REVIEW: MANIFESTA 14 IN PRISHTINA
Ups and downs, dreams and hopes in a biennial’s quest to create cultural sustainability.
- Aug 12 2022
- Seda Yıldız (b. 1989, İstanbul) is an independent curator and art writer based in Hamburg. Her practice is inspired by thinking across disciplines including art, music, design, literature and activism. She is interested in taking part in process-oriented, open and experimental projects that foster collaboration and exchange with a wider audience. Yıldız is the editor and co-author of the book “Building Human Relations Through Art: Belgrade art collective Škart, from 1990 to present” which has been recently published by Onomatopee.
A biennial’s quest to help citizens to “reclaim public space” and “develop a sustainable network between different communities in the Western Balkans” is a lofty one. Will Manifesta’s efforts to reply to the call of the city survive in Kosovo, the land of “continuity of discontinuities”, after its 100-days of exhibition?
To start with the stories told on the streets of the youngest and one of the most fragile country in Europe seems the right start for pluriversality: It matters what worlds world worlds – how to tell stories otherwise is Catherine Nichols’ waving at Donna Haraway’s idea of storytelling as a means of heightening political and social engagement. Despite the frilliness of the title, Nichols’ choice as the Manifesta 14’s “creative mediator” to shape the polytopographic exhibition is a gesture of resistance in the land of socio-political (dis)continuities “to keep the story going for those who come after.” 
Prishtina rises as a symbol of complex cultural and political past and present. It is not Eastern or Western European; it is off-center due to longtime isolation, though it lies at the center of the Balkans. Following the war between Serbia and Kosovo, Prishtina has undergone a top-down urban transformation under a neoliberal approach, and the sharp influence of privatization on the city is visible. Yet the bright side of the story is that, by having the youngest population in Europe –both as the newest nation and in demographic age – Prishtina has a vibrant energy which demonstrates the self-initiative of the individuals shaping their city’s art and cultural scene. The community-run space Termokiss and cultural center Kino ARMATA are examples of this.
Manifesta 14 takes place in a war-marked city. The international expectation is therefore high for the Kosovar cultural scene, to not be just another European biennial of the same. Considering the combination of isolation and lack of funding structures to support regional collaboration, the best that Manifesta could offer the city seems to be cultural exchange and constructive dialogue, not only between Kosovo and Europe but within the region. As Belgrade-based art historian Branislav Dimitrijević also pointed out, artistic cooperation between different communities has existed in even more troubling times than now. There is an urgent desire for cultural encounters. The initial bid submitted by the City of Prishtina to Manifesta focused on developing sustainable projects to reinforce the cultural infrastructure of the city. With an intention to go beyond its time, Manifesta 14 has a goal of “developing a form of new regionalism, a sustainable network between different communities in the Western Balkan regions with more than 10 partners”. 
This is a clearly important promise for the cultural community, yet until now, only a few tangible outcomes have been presented.  The former abandoned Hivzi Sylejmani Library has been transformed into a cultural institution, the Centre for Narrative Practice, and the post-industrial Brick Factory into the Eco Urban Learning Centre, which will be activated by raumlaborberlin.
Throughout the biennial, both centers will host artistic interventions and free educational activities including creative writing, reading, artistic research for archiving and self-publishing, as well as communal building, gardening, swimming and cooking experiences. With time, we will see if this will meet Manifesta’s expectations; only when Kosovars claim the authorship of these communal places and are active in shaping these places as they like, or need, will this be a sustainable transformation.
Spread across 25 venues, the biennial takes place in various locations across the city, including landmarks such as the Palace of Youth and Sports and the National Library. It also lights a sparkle on the existence of privatized formerly socially-owned enterprises like Kino Rinia, or the Rilindja Press Palac, both sites of collective memory. While these carefully selected venues help (particularly foreign) visitors to get a sense of the city, there is the risk that they will overpower works on display, as happened in the iconic Grand Hotel Prishtina.
The Grand Scheme of Things takes place on eight floors of the building. Each floor represents a layer of this exhibition, which turns to transition, migration, water, capital, love, ecology, and speculation. Once a five-star hotel, during the Kosovo war, the Grand Hotel Prishtina was occupied by paramilitary groups. Earlier on, in the beginning of ‘90s, Albanians were not welcome inside the Grand Hotel. By 1992, there was a sign at the door that said: “Entrance is not allowed for dogs, Albanians, and Croats”.  Today, at the nearly-haunted Grand Hotel, “the failed promise of progress” waits for its destiny. Such a historically charged place leads locals to ask, “Why Grand Hotel as the host venue?”. One of the counter arguments is using public money to partly renovate the rooms and floors of the hotel, which was half-privatized in 2006, to host exhibitions to no end. It might be the intention of the biennial to “explore how the ‘ghosts of privatization’ can be filled with new functionalities, new life, new stories”,  and yet, eventually, the building itself becomes the most profound “piece” in the exhibition.
Unlike the troubled past of the venue, the overall feeling of the exhibition is soft. Among the few works which react to the particularity of the space is Edona Kryeziu’s installation there are crossroads where ghostly signals flash from the traffic (2022), which addresses the geopolitical, economic, and emotional conditions of waiting in relation to the unresolved sovereignty of Kosovo. Kryeziu hints at its impacts on citizens’ everyday lives, such as obstacles to travel and even the shipment of parcels that pose logistical challenges. With cardboard packages, a dreamy soundscape, and a swing on the fourth floor looking towards the city, Kryeziu’s installation is a melancholic and absurd inquiry of dreaming and expectation. A good number of works dialogue with the young history of the country and look for belonging, holding onto individual and collective memories. Artan Hajrullahu’s drawings give us an intimate look at scenes from domestic life and childhood memories; living rooms with wood stoves covered in handmade lacework, blankets and kilims, whole families huddled together in one room. Drawn on packing paper in childish ways, these micro-narratives take a twist on social criticism with references to gender division, marriage, and social taboos like nudity, going beyond relentless nostalgia. Adrian Paci’s double-channel video installation The Wanderers (2021) is a poetic approach to the emotions of migration. Set in rural Albania, the film unfolds an exploration of human bodies adrift, walking without an unknown goal, in slow motion. Philosophical and existential, the film transcends the work’s Albanian context. Marta Popivoda’s video piece, Yugoslavia, How Ideology Moved Our Collective Body (2013), portrays fraternal love and unity, the fundamental values of the Yugoslavian people, and also feels on point for the location.
Elona Beqiraj’s selection of poems on the diasporic reads gently as: “The sun of my homeland does not burn my skin”. PykëPresje’s installation at Kino ARMATA traces the British experimental musician Dave Smith’s inspirations from his visits to Albania, which resulted in his 1984 album Albanian Summer: An Entertainment, a treasure to Albania’s vibrant music culture. Both are true pleasures, and a fresh break from the works at the Grand Hotel, which is heavy on visualization.
Ongoing conflicts such as discrimination against ethnic Albanians, or the tensions between Kosovo and Belgrade, are mainly in off-center locations, instead of mingled in the Grand Hotel’s main exhibition. Hertica School House, a family home that serves as a school, is an example of a parallel education system in which ethnic Albanians were not allowed to enter educational buildings in the 1990s.  The National Gallery of Kosovo also hosts works of art that voice resistance featuring mainly artists from the former Yugoslavia and its neighbors. One of the only two artists from Serbia in the biennial, Jelena Jureša’s Aphasia (Act Three) (2019), addressing the representation of violence and mass crimes during the war in Bosnia, is on view here.
Cevdet Erek’s Brutal Times (2022) or tamtam collective’s Golden_Soundtrack (2022) look at the locations' pasts and presents while attentively conversing with their surroundings, leaving the most striking impressions. Erek delicately crosses the architectural landscapes, installing itself at the Rilindja Press Palace, a brutalist concrete building from the 1970s that was home to Kosovo’s first publishing house. Traces of its usage as a newspaper production facility, and later as a venue for electronic dance music events, draw out the political turbulence underlying Rilindja's function. The techno rhythms, along with archival material from Rilindja newspaper, make the many shifts in Rilindja’s function visible. tamtam’s subtle sound installation at Kino Rinia, a demolished open air cinema, resists the chaos of the city by creating a musical instrument out of metallic sails flattering in the wind. Both are concise and to-the-point gestures.
However, Swiss artist Ugo Rondinone’s take on The Monument to Heroes of the National Liberation Movement (2022)  is controversial among locals. The artist wraps the monument’s gray in bright pink aluminum foil, “emphasizing the aesthetic and pure sensory experience of color that will bring forth an object of beauty and contemplation”.  Rondinone’s “invitation to think about culture of remembrance and togetherness” by coloring the protected memorial is, at its best, wishful thinking. It seems similar to other top-down transformations in the city. In ever-changing Prishtina, perhaps, not trying to mutate becomes a more radical act.
Manifesta 14 offers seven titles/topics in the main exhibition, workshops at the Brick Factory, education programs, two radio projects, tiny pop-up projects that are difficult to trace, and even more projects that are waiting to be realized; perhaps a little too much. With its 55 interventions, over 100 participants and satellite programs, it feels like there are too many different directions to look to, particularly in the modest (for European standards) capital. Still, those who intensely deal with the conditions and practices of artists from the Balkans, who comprise more than 60% of invited participants, will have a consequent recap of the history-erasing war: Corruption, rising nationalism, patriarchy, privatization, unemployment.
Green Corridor (2022) is one such example. This urban intervention conceived by the Turin-based architectural office CRA-Carlo Ratti Associati, responsible for developing the urban vision of Manifesta 14, is realized to “bridge isolated neighborhoods” and “serve as a new ‘Green Lung’ through partly planting along the unused Prishtina-Belgrade railway route that opened in 1936, adding a few seats on the path. Yet, at the time of my visit, the aim of providing a leisure space for residents seemed distant. Perhaps, over time, it will flourish and be an active public space. During the opening ceremony at the Palace of Youth and Sports, pro-European statements were issued by both the officials of Kosovo and the Manifesta team. While questionable remarks such as “Kosovo is Europe” or “Make the Balkan miracle real” were made by Manifesta’s director Hedwig Fijen and the mayor of Prishtina, Përparim Rama, one consensus was the urgency of changing the cultural topography of Europe and mapping Kosovo onto the contemporary art scene. It should not be forgotten that bringing Manifesta to Prishtina is not humanitarian aid: Not only Kosovo is lucky to have Manifesta in the city, but Manifesta is lucky to learn from the deep hospitality and generosity of the people here. It is here that the promise of a “new regionalism” starts to make sense.
Banner: Installation view, Artan Hajrullahu. Photo © Manifesta 14 Prishtina, Majlinda Hoxha
- Footnotes “Manifesta 14 Prishtina Announces Creative Mediator Catherine Nichols and the Artistic Concept.” Manifesta Foundation, YouTube.
 The isolation is not only because of the political repressions during the ‘90s, but also because of the EU’s visa policy. Kosovars are able to travel to only a few countries without a visa: Albania, Turkey, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, and the Maldives. All neighboring countries have been granted the right to visit the EU, except Kosovo.
 “What Will Manifesta 14 Bring to the Balkans?”
 “Western Balkans Project,” Manifesta 14.org.
 The collaborative research on subcultures in Tirana, Skopje, and Prishtina was recently published as one of the Manifesta 14 Prishtina projects. The project of ICA–Sofia at the University Gallery in Prishtina is an evolving exhibition throughout the Manifesta period inviting other artists from Bulgaria and beyond in the long term.
 See Cristina Marí, “The Ghosts of Privatization.” Kosovo 2.0.
 Catherine Nichols answers to my question drawing attention to the many people who helped prepare Prishtina’s bid for Manifesta, who argue that “it is important to do something about the ‘ghosts’ – not to underline but to change the old narrative, to rethink the symbolism, to question whether building a new building with a ‘better’ symbolism is the right path.” She adds: “...would bypassing sites like the Grand Hotel, ubiquitous as they are, not be underestimating the strength and power of art to examine, to transform, to trouble and reveal the inherent contradictoriness or fraughtness of spaces?” (Personal communication, July 30, 2022).
 During the 1990s, with conflict across the territories of former Yugoslavia, Kosovo’s Albanian-speaking majority was excluded from public institutions by the Serbian regime.
 The memorial was built under the rule of Josip Broz Tito in 1961. It was designed to consolidate the “brotherhood and unity” of the various ethnic groups living in Kosovo.
 “Artistic Intervention - Ugo Rondinone.”
 Like every edition, M14 Prishtina’s bid comes with a financial picture and a confirmation of a basic secured budget which is developed by the Mayor of Prishtina, in collaboration with the Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sports.