In this section, Valerio Rocco Orlando meets international artists who founded multidisciplinary spaces in decentralized territories.
From private to public: Adrian Paci and Art House
In the first conversation of the series, artist Adrian Paci talks about his experience regarding the foundation of Art House in Shkodër, Albania—a transdisciplinary venue where different experiences converge to discuss the role of art in contemporaneity.
Valerio Rocco Orlando: I remember that years ago when we were together in Seoul, you told me about your decision to restore your family house in your hometown to offer an opportunity for discussion to the new generations of Albanian artists. Do you want to take a few steps back and go through the motivations that pushed you to start Art House?
Adrian Paci: I believe there are several motivations. Detecting only one is not enough to depict such a long and complex experience. Maintaining something alive for a long period requires different motivations. I did not come up with the idea of founding Art House only to give an opportunity to new generations, because if that were the case there would have been a problem. Considering what you could offer as an opportunity for others puts you in a position of superiority.
Basically, I founded Art House in Albania because I wanted to maintain connections. I left in 1997, in a particularly critical moment, and detached myself from the Albanian context. I had already come to Italy several times—my daughter was born in Italy— but in 1997 there was a real detachment, and this weighed on me because I was forced to make this choice. From 2005 I have been trying to restore a relationship with the context I came from. So, we can say that the first motivation was the desire to come back to Albania. Besides, my family house was in Shkodër downtown, a house badly constructed by my father and my uncles, a house that needed continuous renovations. I grew up in this house constantly under renovation, with my mother always busy looking for masons to fix small things. Maybe one of the main motivations, after all, was that I wanted to see my family house completed. Another aspect, also related to the context I lived in, was this process that began in the mid-2000s and saw many houses in my neighborhood and in Albania being torn down to leave space for big buildings—encouraging the owners of the houses to sell their land in exchange for new apartments. This process, which overturned the area both in terms of architectural volumes and relationships, was accompanied by violent situations and impotence on the part of those who were subjected to this process of urbanization, and precisely the violence of those who exercised a form of expropriation, and I wanted to place myself into this context. The solution I came up with was simply to do something new. The house was in bad shape and needed significant renovation works, and I could have sold it to make way for the construction of a new building, but I did not want to give it up. I decided to do something radical, so I knocked down the old house, and together with an architect friend from Milan, Filippo Taidelli, worked on a project. Obviously, it was not my intention to build a holiday home, and that was when the idea of giving this space a different use was born. To this layering of motivations we can also add the fact that my father is an artist, he left a lot of works—including many drawings—and taking them with me to Italy made no sense; I had to build a space where I could keep this material. I thought that this initiative could be an act of resistance against urban devastation My goal was to preserve some elements of the old house, build a house where I could go regularly, to host my father’s works, and finally to become a place where I could host friends from the international art world and create a dialogue with the local scene, obviously with a specific focus on young Albanian artists. In the end, the house went from being a private place to a public place, from a reality linked to a local context to a venue for international dialogue.
VRO: I am very interested in this turn from private to public. With South of Imagination, I will restore a public property through a personal journey, which will then open up to the public. In Matera over time the farmers have been displaced, but traces of that experience remain within the cultural heritage of the city. My idea is to bring the young people back to the historical center of Matera because the lion’s share has been living in the suburbs for years now. That is why what you are describing interests me, and when I come to Shkodër I will have the opportunity to observe and understand the dynamics.
AP: The conflict between public and private is very interesting, but it is a slippery slope. It needs to be continuously questioned and focused.
VRO: It is from this aspect that I would like to understand how Art House has evolved over the years, and what the objectives of this initiative are today.
AP: The aim is to continue this dialogue within the project, but without creating fixed models and without weakening this experience. I would like to keep alive the urgency from which I started. When we inaugurated Art House with an exhibition, we also organized a meeting, because my intention has always been to build a place for dialogue, not just a venue to go and see works, but to deepen the possibility of meeting the artist to understand something more about the works themselves. During the inauguration there were hundreds of people, but the following day only about forty showed up—really interested in listening and learning more—and I realized that the latter was the right size with which to activate this dialogue. Throughout 2016 we organized a series of meetings with curators and artists, then we decided to organize moments dedicated to workshops, moments of sharing that went beyond these conferences. It has to be said that the guests invited to these conferences did not just attend the scheduled meetings; being a small reality they had the opportunity to make studio visits, understand the local context, the city, and take part in dinners and informal meetings with artists and personalities linked to the area. The workshops led to the creation of Art House School, which was a more structured experience, with young but established artists sharing their experience for a month. They were put in contact with invited artists and curators, and each of the guests had the opportunity to make a public presentation. At some point, we felt the need to get out of the house context, just like when we took a series of art films outside the walls of the house.
VRO: So, in addition to an exhibition program, over the years the planning has become a kind of public program that complements the educational offer of local institutions. Is that the role you have tried to play?
AP: I wanted to create something different, and I wanted to do something outside of the institutional structures, which would have given people the opportunity to share knowledge and experiences within an informal setting. I believe there is an underlying friction between living knowledge and codified knowledge, and that we should always keep that tension up. Schools, institutions, and structures sometimes tend to paralyze knowledge, codifying it and pushing it into sterile logic. Instead, I am interested in the very sphere of living knowledge—built on experience, through some sort of irregular motion. That might be because I am the fruit of a somewhat chaotic learning process. I studied within the academic system in Albania and that gave me points of reference; at the same time, however, it led me to abandon them. And any other knowledge I have, I had to gain in an unorganized way. In this regard, I must say that there is a relationship based on desire there—between the person who wants to know and knowledge itself—which is livelier than the structured, codified and organized sphere of learning. Art House wanted to foster a relationship based on home, friendship, and meetings that take place around the fire, on walks, or adventures—this is what marked the Art House experience. To give you another example, we started producing several publications during the pandemic last year and namely devoted ourselves to the translation of several volumes into Albanian. This is emblematic of our approach—we look for what is missing, fill the gaps, and never repeat what has already been done.
VRO: Meeting the local needs and the demands of the socio-political context…
AP: The local needs are fundamental, and we realized that they are not only limited to a specific area—they go well beyond that. Even the conversation between us, which started from the need to launch an initiative in Basilicata in Italy, has a greater resonance actually, not only in that area. So does the debate on artistic practices that need a more intimate, more rooted dimension.
VRO: I find it stimulating that you decided to set up such an initiative in a decentralized area, forcing the relationship between institutions and the art system, which actually operates in large cities.
AP: I did it precisely because I believe this is an experience my interlocutors are missing, and in a way, it is something that I am also missing. It is not just a project aiming at giving—out of pity—an opportunity to someone who needs it. Instead, it provides people and institutions that are solid within the art system with intersecting experiences and opportunities to reflect. Therefore, what we are doing is not moving something away from the big central systems to its periphery, but rather trying to set up a new meeting ground. The very logic of this move questions the relationship between the center and the periphery, as well as that between the private and public dimensions. It is not a call to move from the center to the periphery, but rather a way to point out what living this underlying tension actually means.
VRO: I have been in touch with you a lot over the last few months and I understand that you spend a lot more time in Albania than you used to. What is the relationship between Art House’s activities, your artistic practice, and your experience as an educator?
AP: The three aspects certainly exert a mutual influence on each other, but not in a systematic or meditated way; when I conceived Art House, I did not think of it as a work of art, but rather as a project that serves art, that questions it. I believe that art “happens” and that it is not an object that exists in itself. The mechanism that makes art happen has specific features. On the other hand, creating a mechanism where art is discussed from within and in a collaborative way is different. I still think of the artistic process—and of the artworks—as something that stems from a deep individual commitment, an exposed individuality, engaging with the world, with things, with images, with stories, as well as with people. Art is an individual obsession that gives shape to these encounters with the world, which are also filtered through individuality. Art House does not fit into this model. Instead, it is closer to the idea of discussing art through the dialogue between several individualities.
VRO: What is the difference compared to your classes at Nuova Accademia di Belle Arti in Milan?
AP: At the academy, I have a schedule, a salary, and I know that I am in charge of teaching one subject, while other professors teach other subjects. For example, painting and visual arts classes follow a rigid structure. At Art House that is different, we move our steps from different questions; there are neither professors nor students—only participants. I try to question artistic institutions in my lectures too, but Art House has had a different spirit since its early days, as well as a different size and number of participants. Moreover, Art House is an on and off initiative that runs depending on needs and times, more flexibly compared to the academic calendar. This way—and today’s conversation is an example of that—opportunities can open up without necessarily having to plan everything, but rather spontaneously. People often reach out to me to come to Shkodër and visit Art House, and that way they get to meet a group of young people, have a drink and chat. The main idea is to avoid keeping everything under control. That is different from how I conceive and shape my works—although they are often the consequence of debate or an encounter with something unpredictable.
VRO: Spontaneous encounters cannot be controlled—you never know where they will take you. I am really happy to go to Albania. Traveling to meet students after such a tough time of online learning feels like a real act of resistance to me. Do you have any advice for me before I leave for my trip?
AP: I think it means a lot that you are meeting students who are not strictly into art. That is quite challenging because at Art House we almost exclusively meet people and students who are interested in art practices. Instead, what I find most interesting in your project is that you are opening this research and debate sphere to people that are curious about the art world, but are not necessarily young artists. In Shkodër people face a rough reality, and you have to figure out how to ask the right questions—questions that are significant in such a tricky context.