What’s the Frequency?

Kate Sutton at LambdaLambdaLambda and a Venice press conference in Pristina, Kosovo

Left: Philosopher Agon Hamza. Right: Artist Flaka Haliti and LambdaLambdaLambda co-founder Isabella Ritter. (All photos: Kate Sutton)

“YOU LIKE BILL CLINTON?” It was the first English my cab driver had spoken since my arrival at the Pristina International Airport. All too aware of my status as an American tourist in Kosovo, I was still measuring my response when we passed an eleven-foot-tall bronze statue of the forty-second president of the United States, all smiles on the corner of Bulevardi Bill Klinton, with one arm raised in a friendly wave, Ronald McDonald–style. Just two storefronts down, Boutique Hillary—specializing in pantsuits—had a sign advertising 50 percent off. “There’s a really dodgy story behind that monument,” philosopher Agon Hamza would warn me later. (He was mum about the pantsuits.)

The Republic of Kosovo is now hitting the seven-year itch of an independence many see as purely symbolic. As Slavoj Žižek jibes in From Myth to Symptom: The Case of Kosovo (a book coauthored by Hamza), NATO prefers its Kosovo “decaffeinated.” Under the banner of humanitarian calls for big-D Democracy, the country has been effectively “managed” by a tribe of foreign advisers, embassies, and NGOs, whose actions—such as privatizing Kosovo’s most profitable public services—have ensured a population that is empowered in mission statement only. Its citizens struggle with restricted mobility, not only under an economy deliberately crafted to be one of Europe’s most vulnerable, but also because almost half of UN member nations (Spain, Russia, and China among them) still don’t recognize the Kosovar passport, complicating travel.

To add to the logistical obstacles, Kosovo’s art scene has had to grapple with pressure to reinforce popular myths of the Balkans as Europe’s last frontier, a land of insatiable passions and centuries-old ethnic and cultural tensions, as codified in a wave of “discovery” exhibitions through the mid-aughts. Even as late as 2013, a New York Times article pointed to the “schism” between Kosovar Serb and Albanian artists as the most “formidable barrier” facing the art scene.

Left: Stacion's Vala Osmani and Donjetë Murati. Right: Curator Nicolaus Schafhausen and collector Rron Dalladaku.

Most artists I met argued that this is a fiction. “People like to pretend there was no communication between artists in Pristina and Belgrade during the war,” artist Albert Heta sighed. Together with his partner, architect Vala Osmani, Heta founded Stacion Center for Contemporary Art as a way to help propagate a different narrative. Their first project was a 2006 conference that focused specifically on the long history of interaction between artists in Kosovo and Serbia. Nearly a decade later, Stacion has developed a full exhibition program (with upcoming projects by Pilvi Takala, Alfredo Jaar, and Adrian Paci) as well as a summer school open to emerging curators from the region. With few other local opportunities for artists—the Academy’s recently opened student gallery has primarily focused on showing its esteemed professors—there is still little infrastructure to support what strides Stacion has been making.

Vienna-based curators Katharina Schendl and Isabella Ritter hope to help remedy this with LambdaLambdaLambda, which opened January 19 as one of the first international art galleries in the Kosovar capital. As for the name, blame Seth Price: “Seth suggested it over dinner,” Schendl explained. “In physics, the lambda is the sign for a frequency, which we liked. And then, it’s also the name of the fraternity in Revenge of the Nerds? Something like that.”

It was sorority that prevailed for LambdaLambdaLambda’s inaugural show, “switching protocols,” which brought together Nadja Athanassowa and Flaka Haliti, the Munich-based artist recently announced as Kosovo’s representative in this year’s Venice Biennale. It will be the second time the country has been represented, following the 2013 debut of the pavilion (which is wedged between Chile and Turkey in the Arsenale). LambdaLambdaLambda’s opening had been timed to overlap with the biennial’s first official press conference, where Haliti announced other members of her production team, including Schendl, architect Philip Nitsche, and artist Dren Maliqi, before introducing her selected curator, Kunsthalle Wien director Nicolaus Schafhausen, who is no stranger to the Giardini, having curated two previous German pavilions. “It made sense, as I’m from Pristina, but I study in Vienna and live in Munich,” Haliti explained. “It was important to me that I work with someone who can understand this kind of experience.”

Left: Artist Marjetica Potrč. Right: LambdaLambdaLambda cofounder Katharina Schendl and Gipsy Groove's Bajram Kafu Kinulli.

While in town, Schafhausen delivered an afternoon lecture at the National Gallery of Art as part of a conversation series that featured Ayse Erkman, Sebastian Cichocki, and Marjetica Potrč. With a rather rocky history unto itself, the National Gallery has recently blossomed under its latest director, Erzen Shkololli, an artist and cofounder of the alternative space EXIT, which brought artists like Erkman, Dan Perjovschi, and Anri Sala to Shkololli’s hometown of Pejë. “It’s a luxury to be just an artist here,” Shkololli told me. “If you’re serious, then you have to help others to build the scene.”

Judging from the packed lecture hall, Shkololli has a lot to work with. Boasting an average age of twenty-five, Pristina is bustling with nightclubs and hipster coffee joints. Understandably, the country has one of the highest Internet usage rates in the region, though, as powerhouse publisher Besa Luci lamented, “blogging culture hasn’t really caught on.” In 2010 while still in her twenties, Luci founded the trilingual Web portal Kosovo 2.0 to encourage people to tell their own stories. A year later, Kosovo 2.0 launched a print edition, with themed issues like Public Space, Sex, and, most recently, Sports, whose accompanying crowd-funding campaign, “Kosovo Wants to Play” had to be delayed until Luci could find a platform that recognizes Kosovo.

I spotted both Luci and Shkololli at the LambdaLambdaLambda opening, where the crowd spilled out of the space and into Baba Ganoush, the vegetarian restaurant next door. “We wouldn’t have been able to pull this off without our neighbors,” Schendl confessed, recounting multiple instances of left luggage, keys, and after-hours falafel. As it would happen, neighborliness was at the heart of Haliti’s project, two mounted aluminum panels with images of fences from the surrounding side streets of Pejton. These weren’t your standard-issue, post-NATO fences; one looked like what’s left over when you pull the cut biscuits out of rolled-out dough. “When I was a kid, all the fences looked like these,” Haliti reminisced. “You could talk through them, kids could climb over them. They were a method of communication. Now it’s all these solid panels. I wanted to try to record the few old fences still left.”

Left: Kosovo 2.0 founder Besa Luci and Austrian Embassy representative Astrid Reinprecht. Right: Collector Hampus Lindwall.

Promptly at 9 PM, selected guests including artists Alban Muja, Brilant Pirevca, collectors Rron Dalladaku and Hampus Lindwell, and Gipsy Groove’s Bajrabi Kafu Kinulli slipped out of the alleyway and across the courtyard to a dinner hosted by the Austrian Embassy at a subterranean restaurant on George Bush Road (which begins, quite naturally, at the intersection of Mother Teresa and Garibaldi). Over stewed vegetables and spicy cheeses, talk turned to the parallel system that operated in the 1990s when ethnic Albanians were barred from entering public buildings, like schools, theaters, and even the National Library, Pristina’s foremost architectural monument. Education was primarily self-organized through a system of salons. One artist learned his craft by sitting in on his father’s painting classes; another’s parents hosted seminars on law and agriculture, not because they were particularly interested in either topic, but because that was what was needed. “It wasn’t the kind of instruction that necessarily encouraged critical thinking,” confessed Luci, who, apart from her duties at Kosovo 2.0 is at work on a documentary about education under the parallel system.

Several bottles later, conversation turned to the afterparty, with Muja, Kinelli, and Schendl all weighing in on which of Pristina’s clubs would be the best bet for the night. Just as we had narrowed down the selections to two—one tended to be smokier but had this killer Albanian DJ, another was just where everyone’s friends already were—a round of gunshots rang out from the courtyard. Pirevca shrugged. “Maybe we should just get another bottle here?” Unanimous agreement.

Left: Architect Philipp Nitsche. Right: Artists Lule Bagta and Dren Maliqi.

Left: Ministry of Foreign Affairs advisor Gent Salihu and National Gallery of Art director, artist Erzen Shkololli. Right: Artists Alban Muja and Emanuel Gjoka.