Edi Muka is perhaps the person I have interviewed most, five times by now. Beneath a selection of these talks, made over a period between 1996 and 1999, in which Albania first tried to recover from decades of isolation and poverty, then imploded after the breakdown of the pyramid scheme (March 1997), again faced moments of civil war (September 1998) and had to cope with the influx of hundreds of thousands of refugees during the Kosovo/a crisis in the spring of 1999. But first, back to September 1996 when I met Edi Muka for this first time during the ‘V2_East’ meeting, a part of the DEAF-conference in Rotterdam. Eduard Muka works as an artist and assistant-professor in the visual arts department of the academy of visual arts in Tirana. He also works with a group of young artists to promote the alternative arts movement in Albania. In 1990, still a student, he took part in the movements which threw over the former communist regime. In the confusion period afterwards, Muka spent some time in Italy and after having returned, he was invited to teach at the academy of fine arts.
What happened within the Albanian arts right after the changes in the early nineties?
In 1992, the Soros Foundation organized an exhibition of paintings, because that was the only known medium at the time. This was the first moment where you could see some different tendencies (let’s not call them new). There was this huge gap of information since the mid-fifties between Albania and what was going on elsewhere in the world. All these people were raised according to the socialist realist methods. Artists, which are supposed to be a rebel, having suffered a lot under this cruel regime, scarcely dared to take the ship and get to Italy. So in 1992, in this first exhibition, artists tried to escape reality. No escape from the country (because they did not have the courage), but an escape from the known schemes into formalism. It was a revival of abstract painting, looking outmoded, if you put it out of it’s context. Nobody thought of concepts and ideas, everybody fought against them. Take for example Edi Hila, one of the greatest Albanian artists and the former dean of the Fine Art Academy, who had a series of abstract paintings. Nobody could get out of this revolt against conceptuality and realism. But Hila’s work was to a certain extent influenced by the Tirana environment, which in the early nineties was completely destroyed. Or Vladimir Myrtezai, an artist in his mid-thirties, who has recently made some installations. But he also comes from a painting background. He has been one of the first formal artists, using pure geometrical, abstract forms. Gazmend Leka is also a painter, who produced around 1992 a series of abstract graphics with some figurative elements. Now he is dealing in the paintings with religious characters, even though it is abstract. At that time, being in Italy, I had to make my living as a painter, making portraits and landscapes. Besides this, I began making researches into conceptuality. When I came back after a year, I had a personal show, which included conceptual paintings and installations. It had good reactions from the public, but some very bad ones from the conservative side, which, unfortunately, is in power in Albania nowadays. The controversy started in the newspapers, they are not open- minded, they want everything to remain within the tradition of painting as a craft. Students have to become craftsmen, they are not interested in the artistic process. We just want to make the students able to analyze the situation in a visual way, with the medium he or she wants to choose. But this controversy does not take place as an artistic debate, it is just a matter of power. You are not given the right to defend your ideas. In this respect, the help from foundations or other organizations is vital. Even if we lose one battle, we are going to win the war. Religious art is not involved, that is at least one good thing. What the current power promotes is the ability of the artist to move the brush in a certain way and create the surface. It is a very superficial, formalistic demand. They don’t want to offer the students something they themselves do not even know, which is bad, because the school is the right place to do experiments. You better direct the students in an unknown territory, and let them discover, even by making mistakes.
Under which circumstances does media art have to make a start?
The isolation is still having its impact. The information we receive about alternative media, including media art, is very limited. I share all the material I get with my colleges and students. Only freedom is changing things. Media art has only just started. I can mention a young artist, his name is Anri Sala, he used to come from a painting background, shifted to installations, worked with photography and has just produced two videos, a 20 minutes long piece called ‘The Tongue’, which I showed here at DEAF. He also produced a computer show recently. A problem here is the difficulty to link up with history. Regarding experimental film, it is impossible, there wasn’t anything. But there is a famous dynasty of photographers in Shkodra, which is in the North of Albania. There is a phototheque in this city with marvelous material, now being restored. It contains mostly documentary photos, done in an artistic way, landscapes, family portraits. The first Albanian artistic photo show was held in April 1996, in the Ernst Museum in Budapest. I worked together with Katalin Timar on this show and was amazed by the conceptual quality, despite all the technical problems that still exist. The students of the fine arts academy also did a first photo exhibit with the same conceptual cargo. In 1995 we were able to establish a photo lab in the academy, with the help of the Soros Foundation and the British Council. This year the school will open a computer atelier and a designers program. But the school broke all the programs we had prepared, due to the political changes after the elections in May. There will be no room for research. But they only want to teach the students the craft, not the artistic, creative process. A new project concerns building up an archive of Albanian art of the last fifty years, because it does not exist at all. We would like to interview and document the works and lives of older and younger artists, not only to conserve it, but also to build up our new experience, whatever our past experience is. We just cannot and must not deny it and make profit of it. Making it accessible through the Internet could be a first step of showing what media communication is. We inherited a sort of hatred towards the media. There were a lot of lies, nothing was exact, there was only propaganda. Still there is only one state television channel and it is even worse than it used to be. The distrust towards media could be a good starting point for artists to make their critical approach in regards to media. I look at media as the highest degree of manipulation humanity has ever invented. In this sense, this could be really used, to fit the works of artists, raising social or individual imperatives. Nobody has any idea how it came to post modernism and contemporary art. Everybody thinks that modernism is just abstraction, the fugitive way from the real image. We are working on a book with translations to clear such basic misunderstandings and we work with catalogues I brought from abroad. In Albania there are no rich people with access and the poor who cannot get to the information or technologies. Perhaps 5% made money in recent years. 0.5% is middle class, the rest is all the same. To share information now is not so much the problem. What matters is how to fit the media psychology into the Albanian mentality of the artistic audiences. The controversy is not between the media and the audience, but between media and the arts. We have to force our way into the scene and to show what the possibilities are.
Since this first interview, a lot happened in Albania. In early March 1997 the country broke down into a state of anarchy, after pyrimid schemes tumbled. Edi Muka made it to the nettime meeting in Ljubljana, in late May (‘The Beauty and the East’) to report on the current (media) situation. Then, after the elections of June 29 1997, he came to Germany and participated in the ‘Deep Europe’ group which took place at Documenta X/Hybrid Workspace where we recorded the following conversation.
In the Western press, the events of March 1997 in Albania have been described in blurry and terrifying terms like ‘chaos’ and ‘anarchy’. Some tried to explain it as a ‘civil war’, but it wasn’t quite like that. Are those terms appropriate? Should we speak of a ‘revolt’? Perhaps for the first time since Budapest 1956, there was an armed uprising of some sort in Europe.
First of all, we cannot talk in terms of a civil war. It never took place. I am an anarchist myself and I would never call this anarchy. The mess in Albania was caused by the leading force, the Democratic Party and its government. It was a people’s protest. The element of violence we faced was of a very specific nature. There was not any violence used during the time of the protests. All the protests were held without any arms, at least on the side of the people. Of course the police were armed and shot in the air and sometimes in the crowd. At a certain point, the government surrounded the whole city of Vlora and intended to send the army there. But at that moment the army disobeyed and abandoned their positions. That is why we had such a mess. All the depots and barracks were left alone. The number of people going there, taking tanks and guns was limited. In response to this, the Democratic Party made up this story of the South fighting the North. They promised their supporters very good fees. But on the whole there were very few military actions, beside some incidents. In Vlora, the (ex-) President Berisha tried to attack the city and he failed. Another provocation took place in the small city of Cerrik, where he did send his troops. The whole city then fought back. Five of the attackers were killed and then they left the city. Most of the killings happened because of the guns, once they were out. The gun became a presence in itself, a fetish, a very active one. But the gun was very material. It is killing people.
What happened to you in this period of unrest?
Basically it started last May, on the 26th, when we had the parliamentary elections stolen by the Democratic Party. On the 28th, by doing a public beating of the opposition leaders in the middle of Tirana they stated that this was going to be the way they rule. It became dangerous to speak out. Everything was controlled. I know it sounds ridiculous but they were even controlling the e-mail. They were allowing only one server, the one in the UNDP office. They did not care too much about the press. There was the opposition newspaper, the Koha Jone. At a certain point they beat them up and closed their offices. I was lucky not to have suffered. I became scared when the students began protesting because I was deeply involved in that. By the time they got to my person the uprising in Vlora started so they did not pay so much attention to the capital. But our internationally well-known artist Edi Rama was heavily beaten by the secret police of Berisha. He survived only because of the physics — he is big enough. Right in front of his home.
How do you look at the international involvement? There is always the suspicion of (post) colonial behavior of Italy. Again, the EU was divided what to do, like in the case of Bosnia. What did you think of the late humanitarian intervention and the half-hearted attempts to restore order?
The Albanian case was the consecutive failure of Europe about how to deal with the Balkans. This has to do with their strange attitude towards democracy. I would call it ‘context democracy’. There is the Dutch context and a different democracy there. And they say that this is the kind of democracy that fits the Albanians. This is how they ended up supporting Berisha to the very end. This is horrible. He is a dictator. How could they close their eyes? The EU and all the rest is unable to predict events. It is true that there is a strong Italian influence. Italy is forced to be involved in this because of its sea border. The Albanians would ‘attack’ Italy with an exodus in case of big trouble. So for the Europeans it is easy to delegate this case to Italy. Someone on the street was asked his opinion on the day of the arrival of the ‘multinational force’. He answered that it could have been done in a much easier way: just make a statement that Berisha should go away. Get rid of him and then things will start to improve. Why send troops? They were not really interested in helping Albanians. They wanted to forbid Albanians to take the boat to Italy. That’s all. Everybody was laughing when they heard about some ‘humanitarian’ intervention. There was no aid coming at all. Albania did not need humanitarian aid at all. I know this because I went to the South to make reports. It was about 400 tons of beans and 600 tons of flour.
How do look back at the election of June 29 and the change of government? The situation seems to be stable at the moment.
I was truly amazed about the calm during election day. Everybody had expected a massacre, or at least fights between the different parties. But nothing happened, which means that the Albanian people had made up their mind. Of course, the balance changed in an extreme way. We could not have expected to have a more center-balanced, pluralistic choice. That is why the left wing parties won the majority. There is a big willingness to end all of what happened. The same mistakes will not be made. On the other side, there are a lot of problems the government has to deal with. The biggest problems are the guns. It is estimated that there are about one million Kalashnikoffs around. Nobody was aware that there were so many weapons in the country. You may have seen pictures on TV of Albanians carrying five or ten Kalashnikoffs. It was very easy to get them. The second problem are the losses to individuals in the pyramid schemes. The new government promised to give back the money. It was not like this, but in a passionate moment they made this promise. What they could do is to make transparent where the money went. Berisha tried to avoid this by any means. I heard that they are organizing armed gangs to keep the situation destabilized. They sense that if public order is restored, the money problem will not be so acute anymore. The people now only want one thing: to have the public order restored. What I feared most during the troubles was the impact that it will have on future generations. But the way in which the Albanians dealt with the elections was a very positive sign. Vlora was the first city to come up with the election results. No single incident was reported there. It is amazing how spirit can conquer paranoia.
What are your plans for the coming year? Do you encourage foreigners to visit you? There is a strange mix of fear of chaos and a curiosity about it at the same time, an exoticism amongst Westerners when it comes to Albania. How should an exchange be organized?
Relations have changed in Albania. I no longer belong to the group that was persecuted. This does not mean that I am in power. I do not like to be in power and prefer to be in opposition. I would like to see a professional debate between me and the people that think in a different way. Not that they are in power and can do whatever they want. Practically, I would like to build up a new atelier, an intermedia department within the Academy of Fine Arts. The attempts are there. The students are there, but no equipment. I feel that I have a lot of support now from colleagues. It is the right moment to have a positive split of the arts community. Now it is moment to say: ‘I am like this and you are like that’. We know who we are and what we are doing. In terms of exchange, we are very open. There is a growing need in the West also to collaborate with the East. You can see it also in the different terminology like ‘Ex-East’ or… ‘Deep Europe’. Western societies are now in a crisis through the impact of technology. In the past, Western societies used their own points of reference in order to overcome these crises inside their culture. But now this has changed and the West now looks outside of its borders for new points of reference. That is the mechanism, and I also like it. Finally we will no longer be exotic anymore. I try to make Albanian artists aware of this and wipe out the inferiority complexes they have. There has been a projection on Westerners of your own desires. But East Europeans know by now that the reality of their ideal looks different. This new consciousness should be used in the new, increasing forms of communication that now open up. The cultures of the East European countries, or their potentials, can be used as a counterbalance to the technological nonsense.
In May 1998 I visited Albania for the first time and wrote the following report in which interviews with the artist and minister of Culture, Edi Rama, and Edi Muka are included.
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 pitoresque Balkan “province”?
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 NGO’s. 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 mailing list 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 looking cool as ever–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…). 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 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 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, filled with a dark-brown atmosphere of burocratic power.
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 NGO’s.” 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 marginalized 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 NGO’s. 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 NGO’s 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 divide 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 Muka, staying in cafes all day 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.”
Four month later, suddenly, breaking news: a report from Tirana, September, 25, 1998.
Edi Muka, how are you? Is everyone safe and alive? Did you go out on the streets last week? How is Edi Rama, the artist, now minister of culture? Is he in hiding? And the others?
Hi everyone. I am ok and everyone is alive. Regarding safety it’s become a matter of humor now (apparently it is the only way to handle the situation). Of course I was out in the streets last week. it’s impossible to stay inside (except for some hours when streets of Tirana were under the control of gangs and thieves, that first attacked the institutions and than turned back to loot the shops). Edi Rama is ok and safe. He went through some time of hiding because as it is well known he is one of the main opposers of Berisha and his tactics and also because immediately after recapturing the TV he went on line giving an interview speaking clearly about what happened and whom was the inspiriting source. For this reason his life was in serious danger, there were telephone calls threatening to kill him and so on.
In early June, when we had the Piramedia/Syndicate meeting in Tirana, you told us that the Berisha gangs were operating in the South of the country. Back then he tried to start armed revolts but they somehow failed. Now he almost succeeded. Do you think this is due to fact that the current government of Nano has been making a miscalculation concerning his intentions to unleash an armed rebellion?
This is due to many factors, not only because of miscalculations of the government. of course the government was really slow and not determinant in fighting organized crime and in having the situation totally under control. but on the other hand there is a clear attempt to destabilize the situation in Albania, to bring back the chaos and distract attention from the massacres in Kosova. these attempts evidently comes from secret services interested in continuing the slaughter in Kosova. this too is a minus for the Nano government, which wasn’t able to control anything in these terms. this was very comfortable to the Albanian “plague” called Berisha, which seems to be totally out of his mind. So the next morning after the PD deputy’s death he organized the coup d’etat, openly and in the middle of the day. What was this exactly? A very dangerous political game played by Nano. Because he didn’t want to shoot at the crowd and because he understood that Berisha was out of his mind, he decided to let everything go and the institutions to be captured by armed gangs of DP. After some hours of intensive danger, shooting, looting, dismantling of the state, police finally showed up starting to take the situation under control, recapturing the institutions. but in the mean time we had experienced long hours without state, some hours that brought back the situation of the last year which nobody wants to experience again.
Berisha took over the television for some hours last Tuesday. What exactly happened there? What role does the television play in the current events? And the other media, how do they respond? Would you call it a media(ted) ‘civil’ war, as Western reporters say? Who is owning the power over the guns and cameras…
As I explained above it was part of the game that Berisha should get the television. this was really dangerous because it is the only media that covers all Albania. Can you imagine to see in television some faces that say that “we won – television is ours now” and than giving only false news on the breaking of the prison, on the destruction of police, on surrendering of the national guard etc. the fact that the situation of Tirana didn’t have any resonance anywhere else showed that Berisha doesn’t have support and that he cannot be successful in either way. regarding the other media, the independent ones, they simply transmitted everything, not live but by telephone service and afterwards with images. of course they are important because with the national TV under control of armed gangs, what kind of news can you imagine to get. but the fact is that most of them do cover only Tirana and don’t go much further, so the rest of Albania was just watching the national TV. one more thing, very important. there’s no and there’s never been a civil war in Albania. last year it was masses of people fighting against Berisha and his secret police, while this year, it was Berisha attacking the institutions with guns. so the term “civil war” is completely out of place.
In the spring, the effects of the fighting in Kosova were hardly felt in Tirana. There were concerns, signs of solidarity, not much more. Now there are stories about the involvement of the Berisha gangs in weapon trading with the Kosova Liberation Army. Did you see or feel any impact of this in Tirana?
Kosova has become increasingly important since last spring. of course that the weapon trading reinforced financially and military Berisha and his gangs but it wasn’t only him trading weapons. once more the Albanian government found itself in a difficult position. this because they had to help the refuges coming from Kosova in the northern borders of Albania. For this they had to create some kind of free zone. but this free zone became free under every aspect, even from the governments control. The result of this is that many elements, above mentioned, interested in destabilizing Albania, could penetrate deeply in the territory, getting in contact with the organized crime and becoming dangerously active. now the number of refugees is extremely high and they have settled almost everywhere. The direct impact of this is, for example, that among the gangs that attacked the institutions there were guys from Kosova as well. We still don’t know what their involvement is, but this adds to the actual chaos.
Unlike the implosion of all authority in March 1997, this time a few Western ‘Eurocops’ are monitoring the crisis in Tirana. What is the (non) impact of their presence? And how about the Italian army?
First I would like to emphasize that there is no foreign army in Albania. there’s only some Italian navy ships with a composed crew of Italians and Albanians, fighting the clandestine traffic between Italy and Albania. Regarding Eurocops I still cannot say anything about their job. the fact that police disappeared for some hours is a hopeless one, but if we consider it as part of the political game, adding to this some very successful reactions of police stations towards armed attacks from criminals related to Berisha and to the other destabilizing groups, I cannot say that their work has been totally ineffective. On the other hand, Europe is still bringing up their strange attitudes for democratic standards in countries in development. after strongly condemning Berisha’s move as an attempt to come in power through the force of guns, now they are preventing the Albanian justice to operate towards him and many others that inspired and organized that attempt. I wonder what would any of them say in regards if such a thing would have happened in their country.
A few months ago, you developed an ambitious plan to open the Albanian Center for Contemporary Arts, inside the pyramid building, the former international Cultural Center. Simultaneously, negotiations were under way to open a similar Soros SCCA branch. One can suspect a serious setback after all what happened last week.
Of course yes. after being seriously under the threat of death you can imagine that you cannot immediately start where you had left. the contemporary art center was only one of the cultural projects on development on the other hand, even if you are a superman I don’t think that you could resist and continue as nothing has happened, if such a chaos repeats once a year. this time I feel really tired and uncertain about my plans. as far as there will be a monster like Berisha around, I’m afraid that all my energies will get consumed in survival terms and I don’t like this at all. that’s why I don’t have any answer for you regarding the plans for the center of contemporary arts, and also I find it a bit ridiculous to say again this time, “I hope things will get better soon.” Eight months later, with the Kosova crisis culminating towards it end, in a period of chaos, and despair, I corresponded again with Edi. Albania had just absorbed thousands of refugees from Kosova.
Let me first of all congratulate you with your new job. Could you describe us the Pyramid? I suppose there is not much yet. To what extend will it become a cultural center?
Thanks, of course it’s a difficult task because it is coming in a very difficult moment for culture in Albania and because the pyramid building itself and its structure and infrastructure are in a pitiful shape. also the corresponding legislation to the state of building is a strange one with a lot of restrictions for a purely cultural institution. anyway, like everywhere else, money remains the main problem. In this case it has several specifics: the building needs an immediate intervention to be repaired and maintained which would cost a lot of money as a minimum; my project is to turn it into the Tirana Center for Contemporary Arts.
At the moment you are preparing the Albanian participation in this years Venice Biennial. What is history and context of this show? Does Albania have a pavilion? To what extend is all this blurred, or defined, by the (post/neo) colonial relations between Italy and Albania? And could you tell us something about your curatorial work? Which themes, and works of art are of significance for this difficult period?
Of course there’s is this post/neo colonial feeling and fashion as well, but things at the moment simply work like that, and we have to kind of follow the rules. There’s one difference though which I like: Politi didn’t act like several Western curators, that come over night and go away with some kind of pre selection they already had in their minds, that usually doesn’t have anything to do with the artists living and working in Albania or wherever. As for my curatorial work, it is much focused on what is called “socially engaged art”, since the territory remains a very strong potential which can not be ignored by the artist. it is strange enough though, but recently this has slightly changed towards a more aesthetic problematic. maybe because the situation became very extreme and direct that art was out of game on reflecting upon it, so the tendency is to reflect upon itself. this looks interesting enough to me, because the frame is completing. there are newer proposals in the Academy and video for example, even though it’s not a trend, has become a clear and stable tendency with interesting and sometimes surprising results.
Let’s talk politics as well. There seems to be a split between a national faction, which is critical of NATO, and the current government, which is supporting the West. Some aspects of the mafia economy might be threatened by an increase of NATO-led military and police activities. On the other hand, civilians could also benefit from Western aid and basic security. But skeptical observers already have pointed out that will not be any substantial financial support to rebuild Albania. Do you think that the war in Kosova will be a turning point for Albania, or will it just be continuation of the permanent crisis? Will the country slip away into a post-apocalyptic state of even further decline? This is a really complicated matter.
To start from the beginning, it is true that all political sides in Albania are trying to profit from the situation, but there isn’t such a thing as being critical to NATO. If such a thing exists, it is not because of NATO bombing, but because it’s hesitation to give a solution, even with the infamous ground troops to the crisis. As for the mafia activities, at the moment they don’t really feel threatened and are flourishing making a lot of money. Even though there is a feeling in the air that if things start to change, like NATO control, “Marshall plan”, and so on, it shall be over for them. That’s maybe why there is this haste in making as much money as possible at the moment. As for the people, they already saw a couple of examples from NATO control, like the airport of Tirana, the harbor of Durres, certain infrastructure points in the country. everybody feels great about that, not only because there is real order in doing things, but also because they pay quite a lot of money for the services they obtain. Therefore if there would be any threat coming from NATO to mafia activities it for sure shall have backing from people, since Albanian politics shall be totally out of the scene. As for the last point, it is very unclear how this conflict shall develop, but I do believe that this is going to be a turning point for Albania. In case there shall be some dirty compromise, that shall not give any solution to hundreds of thousands of deported people, to go back to their homes and land and take decisions for themselves. In that case it is for sure that the country shall not be able to handle the grave situation it is going through. It shall for sure go into a post-apocalyptic state, which shall afflict not only the entire region, but also Italy as the first country of the West, that is already experiencing the huge wave of refugees. But if NATO shall not give up and insist on its demands, than the result shall be a real turning point, not only for Albania and Kosova, but for Serbia even. Maybe it is precisely this that some do not like, because judging from the strategic geographical position that Albania has, it means they would loose a lot in many directions.
We not hear much from the Albanian side, apart from some Kadare remarks. How did you discuss the current issues in the last two months? What does Fatos Lubonja (Perpjekja/Endeavour) say? And Edi Rama, your Minister of Culture?
It is true that the Albanian side is not heard much. On one side this is because we are not well prepared to fight the media war as Serbia is. Second, on this respect we are in a situation which even worse than the war. The situation is really grave and almost explosive. It takes a lot efforts to handle it with the high degree of poverty of Albania, and there is so much to be done that there is not much time and space left to the propaganda. Anyway, this does not mean that there has not been done nothing. Edi Rama has lively participated in several live debates in and out of Albania. There was one for example in which he strongly argued with the Macedonian ambassador about the closing of the border to the deportees from Kosova. On another one, live in the Italian TV, Rai uno, he had an even stronger debate with the communist leader Cosuta which is defending Milosevic and ignoring the tragedy of the Kosovars, for the sake of an “unjust war” that NATO is waging. Also all independent media in Albania continuously do the coverage of the crisis with every night special editions with debates and discussions and direct news from the internet.
In Albania there are around 800 (wild) refugee camps at this moment. How would you describe the influence of this huge amount on the Albanian society? Do you already see some cultural activities as well?
At the beginning the situation was really an emergency one, how to feed and shelter more than half a million people that have gone through the trauma of seeing their relatives slaughtered in front of their eyes. Now it is a bit different, because you have to get used to the new conditions and life finds its way out somehow. Of course there are several cultural activities now, and there is more public because of the many Kosovars that wonder in the streets of Tirana. I can say though that the season took place this year even under very difficult conditions. Hopefully the situation shall get any solution and autumn shall be different. I myself am working towards that near future, that when it comes, I do have some things established. Therefore, this would be the case to start working on exchange and collaboration projects.