“The Non-Places Are the Places”: Manifesta 14’s Uneasy Presence in Kosovo

Petrit Halilaj, "When the sun goes away we paint the sky," 2022. © Petrit Halilaj. Photo: Arton Krasniqi.

The story is so symbolic, so filled with metaphor that many people thought it was an urban legend. In 1978, the Yugoslav government opened the Grand Hotel Prishtina in Kosovo’s capital city—inaugurating a new urban square and permanently changing the city’s skyline with a large sign lighting up the night. Above the word “Hotel” were five stars, announcing the first lodging in Kosovo with such a rating. Following the brutal war with Serbia and the chaotic period of privatization that followed, the hotel lost its five-star status as it fell into disrepair. This process happened slowly, with one star at a time being taken down until eventually, none were left. In the lead-up to Manifesta 14 in Prishtina, one of the exhibition’s local team members, Nita Deda, negotiated access to the roof. The story was true; the stars were lying there, cut down from the sign’s scaffold and left abandoned atop the hotel. Deda’s photo of this scene became one of the first promotional images for the 2022 edition of the European Nomadic Biennial, acting as a symbol around which its program evolved.

When I visited Prishtina last October for the final days of Manifesta 14, I was struck by a night sky changed—this time by Petrit Halilaj’s beautiful riff on the Grand Hotel star story. Anchored to the same rusty rooftop scaffold was a new sign in Albanian, facing the city in all directions, it read “Kur dielli të ikë, do ta pikturoj qiellin” (When the sun goes away, we paint the sky). Halilaj didn’t just resurrect the five stars from the roof but added dozens more, spread across the building, at times switching on and off, and sometimes all flickering wildly. In a playful gesture of public art and brilliant political subversion, the intervention announced the possibilities of Kosovar artists being given the full stage to represent a new future. It poignantly placed the Albanian language on a building that previously excluded Albanians, and exploded the five-star rating system into an abundant, limitless symbol. The choice of language also entwined with another question Halilaj asked during an artist talk on Manifesta 14’s closing weekend, which seemed to ring out for all Kosovar artists represented within the context of the exhibition: “For who are we doing this?”

Rooftop stars at the Grand Hotel Prishtina. Photo by Nita Deda.

I first came to know Prishtina eight years ago, introduced to the city by a dear friend in Belgrade, Ana Dragić, who spent the earlier part of the decade collaborating on a series of artist interventions between Kosovo and Serbia. The most storied of these was an event affectionately known as Prishtina, Mon Amour, wherein a group of young artists cleaned up and reclaimed the semi-derelict main sports hall of Prishtina’s Yugoslav-era Palace of Youth and Sports. Ask around the city, and people still talk about this one-night-only event from 2012, where performances, video projections, and wall paintings announced a forward-looking, resilient, self-organized generation of young artists inside of a newly independent Kosovo. When Manifesta 14 arrived ten years later, the biennial didn’t have to invent a new curatorial framework so much as tap into this existing artistic energy, with all its resourcefulness and sensitivity in dealing with the city’s complex political spaces.

When Prishtina was announced in 2019 as the next location for Manifesta, I heard a mix of optimism and skepticism from artists living there. The selection set the city up to play a familiar role as host to an art world that its own citizens cannot access, severed by the European Union’s visa regime. The decision to anchor the biennial program at the Grand Hotel echoed these uneasy tensions. Here was a host still surrounded by hostility. A hotel in neglectful, damp decay, and the biennial as a guest: a so-called nomad, visiting from another part of Europe. For some it was a source of nostalgia, of an earlier, utopian promise of “brotherhood and unity” in a multiethnic socialist state. But the Grand Hotel also forever became a symbol of an apartheid regime, where, during the height of the Milošević years, Albanians were banned from entering, along with other state-run institutions. This violence was solidified as the hotel became a base for the racist, nationalist Serbian paramilitary group Arkan’s Tigers. 

Majlinda Hoxha, “Grand Hotel Prishtina,” 2016-22. © Majlinda Hoxha. Photo © Manifesta 14 Prishtina, Majlinda Hoxha.

Throughout the Grand Hotel, Manifesta 14 presented a multigenerational portrait of the artist ecology of Kosovo, responding to and moving far beyond this history of violence. There were Jakup Ferri’s abundant, colorful textile collaborations with residents of local villages. There was Majlinda Hoxha’s rigorous documentation of the life, labor, and spaces of the Grand Hotel, appearing in situ across the many floors of the building. In a second floor lobby, beside the dusty suite once reserved for Josip Tito and pried open on the occasion of Manifesta, hung the collective New Grand’s curatorial intervention reimagining what kind of work might be collected by the hotel now. These included Arbnor Karaliti’s colorful paintings of youthful malaise and Mimoza Sahiti’s loose, raw, gestural canvases. On another floor were Driton Selmani’s painted plastic bags proclaiming banal observations and pointed assertions: “The non-places are the places, my dear.”

Across the program of 103 artists and collectives, two thirds were from the wider Balkan region, with forty of Kosovar origin—something that Manifesta proudly proclaimed in its literature. Like the fallen stars on the roof of the Grand Hotel, the other buildings used as sites for Manifesta required little embellishment for their narratives to rise to the surface. At Rilindja, the former press of Kosovo’s Albanian-language newspaper, Turkish artist Cevdet Erek left the vast concrete hall wide open. In one far corner of the room, a freestanding LED panel moved through the entire history of the newspaper one front page at a time, from 1945 until a hard cut in 1990 when the Serbian government banned its publication. At the other end, a single bench. And below, in an inaccessible subterranean space, the faint pulsing of a rave, with purple light scanning an otherwise empty boiler room. Subtle, simple, direct. A haunting of a space that has meant so much to so many, this beautiful work achieved restraint, with just enough of an intervention to allow it to feel at once like a place for mourning, and for desire. As I exited through the loading dock and into a messy construction site, the building offered one last gesture of its own: a massive pile of printing presses that had been, at some point, cleared out and left outside to rust.

Leaving Rilindja, I wound my way up to the top of a hill to visit the Hertica School House, which was secretly used as an Albanian school for nearly a decade, until it was discovered by Serbian troops and left in ruin. It stands as an indelible trace of the self-organized, radical form of nonviolent resistance untaken by Albanians in Kosovo after the Milošević regime barred them from all schools, universities, public jobs, and state institutions. From 1990 until war broke out in 1998, the parallel system forged by Albanians created space for education, for speaking their language, fixing their cars, buying their groceries, and surviving. Left open on the occasion of Manifesta, this house had monitors on stands sparsely placed amongst the rubble that looped interviews with former students and teachers of the school providing direct testimony as witnesses of what happened within its walls. Those who maintain the site aim for it to eventually become a permanent institution dedicated to the memory of the parallel system.

Manifesta 14, for its part, seemed to be at odds with its inherited nomadic label, which rang out awkwardly in the context of Kosovo. In this edition the biennial stated a desire to establish a longer-term engagement with Prishtina, aiming “to support the citizens of Kosovo in their ambition to reclaim public space and to rewrite the future of their capital as an open-minded metropolis in the Balkans and in Europe through the development of a new cultural institution.” The future success of this new institution, the Centre for Narrative Practice, will likely decide what lasting legacy Manifesta 14 leaves on the city. Following a similar logic, the program by raumlaborberlin and collaborators at the Brick Factory and the opening of the Green Corridor within part of the abandoned Belgrade–Prishtina rail line were positioned by Manifesta as large postindustrial revitalization projects. These two sites were well used throughout the one hundred days of the biennial, but in the final weekend as I was visiting I was left wondering about expanding curatorial projects to include urban redevelopment. As Kosovo moves closer to fully joining the European Union, further fuelling the city’s feverish real-estate investment, it feels like these types of initiatives have the potential to tip away from the communities that they were envisioned to benefit, and act more to bring value to surrounding private property. Only time will tell whom they will ultimately service. 

The curatorial position of Manifesta 14 also made clear the goal to use its platform to raise awareness of the visa situation in Kosovo as a mobile art world came to visit. This message did circulate back to other parts of Europe, with almost all coverage of the biennial speaking about Kosovo’s isolation. If this visibility does contribute to a sped-up process of visa liberalization, then Manifesta 14 can be seen as contributing to part of the ongoing struggle for liberating individual bodies in Kosovo. Kosovars deserve freedom immediately. At the same time, Manifesta’s advocacy around this issue exposed its own institutional blindspot, wherein it uncritically aligns itself with an image of the European Union as a benevolent force. In this I feel an uneasiness with Manifesta’s investment in a status quo of the EU as a neoliberal political project that at its core requires exclusion. The reality is that even as its lines are slowly redrawn further eastwards, the entire Schengen zone, its related visa process, and its increasingly defended border is inherently violent—to Kosovars, as well as to every other body forced to confront Fortress Europe.

Christian Nyampeta, “Sometimes It Was Beautiful,” 2018. © Christian Nyampeta. Photo © Manifesta 14, Prishtina Ivan Erofeev.

The various contested, conflictual zones at the outer limits of continental Europe have always resonated for me with great empathy, as an artist born in Canada, with family ties to Belfast and Istria (in the blurry borderlands between Slovenia and Croatia), and also as part of the equation for my own relationship to the violence of Canadian settler-colonialism. I see Canada’s self-mythologized and constructed benevolent image as being entwined with Europe’s contested zones, as it has absorbed many of its fleeing communities. In creating refuge for those it deems worthy, Canada also promotes a narrative of openness that obscures the conflict and violence it continues to inflict on Indigenous peoples across Turtle Island. And as such, I feel an echo of the political limits playing out in art institutions inherently bound up within a status quo of the nation state, be it the European Union or Canada, where well-intentioned institutional mandates often point to violent systems that they simultaneously perpetuate.

The contexts and communities that artists create often provide a foil to these systems. In Kosovo, artists have reclaimed and continue to run previously neglected Yugoslav-era spaces like Prishtina’s Kino Armata and Prizren’s Kino Lumbardhi. Similarly, the artist-run Foundation 17 organized one of the most subtle and searing exhibitions of Manifesta 14, remounting the controversial 1997 group exhibition, Përtej, and focusing on the media response to its Kosovar artists who exhibited in Belgrade at the height of tensions with Serbia. Rilindja and the Palace of Youth and Sports have for years been used for interventions, raves, and performances, including the previously mentioned Prishtina, Mon Amour. I think, and hope, that it is the possibility of artist projects like these to cut through and offer alternatives, critiques, nuances, and solidarities that no institutional or nation-state frame will ever provide. In Kosovo, the work of these artists began long before Manifesta 14 and will continue long after the art tourists fade away.

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