It happened very fast. I remember I was presenting at a residence program in the beginning of March in Split, Croatia. At the airport and on buses there I saw people with masks, I felt some sort of indignation towards people with masks. The pandemic was in the air in Europe. As soon as I was back in Kosovo, soon enough the lockdown happened. Maybe since I have the experience of war, it reminded me very much of war. There was a big truth hiding behind the door. I tried to not take it very seriously, but as the saying goes, “It came, it hit you straight in the face.”
I remember that in the first few days, just like other people’s experiences, there was a euphoria mixed with fear, the fear that people are not capable of managing this situation. One of the works I produced those first few days is a little inspired by Dan Perjovschi. Dan is my virtual friend on Facebook, and I think he cuts reality with a knife of a sushi maestro. And he said, “If you can’t get out, get in.” If there is any platform of the pandemic that you can use, that seems like a very smart, Buddist and humane platform, is this.
I remember a work I did where you can see a head from the back and it says, “Everything is already here.” I experienced it that way. Actually, it seemed to me that a lot of feelings that I didn’t let out I was able to channel and go inside of myself. I didn’t experience the pandemic as a punishment, as a sentence, but I experienced it as an experiment with the psyche and with the human ability to manage this situation.
In a way, I would often find myself, my wife Blerta and children in situations similar to Roberto Benigni in La Vita è Bella [Life is Beautiful]. Even though we couldn’t go out, we would often see a rainbow in Pristina. We often believed in something that was unbelievable because we were stuck in our apartment in Arbëri. The problem we had, Blerta and I had to deal with a six—year—old child and a three—year—old child 24 hours a day. The biggest pressure was the rhythm of the day.
The human discovery that we call kindergarten, we no longer had. A corner in the balcony with some wide pillows, one of those days we turned into a house for them, a house in the open air of the balcony. I built a structure that is very similar to Stonehenge. Hera, my daughter, asked me to build the same structure every day. I remember we played with tiles inside, we built garages for Leka, for the three hundred cars he has.
During the pandemic, I would go out every four, five days to Viva Fresh shop and I would buy A0 paper, colored paper, glue, paper glue, and we made collages. This is a series of work which I produced. This was one of the moments I would highlight and was happening constantly. I made collages, Leka made collages, Hera colored, Blerta helped us.
I remember the stress about flour in the beginning, stressing out whether, “Will we have flour, or won’t we?” The question was, “Flour or not?” The parallel between flour and toilet paper. Maybe our concerts were so different, because people in Western Europe haven’t experienced war recently.
I used the lockdown as a platform to read and research. I always try to pull apart, but also reject and question the way something is projected onto me. In this case, I remember very, very well that I fell into a very big trap of Albanian television programming. Of course, there was tension between me and Blerta due to being together 24 hours a day, but also because I would watch the idiocy of local analysts nonstop.
In the political sphere, I remember very well when the fall of the Kurti Government took place. I was drinking tea and I felt, I don’t know, like there was nothing left, just to put the tea on my head and tie my hands. It was a ship that obviously was going to hit the iceberg, but the problem was that there was no more time, there was no angle to turn the wheel of the ship to change the course, there was nothing! It was obvious, but it was tragic, and it was a tragedy that I saw on the horizon. As a citizen, there wasn’t much you could do, but, in a way, this best described the greed and politics.
Two things happened that I was fighting for jazz. I fought for jazz because jazz was some kind of an absurd theater that I wanted. I didn’t want to burden myself with the realistic theater that was happening outside, the design of propaganda machines which worked at full capacity. We were connected to the internet, connected to a certain kind of category of online news portals, in a way, you were connected and guided. Since I wasn’t in Sweden, I would watch news of my country. Now I know the level of accuracy and truthfulness of the news in my country in most cases.
I noticed that we were in some kind of bubble, that even the smallest event would affect me and my daily mood, but also the idea where we are going, what is happening. Now for me, Miles Davis, John Coltrane and co. helped me a lot, a lot to create a distanciation effect, enough to see where the hell are we and what is happening.
To describe in simple terms, perhaps in theater theory, this kind of theater that was going on outside went from Shakespeare’s tragedy—comedies to Beckett’s total abstraction. I couldn’t handle it. Perhaps you stretch, stretch and stretch the capacity of the human mind but, at some point, you see three walls folded one after the other. Simply, it becomes something inconceivable. And, at some point, I started burning all this trash with jazz, which helped me a lot.
When I’m at a gathering, in groups or public discussions, I usually don’t ask many questions in public, but I turn these questions to myself. Now those are always some kind of endless conversations that I have with myself. Maybe this is the fuel I try to burn. But always trying to decipher the internal family situations as well, positioning my thoughts in this kind of reality. Sometimes while trying to give definitions of what I think, but always having a wire connected to myself, not trying to talk on behalf of others.
There are two things that are interesting and connected to the lockdown during the pandemic; the ritual of producing new work has completely changed. At the time, I didn’t have the luxury of coming to the studio, but what did I do? After four o’clock, after lunch, I locked myself in the closet and the children at that time were asleep. I took a loudspeaker and played music. I took a scalpel, a pair of scissors and made collages, until then I had never made collages. I know that the work I produced isn’t similar to my other works, I cannot judge at the artistic level, but they’re some sort of a diary. One hundred days in fifteen A0 papers, which for me is enough.
First, I can’t call myself a poet, I can’t call myself a prose writer, but when a thought goes on in my head all day or for a long time, I try to encapsulate it in two or three words. Second, I don’t work just to be a part of the artistic movement, or tell others, “Hey, look at what I’m doing.” No one has seen this work, except for the gallery that represents me now. I don’t know if they’re good, I don’t know if they’re bad, but I know they will become good as time passes, because they’re an archive of an important process. Nothing more.
The fear that comes with the virtual world. The public is where we are, in one way or another, but what we lack today is that work is produced in physical space, and if they’re not experienced in physical space, the public cannot see how imperfect they are. When you see them presented, when you see those imperfections, it gives you the feeling of time and human condition that is not visible. I think that is very important and it is seen in many, many other artists, I mean world artists. When you see their work online, it doesn’t give you any sort of feeling, but when you see the work in person you say, “Wow.”
One of the artists that I can think of is the German artist, Olaf Metzel, when you see his work on the internet, it doesn’t give you any feelings, but when you meet him and you see his work in person, I was in another condition, “Wooow!” It gave me a completely different approach from what I thought about him, and this is the fear of the virtual world for me. A general fear, not just for my judgment and for my work. I think human connection is one of the most holy things that God or nature
gave us, and that we achieved so much on technological discoveries today, that we have almost ruined this too.
I did a work where I wrote, “My nature is against nature.” Human nature has turned against nature. I think this might be the arrow stuck in all of our heels. It is very painful, because I think there’s no poetry anymore, everything migrated online. Sometimes I miss that schedule when they cut out electricity, the electricity reductions, because the social and family network was more sincere.
I don’t understand what exactly is happening. This semi—pandemic moment, it’s some kind of semi—lockdown. This semi—lockdown is the worst, and very similar to being in prison. But, going out of the prison, the authorities say, “Two more days. Three more days.” It isn’t understandable anymore. All this heterotopia turns into a certain liquidity of perception of realities. I think these restrictions on freedom of movement are very dangerous for the psychological aspect of humans. Some darkness to our eyes, that I know is a consequence of post—lockdown, but I don’t know how it can be treated.
My mind is simply saying, “Don’t go back to isolation, don’t get blocked again because you finished your time in prison, move forward!” Even the fear from the virus has started to decrease, just so there’s no need to go into lockdown for another one hundred days. I can’t handle it anymore! I’ve started to think that if I get infected, my antibodies will be enough and I will survive, if not… It’s something that I believe in the next ten years one hundred percent of the human population will get infected. So, it’s a matter of time. I’ve started to think that it’s better to be done with it, than wait.
Of course, I fear the level of our reasoning. The sentence, “What will be will be…!” When the sentence starts with, “What will…” I know what it means. Now this, “What will…” I fear, not other things. And, of course, that I would fear someone close to me passing away because of these stupid gatherings. Living in such a society is very hard to think rationally, because oftentimes we think instinctively and think more about a family gathering or a wedding rather than thinking of the health of those one hundred, two hundred people.
Online lectures were painful, very painful, and this is one of the reasons why I don’t want to be active online, because I had to be in front of students every week, to lecture, to give them homework, to keep them engaged online. I mean, depressed the whole time. I felt, and I still feel that my children aren’t ready for their parents to spend a part of the day being virtually present while being physically with them, not being there. So, I am sitting near you in the kitchen, but don’t bother me.
After a while, I started looking for corners where I can hide in the house. Simply, it didn’t work, because children aren’t capable of understanding professional life when you’re home. When I’m home, I’m a father and I am the one who helps them with their games and everything. The idea that I wasn’t present for them, but I was a professor, a lecturer for a university, again created some kind of absurd theater. Often there was unnecessary anger and stress that can’t be repaid with anything. This is something that still hurts me.
As for the current condition of the arts in Kosovo, knowing the history of how culture survived and developed here, if there isn’t any support, artists always found a way to exhibit their work. This is one of the most important aspects that the art scene in Kosovo has, and it is written on our forehead. It’s similar to one of my works, “When I don’t see anything, I have to imagine something.” Of course, I expect the central government to take it more seriously, because I think that Kosovo proudly represents its art scene, and it’s something that makes Kosovo known in the international arena. This should be acknowledged once and for all, and it should be offered more support.
For me, this isn’t something that should be a topic every four years during elections, but it has to be a long—term strategy of the government. “This rail and this train won’t stop. Let this train move forward. It’s fine if you can build more rails, but have in mind this takes us from point A to point B.” This is difficult for me to understand because there is a lack of long—term planning in many important sectors of the state, like health or education. It’s not surprising that the culture sector is left on the last wagon of the train.
Starting from myself, everything I’ve done, whatever I do, I am still very exposed and there aren’t any contours around me that provide some kind of financial security, to at least offer some kind of vision but also a trajectory which you can follow as a contemporary artist. If you list yourself as an artist, you are simply very exposed to insecurity, you have no kind of security.
Next year, there are two very important exhibitions for me. There’s an exhibition in February of 2021, maybe one of the most important exhibitions that I took part in until today. Now the publication of the book is happening, the exhibition is in Amsterdam. These are some of the threads I try to weave to make my wool socks, like Nastradin trying to secure wood for winter. There are pop—up events that keep me above water.
Also, something else, I try to constantly be productive. I try to produce work, I try to archive what’s happening to me. As Denzel Washington said, “Luck is whatever happens and you’re prepared.” I call luck an opportunity that is offered to me and I am already prepared. I don’t try to grab it with empty hands, but I try to grab it with the experience I have garnered.
Driton Selmani (b. 1987) is a Pristina—based multimedia visual artist. He earned his MA at the Arts University Bournemouth in the United Kingdom. Often appearing as sketches or aphorisms written in ordinary places, Selmani’s work provides simple instructions on ideas on how to live and often reflects his personal experiences in Kosovo and Yugoslavia and the collective history of these places. Selmani has been featured in numerous international solo shows and group exhibitions at, among others, the Rijeka Contemporary Art Museum in Croatia, Stacion Center For Contemporary Art in Pristina, Ludwig Museum in Budapest, Kunstraum Niederösterreich in Vienna, and Casa Contemporânea in São Paulo.