08 Nov “Activating the Power to Desert History Itself”: Raino Isto and La Société Spectrale discuss Moving Billboard, Part 1
Art historian Raino Isto interviews La Société Spectrale (Armando Lulaj, Jonida Gashi, Pleurad Xhafa), a collective comprising members of the DebatikCenter of Contemporary Art (DCCA) about the project Moving Billboard. The second iteration of Moving Billboard was agitated (as La Société Spectrale characterizes it) as part of Manifesto DESERTION, an intervention organized by DCCA in collaboration with ZETA Contemporary Art Center in Tirana, Albania, from July 4 to September 11, 2023. This is the first part of a two-part interview; the second part is available here.
Raino Isto: Let’s start with what Moving Billboard is: it is the second chapter of Eden Eden Eden, an exhibition in three parts that is also part of the second Manifesto project, Manifesto DESERTION. The first chapter of Eden Eden Eden, The Deserter, opened in ZETA Gallery on July 13, with the arrival of a copy of the eponymous Ilya Repin painting (The Deserter, 1917) created by the well-known Albanian socialist realist painter Zef Shoshi. This painting joined the audio installation Radio Desertion – a nearly hour-long recording of artists, philosophers, critics, activists, historians, and others reflecting on the topic of desertion – in an otherwise empty gallery space with a floor paved over in fresh asphalt. A few weeks later, the documentation of the Moving Billboard project entered the space: 24 billboards, installed across the city of Tirana and its peripheries, in a single 24-hour period. Each billboard in a different location, documented on the hour at a different time, featuring a single work of art.
Manifesto DESERTION – like its precursor Manifesto HIJACKING, which took place at the same time last year (in 2022) – was an exploration of the interconnectivities between art and political power, the forms of complicity and agency that shape contemporary art not just in Albania, but across the globe, in conditions of pervasive neoliberal capitalism and oligarchy. This time, as the name suggests, the projects comprising Manifesto DESERTION revolved around ideas of abandonment, escape, flight, exile: the attempt to desert from history itself is mentioned in the exhibition text. How does the Moving Billboard project fit into this context of desertion?
Armando Lulaj: Manifesto DESERTION is the second episode in the series of three Manifestos, originally conceived as a direct response to the current situation in art, but also strategically conceived as reference points for a future generation. Furthermore, the project attempts to analyze the current situation of the local art scene, which currently does not self-analyze and does not work much on local contemporary problems but instead limits itself mainly to reflecting the problems of the global scene. That said, it cannot analyze these issues, it simply copies them.
We started with Manifesto HIJACKING, providing a set of “tools” to hijack the status quo, proposing different and more difficult topics to address, topics that were obviously critical of politics and the government–which remains the main sponsor and promoters of contemporary art in Albania, advancing its own precise idea of what sort of contemporary art should be developed in the country.
Manifesto DESERTION could have been third in the order of the three projects, but we thought that the question of what needs to be deserted is quite urgent. Certain narratives and trajectories should be deserted immediately, in order to try to imagine something new. Considering the contemporary condition and today’s art system, a corrupt system structured by politics and money, whose rules are reflected here in Albania in their worst condition, stripped bare, I truly believe that the most radical act for an artist today remains the act of desertion. But since this was a collective project, we focused more on the collective process of desertion. Desertion remains a difficult and challenging topic in the arts and we worked more on the process of it. We wanted to explore different aspects of desertion: desertion as an attitude, but above all how this attitude is already incorporated and how it can be further developed in and by our society and our art.
To transform it into a Manifesto, we conceived the project as a shaking movement, an explosion of ideas that would spread rapidly out from the center and expand towards the periphery, just as the state apparatus does when it expands. The scheme used was the same, in order to intentionally contrast the abortion of ideas coming from the center (read: the government and its affiliated art foundations). Conversely, starting from the outskirts to reach the center, the entire project was then brought back and exhibited within a display we called Desertion Archive. So, mostly everything that has been produced or rather the documentation of this process has been collected and placed within this ever-evolving archive, located in the space of the Zeta Gallery.
Another aspect of this project was the “desertion of exhibition making,” and this aspect interested us much more. We therefore decided to operate on the fringes of the exhibition context. In fact, the gallery where the archive was gradually installed was first paved with asphalt, thus becoming a difficult space in which to spend a lot of time, even if it necessary to enter the space both to see the archive but also to listen to Radio Desertion, the other part of this archive, which is in sound form. The smell of asphalt and its viscosity were an important part of the desertion process. Visitors were ultimately forced to leave due to the conditions created within the exhibition space, which were discomforting precisely in the way they presented the contemporary conditions of the neoliberal narrative on a different scale. We wanted to highlight the exhibition space itself, so instead of entering the gallery space as if something had already happened, as if the story had somehow been produced, we thought of building an “archive” that would grow organically, day after day. This process was obviously very slippery, and you couldn’t frame it because it was an ongoing process without end. This process of framing the desertion as an act caught in the moment it was about to take place seemed much more interesting to us.
When we were conceiving Moving Billboard II we were likewise thinking about different strategies of exhibition-making, and specifically ways to unmake them, starting from the re-conception of the vernissage itself. This was a necessity for us as a response to the existence of a single exhibition scheme developed over the years in this very politicized and highly controlled artistic situation. We see it as a form of liberation from this, but also from the other known strategies and in use for staging exhibitions. It’s very strange because in Albania even the form of the funeral procession has changed, but the exhibition model still remains the same. It is profoundly worrying that there are very few exhibition spaces in Albania, and those few that exist are forced to capitulate with the artistic policies provided by the central government, the Ministry of Culture, or the Municipality. Obviously, as a result, what they manage to achieve is often very lazy and absolutely not very courageous programming, because it is not in tune with the situation that surrounds us. It still follows models consolidated in the 2000s. As foundations and art centers – but not private galleries supported by the market – they understood that the copy-paste operational strategy was the safest one in these situations. My criticism is aimed at their directors, or rather at the directors of their artistic programming, who continue to atrophy the art situation and stimulate a crowd of trained spectators who are always the same – positioned horizontally, never vertically – who do not seek any density of context. These spectators desire a kind of lazy tourism from the art world, which is provided to them.
RI: When you speak about art spaces capitulating to the current artistic and political system in Albania, I assume you are referring to the way that the whole discourse of contemporary art has been instrumentalized in large part because of the fact that Albania’s Prime Minister, Edi Rama, is an artist. Since Rama first came to prominence as major of Tirana–and achieved notoriety in the artworld through curators like Hans Ulrich Obrist for his project painting the buildings of Tirana, the connection between art (and the whole cultural industry) and political power in Albania has become increasingly linked in a circle of corruption. And this tight connection is constantly further legitimized by the global neoliberal artworld, a world that invites Rama to speak at Creative Time, to show his drawings at the Venice Biennial, to show at Marian Goodman, which serves in turn to artwash the abuses of power carried out in Albania. In the face of this, some art spaces simply choose the path of least resistance. You have tried to do something else.
AL: Since its beginnings in 2003, the DebatikCenter of Contemporary Art (DCCA) has been looking for something different, a different kind of melting point. Being positioned outside the above-mentioned context, we used a different strategy. Instead of the gallery, we used the street as the most important space to produce art, but also as the most interesting space to meet a different type of spectator. Today we live in another context, one in which the role of the acute contemporary researcher (an inexistent figure in the 2000s), has become extremely important, putting into question accepted models of exhibition making, the art critic themself, the artist, the politician, the contemporary art historian, and the figure of the curator themself (all uncontested figures in the 2000s). The project was not looking for this type of lazy viewer; rather, it was looking for a new one–one produced in that particular one-hour time frame. We could also say that this contact with such a new viewer was a violent encounter, made up of unwanted pieces of recent history, or moments not present in official history, let’s say. From all this, we realized that the street remains the most interesting space to act because the work of art is encountered by chance. For me this is the most powerful aspect of Moving Billboard II.
RI: Manifesto DESERTION is the second time La Société Spectrale has organized the Moving Billboard project. The first time, in 2018, you selected all 24 images to appear on the billboards, correct? This time, instead, you asked 12 living artists to select one work of their own, and one work by an artist now deceased, to appear on the billboards. The new iteration, then, is at least partially about the formation of historical consciousness in the present. The 24 billboards represent a kind of new history in the making – a new set of references, and a new set of juxtapositions. But La Société Spectrale – as the “agitators” of the project – selected the sites where the billboards were installed, the places where these fragments of art history intersect with the specific histories of Albania, the place. How does Moving Billboard relate to a global art history? And how does the placement of these images intervene in local art histories of Tirana, of Albania?
AL: I would like to point out that the name we have chosen, La Société Spectrale, has a particular meaning, which should not be confused with Society of the Spectacle nor with Specter Society, nor with La Société Anonyme. It is the literal translation of the famous “Firma Fantazmë,” or “Ghost Companies” – companies that appeared in the early 1990s in Albania when we undertook neoliberal reforms. This name becomes even more important for us because strangely we still find ourselves there, in those years, trying not to drown in the vast sea of neoliberalism. These corporations or ghost companies were companies whose owner was a front man, or was very difficult to discover; companies that could not provide documents on where their shares were registered or who owned them, etc. These companies were local, but also foreign, and they made billions disappear in collaboration with local and foreign politicians. Nowadays we have many companies operating in the country, mostly winning government contracts, but now they are all registered to numerous offshore corporations, and both they and the government communicate this with pride.
By using this infamous name, we wanted to expose the dubious activities of these individuals, politicians, or the government itself–but not only that. We wanted to remind the masses, the viewers, of when it all started, to return to the 90s, and connect the role those entities played then with the role that our group has today. La Société Spectrale likes to be defined as the repentance who expose the government’s shady activities.
Moving Billboard I took place throughout Albania in 24 hours, and given the large expanse of territory it covered it was very difficult to carry out. This time we chose a much smaller perimeter, the capital city of Tirana, for many reasons. This city is changing very fast. I often listen to tourists who visit the country telling me that Tirana is a city of art, with beautiful and innovative architecture. I am still very surprised when I see widely circulated foreign newspapers, which these tourists rely on and believe in, publishing articles so full of falsehoods. Many people, including some curators visiting the country, try to respond to this huge number of lazy tourists, to make them see that the narrative created through paid newspaper articles thought up in the halls of government are part of an aesthetic strategy somewhere between amnesia and full control. These people, curators or otherwise, who like to go in depth have a message that is more suitable for the trained spectators, to whom I was referring to before, a small audience that is prepared to look at art a certain way. It becomes extremely difficult to counter all these appearances in many foreign newspapers or local media and it becomes even more difficult when all the other narratives by various artists or authors that tell a different truth, another narrative of the country, in contrast with the official state narrative, cannot be published. And if they are published, still they can’t get to that level of attention; they don’t appear in The Guardian or The Financial Times. This is why we take to the streets to meet or provoke, to wake up this other spectator that the system does not want, showing them some real problems of the country’s future, but in a different way: making them see the terrible neoliberal reflection that is projected onto them. This future often comes from the past and happened elsewhere, or else it comes from a present that is happening parallel to us in other countries. It is important for us to highlight these reflections from the past, but also to mix them with our current issues, not by equating them, but by showing that the collapse happened some time ago. By changing time and space, we talk about this present and terrible future more than any other project carried out in the country in the last two decades.
To further answer your question: this curatorial scheme – like every curatorial scheme–has incorporated within itself the question of control that cannot be completely eliminated, which starts from the artists’ choices and ends in the narrative it produces. From the beginning we were very interested in how to marginalize in the production of our new narratives. Obviously we couldn’t do the same as the avant-gardists with their choices produced by chance; instead, we wanted the controllable to become uncontrollable. That is, I am not very interested in the main narrative, but rather in the parallel narratives that escape the control imposed by and on us at the outset. We cannot control the uncontrollable – let’s say, the flow of people who come across these billboards that appear before them. It is also impossible for a single spectator to see all the billboards in this order, in this period of time, and in those locations. But most of the time the space was indicated by the works themselves and the idea was to create or agitate as many narratives as possible within the main one. We decided to circumvent the process and above all to eliminate the role of the curator or sometimes even that of the artist, who in this project also played the role of curator, since the images were chosen by living artists. We worked on different levels, starting from the addition of the apparitions, focusing on how all these images, combined in various ways, can become something very different. All these combinations of narratives, and different places where the billboard remained positioned for an hour, inevitably intervene in both history and memory in a continuous process, which suggests the idea of deserting HISTORY. To return to the archiving of the Manifesto DESERTION. Desertion Archive is perhaps an impossible archive because of the difficulties of unearthing that slippery uncontrolled moment in time, i.e. Desertion. On the other hand Desertion Archive is an archive composed of those moments that are built in times or spaces that are capable of activating the power to desert HISTORY itself …
RI: I would like to hear about some of the specific sites where these billboards have been photographed. In the documentation, they often appear innocuous: a field of corn; a crowded square in Tirana’s city center; a mountain road with water pipes; a hangar; the dense bushes of a park; a darkened underpass. Indeed, the billboards placed in these locations seem to gesture – in their visibility – at the invisibility of history. It is hard to know what these places mean: some viewers (those living in Tirana) might recognize almost all of them, while other viewers might know none of them. How did you choose the sites? Could you describe the significance of a few of them?
AL: It is important to remember once again that in this project we defined ourselves as agitators. This term is very important. As I said before, many of the locations were “chosen” by the work itself. For example, the piece by Christoph Schlingensief: I remember the first person who told me about this work and this was many years ago. It was a curator who became a fan of our Prime Minister, and whom I have worked with, and who has worked quite a bit in this region. Alongside the piece we also talked about the fusion of fashion and fascism, starting from Austria when the word Feschisten was invented and how these ideas were being incorporated into Albania using contemporary art. In Chance 2000, documentation of the Aktion Baden am Wolfgangsee (Swimming in the Wolfgangsee) (1998), Christoph created a fantastic piece referring to the high unemployment rate in Germany, and the responsibilities of the government and former Prime Minister Helmut Kohl at the time. It was decided this work should be placed in the area of Surrel, where the Prime Minister of Albania lives, and has built a huge house – so big that a Prime Minister of any country could never build it unless he was corrupt, much less in one of the poorest countries in the world, where unemployment is very high. The pension here is around 150-300 euros, and the minimum wage is 350 euros per month. So we thought that the photo of the performance – which shows a sea of unemployed German people forced to raise the level of a lake to submerge the summer residence of the former German prime minister – was very appropriate to put in that specific location. What the poor in my country or the new generation of artists have to do is something I can’t find an answer to. Personally I remain more interested in the process. We can work to build the process, but others should, and can, take it forward if they think this should be the way.
If in that case we installed (agitated) a piece of something that happened in the past and not far from Albania (but which probably could have happened here too) in the other cases we worked differently. For example, we installed Evergreen (2022), by Alban Hajdinaj, in the park surrounding the lake of Tirana, the only remaining green area of the city, precisely at a place known historically and colloquially as Gjiri i Kurvave (“Bay Of Whores”), where a new construction plan will be implemented and they will cut down trees to make room for new apartments for the nouveau riche. At the same area of the Tirana lake but at a different hour we put another billboard, this time a work by Pinar Öğrenci, titled A New Year’s Eve, 30th December, 2015 (2015). A frame from her video work showed a moment after the police attack on the peace march in Diyarbakir on December 30, 2015. We decided to put her billboard in an area where there is a historical monument that was built by the Turkish Government, dedicated to the victims of the failed coup d’état in Turkey on July 2016. We put her billboard in the middle of the “Street of the Martyrs of July 15,” which runs through the “Democracy Park of July 15.” Here, 251 trees are planted to commemorate the death of 251 victims – martyrs, according to Erdogan – to agitate this recent history even further.
Another piece, this time chosen by the respected Walid Raad, was Martin Johnson Heade’s Gremlin in the Studio, 1865-1875, a work that not many people recall. This work depicts an American landscape, displayed atop a pair of sawhorses, and a gremlin hidden underneath. We decided to superimpose it on the Albanian landscape, nowadays being “governed” by US rules!
One of the most interesting contributions in my opinion is the new piece from The Question of Funding, titled A question (2023). This is a work that at first glance raises many questions about today’s art system, which in its peculiarity reflects one of the cardinal problems we also have in Albania: control and direct financing from a single centralized source. But I think that the question posed obviously reflects the Middle Eastern question, the genocide of Palestinians and the decisions taken so carelessly by the Western world, towards an issue that concerns humanity itself. In this case, however, we decided to be somewhat naive agitators and placed this work in front of the Prime Minister’s office, where his private gallery is located, an art center that should, ideally, respond to society’s needs for dialogue and openness. This gallery, the COD, functions as a sort of Open Society Foundation art center, a bit of a continuation of what remained in the region from that project. At the entrance of this art center there is also a large work of art, Marquee by Philippe Parreno. Now partially destroyed, damaged by many protests, Parreno’s piece is full of bulbs that remain lit most of the time, day and night. His piece was installed two years after the so-called rise to power of the Socialist Party in Albania in 2013, at a time when the country seemed to be catapulted into the contemporary. This shift was accomplished with the most powerful artistic propaganda ever seen, including Parreno’s work, at precisely the same time that the economic system was going to hell and the mafia entered the parliament with this government’s blessing. At the time, many people were arrested and imprisoned because they could not pay their electricity bills. In a state of misery five people committed suicide. Meanwhile the lamps of the Marquee were never turned off.
So there were many agitations within this project. Jan Wilson’s piece, Time Spoken (1982) was shown inside one of the last remaining airplane hangars, built by fascists during the Second World War and now in use for repairing buses. Finally, a billboard by Barbad Golshiri on dissidence and martyrs, which contains a QR code of the same size as the Black Square, which will transport you to one of Iran’s graveyards was installed near the road leading to the Ashraf 3 camp, in Manzë, where 5,000 Iranian Mojahedin-e-Khalq live.
This interview was conducted remotely between August and October, 2023.
Featured image credit: Photographic documentation of the ghostly apparition of La Société Spectrale’s (great wave), 2023, on a billboard on Rruga “Vangjel Meksi”, Power substation Selitë – Tirana, Albania, between 12PM – 1AM. Courtesy of La Société Spectrale. Photo: DebatikCenter of Contemporary Art.