Art scene of Kosovo is in cultural isolation
Jeton Neziraj, playwright, dramaturg and the director of Priština's Qendra Multimedia, talks about Kosovo's contemporary cultural scene.
PHOTO: Slavica Ziener
KP: Qendra Multimedia was established in 2002. as a cultural production company, working in the field of arts and culture.
In 2002, with very big ambitions. We were young students, or just had graduated, dreaming that post-war international funds will come to us immediately so we imagined that we'll do ‘Hollywood’ films, theatre performances, TV series and everything. The reality proved to be different. But then in 2003 we started actively producing and we created a program that was called Centre for Children's Theatre Development. This children’s program was active until 2006-7, very active I would say, and it was exclusively dealing with children's theatre. Writing new original plays - writing first Kosovo Albanian plays for children and youth. Mostly, by then, there were only adaptations of fairytales or things like this. So those were sort of the first original plays written for children and young people in Kosovo.
But then in 2006 and 2007 we started to think of expanding our scope of work. I was writing for other theaters, but now I also started to write for Qendra Multimedia. By this time I gained more experience and I started to improve the quality of my writing and the way how I understood theatre and how I perceived it. So 2006-7 and onwards we started to produce one or two shows for grown-up audience as well. Afterwards we also organized other activities, like exhibitions, music events, film projections and so on as well as started to publish books more regularly. We also initiated the International Literature Festival - polip. This was a period when we started to think and reflect more creatively about who we are as a company and what we want to do.
And then 2008-2011 I went to the National Theatre, where I became Artistic Director. In this period in between Qendra was active and functioning fine. In 2011 I was kicked out of the National Theatre and then went back at Qendra and made a plan about what I want to do or what kind of theatre I want to create with Qendra Multimedia. We started regularly from that period producing one, two, or three shows a year, as well as touring not only in Kosovo, but the region, international festivals and international theater venues. This is what I wanted to do: invest in the quality of the theatre performances so we can be competitive in the European theater market. This period of being attractive just because you were from Kosovo was over. There was no other way than to invest in quality. What does it meant to invest in quality? You can forget introducing video or complicated digital things in shows - we were a very poor theatre with poor technical and infrastructural capacities. So we were investing mostly in plays- by writing plays that do tell good and original stories. Basically, we were questioning ourselves very simply: What do we want to put on stage and why, what do we want to tell the audience and in which way? We had good actors to tell those stories, obviously. So those are things that we worked very hard on, so to say. And so far it's been OK. People do appreciate what we are doing, local audience, international audience and so on. That is the short story of our 'creative journey', those last 10 years.
KP: How would you imagine a perfect cooperation in the cultural field? How would you imagine a perfect cultural scene in Prishtina?
The first basic needs for us are the venues. We lack that. We have the situation where we produce but we have no place to present our work publicly. National Theatre holds an open door for us, but they have their own program or they have their own premiere and than it is just impossible to get a free venue which is understandable. Another possibility is ODA Theatre, also a good space, but there you have to pay high rent. Other venues do not exist, or exist but are not useful for our type of theatre shows.
So, yes, venues are the basic need for us. I'm imagining a mayor or Prishtina that has some sensibility for theatre and culture, enough to start to create those venues and offer them to artists. They exist in Prishtina, but they are occupied by businesses, by political militants or by the governmental media. But yes, there are spaces in Prishtina, spaces that can be turned into cultural venues... But, looking for a venue has become an obsession for me. I enter a cafeteria and I say: look, this looks good, has good hight and could have been a good theatre… So, I keep dreaming that one day I will have my own venue where I could build a theater and create regular program for the audience.
Second ‘intervention’ would be to have more financial support. What they provide now, in terms of financial support, is almost zero. So, financial support to more cultural organizations, so there could be higher number of cultural productions. Only in those conditions you can expect to have some quality. You cannot speak of any quality right now where there is so little happening. I mean, how can you speak of any theatre quality when you have 20 theatre productions a year in the whole country out of which 15 or 17 are some stupid American or British comedies? You know, they find them easy and they do not pay any copyright fee for them, they just stage them, simple as that.
So, to summarize all this: more venues and more financial support for independent cultural sector. This, I would say, will create almost a ‘perfect’ condition for independent cultural scene so Kosovo could develop and function normally.
KP: Does the independent scene exist in Kosovo, from what you remember and from what you have been investigating? Is there a certain period when it started to gain more visibility or power than formal institutions?
Well, formally it exists, because of course there are many cultural organizations that are formally registered. So in ‘legal terms’ we can say it exists. But then the question would be how much they are active and if they are operating – this I think would be difficult to answer. But to answer the question directly, I would say it does not exist because it is reduced to 2,3, 4 or maximum 5 active cultural organizations, which is really nothing I would say. You have DokuFest in Prizren, which is existing for several years now and it is fully active. In Prizren you also have one or two other organizations and they are mostly focused on their own cultural heritage issues. In Prishtina you have Stacion, that is focused on contemporary art but is hardly producing and presenting any public activities. In Prishtina you also have ODA Theatre, which is, I would say, also half-active. Oda’s budget has been reduced and they now mostly serve as a commercialized host venue. Previous years they have been involved in some ‘cultural policy’ issues and they produced some valued reports. In Prishtina you have also Femart festival that is run by Art Polis and then there is also Qendra Multimedia, a cultural production company, focused on theater and literature. Qendra Multimedia (www.qendra.org) has its own small venue and it is fully active througout the year. And that's more or less it, when we speak of the independent cultural scene in Kosovo.
We also have some other organizations that are using art as a tool in dealing with human rights from time to time, who do specific social campaigns, or use art to address educational social and political issues. But they have no structured cultural program and they cannot be considered as sustainable cultural organizations.
Generally, I would conclude that we have poor cultural scene. Of course, from time to time you have individual art groups, individual artists who initiate and do create some interesting projects, but then their disappear very fast, due to lack of support, due to lack of structures that would support their work.
One impressive initiative we have at the moment is Termokiss, which is a community of young artists and activists who got together, ‘occupied’ this abandoned building and turned it into a functional social community space. Let’s see and lets really hope if they would be able to survive and do what they are hoping to do.
Same applies in terms of publishing where we only have a couple of small publishers that are barely surviving, although they do get some state support.
And then we come to the ‘good side’ of this ‘dark story of the Kosovo independent cultural scene’, which is the awareness of cultural institutions to act together. So now we have some formal and informal networks and groups of different independent cultural organizations that are acting together in order to change and influence the legislation. So very often we see joint petitions, initiatives for support this or- so to speak: they act / react on issues that are related to their field of work and expertise. And this I see as a very positive change and development.
But generally, it's a devastating situation for the independent cultural sector in Kosovo and I don't see how this is going to change. I actually see that the ‘picture’ of the independent cultural scene in the future will be darker. I know that when those international funds fade away, then it's going to be even harder for the independent cultural scene to survive. It's going to be like it is in Albania right now, where there is almost no independent cultural scene. Or at least, in the theater field, there is nothing there: no independent theaters at all – ground zero. So this is the situation there and I fear we are going in that direction.
Looking back in the last 15 years, there was some progress after the war - or maybe it was more of a post-war enthusiasm - with lots of cultural activities and lots of cultural events. But then this ‘rich cultural scene of the post-war Kosovo’ slowly started to disappear. Only few cultural organizations could remain active and continue with some ‘stability’. But, previously they were mostly acting alone and functioning in some sort of ‘wild’ and chaotic way, while now those organizations and institutions are more organized, better connected to each other and they have more credible expertise. And this is also a strong argument why state should have some more responsibility towards them. Until couple of years ago, nobody (except maybe the cultural institutions themselves) was thinking seriously that the state institutions have to support independent cultural institutions. Because independent cultural scene was funded entirely by foreign embassies in Kosovo, foreign donors and agencies, this logic was created that the ‘state institutions’ have nothing to do with them (independent cultural sector) and they are ‘somebody else`s responsibility, namely, responsibility of foreign agencies and donors. So they treated them like enemy: “you're getting funds from international donors that have different agenda to ours”.
In the other hand, some institutions, like Qendra Multimedia, intentionally were avoiding public funds, in order to remain truly independent and in order to have more ‘freedom’ to address social and political issues.
KP: But you can say that there is cooperation between institutions and independent stakeholders, in terms of space. As an author and producer, you made shows at the National Theatre.
When we speak of public institutions, we mostly have in mind Ministry of Culture. But, it is true, there is cooperation between other public institutions and independent cultural organizations. Let’s say, with the National Theatre of Kosovo that is always very open to cooperation with whoever has something interesting to present there. It's a small theatre community in here. We know each other and naturally they would offer you the theater to play your shows, and they would offer the same to everybody who has a show. In Kosovo you do not have more than 20 theater shows being produced in a year, ot of which 6, 7 or 8 at the National Theatre, the rest are outside Prishtina. Although National Theater is almost fully booked with their own program, there is always space for guest shows and guest programs. But that is all; the cooperation remains on that level, there is rarely anything more than that.
KP: There is no initiative from the Ministry, as you said, in combining those two, institutional and non-institutional.
No, I don't even think that would be the very best idea. It would be better to support the independent scene to grow and develop (on it`s own?). Because otherwise you’ll be ‘framed’ and pushed to apply same policies and same standards public institutions are applying, both in terms of program, and in the way they generally function. I have to say that public institutions in here are not the best models to be followed. In Qendra Multimedia, let`s say, we have the freedom to do whatever we want, when it comes to the program, which is not the case of most of the public theaters.
Plus, this should not be any ‘formal’ initiative by the Ministry of Culture. It is up to institutions to decide and see the benefits of any kind of cooperation.
The truth is that public institutions in here are very weak, badly equipped and badly organized. I am of course referring mostly to the public theaters. So, cooperation would mostly mean that you use their venue to do your work, but nothing more than that. They have nothing more to offer. No professional staff, poor equipment and generally old-fashioned models in theater production.
Except National Theater of Kosovo, other poublic theaters in Kosovo have approximately 15,000 euro for producing a show. That, honestly, is not much and sometimes becomes obstacle for the quality of the show. Generally speaking, the quality of theater produced in those public theaters is very poor. With that limited budged they can hire a professional composer but not a professional costume designer and so on...
KP: What about visual arts?
There was a ‘golden’ period of visual arts, maybe from around 2004, I don't remember exactly, to maybe 2008, when Contemporary Art Institute, EXIT, Peja, and Laboratory for Visual Arts and the Center for Humanistic Studies Gani Bobi, Kosovo created a program called “Missing Identity” that was supported financially from Germany (through Project Relations). “Missing Identity” was some sort of alternative school of contemporary art, in which many young Kosovo artists got educated – some of which are now internationally recognized artists. They were bringing many artists and curators from abroad to exchange with the local artists and local practices and organized several exhibitions, lectures and other attractive programs. Later on they also open a small art gallery for contemporary art called “Rizoma”. This whole program and concept was initiated by Shkelzen Maliqi, Mehmet Behluli, Erzen Shkololli and Sokol Beqiri. But, unfortunately, when this German grant was over, this programme also disappeared slowly. Right now, not much is happening and existing out of the National Art Gallery. Of course, some individual artists are very active, some of them are having good international carrier as well, like, lets say, Alban Muja, Erzen Shkololli, Jakup Ferri and many more.
KP: Does the programme of the National Gallery and the Gallery of the Ministry deal with contemporary art?
National Gallery was very lucky to have a very good art director until last year – Erzen Shkololli. I don't know the new director well, I do not know in what direction will she lead the National Art Gallery, but I hope she will do as good work as Erzen did – Erzen was really programing excellent exhibitions. He was introducing and promoting also new generation of artists. He had many credible international contacts and was able to transform the National Gallery that previously was just a very ‘conservative’ Art Galery with – rather- boring program. So now, after Erzen left, I don't know what is going to happen, we'll see in which direction this gallery it's going to go.
KP: Are there other galleries in the city?
There is one called “The Galery of the Ministry of Culture” – but there you do not find the very best exhibitions, unfortunately. More than that, you do have some private galleries here and there, but mostly they do exhibit their own work – as they are opened by visual artists themself.
KP: That brings us to the question of education. Of course, primary, secondary and higher education. How is it or is it even connected with culture? Are students taught about art?
Visual arts and music, yes, but not theatre. In city of Peja there's, in the Secondary Art School, there is one class of acting. Theatre is not part of the school curriculum in primary and Secondary schools. In order to fill that ‘existing gap’ from time to time you have independent institutions like ODA Theater, or Femart or Qendra Multimedia, who try to introduce theatre to schools and who try to encourage schools to do theater activities. But this is not a kind of structured program and it depends exclusively on the international funds. I think this is a big loss. As high school and primary school would be the places where you could educate future audiences. But not only that, by doing theatre schools could introduce to kids different topics that they could not introduce them through school books.
And then of course there is Faculty of Arts, which is part of the University of Prishtina, where is also the Theater Department.
KP: Are there any possibilities of cooperation with the Ministry of Education?
Hardly. If you have an art project or something that is related to culture and education (let’s say, programs like Theater in Education or Music in Education), they would say it's not their jurisdiction, and instructed us to go to the Ministry of Culture. And if you went there, they would say it's for schools, so it is Ministry of Education`s jurisdiction. You still might find support or might find people who would try to listen to you in the Ministry of Culture, but hardly in the Ministry of Education. It's a very conservative educational system and they do not want to see the links that do exists between culture and education. I don't know how much money the Ministry of the Education has, but usually, most of it goes in rebuilding old schools or building new ones. We are speaking of the youngest population in Europe, so they say they have to build schools – and they are building schools often – but in the other hand, still lots of schools are in two or three shifts.
Very often, people ask me: why isn't Qendra Multimedia starting this or that program – often they ask me why we are not doing theater more actively with schools? But although a small organization like our can do many good and important things, still cannot be doing everything that is needed. In this country needs are high and capacities are low. Many important and needed programs should be responsibility of the national and public institutions – like this one we are referring to – to introduce theater as a part of the school curricula.
KP: Does Kosovo have an explicit cultural policy, in the sense that the Ministry has carried out some kind of strategies or binding documents?
No, I don't think they have a strategy. They've been talking about strategy for so many years now, but in reality, no document has been produced. It is like a routine, always when a new minister comes, he would create a new group to draft a strategy and in the end, again, there would be no strategy. Practically, they do not have a vision of what they want to do with culture, what goals they have, what they want to achieve and so on... Everything concerning culture and its development very much depends on who's going to be a minister, from which political party he comes, but mostly who is going to be the minister of culture. None of them will have a ‘master’ plan about culture. Forget about that. Everything is based on the will of the minister, on his capability and the way how he perceives culture. If he is more connected to the literature, then you will see that during his mandate the literature scene will be more promoted, as it was the case for the last three years. The other one before this minister, he was kind of trying to be nice to the independent cultural scene, but then he would pick up only two-three institutions from his circle and finance them. And he would not create possibilities for other institutions that were doing good work or that deserved to be financed. In the case of Qendra Multimedia, we were not even applying for funds at all, because we had some kind of conceptual and political problems and differences with him directly, so we didn't want to give him the opportunity to finance Qendra Multimedia and use this for his political agendas.
What we have now could be described as “OK” compared to what we had just couple of years ago. One of the Ministers was financing turbo-folk singers, and similar projects and activities.
Now, the audience and the public, but especially artists and the artistic community, are a bit more in the role of the watchdogs. You see them reacting and being critical to what is happening there, at the Ministry of Culture. Although, they can hardly change anything or have any kind of influences on the Ministry of Culture’s actions and acts of abuses with the public money.
KP: When you say now, you are talking about last 4-5 years?
Yes, those 4 – 5 year. After the independence things started to change. Not necessarily positively, but at least in terms of how artistic community started to organize itself. There are now at least two societies of filmmakers, of theater makers, of directors, of actors and so on... So, there are couple of institutions that at least formally exist and do react and somehow get involved in the cultural processes and policy making. At least, by circulating publically a ‘reaction letter’ in a form of a press release, when needed. So, those are, I guess, some good first steps of progress.
KP: When you mention watchdogs and press releases, we naturally come to the question of media. What's the state of media in Kosovo?
Usually medias are present in whatever's happening culturally – more or less. But now, with the death of the printed newspapers (at least this conclusion fits for the Kosovo circumstances), things have changed dramatically and we are not speaking of any professional – let’s say, theater critics - as it used to be before. No, forget about it. But even in the times when one media does criticize your art product (its quality, approach or sometimes it’s content), you should take this with reserve. As it depends very much on who is criticizing you and what is the agenda behind it. Most of the media are controlled by political parties and other political groups of interests. There are some, so to say, independent media and some media that belong to the opposition parties. So whenever you criticize something openly (through your work or individually as an artist), than those media would publish it.
But generally speaking, when it comes to the issues related to culture, media are more open-minded and less ‘censored’ because they don't see any danger coming from the art. Usually what we artists create, remains at a low level of ‘politics’. We address our critics mostly to the Ministry of Culture and in lower circles.
But frankly speaking, this media world in here became a joke, a real joke. You are just lost in hundreds of Internet portals that do publish everything. We feel lost. I feel lost. There are of course at least two credible portals and at least one credible newspaper (Koha Ditore), but out of this there is a complete wilderness. And so, the appearance of those non-professional or half-professional media took the power from those media who were more professional.
To conclude: medias are serving the politics, as they are depended on their money. Most of the media are either founded by political parties or receive financial support from political parties. Main media in Kosovo including our National Television of Kosovo, are being controlled strictly by the actual government, or by other groups of interest. This would be a more direct and concise description of Kosovo Medias.
KP: What about cultural sections in mainstream media?
Newspapers (3 or 4 that are still printed) do have one or two pages cultural pages daily. Koha Ditore is the only one who is serious and professional concerning culture. They still have cultural journalists who do come to events and follow what is happening, and beside that, they sometimes do write very serious reviews and analyses. But other media, more or less, they really just copy some announcements and press releases send by artists or cultural institutions. We have also a portal that is dedicated exclusively to culture – KultPlus- that is a good source and chronicle of the the cultural life in Kosovo and Albania.
KP: No evaluation? No criticism? Culture is not enough controversial, provocative?
Not really. From time to time it becomes provocative and controversial, but rarely. Whenever there is something related to Kosovo-Serbian cultural cooperation or related to corruption or that questions the new state of Kosovo, its identity and its values - than yes, it becomes provocative and controversial and there is debate in the media and among the audience. I remember in 2008 when I started working at the National Theatre, one of the first directors I invited to direct at the National theatre was a Roma director, now living in Germany, Rahim Burhan. I remember there was a huge debate after his show (Tartuffe), but also while the show was on preparation. The production gave rise to one of the fiercest debates about the theatre in Kosovo. It all began with two articles published in Kosovar daily newspapers. The debate on TKK’s Tartuffe was one of the harshest and longest ever on the subject of Albanian theatre performance. About thirty articles variously contributed to this debate. As a consequence, tickets were sold out two weeks before the premiere, the first time in the history of this theatre that such a thing happened. The production of Tartuffe continued into the year 2009, and it was also toured to Skopje and Tirana where it was received quite well.
In the beginning of 2011, the National Theatre of Kosovo received an invitation to present a theater production in Belgrade, at the theatre Atelje 212. I was one of the few people who wanted this visit to happen. My determination to see this happen was followed by a vicious media campaign, which presented me and the few supporters of the visit as “Yugonostalgic” and “betrayers of national interests.” The production was unofficially denied by the Kosovo government to go to Belgrade. For me this was a historical chance lost.
But all this, I see it as a ‘healthy’ debate for the society. And this is where the power and where the function of the theater lays. What is ‘wonder’, ‘provocative’ and ‘shocking’ for the first time, second time becomes normal. So now the borders of what we were allowed to do couple of years ago have been pushed forward. In some cases, our work (I refer here mostly to the work of Qendra Multimedia) went to some extremes indeed, meaning that we faced real challenges. Now you can question critically the independent Kosovo, now you can make a joke about the prime minister, now you can have him sucking a dick on stage and things like this. But it is possible now because we insisted for this to be possible. We wanted our freedom on stage to be absolute. As it should be. Of course, not everybody was fighting for this freedom, but couple of us, a few…
KP: Prishtina is the most vivid concerning cultural activities. But as you said, there is a cultural house in almost every town. Is that a relic of some old days? Do they still work the same way as they did before?
There are two types of cultural buildings that exist in different cities and towns of Kosovo. In some small towns (like in Kaçanik, Lypjan…), they have these cultural houses that are the same type as you have in some other towns of ex-Yugoslavia. They have common architecture – usually, very big buildings with one big stage, and then lots of foyers and rooms for exhibitions and other cultural activities. Those buildings (not sure how many there are in Kosovo) are empty at the moment, really empty, in a sense that there is nothing happening there. Usually, there is one director and one or two cleaners who get salary for just being around. Towns have no way of maintaining and functionalizing the building. Basically, they lack the very basic infrastructure, including proper heating system. And let alone any permanent cultural program. Often they are offered to some folk music and dance groups so they can rehearse there from time to time. In some cases there are some folk festivals once in a year that are held in those buildings, and maybe they host guest performances that rarely get the chance to tour. And that is the maximum they do within a year. Of course, they are often used by political parties and in times of elections.
In some bigger cities they also have proper theatres. Proper theatre buildings, like the one in Ferizaj or in Peja. The one in Ferizaj is a beautiful, a very beautiful theatre. For me, the best one in Kosovo. Those theatres are half-active. If they get lucky to get a good city majors, than they get more support and become more active. So, they get to produce two or three shows, or maybe four per year. Usually they have their own group of actors, but they usually invite directors from Prishtina (or elsewhere) to direct there. They have some good audiences sometimes. The most functional theater (excluding theaters in Prishtina) is the one in Ferizaj, than it would be in Prizren and Gjakova. But other city theaters, like the one in Gjilan, that was not lucky to have a good mayor, has been totally blocked and unable to function properly since many years now. And Gjilan was having a very good and interesting theatre actors and theater goers before. It is really shame that local theaters are depended on their majors – who, often happen to be idiots.
KP: When we talk about those places for socialization - what about cinemas?
They don't exist. The chain of cinemas that existed before the '90 has been privatized. Every film that was shown in Prishtina was shown in every other city in Kosovo. We had local cinemas, which are now either destroyed, privatized or sold for nothing. In Prishtina, until recently we had only one cinema that was hardly functioning. Now, they just opened Cineplex Prishtina (in a shopping mall) a beautiful cinema complex that seems to be functioning very well so far.
In Prizren, due to Dokufest, there is a very strong movement to enrich the cinema life there. They have now two functional cinemas that are opened and started to be functional by the will and involvement of people from Dokufest festival (the old one, Lumbardhi, has been just renovated and will be functional from now on). But those are intiatives of citizens and not a will of the public officials. When I speak of citizens, I am specifically referring to fantastic people who made huge cultural change in Prizren, like Veton Nurkollari, Eroll Bilibani and also Ars Shporta and few others. When speaking of cinema and film in Kosovo, we think of Prizren and of Dokufest. And we are especially proud of Dokufest festival.
KP: In your opinion, do you find Kosovo in some kind of cultural isolation, at this moment?
I would say yes, definitely. It's a permanent struggle, and I am not speaking metaphorically, but practically. We struggle to get visa to travel. Getting a visa sometimes becomes a real obstacle to present your work abroad as an artist. Speaking of it, at 4 o'clock we have an appointment at the Italian embassy to get visas. Hopefully, we'll get them so we can come to Croatia, where we are presenting our theater performance at ZKM. But it might happen that they refuse our visas. And it's not just the simple procedure of getting a visas, but the whole procedures of having to collect many papers and documents. If you have an official invitation from a company or institution in the EU, than things are a bit easier. But if you, as an artist, want to travel personally to see a show in Zagreb or Ljubljana, this is just impossible. It becomes impossible to get a visa. So those are the practical barriers we are facing. There are also other aspects of this “cultural isolation’ – which are related to the fact that the state is not creating any programs to enable international cultural exchanges between Kosovo and international artists and art groups.
So, Kosovo theatre groups really get the possibility to present shows outside Kosovo, but then also, international theatre groups aren't really bringing shows in Kosovo. We still do not have any international theater festival, unfortunately. What we sometimes get are some art groups that have possibilities to fund their own tour to Kosovo.
So, generally, yes, it's really a very deep cultural isolation. We are stuck in here somehow and forced to stay here.
Kosovo is also not part and has no access to some EU cultural funds (like Creative Europe) and this also produces, of course, negative consequences, not only in financial terms, but in the fact that cultures should interact with each other. And this process of exchange and interaction is very important, it has always been important, but it is especially now, in those times of divisions, of bigoted, of cultural and religious fanatics.
I think this is not the case with the other ex-YU countries, because of language similarities they could exchange at least between each other and, speaking practically, they have wider art market to promote their work. I believe for many reasons it is easier to bring a theater performance from Zagreb to Belgrade. I know that there are also many barriers, but the culture is circulating in between Croatia and Serbia, or Bosnia and Serbia. This is my impression. I see shows from Belgrade are coming to Zagreb more often, which is not the case with Kosovo. You get to have a Kosovo theater show in Zagreb once in 3 or 5 years.
It is because Kosovo was some kind of cultural province of ex YU, many in Zagreb, Ljubljana, Belgrade, and so on, still have stereotypes when it comes to art that is being produced and cultivated here in Kosovo. It happens to us, with our theater performances. They are more suspicious in our work in Zagreb or Ljubljana, than they are in Leipzig, Bern, Firenze or elsewhere in Europe. In the region, they still think of Kosovo as it was in 80-ties or 90-ties (although, frankly speaking Kosovo theater of 80s was perhaps the most vital and fresh theater in ex YU). So, in the region there is still this ‘snobbish’ and superior attitude towards Kosovo and Kosovo artists. But is this now slowly changing, as we are more and more present. It is changing in Belgrade where we are present more and more often with our performances.
KP: But Kosovo did have some kind of cultural autonomy in the former Yugoslavia.
The real cultural capitals were of course Belgrade, Zagreb and Sarajevo maybe. Cultural life was, of course, quite reach in Prishtina too, but nothing comparing to what it was in other big YU cities. Prishtina had only one theater until beginning of 90-ties (when Dodona Theater – a theater for children and young people was founded), comparing to, let’s say, Belgrade that had at least 5 active theaters. But true, until beginning of 90-ties, theatre was functioning, but not only theater. There were great visual artists, great musicians. Of course, many things were more structured and functional back then, than they are now. But still, in comparison to the other cities, Prishtina was treated and considered as a cultural province.
Now problems are different. State institutions have completely different attitude toward culture. They want to support culture only when that culture is serving the “nation building” or when is related to the ‘national identity’ or ‘national cause’ or ‘national interest’. So they see art and culture just as a capital to influence the state building. Which means, they do want to dig into the past. They are very much burdened with the past; cultural heritage, historical events and issues related to our past national identity. As in this way they want to show some kind of historical continuity, to show that, we are not just here today, but we have some roots in the past.
And so, in the name of “national interest” and in the name of “patriotism”, art scene in Kosovo is very often being controlled and used by the politics. This control is manifested in various ways: a selective allocation of the budget for art projects; installing political partisans and sycophants in public cultural institutions wherever possible; encouraging some sort of ‘patriotic art’; by directly controlling public cultural institutions; withholding support for independent cultural initiatives and even – in some cases - censoring the content of artistic productions. In a way, all of this has led art in Kosovo to carry on reproducing the same boring political discourse. In addition to this, an entire creative ‘army’ has been produced with the syndrome of being ‘national artists.’ They want to be artists, but they also want to be patriots. Above all, they want to be patriots. So, in their artistic creations, they take great pleasure in an ugly mixture of art with patriotism.
There is lack of critical sense and courage to deal with real problems that the Kosovo society is facing. The past is dealt with selectively, pointing solely the moments and events within that narrative. And that narrative either excludes weaknesses, errors and faults within Albanian society or projects them as a result of outside impositions like ‘influences by our enemies’… In projecting internal problems there is fear that, in this way, negative messages are being conveyed to the others (the world around us) about us as a society that does not deserve independence.
Of course, as I also told you before, there are voices here and there that dare to speak loudly, but the majority of the artists has found ‘comfort’ not to disturb the politics and not to touch any political or social taboo – in other words, to be in line with the political agendas and with the – so called – state agendas.
KP: Would you say there is a continuity of the state's attitude towards culture and arts? From former Yugoslavia, during the 90s and 2000s, that culture is really, what you said, a tool for establishing some kind of identity.
In a way, yes. But 90s for Kosovo are the darkest years of the Kosovo cultural history. 90s are a completely different story that should be discussed through different ‘lenses’. The 'Yugoslav cultural heritage' is not discussed and it is ignored completely, simply because people relate ex-Yugoslavia with Serbia.
KP: It's the same in Croatia.
It's the same in Croatia, OK. So you are not alone, welcome to the club.