Street Art in Tirana: A Commons?

Originally published here.

In a study on the value of street art as cultural and urban commons, Patrick Wade McInnis chose two main references to street art to begin to describe why uncommissioned works hold importance for the communities they belong to (McInnis, 2016). The value of ‘illegality’ was acknowledged through the definition of graffiti researcher Cedar Lewisohn, and through a statement from Isis Brook:

‘The best street art and graffiti are illegal. This is because the illegal works have political and ethical connotations that are lost in sanctioned works’. (Lewisohn, 2008)

‘The illegal nature of the work is what gives it an edge, and it is this edge that makes some work effective in reflecting and commenting on the urban context in which it is found’. (Brook, 2007)

Public spaces are used for citizens to exercise democratic rights, and their management first and foremost should be centred around the needs of the people. A sound approach to these spaces would ensure that the community is consulted and participates in important decisions that will impact on them. Urban commons are public spaces that are more specifically in the ownership of communities- so in a way, the ownership of such places rests with the community itself, whether formally or informally. In recent years urban commons and public spaces have been threatened by enclosure, namely through the transfer of a focus and ownership from the public to private residents/businesses. Urban commons do not necessarily refer to land, or buildings, they can also be manifested through knowledge or culture for example open source technologies and innovation or collaborative public art projects initiated by individuals or entire communities. It is within the context of public spaces and the right of communities to make decisions on their present and future, and own such spaces and processes that we talk about urban commons. At the same time, street art, uncommissioned and often anonymous, is created for the public and communities that will see it, perhaps in order to ‘enchant’ and give them the ownership over it. John Powell writes that:

street art is very much local art, contributing to and expressing an opinion about the urban space we share; there is no doubt that street art has the power to transform some of the most brutish urban infrastructure imposed on local neighbourhoods into something more human.

In his reflection on the value of street art, where he details that the question of ownership of uncommissioned, anonymous art, he introduces the idea that despite technically such works belong to a local council in the case of placement on public building, or individuals in the case of private property, street art is very much some form of public good, belonging to everyone, and part of the common pool resources of a city.

 

Legislated vs Uncommissioned Cities – as Analysed by Alison Young

In Cities in the City: Street Art, Enchantment, and the Urban Commons, Alison Young analyses the parallel between legislated and uncommissioned cities, and how street art ‘enchants’ citizens, allowing them to identify that other cities exist, perhaps surprisingly, within the regulated city. In what is considered to be a key analysis on urban commons and street art the author (Young: 2014) defines the legislated city as one of order, strategy, policy, heavily dependent on rules and regulations. This in theory should lead to a functional city, kept in control by avoiding unruliness. The smooth operation of the city was challenged when graffiti started to appear, disrupting tidy environments. Later on, street art appeared as a genre, and it was in its original shape, uncommissioned, with images appearing without permission on public or private property. These artworks presented a challenge to those who were pursuing a strategic image of a particular city. Uncommissioned street art was and continues to be regarded as an illegal endeavour, vandalism, and act of destruction again private property. But street art can be defined as enchanting, whether in a positive or negative way:

‘When coming across an anonymous piece of street art, I always get a certain surge of excitement, finding something new that I do not have any proof anyone else has seen. Without the artist’s identity, the work seems mysterious as if it just appeared there by itself. As a frequent museum and art gallery goer where the work is so connected to identity, viewing anonymous street art is an almost freeing experience.’ (Emily Colucci)

In the legislated city, where the emphasis is placed on smooth, uninterrupted transitions between one point to the other, the enchantment of street art therefore provides unintended stops which make residents interrupt their journey to consider, think about an image, and to imagine another way of being in that space or environment. It leads to an element of surprise, a disruption from own thoughts or concerns and the placement of individuals into the imagination of another. The enchantment need not be accompanied by a sense of pleasure, on the contrary, some can feel anger, or disapproval. Young further writes that:

Whether accompanied by delight or anger, enchantment marks the moment in which the citizen of the legislated city notices the existence of other ways of being in the city indeed, the existence of other cities and their inhabitants,

and further explains how these citizens of uncommissioned cities do not think of their work and contribution as criminal:

They do it “to have a connection to the city” (Just, Berlin); “to take part in a conversation” (Ghostpatrol, Melbourne), to make the city “better than it is right now (Jordan, New York), and to show, as Swoon in New York said, that the walls are the commons.”

 

Tirana’s Urban Context: Illegality in the ‘Legislated’ and Uncommissioned Cities.

The term ‘illegal’ brings an interesting and perhaps particular dimension to street art in the Albanian capital of Tirana, as for the past twenty years, this notion is almost a norm rather than an exception for various other elements of urban life.

When mass demographic changes started to occur in the nineties, people from all over Albania moved to the capital and communities from rural areas took over plots of land, seen as belonging to everyone/common property, and began building settlements, in an ad-hoc way, and leading to an unregulated and therefore illegal transformation of the city scape. Even though this occurred right after the fall of the communist regime, it is still giving headaches to those who now manage the ‘legislated’ city. Whereas this happened mostly in the suburbs of the city, the more central areas of the capital also gradually suffered from an ‘occupation of public space’.

This occupation has three important dimensions: one results from high rates of poverty, and street vendors taking space from the city’s pavements to sell whatever they can in order to make income and in some cases, support entire families: fruit, vegetables, cigarettes, flowers, whatever one could provide was laid down on the city’s streets in order to attract potential buyers. A lack of even economic development, a culture of informality, low salaries, and a lack of social security are among the factors which led to this.

The second dimension, also took place gradually, namely that private home owners or private businesses found ways to extend their own or rented property into the public space.

In recent years, the local government has sought to crack down on these two informal practices, though this leads us to another, third dimension of a controversial reduction of public space, sometimes legal, sometimes not, or simply too ambiguous or secretive to understand, though nonetheless, facing serious criticism; the government itself, while planning a ‘better’ transformation of the urban landscape, is teaming up with mostly powerful business owners in developing private-public partnerships: this implies that prime public land, usually either located in central areas, or good neighbourhoods (sometimes even parks), will be given to investors, in exchange for some small renovations of existing buildings or schools, or in the controversial debate of Tirana’s national theatre- completely demolishing the Italian heritage site, and building a new, modern museum, though smaller, so that the investor gets some of the space of the current building for their own needs. Thus the government itself is complicit in the reduction of public space whether this being done through legal or illegal ways.

 

The Stark Difference Between Commissioned and Uncommissioned Street art in Tirana

When Edi Rama became mayor of Tirana (current PM), he decided that a lick of paint in colourful shades would brighten up the gloomy, concrete landscape of the city, which bared a striking resemblance to its communist past. So buildings around the city gained new multi coloured facades, and sometimes even with curious patterns. Current mayor, Erion Veliaj, continued the tradition of beautification of the city, and to this end, commissioned street art played a role. Again, the idea of bright colours and patterns is present, but also various works that apart from being colourful, share little with the history and present life of the city, giving a feeling that Tirana looks pretty in pink, and generally, serving an aesthetic purpose. The emphasis on Tirana’s aesthetic looks, though praised by many as progress or development, has to be taken with a grain of salt, as while this constantly evolves, the paint and renovation is decaying, critical infrastructure is not prioritised, and while the current local government has made children a ‘priority’, Albania has the worst children’s rights in the Balkans, and scores very low on the world scale.

While the public efforts to foster street art particularly focus on making the city ‘pretty’, the illegal ‘vandals’, citizens of the uncommissioned city that paint the town, here mainly refering to the underground street art group named CETA, use the city’s walls to express political or social messages, in line with the past and present identity of the city, its people, and drawing attention to the many struggles that residents still face, in a way, unveiling a crucial reality, masked by colours. These illegal works focus on traditional class issues (i.e oligarchs and neoliberalism vs the majority), abuses of human rights present throughout the Albanian society, extremely uneven income distribution, grievances of the population, solidarity with the victims of the city and country’s governance.

The radical messages behind the stencils expose life and the meaning of political actions in a way in which it would never be commissioned or part of the official strategy and activities to ‘foster arts’ in the capital. The artists themselves are in strict opposition to keeping the culture and arts in the city ‘politically neutral’ or completely uncritical of the power structures. The essence of this work is not to please the visual senses of passers-by necessarily, but to provoke thoughtful consideration of issues of governance and social justice, in this way, the uncommissioned city of Tirana in itself an illegal act of (artistic) expression, is ironically also an exercise of the democratic right to freedom of expression, which uses both public spaces and private walls that enclose public areas to participate in a debate on the political malfunctions or the vices of the political classes. With an increasing captured media and shrinking public space, the walls are used to provide alternative viewpoints on the current state of affairs in Albania, and are particularly aimed at opposing the strong neoliberal values of the political leaders.

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