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Media Art in Albania, First Steps

Interview by Geert Lovink with Eduard Muka.

Eduard Muka works as an artist and assistant-professor in the visual arts department of the academy of visual arts in Tirana. He also works with a group of young artists to promote the alternative arts movement in Albania. In 1990, still a student, he took part in the movements which threw over the former communist regime. In the confusion period afterwards, Muka spent some time in Italy and after having returned, he was invited to teach at the academy of fine arts. The interview was conducted during the 'V2_East' meeting, a part of the DEAF-conference in Rotterdam.

Geert Lovink: What happened within the Albanian arts right after the changes in the early nineties?

Eduard Muka: In 1992, the Soros Foundation organized an exhibition of paintings, because that was the only known medium at the time. This was the first moment where you could see some different tendencies (let's not call them new). There was this huge gap of information since the mid-fifties between Albania and what was going on elsewhere in the world. All these people were raised according to the socialist realist methods. Artists, which are supposed to be a rebel, having suffered a lot under this cruel regime, scarcely dared to take the ship and get to Italy. So in 1992, in this first exihibition, artists tried to escape reality. No escape from the country (because they did not have the courage), but an escape from the known schemes into formalism. It was a revival of abstract painting, looking outmoded, if you put it out of it's context.

Nobody thought of concepts and ideas, everybody fought against them. Take for example Edi Hila, one of the greatest Albanian artists and the former dean of the Fine Art Academy, who had a series of abstract paintings. Nobody could get out of this revolt against conceptuality and realism. But Hila's work was to a certain extent influenced by the Tirana environment, which in the early nineties was completely destroyed. Or Vladimir Myrtezai, an artist in his mid-thirties, who has recently made some installations. But he also comes from a painting background. He has been one of the first formal artists, using pure geometrical, abstract forms. Gazmend Leka is also a painter, who produced around 1992 a series of abstract graphics with some figurative elements. Now he is dealing in the paintings with religious characters, even though it is abstract.

At that time, being in Italy, I had to make my living as a painter, making portraits and landscapes. Besides this, I began making researches into conceptuality. When I came back after a year, I had a personal show, which included conceptual paintings and installations. It had good reactions from the public, but some very bad ones from the conservative side, which, unfortunately, is in power in Albania nowadays. The controversy started in the newspapers, they are not open- minded, they want everything to remain within the tradition of painting as a craft. Students have to become craftmen, they are not interested in the artistic process. We just want to make the students able to analyse the situation in a visual way, with the medium he or she wants to choose. But this controversy does not take place as an artistic debate, it is just a matter of power. You are not given the right to defend your ideas. In this respect, the help from foundations or other organizations is vital.

Even if we lose one battle, we are going to win the war. Religious art is not involved, that is at least one good thing. What the current power promotes is the ability of the artist to move the brush in a certain way and create the surface. It is a very superficial, formalistic demand. They don't want to offer the students something they themselves do not even know, which is bad, because the school is the right place to do experiments. You better direct the students in an unknown territory, and let them discover, even by making mistakes.

G.L.: Under which circumstances does media art have to make a start?

E.M.: The isolation is still having its impact. The information we receive about alternative media, including media art, is very limited. I share all the material I get with my collegues and students. Only freedom is changing things. Media art has only just started. I can mention a young artist, his name is Anri Sala, he used to come from a painting background, shifted to installations, worked with photography and has just produced two videos, a 20 minutes long piece called 'The Tongue', which I showed here at DEAF. He also produced a computer show recently. A problem here is the difficulty to link up with history. Regarding experimental film, it is impossible, there wasn't anything. But there is a famous dynasty of photographers in Shkodra, which is in the North of Albania. There is a phototheque in this city with marvelous material, now being restored. It contains mostly documentary photos, done in an artistic way, landscapes, family portraits. The first Albanian artistic photo show was held in april 1996, in the Ernst Museum in Budapest. I worked together with Katalin Timar on this show and was amazed by the conceptual quality, despite all the technical problems that still exist. The students of the fine arts academy also did a first photo exihibit with the same conceptual cargo. In 1995 we were able to establish a photo lab in the academy, with the help of the Soros Foundation and the British Council. This year the school will open a computer atelier and a designers program. But the school broke all the programs we had prepared, due to the political changes after the elections in May. There will be no room for research. But they only want to teach the students the craft, not the artistic, creative process. A new project concerns building up an archive of Albanian art of the last fifty years, because it does not exist at all. We would like to interview and document the works and lives of older and younger artists, not only to conserve it, but also to build up our new experience, whatever our past experience is. We just cannot and must not deny it and make profit of it. Making it accessible through the Internet could be a first step of showing what media communication is.

We inherited a sort of hatred towards the media. There were a lot of lies, nothing was exact, there was only propaganda. Still there is only one state television channel and it is even worse than it used to be. The distrust towards media could be a good starting point for artists to make their critical approach in regards to media. I look at media as the highest degree of manipulation humanity has ever invented. In this sense, this could be really used, to fit the works of artists, raising social or individual imperatives. Nobody has any idea how it came to post modernism and contemporary art. Everbody thinks that modernism is just abstraction, the fugitive way from the real image. We are working on a book with translations to clear such basic misunderstandings and we work with catalogues I brought from abroad.

In Albania there are no rich people with access and the poor who cannot get to the information or technologies. Perhaps 5% made money in recents years. 0.5% is middle class, the rest is all the same. To share information now is not so much the problem. What matters is how to fit the media psychology into the Albanian mentality of the artistic audiences. The controversy is not between the media and the audience, but between media and the arts. We have to force our way into the scene and to show what the possiblities are.

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