Interview with ÇETA Art Collective

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In the spring of 2016, a group of students, artists and activists began to discuss the formation of a collective to oppose the hegemonic structures of capitalist, neo-liberal politics and economics in contemporary Albania. From these discussions, a group of street artists — individually anonymous but known collectively as ÇETA — emerged. The group is made up of members of various ages and backgrounds: designers, political scientists, architects, artists and physicists. Different members carry out the design and execution of individual works at different times, according to the needs of the group and their commitments to other forms of political action in a given period.

 

ÇETA’s wheat pastes and stencils evidence the presence of a true dissident artistic movement in the capital of Tirana, a movement that refuses to cooperate with the dominant political parties in the country and, at the same time, rejects the ideological neutrality that frequently characterises the Albanian contemporary art scene. ÇETA’s works draw attention to the political systems that exploit the poor, the working classes and minority communities, as well as the forms of rhetoric that obscure the plight of these groups in the name of socioeconomic progress and European integration.

 

ÇETA’s actions and interventions push back against the growing spectacle of prosperity in Albania, against official narratives proclaiming that the Albanian people are satisfied with their lives, their surroundings and their government. The former mayor of Tirana (Edi Rama) began a campaign aimed at “beautifying” the city by a variety of means, including commissioning works of street art. In reaction to this spectacle, ÇETA has sought to turn the walls of Tirana back against the political elites that continue to privatise the city and exploit its citizens. An interview with several anonymous members of the art collective (a ÇETA profile written by American academic Raino Eeto Isto you can find here):

 

“In Albania, ÇETA is the word used to describe the anti-fascist guerrilla units active in the Balkans during the Second World War. Like those soldiers, our group is modest in size, and we have mobilised in response to a particular situation. After the initial discussions about the creation of the group, we held a few workshops regarding possible collaborations and actions. At the same time, we were all still engaged in activities related to other causes: public transportation, the controversy surrounding constructions in the park by Tirana’s artificial lake, issues related to the university, and protests against neo-liberal politics in higher education. We finalised the idea for the group in March, decided on the name and the logo, and held discussions about what the group’s first actions would be. 

 

“ÇETA tries to break the neo-liberal hegemony.”

 

ÇETA is somewhere in Tirana and is a group of people with different backgrounds. We don’t use our names, but I can tell you some of us are students of Political Science, History, Physics and Design. We have different profiles and met each other because we engaged in several activities that critiqued policies of the government or the municipality of Tirana. That’s why we got in touch with each other and eventually formed ÇETA Art Collective. ÇETA tries to break the neo-liberal hegemony.

 

Our first work was Vojo Kushi is Still Alive, in which you see Albanian folk hero Vojo Kushi standing on top of a Jaguar. It’s based on an old oil painting by Sali Shijaku. Vojo Kushi was a partisan guerrilla remembered for his heroic death. When he and several other partisans were surrounded by Italian fascist forces in Tirana in 1942, Kushi ran out and leapt on a tank, hurling a grenade into it before being killed by enemy fire. In the ÇETA version, the tank became a Jaguar. It’s not just a critique of rich people oppressing poor people, but a critique of one of the first decision Prime Minister Edi Rama made when he took office. All the members of his cabinet would get new Jaguars. So the number plate on the Jaguar in this piece is that of the Prime Minister’s car. It’s a detail not everyone notices, but the Jaguar gets the message across. This first work was well received.

 

Our second piece shows a 69-year old lady selling vegetables. She became famous because the new mayor came with a rule that people selling on the streets would be severely fined, supposedly because they were considered to be the ones responsible for filth in the city. The story of the woman blew up on social media and the mayor decided to visit her and pay her fine. However, the law didn’t change. “A photo of Zylja standing near her produce while the municipal police issued her the ticket was widely circulated on the Internet immediately after the incident, and we used that photo as the basis of our image.” (as said by Raino Isto) The quote on the sticker is “Don’t buy carrots, buy dynamite”, taken from the Mexican movie Yo Soy la RevoluciónIn the movie, a revolutionary gives a bag of gold to a beggar with the message “Do not buy bread, buy dynamite”. Someone in the neighbourhood removed the piece the same day. It’s not that we are calling for people to buy dynamite. It’s a warning as to what might happen if society lets these people be fined for trying to survive. It’s a warning that this kind of policy is a gateway to extreme acts of violence, as illustrated in Yo Soy la Revolución. Violence is not only represented by the dynamite, but also by the everyday repression.

 

“We want our political views to be communicated in the best way possible. The lack of the textual explanation inhibited us to get across the nuanced message we intended.”

 

The third piece is still in the street, but it’s damaged. It’s a worker smashing an ATM machine. After this third piece we decided to add text to the following pieces, to explain to an extent what they mean. We wanted to give our perspective on the image. For example, the second piece was interpreted by some as a call for terrorism. We decided to explain our point of view more clearly, so people with the intention to make us out to be some kind of violent, malicious group, don’t get the freedom to do so. We want our political views to be communicated in the best way possible. The lack of the textual explanation inhibited us to get across the nuanced message we intended.

 

It seems that whenever things happen in Albania, everyone tries to immediately discover which individuals are behind it, and to investigate them personally, without paying as much attention to what they did. For us, the identification as a group is a way of emphasising the importance of the act itself, rather than the people behind it. The people could be anyone; we are replaceable. The act, the art—what we do is what remains. The idea is for people to pay attention to that, and not to the individuals who created it, since what we are trying to draw attention to things about everyday life here, situations that everyone faces. For that reason, we have decided to remain anonymous. And to avoid getting fined! That’s the primary reason, if we’re being honest.” (as said by Raino Isto) Our Facebook page and simple website serve the purpose of communicating with the world and other political and artistic players.

 

The first pieces were made in a large format and painted with stencils. Later we turned to stickers. We wanted to share the work with people and have the opportunity to easily spread them out over the city. “In fact, we’ve thought about taking some of the most iconic works we’ve done—Vojo Kushi, Grandma Zylja, the one with George Soros (Lecture on Punishment)]—and printing them out as smaller stickers to put up on signs and walls around the city, as another way to spread our message.” (as said by Raino Isto)

 

Another piece we made was an ironic critique of the American visa lottery. 200.000 Albanians entered this lottery to win the opportunity to go live in the United States. On the day of the lottery, the nation was in panic because of an error message that said the servers were too busy. This poignantly illustrates the attitude towards politics of young people in Albania. They will leave if they get the opportunity.

 

“Change has to come from grass roots organisations.”

 

We have hope. If not, we would have left already. We have found hope in each other and in this collective that we are trying to build on. But we don’t have hope in political institutions. Change has to come from grass roots organisations.

 

The creation process for our pieces differs for every situation. We use a Facebook group to organise this. Anyone can come with the idea, but still it’s really important to have unanimity across all ten to twelve members. When we decide to execute an idea, we appoint one coordinator and divide the tasks among the members who are available at the moment. Some work on the text, some work on the visuals, some go stick the stickers.

 

“The majority of the works we’ve done could have been put up anywhere in the city; it’s not like Tirana has extremely clear-cut divisions between different neighbourhoods. It’s starting to change, but we still haven’t reached that phase of urbanisation. That’s, in part, because all the layers of society, all the social classes, live here, in a territory that’s quite small. Any of the works we’ve created could function almost anywhere in Tirana. With the exception of a few, like Grandma Zylja, which is sited in the specific location where the police wrote her the fine, they are meant to be universal images.” (as said by Raino Isto)

 

“After two months, a seventeen-year-old boy died in the landfill during the night shift. […] A truck driver was arrested, the government didn’t address the child labour, nor did the media cover it.”

 

There is actually an example of a project that resulted in a tangible change: there is a landfill outside of the city, where all the garbage of the city is taken. When it was opened, the mayor made a call for people to go and work there. It was promised to be safe and everyone would be insured. After two months, a seventeen-year-old boy died in the landfill during the night shift. He was a minor so he was not supposed to work there and wasn’t registered. He worked there to save up to buy clothes and books to start school. His body was hidden and his family went looking for him. His father was a police officer. A truck driver was arrested, the government didn’t address the child labour, nor did the media cover it. After this incident, rumours arose that Roma people were being forced to work there in order to be allowed to stay in the area.

 

These stories weren’t covered in mainstream media either. A journalist that tried to cover it and got fired. Another group of journalists found out there had been another dead in the landfill, but they weren’t allowed to publish their report. It was only when the stories leaked on social media, that the mainstream media published it. ÇETA came up with a stencil of the face of the young boy with the text “Censored”. We weren’t sure if it would be okay to use the face of a minor and didn’t know if we should put the stencils on garbage cans. We went ahead with the face of the boy, but put the stencil on locations throughout the city, mainly in the neighbourhood where the boy grew up and near the municipal buildings. In addition to the specific landfill context, the piece was meant to address the structural corruption of institutions trying to cover up these stories by silencing media. It is one of the most important works that we have made. In some neighbourhoods, the stencils were erased the same night they were put up.

 

“The Prime Minister appears to be proud that there are no social rights in Albania: the Promised Land for private investors.”

 

Capitalism seems to be a red thread running through our works. Capitalism mutated into neo-liberalism. That’s the term we use. We address this topic mostly in our work. The repression of the woman selling her vegetables illustrates market regulation, the business cars of the cabinet members illustrate the link of power and riches and the man smashing the ATM can be seen as a direct attack on banking systems. We recycled a famous Mussolini stencil, which was used in the period between 1939-1943. We removed “Il Duce” and added “P P P” (Public Private Partnership). During the Mussolini regime there was this flirtation between the regime and corporations. That is what we refer to. There is a similar authoritarian regime nowadays. Not publicly, but behind the scenes within the party and the government. There is a very hierarchical structure in government. The ‘P P P’ refers to the way in which the government treats private investors. They are invited to Albania, according to ÇETA in the mind-set of: “We have slaves, so…” The Prime Minister appears to be proud that there are no social rights in Albania: the Promised Land for private investors. Chrome and other natural resources are claimed by private institutions. Chrome used in Jaguars, for example. In this regard, the Balkans are a kind of modern colonies of the West. This idolisation of public-private partnerships is—to us—the most exemplary form of fascism you can imagine. I remember Mussolini once said: “Perfect fascism will only be achieved when there is a marriage between the corporation and the state.” The way that Rama is applying this type of politico-economic policy corresponds precisely to this fascist desire for a corporate state.

 

“Important: as ÇETA, we don’t label ourselves politically because we are a group of people who have different opinions.”

 

We talk about the evolution of capitalism to neo-liberalism and from an industrial society to a post-industrial society, but we still call each other comrades, in the style of Marx. Not all of us remain to Marx’ theories, though. We try to stay updated with philosophy and ideology. We label ourselves only as leftists, since there are simply no other leftist parties or organisations. For example, in Greece you have anarchists, Stalinists, Trotskyists, social democrats. You have any kind of leftists. In Albania, the label leftist is already very distinctive. Important: as ÇETA, we don’t label ourselves politically because we are a group of people who have different opinions. We know what we are not. So we know we are anti-capitalist, anti-Stalinist and we are against privatisation. But in nuance some of us are social democrats, some are Marxists, some are anarchists, but we discuss this only theoretically because we have to make practical decisions.

 

We are definitely interested in shared experiences on a European level. We did a project once with Tirana Art Lab in which we worked with Greek artist and researcher Georgia Kotretsos and Albanian artist Pleurad Xhafa. The project was called ‘Triple Feature #5‘ and was dedicated to the intersection between art and activism, art activism and the extended role of the artist as an engaged citizen trying to make a change not only inside the art system but also outside it, in real life. Athens is a city that excites us. We have much to learn from their experience with grassroots organisation, community spaces, occupations and so on.

 

We would like to act outside of Tirana but there is no money to do that. We are part-time street artists. “ÇETA isn’t just about Tirana. The group started as a way to resist neoliberal politics, and those politics are something that affects rural zones as much as urban ones. It’s not just a problem in the capital. ÇETA’s messages are more general; they aren’t just about narrow, specific issues. If we install the works in particular places, it’s usually because those are the places where the works will attract the most attention or create the most controversy.” (as said by Raino Isto)

 

One of our other works is a frame from a movie about the period of the Italian invasion. It shows two pupils in an orphanage slapping each other, with a collaborator standing over them. The man punished the boys, who were friends, but who had an argument, by making them slap each other. In the ÇETA version, the man becomes Hungarian-American investor George Soros. He stands for all oligarchs entering Albania and influencing local policy. The two boys stand for political parties facing off against each other, always inferior to and aware of the private players standing over them.

 

“We hope[…] to confront the municipality’s use of street art as a tool of beautification.”

 

The work also refers to the neo-liberal use of art in Tirana’s public space. “The Tirana municipality, which has started to use street art as a means to beautify the city, to present an image of the city as happy, to show people how beautiful it is to live in Tirana. They want to show how much life in Tirana has changed for the better since the election of the new Socialist Party mayor Erion Veliaj in 2015. To do this, the municipality has started using street artists to create these big colourful, joyful images in public spaces, these strictly aestheticising images.” (as said by Raino Isto) But even with our previous works, we hoped to confront the municipality’s use of street art as a tool of beautification.

 

In addition, the mayor of Tirana has passed a law that outlaws unsanctioned street art or graffiti. So what we do is illegal and we can be arrested and fined for these artistic activities. This way the municipality perverts the idea of street art. “The problem is that the municipality has manipulated this idea of street art, because true street art wasn’t born as just the aestheticisation of walls in the city or façades of what have you. It’s a form of art, and it carries a message, primarily a political or social message. It’s not just aesthetics; it’s a form of resistance. Here in Albania, people don’t understand street art; they see it as either vandalism or as a way to aestheticise things. If you try to use street art to convey a message that goes beyond pure aesthetics, then people start to complain that you are bringing up politics. People here conceptualise art, as something that exists only for the sake of beauty itself. And that’s not what street art is about, as far as I understand it.” (as said by Raino Isto)

 

“In Albania, to some extent some civil society organisations are sponsored by the state. They don’t want to lose their money, so they act in a politically correct way. “

 

In Albania, to some extent some civil society organisations are sponsored by the state. They don’t want to lose their money, so they act in a politically correct way. But small organisations have to look for money elsewhere. Often money comes from outside of Albania. For example, a Swedish foundation funds the student newspaper of some of the ÇETA members. The funds were pulled when a manifestation got a little too critical of policy. This Swedish fund also supports the Youth for Socialists Party. The students received a little slice of these funds.

 

One of our last works is based on an old Realist painting by Kolë Idromeno, used for a contemporary problem: “Good morning, sir. I am sister Tone (Motra Tone). I am calling from Albania. We have a fantastic offer for you.” Call-centres (mostly Italian companies) form a new sector in Albania and the Realist painting was one of the first of a new Realist type of painting. This new sector provides a lot of jobs for young people, but there is a lot of job exploitation. They don’t pay well, the contracts aren’t up to any standard. They pay better for extra hours. Workers have headaches, hearing problems and experience a lot of pressure from supervisors. Motra Tone shows a nipple, because people are undressed from their dignity and have no way to address their issues.

 

Those images are strong and multi-layered and therefor prove to be difficult for a lot of people sometimes. This is one of the issues that come up during discussions of all new projects. People that see these in the street don’t have immediate access to our communication on Facebook, which provides the necessary references and insight. But even if the images can scratch the consciousness of passers-by to raise questions, that means something. Activating thought is definitely a legitimate goal, but the extra information on Facebook is necessary to create a public debate and to communicate with other artists.

 

“ÇETA works side by side with other critical bodies that try to form a unified front.”

 

There is no street art in Tirana besides us. With the exception of sanctioned, beautifying street art. We are the only ones trying to communicate through art in a critical way. We guess ÇETA is an art collective, but it’s hard to influence decision making through images. ÇETA works side by side with other critical bodies that try to form a unified front. ÇETA scratches the surface with images, other leftist organisations investigate and report on the issues. Power is being centralised and most parts of society are starting to criticise this, however.”

 

Something that is unfortunate is the general lack of other street artists in Albania—I mean, I haven’t seen many, and I would have liked to see more. Imagine in the year 2016, with all of the social and political changes occurring in Albania, to have no reaction from the artistic community! Visual artists, singers, actors—they are all extremely indifferent to the political situation here. It’s a mistake, this idea they have that “oh, art is independent of politics; art should stay away from politics; why do we artists need to worry about politics?” But, if art doesn’t draw its inspiration from its social surroundings, from where is art supposed to draw? That’s where all countercultural movements—breakdancing or what have you—got their inspiration. Maybe during the period of modernization, people linked inspiration with the subconscious and so forth, but that’s not the situation anymore. Everything is dialectical, and you have to think about the political situation.” (as said by Raino Isto)

Interview by Sam David
Photos by Sam David