“Activating the Power to Desert History Itself”: Raino Isto and La Société Spectrale discuss Moving Billboard, Part 2

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 second part of a two-part interview; the first part is available here.

Raino Isto: As we mentioned in the first part of this interview, the Moving Billboard project was the second chapter of the Eden Eden Eden exhibition, following The Deserter, restored by Sonja Lau. The third phase of the exhibition, Lighting a Fire on the Bottom of the Ocean, took place on August 26, 2023: a political exorcism conjured by Vincent W.J. van Gerven Oei & Çiçek İlengiz in the “orbital forest” surrounding Tirana, a forest promised by Stefano Boeri’s Tirana 030 project but still unrealized. The Desertera traditional oil painting, hanging framed in a gallery space, albeit one paved with asphalt, signaled the traditional role of the gallery. Moving Billboard moves beyond the gallery walls, treating the city and its margins as an expansive site. The third chapter likewise unfolds far outside the gallery walls. Could you talk about how Moving Billboard fits in as the middle chapter of Eden Eden Eden

Armando Lulaj: Eden 1: The Deserter, the first chapter of Eden Eden Eden, remains an ongoing project, not completed yet–but yes, it deals mostly with past and recent history, copies, archives, and art collections. The idea is that the work we produced will be donated to the main collection of art in the country, to the The National Museum of Fine Arts, now in reconstruction. Eden 1 will be completed when the beautiful copy of Ilya Repin’s painting, reproduced by Zef Shoshi – one of the most important Albanian painters – enters this special collection, which mostly comprises Socialist Realist art. For Eden 2: Moving Billboard II, we wanted to build a sort of X-ray of our present, with the 12 invited artists. The deceased artists (Dziga Vertov, for example) are present together with those who can still produce is significant: The idea of letting each living artist choose a dead artist meant that in some cases the chosen work is more powerful or speaks better to our present even than their own works. Furthermore the idea of. a “ghost” or “ghostly apparitions” reflects our attitude in conceiving this project, but also the attitude of our work. We operate like ghosts within the Albanian art scene, precisely because we are not registered as an organization or as a formal collective, and we don’t want to bend to those rules. Most of the time we operate without any budget. I believe, and I do know, that many artists working in the country want to go down this path, but they say they have no other choice. To them I reply: Desertion from those choices is a possibility! 

Eden 3: Lighting A Fire In The Bottom Of The Ocean, on the other hand, was a very unique project of its kind. Conceived from the outset as a political exorcism in the strict sense, from the beginning it was supposed to be a provocative exorcism. Taking into account what people aspire to, namely the elimination of the political class in power, the provocation through a magical ritual was designed to underline that nothing else seems to work against this political class. We were inspired by performative events both past and present, such as the grandiose performative historical event Levitation of the Pentagon (1967), but also by the recent journey of Alexander Gabyshev, the shaman arrested by Putin in 2019, who swore to drive him out of the Kremlin with his 8000 km walk. During the four days of walking through the suburbs of Tirana, something else happened, replacing the initial idea of political exorcism. Building towards a simple idea became more powerful, and we collectively realized that this kind of desertion might come across at a different level. It thus became a desertion towards something else, maybe as old and repetitive as political history, but which embodies (again) the idea of a try to establish a ‘new politics’ – which in this magical performance made possible the imagination of a new political landscape. Aware that this could also be another failure, in a continuous loop of failures, we proceeded once again towards this idea. Inside the Desertion Archive those who have conjured this part of Eden Eden Eden, together with the Manifesto Collective, decided to display only a large photo taken during the walk. A landscape with some people walking. A significant photo that documents the walkers going in the direction of Surrel, towards the huge estate of the Albanian Prime Minister, passionate about magic and fortune tellers par excellence. Then, a rumor began to circulate about magic and the collapse of the government that became something new, a different work, and this was very interesting and uncontrollable–but impossible to document. All the reflections behind this process–the political exorcism, magic as a provocation that could cause the fall of the political class–remained unarchivable, but the rumor itself is still in progress. It has yet to be implemented in this new political landscape, or in the other one that we imagined but that cannot be seen yet. 

RI:  I sense that this isn’t just about breaking away from the traditional display of objects in a gallery: it is also (or so I think) about positing a spectatorial viewpoint that is dispersed in space and time, a spectator that cannot be subsumed within a single subject-position. (As in, no single viewer can observe the work in the traditional sense as it existed, distributed in space and time.) Could you talk about the ideal viewer or spectator of the work? Who can view it? Who should? You have referred to the billboards as “ghostly apparitions.” Who are they haunting?

Jonida Gashi: For me, the question of the viewer is actually the most important aspect of Moving Billboard II. As you say, because Moving Billboard II is dispersed in space and time, it implies a spectator that cannot be subsumed within a single subject position. Now, we can read this both negatively and positively. So on the one hand, one could say that the implied spectator of Moving Billboard II is an impossible spectator, since the work was realized in such a way that no single viewer could realistically see all twenty-four billboards in the order in which they appeared. By the same logic, one could say that all of the passersby that caught glimpses of the billboards constitute a group of people that are just as dispersed in space and time as the work itself. On the other hand, we can conceive of all the possible readings of Moving Billboard II – each one of them partial and incomplete – as supplementing each other so as to form a total picture of the work. Furthermore, because in this scenario the number of possible readings of Moving Billboard II is incredibly vast, this would produce a much more complex picture of the work than a single spectator could ever hope to realize, even if said spectator somehow managed to see all twenty-four billboards in the exact order in which they appeared. Not only that but the act of viewing itself, or, to be more precise, the collective act of viewing, would become an integral part of the work as such. This is not as far fetched as it may sound at first, since typically when we are confronted with artworks that do not lend themselves to being grasped as a totality, we instinctively as viewers wonder not only about what we are missing out on, but also about what other spectators might have seen that we haven’t. 

I think that this applies to the documentation of the project as well, which is how Moving Billboard II was made available to visitors as part of the second chapter of Eden Eden Eden. Visitors to the exhibition were provided with a list of the twenty-four billboards, including details about the image (artwork) on each billboard, the artist (or artists) behind the image (artwork), the time and place of the billboard’s apparition, and the latter’s location on a map of Tirana. The billboards themselves (and the surrounding landscape or the installation site) appeared as “slides” on a monitor, with each “slide” remaining on the screen for exactly one minute, effectively forming a twenty-four minute looped video installation of sorts. At first sight, this surplus of information appears to go against the spirit of the work, projecting a sense of totality upon the work. Similarly, because reading a handout and watching a twenty-four minute video installation is something that is realistically achievable, the viewer is afforded a sense of mastery over the viewing experience. 

In practice, however, it is not only quite difficult to watch a looped video installation from “beginning” to “end” but also rather pointless. This is because the repetition of the work adds something new to the work, rendering traditional viewing modalities inadequate. Again, we can look at this both negatively and positively. On the one hand, the introduction of cyclical repetition uncouples the work as such from the sequence of images that is being repeated within the work. In the process, the beginning and ending of the sequence of images that is being repeated becomes secondary, with the return of the sequence as a whole taking primary importance. This, in turn, makes the work harder to grasp as a totality since the temporality of the work seems incommensurate to that of the viewer. On the other hand, we can look at the introduction of cyclical repetition as a device that essentially frees the moving image, or, rather, the reading of the moving image, from the constraints of chronology and duration. In so doing, it effectively opens up the sequence of images that is being repeated to a radical plurality of readings: One can view the images that are part of this sequence in any order whatsoever, and for any length of time whatsoever. In addition, each reading actualizes the work, thus becoming an integral part of it. Like Moving Billboard II then, the looped video installation produces so many partial and incomplete readings which, taken individually, appear to make the work slippery, but when taken together construct a compelling picture of the work as a totality that rejects a single viewpoint because it posits a multiple viewpoint. (It is not an accident that the looped video installation was invented to ‘accommodate’ a viewer who is, precisely, dispersed in space and time, namely, the gallery/museum visitor. In the cinema, viewers are confined in space and time, whereas in the gallery/museum viewers come and go in their own time and are constantly moving.)

Installation view of Moving Billboard II, 2023, agitated by La Société Spectrale, on view as part of Eden Eden Eden in ZETA Contemporary Art Center. Photo by DCCA. Courtesy of DebatikCenter of Contemporary Art and Zeta Contemporary Art Center.

RI: An important aspect of the Moving Billboard project is documentation: capturing specific moments in time, dispersed in space. This has a conceptual aspect, but also a practical one—the project required rapid movement across (and beyond) the city of Tirana, contending with constantly changing conditions, the heat of the summer, the wind, varying access to the intended sites… What was it like to try to document this process? How did the process of documentation shape the meaning(s) of the work, which we now see as a series of photographs? How does documentation play a role in Manifesto as a whole?

Pleurad Xhafa: Moving Billboard II was probably the most challenging project in terms of the realization on-site as well as its photographic documentation. In the span of 24 hours, three teams, each composed of three people coordinated to put up, install, and photograph the billboard at predetermined locations and times/hour. As has already been mentioned, the content of the billboards helped us to determine the location of the apparition. As a project developed in the outdoors, the interaction with its surroundings and people who live in them, creating the premises for what we might call a “remarkable concurrence of events.” The confrontation with these unexpected events (forces) was unavoidable, and has certainly impacted the meanings of some of the works. I can recall here, for example, setting up a billboard with a frame from the film La Jetée by Chris Marker, near Rinas Airport at 1:00 PM.  According to our plan, my task was to capture a photograph with the billboard and a departing plane. Nevertheless, the relentless strength of the wind made it impossible for the billboard to remain in position. So my colleagues kept holding the billboard, and as soon as the plane entered my camera’s lens, they were supposed to release it and step out of the shot. But the plane entered and exited the frame so swiftly that they had no time to exit, while I continued shooting. At that moment, we considered this attempt a failure, but after reviewing the photos, we realized that this unexpected event had opened a gate in time. By converting the photo to black and white, the persons attempting to avoid being in the picture become time travelers, rushing out of the frame of La Jetée to engage with the landscape of the present.

Photographic documentation of the ghostly apparition of a still from Chris Marker’s La Jetée, 1962, on a billboard on Rruga e Aeroportit – Rinas, Tirana, Albania, between 1PM – 2PM. Selected by David Kampi. Courtesy of the artist and all who preserve Chris Marker’s work. Photo: DebatikCenter of Contemporary Art.

I don’t think that there is a single answer to your question about how documentation shapes the meanings of the work. But, what I consider important is the fact that only through documentation can these events create the sequence of still images that we see in the video installation at ZETA Gallery. Furthermore, Moving Billboard II will be available at www.debatikcenter.net, in its  chronological structure, creating the possibility for another form of encounter with the work. Different from the first time, in which the viewer unexpectedly faces the apparitions, in this second instantiation the viewer actively looks for them.

It is very important to consider the historical and political context that the work appears in and interacts with. Because documenting an event, performance, installation, or even an object hanging on the wall involves subjective considerations on how you should approach them. As in Manifesto HIJACKING and Manifesto DESERTION, some of the works have been temporary, unpredictable events or performances. On one hand, documentation has been the only means for the works to survive, and in some cases the documentation has become the work itself. On the other hand attempting to document something impossible, as an example Eden 3, can potentially destroy the work. I can say that the art scene in Albania has a significant gap in the documentation of exhibitions or events made in the last three decades. It seems as if nothing or very little has happened before. I believe that you yourself, as a historian, have encountered numerous challenges in procuring materials and conducting research on these events. That’s why today we see a rush of documentation and archiving from all sides. It seems that nothing should be left undocumented and everyone is creating their own personal archives. This is very interesting because at first this looks like a long-awaited process, but here the question must be raised: on what basis are these archives appraised or evaluated? Returning to your question: Manifesto, as part of the DCCA platform, deals with topics that (as Armando has said) very few artists and curators in Albania would dare to touch. So, I think that careful and responsible documentation and archiving is a duty, to understand and enter into a dialogue with the present while serving as material for researchers and artists.

RI: The billboard as a form references large-scale advertising, but in this case the specifically mobile character of the project (and the fact that you refer to La Société Spectrale’s role as an “agitational” one) also recalls mobile propaganda projects of the socialist era, the effort to disperse culture, information, and history through ideological networks that extended even to the most remote peripheries of socialist society. It seems to me that one of the functions of both Manifesto projects has been to try to return an open discussion about ideology to the context of neoliberal culture. In the postsocialist context, during the transition period, ‘ideology’ was often dismissed as something that belonged only to communist discourse, as if neoliberalism was an escape from ideology. Of course, neoliberalism has its own ideology, something that has become increasingly apparent – but in many contexts (including Albania) people will still dismiss any mention of ideology as if it bears the taint of state socialism. The billboards, it seems to me, are ways of making different ideologies visible – and bringing their clashes and conflicts into the open. Can you talk about how this making-visible of ideology functions in the Moving Billboard project, or in the Manifesto project more broadly?

JG: Personally, I do not think that Albanian society ever really believed neoliberalism to be some kind of escape from ideology, even in the post-socialist period, or, rather, especially in the post-socialist period. It is important to remember that at the beginning of the 1990s Albanian society was well versed in the traditional Marxist critique of capitalism, and that information or knowledge, let’s say, did not simply disappear with the collapse of the communist regime(s) in the country (and throughout Eastern Europe). (It was certainly rejected, dismissed as ideology, etc., but that is not the same thing.) More importantly, the fervor with which Albanian society embraced neoliberalism during the 1990s and 2000s was ideological through and through. (Armando describes it as a “love affair” in one of his works from the Cave Painting series, which I think is very apt.) Now, we can look at this in two ways. On the one hand, the argument could be made that the extreme ideologization of Albanian society during communism meant that some of the old attitudes and behaviors were carried over into the post-socialist period and projected onto a radically different reality. I tend to find this type of analysis shallow and unsatisfactory, though. On the other hand, one could argue that the extreme ideologization of Albanian society during communism, and in a way that was not at all hidden, meant that it was well positioned to recognize the markings of ideology even in a system that claimed to be non- or post-ideological. 

From this perspective, the fact that no robust critique of neoliberalism emerged (or was allowed to emerge) in Albania during the post-socialist period, even though the country underwent a near catastrophic economic crash in 1997, which can be directly linked to the shock therapy measures adopted in the early 1990s, does not demonstrates the failure to recognize ideology for what it is. Rather, it demonstrates quite the opposite. It is almost as if Albanian society “conveniently” swapped one ideology for another. (I put “conveniently” in scare quotes because, of course, this process has been and continues to be a violent one.) This is perhaps most evident in the way in which Albanian society embraced wars it had previously denounced and renounced struggles it had previously supported. To give an example, as I write this against the backdrop of Israel’s unfolding genocidal campaign in Gaza with the full backing of Western governments (and media), Albania firmly supported the Palestinian struggle throughout the communist period – and for quite some time afterwards as well – whereas now it supports Israel. Similarly, once upon a time Albania denounced all US wars whereas now it participates in them. The real issue, for me, is how to understand this “switch,” but this is a different discussion. Its consequences are fairly easy to discern, namely, a cynicism or relativism, if you will, that has had the effect of alienating a society from its own past; rendering concepts like justice and injustice essentially meaningless; and destroying the basis on which true, lasting solidarity among different communities and peoples is made possible. To answer your question, I think that what this edition of Manifesto in general and Moving Billboard II in particular make visible is not so much the clash of ideologies as the resistance to them, be it Islamic fundamentalism, Zionism, imperialism, liberalism, etc. At the same time, the project lays bare the way in which the co-existence of seemingly incompatible ideologies is part and parcel of the neoliberal world order.

RI: Since we have been talking about ideology, and about networks or coincidences in space and time, I’d like to pull back a moment to consider the Manifesto project as a whole. Last year, from July 4 to September 11, 2022, the DebatikCenter of Contemporary Art and ZETA Contemporary Art Center organized Manifesto HIJACKING, a multifaceted project that looked at the ways oligarchic power have shaped and continue to shape life in Albania. In modern history, Albania is a geopolitical space where we can see the interrelations and machinations of virtually all of the major political actors on a global scale unfolding. We can see the colonial efforts of fascism (in the Italian occupation of the interwar period); the clash between fascism and the Partisans, between the fascists and the Allies; we see the shifts between different state socialist orientations (Stalinist, Maoist, Enverist); we see conflicts over the Ottoman legacy, over what it means to be ‘European’ and whether that can include Islamic cultural heritage; we see the efforts of the United States to keep a foothold in the so-called “powderkeg” of Southeastern Europe; we see the effects of shock therapy and the structured imposition of neoliberal capitalism; and we see the West’s effort to retain the former socialist bloc as a space for “experimentation,” where economic policies, urban plans, architecture and leisure for the super-rich – where all of this can be “tested out” in the geopolitical periphery. I could go on. Above all else, in Albania, we can see the violence of these events, the force brought to bear on ordinary citizens in the name of progress, change, development, the free market. Manifesto HIJACKING set itself the goal of – and here I’m quoting the press release – “build[ing] a museum that never stops growing – a museum of neoimperialism and neocolonialism, and at the same time a museum of resistance.” Part of that museum was visible in the exhibition held in ZETA, The House That Woodrow Built, which contained remnants of this same neocolonial violence, including pieces from the demolished National Theater of Albania, but also some of the original furniture from the United States Embassy in Tirana, a reminder of the pervasive legacy of U.S. politics in the country, and the region more broadly. The violence of this influence is inextricable from contemporary art in Albania, where the country’s Prime Minister is also an artist—and an artist with close connections to some of very well-known names in the contemporary art world (Hans Ulrich Obrist, Philippe Parreno, Anri Sala, Rirkrit Tiravanija) at the same time that he has close contacts with major crime syndicates. If we speak about the intertwinement of art and politics here, we are not just talking about the legacies of the Soros Centers for Contemporary Art in the postsocialist transition period, or the Open Society Foundation—we are talking about a nexus of art, political power, capital, and crime that is still very much alive. To return to the Moving Billboard iteration that is part of Eden Eden Eden and Manifesto DESERTION, my closing question is this: Across many of the artworks on the billboards, we see the marks of violence, implicit and explicit: letters from prisons, accounts of suicide, terrorism, memorials for the dead. What can contemporary art do in the face of systemic violence, a violence that is not just “left over” from the Cold War, but that—in a way—constitutes the continuation of the Cold War across the globe today?

La Société Spectrale, The House That Woodrow Built (SHTËPIA E VERDHË, TEATRI, AMBASADA), 2020-22, at ZETA Contemporary Art Center. Shown here: elements from SHTËPIA E VERDHË [YELLOW HOUSE] and TEATRI [THEATER]. Photo by: DCCA. Courtesy of DebatikCenter of Contemporary Art and Zeta Contemporary Art Center.

AL: With Manifesto HIJACKING we covered some topics that no one wants to get involved in –  because they are still risky, let’s say – such as the case of the demolition of the National Theater, which is no longer mentioned by any local media, something that we as DCCA have been dealing with for some time now (see this open letter); the geopolitical and economic expansions linked to the presence of the United States of America in the region and the shady affairs of their representatives; but also the Kosovo war, and the immense amount of false information produced in that period regarding organ harvesting. The generation of Albanian artists, the one that came after that of the 2000s, does not concern itself with these risky topics, but still follows the themes advanced by the previous generation. I think they’ve figured out how to play this game and are trying to protect their work. I try to understand how art can be created with well-known and now substandard recipes, but I can’t grasp it. Even though they have made attempts to enter risky areas, somewhat feignedly like the generation before them, their work still screams: too scared to go there. Even journalists find themselves in a difficult position. It is redundant to repeat the same narratives, but if they can already lose their jobs from talking about the corrupt political system, imagine what happens if they carry out a real in-depth investigation. Therefore, in parallel with going to those territories, we also undertook the path of a political exorcism, as an act that could help this situation with other means. 

For instance, the AMBASADA project, which was one of the main parts of the exhibition of Manifesto HIJACKING, was built with original objects from the United States Embassy in Tirana, more or less built, that is, dated, starting from the 1930s-but most importantly the 1970s, precisely when the criticism of the Albanian socialist state towards US ideology was at its peak. As a time-machine from the past, this work was conceived precisely to break this wall, which is foremost a mental one: to begin to look more rigorously at the US political presence in the country. The making of AMBASADA was a process that lasted many years, and is still ongoing. For many years we have been individually collecting, then auctioning off, furniture and objects belonging to the US Embassy, with the idea of making this large installation. A small portion of this installation was shown during Manifesto HIJACKING, but the entire project remains still a work in progress. 

This interest in Western politics, which is represented in the country mainly by the United States, entered gradually into our work, and on different levels–not only on a personal level – for each of us, and here I am referring to our primary education from art to cinema and writing. But it has also become a criticism on a more popular level. I can say that the old Albanian texts concerning imperialism, those from the 60s-70s, should be reread through this lens. To mention something that I consider very important: nowadays we all know that the latest so-called Justice Reform in Albania was designed and supported by the United States, and the way they have implemented it resulted in a dysfunctional structure totally controlled by the current government and the US themselves. And this is slowly being brought to light by many courageous texts that are similar to the critiques published in the 70s, that manage to penetrate the controlled media. People have begun to understand that we have slowly become a kind of small satellite state of the West, something we were trying to avoid in the past. History is somehow being repeated. A few years earlier, during the 90s, the question of being a satellite state would have been a privilege and regarded as the only salvation for the Albanian people, but today this is no longer the case. We are trapped in this kind of double bind. So I think we’re experiencing for real something that other countries experienced a long time ago, but now we have an advantage; we know how it went for those countries. The failure of the artist figures that you mentioned comes precisely from not taking into account this advantage. So I believe that the real failure is because artists couldn’t imagine anything new, something lasting – why not, even something ideological. As far as I know, they don’t know, and don’t care, what the real situation is like in the country. I would be curious to know their opinions when faced with the systemic violence or criminal connections of this government with organized crime. How can one be a blind supporter? Do these artists support the country or do they support the distorted idea of a politician who can change it? Are they aware that the fusion of Organized Crime (OC) with politics (which they supported) has erased the premature success of Art and Politics forever? And dear friend, there is no room here for the Rashomon Effect! The idea of an Art and Politics that could move this society towards emancipation is nowadays just an institution for the blind. Please prove me wrong! 

What I find interesting is how this “official history” of art in the country has been more or less accepted by many. This was a big lie. A Fake Case. The success of the events that occurred in the 2000s has never been, and still is not, questioned as it should be, by those who seriously deal with art history, politics, historiography, and analysis in the world. It is now obvious that to navigate the sea of global information, being a small country, you need a gigantic lie. This has happened several times, in fact, using contemporary art as a pretext. I believe that foreign curators who come to work in this country are not really interested in the country, nor in what could develop here: firstly because nothing is really happening, nothing explosive–not yet–but also because their laziness reflects a marked narrative of deception, reflecting this false narrative that they help continue to build. I also believe that the only way out is to challenge this narrative directly, repeatedly, symphonically – a bit the way Godard challenged Hollywood… and in this moment in time daring becomes a necessity, for all of us. 

To get back to your question: Moving Billboard II looks at this timeline, at something that will or could happen in the country, but in many cases has already happened. I believe that the main issue is to understand the power of these futures that we have stolen from others, which in many respects were also imposed and implanted upon us due to our lack of imagination. For this I don’t just blame  key political figures from our recent history. The fault is ours as well, our own corruption, our perennial desire to add grease to the corroded mechanism of power and to always support a political adventurer, like the recent one, who just like the others in our political field will never be able to contribute to the construction or even the imagination of a different society. We were so incapable of building, lazy in imagining, that’s why we kept stealing futures – and you see these strange influences even in the work of many Albanian contemporary artists. Therefore, the violence present in Moving Billboard II is not simply a reflection that is projected here and originates in other places, not even a testimony of what has happened or is happening there, it is also a violence that now comes from within, that has been produced here, precisely from this imposed future combined with elements of the future that we have stolen (wrong thefts obviously, permanent failures), which are materializing here, now, in a terrible way – and most of the time we remain helpless, almost always unable to capture this moment in which this act is happening. To address these issues perhaps we should develop or invent a different language, a new wave, and we are still messing around with it. What is certain is that at this moment in time action becomes a necessity, at least that’s how it seems to me. 

JG: I think that the Albanian case, precisely because of the existence of this nexus of (contemporary) art, political power, capital, and crime, is a stark reminder of the ways in which contemporary art on a global scale is deeply embedded in the types of both national and transnational structures exerting the systemic violence that you describe as a “continuation” of the Cold War across the world today. One could say that this is the pedagogical value of the Albanian case, which needs to be studied more closely. On the subject of this violence, I think it is important to distinguish between the violence itself and the framing of the violence, since they represent two distinct – though obviously interconnected – aspects of the problem, and should not be conflated. I am thinking in particular of the portrayal of the Cold War since its early days – and by its chief opponents, i.e., the USA and the USSR – as the final battle between Capitalism and Communism for the future of humanity. This was a key aspect of its framing for the purposes of our discussion, since it provided a powerful legitimation for many of the excesses of the Cold War, and not just by the USA and the USSR, until the conflict’s formal conclusion. At the same time, however, the capitalist-communist dualism went beyond the rivalry between these two empires, and beyond the Cold War itself, providing a powerful lens through which to read historical development even for small, peripheral countries that were not aligned with either side. For instance, the People’s Republic of Albania denounced and renounced first the Yugoslav line, then the Soviet line, and finally the Chinese line, all the while remaining resolutely anti-American, yet still viewed historical development essentially through the framework of a final battle between Capitalism and Communism. 

So I am suspicious of the idea that the “left over” violence of the Cold War can be understood as a “continuation” of the Cold War in the true sense of the word, because the latter would imply that after the defeat of the socialist bloc at the turn of the 1990s there emerged a radical, global alternative to the neoliberal world order, which clearly hasn’t happened. I think that the argument that there is such a continuation relies on a primarily geopolitical understanding of the Cold War, which I find to be reductive. Paradoxically, the left, the Western left in particular, is guilty of this too. Indeed, it is guilty of something even more sinister, namely, of projecting onto this reductive, geopolitical framing of the Cold War in the present, the veil of the old capitalist-communist dualism. This is why, time and again, we see the Western left (though not all of it) dividing oppressed and struggling communities and peoples across the world into those who should sacrifice themselves at the hands of local fascists in order to deter US imperialist encroachment (in the Balkans, for instance); and those who should resist their local fascists till the bloody end in order to deal a blow to US imperialist encroachment (in the Middle East, for instance), as if this served some “higher purpose” – which it doesn’t. Moreover, apart from the imperialist underpinnings of such “lists” – which not only ascribe martyrdom to oppressed and subjugated communities and peoples in geopolitical fault-lines, but also seek to determine the conditions of this martyrdom–they also inevitably end up reinforcing the dissimilarities as opposed to the commonalities between oppressed communities and peoples caught on opposite sides of geopolitical divisions. To return to the question of contemporary art, I think that it is largely powerless in the face of this systemic violence, in the sense of becoming a leading force against it globally. Of course, this does not mean that more localized efforts do not and cannot have an effect, because we know that they can and they do.

Photographic documentation of the ghostly apparition of Tong Lam’s Where there is no room for fiction, 2015, on a billboard on Rruga “Siri Kodra”, Bulevardi i Ri – Tirana, Albania, between 10PM – 11PM. Courtesy of Tong Lam. Photo: DebatikCenter of Contemporary Art.

This interview was conducted remotely between August and October, 2023.

Featured image caption: Installation view of Lighting a Fire on the Bottom of the Ocean, conjured by Vincent W.J van Gerven Oei and Çiçek İlengiz, 2023, and Moving Billboard II, 2023, agitated by La Société Spectrale, on view as part of Eden Eden Eden in ZETA Contemporary Art Center. Photo by DCCA. Courtesy of DebatikCenter of Contemporary Art and Zeta Contemporary Art Center. 

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  • Pingback:Linking Art Worlds | “Activating the Power to Desert History Itself”: Raino Isto and La Société Spectrale discuss Moving Billboard, Part 1
    Posted at 17:34h, 09 November Reply

    […] 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. […]

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