Albania: Culture after the Breakdown

Including Interviews with Edi Rama and Edi Muka. A Travelogue, June 1998

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 rhythms 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 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 rhetoric. 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 useful 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 do we describe the situation outside Fortress Europe? Do we only speak in terms of “exclusion”? Or will we end up with an “exotic” view on the picturesque Balkan?

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-privatized 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 “independent 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 favor 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 epistemologically.” 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 revitalizing 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 Ministry of Finance and start to approach NGOs.”

Where are your priorities, in film, visual arts, media? Rama: “Until now, the ministry worked as a sponsor of cultural ghettoization. It supported our self-complimentary 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 Jurassic 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 respect, 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 responsibility 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 marginalised by the gods of politics and culture. The big challenge now is to listen more careful 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. Understandably, 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, subconscious, 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 ‘independent 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 definitely 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) technologies, 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 A copy of the Perpjekja/Endavour anthology may be obtained from: John Hodgson, 30, Green End, Granborough, Buckingham, MK18 3TN, England.