Where the Streets Have no Names

 A rare street sign in Prishtina

A rare street sign in Prishtina

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.

 On the drive from Prishtina to Skopje, the bus driver kept the door open to save our lives...

On the drive from Prishtina to Skopje, the bus driver kept the door open to save our lives…

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.

 There is a lot to rebuild...

There is a lot to rebuild…

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.

 The mayor of Tirana at the time Edi Rama, an artist himself, painted the facades in bright colors

The mayor of Tirana at the time Edi Rama, an artist himself, painted the facades in bright colors

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.

 Critical graffiti in Prishtina: this area of the city has a number of cafes named after places or cities in Europe, most of which Kosovars need visas to go t in real life. The graffiti challenges the idea that visiting these cafes would be enough for the locals to have a taste of Europe.

Critical graffiti in Prishtina: this area of the city has a number of cafes named after places or cities in Europe, most of which Kosovars need visas to go t in real life. The graffiti challenges the idea that visiting these cafes would be enough for the locals to have a taste of Europe.

 Prishtina's 'Little Europe' 

Prishtina’s ‘Little Europe’ 

 Challenging the status quo: God Save Atifete (President of Kosovo) 

Challenging the status quo: God Save Atifete (President of Kosovo) 

About Amy Bryzgel

I am lecturer in History of Art at the University of Aberdeen, where I specialise in modern and contemporary art from Eastern Europe.
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