalist Donald Trump’s speech, and they can’t tell you anything about it.

CB: They just see a speech.

RI: I wonder if you could talk about CoCA’s relationship to the University of Maryland? Is it an administrative sub-unit the University of Maryland? An administrative sub-unit of the College of Arts and Humanities, is it associated with the President’s offices?

CB: Absolutely not. I believe that CoCA is, in part, an opposition front, but one that also sees the importance of opposing itself.

GT: We’re operating in spite of, not because of, that’s for sure.

KH: We don’t have any specific administrative association with the University of Maryland, aside from the fact that the university functioned as an incubator for the Congress of Conceptual Art. So the University of Maryland was kind of our patient zero.

RI: But the organization is ultimately basically viewed as being a transnational sort of thing, it’s not supposed to be regionally localized?

CB: Absolutely, it transcends borders, it transcends politics, yet it is political. Deeply so. But then, what isn’t.

RI: So, CoCA has worked in a variety of media. I wonder if you could say something about the significance of these different media (printmaking, stamped-editions of mail art, limited-edition clothing articles, vinyl lettering, etc.). And also if you could comment on where is CoCA looking to expand to next, in terms of media?

KH: I disagree with putting this much emphasis on the media.

RI: So you think the media itself is rendered immaterial by the conceptual weight, so to speak?

CB: I wouldn’t say immaterial, but certainly we transcend that media. I mean, one of the most difficult things now is to make art on the internet, but I feel that CoCA has already transcended the internet as a medium. And used it and really abused it as a developmental tool.

GT: And I do think in terms of different media expansions, we are looking at a book, hopefully in the works.

CB: At least one.

GT: Preferably multiples.

CB: Getting that publishing house up and running is one of the main projects of the upcoming quarter.

KH: So, would you say that the media is dictated as a byproduct of the specific programs that CoCA is interested in?

CB: Well, you use whatever means necessary. If we didn’t learn anything else from Spike Lee, we at least learned that. We learned a lot of other things too.

RI: There seems to be a relationship between CoCA’s artistic practice and an adjacent, emergent set of works by some of the same artists that document ‘found installations’, ‘found performances’, etc. Could you discuss the relationship between this set of works and Conceptual Art? Are they the same thing? Or do you see important distinctions? Is there a kind of middle-range overlap? Are these found installations works by CoCA, are they Conceptual Art, or are they something totally different?

CB: Well, found installations are a practice area that has yet to be properly examined by art historians, who are typically late to the gate anyway. But they are something that I think it’s not fully our role to interrogate. Our role is to is that of practitioners, primarily, and through this practice we promote, we advocate, we are in the role of changing lives, not saving them.

KH: I think the found installations and found performances were just an expansion on existing fields. Specifically, photography has always been about the documentation of existing things. So we’re just adding a conceptual layer to that. Specifically, finding instances in the world and then adding a conceptual interpretation to those documentation processes.

CB: Allegedly.

KH: I mean you may be as much photographer as Conceptual Artist, so it makes sense…I think that one started with you.

CB: I disavow any previous association with photography, however. Photography is merely a tool with which to tell my lies.

KH: As far as the different branches, I think all of them at the moment fall under the conventional practices of the Congress of Conceptual Art. If you were looking at this as a more formalized organization, those would be some of our primary departments.

CB: The found installations pre-date CoCA, actually by a couple of months, actually. And the found installations developed, really, as a response to the conceptually problematic conditions that we have experienced within this institution. Which, given geopolitical realities and changes in the past several months, has only worsened, really.

RI: But, you believe that there are found installations elsewhere, right? It of course raises the question: since this has occurred in a more or less geographically described region, there’s the question, do found installations exist, say, in New York? And the hypothesis is yes, it’s just that up till now the research done by CoCA has only been able to verify it in a particular context.

CB: I don’t want to get too Rumsfeldian here, but there are known knowns and there are known unknowns. And the found installations are known knowns, but the unfound installations are known unknowns at this point. So, certainly. There are found installations in New York, but they aren’t found yet, so they aren’t found installations. At this point, we have to face the reality that we have a great deal of work ahead of us. Which is why we must practice with diligence and persistence.

KH: I think at this point I would say, you said New York doesn’t have any found installatons, I would say New York doesn’t have any found installations yet. But that’s simply because no one has gone out to look for them.

CB: We’ve had potential found installations in Illinois. An associated artist, Caden, has, I think, begun to dabble with the idea.

RI: CoCA seems to frequently work with or adjacent to certain memes, and one could say that—among a certain group of social media users connected to the artists involved, again, I don’t want to conflate CoCA with its social media presence—it has already transformed ‘Conceptual Art’ (as a pseudo-empty signifier) into a meme. Is that the goal: to remake Conceptual Art into a meme both online and off? And I’m thinking about meme in the broad sense, not just on the internet but broadly as a paradigm of culture or language or practice…

CB: A basis of thought, or a seeming understanding, whether that’s a true fact, or some kind of alternative.

RI: I pose the question because maybe the meme-ification of art is maybe an inappropriate description of the process because it implies maybe too much re-materialization. I mean, even the idea of the mem has a kind of real, material presence, and in that sense the Meme-ification of Conceptual Art, in capitals, can really only be one aspect of the process of CoCA’s practice, and not even the primary one.

CB: I think it’s more likely that Conceptual Art is remaking memes. And our basic understanding of meaning, in that way.

RI: Does CoCA have a politics, and if so, what is it? Will CoCA members seek to run for public office, or take prominent roles in political/grassroots organizing?

KH: No comment.

CB: No comment at this time. We don’t want to get anyone’s hopes up.

GT: Or give anything away.

CB: Well, I mean, some things we can give away, but that’s usually the material things. But we reserve the right to future action.

KH: Would you run for public office as a conceptual performance?

CB: Isn’t every run for public office a conceptual performance?

KH: Would you wittingly run for public office as a conceptual performance.

CB: That might be a first, if it were done.

GT: I think it just has.

CB: It might be. I think the jury’s still out.

KH: I think you’re giving too much credit.

RI: CoCA’s handle on Facebook is in fact @AltCoCA, suggesting already that CoCA speaks both for and against itself; we touched a little bit on this earlier. Is the organization undergoing an internal schism? Is it existing in a perpetual state of near-crisis vis-à-vis its own ideological situatedness?

CB: True change can only take place in crisis. Bringing about crisis is essential to bringing about change in this reformulation of Conceptual Art, making it once again clearly relevant, making the understanding of its relevance part of modern life.

GT: But again, in terms of internal schisms, I don’t know if an organization that’s fragmented to begin with could necessarily have such schisms occur. I suppose we could reserve the right to future action?

CB: Oh, absolutely. Although I might disagree with that. But, probably only as a conceptual stance.

GT: Not enough to cause a schism?

CB: Mmm, no, only to cause a schism.

KH: I think I want to say that everything has self-destructive impulses, and it might just be that CoCA is more aware of these at its inception than other instances might be. Not that these self-destructive impulses are necessarily going to be a total thing or a bad thing, just that the process is battling itself while its achieving everything else that it’s trying to do.

RI: Does CoCA have a recipe for success, and if so, what is it?

CB: 2/3 cup white sugar, 2/3 cup brown sugar, um, oh, 2 sticks of butter, 2 teaspoons vanilla, 2 eggs, 2 ¾ cup flour, teaspoon of salt, teaspoon of baking powder. 375 for 10-12 minutes.

KH: That’s how you make yogurt.

CB: Interesting.

KH: Muffins.

CB: You’re eating some weird fucking muffins.

KH: I don’t actually read recipes. I just kind of measure things out and throw them in.

CB: Fair enough.

KH: I don’t think there’s a specific recipe for success, or if there is, no one has told me about it.

RI: Mine would be similar to yours, except I would go with one cup of white sugar and half a cup of brown sugar.

GT: I think if there was a recipe for success I might not have ended up here with y’all at the University of Maryland.

CB: In my case, it’s because that [the white sugar] goes back in the cabinet first. Generally, the white sugar should be put away, I’ve found.

RI: At this point if there are particular other matters that you’d like to discuss, if there are particular things you think it would be helpful for the public to know, or historians to know…

KH: I think this was our first full formal meeting.

RI: Was it formal, though?

CB: No, we don’t have a gavel.

KH: More formal than the other meetings.

CB: I’ll see about getting a gavel for next time.

GT: Can we just put the stamp on it? Get it witnessed?

CB: On the gavel? Yeah but we’ve got to get a gavel first.

RI: We could sort of in audio form, for the record… [sound of self-inking stamp depressing near microphone]

CB: Plastic gavel…oh, walnut…. Sixteen bucks? That’s not bad.  …So, I mean as far as the future of CoCA, I think that there’s a lot of directions it can go, and it will likely go all those directions, and more. The goals we have are intentionally unclear. [sound of KH re-entering the room]

CB: Well, we now have a gavel.

RI: Should I use this end to stamp it?

GT: Yeah. [sound of loud thud] Oh my god, what is that made of?

RI: No it didn’t really work. Well, the concept transferred, we know that much worked.

CB: I realize that sometimes people find CoCA to be obtuse. But this failing is theirs, not that of CoCA. More likely, what they need to do is continue to engage, paying full price every time, until they understand fully.

RI: I mean, I actually have to say that I find CoCA to be….the works that I’ve seen, that I didn’t have any part in realizing, were actually pretty admirably easy for target audiences to understand. It’s just a matter of their willingness to engage, but once that willingness is there, I think it’s much easier to understand concepts, because that’s often what we do with concepts is we understand them, we figure them out.

KH: Looking back to one of your last questions, is it the goal to make Conceptual Art into a meme online and off, it seems like it has that idea of you’re talking about of maybe watering down and making accessible Conceptual Art, and maybe the idea is to provide people an easier entry point.

RI: And that could come back to again to why it appears so dangerous to people like the Formalists is it seems like it’s going to attract more people, which we know that it is. I mean we know that history is on our side. In the same way that we can be sure that Andrew Jackson saw the Civil War. [laughter]

CB: Might be a little different there. I don’t want to live in a closed system, one that’s deterministic, but looking at culture today, living as an American, in the particular positions that I live in, the necessity of Conceptual Art in our lives is clear, and that it will benefit everyone in many ways, not the least of which is materially, which is…

RI: One of the ironies.

CB: Absolutely.

RI: Well, thank you all for your time.

CB: Thank you.

This interview has been slightly edited for conceptual clarity.

Jugloslavija: Spomenici Revoluciji [1968]

Today’s post is a full scan of the 1968 publication Jugoslavija: Spomenici Revoluciji [Yugoslavia: Monuments to the Revolution]edited by Miloš Bajić. The photobook contains many of the same monuments later documented in Revolucionarno Kiparstvo [1977], but also includes several monuments (or alternate views of memorials) not included in the later publication. The publication is entirely in black and white, and includes two supplementary sections, one with biographies of the artists and architects of the various monuments and one with descriptions of the significant events associated with each memorial or location.

In some cases, the memorials included are documented as maquettes (such as Miodrag Zivković’s model for the ‘valley of the heroes’ monument to the battle of Sutjeska). The publication showcases the variety of Yugoslav monumental forms and styles, showing examples of abstract, architectonic, and figurative monuments and monumental complexes. The recognition of this diversity is crucial in the face of the continued transformation of Yugoslav monuments (and especially the abstract ones) into what Owen Hatherley terms ‘concrete clickbait’–anonymous images of a conveniently ‘abstracted’ bizarre future past. It is also important to understand the forms of photographic representation (and, it must be said, photo-aesthetic fetishization) that were applied to these monuments long before Jan Kempenaers’ recent photo-documentation project Spomenik (2010-2014). While Kempenaers’ photographs are the source of much recent popular interest in Yugoslav monuments, and also the source of much recent fetishization of their supposedly ‘alien’ aesthetic paradigms, it is important to seriously consider how these monuments were photographed and presented by their contemporaries, and how they were framed both historically and aesthetically in these photographs.

Happy reading!

Niko Xhufka- Ritme të Jetës Shqiptare [1976]

Today’s post is a full scan of Albanian photographer Niko Xhufka’s album Ritme të Jetës Shqiptare [Rhythms of Albanian Life], published in 1976. Xhufka was one of the finest photographers working in socialist Albania, and his works evidence the originality and aesthetic force of Albanian documentary and socialist realist photography during the socialist years. 


Most studies of photography as it has developed in Albania have focused either on earlier phtographers, such as the Marubis, or else have treated socialist photography in the country as little more than a means of propaganda. Xhufka’s images are striking because they are so obviously ‘artistic’–richly indebted to and conscious of a tradition of avant-garde, realist, and socialist realist photography–even as their ideological content is plainly legible. It is truly impressive to survey this collection of works and see Xhufka shift effortlessly between dynamic, abstract compositons that recall Russian avant-garde photography; clear and legible compositions emphasizing the narrative clarity of socialst realism; and sweeping aerial landscape panoramas. 

While the entire album is a treasure, my favorite image is certainly a pair of juxtaposed photos entitled Zëvendësimi (Myzeqe) [Transplantation (Myzeqe)]. The first of the images shows a pair of storks nesting atop a twisted tree against a background of gray, flat fields. In the second image, the stork’s nest sits atop the skeletal structure of an electrical tower, and bottom edge of the photo is filled with stalks of grain or hay.  The image succinctly pictures the ‘modernization’ of Albania carried out under socialism in a way that is both iconographically and compositionally striking. 


* Several years ago, I first came across Xhufka’s work at propagandaphotos, and I am indebted to that blog for drawing my attention to a truly amazing artist. This interview with Xhufka offers important information on his work, process, career, and life.

Revolucionarno Kiparstvo [1977]

Today’s post interrupts our series of scans of PamorART magazine to bring you a full scan of the 1977 publication Revolucionarno Kiparstvo [Revolutionary Sculpture], a photobook published in 1977 [Zagreb: Spektar] in Yugoslavia chronicling major monuments and works of public sculpture created up to that point in the country. The book features an introductory essay by Juraj Baldani, entitled “Jugoslovensko angažirano socijalno i revolunionarno kiparstvo” [“Yugoslav socially engaged and revolutionary sculpture”]  that presents a historical context for social/ist sculpture in the country beginning on the late 19th century and culminating in the postwar socialist years. The book also provides short biographies of the sculptors and architects whose works are represented. 

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This photobook showcases the truly impressive diversity of socialist sculpture (and its predecessors) in the former Yugoslavia, including the works of Bogdan Bogdanović, Vojin Bakić, Dušan Džamonja, Antun Augustinčić, Jordan Grabulovski, Drago Tršar, and Miodrag Živković, among many others. 

Happy reading!


Tradhtia e Imazhit- PamorART June 1998, year 1, number 2

Today’s post is the second in a series of posts that will present scans of the historically and critically indispensable publication PamorART, a magazine published by the National Gallery of Arts in Tirana. PamorART began publication in 1997, and was a crucial reflection of the artistic and cultural  scene in Albania in the late 90s, providing a specialized venue for discussion and critical assessment of the visual arts in the country. This issue contains, among other things, articles on Edi Hila and Kristaq Rama, as well as an insert in English.

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The scans of the PamorART magazines are made possible by the tireless efforts of philologist Vincent W.J. van Gerven Oei, who scanned the issues, and art critic Gëzim Qëndro, who made the issues available to us from his private collection. My deepest thanks go to both of them for making these texts available to us. 

Një Tribunë e Shumëpritur- PamorART March 1998 year 1, number 1

Today’s post is the first in a series of posts that will present scans of the historically and critically indispensable publication PamorART, a magazine published by the National Gallery of Arts in Tirana. PamorART began publication in 1997, and was a crucial reflection of the artistic and cultural  scene in Albania in the late 90s, providing a specialized venue for discussion and critical assessment of the visual arts in the country. The first issue takes up a theme that has seen heated discussion in recent months as well: the Onufri competition and its role in the Albanian arts scene. (Somehow the title of Edi Muka’s article on the subject, ‘Onufri ’97: Impas apo Shpresë?’ [‘Onufri ’97: Impasse or Hope?’] seems to describe the current state of Onufri as well as it might have described Onufri ’97. 

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The scans of the PamorART magazines are made possible by the tireless efforts of philologist Vincent W.J. van Gerven Oei, who scanned the issues, and art critic Gëzim Qëndro, who made the issues available to us from his private collection. My deepest thanks go to both of them for making these texts available to us. 

Choices to Be Made: An Interview with Sead Kazanxhiu

Sead Kazanxhiu (b. 1987) is an Albanian Roma artist working in Tirana, Albania. Born in the village of Baltëz, near the city of Fier in central Albania, Kazanxhiu’s work deals with the personal and political aspects of both Albanian and Romani identities. Kazanxhiu works primarily in painting, performance, and installation, and his art explores both his own personal search for cultural identity and the unique sociopolitical situation facing Roma communities in contemporary Albania. He has created installations dealing with Romani struggles for housing stability in Albania, as well as addressing the challenges related to Romani inclusion in political decision-making in the country. Kazanxhiu’s efforts and explorations highlight the diversity of identity in Albania—the artist uses his investigations of his own individual identity as a way to suggest the myriad linguistic, visual, cultural, and historical heritages that characterize modern Albania. I spoke with him in the summer of 2016 about his recent works and his thoughts on the relation between politics and the Albanian art scene in recent years.[1]

Sead Kazanxhiu: This project relates to the idea of the Roma resistance. The idea of the work is to create a discussion, to provoke those people who are working with these projects today, with this ‘resistance,’ if we can call it resistance. We can’t call it resistance because it doesn’t come from the bottom up, but it’s pushed from this middle, from the NGOs. I call them the ‘middle’ because the top is the government and the politicians. That’s why I don’t see a resistance that has the old meaning of the word ‘resistance,’ because today it’s pushed by the NGOs and the politicians.

Raino Isto: It’s still working within the system. You still have to apply for grants, and do projects, and hold activities, and give certificates, and so forth.

S.K.: Even when protests are planned, it doesn’t somehow come directly from the community; it comes from NGOs and donors and so on. Which is not bad, but still, there has to be some way to have continuity. When you resist, when you do something to resist, you have to take it to the end, you can’t stop halfway. That’s why I have a lot of confusion, after doing my research. Sometimes when you read too much, you know, you confuse yourself. That’s what has happened with me now, doing research for this project.

R.I.: When you said before that your were trying to provoke, are you trying to provoke the people in the middle, the NGOs? Or to provoke in general?

S.K.: That’s a good question, because if you say you want to provoke, you have to find a target. But, I think that provocation doesn’t always have to have a single target. For example, I also want to raise the subconscious of the Roma itself, like the grassroots. I mean maybe its difficult to try to do that with this kind of conceptual art, with the symbolic, but we have to try to educate people to understand this kind of communication. So, when I speak about raising the self-confidence or the consciousness of the community, that also means raising the consciousness of those NGOs, because they are part of the community too. So, the society I live in will see what I do, maybe not every day, but they will see, and this is a kind of provoking and challenging, making people see things in a different way, which can also create continuity. Because if I said that the government is my target, I won’t get anywhere…I will just be doing things for them. I will end up in the role of an NGO, trying to get the government’s attention, and then when an NGO gets the government’s attention, it shuts them up with some funds, and that’s it. I don’t know, I’m just trying to understand things first myself, reading and doing research, and then afterwards perhaps spreading them to other people.

R.I.: What do people in the Roma community here in Albania think of your work? Have they had a reaction to it?

S.K.: It is not like there is a constructive reaction. Of course, if they see something, they like it. But the idea is that it has to be beyond liking something, agreeing with something.

If this doesn’t happen with the people who are active for the Roma cause, I’m afraid that it wont happen in the community more broadly either. But, again, I don’t want to repeat myself, but if my work achieves a kind of continuity and a kind of standard—and it doesn’t have to be just me as an artist, there have to also be other artists, musicians, actors, painters, and moviemakers—then this will stimulate peoples’ imagination, seeing different perspectives. And that’s why it’s not only about an individual, because that individual can do his job, but there has to be a kind of ensemble that makes it stronger.

R.I.: So, these are the same paintings I saw when I came before, but before the chairs were empty?

S.K.: Yeah. Sometimes, you, know, when you miss particular things, you have this kind of emptiness. So then you want to put those things in your work. Sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn’t. But in this case I think it was a good idea [to put the clothes in the paintings] because now viewers wonder about what the owners of the clothes are doing, they might be having sex or whatever, but you think about them. So, in the background, you have the house where they live, and then you have the clothes. It’s the contemporary moment of Adam and Eve. They are in front of the apple, in the central work, and it seems as if they have escaped from this life and they are in the Garden of Eden.

R.I.: We have talked before about colors your use of color. I’m curious what you think about color, given that it is such a popular topic in Albanian art today, in part because of Edi Rama’s promotion of his painted buildings. Before, you mentioned that people tend to think of the Roma as a ‘colorful’ people, in terms of their dress, but that that isn’t really true.

S.K.: There is this traditional saying: don’t respond in the same way that they speak to you. But in this case, I am answering in the same way that they are expecting, giving people the colors they are expecting from a Roma artist. But, being a Roma myself, and having years of experience studying textiles—and my diploma was actually on the traditional Roma way of dressing—I found out from interviews with my family and research that this idea of the exotic and colorful Roma dress is a myth. The reality is simply that each Roma mother or grandmother became a kind of ‘fashion designer’ for their children or grandchildren, making clothes and finding whatever materials they could. In fact, when you see old Roma clothes, they are very simple. In fact, they often just dressed the way people did in that society at that time; it wasn’t as if there was a sharp distinction in the manner of dress. Of course there were particular groups of Roma, like the Gabo Roma, or the Ola in Hungary, that had specific ways of dressing. But it wasn’t really to distinguish themselves as Roma. Of course there were particular groups of Roma, like the Gabor Roma, or the Ola in Hungary, that had specific ways of dressing. But it wasn’t really to distinguish themselves as Roma. For example, the Gabor Roma in Romania dress like the northern Albanians, with the big dress, and the shamia, the scarf. And you can see this in Hungary too. But in Roma villages, there isn’t really a specific way of dressing, like some people imagine in this exoticizing way. So that’s why I decided, ok, if you want colors, I’ll give you colors!

But also, there’s something else. Maybe I’m being too philosophical. It’s also this: we are not victims. The Roma are not victims, but we are seen as victims. And we are brainwashed to think of ourselves as victims. So when I paint something from history, I don’t want to emphasize victimhood, I want to give it life.

R.I.: So that it doesn’t just appear mournful.

S.K.: Yes.

R.I.: Do you choose the colors just based on what you have, or what paints you can find? Or do you plan out the colors and then look for specific paints to create them?

S.K.: That’s a good question. I can’t say that I plan much. I usually just look at what I have. Sometimes I plan that, for example, I want to work with a particular color, like brown, and I will start with that. But usually it’s just: I find it, I like it, I use it.

Sead Kazanxhiu, 8 për 8 Prillin [8 for the 8th of April], 2013, installation at the entrance to Albanian Parliament. Copyright Sead Kazanxhiu. Image courtesy of the artist.
Sead Kazanxhiu, 8 për 8 Prillin [8 for the 8th of April], 2013, installation at the entrance to Albanian Parliament. Copyright Sead Kazanxhiu. Image courtesy of the artist.
R.I.: I wonder if you could tell me a little bit about your piece 8 për 8 Prillin [8 for the 8th of April].[2] I know we talked about it before, but I think it is an important piece.

S.K.: The installation 8 for the 8th of April was done in 2013, and it was a project that I did as part of a fellowship that I had that year. The project was to block the entrance of the Albanian Parliament with these big tractor wheels painted with the colors of the Roma flag [red, green, and blue]. There was this funny coincidence, because the tires had ‘Goodyear’ written on them, so it was like the culmination of a ‘good year’. It was a good experience, because the installation gave me the opportunity to understand how things were working with the involvement of Roma in public institutions, because it was the year of the ‘Roma Decade.’[3] I wanted to do something in relation to this, and it turned out that the best way to do it was with an installation—because the protests here only work if you are a political party. You have to be a political party to have enough people to make a protest matter, but then it still doesn’t work because then the party is protesting, not the people. And that’s why I chose to go and install these eight big tractor wheels at the entrance of the Albanian Parliament. It was a way of symbolically blocking them—not really making their lives difficult, because you could just pass around them without any problem. I wanted to kind of exaggerate the issue, to show them that, okay, we Roma may be relatively small in number, but the issue of Roma involvement isn’t a small one. It can’t be ignored. There was this sign, that the government put up, for the Roma Decade, and they were supposed to actually do something, but they didn’t. I’ll tell you about it: there were all these activities and so forth, since it was the official International Romani Day, which is why I called it 8 for the 8th of April, because of the importance of that day. The installation was supposed to stay there for the whole day, but the police came—just the way they normally do, just to show up and make you feel pressure.

R.I.: How many police came?

S.K.: It was a minibus with four or five police, something like that. One of them, he was kind of the head of the group, and I was trying to complain to him. He was smart, trying to figure out how to negotiate with me. One of the other ones was like, ‘Come on! We left a very important operation just because of this garbage you put here in front of the Parliament! You have to move them.’ I told him, ‘I can’t move them.’ Then I called someone else who was in charge of organizing activities related to the International Romani Day, and they came, but the police still wanted us to move the installation, so I told them: ‘I won’t move them until I get an interview. This is the only way I’ll move them.’ The police said, ‘Okay, but can you just move them to the footpath that runs perpendicular to the entrance to Parliament?’ I said, ‘No, I can’t move them,’ so they said okay. I got an interview, which was good because it opened up the work to a bigger audience. Then, this other policeman, who had been standing there very straight and stern, he helped me move the wheels over to the footpath. So that’s the story of the 8 for the 8th of April installation. But I mean, you can do anything here with art, but the only feedback you’ll get is from a few artists or professors. For example, one of my professors, Vladimir Myrtezaj, he’s a friend of Edi Rama’s, he told me ‘Bravo!’ because it was the first installation done in the entrance of the Albanian Parliament. That was really the only feedback I got, and somehow for me it didn’t feel like I really accomplished something. But it was good because I’ve been able to continue this way of exhibiting. After that, I made another exhibition, with 2,500 small houses installed in front of the Prime Minister’s building (one of the iterations of Shtepizeza [Little Houses], 2014).[4]

R.I.: Yes, I’ve seen the photographs of this installation.

S.K.: Because I believe we don’t have to just try once and then give up, you have to create a kind of continuity. I mean, at the moment, I’m alone in this—because there’s another Roma artist from Albania who lives in the UK, but he isn’t very involved here in Albania—but I think in the future, there will be other artists who will continue in this way. Maybe not exactly like I do, but in other ways.

R.I.: When you do these installations, do you have friends help you? For example, to move the tires, or to install the small houses?

S.K.: I mean, for 8 for the 8th of April, there were some friends and artists, but mostly I was alone, and I had to call some people to help me. But people came, some friends and some people who were just passing by, sometimes ignoring it, like always happens. But at the protest that I did about housing, the installation in front of the Prime Minister’s building, there were some activists and some members of the community who had problems with housing. But not many people. Because they don’t really believe that as a single person, using art, you can change something.

Sead Kazanxhiu, Shtepizeza [Little Houses], 2014, installation. Copyright Sead Kazanxhiu. Image courtesy of the artist.
Sead Kazanxhiu, Shtepizeza [Little Houses], 2014, installation. Copyright Sead Kazanxhiu. Image courtesy of the artist.
R.I.: One of the things that I liked about the installation of Shtepizeza was that, in the photographs, it looked visually interesting and compelling. I

Sead Kazanxhiu, Shtepizeza [Little Houses], 2014, installation. Copyright Sead Kazanxhiu. Image courtesy of the artist.
Sead Kazanxhiu, Shtepizeza [Little Houses], 2014, installation. Copyright Sead Kazanxhiu. Image courtesy of the artist.
think this is one of the possibilities of these kinds of works, because of course as you said, sometimes people don’t come, or they just ignore it in the moment, but also afterwards the event is preserved. I think this is important especially with the houses, because they were so small, but in photographs the smallness of the houses against the massiveness of the Prime Minister’s building makes a strong statement after the fact, in the photos.

S.K.: Yeah. You know what was interesting about the installation about housing: the same policeman came, the guy who came to 8 for the 8th of April, and we became like friends. My idea, originally, was to put them not on the sidewalk but on the stairs of the Prime Ministerial building, but it wasn’t possible. I was trying to resist a little bit, but they said it wasn’t an option, so we decided to put them on the sidewalk instead. We just kind of put them in a pile.

Sead Kazanxhiu, Shtepizeza installed in from the Prime Minister's building in Tirana, Albania, 2014. Photo from Gazeta Shqip.
Sead Kazanxhiu, Shtepizeza installed in from the Prime Minister’s building in Tirana, Albania, 2014. Photo from Gazeta Shqip.

R.I.: That is funny that it was the same police officer.

S.K.: Yeah. And my cousin, who is always organizing protests, now he knows her and when he sees her, he’s like, ‘Oh, you came again!’

R.I.: Do you thinks that’s a good thing, even though it might not completely change his mind, that at an individual level there is this one person who is comes from the side of authority but now he is personally involved because he knows the people who are protesting?

S.K.: Yes, I think this is good, because when people see that you ask for something, and you don’t retreat from that position, they see that you are sure what you are asking for. And I think that that can influence—maybe not too much—but it can influence an individual person. Because they see that these people are taking it seriously, that it’s not just about making a show or whatever. That these people are seriously suffering, and that’s why they are doing it. And then you can build a kind of trust, with the authorities or whoever. Then, if the authorities understand that, they can see that maybe something really has to be done. That’s why I believe in trying to establish continuity.

Sead Kazanxhiu, A Choice to Be Made, A Price to Be Paid, 2015, performance. Copyright Sead Kazanxhiu. Image courtesy of the artist.
Sead Kazanxhiu, A Choice to Be Made, A Price to Be Paid, 2015, performance. Copyright Sead Kazanxhiu. Image courtesy of the artist.

R.I.: I would also like to talk about your performance A Choice to Be Made, A Price to Be Paid [2015].[5] I think you did it once at Tulla Cultural Center in Tirana and once somewhere else. You’ve done it at least twice?

S.K.: The performance was only done once publicly, at Tulla. It tried to record the performance here in my studio, to document it, but the space wasn’t good, so I asked the guys from Miza Gallery if I could film it there. But at Tulla was the first time it was performed for the public. The idea of this ‘Romani phuv’ [‘Romani land’] performance also came from thinking about housing, but also from living in a place where even though you are an Albanian citizen, the other side might not see you as being Albanian. Because people will ask about your story, and it will come out that you aren’t denbabaden Albanian [having a long Albanian heritage]. Even if you are a person whose family has been here for centuries, still they won’t see you as Albanian. And the Romani phuv as an idea came from reading some books by Nicolae Gheorghe, he’s a sociologist from Romania. I was inspired by what he says when he talks about the politics surrounding Roma issues: he says ‘there’s a choice to be made and a price to be paid.’ When you make a choice, of course there’s something you have to agree to. So that’s why I took this as the title of the performance. And I also wanted to provoke discussion about the issue of a territory. I believe, from my own experience as a Roma activist, that Roma never fight for their own land. That concept doesn’t exist for us. Of course, we Roma fight in other countries, like in Albania—our great grandfathers and grandfathers contributed to the fight for Albania, but they weren’t fighting on behalf of the Roma issue or anything. They were fighting because they were in this country and saw themselves as part of this country. So bringing the ‘Romani land’ into the discussion—if you bring this up in the European parliament, there will be a big mess, of course, because there are people who are afraid to speak about this, even if they think about it. For example, if we go further back to 1971, to the first World Romani Congress, people like Faik Abdi, Slobodan Berberski, and many other Roma activists wanted to speak about a Romani land. One of the proposals was Šutka [Šuto Orizari], which is a municipality in Macedonia populated by Roma, the mayor there now is a Roma. Faik Abdi was the first Roma MP in the Macedonian Parliament. This kind of discussion happened back at that time; now, Grattan Puxon and a few others write about this, but it is less discussed. So I wanted to raise this issue to show that we don’t have to be afraid to speak about things—it’s not that I want some kind of ‘Roma territory,’ but I want to provoke people in the Roma community as well to talk about this. The idea of moving around all the time, this is something that people do for economical, or social, or maybe even political reasons. If you read about how Roma first came to Europe, they were pushed from one place to another; for example in the Netherlands, at one time there was a practice that if you could kill a Roma, you would get a free beer. So the movement of the Roma is something driven as much by historical conditions as anything else; it’s not just some exotic practice. But this issue of a ‘Romani land’ is something that many Roma activists are afraid to talk about, but me—I’m not part of an NGO, so I can use my ‘freedom of speech and express my thoughts and ideas about it. I want to raise this issue of what it feels like to have your own land. For example in Baltëz, my village, the Roma have their own land.

There’s another thing I wanted to say about the performance. The kind of mud that I used in the performance, it’s a special kind of mud, it has a story, especially in the Roma communities. Nowadays it’s used for medicinal purposes, but before these shops for that kind of stuff existed, and it was difficult to find this mud. The Roma call it shishik, in Albanian they call it baltë krëri. People used it to wash their hair, and to wash their bodies. But when I did an interview with some old Roma women, they told me that there were some rules about going and taking this kind of mud. You couldn’t live near the mud, because if you lived near it, it would get polluted. So the people lived far away from it, and only the old women knew how to go and get the mud. When the women would go to gather the mud, they would take food with them because it was a long way, but you couldn’t eat immediately before taking the mud, because this would contaminate you. And you had to wash yourself before gathering the mud, in case you had lice or something. This was the paradox that was funny and interesting to me: you also had to wash your hands before taking the mud. So: they would go early in the morning to gather the mud, they wouldn’t eat before gathering it, and they would wash their hands before touching it. Which is funny because now in Albania we have this word baltosje [making muddy or dirty], but in this tradition, mud is actually cleaner than people think! So that’s why, in this performance, I used this shishik, because it’s a very intimate material, and I believe it’s cleaner than what politicians mean when they talk about baltosje. In fact, baltosje can clean you!

R.I.: So, this mud comes from a swamp, or near a river?

S.K.: You can find this kind of mud in the hills, I think, and near rivers, I don’t know exactly how they find it. But it’s not clay like you would use for terracotta or something. It’s different. Also, in older times, women would eat this mud when they were pregnant; this was crazy to me! And they would also use it to put on children, like a cream.

R.I.: When they go to find the clay, it’s soft? I ask because the clay you used in the performance is hard, and you were breaking it up.

S.K.: Yeah, the clay has a kind of gray color, but it’s also hard and you need to soften it with warm water; this is what they did to prepare it.

R.I.: Like you did.

S.K.: Yes, that’s why I did it.

Sead Kazanxhiu, A Choice to Be Made, A Price to Be Paid, 2015, performance. Copyright Sead Kazanxhiu. Image courtesy of the artist.
Sead Kazanxhiu, A Choice to Be Made, A Price to Be Paid, 2015, performance. Copyright Sead Kazanxhiu. Image courtesy of the artist.

R.I.: Is this practice something that is regionally unique, or is it a practice that exists outside of Albania too?

S.K.: All the Roma who lived in the villages were using this mud. They all knew about it, if you go to Roskovec, if you go to Levan, or to Baltëz—my village—or to Morava in Berat and Grabian in Lushnja…I really regret it because my father’s uncle’s wife was the expert on this mud, and I wanted to do an interview with her. It would have made her very happy—because my father also told me, when the women would put shishik in their hair, it made the hair very beautiful because the clay made it healthy. I wanted to do an interview with her because she was very old, and had cooked her whole life using fire, because the family was very poor, and I wanted to go with her when she went to collect the shishik. Because I thought it would remind her of that time. But when I went to the village, my family told me that she had died, and I thought ‘what a loss!’ However, there are still other women who know how to gather this mud. It’s also interesting because the name of our village is ‘Baltëz.’[6] I don’t know how it got that name.

Sead Kazanxhiu, A Choice to Be Made, A Price to Be Paid, 2015, performance. Copyright Sead Kazanxhiu. Image courtesy of the artist.
Sead Kazanxhiu, A Choice to Be Made, A Price to Be Paid, 2015, performance. Copyright Sead Kazanxhiu. Image courtesy of the artist.

R.I.: How old is it as a village?

S.K.: I don’t know exactly how old it is. Baltëz was like forestland before, but somehow they made it flat. The Roma, the Vlah, the xoraxaja or horahaja (muslim Albanians) and Dasa (the christian Albanians) were the first to live there. Later, people of Bosnian origin and Kosovars came too. In Baltëz, the Roma were in a place called Matkëz, it’s known for this manë [mulberry] tree, with those small fruit; it’s the tree of the Roma.

R.I.: As an artist, do you feel like you have something like a duty towards a community, either broadly or narrowly construed, or do you just feel like it’s something you’ve chosen, but you don’t feel compelled by a community?

S.K.: Of course, I feel a kind of duty because I am a part of this community. This is my artist’s statement: I am an Albanian Romani artist, and I have to dig through my identity and contribute to where I belong, through promoting my culture, through raising my voice about things that are happening in my own way, in a visual way. For example, I’m not a musician, so I can’t speak as a musician, but for example African American musicians made a great contribution to the culture in America. I cannot trust someone—a painter, a moviemaker, or an artist—who doesn’t also live what he does. So I stand by what I believe in. It doesn’t matter, even if people don’t think I’m an artist it doesn’t matter to me. I can call myself just a worker or a politician, because I believe that art is also politics. I think that we can use art to influence politics. I’m not talking about the art that is used by politicians.

R.I.: Since we’ve come to this issue of art and politics, what do you think about the relationship of art and politics in Albania today? Because some people say that there is a big problem now because art is being used so much to promote politics, that it’s more difficult to be an artist working in relation to politics. Because any art that you do might come to be related to or used by politicians for their own purposes. So I’m curious what you think about this.

S.K.: I don’t know if you saw this, but at CEU [Central European University] recently there was this discussion about politics and art, called something like ‘Why Politicians Hate Artists.’[7] They were saying that it’s not that politicians hate art, it’s that they only promote that kind of art that they think is part of ‘their vision’. So automatically, the other artists won’t be included. Here in Albania, it’s like that: politicians don’t hate artists; they promote that kind of art that promotes their view. Of course, the government can pretend to give you a stage to speak about whatever you want, but still you won’t actually have that possibility, because you will face a compromise. As we spoke about before, if I were to do a show at the COD [Center for Openness and Dialogue],[8] the only condition for me would be that I wouldn’t tell them beforehand what I would exhibit. I would just say, ‘I agree to make an exhibition here.’ But this couldn’t happen, because there is a curator there, and this necessarily introduces the influence of politics in the space. So, that means that as an artist, you have to make a compromise, because you will have to choose which works to exhibit there with the curator. They control this through talking about the necessity of ‘respecting the quality of the space’ and so forth, but it’s also a way of letting them prevent you from exhibiting anything they don’t want you to exhibit. And politicians hide behind this notion that ‘there has to be quality art, and we must respect standards.’ This creates this idea that there is competition for quality, but that’s not really true. Here in Albania, in the art scene, there isn’t really competition; there are friendships and connections between people, but not competition. I mean, this viewpoint is questionable, but I don’t believe there is competition. They create the idea that there is, saying, ‘oh yes, you must apply for this and that, and it will be reviewed carefully,’ but it doesn’t really come down to a competition.

R.I.: Now that we are talking about exhibiting works, I wonder if you think that in Albania there is something more effective about works that occupy public space, like the small houses or the tires in front of the Parliament. Do you think that there’s something more effective about artworks in public space than artworks shown in a kind of ‘white-box’ gallery?

S. K.: I’m for both sides. But, in the case of Albania—and I came back to Albania because I wanted to contribute something here, because I’m still young, because I still believe that things can be changed—if we talk about wanting to change the Albania art scene, we have to go outside the gallery. When we do things in a gallery, there is only a small circle of people who come. I don’t want to just do exhibitions like that; we have to go to the public, and the public is on the street, or in institutional buildings, outside them. Until now, we artists have kind of created a space between the public and artworks, putting them in a gallery. But, the gallery can only stay in one place; it can only be this one thing in one place, and many people won’t come to galleries. If you do works in public space, you can catch both the government and the public, speak to both of these audiences. It’s also a way of protesting. I think you can’t just make art for the people who are educated, who read a lot. You also have to make it for the majority. In Albania, it’s the right moment to use more public art. In many countries, it has become a normal thing, but here not so much. Many Albanian artists still like this idea of the gallery. Why? Because it seems difficult to exhibit in galleries here, because there are so few, so artists want to push to do this. When something is difficult, you want to challenge yourself to do it. But you forget that you could challenge yourself just as much exhibiting in an outside space. Even paintings—there are ways to exhibit paintings in public space. I mean, I’m not a street artist; it’s not just about street art. It’s about showing your thoughts not only to a small group, but to a larger group as well. Even if they just pass by, and ignore it, at least you are trying.

We have this kind of thinking that galleries are good, that they are good for the culture of the city, but I think that art needs more than galleries. When I have exhibited in galleries, people came who knew about art and the exhibitions. No one came who didn’t already know about these things. But when I exhibited in public spaces, like the Parliament entrance or the street in front of the Prime Ministerial building, there were also people who were totally ignorant about art that came up, and asked questions, and touched the sculptures. These weren’t the people that you think ‘oh, I want this person to come to my exhibition’—because if you exhibit in a gallery, that’s how you think, like ‘ah, the ambassador or whoever came to my exhibition!’ And I’m not interested in that kind of thinking anymore.

R.I.: Have you ever done anything with public spaces besides those in Tirana?

S.K.: Yes, before I went to Budapest, I was in Fier and I did this project with recycling, and installation about recycling. I did it in three different cities: in Korça, in Fier, and in Durrës. I got together with two other artists who finished the academy with me, and we gathered people from the communities and using recycled materials we made installations. In Korça it was good because it coincided with the Korça Beer Festival, so lots of people saw it. In Fier we did the same thing; we did this workshop with young kids and then did these installations. The theme was about the Roma community contributing to the environment in Albania. It was this way of showing that we contribute something to the culture and the environment in this country. In Durrës when we did it, we exhibited them in this open are where the partisan monument is. It was very interesting because we were just trying to give the community a way to think about their space, and they made this installation using newspapers, they made a table and a chair from the papers. It was a kind of symbolic recycling, like the way the news comes in from places, and gets processed by people, and then produces something new. It was the same with the newspapers: they got processed into something new.


[1] This interview was conducted in the artist’s studio in Tirana, on 20 June 2016. The interview was conducted in English; the present transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

[2] A video of the installation can be found at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j5e_Z0PPc-E (accessed 9 July 2016).

[3] For information on the Decade of Roma Inclusion 2005-2015, see the initiative’s website, http://www.romadecade.org/decade-documents-decade-progress-reports (accessed 9 July 2016).

[4] A video of a different iteration of the installation can be found at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6dgXZvOR8sw (accessed 9 July 2016).

[5] The performance can be viewed at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9Wz48wNe350 (accessed 9 July 2016).

[6] The word ‘baltë’ in Albania means mud or clay.

[7] See “Why Do Governments Hate Artists?”, a short article discussing one of the conversations that took place as part of CEU’s School of Public Policy’s annual conference (this year entitled The View from Here//Artists and Public Policy), https://spp.ceu.edu/article/2016-06-16/why-do-governments-hate-artists (accessed 25 July 2006).

[8] The COD is a multipurpose center opened last year in the first floor of Albania’s prime ministerial building. It includes an exhibition space, as well as a library and a space for video projection. See the Center’s website, http://cod.al (accessed 25 July 2016). The space has generated controversy in discussions of contemporary Albanian culture. The government claims that it represents a space for artistic ‘dialogue,’ including critique of the current political leaders in the country (such as Prime Minister Edi Rama, himself an artist). However, others note that the space is essentially used as ‘artwashing’ by politicians, and does not actually present a space for substantive critique.