Believing that theatre is trying to find an ally even where one does not exist, with the intention to touch the unpleasant audience as well, Jeton Neziraj, Kosovo writer, playwright and screenwriter is one of the founders of Qendra Multimedia, one of the most interesting and significant regional cultural projects focusing on theatre and literature.
After the extremely successful performance “55 Shades of Gay”, Qendra Multimedia is currently performing “Balkan Bordello” – a transatlantic project involving the theatres La MaMa from New York City and Atelje 212 from Belgrade. After touring Kosovo, Albania and Serbia, the performance will be staged in New York City in April next year.
He spoke for our portal on the topics of the lack of curiosity about the other, which is a bigger obstacle than the language barrier, the malice of politics that produced the idea of mutual visas between Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina, the people who kept communication in the Balkans alive, and the importance of touching reality individually and not through intermediaries.
Next year will be the 20th anniversary of Qendra Multimedia. It is a substantive time even for more serious environments than our Balkan ones.
Over the years, you have managed to profile yourself as one of the most interesting and significant cultural projects focusing on literature and contemporary theatre. Is Qendra Multimedia also the only possible way to act for someone of your worldview, for a man who is not dedicated to national art but to art without any labels, to freedom and creation in freedom?
You have now reminded me that next year marks the 20th anniversary of the founding of Qendra Multimedia. These are not just mere years, numbers, they are years of active work and commitment on not such an easy terrain. Qendra was a platform that allowed us, theatre artists from Kosovo, to grow up and at the same time it was (and remains) an ‘extraterritorial’ space of artistic freedom, a freedom that was missing in public institutions, a freedom that was practically missing everywhere in public space. Things have changed for the better, meanwhile. These ‘spaces of freedom’ have been expanding in Kosovo for years and have already expanded to public institutions. It does not always happen, unfortunately, but in recent years it has become more common for competent people to be recruited in public institutions, those who are aware that the theatre should not serve those in power. Thus, there are people who see theatre as theatre, or to paraphrase Gertrude Stein, we would say who believe in: ‘Theatre is theatre’. Therefore, theatre is not an arena of nationalist self-stimulation, nor a megaphone of the authorities, nor is it a place of presenting national frustrations, nor a place of sowing hatred. Instead, they believe in theatre as a forum that, being critical, helps society develop, thrive, and prosper. But on the other hand, this state of optimism can be quickly reversed because, sets of politicians can always come to power who see artists and writers as agents of the ‘national photoshop’, who should improve the ‘flaws’ and ‘failures’ of society – which is actually happening in recent years in Serbia, where the civil society and the independent art scene that used to be alive and vibrant a few years ago has now shrunk and almost no longer exists, because current politics has brought it down. In such cases, the only refuge for artists who resist and do not want to be silent, are places such as Qendra Multimedia in Pristina or the Centre for Cultural Decontamination or the Association Krokodil in Belgrade.
COURAGE OR STUPIDITY AT THE LAUNCH OF POLIP
In addition to the huge consequences that the COVID pandemic had on culture and in the world, especially in our small countries, Qendra Multimedia lost the space for its work last year, which was privately owned and the owner decided to sell it. How to deal with, in addition to all the challenges, the problem of literally losing the roof over one’s head; how did you overcome this problem and did the loss of the physical space pose a problem at all, given your specific nomadic structure – especially the fact that the Polip Festival, one of your most important programs, started in public spaces like cafes?
The space we used for almost 10 years served us mainly for performance rehearsals, literary events, artistic performances and other small events, and it was a solution. It was inappropriate, but acceptable given the circumstances in a capital city that even incited hostility towards the independent cultural scene. Our years long dream was to find a more decent space and turn it into a theatre. We lost what little space we had last year. That situation, however, mobilized us to seek other alternatives, and we found one. In the meantime, since we lost our space, the Oda Theatre in Pristina, the only independent theatre, had been hit by the financial crisis. They were on the edge of existence. So, we got united with them by need and crisis. Since last year, we have been sharing the space of the Oda Theatre. We are there now, and the municipality of Pristina has decided to cover rent and other utilities, so that is also a relief. However, the infrastructure of that theatre is poor. It is a not very decent work environment. We are now waiting for the municipality to invest in its renovation – we hope that this will happen during 2022. Things seem to be moving positively in that direction. In the meantime, we continue with our activities. We are currently performing “Balkan Bordello”, a transatlantic project of the La MaMa Theater from New York City, Qendra Multimedia from Pristina and Atelje 212 from Belgrade. After touring Kosovo, Albania and Serbia, the performance will be staged in April next year at the La MaMa Theater in New York City.
The Polip Festival is, in short, dedicated to bringing literature from Kosovo and Serbia closer together. How do you see its beginnings today, how much energy and enthusiasm were needed for its creation and a decade long survival?
In fact, it is not a question of bringing Kosovo literature closer to the Serbian one, the festival was launched to enable the exchange of literature and writers between two societies traumatized by a hostile past. Recognition and communication were and remain an imperative. Cultural communication, first of all. However, in recent years, the Polip Festival has transformed from a festival focused on the region into a real international literature festival, which, in addition to reading, discusses various political and social issues and problems of a European character. This transformation does not mean that the region has been ‘cured’ and that the festival’s work is done. Of course not, but if the festival at its beginnings devised a vision for our societies that should coexist, now we are trying to put this vision in a broader context, the context of coexistence in a united Europe. I know, it sounds very poetic! Let us come back to the question. In the 11 editions, the Polip International Literature Festival has achieved tremendous success in several areas, including the promotion of dozens of young authors. The beginning, of course, was different, it happened in completely different circumstances, in circumstances of fear, but also of persistent efforts to move things forward. The first edition happened in 2009, and then for the first time in the post-war period, Serbian writers read publicly in Pristina. We were either courageous or stupid. Things have changed for the better now. It is a tangible change. This change not only affected the public, but also each of us individually. Saša Ilić, who is also one of the artistic directors of the festival (together with Alida Bremer from Croatia and me), is now one of my best friends.
IT IS EXTREMELY IMPORTANT FOR PEOPLE TO TOUCH THEIR REALITY THEMSELVES AND NOT THROUGH INTERMEDIARIES
For the last seven years, Qendra Multimedia has been implementing a writers residence program “Pristina has no river”, thanks to which you host authors of various profiles from Central and Southeast Europe and Germany. To what extent has this program helped guests from Southeast Europe in particular to create an accurate picture of Kosovo, unencumbered by incomplete information from the 1980s and 1990s?
For example, for the sick tabloids in Serbia, Albanians in Kosovo continue to walk around freely with bombs in their hands, demolishing monasteries or bombing the homes of poor Serbs. Fortunately, the reality is quite opposite. Therefore, confronting writers with reality offers another dimension, a reality that has more colours and shades, and that reality is digested by writers in their own way and they draw their own conclusions, without the need for intermediaries.
Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo share a similar experience of organizing the first pride parades at a time when they have become tradition in the more progressive parts of the former common state.
Despite this delay, there is progress such as the positive reactions to your performance “55 Shades of Gay”, as the first performance dedicated to LGBT issues in Kosovo.
How do you view the changes related to LGBT rights that are taking place in the Balkans, which is deeply heteropatriarchal and are the people in the LGBT community, in addition to cultural workers, the ones who really do not attach any importance to the borders that politics tries to impose?
As for the LGBTIQ+ community issue, fortunately, things have started to change radically, for the better. In the last two or three years, there have been several theatre performances, several films have been made, various public events have been organized, several books have been published, several Gay Parades have been organized without incidents, the LGBTIQ+ community has started communicating and collaborating regionally and so on… In general, there is much more talk and discussion about the LGBTIQ+ community in the public sphere today than, say, three or four years ago. All these movements, in addition to testifying to the rich LGBTIQ+ culture in the region, are also a sign of the general social emancipation taking place. Of course, we must emphasize that these changes occur mainly in the main urban areas, while the provincial areas have had almost no impact. Outside the centres, heteropatriarchy still rules with an iron fist. Therefore, we all have a lot to do in this field, especially artists, because I believe that one work of art, such as a theatre performance, can have a far stronger effect than a dozen seminars, trainings or dull lectures. In addition to the need for more LGBTIQ+ theatrical performances, they should have an honest approach, reflect the homophobic reality of our societies, reflect the vibrant lives of LGBTIQ+ people, as well as the dramas and challenges LGBTIQ+ people face, and so on. In our performance “55 Shades of Gay” that you mentioned, in addition to condemning homophobic society, we also condemn and ridicule certain groups, for example, a handful of so-called Albanian intellectuals, signatories of the petition against LGBTIQ+, people who use religion to sow hatred towards LGBTIQ+ people, but on the other hand, we also criticize the clumsiness of the LGBTIQ+ community in getting organized.
THEATRE MUST SEEK AND REACH THE ‘UNPLEASANT’ AUDIENCE
You were a pioneer of cultural cooperation with Belgrade at the time when you were the artistic director of the National Theatre in Pristina, which was not always looked upon favourably in your surroundings, nor were you welcomed with general joy anywhere you went.
What can you say from personal experience today about art as an integrative factor among nations?
Somehow, I almost always had a problem with definitions like ‘art as a means of reconciliation’. The cultural exchanges between Kosovo and Serbia that we started through Qendra Multimedia, the various collaborations in which I was involved, were not aimed at ‘reconciliation’ or ‘integration’, because then we would not be artists, but peace activists. Of course, we were aware that the political context of Kosovo and Serbia would allow the creation of some ‘secondary’ benefits, including breaking down prejudices and stereotypes, relaxing relations and generally creating normalcy in Albanian-Serbian relations, but again, the benefits of that political context are ‘secondary’. The performance “Romeo and Juliet” with Serbian and Albanian actors has an influence and political ‘reading’ which is different from “Romeo and Juliet” performed only by Albanian actors in Pristina or only by Serbian actors in Belgrade. As Marina Abramović said, ‘context is important’. Consequently, the theatre tries to find an ally where one does not exist, because there is not much to say to those who have already been ‘converted’. The LGBTIQ+ performance makes sense when it is not staged for the LGBTIQ+ community, but for others, especially homophobes. That is why theatre has to seek and reach the “unpleasant” audience, an audience that does not feel comfortable with what is being shown to them. That is why in recent years we have realized several theatre projects with artists from Serbia, we have exchanged and continue to exchange performances, because the political theatre we practice gains more weight and makes more sense, set in the context of constant Albanian-Serbian irritation and conflict.
LACK OF CURIOSITY ABOUT THE OTHER IS A BIGGER OBSTACLE THAN THE LANGUAGE BARRIER
Along all the specifics you are struggling with at home, is the fact that Kosovo culture does not communicate with the rest of the region in the way that Zagreb communicates with Sarajevo or Sarajevo with Belgrade additionally frustrating, given the objective obstacles such as language – for example, contemporary literature must be translated, along with all other non-objective obstacles of political nature – a visa regime for people from Kosovo that makes many things impossible and meaningless.
Of course, language barriers do exist, but they are not and should not be the main obstacles in the circulation of literature or theatre. What is most disturbing is the lack of curiosity, that is, the lack of interest in knowing the literature that is written behind those trees, behind those fields or hills, the literature of neighbours, theatres that others create in our vicinity. Therefore, a lack of curiosity about the other is a bigger obstacle than the language barrier. As an example, I will mention the fact that we have performed all over Europe with Qendra Multimedia, but we have never been to Sarajevo; or the fact that during these 50 (if not more) years no performance from Kosovo has ever been staged in any theatre in Montenegro, Podgorica or Cetinje! And yes, for the sake of fools, let’s confirm: Montenegro and Kosovo are neighbours. We can also talk about visas. Do you know how ashamed I am that Dino Mustafić cannot come to Kosovo because he needs a visa, which requires a lot of administrative effort, including a trip to Skopje. We recently invited Haris Pašović to Kosovo and I am terribly ashamed that he will most likely not be able to come here because of visas. I do not know if politics could have produced anything more malicious than this idea of mutual visas between Kosovo and Bosnia. It is a barbaric, anti-civilization act. You cannot imagine how irritated I am by that and I do not want to hear any arguments trying to justify these visas. Anyone who tries to justify them is nonhuman to me.
In one interview you said that sometimes 15 people are enough to keep communication alive. Who are those people at the regional level who kept this communication most alive, who are the people whose human principles and artistic worldviews coincided with yours, regardless of where they came from? I assume that among them is certainly the late Borka Pavićević, thanks to whom CZKD has always been wide open to you.
Borka, of course. In the early 1990s, she founded the Centre for Cultural Decontamination (CZKD) in Belgrade, a cultural and intellectual stronghold that opposed Serbian nationalism and sought to curb the war fever that gripped Serbia at the time. I have said that many times, Borka’s CZKD has been the missing cultural embassy of Kosovo in Belgrade all these years. Until her death in 2019, Borka was a dignified fighter for human rights, a strong opposition voice, progressive and open to cultural cooperation between the states that emerged from the disintegration of Yugoslavia. After her death, the famous philosopher Boris Buden rightly wrote that Borka’s life had a political meaning. “No one can deny that Borka Pavićević’s life had a political meaning. Many even agree that this meaning cannot be reduced to a lonely cultural activist from the social margins, who heroically resists the undemocratic powers and the majority that supports that power”, he said. Apart from Borka Pavićević, there are, of course, many other Serbian artists and intellectuals who had and still have clear positions and attitudes towards the past, towards the role of Serbia in the wars of the 1990s and against Milošević. One should certainly mention Vladimir Arsenijević, author and founder of the Festival Krokodil in Belgrade, Biljana Srbljanović, a famous playwright and human rights activist, Tomislav Marković, uncompromising poet and journalist, Saša Ilić, an author hated by the authoritarian regime in Belgrade because he is one of the promoters of cultural cooperation between Kosovo and Serbia, Zlatko Paković, a brave journalist and director, Miloš Živanović, a great poet who raises his voice against the government, and many, many others. Of course, personality profiles like these from Serbia also exist in Croatia, Kosovo, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina… Dino Mustafić, Andrej Nikolaidis, Shkelzen Maliqi, Alban Ukaj, Haris Pašović, Tanja Šljivar, Selma Spahić, Arben Idrizi, Alida Bremer, Oliver Frljić… These and many others perform cultural mine clearance – they remove mines from the legacy of the fascist past of the region, but also clear the present from nationalist contamination.
Kristina Ljevak (born 1980 in Sarajevo) is a journalist and editor who has been working for domestic and regional media for twenty years. She is dedicated to the affirmation of independent culture and art in Zvono Association. She has also been collaborating with numerous organizations whose work deals with human rights, the fight against discrimination and fostering a culture of remembrance. She is a feminist and LGBTIQ+ activist.