Elsa Demo_The wall magicians

According to the archives of a journalist / Journalism reports on the arts and culture during the last decade. A communication code that maintains the status-quo of isolation and conformity.

The wall magicians

Elsa Demo

While writing the notes for this text, I was thinking of a title. Usually, when I write starting from an idea, the title represents a path oforientation. It suddenly gives you a fusion of images which, then, need to be transferred into words. The following title tempted me: “A black square on a white wall. It is not Malevich.” Perhaps because this text was originally meant for an art gallery. Even if it would suggest a black and white image, the colors of white and black remain the true colors which generate all other colors.

From the “Malevich” spark, I keep the word “wall”, as a key to what I would like todiscuss here, which stems from a passage in my press archive.

The feeling that a normal reality is established, because the political, economic transition is left behind – I cannot say whether the arts and culture have made any notable shift – creates the impression that the walls have fallen. The walls, in fact, are here. There is as much space as there is lack of space, there is freedom to the same extent as control.

Unlike magic, in the sense of something that occurs in a miraculous or supernatural manner that only the sixth sense can capture, the use of this word in the other title I wanted to give this text, “The wall magicians”, summarizes the elusive relations between us as a sign, which consciousness and intellect can perceive clearly only at the conclusion of a process.

The real-time knowledge provided by newspapers and electronic media, is merelyknowledge of the day, common, acute and narrow, which mostly produces information. Yet, in the distance of time, the media, the press in particular, becomes an organ of knowledge and produces a more complete comprehension ofa given country and society.

I am spending a few hours in my press archive, which begins in the year 2000, in order to see the tracks that time has left behind, tracks to be used in the creation of a text about the reality of arts and culture in the media, which, as it turns out, are a mirror of the media itself, as well.

  1. I will start from the topics. From threads of the raw material: reality. I can safely say that this Albanian raw material determines the manner, method and style of a journalist and, along with his or her temperament, diligence and interests, constitute the journalist and comprise his attitude toward the world.

I found myself in the following three scenarios at the moment when I had to write my first chronicle for the newspaper “KohaJone” (Our Time):  The circus of Tirana left without a tent; the success of a private theater which operated at the main entrance of the National Theatre; the graduation of students from the Academy of Arts.

Three situations which, with the meaning that both time and my perception of them at a different historical moment, has imbued in them, express something much more than themere reality of the day:

The circus – a society with material needs, but weak and not serious in the manner in which it demanded its most basic rights; the extortion of public theater from a private theater called the “Rubairat” the irony of life after the collapse of 1997-98; and the Academy of Arts, home to the excess production of diplomas for several generations of artists.

I chose to report on the third topic. I recall the hall which hosted the student defenses of their visual arts diplomas, the chain created by the teachers’ circle. Like in a tribal ceremonywherein, along with the July heat, the energy of personal hostilities and infantile tastes for art and politics were also released. Inside this circle, the graduate barely murmured, pale, rigid, disoriented, desperate.

This, for me, has turned out to be one the most enduring images–a pseudo-esoteric image – which reveals how a formative institution of art still functions, where the human being, i.e. human nature overpowers the cultural being, meaning the nature of the institution, rule, law.

The young students defended their diplomasin front of artists with no works to their names, professors boasting scientific titles without having completed any research, big supporters of eclecticism for whom anything resembling experimentation passed the test, and the last group, which consisted of a few practicing artists with solid theoretical training who, aware of the dire circumstances where they found themselves, had become nihilistic: “Non possumus.”

  1. The faith of the Academy professors that Minister of Culture Edi Rama (a graduateof the Arts Institute) would change something turned out to be blind hope. Edi Rama, the parable of the prodigal son returning someday to kneel at the doors of the Arts, found its concretization in a different way. The aggressive promotion of cinema-cafes while quietly demolishing existing cinemaslike “November 17th“, “Ali Demi”, “The Republic” in order to build apartment buildings and shopping centers, was the prelude of his initiative to cover the entire city in concrete. As Mayor of Tirana, in autumn 2001, Rama finds out that the National (Public) Theatre does not meet the minimum requirements of fire hazards. The debate “Should the National Theatre be demolished?” reached televised live broadcast, like on other debate at the time.

From that debate, I recall the eloquent background Edi Rama used as a tool of manipulation, which is consistently found 15 years later in the Prime Minister’s Office, at the Centre for Open Dialogue (COD) where something pretending to be culture is fed to us. COD, a “Trojan Horse” for the entire cultural space that is centralized and in conditions of survival. COD, a fictional reality in the minds of those who have created it. The image of political bovarism, thanks to which a Prime Minister and a minority surrounding him, manufacture a different image of themselves and of culture than what these actually are.

Yet another topic of great public impact, again during the autumn of 2001, is The Tirana Biennale (Rama appears as the honorary president). The reaction of the public and public opinion was especially severe in two specific moments:  The performance of an artist named TinoSeghalwho, during the opening ceremony, urinates on the premises of the National Gallery of Art; and the exhibition of DimitryBioyt’s nude photographs depicting minors. He placed such an exhibition on the cultural scene that caused a shocking meeting with other cultures, all presented as a sensation for the arts in Albania, where the importance was placed on encouraging talk about this country, regardless of its content. Local artistscalled Seghal’s act “barbaric” whileBioyt’scase was interpreted according to the civil and penal codes.

What of the role of the arts and culture journalist?

  1. In such circumstancesjournalism erects speculative walls. It becomes active in terms of material and ethical problems in culture, creates the idea that it is dealing with criticism and investigation, similar to crime reporting, and covers up the inability to be skeptical and critical in a rational way regarding the value of the artistic and cultural product.

Readers are habitually used to obtaining this kind of information. Force of habit creates passive and indifferent readers. I see Albanian cultural press as firmly rooted inside forces of habit. Basically, we do not know our readers.

It is inevitable for a journalist,writing day after day, for years, about the basic needs of culture, not to abandonhis/her expectations of coveringissues that deal more with art or creative aspects. This phenomenon hascaused an excessive simplification of the language used. Language grows poorer depending on the subject, meaning, what one wants to express.

Poor subjectsfavor reports relying on resources and citations. This photographic process of realitycomes and goesinthe newsroom through yet another editing process and retouching of evidence, conversations, facts. The editorial considers it a “duty” to define things through its political lens. The journalist succumbs to modification and loses control of the news, facts, his/her own work ethic. When this process becomesa daily process, after a while, a full assimilation of the entire practice occurs.

Supposedly on behalf of professional impartiality, executives at an editorial level promote uniformity alongside the hostilitythey show when detecting individual expression in cultural reports.

The principles of the Journalistic Code of Ethics which state that the editorial board should recognize the right of journalists to refuse assignments or be identified as the author of publications that go against the Code of Ethics are dismissed.

According to this workmethod, the reporter is only superficiallya defender of public property. A show or event only assumes importance when it takes place in the National Theatre, an exhibition only when it opens inthe National Gallery and so on, thus implying that public property is viewed as strictly associated with the state.

Private initiatives require an inordinate amount of effort toreach public attention. Our media, being strictly personal businesses, family enterprises even, are able to eradicate another’s “private product” from their space, books for instance, because they see them as pollution that competitors purposefully place in their nest. In the “Shekulli/ Century” daily, the experience of maintaining a section on books and reading is accompanied by the most absurd debates aimed at expelling not Lessing, Grass, or Eco, but the publisher which offers works in Albanian. Thus, the report on books turned into a cause which had less to do with cultureand more with surviving the censorship exercised by the owner.

In the meantime, media groups have been created,composed, to a large extent, by migratory journalists meaning ones that move from one media to another. They are accustomed to the control mechanism of information and do not feel the need to resist the new half-democratic forms usedby the new paper.

Print mediaprofoundly reflectsthe status, cultural, social, economic lineupas well as the no less important political orientation of editors and media executives. I think this modus operandi profanes cultural journalism. The heads of the media have never conducted any field work, almost never write, do not attend cultural events. Not only journalism executives, but the system as a whole,discouragethe establishment of quality reporting and thorough analyses of culture.

Time passes. As Zygmunt Bauman reminds us, it may happen one day that “the companies in which you worked go bankrupt, the demand for your skills disappears because other capacities are wanted for which you do not know anything, achievements do not accumulate … the memory of your previous success lasts very little. So, you no longer have a life project. ”

Then, what does the “legacy” passed on from this generation of journalists tothe next represent?

  1. No amount of regret justifies that responsibilities misused by the mediaregarding actuality, what should be recovered and what should be remembered, i.e. memory restoration. “Media deepens the gap between science and the collective imagination,” states Roland Barthes. In this way, media fabricates myths.

Changes of dates, time limits in terms of historic space, the perspectival inversion of negative and positive heroes in the literary space, become part of the restoration which is again based on contrasts. Distortions of this nature and the “miracles” that emerge from them are favorite subjects for what I would call “mutation journalism”.

For these reasons, in terms of art and a little more narrowly in the realm of live shows, a greater attention has been won by new interpretation of legends (to name one: “Utopos” a drama by Stefan Capaliku based on the legend of the immurement, put on stage by Richard Ljarja in the National Theatre in 2001) or cult works of socialist realism relocatedin a currently ironical matrix (example: Loni Papa’s “The Mountain Girl” in the choreographic version of Arian Sukniqi). The journalist does not sense the Albanian artist’s need to deconstruct, refuses to share whether this artist fails or deceives through his desire to experiment with a creative practice already exhausted by Europe in the ‘60s.

Essentially, a compromise exists between the two parties:regardless of what the artist creates, the journalist makes no effort in looking beyond the usual reporting and affirmative assessments. Antonio Gramsci confirms that “the foundation of every critical activity has to rely on the ability to detect changes, differences in addition toany uniformity and superficial and false resemblance”.

When it so happens that this ability emerges, aggressiveness forms among the journalists whichthusly neutralize thecolleague’s critical voice.

The corruption of the journalist’s critical skills by the context requires an extraordinary amount of energy and resistance by the local artists. Confidentiality meansa slow and secure death in this profession. Our country is so small that constant run-ins with artists one writes about are inevitable. It is unavoidablethat in a newspaper or screen corner,for the journalist to not reflect his/herself as a natural being that stands in interpersonal relations with the world, a group, a clan. Which does not mean that geography determines the journalist’s distancetowards subjects.

As a subject or a qualifier, the word Albanian is one of the most commonly used in cultural titles. Even in cases when the journalist lacks the opportunity to touch and verify the source, simply because the source is outside the geography of the Albanian world. It suffices that the subject possesses any connection, however accidental and distant with Albania, to feed the phenomenon which the media, as a participant and creator of public opinion, originates and builds as a stereotype.

The stereotype has already negatively impacted the glorification of today’s “Albanian identity”. This stereotype erases any creative individualitiesby highlighting nationality and ethnicity as unique features of a particular racein the category of artists who live and create abroad. There are those who have said that being Albanian is a dimension that has nothing to do with the value of art. The country of origin’s small territorymay acquire great dimensions in the work; this territory may even only serve to justify a universal human condition. Their individual successes are seen as small rescue boats for the image of Albanian communities abroad.

Actually, this affirmative trend in journalism is gradually waning because every cliché reaches a peak followed by the fall.

New stereotypes may seem as though they create dissonance with the praising of icons past. State institutions and media work with the same zeal for awardslike “The Great Master”, “Accomplished Artist”, “The Nation’s Honor” and the funeral tributes in theater halls, ministries, academies.

The same communication codewhich wanted to keep intact the cult of origin, antiquity, writing records in Albanian – to push the boundaries to the XIV century –of Skanderbeg and Mother Teresa, to the insistence on possessing the weapon which nearly killed Mussolini. Without forgetting in this confirmation of the pastthe rooted repeating of the phrase “Kadareis Kadare.”

The memory’s restoration appeared in all its glory at the 100th anniversary of Albanian Independence. From the archives one can retrieve the article entitled “Horses and bicycles – A century of Albania through archival materials” addressing a non-standard documentary –the documentary genre was never born here – and an interview with the director SaimirKumbaro treats the issue of the maximal service rendered by Albanian authors tothe political group in power. Regarding the contemporary period, the material in question eulogizedthe NATO membership and neglected to include the overthrowing of the state and the human losses of 1997. “We do not give up on a kind of servility in presenting the achievements of those who are in power,” saysKumbaro in the documentary. “And this is hurting us a great deal. Often this kind of sycophancy is referred to as “self-censorship”. ”

The same thing has happened at the National History Museum where the communist crimes ward has been redone several times, depending on the electoral promises made to the community of ex-prisoners and the politically persecuted.

If only it were possible to place Antigones in front of the aforementioned political Bovarism, people capable of resisting the lure of power and shocking the system whenever necessary.

  1. The archive includes preserved writings of authors who have contributed to “Shekulli”, in terms of cultural sites but also opinion sections and analyses: FatosLubonja, ArdianKlosi, ArdianVehbiu, MaksVelo, ArbënXhaferi, Ervin Hatibi, Mustafa Nano, PëllumbKulla. Essentially their critical thought might be expressed thusly: “God created Albania, Albanians undid it.” As far as I know, all these authors, with one or two exceptions, were not religious. They were believers in the secular sense of the word, in terms of awareness to culture, to the Albanian world. They were critical towards our failure to aspire to a secular-democratic world. I can safely claim that they believed that ennoblement of readers was also possible through the pages of newspapers.

The journalist is constantly under pressure in terms of the loss of freedom and the cultivation of profane knowledge, everything and nothing, at the same time. Therefore,all that remains is his/her everyday spiritual and mental workwhich would grant him/her an independent judgment of the cultural world and thefacing with grace the editorial margins, media businesses, and –  why not?! –  even his/her insignificant place in the current society.

The internal fire will not leave him in a lurch, nor the temperament of seeking powerful and dormant emotions: when one feels the vibration in wood of a woman’s hand on the shoulder of Tutankamunit, 1300 years Before Christ; when one reads about the secret of mirrorin “The Arnolfini Marriage”; when one hears the Centauri monologue from Pasolini’s”Medea”; when one touches the innocence of a studio angel in the film photographs of AlbesFusha.

In conclusion, I cannot find more appropriate word than those of Günter Grass describing this transition to archives as a discreet process that happens when you’re “peeling the onion” … One recalls the fear, weakness, uncertainty, powerlessness that can lead man to humility. One recalls the laborious pleasure of loving this elephant man-type of culture and claims that it is worth dedicating oneself to this craft for which we were deliberately and wrongly warned that it/one dies every day.




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