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Bos/Hrv/SrpShqipМакедонски 26 Apr 12

Artists Cross Tense Serbia-Kosovo Border on Net

As attempts to build artistic and musical bridges between Kosovo and Serbia remain hostage to political tensions, new technology is offering a solution.

Donjeta Demolli

When Patriotic Hypermarket – a play aimed at bringing Serbs and Albanians together – was staged in Belgrade last year, a police unit had to be drafted in to ensure the actors’ safety.

The production has not been performed in Pristina at all. Despite prior promises to do so, Kosovo’s National Theatre has yet to give it a slot.

The play is part of a series of cross-border productions that have been stymied by the continued razor-sharp tension between Kosovo and Serbia, which still claims Kosovo as its province.

But a new generation of artists is bypassing nationalists on both sides of the border by using the Internet – jamming on Skype or coordinating exhibitions on Facebook.

Shadow of politics:

Thirteen years after the war in Kosovo ended, Kosovar and Serbian artists are taking small steps towards working together with the help of foreign organisations.

But these activities remain fraught. An exhibition in 2008, “Exception: The Contemporary Art Scene of Pristina”, was prevented from opening in Belgrade after the ultra-nationalist organisation Obraz protested.

Serbian ire was roused by the fact that one of the pages of the catalogue for the exhibition showed the late Kosovo guerrilla leader Adem Jashari - a hero to Albanians but a terrorist in the eyes of Serbs.

Alban Ukaj, a participant in the exhibition, said that he had had no serious cooperation with Serbian artists since then.

“Collaboration is not often welcome to the other so-called artists, or to the rest of society, especially in Serbia,” he said.

“There was criticism in Kosovo as well, but not from any serious or professional voices.”

The organisers of Patriotic Hypermarket, Kulturanova from Novi Sad and Multimedia Centre in Pristina, don’t know why Kosovo’s National Theatre has spurned attempts to put on the production.

After contacting the theatre last year, they received confirmation in November and December that it would be staged but the promise has not materialised.

Milan Vracar, director of Kulturanova, says the play will not achieve its purpose unless it is performed in Pristina.

“Its message relates to the public there as well. It is very significant also for the public in Pristina,” he said.

Photo: Bitef

Patriotic Hypermarket is part of the multidisciplinary project “View from my Window”, which deals with personal stories from Kosovo and Serbia.

As part of this, 40 Kosovo Serbs and Albanians were interviewed about their personal memories of the Kosovo conflict, their visions of the future and the possibilities of reconciliation.

Using the material, Milena Bogavac, a dramaturge from Belgrade, and Jeton Neziraj, a dramaturge from Pristina, collaborated on a play. Dino Mustafic, a director from Sarajevo, worked with the actors from Belgrade, Pristina, Skopje and Tirana.

Neziraj said culture in the region remains hostage to politics. “It is used as a target by frustrated nationalists to recharge their patriotic batteries,” he said.

But Shasivar Haxhijaj, political adviser to Kosovo’s Minister of Culture, Memli Krasniqi, says the issue is more complicated than people give credit for.

He says his ministry has no direct institutional cooperation with partners in Serbia “because we don’t recognise each other as states, so these forms of cooperation cannot happen”.

Hypermnesia, a play based on the personal experiences of eight actors across former Yugoslavia, also faced difficulties when it was scheduled to come to Pristina.

It was only following ministerial intervention that the National Theatre agreed to stage last year. Among the actors was Alban Ukaj who spoke in both Serbian and Albanian during the performance.

Theatre sources, who asked to remain anonymous, said the National Theatre did not want to touch the show until Petrit Selimi, Kosovo’s Deputy Foreign Ministry, intervened.

Selimi confirmed that he had intervened on behalf of Hartefact, the producers of Hypermnesia. “Yes, I helped Hartefact to come to Pristina,” he said.

Patriotic Supermarket

Milan Vracar, director of Kulturanova, which produced Patriotic Hypermarket, credits the action.

“Generally it is not good when politics intervenes in culture, but in this case it was necessary, based on what I heard.

“It is good that this play [Hypermnesia]… was shown in Pristina because without such actions it couldn't have happened.”

Photo Exhibition Face the Reflection | Photo: Berin Hasi 

Burbuqe Berisha, director of the National Theatre, insists there are no political or nationalist reasons for why Patriotic Hypermarket has not been put on.

“Patriotic Hypermarket will be staged when a gap appears in the theatre’s timetable, she said.

"There is no other reason behind this [the delay],” she said. “I don't know why people think that; we just had other plays on the programme.”

Power of art:

Hypermnesia producer Andrej Nosov said art is crucial for the work of rebuilding regional cooperation.

“Many people dismiss art and its power,” he said. “They forget that periods are rarely remembered for their politicians but more often for their artists - especially those who were turbulent.

“Art has the power to establish communication, expand boundaries and create free space for thought at every level,” he added.

But with the current heightened tensions between Kosovo and Serbia, cultural exchanges continue to suffer.

One Kosovo NGO, which runs cultural exchange programmes between Serbia and Kosovo, told Balkan Insight that it had recently cancelled a trip to Belgrade following the series of tit-for-tat arrests on both sides of the border.

“We had a planned visit to Belgrade by a group of Kosovo Albanians, which we cancelled due to the latest arrests,” an official from the NGO told Balkan Insight.

Using social networks:

While direct face-to-face communication remains problematic, artists are finding new ways to get round the blockade.

Ana Dragic, project manager of the project “Face the Reflection”, started to use Facebook to work with artists from Belgrade and Pristina from the USA, and then Belgrade.

The idea came to her while she was studying in America and befriended a Kosovar.

“It was a paradox that I had to cross the ocean to meet someone from a city only a six-hour drive from Belgrade,” she said.

Artists involved in this project didn’t know each other and communicated only through pictures, not words.

Dragic says meaningful intercultural cooperation between Kosovo and Serbia remains impossible without the help of international organisations.

“The relationship between Serbian and Kosovan artists is a metaphor of the relationship in politics - they need a negotiator,” she said.

The work was displayed in Pristina earlier last year.

Others are making use of Skype to cross borders. This is the case with the rock band The Artchitects, formed of Albanian and Serb musicians from both sides of the divided Kosovo town of Mitrovica.

Politics and security issues mean they usually practice on Skype.

Guitarist Leart Gara says his teacher at the Mitrovica rock school, Ruud Brogers, suggested they form The Architects after listening to them play individually in 2011.

The problem was that they couldn’t meet in Mitrovica itself. Instead they have met up once in Skopje, Macedonia, to rehearse and record. Apart from that they practice via Skype and Facebook.

“The fact that they have to go away [from Mitrovica] to be able to practise says it all,” Brogers said.

The Artchitects is formed of three Serbs from the Serb-dominated north of Mitrovica and two Albanians from the south.

Gara and Blerta Kosova, the two Albanians, say they love the music and just don’t care about politics.

“In history music has changed politics – think of Jimmy Hendrix, Bob Dylan, Woodstock and lots of other events and people,” Gara says. “Music has always fought for peace. Our goal is to have peace.

“Our motivation is great and we don’t have any problems between us. Political problems aren’t for us. We do art, so we aren’t interested in these things,” Kosova added.

Although the band formed only recently, they have recorded four original songs together and performed twice in The Netherlands and once in Skopje.

But playing in Mitrovica is out of the question, and the three Serb members of the group declined to answer questions, saying they feel uncomfortable dealing with “political” issues.

In an earlier interview with the website Transitions Online, Filip Milovanovic, a Serb drummer in the band, said he had never met anyone from south Mitrovica before he attended the Skopje summer school.

“It was a chance to play good music and meet good people from the south,” he recalled.

In his part of town, Serbian flags fly from every street corner. “On TV they talk about [Albanians] one way, but when you meet them it's different,” he noted.

This article is funded under the BICCED project, supported by the Swiss Cultural Programme.

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