The conference that paved the highway to Kosovo's first biennale

This weekend saw the ‘Contemporary Past. Historical Future.’ conference take place in Prizren. Organized by the team behind ‘Autostrade Biennale,’ the event was a precursor to Kosovo’s first ever contemporary art biennale, scheduled to take place in September 2017. The conference featured a number of discussions on a range of issues affecting the contemporary art world, including the Kosovo art scene, the upcoming biennale and the benefits of biennales across the globe. K2.0 was also in attendance, and caught up with a number of the internationally renowned panelists, including Gregor Podnar, Sislej Xhafa and Yehuda Safran, to discuss some of these ideas further.

One of the main goals of the upcoming biennale is to stimulate the local art scene and K2.0 spoke to several panelists who all believed that there are some highly talented artists in Kosovo. Sislej Xhafa, a New York based Kosovo Albanian contemporary artist, told K2.0 that there are some “individually distinguished and incredible artists [in Kosovo].” However, Xhafa also believes that these artists face many challenges, some as a result of their environment.

Xhafa describes these problems as a result of a “tribal way of thinking,” characterized by smallness in vision and envy of other people's success, leading to a culture where artists are often undermined. “Success identifies someone as a target, because it is a small society and very narrow minded. Some even try to justify it in the name of art, because they love art. That is fakeness, and mediocrity. I have nopatience and no time [for such people]. It is my personal position to support distinguished, unique individuals.” During the closing session of the conference, Xhafa enthusiastically suggested an optimistic and somewhat radical approach to these issues.”We’re not just Albanians and Kosovars. We are a part of this world and we need to think big.”

Sislej Xhafa.

“Each year we produce new names who shine on the international scene, such as Petrit Halilaj or Flaka Haliti,” Shkelzen Maliqi, an art critic and the head of the ‘Gani Bobi’ institute for social studies, told K2.0. “Another great success will be the participation of probably 3 or 4 artists from the older generations in Documenta 14 (2017 edition). Contemporary art in Kosovo is well respected [even internationally], and considered as the most interesting and dynamic in the region.” However, Maliqi believes that these accomplishments are due to individual efforts rather than institutional ones, adding that contemporary art is largely neglected by the state.

Miran Mohar, a Slovenian artist from Ljubljana and member of the Irwin artist group, said that in the last 10-15 years, it has become evident that Kosovo is a great place for art and artists, thanks to initiatives such as Stacion, and other art projects. “I think contemporary art today has gone far beyond just the European Christian world,” Mohar told K2.0. “When you travel to Asia and you travel to Africa and so on, there is almost no country where there is no contemporary art. So it is kind of a new phenomena, a kind of new lingua franca, and I think Kosovo is playing an important role.”

Miran Mohar.

Mohar added that no matter how good we think things are going, there is always room for improvement. “It is always important I think to ask what can be done better? How do we deal with the art world as a whole, which is composed of different institutions; of museums, schools and other [art-lovers] like collectors, public and private collections and so forth.” 

The upcoming biennale will help cement Prizren’s place on the contemporary cultural map. It will even be an imagined intermediary event, existing between the biennales of Venice and Istanbul, hence the name ‘Autostrada Biennale.’

“There is a lot of work to do, and the biennale is a very important step because it will give visibility to the participating artists, both local and international,” Mohar told K2.0. “It will bring artistic practices to Kosovo for people to see, because at the moment [the situation] is very unjust. People in Kosovo face travel restrictions, so I think this initiative is very, very welcome.”

According to Nikolett Eross, a curator based in Budapest and one of the founders of the distinct ‘OFF’ biennale,’ each and every biennale is different. In an interview for K2.0. Eross stated that Hungary and Kosovo being smaller countries meant the challenge of a Hungarian or Kosovar biennale should be to address local issues.

“We can not produce a biennale with hundreds of thousands of visitors,” Eross told K2.0. “We can not produce a biennale where the whole art world will jump on it. That's why it is very important to address local issues. But [addressing] local issues in such a way that they are not only meaningful for the locals, but so that an international audience can also have access to local issues. That, I think, is one of the challenges of the biennale, to open up local stories, local issues, local engagement; so that international audience can discuss, can intervene, can feel they can access it.”

Nikolett Eross.

During the conference, Nikolet Eross recounted her experiences of founding the ‘OFF’ biennale in Budapest against a backdrop of political turmoil.She later told K2.0 that it is fairly easy organizing the first edition of a biennale but that the reality check comes afterwards. “It is relatively easy to organize a biennale the first time, because everybody has expectations, there are supporters, everybody wants to see something big and beautiful and will help with the initiation,” Eross revealed to K2.0. “But the real challenge is to organize a biennale for a second time, and a third time, because then there is disillusionment; from supporters, from locals that expected something different. So to create a biennale a second time, that is the challenge”.

“To guarantee continuity for a biennale you need to establish a substantial ‘system’,” Eross explains. “This system needs strong foundations with institutions, galleries, supporters, media and the art scene. The inclusion of the locals is very important. If possible, the civil society should be involved, not just the artistic community. I mean that in the biennale program it is important to have something else, not just visual arts.”

Contemporary curators and artists often prefer to use abandoned buildings, factories or other such spaces to exhibit art works. “A biennale has the potential to revitalize the relationship between the people and the town, highlighting the beauty of things that people don’t normally pay attention to,” Yehuda Safran, a well known architect and a lecturer at the University of Columbia (USA), stated to K2.0.

During the sessions, the renovation and maintenance of such spaces in Prizren was also discussed. “I think that is the most important thing that a biennale can do,” Safran told K2.0. “For example people forget that even in Venice, the biennale is not just a pavilion built by different nations. Half of the biennale is in ‘Caldiero’, which was a factory for making ropes. The rest is in military, navy, docks. Harald Szeemann (Swiss curator and artist and art historian) was the first to use it like that [a factory as a gallery].”

While moderating one of the sessions, Eliza Hoxha, previously more famous for her singing but now the host of a tv show on architecture and urban culture, argued that preserving such spaces is a social responsibility, especially now when these spaces are either being privatised, demolished or burned down in the process of ‘privatisation.’ 

The exact nature of contemporary art was also discussed at the conference, with famed Berlin gallery owner Gregor Podnar weighing in on the subject both before and after the discussion. “Every form of visual expression can be contemporary art,” Podnar told K.20.“In the history of mankind we have developed various forms of structuring art. In the last few centuries art has been defined by systematisation of expression within museum and gallery systems. Every art expression leaves traces, it does not matter if it is in the form of a traditional sculpture of in the form of a poetical thought on a piece of paper.”

Gregor Podnar.

The gallerist though, was keen to stress that learning about art and experiencing it are different matters. “There are hundreds of thousands of publications related to art nowadays and anybody can learn about it,” he told K2.0. “But in order to judge the quality of art, you need personal experience, [built up by] going to exhibitions, talking about art with other people [and] forming your own view on contemporary art.”

Sunday evening’s session focussed on more material concerns; art’s role in marketing and stimulating economic growth.According to Edmond Hajrizi, the founder and the rector of the University for Business and Technology (UBT), the art scene in Kosovo does hold investment opportunities. After his appearance on a panel discussion on art and investment, he told K2.0 that classical investors do not make an investment based on emotions, but based on facts “If you look at official art world in Kosovo, then you see that there is a lack of infrastructure for the arts; a lack of galleries, a lack of cinemas and other multimedia centers. When you analyse the situation, you see space for investment.” Hajrizi also argued that there are other positive economic outcomes of a biennale. “The arts also play a role in influencing other spheres of economy such as tourism, supporting the education system, stimulating innovation and many other sectors,” he concluded. 

The dedicated team of four who put together the conference and are still working towards the organizing of the biennale in september 2017, Baris Karamuco, Vatra Abrashi, Fitore (Koja) Isufi, and Leutrim Fishekqiu, told K2.0 that they were very pleased with the outcome, participation and discussions of the conference. “We believe the conference has transmitted a very positive message, that of cooperation, of the common mission to create new opportunities for revitalising the local artistic community and beyond,” the group told K2.0. They also revealed that the next steps towards the biennale’s creation will be choosing a curator (or even curators) and announcing the advisory board, which is expected to happen in the next few days.

Photo courtesy of 'Autostrada Biennale.'

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