Rena Rädle and Vladan Jeremić at Tirana Art Lab’s Performative Exhibition, an interview, and some considerations on “art-washing” and “left-washing”. (Romeo Kodra)

[This text is written in English and not in Albanian, because, firstly, the Albanian readers of this blog know almost all the issues that will be discussed; secondly, because somehow, especially after the last visit in Tirana, few days ago, I felt more foreigner in my birthplace; lastly, because the text concerns mostly non-Albanians people involved in the discussed art event.]

In September I was contacted by my friend Vladan Jeremić, that sent me the link announcing his and Rena Rädle participation at Tirana Art Lab’s Performative Exhibition, and asking about my presence. Their idea was to organize an “action of barricades against gentrification of Paris Commune in Tirana”. Unfortunately I was in Brussels those days. Vladan, considering our intention from 2017 to collaborate, wanted somehow to involve me. But, as I explained to him, I had already closed my experience with Tirana Art Lab, as I lost “connection” with Executive Director Adela Demetja, that in my opinion “belongs to the other side of the barricade” and apparently whatever she does seems contaminated by the prevailing logic of doing art in Albania; in other words: promotion of political power, following the submissive models of Anri Sala, Edi Muka, Erzen Shkololli, Edi Hila, Adrian Paci & Co.

This affirmation can be considered too harsh, but I will try to explain it.

When I turned back at my B&B apartment, I opened the link to read the text presenting the Performative Exhibition 2. After reading it, I understood that my friends were totally out of the context, ignoring the history of Komuna e Parisit in Tirana. I contacted Vladan to clarify some obscure passages of the text, that, as Vladan said to me, was “written by him, Rena and Adela”.

It was immediately clear which part of the text was written by Adela Demetja, because “the ignorance” or voluntarily “ignoring” of the context was too visible (this is becoming a symptomatic trait of making art in Albania). Reading the text I noticed that one of the participants was Valentina Bonizzi, and discovered that “Komuna e Parisit, emerg[ed] during the socialist period”! What an epiphany! So, I told to Vladan that the text “sounds left-washing” and, as I saw it, “your work assembled in this manner will not produce effects”.

Obviously, Vladan reacted questioning on how could I judge their work without seeing it and added that after seeing it I “will be amazed”.

However, beyond his positive expectations, I told him that my opinion was based on the conceptual organization of the text and the bad use of my concepts produced during Tirana Art Lab experience. I also explained him that Valentina Bonizzi was working for Edi Rama’s Center for Openness and Dialogue (COD), and I thought that this should be enough to maintain the distances from her, or at least to be aware and challenge her to clarify on this issue, before any collaboration. In addition, in my opinion, one should consider a problem Bonizzi’s experience at COD, as she works there not because of her CV, but because of her partner, Driant Zeneli, that happens to be cousin of Falma Fshazi, director at COD (Fshazi is “worldwide famous” – who cares about a CV at COD!!! – for translating Edi Rama’s masterpiece KURBAN in Turkish! And that means a lot in Albania!). Moreover, one should also know that Bonizzi is “very interested in some teenage activists fighting against political power” … in Kamza Municipality (headed by opposition Party) … no matter Bonizzi works for Edi Rama, Prime Minister of Albania. So, for her, seems that the problem is elsewhere (According to me, the real question is whether Bonizzi’s work should be considered as “mass distractions or mass destruction” as the works of Sala, Muka, Paci, Hila & Co.). Finally, as I see it, all these facts are connected with the “means of productions” (I bet nobody asked Bonizzi on these issues during her presentation at Tirana Art Lab. But maybe I am wrong. Am I?), which represent a sensitive topic in the framework of Rena Rädle and Vladan Jeremić works (at least this was my impression on their work).

Furthermore, and what I found and considered as most deviating and reactionary, I told to Vladan that Komuna e Parisit in Tirana do not have anything to do with Paris Commune. Far from that.

Firstly, for those who are ignorant or want to ignore the context, Komuna e Parisit was not “emerged during socialist period”. During “socialist period” that part of the city was an Agricultural Cooperative and the state land was cultivated with corn and grain. After 1991, with the change of political regime, there were some scattered illegal buildings constructed (1, 2, 3 floors high). But it is after 2002, with Mayor Edi Rama, that the bulimic constructions of buildings boomed (at least 10 or more floors) and the real Komuna e Parisit “emerged”. And, what is most important, the name Komuna e Parisit, as a quarter, was given during Edi Rama’s period, just to left-wash the neoliberal urban practices (a lot of fans consider Edi Rama as a genius in this original political use of left-washing, but the roots can be easily found in George Soros foundation and Michael Bloomberg‘s way of administering a city).

Everyone in Tirana knows (for more information one should ask to Fatos Lubonja) that Komuna e Parisit was the real vision of Edi Rama for Tirana and, as we experienced in these years, for Albania.

The land of the Agricultural Cooperative at Komuna e Parisit, with the change of the regime, from state socialism to the capitalist free market, was meant to return to the former land owners. But Edi Rama, as Mayor, blocked the propriety certificates of the owners which should have been released by the Municipality of Tirana. In other words, nobody could have had the propriety certificate unless selling the land to the oligarchs of Edi Rama (it is considered that 20% of each building went from the “constructor” to the pockets of former Mayor now Prime Minister of Albania … is anyone still astound by Edi Rama’s bunker-villa in Surrel?). This is a known problem of the transitional Albania, where the legitimate land owners were blackmailed or deliberately robbed (in Albania you can often find three or four “certified” land owners for the same piece of land), or where the workers that became owners of the former state fabrics after the collapse of the regime were left in misery, easy prey for mafia, which in this manner bought for a pittance the whole Albanian assets.

Anyway, all this facts at Komuna e Parisit happened when Tirana was also transformed in a sort of new contemporary art paradise in the South-Eastern Europe and Balkans. So, beyond left-washing urban politics, there was an ongoing art-washing process. And the key figures were the same: Anri Sala, Edi Muka, Edi Hila & Co. Until now, none of them has ever questioned the neoliberal urban practices of Edi Rama.

So after all these missing information, that a curator should provide to the artists before contextualizing their work (but maybe Vladan and Rena needed a PR and a tourist guide for Tirana’s best restaurants), I asked Vladan if he was sure to continue with the idea of connecting Paris Commune and Komuna e Parisit in Tirana. After a hesitation he thanked me and added that a re-framing was going to happen, “more radical”.

After that, we have been in touch during the organization and production of the event. I was glad to see the correction of the ignorance or voluntary ignoring of the context, regarding the emerging of Komuna e Parisit in Tirana, on Tirana Art Lab’s webpage:

But what I felt, especially after seeing the online live intervention, was, again, a total abusive reformulation of what I have done in Tirana Art Lab during 2014-’18. Anyway, before “judging without seeing the work”, I asked to interview the artists and waited to visit Tirana and see what have remained from “amazing” and “more radical” art event, before expressing my opinion. Here is the interview:

Romeo Kodra: What is the connection of the exhibition “Komuna e Parisit revisited” with the historical Paris Commune?
Rena &Vladan: Our starting reference for this work in Tirana is the meaning of the Paris Commune considering the relation between art and politics. The Paris Commune marks a historical instance of political subjectivization of the working class, at a time when new bourgeois art institutions as the academy and art salons flourished in Paris. Realist painter Gustave Courbet was one amongst many cultural workers and artisans who solidarized with the communards and took over important functions in the 72 days lasting workers-led self-government of Paris. The practice of him and his fellow artists was an early example of the avant-garde principle that art and life needs to be brought in one, and that artists need to become a political subject on the side of the working class. Remembering this historical reference, our major question was if such practices have any significance in contemporary Albania and other European peripheries. Our intention was to test and to discover if it is possible to perform the unity of art and politics in Tirana, having in mind that each artistic event is after all limited to a cultural public and can hardly become a mass social manifestation.
Another connection between the title of the exhibition and the local context in Tirana lies in the fact that there exists a street named Paris Commune in Tirana. Despite this fact, the original meaning of the Commune in Tirana is not a common knowledge and it is in a way suppressed by the on-going building and real-estate speculations in the city. Therefore we aimed with the exhibition to underline the emancipatory heritage of the Commune and to recuperate the primary meaning of this name.
R.K.: What is the overall relation of the performative exhibition concept with this historic event?
R&V: The performative exhibition is a format suggested by the curator Adela Demetja, director of TAL. This format is demanding, but it is in the same time very inspiring. In the framework of this format, it is important to realize a kind of constant mobility of artistic production, a certain discoursivity and ability to foster movement. The whole setting was inspiring for us because we managed in the past to develop a specific practice that we determine as transformative artistic practice. This kind of artistic practice puts in the foreground the use value of art and tends to integrate art as a relevant actor in the struggle for social justice. Transformation is a process in which artistic production becomes useful in a concrete political conjunction, but within that transformation art does not loose its artistic qualities. In contrary, the process of transformation provides a new quality of art.
The connection between the artistic transformation we have performed at TAL and the historical notion of the Paris Commune lies in the idea of the political transformation of the artwork, which began during the Commune. Historically, the communards first decided to tear down the Vendome column and then the (unrealized) idea was born to put artworks from Louvre on the barricades, in order to protect themselves from the bourgeois cannons. In that way, the art work became useful for the political purpose and the previous autonomy of the artwork was transformed and in this way art has got a completely new value. With our work in Tirana we went back to the roots of this ideas and performed it concretely with our last intervention together with people from of Aleanca për Mbrojtjen e Teatrit.
R.K. Why this kind of intervention? How did you involve other people? What was their contribution (if any) in terms of concept and production?
R&V: With the aim to produce artistic objects that can function within a protest situation and as symbolic barricades in defence of common space in the urban fabric, at TAL we developed objects from cardboards and wooden sticks that can easily be moved and carried out in the streets. The objects are covered with drawings that conceptualize the struggle against capitalist destruction, some of them refer to the condition of production in the arts, others are more general. At the exhibition at TAL, we have exhibited these objects together with didactic drawings that we made in 2013 in Bucharest for the event “Parasites and Prophets, International Conference on Artistic Production, Organization and Struggle” and as a result of our seminar “Art Production in Restriction. Possibilities of Transformative Art Production and Coalition-Building”. This event we organized in 2015 in Norway and it brought together artists, writers, critics, and curators from Europe and the United States who were active in groups (such as W.A.G.E., ArtLeaks, Occupy Museums, etc.) that are struggling for better working conditions in the arts and society at large. The aim of this event was to come up with a common method for organizing and coalition-building in the art world and beyond. So, both artifacts served as a kind of didactic tools for the visitors in order to politicize their relation to art and labor.
The performative exhibition included as well artistic and research practices by invited colleagues Valentina Bonizzi, Raino Isto and Filip Jovanovski and discussed the function and use value of an artwork within social surroundings, modes of participation and possibilities of artists’ organization in the region and from the socialist past of Albania.
We had already heard some time ago about the plan of the government to remove the National Theatre and about the protests against its demolition and against the privatization of public space in general in Tirana. We’ve established contact with a group of people organizing events at the occupied theater, most of them member of Aleanca për Mbrojtjen e Teatrit and among them Lindita Komani and Elvis Kazazi, and offered them to use the objects for their activities. With them, we organized a joint action and carried the objects from the exhibition space at TAL to the National Theater. Now it is up to them, how they make use of them further in their struggles.
A very interesting “transformative moment” of our work was exactly in the act of carrying the objects trough the city, when they were moved to the theatre by the people who are defending the theatre from demolition. In a very personal manner the activists and artists from the theatre reshaped our mobile art objects and flags and walked with them via major streets of Tirana. They walked along the boulevard and passed by the governmental buildings of prime-minister Edi Rama and National Gallery. The parade had lot of attention by the passers-by and it was a clear message that a protest is performed in front of their eyes.
R.K. Is there any thing new that you discovered from the context (in terms of art, culture, politics)?
R&V:We have been here in Tirana for the first time in 2005 when we participated in the Tirana Activism Festival organized by MJAFT, but these were different times. Now the change is quite visible. We are very surprised at how much the ideology of liberalism and free market is present in the city. Tirana has become one big building construction experiment.
R.K. What can you say in terms of means of production during the entire event?
R&V: TAL is a self-organized art organization with no state funding and it has limited resources. We have been aware of the limitation when it comes to means of production. However, with a lot of enthusiasm we coordinated the whole production with Adela Demetja on a very high level. Our common goal was to imagine different ways of distribution of art.
The wider economy of art is, as financial capitalism, based on speculation. Similar to trade with assets, profit is made not through production, but through circulation (distribution) of the artwork. Our answer to the current situation is to create art that conceptualizes the aspect of its distribution, but in a diametrically opposed way. The distribution we aim at is the circulation of the art work due to its (political) use value, in this case for the struggle against privatization and commercialization of public space and institutions. So, as the last instance of the performative exhibition at TAL, we invited activists to reshape the objects and they were transformed into tools for common use. We think that we’ve managed to fulfill the initial goal and to transform art into means of production of struggle.

I do not know why, but reading the answers I had the feeling that by “means of productions” Rena and Vladan mean financial aspects of art production, which for me instead should mean the concepts, theories and techniques of producing art; in other words the laboratorial aspects, or what stands behind of art production.

In addition, the way the subjectivization is treated, “the art and life needs to be brought at one”, seems contradictory with the way Performative Exhibition is done, where there is no subjectivization, but only subjectification of art, because the life intended as protest or resistance is absent and the art, theatricalized, present.

However, the most impressive fact for me was that the intervention happened as if everything started from zero/0. How was it possible that after the ironic and sarcastic intervention of Georgia Kotretsos and Tirana Art Lab (Yes, Tirana Art Lab, an institution, has an artwork in its portfolio, the same as the Artist Prime Minister Edi/p Rama!) on the boulevard space, as well as after dozens of AKSREVISTA’s writings on the boulevardization of art and artists, Tirana Art Lab organized an artistic intervention on the boulevard which had a “lot of attention by the passers-by and it was a clear message that a protest is performed in front of their eyes”? Really, a lot of attention? A performed protest? Maybe, someone should have informed the artists and the leftists activists Vladan and Rena that the same day, on October 12th (Google helps a lot searching “Unaza e Re 12 Tetor”), six protesters were jailed at Unaza e Re/New Ring of Tirana. It is incredible how the leftist artists were not aware of the protests, which, by the way, is ongoing daily from 2018. Or the Performative Exhibition was just an artistic intervention to deviate the attention from the real problem? Are we talking even in this case for the art as a weapon of “mass distraction or mass destruction”, distracting the masses or destroying the becoming massive of the protests?

Anyway, it is very strange that a connection between the urban revolution of the Paris Commune, which happened as a clear consequence of Georges-Eugène Haussmann’s urban speculations and spectacularizations in Paris, and Tirana’s New Ring, which is happening as a clear consequence of Edi Rama’s urban speculations and spectacularizations, was not made. I know that Adela Demetja is allergic of reading, but Vladan and Rena I guess have heard about David Harvey, especially when they deal with neoliberism, urban speculation and spectacularization of politics through art.

But, let consider the possibility that the artists did not know anything regarding what was and is still happening in Tirana. Let consider them as ordinary tourists that wanted to taste the delicious Albanian dishes and make some money through recycling a former art project and adopt its objects in an alien context, just to finance the accommodation and per diem.

So, if we focus only on the power of art to stimulate and/or generate new meanings, I would like to know what is new in the boulevard parade of Vladan, Rena and other activists for the protection of National Theater? Where is the transformative power of art? In this regard I saw a picture on facebook page of Tirana Art Lab, proclaiming: This is what we mean by Performative Exhibition!!!

For those who do not know, the man on the picture is Robert Budina, a film director that, honor him, with bare hands resisted with other citizens against the police and governmental forces that wanted to destroy the National Theater few months ago. He is there resisting and defending from the destruction the National Theater, although the “workers/proletarians”, the actors of the National Theater (except two or three of them), disappeared, fearful of losing the working place and being fired by the government (This fact I guess shows the difficulty to articulate concepts and discourses through ready-made and consequently pseudo-marxist terminology in Albania).

So, questions rise: where is the transformative power of Rena’s and Vladan’s piece of art that Budina holds in his hands? Is the piece of art stimulating and/or generating new meanings, or is absorbing meanings from Budina? If is Budina that tranforms the artwork, then what is the difference between Budina’s picture holding the art piece of Rena and Vladan with this other picture?

Personally, I do not see any difference, except Budina being a very kind and collaborative man and Ronaldo a well payed millionaire.

But maybe I am wrong, these pieces of art transported in a parade on Tirana’s main boulevard, have nothing to do with the representational, showy, decorative aspects of arts. Maybe even the protesters of Aleanca për Mbrojtjen e Teatrit, that used the art pieces as props during their artistic events, are completely wrong. Maybe, maybe, maybe. There are a lot of maybes. Maybe a better research and contextualization should have been done.

P.S. In Albanian is considered “butaforì” (promps, in English) a decorative art, an art which is too obvious and superficial and is very different, if not contrary, from the “radical” or “amazing” art.

P.P.S. Unfortunately, in the case of Unaza e Re/ Tirana’s New Ring as well as in the case of National Theater there is no discourse or articulation from a leftist point of view, which per se seems paradoxical, but knowing the Albanian politics of the last 30 years is perfectly coherent. At the moment, being in opposition the right wing is trying to gain consensuses supporting the protesters, although it is this same opposition, which, when was governing the country, made the fascist laws for the expropriation of houses or tried to destroy artistic and cultural heritage objects (such as the case of the “Pyramid”), for mere financial profits of the oligarchs. Moreover there is a clear tendency of dividing the protesters from each other. I remember protesting students impeding the protesters of the New Ring to join them; I remember protesters of Zharrëza doing the same to the students of Lëvizja për Universitetin; even Aleanca për Mbrojtjen e Teatrit had some similar problems with Oragnizata Politike. So, in other words, the occasion to intervene through this type of projects was very appropriate, but it necessitates strong research on the context, courage and above all no art-washing and left-washing, because of these lasts Albania is plenty.

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