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<nettime> Report from Albania
Geert Lovink on Thu, 11 Jun 1998 23:50:47 +0200 (MET DST)


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<nettime> Report from Albania


Culture after the Final Breakdown
A Report from Tirana, Albania
By Geert Lovink

As expected, Tirana offers much more reality than one can cope with. My
first encounter was overwhelming and confronting. As Europe's poorest
country, deeply Balkan and the most isolated communist regime for decades,
the rythms must have been slow here in this former outpost of the Ottoman
empire. Ismail Kadare, Albania's current national writer in exile, is
trying to find excuses for this historical inertia. But for Kadare
slowness does not equal backwardness. As he writes in Printemps Albanais,
his report of the 1990 events, "slowness can reveal, as under an
unpenetrable armor, ripeness and the inner light." This must be for
connoisseurs. Tirana in late spring of 1998 gives a rather different
impression--a steamy, grimy intensely balkan 'summer in the city' feeling
combined with the sense that the entire country is struggling to get back
to or? move on to normal. The country is visibly recovering from the
total breakdown of March 1997, which can be seen its Pointe Omega, the new
year zero. In that sense Kadare is right: Albania's "1989" is just over
one year old and the world should take this cultural delay into account.
 
Did Jean Baudrillard ever witness the violent aspects of a concrete,
massive, sudden, social implosion? I wonder. Baudrillard, who played so
with the model of the implosion, must have sensed something in this
direction, but his style is too linear, one-dimensional to describe the
multi-layered realities of the balkans. French language games are fading
out now because actual history-in-the-making can easily do without such
concepts (and intellectuals all together). It is not even about media. In
Albania, the slow decay from within (even more disastrous than elsewhere),
combined with a collective frustration over missing the historical wave of
1989, finally turned into an explosion of violent disinterest and despair.
It is tempting to speak of "post apocalyptic zones." But this is merely
postmodern rethoric. Which contemporary philosopher is studying the case
of Albania? The country is hardly ever mentioned by journalists. Robert
Kaplan's widely acknowledged 'Balkan Ghosts' (1993) and "The End of the
Earth" (1996) travelogues through the world's abandoned places, rust belts
and war zones. These books are a usefull starting point but they do not go
beyond mere description. Kaplan lacks a theoretical framework that could
match the conservative agenda of culturalists like Samuel P. Huntington.
In what terms should the situation outside the Fortresses be described ? 
Do we only speak in terms of "exclusion"? Or would you prefer an "exotic"
view on the pitoresque Balkan, like in Tintin's album "King Ottokar's 
Sceptre"?

What puzzled me most about Albania is its delayed, but primal drive to
(self)destruction. The roads are in the worst possible condition,
sometimes not even existing. Many places lack electricity and running
water, not to mention destroyed schools, dilapidated buildings. What is
this hatred towards anything public? And there is still no comprehensive
analysis of the 'events' of March 1997. The dry overview of Miranda
Vickers and James Pettifer ('Albania', New York University Press, 1997),
stops in late 1996 and carries a now ironical, perhaps then too optimistic
undertitle: "From Anarchy to a Balkan Identity." We should now read it
backwards. That's dialectics these days. The old one step forwards, two
steps back--no synthesis in sight. What we can see is tragic, ultra-modern
history in the making, monitored by brand new Euro-cops of the West
European Union, half-hearted Italian neo-colonialism to prevent mass
escape from the ruined country and plenty of wild electronic media,
pirated software, even a tiny bit of Internet, provided by the UN and
Soros, via satellites and radio links.

Seen from the dusty, crowded streets of Tirana, filled with its notorious
stolen Mercedes cars, Kosova seems a very distant place, despite all the
refugees that are now flooding in to the Northern Albania. The Nole
government is certainly concerned with the worsening situation, so are all
Albanians. But they lack any military option: their army is a joke
compared to the well-armed and experienced Yugoslav army with its
para-military units. Albania can only call for more foreign involvement,
not only in Kosova, but for itself.  There is a big need for a capital,
infrastructure and human resources from NATO, EU, Soros and other NGOs. Or
from Rome, Athens, Istanbul, Saudi Arabia. It actually does not matter
where it comes from. At least, that's the impression. It is the time of
reconstruction and 'development'.  That's the big picture--on a more
personal level, daily life goes on..cafe society--thousands of Albanians
on the streets and terraces of hastily and illegally erected cafes whiling
away the time.

So here we are--the first ever new media arts event in Albania,
"Pyramedia", organized by the "Syndicate" network, a mailinglist of small
institutions and individuals from both ex Western and Eastern Europe (for
a report, see Andreas Broeckmann in the Syndicate web archive).  A small
group of 10-20 dedicated Albanian artists, teachers and students have
shown up to attend the three days of screenings and presentations. Edi
Muka, who is teaching contemporary arts (video, installations, etc.) at
the Tirana Arts Academy is the driving force behind many of these events.
I interviewed him twice, at the V2-DEAF festival, September 1996 in
Rotterdam and after the fall of Berisha, in July 97 during "Deep Europe"
(Hybrid Workspace, Documenta X). This time, I spoke with him on the
terrace of Donika Bardha's Gallery XXI, Tirana's first commercial modern
art gallery, opened last March, a green (and clean) oasis close to the
central Skanderbeg square and surrounded by a decent cafe and restaurant.
This quasi-privatised corner of the pavement has palm trees and a
fountain. Edi Muka is cool--his dress, sunglasses, the way he's got things
in control (except when the lamp of the videobeam breaks, a major
catastrophe which happened twice...). Edi Muka is well informed, not only
about arts and culture, but about politics and media as well. After he
returned from Italy, where he fled in the early nineties, he worked with
foreign journalists and in the field of "independant media"  and their
Western support organizations. 

According to Muka, Tirana will sooner or later feel the impact of the
influx of refugees in the North. But for the time being it is still
recovering from the "anarchy" of March 97, the few days when the state
lost its monopoly on violence. Shortly after the incident, a commission of
all the political parties represented in Parliament was formed to
reconstruct and study the events. But within a few months, controversy
between the members broke out and the final report is still pending. So
the cause of all the destruction remains vague.  Can it be reduced to a
plot or conspiracy? According to Muka, Berisha at a certain point decided
to let everything go when he found out that he could not use the army to
attack the city of Vlora. "He defends himself now by saying that he had to
arm the members of his party in order to defend them. Maybe I am wrong. 
No one knows how reliable the data of this commission is. But a fact is
that most of the townhalls were set on fire. There was a lot of corruption
under the Berisha government, illegal deals regarding privatization and
real estate. A lot of them were done in favour of Berisha's Democratic
Party members. So this was a good chance to wipe out the evidence. In
Vlora people initially burned the police office and the secret police
headquarters.  But the burning of townhalls came later."
Culture lost too.  Museums were looted, even worse than in 1992. Churches
too. Most of all it blocked a process, several years of gradual progress.
For example, after March 1997 students did not come to school anymore. It
was impossible to get them back to the classroom. "If you see such a
destruction happening around you, after seven years of supposed
'democracy', the already strong desire of Albanians to leave the country
grew ten times." 

Since December 1997, things have apparently changed for the better. Edi's
students returned to their classes and a number of cultural events took
place. In October 1997, eleven artists participated in 'Reorientation',
an exhibit in a ruined factory, outside of town, curated by Muka. 
The show was mainly installations, referring to the state of ruin and 
was considered a turning point. Gezim Qendro, now the director of 
the National Gallery, participated, along with Edi Hila, one of Albania's 
modern post-1990 painters, and some young artists. 

Edi Muka: "Despite the fact that it took place in a part which is full of
guns, a lot of people showed up.  They were eager to see something
different." Another landmark was Albania's participation in Ostranenie,
the ex-East media arts festival which took place for the third time in
Dessau in november 1997. Albanian video artworks were screened there for
the first time. Also, an annual visual arts competition took place. Muka:
"In the past, everybody just hung some artworks on the wall of the
National Gallery, no curatorial work, no critics, just a big chaos. This
time there was some selection. But there was still a lack of the ability
to experience things. There were only few who reflected on what had
happened in 1997. I don't think this is normal. There is the tendency to
escape, the young generation leaves the country and the old ones do it in
their way. I concentrated my work on a group of young artists, students
who do reflect on the situation. In February,1998, a first show with them
followed in the renovated gallery of the Academy of Art. It was really
good and a large audience showed up. I gave some lectures about
ready-mades and abstraction, which is still not very known here. Students
have difficulties understanding what happened historically and
epistimologically." And Galeria XXI opened, which is trying to promote the
art market in Albania because there is no such thing.

The early revival is evident in other fields as well. The 'Days of New
Music' program a few months ago tried to open up the traditional Albanian
folk music and elaborate it in a 'modern' way. A proposal to build and
staff a new National Theater was approved. But there is still no decision
on the future of the "International Cultural Center" the enormous white
pyramid once the Enver Hoxha Memorial Museum. In its most recent
reincarnation, it is used for the Italian "Levante" trade fair, displaying
trash consumer goods.

All this is now in Edi Rama's hands, the brand new Minister of Culture. 
Rama, 34, is an experimental artist who played an important role in the
student movement of 1990 and worked and exhibited abroad. His story is
telling--In 1996, he was beaten up by Berisha supporters and he then moved
to Paris where he lived in exile. This spring, when he returned to Tirana
for his father's funeral, he was invited to replace Arta Dade, then
Minister of Culture, who lacked any vision on revitaliziing
culture-in-ruins with little or no budget. Rama immediately agreed. His
first action was a radical reorganization of the ministry, the first one
ever in fifty years.  Edi Muka has known Rama for years. "He is a
charismatic person with a lot of ideas, even though he might not have much
experience with administration. He has already left some marks." 

I managed to get an appointment with Rama on the fourth floor of the
former Central Committee building. Edi Rama: "I inherited an institution
still based in the old structures. It is also important to change the
physical aspect of the building. It was not functional and there was a lot
of dust that needed to be cleaned." Rama would not say how much money he
can freely spend. Rama: "The budget is low, but even that is misused.  So
the first step is to create projects that will make a decent use of the
budget possible. Only after that, we can increase pressure on the
Ministery of Finance and start to approach NGOs." 

Where are your priorities, in film, visual arts, media?  Rama: "Until now,
the ministery worked as a sponsor of cultural ghettoization. It supported
our self-complimentory attitude towards history and the related
institutions that we inherited from the past. The Writers Union, in fact
all cultural institutions--these old structures are not anymore a threat
towards democracy, but they are a obstacle." 
 
Do you see a growing divide between the low-brow media culture
and the elite high culture?

Rama: "If I can make a comparison. During the Communist period we were
living in a Jurrasic Park. Now the dinosaurs have disappeared but we are
still in a park where anything can happen. You never know from where the
danger is coming from. In that respec, things are very disordered. The new
media situation is like a jungle. But I am convinced that the only support
we can give to these newcomers is freedom. With the possibility to
express yourself in a free space will also come a need to learn and how to
deal with this space. Nowadays, here, people are convinced that freedom is
much more difficult than isolation. To administrate freedom means to
administrate yourself. During the time that you had to pass on the shelf
of totalitarism, you were administrated by someone else. You were not an
individual. There was no responsability and no anxiety. In freedom, all
these elements become part of you."

When asked about all those leaving the country, Edi Rama is sending out a
permanent invitation to all Albanians to do something for this country.
"But it is pretty hard to make invitations because you cannot offer any
guarantees. The problem with this community has been that it always worked
against its own future. The most paralyzed were the young generations. 
They were marginalized by the gods of politics and culture. The big
challenge now is to listen more carefull to their needs in order to make
them feel at home in their own country. To a certain age every Albanian is
a refugee in his own country. It is felt as a transit station." 

You are not member of a political party. Is it more or less difficult 
than you expected? 

Edi Rama: "I do not need to operate in a political field because
my power is not of a political power but a cultural power."

Until now, local Soros Foundation officials have not felt the urgency to
open a "Soros Center for Contemporary Art." This might change soon. Like
in other countries, the leading 'civil society' intellectuals, mainly
writers, were not so sensitive to contemporary art forms let alone
'electronic art'. But there is another, underlying reason for the low
priority status of new culture. Understandibly, human right violations,
food aid and the basic restoration of law and order take highest priority
with Western governments and NGOs. But with this comes a very specific,
subconcious, definition of 'democratic culture', a formalistic,
instrumental and legalistic approach which defines democracy according to
its institutional structures, not to its actual lively elements. We can
see a similar problem in the field of 'independant media'. What counts is
the primacy of frameworks, not initiatives or individual modes of mediated
expression.

Edi Muka: "We can see a standardized way of thinking within these NGOs.
They are working according to pre-established models, without paying too
much attention to the local requests. It is definetely important what they
are doing, to promote NGOs that develop democracy. But what is desperately
needed in Albania is a "cultural revolution." A large program to reach all
generations, not only the young. Let's take one example. The main support
for translations comes of course from the Soros foundation. They are now
mainly doing philosophical books from the fifties and sixties (Nietzsche,
Sartre, Camus...) and literature." Contemporary books on visual arts,
media and cultural politics are a first requirement in order to spread a
comprehensive understanding of the new (media) techonologies, their
internal logic, history and potential. And this counts for many fields in
culture. Otherwise, the existing devide between Western commercial media
trash and post-communistic and nationalistic state-sponsored, folklorism
will establish itself, leaving little or no room for contemporary forms of
expression.

According to Edi Muka, staying in cafes all day long is nonsense--artists
spaces should be created, giving people the possibility to prove
themselves. Step by step this will bring the attention to Albania and will
take away the desire to leave the country. International exchange also
plays an important role in this. Soon, Soros won't be the only source of
money. Pro Helvetia (Swiss) is coming, a French Institute will be
established and perhaps also a German Goethe Institute. Regional exchange
should also increase to avoid ethnic tensions like those experienced with
neighboring Macedonia. Muka: "The tendency should be to find common
points, as citizens of the world, not as ethnic Albanians." 

What is striking is the absence of discourse. There is no Albanian art
magazine. Before 1990, art critics were politicized and condemned in the
early nineties. Within the discipline of art history, political aims
had taken precedence over professional standards. The National Gallery has
taken the initiative to start an art magazine and the first issue is due
to come out soon. Then there is the magazine Perpjekja (Endeavour), a
quarterly cultural journal, edited by Fatos Lubonja. An english anthology
appeared in 1997, edited by Fatos Lubonja and John Hodgson. It takes a
critical approach to developments in Albania and runs translations that
deal with issues common to other former Eastern European countries. A
structure needs to be created to train art historians, critics and
curators. Muka: "What I am doing now is teaching students to write down
their ideas, to arrange a space. But that is not enough. Now it is time to
build the educational programs." A year after the total implosion,
everything beyond boredom and escape seems possible, first of all a second
Piramedia. 

Syndicate: Andreas Broeckmann, A short Piramedia report
http://www.v2.nl/mail/v2east/0741.html

A copy of the Perpjekja/Endavour anthology may be obtained from: John
Hodgson, 30, Green End, Granborough, Buckingham, MK18 3TN, England.

Edi Muka: kiko41 {AT} hotmail.com, tel/fax +355 5222752.

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