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School Watch
October 2022

Field Notes: Rilindja Press Palace and Centre for Narrative Practice, Manifesta 14

Hana Halilaj

Cevdet Erek, Brutal Times, 2022. Rilindja Press Palace, Prishtina, Manifesta 14, July 22–October 30, 2022. © Cevdet Erek. Photo: Ivan Erofeev. Courtesy Manifesta 14.

Cevdet Erek, Brutal Times, 2022. Rilindja Press Palace, Prishtina, Manifesta 14, July 22–October 30, 2022. © Cevdet Erek. Photo: Ivan Erofeev. Courtesy Manifesta 14.

Centre for Narrative Practice, Prishtina. Photo: Ivan Erofeev. Courtesy Manifesta 14.

Centre for Narrative Practice, Prishtina. Photo: Ivan Erofeev. Courtesy Manifesta 14.

Cevdet Erek, Brutal Times, 2022. Rilindja Press Palace, Prishtina, Manifesta 14, July 22–October 30, 2022. © Cevdet Erek. Photo: Ivan Erofeev. Courtesy Manifesta 14.

Centre for Narrative Practice, Prishtina. Photo: Ivan Erofeev. Courtesy Manifesta 14.

Centre for Narrative Practice, Prishtina. Photo: Ivan Erofeev. Courtesy Manifesta 14.

What repercussions does a nomadic European biennial hold for a country that is not a part of the European Union? The answer will only become clear in due time. “To biennale or not to biennale, that is the question,” wrote the multimedia artist Driton Selmani on an empty billboard atop the Palace of Youth and Sports in Prishtina, Kosovo, an intervention that came between two other billboards, one announcing the Autostrada Biennale, which was held from July to September 2021, and the other Manifesta 14, which opened this July 22. [1]1
The billboard displayed the poster of the third edition of Autostrada Biennale, a local biennale that primarily takes place in the city of Prizren. Autostrada 3, “What if a journey,” was curated by Övül Ö. Durmuşoğlu and Joanna Warsza. To continue their work and research, the curatorial duo have announced that they will also curate the upcoming edition in summer 2023.
What distinguishes Manifesta among the biennials and periodic shows that opened this year after pandemic postponements is precisely its roving aspect and the customized curatorial framework each edition institutes in its host city. In Prishtina, Manifesta 14 took on the daunting task of “telling stories otherwise” in a country that has undergone profound sociopolitical upheavals and exhibits a distinct paucity of in-depth literature on its art and cultural histories. Conceived by the writer and curator Catherine Nichols, creative mediator for Manifesta 14’s artistic program, the concept and themes of this edition center around collective storytelling as theorized by the feminist scholar Donna Haraway, an approach that invites viewers and participants to reflectively engage with narratives that reclaim public spaces and discourses.

As part of Manifesta’s ongoing endeavor to change the biennial model into something more agentive that responds to its respective localities, as the last two editions in Palermo, Italy, and Marseille, France, sought to do, the fourteenth edition has focused on urban transformation by reviving shuttered venues as exhibition and community-engagement spaces. Manifesta 14’s prioritizing of cultural urban development is evident in Public After All, a publication made in collaboration with the biennial’s creative mediator for urban vision CRA-Carlo Ratti Associati. The book presents the pre-biennial research into the revitalization and reclamation of Prishtina’s public spaces, including not only the venues that host Manifesta 14’s artistic program but also other public commons identified around the city. Importantly, the twenty-five sites in which Manifesta 14 has unfolded since July surface Prishtina’s many histories in their architecture, from the city’s Austro-Hungarian occupation in the nineteenth century to its Yugoslav period of the mid-twentieth and from the violent annexation of Kosovo’s autonomy in the 1990s to the war of independence at the end of that decade and the postwar transition that accelerated the refurbishment and repurposing of buildings so to reimagine the future. Consequently, considering how historically charged most of these venues are with Prishtina’s complex geopolitical history, the forthcoming exhibition catalog necessarily explicates their role in and the connection of the artistic interventions in them to this specific context.

Cevdet Erek, Brutal Times, 2022. Rilindja Press Palace, Prishtina, Manifesta 14, July 22–October 30, 2022. © Cevdet Erek. Photo: Ivan Erofeev. Courtesy Manifesta 14.

Of course, the revitalization of abandoned public spaces is a recurring feature of contemporary art exhibitions that touch down in places that lack the art infrastructure for such events. A multitude of initiatives and projects in Kosovo have themselves independently sustained exhibition and cultural spaces and become pivotal in the fight against state and local authorities by advocating for the potential and cultural significance of such venues. In the case of Manifesta 14, the interventions at Rilindja Press Palace, namely Cevdet Erek’s work, and the Centre for Narrative Practice are prime examples of these civic and cultural engagements. Additionally, the presentations and programming hosted by these venues encourage critical and constructive discussions of Manifesta’s overarching aim to reclaim public spaces and discourses, raising questions about the biennial’s legacy in Prishtina.

Rilindja, meaning “rebirth” or “renaissance,” was the first Albanian newspaper, which began publishing on February 12, 1945. [2]2
The 1975 monograph of Rilindja describes the first edition as “Only a four-page newspaper, arranged by hand (in exactly 72 hours), with old letters and new words that proved our first and great step into freedom ….” (“Vetëm katë faqe gazetë, të radhitura me dorë (për rrafsh 72 dorë), me germa te vjetra e më fjalë te reja, që dëshmonin hapin in tonë të parë e të madh në liri…”). See Ali Sutaj, Rilindja: 1945–1985 (Tekste Për Monografi) (Prishtina: Rilindja, 1985), 17, and Arkitektura e ndërtesave publike në Prishtinë: 1945–1990 (The Architecture of Public Buildings in Prishtina: 1945–1990).
A key agent in knowledge production and dissemination, the newspaper published and involved many cultural agents, intellectuals, and workers, among others, who wrote in Albanian, and as such, Rilindja has played an instrumental role in the study of cultural politics and ideologies in Kosovo during the Yugoslav period. In 1978, the newspaper’s production moved into the Rilindja Press Palace, a building designed by Georgi Konstantinovski that before architectural interventions in 2008 was widely acknowledged as an icon of Yugoslav architecture. Rilindja’s work came to a halt after the fall of Yugoslavia, and the newspaper ultimately ceased production in 2006 after a brief return.

Cevdet Erek, Brutal Times, 2022. Rilindja Press Palace, Prishtina, Manifesta 14, July 22–October 30, 2022. Photo: Hana Halilaj.

The green dots on the street outside the palace, a Manifesta trademark for signaling locations, guide the visitor to enter the rear of the building, which is still unoccupied despite the rest of the palace being leased by public and private entities. Here, an eerie sense of vast emptiness competes with the soundscape that artist and musician Cevdet Erek has produced for his in situ intervention Brutal Times, which engages with the newspaper’s past and animates the collective memory that the building contains. In the work, Erek evokes the necessity and eagerness to comprehend two figuratively and physically distant realities. On the right side of this massive empty warehouse is a rectangular opening in the floor through which the building’s basement can be seen, and in the gloom are projected red beam lights—the kind used in clubs— that travel through the basement while partially inaudible techno music set reverberates from underground. Here, the artist generates an elusive happening that intends to trigger fond memories of the many techno and electronic parties organized in the recent past by the local collective Hapësira in Prishtina, a city known for its young population and electrifying nightlife. [3]3
Michael Lawson, “Rebirth: The Hapësira Collective is Using Techno to Create a New Kosovan Identity,” mixmag, February 2020, .

Drawing from the Rilindja archives, in another corner of the space stands a screen that displays every second the front page of a Rilindja newspaper, with one second standing in for a day in the history the newspaper chronicled. The impossibility of reading a full sentence, catching only glimpses of images and words, resonates with the inaccessibility of Rilindja’s archival materials, objects, and printing machines, which have been lost or displaced in the reckless privatization of its former headquarters. Before privatization, the large printing machines were housed in the now totally emptied spaces where Erek’s work is installed. Covered in dust and with paper rolls still intact, they were obliquely activated and seen only on rare occasions, such as at the parties organized by Hapësira Collective; I vividly recall dancing amid the absolute presence of these massive blue machines that seemed then only a button push away from restarting their work. Hapësira has denounced Rilindja’s liquidation processes administered by the Privatization Agency of Kosovo and the state’s remarkable ineptitude and has called for the cultural heritage of Rilindja to be preserved. Another initiative to save Rilindja is the persistent work and efforts of the writer and researcher Ervina Halili, who has created Rilindja Archive, an ongoing project that makes accessible online selected archival materials from this significant socialist enterprise. [4]4
See Arkivi Rilindja, “Rreth nesh,” .
The numerous issues surrounding Rilindja are auspiciously conveyed in Erek’s work, which in a very subtle and minimal way brings forth the despair its architecture and collective memory have fallen into thanks to systemic neglect, destruction, and privatization. The dissonant temporalities of the music and archival materials suffuse the space and create a sense of yearning and urgency to safeguard these histories, and invite speculation on the preservation of this history through alternative means.

Rilindja Press Palace, Prishtina. Photo: Hana Halilaj.

On the contrary, a similar sense of despair that once permeated the former Hivzi Sylejmani Library has disappeared thanks to a restoration that has transformed the building into the Centre for Narrative Practice (CNP), which, as of now, is the only venue in Prishtina truly reclaimed through Manifesta 14. CNP is characterized by an Austro-Hungarian architectural style dating from the 1930s, which has strikingly survived. To preserve also the institution’s collective memory along with its architecture, Manifesta published in May 2022 the booklet Collective Memory of the (Former)“Hivzi Sylejmani” Library, which presents a qualitative research project conducted by the education and mediation department of Manifesta 14 and the local cultural NGO Foundation Shtatëmbëdhjetë. The publication provides a brief history of the building along with recollections of the library’s workers and members and serves as a testament to the stories that this cultural hub will create and tell in the future.

Since its opening, CNP has been Manifesta’s main venue for its education, community, and public programs—three initiatives that are sorely missed within the local scene. The center is envisioned to serve as a space for open-ended and inventive ways to foster storytelling, with a library for children, a multipurpose workshop, a space for public talks, a garden, and a cafe. The garden is in fact a permanent installation, Change of Nature as a Nature, by the local artist Yll Xhaferi, who revived the abandoned and wild garden of the former library into the kind of garden one encounters in Prishtina’s neighborhoods. Other programming and artistic interventions in the space further explore collective storytelling and feature contributions by Anna Bromley, Genc Kadriu, Ivan Moudov, Sami Mustafa, Speculative Tourism, StoryLab, and Werker Collective. Noteworthy is that the establishment of CNP marks the first time that Manifesta has inaugurated a new institution in one of its host cities, and although there isn’t yet a public plan for CNP’s programming after the biennial’s end on October 30, Manifesta has secured funding and support for the next five years. Such a space is a crucial addition to the current insufficient cultural infrastructure of the city of Prishtina.

Centre for Narrative Practice, Prishtina. Photo: Ivan Erofeev. Courtesy Manifesta 14.

The Rilindja Press Place and CNP epitomize dilapidation and hope. The shifts in their identities, roles, and histories exemplify multiple aspects of the discourse and problems around Kosovo’s cultural politics and public spaces. The condition of these two buildings, among others utilized by Manifesta, is an outcome of the grave neglect of the biennial’s two primary local partners, the Municipality of Prishtina and the Ministry of Culture, Youth, and Sports (MCYS). The current local and governmental authorities are not completely to blame for the poor and corrupt politics of the last twenty years, but they are nevertheless in a position to subvert ineffective policies and implement better cultural politics. Hence, Manifesta has received local backlash regarding the funds it received from these entities, which in the case of Kosovo is the largest amount MCYS has ever allocated for a cultural event. [5]5
“Është nënshkruar marrëveshja e Manifesta 14 që do të mbahet në Prishtinë,” KOHA, May 4, 2019, .
Such a reaction stems from Kosovo’s lack of an art market and its severely underfunded cultural sector, the scant support for which was cut further due to MCYS reallocating some of its budget to Manifesta. [6]6
Shaban Maxharraj, “Ministria e arsyeton zbritjen e buxhetit për projekte kulturore me 700 mijë eurot e “Manifestas,” KOHA, June 25, 2021, .
There has been additional indignation around the biennial’s initial planning due to Manifesta, MCYS, and the Municipality of Prishtina’s bureaucratic and ambiguous language around addressing imperative systemic political issues that will hinder Prishtina’s cultural legacy post-Manifesta. In this regard, the curator Okwui Enwezor’s critique of Manifesta remains timely: “every goal Manifesta articulates eerily echoes the kind of vapid bureaucrat speak that characterizes Brussels’s communication strategy.” [7]7
Okwui Enwezor, “Tebbit’s Ghost: Migration and the Conundrum of Belonging,” in When Home Won’t Let You Stay: Migration through Contemporary Art, eds. Eva Respini and Ruth Erickson (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press; Boston: Institute of Contemporary Art, 2019), 16–27.
In Kosovo, the bureaucratic European rhetoric is particularly aggravating and incessant due to the geopolitical situation that the country finds itself in after independence in 2008 with the ongoing negotiations at the European Union, which has not yet granted Kosovans visa liberalization. The freedom of movement—addressed in some of the works included in Manifesta’s exhibition—was initially elided in Manifesta’s official communications and only articulated later on, distinctly so in the opening speech by Manifesta officials and local politicians. However, it is notable that Manifesta 14 was organized at all, given the pandemic and two changes in both Kosovo’s and Prishtina’s governments, which delayed many developments and implementation processes as the biennial has operated in close coordination with state institutions.

Perhaps two, five, or ten years from now there will be a clear answer to the opening question of this text. Manifesta 14 has been a unique opportunity for Kosovo to gain greater visibility within the global art scene, amplify local voices, identify ruptures in the existing system, and produce alternative and sustainable structures that further build and support the visual arts. As of now, Manifesta has successfully reactivated the liveliness and vibrancy of Prishtina’s cultural landscape, ignited debates, and raised critical questions regarding the city’s public spaces, histories, and the role of arts and culture amid constant social and political flux. It has also signaled the need for a critical approach and assessment of the city’s cultural scene and the urgency of writing and reconfiguring our stories. It is now essential to ask what story relates to the “otherwise” narratives we want to tell. The exclusion and struggles of the local cultural scene in the past (and present) have restrained it from entering into a symbiotic relationship. Thus, continuing ahead, Kosovo must employ the biennial’s methodology and “learn and unlearn” from Manifesta itself. [8]8
Hedwig Fijen, “Manifesta 14: Prishtina Who Owns the City,” in Public After All, ed. CRA- Carlo Ratti Associati (Prishtinea: Manifesta 14, 2022), 25–33.

Hana Halilaj is a curator and researcher. She has curated exhibitions including “An Archive in the Attic : Informator on the National Gallery of Kosovo,” National Gallery of Kosovo, Prishtina, 2022; “Informator,” Hessel Museum of Art, Annandale-on-Hudson, New York; “Alije Vokshi: I Decided to Draw Bigger Hands,” Chert Lüdde, Berlin, 2021; and “Public Heros and Secrets,” National Museum of Kosovo, Prishtina, 2020. Halilaj previously held curatorial positions at Kunsthalle Portikus, Frankfurt, and Storefront for Art and Architecture, New York, and contributed research to C-MAP program at the Museum of Modern Art. She is a graduate of the MA program at the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College.

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