Before strategies, the independent culture scene needs a consolidated discourse.
Any categorizations that connect culture-making to social progress in Kosovo are too unstable to be considered as arguments. Kosovo’s cultural progress cannot be evaluated because measurements have not been conducted. Measurements cannot be conducted without developing indicators that would represent pillars for development and culture’s influence on society.
With the objective of initiating an internal dialogue both with and about the independent cultural scene, this text provides suggestions about independent cultural processes that must be embraced, starting from the idea that culture is a dynamic process that is the precondition for creating social values and responsible assessments. Social and cultural changes imply changes in societal values, and these values must be measured with the objective of understanding and directing a social course.
The idea of arguing about what the independent cultural scene implies must have a framework for discussion. The starting point for providing arguments in this text initially excludes the pursuit of culprits. The small scene has no need for cultural prosecutors or some artistic cleansing process.
Hoping not to be followed by some superficial reaction (read: personal) instead of a substantial one, this text sets off on the principle that everyone has the right to refuse to judge others for their intentional misinterpretations.
With the same principle, this text sets off with the desire and recognition of the need to invest more time into understanding the real reasons for discontent over the way the scene functions, to find what the scene offers to citizens, as well as to understand the relations between citizens and the scene.
The idea is to focus on solutions, not problems.
No historic cultural episode is completely unimportant in the chronicle of Kosovo’s 18 years after liberation, which include: the administration of Biyala Rao in the Culture Department in the beginnings of UNMIK, the independent non-government cultural initiatives, the changes of ministers and directors of cultural institutions, the erasure from memory of their affairs, and the termination of cultural events as a result of funding shortages.
However, to understand the context in which these developments happened, first we must explain the conditions, causes and circumstances that have defined the direction that the independent cultural scene has followed (if we can call the community of not more than 15 cultural organizations — the common year-round program of which up until quite recently included no more than 60 days of activities — a ‘scene’).
First we must understand that as a post-socialist product, in the 90s, for most of the time, we as a society were only observers. This was because during the reinstatement of cultural strategic targets after the destruction of the Berlin wall, there was a shift in global cultural structures and an introduction of new cultural administrative approaches.
The oppressive circumstances of the ’90s have influenced a situation in which the informal role of culture in restructuring post-socialist cultural identity suffered from regression, took on a defensive character and was manifested through the restoration of national figures and myths, through plays and exhibitions, as a way to preserve the endangered national existence. It is a very normal reaction in such circumstances.
With the arrival of the new millennium and the instatement of the structures of provisional decision-making bodies in culture, there was a certain charm to the way some cultural communities were established in a few of the big cities in the country.
People were united by the desire to bring back cultural life to cities and citizens. Cultural life was experienced in completely different circumstances. Cultural products were subject to value filtration which was done by a body of professionals, and content filtration which was done by the ideological and political administration, before they were served to the audience.
This is one of the roles of the independent scene: to create circumstances for making citizens culturally independent.
With little will and lots of support from considerable sums of European taxpayer money, an independent cultural micro-cosmos was created and started to take shape, manifested through ‘festivalization’ and festive entertainment events. Thus began the creation of cultural consumers, but not of a critical public comprised of active citizens who follow events and know how to evaluate, compare, measure and translate cultural products to their own evaluations and opinions.
In my opinion, this is one of the roles of the independent scene: to create circumstances for making citizens culturally independent. I think the individual achieves cultural freedom through a process which interconnects emotion to critical judgement and understanding. An active citizen is an independent cultural agent which needs, understands and promotes cultural values, (collective) memory, creativity and critique, as well as their importance for community development.
The independent scene of a country must package, present and offer this notion and process as an option.
During the period when the declaration of independence was being prepared, cracks within the scene started to surface with unreasonable rapidity. There were no initiatives for inclusion in regional cultural networks, no petitions or common declarations in relation to the eventual internationalization of the country in the cultural sphere, or when the state aspired accession to worldwide cultural organizations. Neither were there reactions when one of the new ministers decided to extinguish through non-funding a cultural event that had left a mark on the country’s cultural and artistic identity.
In the most recent case, for example, we noted a complete lack of unity around the idea of destroying the Gërmia building and constructing a concert hall, despite the disregard for its cost. Simultaneously, we noted the independent scene’s fragility, and inability to solve this issue on its own or even organize an internal discussion to protect the building because of its value to the city’s architectural memory. No-one invited citizens to take part in this debate. Ultimately — despite the result — we saw that daily politics have a lot of power for managing the independence of this cultural scene.
Moreover, very rarely did we see attempts by cultural organizations to approach the community with which it coexists in cities in which festivals were organized. I do not recall these organizations — based on their independent civil and non-government status — ever organizing small events for people with disabilities with hearing, seeing, speaking or movement, or even for orphaned children. We saw many events of this kind during the ’90s in Kosovo. For example, in the refugee camps in Macedonia in 1999, Kosovo artists organized music and theater programs for children and adults.
However, in this fragmented cultural infrastructure and in the explosion of development of cultural organizations, ideas started to spread about unfolding cultural policies and a cultural strategy at the state level. This happened before conducting any measurements for cultural influence reached at any level or in any artistic field. It happened before talking about cultural investments, about financial facilitation for cultural producers, or even about the development of some kind of innovative artistic curriculum for the country’s woeful education system,
This ad hoc approach is against the principle that policies and strategies — and not only cultural ones — should be made based on measurements and evaluations of indicators, and that these analyses would determine the most appropriate direction for policies.
Culture and the arts — as spheres — belong to public interest.
Massively reduced to the point where it became an advantage, this discussion about cultural strategies, which was initiated by independent organizations and continuously financed by means of foreign agencies, was summarized into a series of rallies of panels and work groups which had talent in composing projects which, concluded, recommended, but mostly complained about the central level, which is responsible for culture.
For some time, the central level had lost its strategic compass for providing something more normal and meaningful for citizens, something outside of the format of pathetic plays of national pathos and exodus exhibitions — a feature of 90s ‘policies’ for protecting the national identity from oppression and assimilation.
In an illustrative manner, this barricade resembles a situation where you look through the keyhole and miss the rest of the landscape. What I don’t know is whether the door is closed or whether there is no desire and willingness to open the door and challenge regressive social norms and citizens’ comfort zones. For the time in which we are living, this emptiness provides an unacceptable perspective.
Culture and the arts — as spheres — belong to public interest. Besides cooperation, up until now no other means has been invented to protect common values and the interests of citizens. We all know what happens to those that build walls around themselves.
The citizen as a compass and a discourse
Worldwide, culture policies are completely related to the city, the citizen and citizenship. They facilitate and promote the measurement of cultural progress, the creation of the cultural job market in the culture sector, the generation of financial means, and investment in the independent culture sector.
The scene should be close to the people. This is the reason why the scene influences social interaction, and not only cultural policies. The scene creates another reality and is reformative in society. The scene leaves a mark and creates social policies of cities. The scene invests in smaller scenes, and the sustainability of its relationship with citizens.
And this duly brings us to the question: which driving force influences the cultural scene in Kosovo? Which force initiates cultural mobility among us?
As a social apparatus created by independent non-political individuals, the independent cultural scene in Kosovo is a machine of social progress. It is an indicator of democracy and an open society.
Kosovo has an independent culture scene, but has no internal dialogue between the scene’s actors and decision/policy-makers that would create a common cultural discourse.
As an initiative of the ever-shrinking middle class, the independent culture scene in Kosovo is the most serious designer of Kosovo’s culture agenda. This scene — together with superstar athletes — is the only narrator and creator of Kosovo’s new narrative. It is an ‘a la grassroots’ narrative, a narrative of citizens who have catalytic capacity. This scene is the only one which, through activities, civil participation, representation and activism, strives to react more strongly in the sphere of public policy, so as to not remain as a ‘societé du spectacle.’
Kosovo has an independent culture scene, but has no internal dialogue between the scene’s actors and decision/policy-makers that would create a common cultural discourse. I think our country needs a common cultural discourse with which it can tell its tale. As a country outside of regional cultural agendas, Kosovo must apply strategies of regional cultural alliances; the destiny of this process is in the hands of the independent scene, not the central level.
To do this, the scene needs structure and representatives, which it lacks. The scene has little influence in making, changing and implementing cultural policies and public policies. Up until now, few actions within the scene have come as a result or continuity of some research report, or evaluation document in relation to strategic perspectives of culture in Kosovo, or to some necessary evaluatory comparison, at least with countries in the region.
This scene — the activities of which extend mainly to urban settlements — is centralized, and as such has little influence on social and cultural processes in spaces, schools, squares and villages. The culture scene is mainly comprised of cultural facilitators and intermediators; since it is produced in Kosovo, it is a product of a group of culture organizations.
What does it need now? How do we get to a position where we have unified reactions when, for example, the Ministry decides not to fund festivals like SkenaUP or Prishtina Jazz Festival, as it did in 2014? How do we get to a position where organizations of the independent culture scene present to the Ministry a common document for the culture strategy 2020-2030?
Before we achieve a common stance regarding the Gërmia building, the independent scene must understand the needs of citizens and convince them about why the city needs such a hall, more than it needs, for example, a special fund for the professional development of Philharmonic orchestra instrumentalists.
The process of culture-making must not be seen as an exclusive process. It is more related to the creation of centers of gravity around which citizens are gathered and children are educated, of small creative school hubs and clubs in towns and spaces which are less urbanized. Only then can we speak about measurements.
We cannot speak about cultural progress without inclusion, without measuring values and conducting comparisons based on research. There is no political will for understanding the importance of culture for critically developing the citizen.
The central executive level considers culture only as plays and exhibitions, and this has been shown by the lack of financial innovation with a focus on culture and arts. No-one has lobbied for cultural VAT, be it when purchasing products or as a tax that is added or divided from the many products that are imported in Kosovo. No-one has initiated any agreements with the Ministry of Finance for reducing taxes for businesses that contribute to culture, or for creating economic facilitations for companies in the creative industry.
It seems that there is no desire to comprehend that by creating these conditions and facilitations, we invest in Kosovo’s human capital, in the good citizen, in the responsible Kosovar.
We must consider that Kosovo facilitates culture and imports cultural products, but does so at a low rate. There is not enough dough for export, because there are no manufacturers and no market. Cultural education is the weakest aspect of cultural policy and is invested very little for culturally elevating children.
Fortunately, the creation of arts in Kosovo did not start in the year 2000, rather it started when culture and arts began to be institutionalized, so after WWII. However, culture-making has been accompanied by a lack of sustainability. Many beautiful and meaningful events and festivals which were organized during the 70s and 80s, and even continued during the 90s, were no longer organized after the war, interrupting the continuum of Kosovo’s cultural narrative.
We only need to look at schools to see that arts are taught more or less as they were in 1984. There is no strategic thought for those that will come to see, evaluate and appreciate what will be offered in the future. I believe there is no better time for thinking about the future and about a sustainable culture.
Responsible community dialogue
In a few years, foreign embassies and agencies in Kosovo will consider our country, as an independent state, as one which has increased its capacities to show the world that it can be a stable country, a country with stable fiscal, economic and cultural policies which ensure sustainable processes.
In addition to this, in a few years, the fourth generation of the diaspora will not find the willingness to come and spend a part of their summer in Kosovo; influenced by the wave of refugees who are escaping wars and are headed towards the European continent, this generation’s budget has been reduced considerably, together with their desire to see their ancestors and contribute to the country in which their ancestors were born. Among other things, this ‘escape’ will also have financial implications and will influence the process of consolidating the independent culture scene.
Only 30 years ago, this scenario of the endless supermarket of products and values was not imaginable.
Today, the children of Restelica in Dragash are only a click away from downloading all Disney films, seeing the Eiffel Tower in 3D directly on Google Maps or reading whichever online magazine, hearing whichever concert. They chose what they want to see, read and hear. They choose based on their tastes. They sew their own personalized system of artistic values and build their own definitions about what they like and don’t like.
Only 30 years ago, this scenario of the endless supermarket of products and values — in which everything is on offer except ideas and the understanding of community values — was not imaginable. Only 30 years ago, there were no opportunities for having access to food products (let alone cultural products) based on taste.
In the past, the creation of these products that feed individual preferences was classified as damaging and dangerous, and their presence in the public sphere was not approved by the value and ideology filtration conducted by the only Albanian TV channel. However, today the children of Restelica and all of Kosovo don’t care about what the opinions of former editors of TVP, or of their parents at that.
The cultural lens and diffusion is very related to the future of society. Thirty years ago, the smartphone seemed like a sci-fi gadget. Cultural influences define the development of social progress and build adaptive skills with sci-fi gadgets that will be used 30 years later. This is a good time for open disagreement and for providing arguments which imply something substantial for society. It is a good time to measure how open the society is, to see how much civil life is consumed by daily politics, and to what extent the dynamic of social development is compromised by politicians?
Today, when just about everything is a click and a search away, the idea of the school culture program and the method of educating the future cultural public is presented as ‘smart’, one which is reduced to a phone and an internet connection, and is dependent on it. This approach creates individuals, militant artists, fighters, judoka. But as such we cannot aspire to create responsibility as a value for the team, the collective and society, and to document memory as a unit of measuring cultural and community values.
If we want to create YouTube stars, but we are not interested in the idea of one day having a good Philharmonic orchestra, and critical and responsible citizens, then why should the independent cultural scene exist?
Feature image: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.