I didn’t manage to meet with the artists of Studio 203 when I was in Tirana, but the wonders of cyberspace helped us out. Once back in Aberdeen, I had a conversation via Skype with Stefano Romano, an Italian-born artist who is one of the founders and members of Studio 203, an artistic and architectural collective based in Tirana, Albania.
Stefano’s story is an interesting one. An assistant in Adrian Paci’s studio in Italy, the artist travelled to Albania with Paci to help organize a workshop between students in Bergamo and Tirana. In 2004, he relocated to Tirana permanently, and is most likely the only Italian to make the move in that direction (usually the migration is from Albania to Italy) for cultural (as opposed to business) reasons. Stephan later became one of the co-founders of TICA, the Tirana Institute of Contemporary Art.
Now Stefano works as part of an artistic team, Studio 203, together with architect Eriselda Çobo and Guido Affini. They call themselves an architectural collective because their work is focused on urban space, as opposed to architecture in the stricter sense. Stephan tells me that in this context, “architecture” refers more to a way of thinking than actual physical buildings. Indeed, the artists have intervened in the physical space of Tirana in a very vibrant and overt way.
In the very center of Tirana sits the Pyramid, built in the 1980s as a monument to the former communist leader of Albania, Enver Hoxha, and intended to house a museum dedicated to him. After 1991, it became a conference center, and later it was set to become a cultural center, but now the plans are to destroy it, and erect the new Albanian Parliament building in its place. Love it or hate it, it is a presence in the city, part of that city’s history, a meeting place and cultural icon, and many are arguing against its destruction.
In 2012, Studio 203 made their own comment on the situation, by staging a performance/intervention where they placed a banner along the side of the Pyramid. Because of the design of the building, it is often used by children as a gigantic slide, and the day that the artists placed their banner there was no different. The Roma children that were present on that day in fact helped them unveil the banner, after having been explained what the action was about. They agreed with the artists, and didn’t want the building destroyed. Once the banner was unveiled, the word written on it was revealed to be “HISTERI” (hysteria), which, in Albanian, is just one letter different from the word “histori,” or history. By placing the banner with this text across the façade of the Pyramid, the artists called attention to the hysterical reaction to history by those who wanted to erase that history from the landscape. They called the work HISTOERI REMOVING; with the placement of the banner they hoped to remove the hysteria, but not the history.
While the artists occupied one public city space with their banner in HISTOERI REMOVING, in Void3 (Void Cubed) it was the participants in their performance, fellow inhabitants of the city, that undertook a different type of occupation altogether. Using balloons as “a metaphor for the physical space that each of us occupies within the city,” participants alternated between blowing into the balloon, inflating it (and thus exercizing “their right and ability to assert a personal living space”), and then deflating it. The process created a multisensory experience for participants and viewers, involving not only the visible and tactile action of blowing up and deflating balloons, but also included the auditory element of the breathing, which eventually turned into gasping, as participants started to become exhausted. (It should be remembered that John Cage recognized that absolute silence was impossible when he sat in a soundproof chamber and heard his heart beating and the sounds of his own breathing.) Viewers also became co-opted in the piece by breathing the expunged air from the balloon, which was once occupied the city space of another. What this piece drove home was the struggle and fight that takes place on a daily basis for individuals to find and successfully occupy a space of one’s own in any landscape – urban or rural – city or country. The physical effort required by participants to occupy their balloon-space is multiplied many-fold on a daily basis, as individuals aim to carve out a place for themselves to live, exist, and breathe, peacefully and easily. The performance piece is documented as a four-minute video.
These two works by Studio 203 demonstrate the manner in which the group responds to local and global issues, using formal means that are readily accessible to the passing consumer, yet supported by philosophical groundwork that provides further depth and substance. In city that is currently lacking in stable venues for contemporary art, the group finds its own way to occupy the space of Tirana and bring art to the people, addressing contemporary needs and issues at the same time.