The Politics of Street Art in Albania: An Interview with Çeta
In the spring of 2016, a group of students, activists, and artists began to discuss the formation of a collective to oppose the hegemonic structures of capitalism and neoliberal politics and economics in contemporary Albania. From these discussions, a group of street artists—individually anonymous but known collectively as Çeta—emerged. The group is made up of members of various ages and backgrounds: designers, political scientists, architects, artists, and physicists. Different members carry out the design and execution of individual works at different times, according to the needs of the group and their commitments to other forms of political action in a given period. Çeta’s wheat pastes and stencils evidence the presence of a true dissident artistic movement in the capital of Tirana, a movement that refuses to cooperate with the dominant political parties in the country and, at the same time, rejects the ideological neutrality that frequently characterizes the Albanian contemporary art scene. Çeta’s works draw attention to the political systems that exploit the poor, the working classes, and minority communities, as well as the forms of rhetoric that obscure the plight of these groups in the name of socioeconomic progress and European integration. Çeta’s actions and interventions push back against the growing spectacle of prosperity in Albania, against official narratives proclaiming that the Albanian people are satisfied with their lives, their surroundings, and their government. Recently, the current mayor of Tirana began a campaign aimed at “beautifying” the city by a variety of means, including commissioning works of street art. In reaction to this spectacle, Çeta has sought to turn the walls of Tirana back against the political elites that continue to privatize the city and exploit its citizens.
Thus far, the group has realized six different projects that respond to issues ranging from the government crackdown on unlicensed food sellers from Tirana’s rural environs to the imminent destruction of homes and displacement of citizens to “rehabilitate” areas of the city. During this time, Çeta’s internal dynamics have evolved, as has the group’s awareness of the possible relationships between visual material and political action. The following interview was conducted with several members of Çeta, shortly after the completion of the work, The Epic of the Excavator. (Details about that work can be found at afterart.org, https://afterart.org/epopeja-e-eskavatorit-collaboration-with-ceta/ (accessed September 5, 2016).) The names of group members have been redacted at Çeta’s request, to preserve the anonymity of the group.
Raino Isto: How did Çeta become a collective? What is the concept behind it?
Çeta Member 1: Çeta began—I mean, the discussion about the creation of the group began—between February and March 2016; then the group’s first work Vojo Kushi is Still Alive was created in April. Çeta started as a discussion amongst a group of people committed to furthering a number of different causes related to the public good, a group of people in opposition to the current capitalist system and its neoliberal politics. During these discussions, some of those involved put forward the idea that—among the various means we use to organize the general public and to raise consciousness about particular causes and issues—we should also use street art. After a number of meetings and debates among the members, we decided that the group should be called “Çeta.”
RI: What does the name Çeta mean?
Çeta Member 1: In Albanian, Çeta is the word used to describe the antifascist guerilla units active in the Balkans during the Second World War. Like those soldiers, our group is modest in size, and we have mobilized in response to a particular situation. After the initial discussions about the creation of the group, we held a few workshops regarding possible collaborations and actions. At the same time, we were all still engaged in activities related to other causes: public transportation, the controversy surrounding construction in the park by Tirana’s artificial lake, issues related to the university, and protests against neoliberal politics in higher education. We finalized the idea for the group in March, decided on the name and the logo, and held discussions about what the group’s first actions would be. And, as I said, our first action was Vojo Kushi is Still Alive, which we did in April. After that, there has been a series of further actions….
RI: Let’s talk about Vojo Kushi is Still Alive. How did you come up with the idea for the work?
Çeta Member 2: The idea for Vojo Kushi is Still Alive came out of the workshop we held. At that time, the group wasn’t completely finalized yet; we were still in the initial phase of getting to know each other and talking things over. The core idea was to re-enliven the works of Socialist Realist painting. In Albania one of the most famous works of Socialist Realism is Sali Shijaku’s painting ofVojo Kushi, who was an Albanian-Yugoslav partisan guerilla remembered for his heroic death. When he and several other partisans were surrounded by Italian fascist forces in Tirana in 1942, Kushi ran out and leapt on a tank, hurling a grenade into it before being killed by enemy fire. Shijaku’s painting depicts this act. But we wanted to bring Shijaku’s image back in a new way, a kind of “revival,” if you will. There were basically two key conceptual points: first, the idea that now—in our contemporary time, something like 80 years after he lived—Vojo Kushi is dead to us, his context is foreign; and second, that historically Kushi symbolizes the hero who gives his own life for the people and for an ideal. So, we started with Shijaku’s iconic image of Kushi and then made certain changes. First, we put a Molotov cocktail in his hand, instead of a grenade. Second, in Shijaku’s painting, Kushi is standing atop a fascist tank; in our image we replaced the tank with one of the black Jaguars that had just been purchased by the Rilindja government. (Prime Minister (and leader of the Socialist Party in Albania) Edi Rama has referred to the political coalition currently leading Albania as the Rilindja, a term meaning “rebirth.” Historically, this was also the term used to refer to the Albanian National Awakening [Rilindja Kombëtare] that occurred in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The government’s decision, near the end of 2015, to purchase 29 Jaguar cars (2014 models) for the use of its cabinet was a controversial one that the opposition party cited as evidence of corruption and improper spending. The government maintained that the cars were rented, not purchased—and that their rental was the most economical solution to the problem of transport for the cabinet. See Mirel Sheme, “Qeveria: Ja pse morëm me qira 29 automjete “Jaguar,’” Shekulli, October 25, 2015, http://www.shekulli.com.al/p.php?id=337254 (accessed September 5, 2016).) And we gave the car the Prime Minister Edi Rama’s license plate number, so that the car represents this kind of neoliberal direction that the Prime Minister of Albania has been promoting, this idea of the famous public-private partnership. This idolization of public-private partnerships is—to me—the most exemplary form of fascism you can imagine. I remember Mussolini once said that “perfect fascism will only be achieved when there is a marriage between the corporation and the state.” The way that Rama is applying this type of politico-economic policy corresponds precisely to this fascist desire for a corporate state.
Çeta Member 3: In our image, Kushi represents the people—the people collectively rising up against systems of power. In his time, he rose against fascism; now we rise against neoliberalism and, especially, against this corporatization of the state.
RI: What can you tell me about Çeta’s logo?
Çeta Member 4: It’s tough to talk about the concept for the logo, because it wasn’t that we had any clear, explicit idea of what we wanted it to be. The idea was for a simple logo, something that gives the impression of having been painted in a sort of old-fashioned way; and below our name is a paintbrush, which is our weapon of choice.
RI: Çeta is an anonymous collective, and you’ve maintained this anonymity over the course of the group’s existence so far.
Çeta Member 2: Let’s say we’ve tried.
RI: What significance does your anonymity—and your collectivity—have, either in Albania’s current art scene or in its current political situation?
Çeta Member 2: For me, this issue of anonymity is very interesting, because many of us who are part of this “squad” don’t have a background in the arts. I’m really the only one who comes from an artistic background; there are others, like [Çeta Member 4], who are designers, but he went to university for physics; [Çeta Member 5] for architecture; [Çeta Member 3] for political science; [Çeta Member 1]…well, she hasn’t finished yet, but for history; [Çeta Member 6] for political science. Anyway, the anonymity makes it more “fair,” in a way—we all share the responsibility for any failures, and we all share in the glory of our successes. In that sense, I think the anonymity is fruitful. But our anonymity isn’t really extreme, not hermetic. Tirana’s a small place, it’s not like no one will ever figure out who we are. The idea is that you aren’t personally identified as an individual, that the works are the product of a group.
Çeta Member 3: It seems that whenever things happen in Albania, everyone tries to immediately discover which individuals are behind it, and to investigate them personally, without paying as much attention to what they did. For us, the identification as a group is a way of emphasizing the importance of the act itself, rather than the people behind it. The people could be anyone; we are replaceable. The act, the art—what we do is what remains. The idea is for people to pay attention to that, and not to the individuals who created it, since what we are trying to draw attention to things about everyday life here, situations that everyone faces. For that reason, we have decided to remain anonymous.
Çeta Member 1: And to avoid getting fined!
Çeta Member 3: That’s the primary reason, if we’re being honest.
Çeta Member 4: We aren’t the first, we won’t be the last, and we certainly aren’t the only artist collective that operates like this; some start out anonymous and later become famous, putting the whole idea of anonymity into question. It’s not like we want to become famous, because ultimately this is political activism. Art is just the medium. Like [Çeta Member 2] said, we aren’t just members of Çeta—we’re professionals working in other fields, and I don’t know how seriously we would be taken without this anonymity. I don’t know what my mother would think about our actions, for example, if she knew I was part of Çeta! And we want people to take our message seriously.
RI: We mentioned the topic of street art before, but I’m curious: what possibilities does street art have—and what possibilities can it have—in the context of Tirana today? Have those in power used street art as a tool, and, if so, how has Çeta’s work reacted against this institutionalization of street art?
Çeta Member 1: The most recent case that I would mention is that of the Tirana municipality, which has started to use street art as a means to beautify the city, to present an image of the city as happy, to show people how beautiful it is to live in Tirana. They want to show how much life in Tirana has changed for the better since the election of the new Socialist Party mayor Erion Veliaj in 2015. To do this, the municipality has started using street artists to create these big colorful, joyful images in public spaces, these strictly aestheticizing images. As a reaction against this, Çeta created its fifth work, A Lecture on Punishment. That work uses a scene from the popular Albanian film Red Poppies on the Wall, which follows a group of orphans in an orphanage during the fascist occupation, telling the story of their rise against their director and the overseer of the orphanage, and their part in the antifascist struggle. (The film was directed by Dhimitër Anagnosti in 1976 and produced by socialist Albania’s official film studio Shqipëria e Re.) Çeta’s image is adapted from a scene where the overseer of the orphanage commands the children to strike each other. In the place of the overseer’s face, we used the face of the well-known businessman and philanthropist George Soros, someone whom many consider to be a strong influence on Albania’s neoliberal political and cultural policies. So that work explicitly responds to this neoliberal use of art in Tirana’s public space. But even with our previous works, we hoped to confront the municipality’s use of street art as a tool of beautification.
Çeta Member 5: The problem is that the municipality has manipulated this idea of street art, because true street art wasn’t born as just the aestheticization of walls in the city or façades of what have you. It’s a form of art, and it carries a message, primarily a political or social message. It’s not just aesthetics; it’s a form of resistance. Here in Albania, people don’t understand street art; they see it as either vandalism or as a way to aestheticize things. If you try to use street art to convey a message that goes beyond pure aesthetics, then people start to complain that you are bringing up politics People here conceptualize art, as something that exists only for the sake of beauty itself. And that’s not what street art is about, as far I understand it.
Aside from the Sputnik posters, (Sputnik is a political and subcultural zine published in the form of posters wheat pasted in Tirana’s public spaces. The zine began publication in 2013, and is primarily produced by Albanian street artist Diver Santi. Information can be found at Sputnik’s Facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/sputnik2013/?fref=ts (accessed September 29, 2016).) or occasionally some isolated work, I can’t really remember having seen street art in Tirana that carried a political message, a message of reaction or resistance—just graffiti that carried a kind of individual message or else images that promoted sports teams and particular political parties.
Çeta Member 1: Lots of posters for political parties.
RI: Since we’ve come around to the topic of the urban environment in Tirana, how do you view the urban context of the city? What kind of relationship do you think people have with the city, and what role do (or might) Çeta’s artworks play in this relationship?
Çeta Member 1: Most of Çeta’s actions were created in specific periods, to coincide with specific moments. For example, the night before the first of May was the night we made the work with the laborer smashing the ATM, freeing himself from the economic chains that the ATM represents: Smash the Walls of Privilege (Remember the First of May). The work “Don’t Buy Leeks, Buy Dynamite” (Grandma Zylja Strikes Again) was put up shortly after the incident in which Nona Zylja, a 69-year old village woman, was fined by the Tirana municipality for selling vegetables in the city, and in conjunction with public reaction after the mayor publicly embraced her and paid the fine on her behalf. A photo of Zylja standing near her produce while the municipal police issued her the ticket was widely circulated on the Internet immediately after the incident, and we used that photo as the basis of our image. That particular work was installed at the location where the police confiscated her merchandise—the leeks— and her fine was issued. Alternately, the image of the worker smashing the ATM was put up in a different part of the city, a less developed and more traditional neighborhood where there are many artisans. We made A Lecture on Punishment in an area near the artificial lake, at an underpass. This underpass was one of the places where the municipality had undertaken a project to beautify the city with a colorful mural. Finally, we produced Server is Too Busy the night after Albanians attempting to apply for the American visa lottery found that the server was blocked. That work wasn’t conceptualized for any particular location, because the people who had applied for the lottery were from all over.
Çeta Member 4: The majority of the works we’ve done could have been put up anywhere in the city; it’s not like Tirana has extremely clear-cut divisions between different neighborhoods. It’s starting to change, but we still haven’t reached that phase of urbanization. That’s, in part, because all the layers of society, all the social classes, live here, in a territory that’s quite small. Any of the works we’ve created could function almost anywhere in Tirana. With the exception of a few, like Grandma Zylja, which is sited in the specific location where the police wrote her the fine, they are meant to be universal images.
Çeta Member 2: I was recently reading about the Wall of Shame in Lima, Peru. If you want to find the most drastic example of neoliberal politics, Lima has to be it. The Wall of Shame is this massive wall, like the Berlin Wall, that divides the rich section of the city from the poorer part. On the poor side of the wall, there’s all this suffering; people are fighting for water. On the rich side, there are swimming pools, and so on. Now, if we project, let’s say, ten years into the future, if Tirana continues the way it is going now, I think it will be Lima number two, or maybe by then Lima number ten in the whole world. This unquenchable thirst, in cities around the world, to put up these kinds of barriers…every division is a form of violence, I think. When you put up a barrier, you say “I don’t care how you go about your life; I will obstruct you, I will cut you off from whatever social, cultural, and natural resources I have.” So, I think of Çeta’s works as a kind of resistance.
Çeta Member 1: And an attempt to raise consciousness.
Çeta Member 2: Yes, an attempt to raise consciousness about what is happening and what will happen if Tirana continues to develop along the lines it currently is.
Çeta Member 3: But Çeta isn’t just about Tirana. The group started as a way to resist neoliberal politics, and those politics are something that affects rural zones as much as urban ones. It’s not just a problem in the capital. Çeta’s messages are more general; they aren’t just about narrow, specific issues. If we install the works in particular places, it’s usually because those are the places where the works will attract the most attention or create the most controversy.
I also want to emphasize something that happens a lot in writing: when you want to convey an idea, but the means you use to convey it don’t function the way you thought they would, a different message is expressed. Some time ago, I would go out together with a friend, and during the night we would put up messages related to particular political situations or events. We would write things like “Don’t ask for asylum; Protest!” or “The old crumbles down.” (The phrase “The old crumbles down” (in Albanian, “E vjetra shembet”) is drawn from Schiller, and was popularized in Albania by Qemal Stafa, oneof the founders of the Albanian Communist Party in 1941. The slogan was frequently used to promote the erasure of outdated ideas during Albania’s socialist period (1945-1991).) But these slogans didn’t have the same impact as Çeta’s actions—what we needed was a more complete combination of street art with the message we wanted to convey.
Çeta Member 4: I’d like to add a bit more about the urban characteristics of Tirana, the city that has been—at least so far—the site of our actions and interventions. Tirana, at least since the 1990s, has been an ugly city; before then there was, at least, a kind of logic to the city. And when I say before the ‘90s, I’m also speaking about the period of King Ahmed Zog’s reign, in the interwar period, and about the period of fascist occupation. Many of the buildings where the ministries are housed as well as other key public buildings were constructed during that period. Around 1996—I don’t know if you’ve seen maps of Tirana from that period—there was a tremendous increase in informal architectural construction. Each building was constructed for its own sake, without consideration for its surroundings, and from that point we’ve arrived where we are today. It’s impossible for Tirana’s urban environment to normalize; it’s too chaotic. Every mayor who comes in and says that they will standardize building practices and organize the city more logically, that’s the first lie they tell. Now, I don’t want to judge, but it seems to me that many foreigners and tourists come here and they see the city as something beautiful in its dystopian aspects. But actually living here is very difficult, if we consider the noise, the pollution…everything else. However, this situation is, in some ways ,an ideal one for street art, because people don’t worry too much about the perceived damage done to architectural façades by the work. That might be the only good thing about the situation: that the city can function as a giant exhibition space without a curator. In terms of techniques Çeta uses to create our artworks, we use both stencils and stickers printed on paper and wheat pasted, which is the technique used for the Sputnik posters as well.
Çeta Member 2: In fact, we’ve thought about taking some of the most iconic works we’ve done—Vojo Kushi, Grandma Zylja, the one with George Soros (Lecture on Punishment)]—and printing them out as smaller stickers to put up on signs and walls around the city, as another way to spread our message.
Çeta Member 4: Something that is unfortunate is the general lack of other street artists in Albania—I mean, I haven’t seen many, and I would have liked to see more. Imagine in the year 2016, with all of the social and political changes occurring in Albania, to have no reaction from the artistic community! Visual artists, singers, actors—they are all extremely indifferent to the political situation here. It’s a mistake, this idea they have that “oh, art is independent of politics; art should stay away from politics; why do we artists need to worry about politics?” But, if art doesn’t draw its inspiration from its social surroundings, from where is art supposed to draw? That’s where all countercultural movements—breakdancing or what have you—got their inspiration.
Çeta Member 6: Maybe during the period of modernization, people linked inspiration with the subconscious and so forth, but that’s not the situation anymore. Everything is dialectical, and you have to think about the political situation.
This interview took place in Tirana on August 9, 2016. The interview was conducted in Albanian, and has been edited for length and clarity. The translation into English is by the author.