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“On the other side of the mirror”

An initiative to create open community spaces and build cultural exchange between Albania and Serbia

Journalist Arlis Alikaj spoke with the participants of Belgrade’s Divan Hub and Tirana’s Filiza Hub about their regional collaboration project “On the other side of the mirror”.

It is time to foster youth cooperation between Belgrade and Tirana activists. This youth initiative consists of regional cultural exchange activities between Divan Hub (a center of cooperation in Belgrade which includes organisations Art Aparat, Belgrade Center for Human Rights (BCHR) and Philopolitics) and Filiza Hub (a center of cooperation in Tirana which includes youth organisations Tek Bunkeri and Destil Creative Hub). The project provides spaces and formats of civic and cultural exchange to discover common challenges, best practices, and possible synergies through collaboration. The initiative invites Albanian and Serbian artists and practitioners of culture to share their experiences and techniques across borders, and introduce them to new audiences. “On the other side of the mirror” is also a journey through flickering narratives and images of prejudice that blur and stop the two countries’ artists discover the potential cooperation which has been lacking over time.

VAHA, which  means “oasis” in Turkish, is a programme made with and for the empowered voices of independent arts and culture spaces, advocating for public discussion and dialogue in cities across Turkey, Europe, and their neighboring countries. VAHA is the programme that is financially supporting this art initiative between Tirana and Belgrade hubs.
Albanian journalist Arlis Alikaj spoke with two of the group representatives, Aleksandar and Ivo. In Serbia, Aleksandar Obradović is the director of Philopolitics, an independent research center set up to explore political, social, and cultural alternatives for a more participatory citizenship. And in Albania, Ivo Krug together with his Albanian colleague Arnen has created Tek Bunkeri, a youth organisation that works to empower young people. The bunker in the past under communism was a symbol of protection from any possible attack by enemies but today in the organisation of Ivo and Arnen it is conceived as a refuge where young people, their culture, and their interests are protected.

Arlis Alikaj: What inspired you to do this project?

Aleksandar Obradović: The curiosity and natural tendency to discover the Albanian environment which we in Serbia do not know a lot. This is also an opportunity to get to know colleagues, artists, and activities in Albania better. Due to decades of isolation and instability, our social and cultural lives were in parallel, without much interaction. We want to change this and encourage positive synergies.

Ivo Krug: I completely agree with Aleksandar, and this speaks for both sides. After we met the first time, it became very quickly clear that we have a huge shared curiosity and are interested in opening up our local ecosystem to and for each other. The independent scenes of Serbia and Albania face similar challenges, without having much ground and framework for exchange. Overcoming this together is an inspiring and motivating idea.

What is on the other side of the mirror in Albania, Serbia?

Aleksandar Obradović: On the other side of the mirror, there are our neighbors and colleagues, people facing similar challenges. We are very curious to discover how they overcome obstacles and what we can do together.

Ivo Krug: On the other side of the mirror, there are those friends and partners that often get stereotyped and associated with their political leaders, yet feel and think quite similar. On the other side of the mirror, there are encounters that help to reflect and create together, opportunities to create new narrations in our region that can counter authoritarian, dividing and ethnic-nationalist rhetorics. It is a journey into human relations beyond regional politics.

What are your expectations for this project and what do you wish you can achieve?

Aleksandar Obradović: The project brings networking. It presents the independent artistic and activist scene of both capitals, opens opportunities for meeting new people, and offers a place for the creation of some further regional collaborations.

Ivo Krug: Working on a quite small project, the output is not necessarily a tangible one, but the beginning of a weaving process with invisible threads of personal and organisational relations that unfold and amplify over time. I expect us to create safe spaces for this kind of relation-building and learning about each other. This will lead us to more future collaborations.

What has been a challenge so far?

Aleksandar Obradović:
The challenge was that the activities have not started yet due to the Covid-19 pandemic measures and we have postponed them.

Ivo Krug:
Our activities have not started yet. This is the biggest challenge as our ecosystems push us to move forward, limiting time and energy. However, we look forward to our project activities in September.
What do you know about the culture of each country?

Aleksandar Obradović: Actually, not so much. This was one of the main reasons for initiating this project. 

Ivo Krug: As a German of Yugoslav origin, working in Albania, I had the opportunity to explore and experience the cultural and social realities and histories of both countries. On the other hand, I did not explore the contemporary cultural and civic scenes of Belgrade and Serbia yet, as existing project frameworks rarely give the opportunity to discover each other. And my colleagues and friends at Tek Bunkeri and around us have even fewer insights and experiences with Serbia or Serbian peers. So, yes, this project is also for us a valuable journey of discovery.

What are some similarities?

Aleksandar Obradović: They have not been discovered yet.

Ivo Krug: Without touching the public domain, meaning contemporary socio-economic and political realities which create similar challenges, we yet have to discover similarities and differences in our approaches towards these challenges, our discourses, and our concepts. This is the exciting core of our project.

What are some messages you deliver in this project and who are they referring to?

Aleksandar Obradović: Crossing the magical mirror of ignorance. That is the motto and appeal of this project. Primarily, the project activities are focused on independent artists and activists. But its outcomes are aimed at the general population of both countries.

Ivo Krug:
For our organisation Tek Bunkeri, the small exchange itself carries already a strong message against prejudices and ignorance. Vis-a-vis Serbia they are prevalent even in the socio-cultural scene, and we see them rather limiting ourselves and our region, than helping. So, yes, one key message is that we all become stronger by opening ourselves up to each other and that there is much to learn and create together as we have a much larger common ground.

Where do you see the artivism of Serbia and Albania in the next 5 years?

Aleksandar Obradović: Through the synergy of our efforts and peer-to-peer learning, I believe we can overcome many of the obstacles we are facing today. Especially in the area of reconciliation and fundamental rights and freedoms.

Ivo Krug: I completely agree with Alexander. I am convinced that artivism in combination with creative and critical civic education can change perceptions, especially of youth. So I hope our formats and tools go beyond regional funding programmes and ideally public institutions or other sectors like youth exchanges to work together for a lasting impact on the generation that is growing now.

What is your longterm vision for such projects?

Aleksandar Obradović: We would like to include other countries in the region. Through that, we foster further regional peer-to-peer learning, strengthening our capacities and make more powerful pressure on institutions.

Ivo Krug: The project and our partner-relation grew out of the VAHA programme, and found a larger regional base in our informal network that we called MOCI (Mobile Open Culture and Innovation). So, yes, we would like to scale our project concept into regional formats where we aim to create stronger peer-built capacities and stay connected.

Text and interview by Arlis Alikaj

You can read the article in Albanian here.

This journalistic portrait is commissioned by “VAHA: Building Common Ground for Spaces of Public Discussion and Dialogue”. VAHA is an initiative of Anadolu Kültür and MitOst e.V., funded by Stiftung Mercator and the European Cultural Foundation. VAHA partner consortium is in a collaboration with the iac Berlin to implement a series of ‘thematic workshops and network meetings’. We thank the Chrest Foundation for its support of travel related expenses.