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Contemporary Art in/and Public Space: An Interview with Pleurad Xhafa

 

Pleurad Xhafa is an artist living and working in Tirana, Albania. Xhafa studied in Bologna, and graduated with an MFA from the Academy of Fine Arts, Bologna in 2012. Xhafa works primarily in video, photography, and installation, and his works address the politics of public space, commemoration, and labor in contemporary Albania. Recently, Xhafa's work appeared in Teatri i Gjelbërimit [The Theater of Greenery] at FAB Gallery, Tirana, and his works Mind Goes Blank, Eye is Gazing Into the Future (2010) and Breaking News (2013) are currently on view in Triple Feature #5 at Tirana Art Lab, Tirana. We spoke about the state of contemporary art in Albania, the relationship between art and public space, and the possibilities for contemporary art as a form of critique under neoliberalism. The following interview took place via email.

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Pleurad Xhafa, casting Negative I-II-III-IV, 2015. Realized in collaboration with Departamenti i Shqiponjave (Department of Eagles). Photo courtesy of the artist.

Raino Isto: What importance does contemporary art have—or what importance can it have—in the development of society's consciousness of public space? Can you discuss a little bit about public space (or its disappearance) in Albania in recent years?

Pleurad Xhafa: In order to speak about contemporary art and its significance in society, let me first try to offer a diagnosis of the pathologies of public space in Albania. For the 45 years of the communist regime in Albania, private property was completely forbidden; no one had the right to own private property. Property belonged to everyone and no one at the same time. Every institution and natural resource was public, and only the political regime had complete access to them and control over them. I think that this factor altered and deformed the socialist citizen, who—after the change of the regime in 1990—rushed to swallow up that which had been denied to him for some many years. In the almost complete absence of a state, large cities underwent a fundamental change in demographics. People despoiled the factories; they destroyed and stole everything that they had previously considered communal property. They build houses that did not conform to construction criteria, and established businesses on every available corner. At the beginning of the new century and the empowerment of state institutions, the destruction of public space was further exacerbated. The surgical knife of sophisticated neoliberalism, with its mafia character, interfered in the legal system, privatizing both natural resources and public institutions. This phase, from my point of view, was the most dangerous one, as it infected absolutely every cell of society.

Over the course of the 26 years since the fall of communism, Albanian society has never been able to construct a middle class. Only 3% of Albanians are extremely rich, while the rest are poor or living in absolute poverty. For this reason, the lower classes and those living in poverty are forced to accept every compromise that the violence of capital imposes on them, just so that they can survive, even if it fundamentally distorts their way of living. The infection of public space is heightened to psychological and spiritual level, and manifests itself in high doses of anger, aggression, and fear directed at different ways of thinking. Precisely in this kind of infected terrain, I think that engaged contemporary art can be considered as a kind of emergency treatment, that it should play the role of an antibody that can break through the callouses caused by shock therapy. Maybe I'm wrong, but I think that the artist needs to leave the prison of mental masturbation and to create the necessary space for debate and for interaction with ordinary people that live in the cities and in the periphery. Only then can we really begin to talk about the role of art in relation to social consciousness. Until then, everything I just said remains at the level of a wishful theory.

RI: Can you discuss a little bit about the connection between art and politics in Albania today? I know this is a question that is already worn out from overuse, but I'm curious to know how you see the role of the artist in relation to politics.

PXh: Contemporary art in Albania is completely in a state of crisis. The form of this art is illuminated only by the reflection of [political] power located on the first floor of the Prime Ministerial building, in the COD [Center for Openness and Dialogue], while its content is buried in the graves of Sharra [1], and one cannot even find this grave, since the bronze letters of the tombstones have been stolen at night by those living in poverty, to be sold for scrap. In my opinion, the majority of artists that could be considered 'active' today in Albania have been transformed into marionettes of political propaganda. This situation is at once concerning and desperate, especially since criticism, as a field of action, is nearly nonexistent. Even when criticism does appear, it comes from artists who are operating essentially as individuals. I'm quite happy to see the recent actions of the street art collective Çeta [2], who have been able to stir the stagnant waters of the Albanian art scene, but it remains to be seen whether or not they will survive the test of time.

To return once more to the question of the importance of contemporary art in raising the consciousness of society regarding public space, and to link that with the role of the artist in relation to politics, let me talk about an example that happened recently in Tirana. The neoliberal policies that the current Albanian government has been following resulted in a reform in the education system that used taxpayers' money to benefit the private university sector. This reform has been protested for several years by the "Movement for the University" [3]. As part of this protest, during an activity held to promote FRESSh (The Forum of Eurosocialist Albanian Youth [4]), student activist Mirela Ruko poured a bottle of tomato sauce over the head of the Minister of Education, Lindita Nikolla. This action could have cost the student 3 years in prison. In my opinion, this action came about not only as a result of the reform in the education system, but also as a response to policies of privatization and to the general lack of democratic representation in the country. However, if the student's action gave rise for the first time to a debate on the issue of education, dividing citizens into camps for and against, raising questions about the ethics of protest and about how far democracy and the freedom of expression can go, this still makes me wonder, and it pushes me to raise a fundamental question when it comes to artists: are contemporary artists in Albania really able, with their forms of expression, to incite as important a debate?

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Pleurad Xhafa, Monument to Failure, January 28, 2016. Realized in collaboration with MAPS (Museum of art in public space). Photo courtesy of the artist.

RI: Some of your recent works (I have in mind Monument to Failure and Negative I-II-III-IV) have to do with both memory and with monumentality. What role do you think monuments currently play in Albanian society, and what kind of relationship does contemporary art have with official monuments (whether from the time of socialism or the years after socialism) in public space?

PXh: I think that Albania is the only place in Europe that celebrates their Day of Liberation from Nazi occupation on two separate dates, depending on the political party that is in power. When the Albanian government is controlled by the PD (Democratic Party), we celebrate liberation on the 28 of November; when the PS (Socialist Party) is in power, we celebrate it on the 29 of November. This anomaly is the product of the political forces that attempt—at all costs—to maneuver and regulate Albanian history. Likewise, Albania is the only country among the former communist nations of Europe that still hasn't really confronted its own past. The dossiers detailing the crimes of those who formerly collaborated with State Security forces and the secret police still haven't come out of the dark nooks and crannies of the archives. There are still today public prosecutors, judges, and politicians who were directly responsible for approving macabre executions in the name of communist propaganda. This hypocritical relationship to history can be seen directly in the cases of monuments and memorials that spring up like poison mushrooms, commissioned by private citizens in cooperation with the party in power, using funds from Albanian taxpayers.

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Pleurad Xhafa, Monument to Failure, January 28, 2016. Realized in collaboration with MAPS (Museum of art in public space). Photo courtesy of the artist.

When I decided to create Monument to Failure [5]—which commemorates the judgment regarding the Gërdec case, where 26 people were killed—I thought of the work as a gift, as a missing monument for the city of Tirana [6]. During the process of the monument's creation, I was trying to make a prediction; I was convinced that the bronze plaque wouldn't stay on the tree stump very long, since bronze is a valuable material and it would probably get stolen. For a secondary documentation of the work, I decided to stick the plaque to the stump with glue. Everything went far beyond what I had predicted, however. A few weeks later, the mayor of Tirana [Erion Veliaj] pulled up the monument personally, along with the whole remaining tree stump, completely destroying the monument. In its place, he planted a new seedling tree. This action is clear evidence of the relationship that the current political regime creates with history, and the modifications of public space that the regime carries out in the name of political aestheticization.

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Tirana Mayor Erion Veliaj planting a new tree after uprooting the stump where Monument to Failure was installed. Photo from Erion Veliaj's Facebook.

RI: Many Albanian artists have told me that the absence of galleries devoted to contemporary art in Albania is a significant problem for the country, but it also seems to me that (in the neoliberal context) as soon as an artist exhibits in a gallery, his or her work—together with any critical message it might carry—is immediately in danger of being assimilated by the authority of the institution. What do you think? Is exhibiting in a gallery still important (at least as regards the political or critical message of the artwork), or are actions undertaken in public space more important?

PXh: It's true that art, especially critical art, is in danger of being assimilated by the authority of the institution, even moreso when it becomes intertwined with the chains of capital. However, in Albania there is a fundamental difference, since here there is no art market, properly speaking, and as such no galleries and no collectors. I have a different kind of concern regarding art spaces in Tirana. (I'm focusing on Tirana because in other cities in Albania, contemporary art and art spaces are almost inexistent.) Spaces that have an independent viewpoint, independent especially from dominant political structures, are extremely important because that help shape critical thinking. In my view, those few art spaces that currently operate in Tirana are headed for capitulation. They can't manage to include the wider public. This isn't only the responsibility of the institutions, but also of artists. The low level of interest and small number of people who attend exhibition openings is in danger of creating a tight, vicious circle in which no one realizes that this system limits the possibilities for creating dialogue. Personally, I believe that the artist—with the support of these institutions—needs to create political tactics to temporarily take control of public spaces, transforming them into ephemeral platforms for autonomous debate that are open to anyone.

RI: Several of your works also have to do with the concept of 'justice' (a concept that is frequently discussed in Albania, generally in debates on the war against corruption, 'the rule of law', etc.). Could you speak a little bit about how you conceive of the idea of 'justice', and about what connections contemporary art can make with justice? Do you believe that justice is something that primarily belongs to the sphere of political functions, or is it an element of all relations or connections between people in society? Is justice something that 'acts', or is it more of a situation or condition, and what does art have to do with this (either with the 'action' of justice, or with justice as a condition)?

PXh: Justice and art do not have any direct connection, but justice can be the subject of the work of art. Negative I-II-III-IV is a work that has justice precisely as its subject matter [7]. The work is about the protests of January 21, an event that is not very distant in collective memory, and which left behind four dead on the Boulevard of the Martyrs of the Nation. On January 21, 2011, Edi Rama, the leader of what was then the opposition party in Albania [the Socialist Party], led hundreds of protestors in a protest against the government headed by Sali Berisha. This protest developed as a response to a video scandal made public in the media, involving Ilir Meta, Foreign Minister and leader of the Party for Socialist Integration, which was at that time in a coalition with Berisha's [Democratic Party] government. In the video, Meta was caught on tape wrapping up a corrupt business deal. On the day of the protest, four citizens were shot to death by soldiers of the republican Guard, shooting from the windows of the Prime Minster's building. During the elections in 2013, something surprising happened: two political opponents, Edi Rama and Ilir Meta, entered into a coalition and won the election. Rama became the Prime Minister and Meta became the Head of Parliament, which gave him immunity to prosecution by courts. The only sign that today remains from the shootings of January 21 are four bronze plaques that are embedded in the sidewalks of the boulevard, right along the edge of the sidewalks in the exact places where the four protestors were shot.

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Pleurad Xhafa, creating the mold for Negative I-II-III-IV, 2015. Realized in collaboration with Departamenti i Shqiponjave (Department of Eagles). Photo courtesy of the artist.

The primary condition for Albania's membership in the European Union is the "Justice Reform." Under the supervision and with the recommendations of the EU and the USA, this reform was unanimously approved in July of 2016, approved by all the political parties in the country, the same parties that produced the events of January 21, 2011. What made an impression on me in this whole series of events was the fact that all of these scandals and machinations are completely publicly ignored by all political and social actors. Perhaps the inaction of justice has created a situation that primarily aims to preserve the status quo of the regime, a status quo in which—by means of verbal abuse—that regime has stunted and corrupted society's conscience.

RI: You've created several works in close proximity to official state buildings located along the boulevard of the Martyrs of the Nation; have you encountered any problems from security guards or from the police during the creation of these works? Have the police ever monitored you afterwards?

PXh: When I decided to create Negative I-II-III-IV, I faced two difficulties. The first was an institutional one, since to do anything with the bronze memorials; I had to get permission to act from the relevant institutions. One of those was the Municipality of Tirana. For about five months, continuously, I personally went to the offices of the municipality in order to get permission, which they never did give to me. This is understandable, since the mayor of the city at that time was Lulzim Basha, who—at the time of January 21 shootings—was the interior minister, and in all likelihood the order to shoot at the protestors had to pass through him. The second difficulty had to do with the technical realization of the work. For the work, I commissioned a professional sculptor, but as soon as he learned about the realization and the themes of the work, he withdrew immediately because he didn't want to get involved with the debate about the shootings. After several meetings with him, I managed to convince him to take part, and the first thing he had me do was to take measurements of the memorials, which would assist in creating the structural molds for the poured plaster.

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The memorials to the January 21 victims. Photo courtesy of Pleurad Xhafa.

After I went and took the measurements of the memorials, I noticed—as I was returning to my house—that I was being followed by someone. Later, I assumed it was just my own paranoia, coming from the delicate nature of the event that was the subject of the work. Some time later, when we went to pour the plaster to take the negatives of the memorials, not only were the police present, but also the man who had followed me earlier, when I took the measurements. He approached me and asked me what I was doing, and what the purpose of these sculptures was. The only protection I could muster at that point was 'Art'. After he took my personal documents, he continued to insist that I should not be getting myself involved in these issues, that art shouldn't have anything to do with these kinds of things.

RI: Many of your works are—in some way—indexical. What I mean, for example, is that the photograph indexes light and with it a piece of reality in a particular moment. The sculptures that constitute Negative I-II-III-IV index the bronze plaques installed in the sidewalk of the boulevard. The idea of art as an 'index' (often an imperfect or incomplete index) has been frequently discussed in theorizations of contemporary art. Could you speak a little bit about this? Is there something that attracts you about the indexical character of art?

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Pleurad Xhafa, Negative I-II-III-IV displayed in the exhibition 'Theater of Greenery' at FAB Gallery, Tirana, 2015. Photo courtesy of the artist.

PXh: If you think about it, it's very interesting, because the memorials to January 21 are bronze replacements for specific pieces of the Boulevard of the Martyrs of the Nation, or the "Avenue of the Empire," as the Italian fascists called it when they constructed it in 1941. In "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," Walter Benjamin analyzes the way that totalitarianism uses the experience of art as a way to control the masses by means of the aestheticization of politics. Thus, those memorials are nothing more that an imitation of the totalitarian concept. If we think about the index as the performative concept of a physical process, then in the case of the sculptures (Negative I-II-III-IV) taking the same form in the negative generates another viewpoint, that of the pointing-finger, where the signs in plaster materialize denial: the denial of justice, the denial of transparency and of accountability, and the denial of responsibility.

RI: It is often difficult to talk about 'the working class' or about 'workers' in Albania, because the concept of the worker has been so closely tied to the ideology of communism. But, at the same time, in a neoliberal-capitalist context, we need to talk about workers and the working class. Do you think that contemporary artists have a duty to address (insofar as it is possible) the issue of the worker? How do you see your own works in terms of the neoliberal/capitalist context?

PXh: In the communist regime, the working class was society itself. Although in a fiction, the working class had the most important position in the creation of the ideological dream of communism, while today, in the neoliberal context, the (under)worker is both unrepresented and positioned totally in the service of business owners, to the point that workers are forced to give up their own fundamental rights just in order not to lose their job. The absence, or more accurately the lethargy, of unions is a primary point of concern with regards to the organization of workers to demand their rights. This isn't something I'm saying; our own Prime Minister said it in television broadcast in Italy, in which—on live TV—he issued a call to Italian businesses to come and invest in Albania, because unions are nonexistent and labor is cheap. [8]

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Pleurad Xhafa, still from Tireless Worker, video, 43min, 2013. Photo courtesy of the artist.

In my work Tireless Worker, tried to show the hierarchical dynamics between the past and the present, the issues I was discussing a bit earlier. Completely by chance, I found out about a factory that produced bunkers [9] under socialism and now produces paving tiles for sidewalks. The terrible working conditions there, and the advanced age of the workers made me feel a duty and responsibility, as an artist, to document this reality, which exists just a few kilometers from the center of Tirana. The work was gradually degrading and deforming these workers both psychologically and physically. What pushed me to continue the project was the life of a particular worker, Haxhi Xhihani, who had worked in this factory since 1973. During the communist regime, he had been decorated by the brigadier of the factory with a 'Tireless Worker' Medal of Honor, for his contribution to collective work. The painful irony of this event was that after the fall of the communist regime, the brigadier became the owner of the factory, privatizing it in his own name. Currently, Xhihani makes $3.00 a day.

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Pleurad Xhafa, still from Tireless Worker, video, 43min, 2013. Photo courtesy of the artist.

RI: In several instances, you have played the role of the documenter. How do you see the connection between contemporary art and the genre of 'documentary'? I'm curious to know if you conceive of your artistic practice in relation to the tradition of realism (beginning in the mid-19th century), or with the tradition of documentary, which began later.

PXh: In nearly all the works I've made, the subject or argument that I've been interested in developing has in some way determined the language of the medium. When I work with moving images (in film or documentary), I prefer to maintain a position at some distance from the subject. The film Tireless Worker, for example, is significantly influenced by neorealist Italian cinema from the postwar period. The workers in the film aren't professional actors; they play themselves in the film. The worker Xhihani places his own body in the service of the narration, and through him the viewers become acquainted with the dramatic landscape of contemporary Albania.

Recently, I've been in the process of documenting (on video) various protests that take place in Albania. The force of these images derives precisely from the weakness of the voice of the protest. All told, I've gathered about 3TB of digital material but I still don't know exactly how I've going to use it. Maybe I won't ever use it, but maybe after many years it will be valuable material to teach us something about today's world...

RI: The problems that engaged artists face today in Albania are also problems that other artists throughout the world are facing, whether they are working in other countries in Eastern Europe, or outside this region... Based on to your experience, is there anything that we can learn in general from the situation of artists in Albania? Are there any tactics, any experiences that you believe to be important for contemporary artists everywhere, in the conditions of global neoliberalism?

PXh: I don't know if there exists a precise formula for how an artist should act, but what I think is most important is the attempt to create platforms for debate, and an insistence on problematizing the conditions in which we live and work, regardless of where or when we live.

This interview was conducted via email between November and December of 2016. The interview was conducted in Albanian. The translation is by the author.

[1] Sharra is a village on the southwest outskirts of Tirana. The grave of the Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha was moved from the Tirana Cemetery of the Martyrs of the Nation—the large partisan cemetery overlooking Tirana—to the small cemetery in Sharra in 1992. The village is also home to the Sharra landfill. In August of 2016, 17-year-old Ardit Gjoklaj, employee of a private waste-processing company, died in the landfill. His death was seen by many as evidence of the deplorable conditions for workers in Albania, and of the lack of accountability for private companies that the Albanian government has increasingly supported through public-private partnerships. For more on Gjoklaj's death, see "Ardit Gjoklaj's Death Continues to Haunt Veliaj," Exit.al, November 2, 2016, http://www.exit.al/en/2016/11/02/ardit-gjoklajs-death-continues-to-haunt-veliaj/ (accessed January 8, 2017).

[2] See my interview, "The Politics of Street Art In Albania: An Interview with Çeta," ARTMargins Online, October 4, 2016, at http://www.artmargins.com/index.php/interviews-sp-837925570/782-the-politics-of-street-art-in-albania (accessed January 6, 2017).

[3] The "Movement for the University" (Levizja për Universitetin, in Albanian) is a group of students and activists dedicated to advocating for free and quality public university education in Albania. The group, associated with the Leftist "Political Organization" (Organizata Politike) of students and citizens, aims to combat the ongoing privatization of universities in Albania. It advocates "an idea of the university as a state institution directly financed by state funds, but with an internal organization in which decisions are made by professors and students." See the Facebook page for the group, here: https://www.facebook.com/Për-Universitetin-651561178215203/?fref=ts (accessed January 4, 2017).

[4] FRESSh, the Forum of Eurosocialist Albanian Youth (Forumi Rinor Eurosocialist Shqiptar) was established in 1992. According to the organization's website, its goal is "to bring Albanian closer to the European mentality regarding democracy the establishment of the state, as well as European enlightened social democratic ideas more generally. Recently, the organization has used the broad umbrella of "European social-democratic ideas" as a way to draw youth into the current Albanian Socialist Party (Partia Socialiste). See http://fressh.al/fressh/kush-jemi/ (accessed January 6, 2017).

[5] For documentation of the work, see https://vimeo.com/153532057; a further description is available at http://www.the-maps.org/assets/pressrelease-9_amonumenttofailure.pdf (accessed January 6, 2017).

[6] For further information on the work, see Xhafa's interview with Fatmira Nikolli: "Pleurad Xhafa: 'Gërdeci': aksident teknologjik, një monument dështimi para presidencës," BalkanWeb, March 3, 2016, http://www.balkanweb.com/site/pleurad-xhafa-gerdeci-aksident-teknologjik-nje-monument-deshtimi-para-presidences/ (accessed January 6, 2017).

[7] For documentation of the creation of the work, see http://departmentofeagles.org/portfolio_page/sculpture-in-negative-i-ii-iii-iv/ (accessed January 6, 2017).

[8] For more on Rama's claims about the positive aspects of a country without unions, see Vincent van Gerven Oei, "Urban Politics: The Unofficial View of Tirana (87)," Berfrois February 17, 2015, http://www.berfrois.com/2015/02/vincent-w-j-van-gerven-oei-urban-politics/ (accessed January 6, 2017).

[9] Between the late 1960s and the early 1980s, Albanian's socialist dictator Enver Hoxha ordered the construction of concrete domed bunkers throughout the Albanian territory. Approximately 220,100 bunkers were planned, but only about 173,300 were actually built. On the bunkers, see Michael L. Galaty, Sharon R. Stocker, and Charles Watkinson, "The Snake that Bites: The Albanian Experience of Collective Trauma as Reflected in an Evolving Landscape," The Trauma Controversy: Philosophical and Interdisciplinary Dialogues, ed. Brown Golden, Kristen and Bettina G. Bergo (New York: SUNY Press, 2009), pp. 171-87; Emily Glass, "A Defence Dictated: The Changing Role of Mushroom-Shaped Communist Bunkers in Albania," paper delivered at the Modern Conflict Archaeology Conference, University of Bristol, 2009, https://mcaconf.com/about/2009-2/; and Alison Reilly, "The Following is a True Story: Fiction, Bunkerization and Cinema in Post-Socialist Albania," KinoKultura 16 (March 2016), http://www.kinokultura.com/specials/16/reilly.shtml, (accessed January 6, 2017). These bunkers continue to dot Albania's landscape (although many of them have been removed or gradually covered over by the landscape itself), and they have become one of the most iconic symbols of the paranoia of Hoxha's regime. The precise statistics on the number of bunkers constructed are drawn from informational texts at the Bunk'Art museum in Tirana, Albania (https://www.facebook.com/BunkArtAlbania/, accessed January 6, 2017).

Raino Isto
Author: Raino IstoWebsite: afterart.orgCountry: USA
Raino Isto is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Maryland, College Park. His research addresses the relationship between history and memory in socialist-era monumental sculpture, and the ways postsocialist art engages with socialist monumentality.

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