Throughout my journey in the Balkans, I have been alternately flummoxed, angered and amused by the lack of streets signs and house numbers in the region. I was optimistic about it in Tirana, started getting frustrated in Prishtina, and then ended up downright angry by the time I got to Skopje and Podgorica. The thing is, I did not visit these places as a tourist. I did not have hours to while away the day and wander from place to place, not caring whether I got there or not. Instead, I had meetings and appointments, places to go and people to see, at specific times. What’s more, as the temperature in the thermometer rose, the more time I spent searching for places in vain, the more the temperature in my blood began to rise as well. When you’re a researcher, your purpose for being somewhere is to find things, and addresses should be the easiest things on your list to find.
When I boarded the bus from Prishtina to Skopje, the thermometer read 41 degrees Celsius. The bus didn’t have air conditioning, but did, however, have a door, which the driver left open for the duration of our journey, to prevent us from melting or dying of heat stroke. I suppose that the breeze of hot air rushing in was better than the stagnant and still air of the sauna it would have been, but the whole experience got me to thinking: how can I complain about the streets having no names, when the buses here don’t even have doors? (OK, it had a door, but the door was left open. You get my point.)
In my travels through Albania, Kosovo, Macedonia and Montenegro, I heard the same story, over and over again: there are no spaces for contemporary art; there is no opportunity to learn about art because there are no books on local artists, and few foreign publications on art (art theory, specifically) are translated into local languages; there are no interesting exhibitions at the state museums, only older artists; there are no programs or plans for the arts; there is no interesting or good public art. So one can complain about the streets not having signs or numbers, and one can complain about art not having the resources to grow, but one has to remember that all of these nations are either recovering from wars or decades of economic and cultural isolation, not to mention still navgiating all of the political changes that have resulted in streets changing names on multiple occasions (which is why, they tell me, they don't bother putting up street signs anymore). So there is a lot to rebuild, and it makes sense that art would be the last on the DIY list.
But the arts should still be on that list, and here’s why: a
nation’s art and culture is the legacy that it leaves behind for future generations.
Of course it is absolutely essential that infrastructure be developed in these
countries – roads need to be built and repaired, the basic essentials of water
and electricity need to become reliable (there are places that still cannot
rely on the comforts of running water 24-hours per day, nor stable
electricity), business needs to develop, education needs to be reformed, but
there still needs to be some of the budget earmarked for cultural development. Artists are even responding to these infrastructural needs, for example, a recent performance piece in Prishtina drew attention to the fact that while the city is spending heaps of money on beautifying the city with new fountains, many of its inhabitants don't have running water.
In many of the cities that I visited, construction is in full swing. Shiny new office towers are being built, giving a sparkly gleam to the grey socialist-era housing block landscape. But future generations of locals and tourists alike are not going to visit these cities and tour the business headquarters that are being built today. They are going (want to) visit museums and see cultural artifacts and artworks, to inform them about past civilizations.
Many artists are finding ways around these obstacles by developing alternative spaces for art, alternative ways of creating and showing their art. Quite often, artists are their own curators and historians, writing about and exhibiting their own work. Some even become curators of the work of others, developing NGOs and working for art centers to create networks and platforms for the arts. In some ways this echoes the way things worked in the former Soviet Union, where an artist was simultaneously art historian and critic, developing the discourse for his own work (Ilya Kabakov has made statements to this effect). For decades, artists have been trying to change the world, and this is their opportunity.
Edi Rama has recently been elected Prime Minster of Albania. A former artist, he made his mark on Albania's capital, Tirana, with his campaign to beautify the city, to paint the façades of the plain communist block apartments in bright colors, to remove illegal kiosks crowding the streets and develop the capital’s city parks. He created a public pride in one’s city that was popular without being populist. Rama was criticized for making these superficial changes to the city when inhabitants were still without running water for more than six hours per day. While those criticisms are certainly valid, I do think that in some ways, Rama got it right. Because people need to feel a sense of pride in their city, and their country, and one way to do that is to create a city, an environment, that is beautiful to live in. There is something to be said for the superficial. We all know the difference we feel when we put on nice clothes and make-up, versus when we are lounging around in our sweats with our hair unwashed. So these seemingly superficial elements are important for a sense of well-being.
That’s not to say that art and culture are “superficial” elements of a nation by any means. I used the example of the beautification of a city to demonstrate that it is not just the technical and business aspects of a nation that need to be developed. There are other elements that are just as important, although they may not seem it at first.
Another common theme I heard in the region was a lamentation of the “brain drain.” The sad truth is that while many will stay in the region and fight the fight, others eventually give up and leave. And some can’t leave, although they may want to. Some choose to exit internally, living in their own personal exile and removing themselves from the arts entirely. So the situation is quite precarious right now, and it is important to keep culture alive.
The former Yugoslav countries face a particular challenge psychologically. Yugoslavia was the so-called “paradise” of the East – politically, economically, socially, culturally. Many from Central Europe and the USSR considered Tito’s socialism an example for the rest of the communist world. Even the locals speak of the past with Yugostalgia. Unlike in the rest of Eastern Europe, they had the same products, consumer goods and clothes as their Western counterparts. They could travel abroad without visas. And artists were relatively free, so long as they didn’t overtly criticize Tito or the government, In fact, Tito recognized the fact that artists wanted to experiment, and provided them a space in which to do so. Of course it was a form of control – a way to contain the experimental activity and prevent it from spilling over into the political realm – but artists took advantage of it nonetheless. Now, the countries that looked to Yugoslavia with envy – Romania, Poland, Lithuania, for example, are all members of the EU. Some, like Estonia, are even in the Euro zone. So in many ways, the situation for artists in the post-socialist, post-Yugoslav period is similar to that experience by artists in Eastern Europe and the USSR during the Cold War. Now they are the ones facing challenges with regard to artistic creation that they didn’t necessarily face before.
Art can help navigate these challenging times by providing and outlet for individual and critical thought. The best art is usually that which is ambiguous, that which poses questions without providing answers, which provides a space in which discourse can take place, and which enables people to challenge not only received ideas, but also their own personal ones. Through art, one can challenge the status quo with the aim of improving the outlook and the landscape for its inhabitants, both present and future. Many of the artists that I met in this region are rising to this challenge and creating intelligent and engaging art that probes the very issues relevant to people on a personal, individual, local, international and global level. And I hope that they continue to do so, whether or not the streets still have no names.