THREE POSITIONS ON THE DEMOLITION OF THE ALBANIAN NATIONAL THEATRE
Three cultural workers discuss political implications of the National theatre's demolition
In May 2020, the National Theatre of Albania was demolished under the administration of artist-cum-Prime Minister Edi Rama, violently bulldozing the historical architecture and everything that remained therein. The event, which took place in the early morning hours, was preceded by two years of public resistance against the destruction, with protesters eventually occupying the building as a last resort. Now flattened to the ground, the former historical site gives way to the Prime Minister's hobbyhorse of a €30 million investment scheme, that comes as disproportionate to the Albanian economics at large, and is ignorant of matters such as historical conservation, building protection and the needs of the local art scene.
Yet the concern of this article is another. The meaning of the demolition of the National Theatre may not be fully grasped in terms of its idiosyncratic and alarming nature, without taking a closer look at the intersection of artistic and political practices, which Rama has ventured in to the ends of – questionable – international acclaim ever since the facade project that turned Tirana into a large scale canvas, which was commemorated for posterity in Anri Sala’s Dammi i colori. By means of three positions, we will address the demolition of the theatre as a telling symptom of the art-politics-complex, whose ills (and sleeping potentials) concern us all if we are to reclaim a working relationship between those two fields. The theatre cannot be resurrected, but the assumption of a working relationship between art and politics remains a living matter that urgently calls to be ‘restored’ and reclaimed.
1. Position: Jonida Gashi
On 23 January 2020, the central government of China imposed a lockdown in the Hubei province in order to contain the outbreak of a new coronavirus in its capital of Wuhan. Within a matter of weeks, many more governments had followed suit, including Albania, effectively plunging vast territories and populations under some kind of state of emergency.
It would be naive to think that with the (yet to come) waning of the pandemic, the emergency measures imposed by governments the world over will also magically disappear. Indeed, all signs already point to the contrary. Given these conditions, as well as the popular uprisings that have swept up the United States and those taking place elsewhere in the world, the relationship between art and politics becomes an even more urgent question than usual. In order to measure up to the task, art will have to strike at the heart of the issue, namely, sovereign power.
In the past seven years, Albania has functioned as a laboratory in which the terms of engagement that will determine the future relationship between art and politics were being defined. I remember vividly when, in July 2015, Albanian PM Edi Rama posed outside of the brand new Centre for Openness and Dialogue (COD) on the ground floor of the Prime Minister’s Office with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. I also have a vague recollection of seeing a picture of Rama and Merkel in conversation with Anri Sala and Thomas Demand inside the COD.
The Prime Minister’s Office is a prominent fascist-era building located in the center of Tirana that has been a symbol of state, i.e., sovereign, power throughout its history. The (luxurious!) transformation of a portion of that building into a multifunctional cultural center comprising an exhibition space, a screening annex, a library, and a conference room, all of which would be open to the public, was going to change not just people's experience and perception of that building, it was going to change their experience and perception of the state itself.
In theory, that is.
I remember thinking to myself that the success or failure of the COD was going to depend on the degree to which it would allow itself to be vandalized, stormed, and/or occupied by protesters. I did not immediately understand that the mere existence of the COD was seen as having rendered protesting obsolete. Hence Rama's oft-extended (though so far unheeded) invitation to protesters to swap the streets and the squares for the ultra-designed interior of the COD; to swap the disobedient, protesting body (outside) for a docile body (inside); to swap shouting at the government for polite conversation with the government.
It was a neat trick: positing the future horizon of politics as having already been achieved in the present. The infinitely postponed future of the socialist realist art of yesteryear had been replaced by a future that was already history, i.e., dead. That is why the Centre for Openness and Dialogue could not coexist alongside a space like the historic National Theatre, another fascist-era building in the center of Tirana that since the summer of 2018 had become the site of a popular protest borne out of the typically obscene excesses of sovereign power.
In June 2018, Edi Rama’s government was emboldened by the suspension of the Constitutional Court when it used a highly questionable legal device known as a “Special Law” to transfer the land on which sat Albania’s National Theatre to a private developer. In May 2020, it was emboldened by its own draconian quarantine measures in response to the COVID-19 pandemic to squash the National Theatre protest in the middle of the night, by deploying hundreds of police officers bearing no identification, some of them heavily armed.
What really “died” on 17th May 2020, however, was a very particular vision of the union of art and politics. In fact, it had already “died” on the day the Centre for Openness and Dialogue was inaugurated, they just didn’t know it.
2. Position: Sonja Lau
Over the course of the past two decades, Prime Minister Edi Rama has ventured as an artist within the international art world, benefitting from an entourage of influential curators and artistic colleagues. Thus, although in disguise, Albanian politics and the specific case of the demolition of the country’s National Theatre, is present wherever one meets the art world on a grand scale: it is necessarily an undercurrent to Rama's artistic production. In the same way it is not possible to slice one person into two, the artist-politician cannot act separately as artist or politician only. The artistic responsibility is always also a political one, and vice-versa.
Yet, Rama’s reception in the international art world has been such that while the mere coexistence of these two positions inside of him is continually celebrated, one is actually discouraged from using one position - be it that of the Prime Minister or the artist - to interrogate or scrutinise the other. The problem that this causes is more than a matter of unequal opportunities within the art world. It is the emptying out of a once complex, radical proposal for the sake of a personal career. Although Rama has been an important figure to instigate the artist-politician-complex and to test its potentials, it can only develop significance and future applications if it does not become an object or property. For some time now, the grand idea has not been expanded, but made to fit for purposes very much off the concerns of art and politics. It became a presidential property, and was accepted as such by the international arts community, in what seems a general consensus on prioritizing the lure of power over the malodour of power abuse.
With the demolition of the theatre, we have to acknowledge the exposure of a sovereign's gesture, the turning from the 'artist-politician', to the 'artist-autocrat'
What happens when an artist becomes Prime Minister is a very specific phenomenon, essentially played out by two diverging, if not irreconcilable chords. On the one hand, the artist is elevated onto a position that carries the responsibility for an entire country and each citizen living therein - a position of care. On the other hand, the PrimeMinister-artist finds himself in direct competition with the artists of his surroundings. He must care for and support the same citizens, including rivals if it comes to artistic careers and international visibility. To govern a country whilst being governed oneself by alternate, potentially stronger artistic positions, is no easy scenario. One way to resolve this awkward imbalance is by raising oneself to the status of artist-sovereign. The previously mentioned Center for Openness and Dialogue is an example of how to do so. To demolish a theatre that is considered by the public as a site of production independent from the state's sovereign narratives, provides for another.
When I worked in 2013 at the National Theatre to curate a performance by Armando Lulaj in collaboration with John Tilbury, we could not yet assume what was awaiting this historical architecture. Or, maybe the artist did, since his reading of a long edit of “classified cables” stirred certain premonitions. That was just a week before the general elections. I remember that the theatre did not feel like an ally or accomplice, but was encountered with a subtle, somewhat gentle uneasiness that would often be sensed when entering state institutions at the time. It was a feeling of meeting up with history without having the chance to be properly introduced.
I left Tirana that year. The theatre began to grow new relationships, it became more and more acquainted. The nature of this change was not so much happening on the level of production, but on the level of the theatre's reception and its role within society. It wasn't feared for anything related to Communism and even less as a reminder of the Italian occupation. On the contrary, it became tangible and intellectually feasible that history belongs to those living in the present. It obliterated conceptions of “shame”, or respectively “progress” that had often been strategically used to legitimize new investment schemes versus the preservation of historical buildings. Who would be to blame anyhow, if it wasn't the politics of the present day? In other words, the theatre didn't serve anymore as a metaphor for the better present against the imperfect past. It began to make its own claims. This knowledge proved dangerous.
With the demolition of the theatre, we have to acknowledge the exposure of a sovereign's gesture, the turning from the 'artist-politician', to the 'artist-autocrat'. This shift is significant, because it entangles the project of the art-and-politics complex with the risk of losing its democratic base – which prompts complex questions on how to proceed with the project at all. There is tragedy and then there is farce, but then, what now? If we really are to consider politics through the lens of an artistic experiment, as Rama himself has suggested, we also need to look at the monstrous creatures that may arise from the lab. In the end, we have to take an ethical position. Everything else would betray what could be achieved when art foregrounds political and social development.
3. Position: Vincent W.J. van Gerven Oei
As the BLM protests sweeping across the globe make amply clear, the Western world is still deeply troubled by an ingrained and institutionalized racism, in areas of society as different as law enforcement, politics, and academia. The white, cis-het male superiority or “savior” complex that is its flipside also occurs prominently in the field of architecture, where such figures are often hailed as “starchitects,” Zaha Hadid being no doubt the exception that confirms the rule. These starchitects propose “planetary solutions” drafted during weekend retreats, while innovating green, sustainable modes of living for the autocrats of the world.
The demolition of the National Theater under the pretext of a redevelopment scheme is directly the result of the “good intentions” of one such blissfully white, male, and heterosexual architect, Bjarke Ingels (who apparently called his son Darwin, let that sink in). Even though Ingels, whose design for the new National Theater touted by Prime Minister Edi Rama was clearly ripped off from a Ukrainian competition design for an opera house in Busan, South Korea, refused to publicly engage or listen to the many critical voices in Albania, he did use his privilege as prominent Danishman recently to write an op-ed in the daily Politiken, which puts his savior complex widely on display.
He starts by unironically sketching out Albania as a country so poor that “scenes from Borat [...] were actually filmed” there, while also not failing to mention that the kidnappers of Liam Neeson’s daughter in Taken were Albanians. Having set the stage of a country so unfairly portrayed by Hollywood, Ingels then sings the praises of Edi Rama, the former “social-liberal” (sic!) mayor of Tirana and current prime minister:
"But [in the early 2000s], something interesting has been happening in Tirana. Various artists, including Olafur Eliasson, Ann Edholm, Dominique Gonzalez Foerster, and Franz Ackermann, have been invited to decorate the dilapidated city in an effort to create an alternative urban renewal. Expensive and complicated redevelopment projects could not be afforded, so the city's young social-liberal mayor, Edi Rama, who himself was a visual artist, had discovered that one could create the experience of transformation with a bucket of paint and creativity. It felt radical and refreshing."
As I have argued extensively elsewhere, the relational esthetics approach imported by Edi Rama and Hans Ulrich Obrist into the “redevelopment” of Albania “with a bucket of paint” has effectively become a form of sophisticated government propaganda, which promotes the fact that Rama is an artist-politician to obfuscate his actual artworks and policies. Once we look at his artistic output - decades worth of colorful doodles on government documents without any discernible development (the definition of a one-trick pony) - or his policies leading to steady decline on all corruption and media freedom indexes, there is nothing “social-liberal” or progressive to be seen.
In his op-ed, Bjarke Ingels places himself squarely in the relational esthetics propaganda framework set up by Rama and Obrist, referring to a “symposium” in 2013, where he “together with a number of local and international artists, writers, film people, and architects,” was “invited to hatch ideas for Albania's future development.” Out of these discussions, then, the plan for a “new National Theater” was hatched.
It is a nice little case study of how toxic white masculinity has invaded every pore of Western culture, and offers a measure of the enormous task that awaits us to decolonize the art and architecture world
Fast forward to 2020. The National Theater has been destroyed, contractor FUSHA Ltd. has officially withdrawn from tender negotiations, with the government suspiciously backtracking earlier statements about absence of state funds. Yet all of this Ingels brushes aside as irrelevant, internal politics that he doesn’t meddle with. Instead, he plays the victim. He complains that he is now caught in a “shit storm,” “accused of triggering ‘violence and corruption’.” He even claims that the National Theater project is "not a matter of BIG getting rich: it's going to cost us a lot,” which he considers a matter “for which we are not praised.” Here speaks the hurt ego of the white savior: look at all this amazing work I’m doing for nothing in this poor country where they filmed Borat! And all I get is protests and police violence?!
Bjarke Ingels’s response to the “shit show” he is co-responsible for shows us the wafer-thin skin and fragile ego – “we are not praised!” – as the perennial characteristics of the white savior. It is a nice little case study of how toxic white masculinity has invaded every pore of Western culture, and offers a measure of the enormous task that awaits us to decolonize the art and architecture world.