< Albert Heta on Art in Kosovo

It's Time To Go Visiting: No Visa Required

Interview with Albert Heta

 

Katy Jeffery

 



Prishtina is an urban sprawl - a mass of seventies communist architecture - the legacy of Tito's presidency over former Yugoslavia. The capital is overcrowded: following the war in 1999, thousands of displaced ethnic Albanians returned to Kosovo, but remained in Prishtina hoping for better chance of employment and quality of life. Unemployment currently stands at around two thirds of the working age population in Kosovo. The city is packed with character - streets are lined with kiosks selling pirate CDs and DVDs - the cheaper of the DVDs are often filmed in cinemas on camcorders so you're lucky if you don't get people getting up in front of you to go to the toilet during the showing when you're watching it back in your living room. Just to clarify: there are no copyright laws in Kosovo. Blocks of flats are a mass of satellite dishes and makeshift washing lines. The streets are so dusty that after a day's walking round the city the design of my shoe was stencilled onto my foot. The amount of smokers is also disturbing - asthmatics beware if you're planning a trip.

Around 88% of the Kosovar population are ethnic Albanian according to a report by international aid organisation, Mercycorps in 2003. Serbs constitute 7%, Bosnians 2%, and Roma 1%. Among many ethnic Albanians in Kosovo there seems to be an unsettling championing of Americans and American culture. The character of the city is greatly impacted by the mass of international aid organisations and multinational United Nations and KFOR employees who are still driving around in armoured vehicles. With this international presence comes the familiar smattering of themed bars - all playing up to international custom - including the Irish Pub which proudly serves Guinness on draught. Out of the city and amongst the startlingly beautiful countryside the legacy of the war continues to be evident: ruins of houses dot the landscape, remaining just as shells most untouched since their destruction, families often having never returned to them since the war.

Kosovo has been an area of dispute for centuries - a historical lost province. For a long time, artistic output has been stagnant but emerging artists now have a lot to gain through embracing their marginality. During the 1950s cultural institutions began to form in Kosovo, but such institutions have perpetually chased themes which were relevant internationally decades earlier. These circumstances still continue - the emerging contemporary art scene a remote distance from the art institution in Prishtina.

Albert Heta is one of a number of artists who emerged in Kosovo during the 1990s. Breaking the mould; these artists distanced themselves from the outdated Academy in Prishtina - at which Heta had studied - and turned away from the prevailing escapism throughout Kosovo to deal with political reality. This reality was escalating ethnic violence during the presidency of Milosevic which culminated in the NATO bombing campaign of 1999. Heta had been working mainly in interventionist works within the Balkan regions and although he created some works prior to the war in 1999, it is really since then that Heta has started to generate more work and a sort of art scene has begun to emerge.

There has been a project sponsored through German cultural funding which has been running in Prishtina since 2003 called Missing Identity, which Heta has had some involvement in. One of the goals of the project is to support contemporary arts in Kosovo and it aims to promote ethnic diversity rather than trying to apply universal cultural themes. The project operates mainly in Prishtina and Peja - where it runs the only gallery in Kosovo with a consistent exhibition programme curated by the project team. Yet, this programme has been focussing on the exhibition of international artists, which I feel constitutes a real drawback and missed opportunity.

The cultural and ethnic diversity in former Yugoslavian countries and the discourse these circumstances create is what makes contemporary social and political art there so distinctive. A necessity for fostering the arts in Kosovo is to generate local public interest, or at least, awareness. It's impossible to generate attention through shock tactics. Gory photos are ineffective when you're facing an audience which has lived through more than a decade of war crimes and gruelling atrocities. As far as generating awareness, Heta's interventionist works do just this. By making the work public, his audience is infinitely increased. Take Happiness - Independence Day: 1 Minute, 2001, where Heta used the Kosovar National Television station to broadcast the work. The video was shown without prior announcement to an unsuspecting public - a one minute blip in the programme. Surely you can't maximize your audience much more than that. What I have concerns about is whether it is necessary to appease the political standpoint of the majority audience in order to gat attention. Is it possible to engage with an audience in Kosovo if your culture differs from the majority? Happiness - Independence Day: 1 Minute was an appropriated news announcement with an adapted voice over declaring the independence of Kosovo. As yet, the only real way to be an artist - a contemporary artist - in Kosovo is to get international recognition and exhibit abroad. In order to do this successfully it's necessary to be aware of the locality of issues in Kosovo and to set them within international context without betraying them. This progression is apparent in Albert Heta's work.

Heta's Albanian ethnicity plays a large role in the work he creates, which attracts controversy because of its uncompromising nature - often using sarcasm and irony to get the point across with little regard for political correctness. Identity is a key theme in the work, which is often of local and national concern. Flags seem to recur in many of Heta's artworks. As strong symbols of collective identity, the flags used by Heta represent his personal affinity to the national identity of Albania and the US. They also rouse reflection on the lack of a national collective identity in Kosovo's population.

Heta produced Do It Again during his residency in Santa Fe in 2005, which had been sponsored by the Lannan Foundation. It's a short video of two women demonstrating the ceremonial folding of the American flag, the ability to do which was a requirement for becoming an American citizen when the women were children. During the film Heta asks the women to repeat the process several times. It challenges ideas behind national identity and the way that familiarity and ritual makes us comfortable to agree to do things without questioning the reasons why and the meaning behind such actions. Taken back to within the context of Kosovo, perhaps it poses questions bout the Kosovar Albanian perspective on the NATO campaign against Serbia and also the continued presence of Americans in Kosovo. Not so much a feeling of debt on the part of Kosovar Albanians, but of allegiance?

The Embassy of the Republic of Kosova which Heta exhibited at the 2004 Cetinje Biennale in Montenegro generated such fierce reactions that it was removed from the exhibition a month early. The work was centred on the lack of resolve over the debate on the status of Kosovo, currently under UN mandate and formally still part of Serbia - a sensitive and highly political issue. On approaching the building a visitor would first notice a flag hanging above the entrance - the flag is Albanian. Close up one becomes aware of a plaque on which the building is declared the ĆEmbassy of the Republic of Kosova'. The building which housed the biennale had previously been the Serbian embassy in Montenegro - adding further poignance to the work. Its physical presence is subtle but the message loud and clear and one can assume that it is this uncompromising political blatancy that generated so much controversy. Opposition to the work seemed to stem from its explicit and uncompromising nature, dealing with a subject most people outside Kosovo would rather forget about. In another similarly aggressive piece, It's Time To Go Visiting: No Visa Required, 2003, Heta pasted these words onto British Airways billboards advertising holiday flights around Prishtina. It serves as a reminder of the restrictions placed on many of the citizens of Kosovo - both economic and bureaucratic - and the ironic presence of these advertisements in Prishtina.

These pieces are effortlessly carried off - their key is in simplicity in form and Heta's ability to portray so much so concisely. A further point of interest is that such pieces could easily go unnoticed by general public outside of the Balkans because of the marginal status of the province both politically and artistically - lets face it - Kosovo is no longer a top story although the mess is very much still there - but its location and context within the Balkans is what makes these messages so raw.

In 2005 Heta took up residencies in Santa Fe and in Seoul. In Seoul an exhibition of international exchange, ĆThe Balkans are Moving', at the beginning of 2005 allowed a discourse to develop between artists from South Korea and the Balkans about challenges which arise with diverse ethnic groups living together. A development in the tone is apparent. Recent works seem to have developed a more reflective tone - through travel a new sort of international contextualisation seems to have developed, allowing a much broader audience to relate to the work. I was keen to find out the motives behind this change in location and how it affected his perception of the situation in Kosovo which he constantly draws on in his work.

I met Albert Heta and some of his colleagues at the centre for the Missing Identity project in Prishtina back in 2004. A meeting had been arranged between myself and several of those people involved in the project in Kosovo when I was researching the contemporary art scene in Kosovo. Two years later we've been discussing developments in Heta's work and also the state of art in Kosovo.

KATY JEFFERY I would like to begin with your decision to work abroad in 2005. When we last spoke you mentioned that it was virtually impossible to show your work in Kosovo.
ALBERT HETA I don't remember exactly what I said, but let's say that it is a fact that since the end of the war in 1999 contemporary Kosovar artists haven't had a solo show in any existing public or independent art galleries. Apart from public interventions I haven't shown here - since I don't remember when! But I also have refused to take part in some exhibitions. So it's more complicated. There is a large project in Kosova called Missing Identity, which has been going on for the past two years, sponsored by the German Federal Cultural Foundation. They also left out all Kosovar contemporary artists from their program of solo shows. Some of the artists in charge of the project are my friends and I was asked by them initially to conceptualize and design the visual identity of the project and was sometimes there to help, so this involves me somehow in the whole story. My expectations that they would support substantially the local contemporary art scene and make a change in this environment, proved to be naive and wrong in many ways, so the problem is not only in the governmental institutions, which are usually accused as conservative and corrupt. The decision to go away for a certain period of time initially came as a need for a distance and reflection on my work, but it also came as a result of the growing recognition of my work. My work is connected with the realities that I live in, but at times the pressure coming from the Kosovar reality is almost unbearable.

KJ How did you find art was valued in Santa Fe and Seoul compared to Kosovo?
AH In Seoul, I was asked to draw the borders of Kosova on a map of the Balkans, placed in the entrance of the exhibition space, as the organizers had a map that didn't have the borders of my country! They needed a day to replace the map. I joked saying that this was a position that all politicians in the region hope to be in - drawing the borders of their country with their own hands. Naturally, a day after they found the correct map and everything was in order. Similar experiences somehow follow me everywhere I go. To answer your question: Kosova cannot be compared with either of these places. The existence of the contemporary arts practise in this environment is more ironic than anything else.

KJ How did this change in location affect you work and your ideas about home? It seems that as a result of being in America you began to explore your temporary identity in works such as Do it Again, where you use the American flag.
AH It didn't change my ideas much; maybe it added a few additional themes. I'm not sure if I was only exploring my temporary identity. The American identity is somehow part of my identity. I grew up with products of American culture. To add more, just seven years ago there was the war in Kosova. American politics and American military intervention played a mayor role in the liberation of Kosova. Americans are still considered the liberators of my country. I cannot explain how intense and sometimes bizarre this relationship is. Apart from America, Kosova is probably the only country in the world that publicly celebrates Independence Day! At the same time, you can notice the huge difference between the desired presence that American soldiers and American politicians enjoy in Kosova compared with their presence in Iraq or Afghanistan. I'm not so interested in the flag itself, but the issues that I was interested in exploring involved the presence of the flag.

KJ How did this change in location affect you work and your ideas about home? It seems that as a result of being in America you began to explore your temporary identity in works such as Do it Again, where you use the American flag.
AH It didn't change my ideas much; maybe it added a few additional themes. I'm not sure if I was only exploring my temporary identity. The American identity is somehow part of my identity. I grew up with products of American culture. To add more, just seven years ago there was the war in Kosova. American politics and American military intervention played a major role in the liberation of Kosova. Americans are still considered the liberators of my country. I cannot explain how intense and sometimes bizarre this relationship is. Apart from America, Kosova is probably the only country in the world that publicly celebrates Independence Day! At the same time, you can notice the huge difference between the desired presence that American soldiers and American politicians enjoy in Kosova compared with their presence in Iraq or Afghanistan. I'm not so interested in the flag itself, but the issues that I was interested in exploring involved the presence of the flag.

KJ Could you talk about your work with Maria Jose Rojas during your residency? Is this the first time you have collaborated on a project?
AH Yes, It is the first time that I've collaborated with another artist. For me it was interesting enough just to meet Maria and talk about Pinochet! The fact is that the collaboration was very productive. Even though, we disagree on some issues and our work meets in very few points, most of the times we had fun and enjoyed the process. I think the work that we produced is something else for both of us.

KJ What do you hope your audience gets out of your work? Do you ever get frustrated by an audience reaction, especially when your work is so personal?
AH Yes, I can get frustrated by the reactions.

KJ Would you say that your work in intervention is a result of the way that art is seen in Kosovo?
AH Not only that. I think that it has more to do with living here. I think that extreme conditions, with constant and extreme provocations have pushed me in this direction of challenging and deconstructing these conditions.

KJ Could you talk about the reaction to Its Time to Go Visiting: No Visa Required and the Embassy of the Republic of Kosova? Does such a reaction help you to gauge the success of these intervention pieces?
AH The reactions make you think that the work was relevant. I was told that people who saw the billboards were calling British Airways to seize the irresistible offer to travel without a visa. The intervention was done at 9.30PM; in the middle of the going-out time in Prishtina so I guess a lot of people saw it. Afterwards, BA was practically hunting and intimidating everyone who had anything to do with the work! BA management threatened the editor of the only newspaper - Weekly Magazine Java, which published the image of the work in its section called picture of the week. Later, the editor admitted that he thought that the image was a computer-generated image otherwise he would never dare to publish it! All other newspapers decided to ignore the intervention. Even though, they were informed and properly fed with the information and images. I think that until today there was no comment or critique about this work ever published in Kosovar media!

I was in a meeting with Rene Block, when the manager of BA called an artist friend present at the meeting, trying to find out who I was and all that! It was the second close encounter that I had with the BA. All had started some 12 hours after the intervention, when I was invited to a meeting with the company that owns the billboards in Prishtina. The meeting was intense and filled with threats of legal prosecution, that could be expected, but also primitive threats and physical intimidation. Even if I try to avoid making statements about the work itself I can agree with something that was said about this work: the work managed to disclose and deconstruct the existing socio political system and the economics of control that is practiced in Kosova; failed media independence; lost intellectual independence and intellectual corruption; failure to say anything against your "international friends" and liberators.

On the other hand, The Embassy of Republic of Kosova had a different treatment. It went public. Media in Serbia, Belgrade influenced media in Montenegro, conservative and nationalist intellectuals - those who started the whole Serb nationalist rampage in Former Yugoslavia were ready to attack. They were practicing hate and inflammatory language, against the work and me, regularly used during wars that we left behind; the curators and the organizers were not prepared to deal with reactions; the organizers turned away and accused me of betraying their hospitality by installing the work without their knowledge (?!), even though the work was present in the catalogue that was published before and forgetting the fact that they paid for the production of the work or the funniest accusation of all - that I had taken out a sign in front of the Embassy that was saying that this was a work of art. The Prince of Montenegro, who is the President of the Biennale, publicly apologized for t! he work to the Montenegrin people! Demands for the resignation of the Minister of Culture and political accusations directed to the highest political officials in the country were part of the process. I was left out from the debate that was going on for a long time and still does. The problems that I faced with the work resembled so much the difficulties that the Albanians in Former Yugoslavia were dealing with, for decades.

KJ What are you working on now?
AH Right now I'm working on something very concrete and necessary.

 

 




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