The Unofficial View of Tirana (103)
I Left You The Mountain (installation view), Simon Battisti and Leah Whitman-Salkin, 2016
by Vincent W.J. van Gerven Oei
After experiencing last year, as a project assistant for Armando Lulaj’s “Albanian Trilogy”, the reactionary forces of the Ministry of Culture and the exploitative environment of the Venice Biennale, including one of the most scandalously incompetent curators that I ever met, I was loathe to write about the proceedings of this year’s Architecture Biennale, at which Albania is represented by Simon Battisti and Leah Whitman-Salkin’s project I Have Left You the Mountain. This not in the last place because I was one of the competitors – against my better judgment, I admit – with a project, developed with architect Elian Stefa (whose Concrete Mushrooms project was one of the early inspirations of my own Albanian Lapidar Survey) that addressed the “front lines” of Albanian architecture: the derelict and desecrated former political prison of Spaç, the immigrant camp on the “technological accident” site of Gërdec, and Albania’s only island and former military base, Sazan. So in order to avoid any “conflict of interest” or to come across as a sour loser of sorts, I had decided in advance to stay out of the coverage surrounding the pavilion.
Unfortunately, other “conflicts of interest,” and the fact that the artistic pedigree of Simon and Leah’s work as well as their political motivations has been called into question from several different angles, requires me to take this up, if only to turn it into a cautionary tale for any well-meaning foreigner who thinks it is a good career move to tread in the troubled waters of contemporary Albanian cultural politics and the Third Way propaganda machine that has usurped most of its production. As expressed clearly a week ago by renowned author and translator Ardian Vehbiu on his blog Peizazhe të fjalës:
In the current political–cultural context, when we see how the government is using public money not to serve culture of the public itself, but to promote its own politics in an attempt to establish specific cults, both political and cultural, we cannot stay indifferent and accept that we are part of this tasteless performance, staged each day under the eyes of the taxpayers.
The omnipresence of the “Great Appropriator” Edi Rama’s hand in each and every Albanian cultural “product” that is revealed to the world, makes the current cultural atmosphere suffocating to say the least, forcing every single cultural producer to make a choice: are you with the government or against it. This choice is an imposed choice, but the conditions of its imposition are unfortunately impossible to address on only the cultural, artistic, or aesthetic level. At the end of the day the imposition of this choice, this demand to choose sides, is the result of a deliberate strategy of cultural tension, which makes a “third,” “outside,” or “independent” position nearly completely impossible.
Thus, there are currently two available options: either to become subservient as your work is shown as decoration for misguided urban planning initiatives or to amuse foreign dignitaries, or to find modes of exhibition that are not tainted by the presence of governmental exploiters or to explore the last remaining pockets of uninfected space, such the dilapidated walls of Tirana on the backside of the brightly colored façades that continue to fail to keep up good appearances.
Sadly, the first category is by far the largest, containing everything ranging from artists desperate to leave (but whereto, Tirana in the new Berlin?!) to minister’s wives who earn a nice living with “non-profit” work while threatening to silence any critique on “her” government with lengthy litigation. The second category is exceedingly small, but includes exciting new initiatives, such as the collective Çeta (a term for guerrilla units during the National Liberation War), which produced a number fantastic stencils. So let’s start with the good news.
“Mos bli presh, bli dinamit”, Çeta, 2016
First “Mos bli presh, bli dinamit” (Don’t Buy Leek, Buy Dynamite), which uses the image of an elderly street vendor who was abused by the police as they “confiscated” her “illegal” vegetables, a direct effect of the misguided government policy of “combating” “illegal” street vendors in an attempt to “eliminate” the “informal economy,” which of course thrives as never before in the upper echelons of the government, which ever more shamelessly shows its close ties to the criminal world – a world know for its love of C4.
“Vojo Kushi”, Çeta, 2016
Second is my personal favorite, an adaptation of the famous 1969 socialist realist painting of anti-fascist resistance hero Vojo Kushi by Sali Shijaku, not throwing his hand grenade into a tank or a modernist painting, but into one of the many anonymous black luxury vehicles driven by politicians, businessmen, and their children alike, talking on the phone, without seatbelt, and speeding through the streets of Tirana with utter impunity. How these status symbols can be afforded is of course not a question that is ever asked when combating “informality.”
“Server is Busy”, Çeta, 2016
Their most recent work appeared on the streets on May 4, and references the message shown to nearly 200.000 Albanians as they frantically tried to log in to the American Visa Lottery homepage to check whether they got a free ticket out of the country. That is nearly 10% of the population pinging a single website – and in spite of an entire Biennale Pavilion full of the theme “immigration,” not a single word from our cabinet of art-loving ministers.
But let’s return to our international artists, curators, and architects, which did not have any “prior” engagement with any local actors and did not arrive by invitation of the government (such as HUO’s entire address book trampling the sad remainders of Tirana’s green space). The fact of the matter is, is that these “neutral” cultural producers are offered exactly the same choice as those resident in Albania – with the caveat that they may not be sufficiently aware of its meaning: to collaborate or to resist. Now some people have accused me of holding a Manichean view on this particular subject; art would “transcend” politics and be “far away” from it – oh, the miraculous pipe dreams of the privileged avant-garde that never was!
Instead, I invite you to try to imagine a country in which every single cultural institution is curated and directed by people hand-picked by a reactionary government masquerading behind the veil of “openness,” in which most of the exhibitions in those institutions are tendered as personal favors, and in which funding to any outside initiative – for example through relatively independently operating cultural foundations and councils – is wholly absent. In any such context, for each and every artist the choice – resist or collaborate – should be as clear as the light of day. Yes, this is a ridiculous, absurd, and unacceptable choice, and of course there are meta-choices, namely to leave or to overturn the system that created this choice in the first place. But as long as you do neither, resistance or collaboration are your only two options.
Curator Leah Whitman-Salkin, Minister of Culture Mirela Kumbaro, curator Simon Battisti
And so this is the point, I suppose, that is at the core of my critique of the current Albanian Pavilion at the Architecture Biennale: that the curators refused to ever make that choice, and that it now has been made for them – with, I am afraid, no way back. Here’s why: because an article published a few days ago on web portal Exit (which also regularly publishes translations of my blog posts), under the title “Rama’s ‘clique’ has arrived at the Venice Biennial in the name of Albania.” The article sketches the incestuous organization around PM Rama, which internally continuously pushes favors and jobs around, and, once again, shows to what extent clientelism and nepotism have infected the Albanian cultural milieu. Its main problem, however, is that at a crucial point suggests a faulty chronology, which could implicate one of the curators in a wrong way. So first let me get this straight.
The jury for the selection of the winning entry for the Albanian Pavilion of the Architecture Biennale consisted of Italian architect Elisabetta Terragni, artist Anri Sala, Director of the National Agency for Territorial Planning (AKPT) Adelina Greca, Director of the Institute of Monuments Arta Dollani, and art historian and professor Gëzim Qëndro. The article rightfully points at Simon Battisti’s previous connection with Adelina Greca, organizing a summer workshop for Atelier Albania, and I myself have to disclose that Gëzim Qëndro wrote a great text for my Lapidari project. Sala is of course is Rama’s BFF, to whom he donated an entire space in his recent solo show at The New Museum, with accompanying PR. Also, all jury members except for Qëndro owe their position or projects completely or in part to Rama.
Anyhow, the article makes a big point about the fact that Terragni, Dollani, Greca, and curator Leah Whitman-Salkin were together in the jury for the Gjirokastër bypass competition, which caused a scandal because the winner was announced beforehand (it was Atelier 4, which has won a lot of Rama’s tenders). This competition, however, took place nearly a month after Simon and Leah’s project was announced the winning entry for the Biennale. This correction I make here for the record, but the conclusion drawn by the Exit article, in the end, does not rest on one chronology or the other. The fact that one of the winning curators took part in a jury after their nomination might as well be as strong an indication of nepotism as when she had done so before, and all the other links between Rama c.s. are as they are. And again, if one, as an artist, curator, or architect, refuses or fails to take a clear position toward the current government, this position will be inferred from your actions – and this is precisely what the Exit article did.
Then, content. How does the actual project itself hold up against this atmosphere of ideological violence? According to the mobile website of the Pavilion:
I Have Left You The Mountain presents ten new texts written by contemporary writers and thinkers on the architecture of displacement. These texts have been set to music and sung by some of the last remaining groups of Albanian iso-polyphonic singers, an art form now protected as “intangible cultural heritage” by UNESCO.
A living art form in step with generations of migration and transition, “singing migration” has been a core part of processing departure, longing, and return. The Albanian Pavilion is a space of collective listening, of “individuals in company.”
I Have Left You The Mountain initiates a conversation about the urbanism of displacement, projecting the Albanian case onto an international stage, with the express intention to transmit that dialogue and its speculations back into Albania.
I would love to do a close reading of the actual texts of the songs presented in the Pavilion, but I have not yet seen them. However, thinking about how Albanians are currently the single largest immigrant group in northern Europe, and that Albania has become a trafficking hub for refugees, just like the drugs that move through its territory on a daily basis, I find it very problematic that the Ministry of Culture, in the face of such a potentially very serious project and a perfect opportunity to start a broad, nation-wide discussion on immigration, diaspora, and displacement (I am thinking of the Roma and villagers whose houses are destroyed without compensation in order to make way for dams and highways), only manages to post pictures of smiling guests and a bunch of civil servants on a tax-money paid holiday to Venice and tweet freely about how displacement and migration are now the “fabric” of Tirana. Note: This is not a fun story to go viral with!
In other words, even if the work of Leah and Simon admirably set out to open this discussion and have “the express intention to transmit that dialogue and its speculations back into Albania,” the government clearly thought that their work should be marketed otherwise – and again it is my claim that they should have known this from the beginning. Ironically, it appears that their migration into Albania his created the conditions for instrumentalization of their own work.
The second point is perhaps even more serious, which is the resonance the Albanian Pavilion has with several art works and curatorial events produced in recent years, all which engage the tradition of isopolyphonic singing. First, an event organized in 2013 by several artists and curators, “Polifoni (pa fustanellë),” departing from an analogy between isopolyphonic singing and psychoanalytic discourse.
Second, a video work, also from 2013, by Macedonian artist Gjorgje Jovanovik, “They All Wait for Me to Pay.” Like I Have Left You The Mountain, new lyrics were written for an isopolyphonic ensemble, and although the thematic is not explicitly migration, the project text definitely suggests very similar movements and temporalities as evoked in the Albanian Pavilion concept text:
THEY ALL WAIT FOR ME TO PAY is an attempt to connect the past and the present by using the format of singing and story telling. The voice of the past incorporated in the unique form of Iso-Polyphonic singing with the voice of the present expressed in the poetry of young poet Rubin Beqo, but also the voice of all the people willing to articulate their opinions and positions regarding the current conditions and problems of their everyday life.
THEY ALL WAIT FOR ME TO PAY is an attempt to think about the current conditions and the recent past, the turbulent times of changing systems, the loss or lack of communication and understanding in the neoliberal context.
And then finally, a 2015 video work by the artist duo Effi and Amir, entitled “Housewarming,” which again featured newly written texts for an isopolyphonic ensemble. In this case, the theme of immigration is even explicitly mentioned in the accompanying text:
In a two-dimensional dystopian landscape of deserted half-built houses in Albania, a new mythology is in the making. The filmmakers, perhaps a contemporary incarnation of Goldilocks from the tale of the Three Bears, invade the houses and occupy their empty, liminal space and its missing furniture. The local community comments in song and speech about the new arrivals and their enterprise of an immigration in an opposite direction, from the full to the empty, from excess to lack.
Although I am aware that this is not the Art Biennale, and that perhaps we should not demand from architects the same background knowledge about local artistic practices and history before they launch head-first into a project that certainly has some artistic pretense, while running the severe risk of coming across as orientalizing an “indigenous,” “unique,” and “UNESCO-protected” tradition, the Albanian collaborators that they have surrounded themselves with would certainly have known about the existence of these projects, and their uncomfortably close proximity to the Albania Biennale entry. In fact, one of the coproducers, Edit Pulaj (who also happens to Mayor of Tirana Erion Veliaj’s art councillor and is good friends with both Sala and Rama), was in the same residency program as Gjorgje Jovanovik when the latter produced “They All Wait for Me to Pay,” and must certainly have been aware of the uncanny likeness of the project approach, namely to use iso singing to address social issues through newly written texts. Now, because local artists are already hyper-aware about plagiarism (because it’s everywhere: from local signage to police uniforms to fast food chains to television shows, everything is a rip-off, even the Parreno on Rama’s office is, in its very special way, a rip-off of a Parreno), not paying attention or due respect to these predecessors – even if ex post – is not a smart move and again suggests that you made a choice.
All of this shows an unfortunate lack of mastery of the context in which the curators have operated. Because their work has failed to take the works of Jovanovik and Effi & Amir into account, the former of which is much more open in its social critique, and the latter of which is very close in terms of form/content, they have also missed the opportunity for their own work to be grounded in another artistic lineage than the one dominated by the current government. Because of this failure to place their work within a tradition of work with/about iso-polyphony, instead seemingly suggesting to the unwitting Biennale audience that this is a previously untapped resource of cultural wealth, they have foreclosed the frame of interpretation to such an extent that the only possible interpretation now is and will be the conclusion of the Exit article: “Rama’s clique claims to represent Albania.” And those left behind shout “plagiarism!” This may be thoroughly unfair toward the actual motivations of the curators, but a very real effect of the atmosphere I tried to sketch out in the opening paragraphs. In fact, my analysis here is formally identical to my critique of some of the LGBT movement’s recent “choices.”
The cover of “How Things Meet” by Falma Fshazi, Stefano Graziano, and 51N4E
Returning one last time to the Exit article, it ends by describing the involvement of ill-famed Belgian architecture studio 51N4E, whose clientelism and corruption I have sketched out before, in the Albanian Pavilion. Again there is a factual error, because 51N4E is not exhibiting there, instead taking part in the general exhibition with their contribution “Play for Real,” dealing mainly with the TID Tower (in popular parlance, “The Trashcan”), according to Rama himself “the most beautiful building in Albania.” Because of the cynicism (or naivety) dripping from their concept text, I am happy to reproduce it here:
Without any firm commitments, we started to travel back and forth between Brussels – the administrative capital of Europe, where all positions have been settled – to Tirana, Albania – a country notoriously outside of Europe, where positions are still in flux. Our reason was the largest architectural project ever commissioned in the capital city. We moved from one difficult situation to another. At home, strict regulations and procedures limit chances for creative collaborations. In Albania, it was the opposite: the rules are so unclear, implemented so haphazardly, and often avoided altogether. But to our surprise, this improbable situation unleashed unexpected possibilities.
An architecture that is open to any future programme evolved out of this encounter. Within the permeability of boundaries, a new form of dialogue was invented, one that responded to evolving ambitions and was based upon a gradual acquisition of knowledge. The lack of a predefined set of rules forced us to learn in partnership, and to challenge expertise and local capabilities in real-time. A relationship of trust was forged, out of which a shared dream was built; in the place where one would least expect it, we co‐created an unlikely icon.
Let’s begin with the first sentence. Contrary to what they may believe, Albania is not outside of Europe. It may – thank God – not a part of the immoral alliance of nationalist disasters a.k.a. the EU, but the last time I checked it fit squarely on the European continent. This first sentence thus immediately reveals an orientalist attitude, in which Brusselian architectural power brokers visit “positions that are in flux,” “unclear,” and full of “unexpected possibilities.” Yes it’s true that in a clientelistic environment much is possible if you’re close with those who pull the strings, and that’s exactly what 51NE4 has done, building the “largest architectural project ever commissioned” (this I highly doubt, thinking of the many kilometers of underground bunker and all the military installation around the city built during communism), but also Edi Rama’s private house, Skënderbeg Square, and, as has to my shock become clear, also the monuments to the victims of January 21, 2011.
51N4E, “21-January Memorial” (2014, not publicly credited).
I have difficulties parsing this image. The claim of an architecture company on a memorial for victims that Albanian politics has left squarely to rot in their grave, with Rama fully abandoning his promise for justice during the 2013 election campaign. The fact that on 51NE4’s website the image is marked with “Realized by the support of Brussels Export.” The fact that, like Rama’s private residence (and probably also the COD), this “unexpected possibility,” this “unlikely icon” was never credited to them (of course it would have been a political scandal) – which signals that they were unable or unwilling to take responsibility for it. Only now, 5 years later, it appears on their website. There is only one word with which to respond to this utterly unethical behavior: charlatans!
Was there no Albanian artist capable of producing a monument, someone like Pleurad Xhafa, whose “Monument to Failure” commemorated the victims of the Gërdec explosion on a tree cut in front of the Presidential Palace, before Erion Veliaj destroyed it with a smile on his face and personally planted a new tree in its stead? No, Rama apparently thought it necessary to fly in some non-plussed Belgians to commemorate the deaths he so shamefully neglected, deaths for which he is no small part personally responsible.
So, these architectural charlatans, these “design guns for hire” did organize a book presentation inside the Albanian Pavilion of a publication with the Albanian title “Eja” (which means “Come!”) and English “How Things Meet.” This book is “written” by Falma Fshazi, who is director of Rama’s Center for Openness and Dialogue, in whose board we find Rama, Sala, and 51N4E’s Johan Anrys, among others. The Exit article does a pretty good job in describing the further, incestuous, and all Albanian-architecture-competition related links between them and others in the periphery.
Falma Fshazi herself has no literary pedigree whatsoever, except having translated Edi Rama’s book Kurban into Turkish. Under the entry “Stories” her website gives the prompt “Apologies, but no entries were found.” She of course conveniently forgets to mention that she used to be Rama’s main speech writer, and therefore chiefly responsible for much of verbal abuse her boss has launched into atmosphere. This book is therefore yet another work of Proparama, this time facilitated by an architecture studio that is very busy “forging relationships of trust.”
The stories accompanying this publication are a childish collection of “encounters” and “stories” around the TID Tower, artificially implying a communality where there clearly is none. Most of the conversations between Eja and figures with future-y Cloud Atlas names such as Ont, Lisle, and Louza are full of non sequiturs and forced attempts at philosophizing. The TID Tower is compared with a “sacred place” in a no-man’s-land between West and East, effectively erasing the actual urban context in which the building was built, except for a few touristic must-see landmarks. Incoherent and misplaced references to Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, philosopher Slavoj Žižek, a litany of previous 51N4E projects, Le Corbusier, and Ismail Kadare are sprinkled through the text, but to no narrative purpose whatsoever. It’s just whatever popped in Fshazi’s head while writing, and her unconscious no doubt had free reign to dump everything indiscriminately on the page. This shameless collections of vacuous name dropping is then packed with flashy photographs and documentation of 51N4E’s exciting experiences in Albania producing unnamed monuments for unavenged deaths and private houses and cultural play dens for an autocratic leader. All of this sold to the unwitting Biennale visitor for a mere 35 Euros.
This book is neither written nor (I hope) endorsed by Simon or Leah, but it remains a fact that 51N4E, Falma Fshazi c.s. were able to use the pavilion they designed as a home for their propaganda, with the public backlash and media confusion in Albania as a result. Like many other moments in this entire process I have discussed above, this could have been a moment to resist and say “no” – in the same way that many of us, day in day out, attempt to make our “no” heard. And it is a pity that this opportunity was once again missed.
About the Author:
Vincent W.J. van Gerven Oei is a philologist, director of project bureau for the arts and humanities The Department of Eagles, and runs multilingual publishing house Uitgeverij. For Berfrois he writes a regular series on the state and concept of Albania, where he lives and works most of the time.