Another hot day in Berlin. All museums are closed. We take a taxi to Kollwitz Platz and eat a late breakfast. From there another taxi to Treptow and the swimmingpool in the river Spree. Badeschiff. Drinks and swimming. The hipsters of Berlin. A surrealistic effect of the pool and people passing by on their boogie-boards emerges – as if they are walking on water. As if gravitation has taken a new hip turn. Swimming, I contemplate the line of former storage buildings on the other side of the river.
Back in the 90s, when I was living just a few hundred meters up the river, in Cuvry-straße, these buildings were still remnants of the former East Berlin. They were empty and grey, but they carried a promise of a potential future. We would sit in the apartment on the former-west-side of the Spree and look over into that former-east-side, contemplating the becoming of a new Berlin. The storage buildings and Friedrichshain/Ostkreuz/Lichtenberg behind them were still an open landscape, constituted by cheap rent, empty industrial structures and urban imaginaries.
Now, the storage buildings on the other side of the river are transformed into luxury apartments and high-profile business-centers. The elegant, innovative architecture is a brazen signifier of the process from communist ruin to neo-liberal rule.
After swimming we eat at a charming restaurant installed on a pier in the Flutgraben canal close to Badeschiff. Here, the aesthetics of temporal autonomous zones, have been transformed into a perfect, vegan-style eatery. Next to us, a Norwegian family enjoys their first day as tourists and a crowd of middle-aged cultural-class academics are lining up outside to get a table.
Berlin is still pleasant, in fact, über-pleasant in the summer heat, but the unknown, imaginary territories are long gone. Everything is compartmentalized; absorbed into quantifiable units. Innovative in exact, normative measures.
CONTEMPORARY ALBANIAN FOLK MUSIC
The freedom of car rides. Missing an exit off the highway we change plans and head for a different spot on the map. Spille is a ramschackle Albanian beach, with a few hotels and a main street that looks like a market in rural Mexico. We find a hotel – expensive, but hopelessly shabby.
At the moment we are ready to relax, the music starts. From a nearby, outdoor disco an immense roar of cheap techno-pop blares out, covering the whole town in a tiresome, endless techno-beat. The music lasts for hours and there is no rest inside or outside. We give up sleeping, we give up reading, we give up having sex.
A long walk by the evening beach clears the heads and we decide to investigate the disco: Situated inside a small forest on the edge of the beach, it is actually two different out door discos, placed between the trees as a strange forest-tivoli. Each playing extremely high Albanian techno, competing for loudness. The first is a circular platform placed in front of a series of benches amid the trees. Here, a good crowd of 50-80 youngsters are dancing and drinking. The second one a bit further into the forest is empty, apart from a few guys hanging around. The DJ plays a hardcore set without audience, maybe just to stir up the frenzy between the two discos.
We find a spot right in the middle between the trees. The center of a forest mayhem of cheap techno. The double attack of sound creating a hysterical barrage of rhythm noise. Contemporary Albanian folk music.
At exactly 23.30 both discos shut down and we can go to sleep, relaxed, purified of all pretence.
We went on vacation to Albania in search of something. Maybe, it was those unknown, imaginary territories we were dreaming about. I have met them in other former communist cities – Murmansk, Arkhangelsk. From the distance Albania seems just like that; a poor, ruined topography brimming with in-between emptiness.
Albania 2018 is completely different. It is a country in construction. Finally, out of almost 100 years of political disasters, things are shaping up. The central square is being redesigned – large open stretches and fragments of urban forest injected into the former Italian-fascist city space. The communist ruin is hard to recognise. Relational aesthetics taking over.
‘Blokki’ is a block where an amazing concentration of restaurants, cafes and clubs are crammed together on what used to be the administrative head-quarters of the communist dictatorship. Everything seems new and shiny and there is a total energy of youth and buzz. Trendy and very smart. Frenzy.
The Albanian premier-minister is a contemporary artist, Edi Rama. In parallel with his political career he is still active as an artist, exhibiting on an international level. His most well-known act was to paint large parts of Tirana city-center in strong, bright, color compositions. This was back in the early 2000s when he was the mayor of Tirana, but he also uses artists like Anri Sala, Phillipe Parreno and Carsten Höller in various details of the reconfiguration of Albanian public and political space. Part of our fascination with Albania comes from speculations on the fact that the country is led by an artist – does that make anything different?
We visit the The Center for Openness and Dialogue in the front part of the administration buildings of the Premier-minister. When Edi Rama was still an art-student under the communist dictatorship, modernism was illegal, and it was impossible to get even a glimpse of reproductions of i.e. Picasso or Matisse. As a service to new generations of artists Rama has installed an open-access library of art-history and political theory, here at The Center for Openness and Dialogue. The Center also makes available all communication in and out of the department of the premier-minister. A transparent archive of political acts. The Center houses a contemporary art exhibition space. Phillipe Parreno has designed the entrance and Carsten Höller has donated a large mushroom sculpture in front of the building.
A strong exhibition of photo-journalist Michel Setboun, describing the dark years 1982-92, the last decade of communist dictatorship. Social-realism at its most intimate and dramatic. The faces of the oppressed. Poverty. Hopelessness. Staged happiness. The cult of Enver Hoxsa.
As it is written in the concept part of the Center’s website, http://www.cod.al
“How it can turn from a historic building with high security measures, isolated from contact with the citizens who daily pass by, into an open space of dialogue and exchanges? How can a space that until now has been seen by the public as a stately center of power, turn into a space that invites for inclusion in the study, design and implementation of public policies? How it can be reframed in sign of transparency, openness and transformation, bringing something new and unique for the Albanian citizens?”
To me the interesting question is not so much if Rama will actually be able to transform Albanian society from a corrupt drug-trafficking mafia-state into transparent open democracy. Even if he is clean, it is a process that will take years and years. The really interesting fact is that he as an artist took the decision to go into politics. Not activist politics, nor political art – but real pragmatic, parliamentary politics. A pragmatic claim for power. Power to change something. It is a dirty version of art and politics; he is still an artist, even with a considerable international career, but he has gone into pragmatic politics full force.
As any other parliamentarian democracy, Albanian democracy is not pure. But as right-wing governance spread all over Europe, as fascism lurks in the shadows, someone has to try seizing power, someone has to fight for democracy, also in the parliaments, in the governments, in the de facto political systems.
Edi Rama seems like such a person. The fact that he is also an artist is interesting. It might open up a different kind of governance – in his case it seems like an open, relational, visionary style.
To me though, the really, interesting thing is not even Edi Rama as a politician or his results, but just the fact that he, by his example, opens up the possibility; the possibility of an artist as pragmatic and visionary politician.
We visit the National Gallery of Arts. In the entrance area hangs a large Matisse-like painting, ‘Planting of Trees’. A group of young people planting trees under a poetic blue sky. It is a wonderful painting, green ground and both the figures and the brush-strokes seems to be dancing into the blue that in a surreal manner invades the crowns of the trees from the sky above. It merges realism with a poetic, surreal sensibility that is completely inciting. I just want more of this; the light of summer.
The painting proves to be the entry into a retrospective exhibition by the Albanian painter Edi Hila. In all its joyful optimism ‘Planting of Trees’ became a dramatic turning point in the career of Hila. Made in 1972 by the then young and aspiring artist as a public commission for the People’s Assembly (the parliament), the painting was conceived within the social realist style, that was accepted by the communist regime of Enver Hoxsa. But, since it did not display any of the obligatory communist regalia – banners with slogans, flags or the like – it was banned by the regime and as a punishment Hila was sent to be ‘re-educated’ in a poultry-plant far off in the countryside for 10 years.
The exhibition focuses mainly on the paintings Hila has made after the fall of the communist regime in 1991. In large series of paintings dominated by tones of grey, he updates the realist style. Following and depicting the transformation of Albania into capitalism, from austerity to ill-conceived, brazen figurations of new wealth. Penthouse apartments, parasols, tivolis. Buildings, beaches, roads. Cars, colors, grey skies. An intimate, disillusioned portrait of his mother with a remote control. Through the paintings and Hila’s eye for all the colorful objects of cheap capitalism, we understand and see meaning in otherwise mundane details.
Hila even succeeds in creating a pictorial representation of the ongoing European refugee-crisis. In the series ‘A Tent on the Roof of a Car’, the paradoxically simple motif of a tent on the roof of a car, becomes an emblematic figuration of the precarious nomadic exile millions of people are forced into. Or as Hila himself writes in the catalogue:
“We’re living through a time of substantial population movements from south to north. Emigration is a great revealer of the contradictions and vast differences existing between the two worlds. The tent comes from the depths of the centuries to our time, so it can carry the same functions as a proper architectonic object, and in different case serves to stimulate discussions and challenge preconceived ideas.”
I can’t seem to remember another painter that represents the surrounding society and its conflicts so directly in painting. It is there as motives, but it is at the same time elevated to iconic signifiers of far greater problematics. Seeing these paintings casts the journey around Albania in another light. The cities and the sub-cities. Hila’s art is a political subject guide to understanding this country.
EDI or EDI
To go into real politics as an artist – and still exist as an artist in that role, as Rama.
To immerse oneself into the artistic work and take it to another depth, as Hila.
A DAY OF FOREVER
The hotel gives us free bikes and we spend the day biking out along the western shore of Lake Shkodra. It is hot and dry. Very hot. As we leave the city the lake opens up the horizon. The blue of the water and the blue of the sky melts into each other, and the mountains in the distance fades into a grey mist. The mind stretches into the heat.
We head down a stony slope to swim. As we sink into the water, it is full of various nature things; sea-weed, insects, tiny fish. Not pleasant. It is as if nature owns this water and asks us to leave. It is not for humans and we give up. Sitting naked on a rock on the beach afterwards is something different. It is an image, the heat, the sun, the rocks, the evaporating sea and sky. A day of forever.
On our way back, we visit an abandoned house-structure, built out onto the lake, connected by a small bridge. Four floors and an intricate system of stairs and balconies. A whole series of different views onto the lake and the mountains. Everything is concrete structure, abandoned before floors, walls and windows were installed. An open structure, ready for take-over.
Back in Copenhagen the green party, Alternativet, launches a plan for a total reform of the state administration. They want to create a new, super department for environmental and social conversion. All other decisions will be prioritized according to this new agenda: How will it benefit the general environmental and social conversion? This new super department will overrule the financial department, that until now has had this generalizing power. Dealing with climate change and social inequality is formulated as intricately linked. Both are global problems and have to be countered by global visions.
For the first time in many, many years, I have the feeling of something loosening up in Danish politics. Real visions on how to engage on the real level of real problems are being discussed. I decide to register as a member of Alternativet. It takes 10 minutes and it is the first time I have been a member of a political party. I am still in shock, surprised by my sudden resolve.
It is time for a different kind of engagement.
First published as CONTEMPORARY ALBANIAN FOLK MUSIC in
Free Berlin No. 6 (Errant Bodies Press, September 2018)