Mehmet drives me through the hills of Kosova, past the gas stations and motels that can impossibly make any profit if not for prostitution and illegal trade, past the houses abandoned halfway through reconstruction, past the sloppy beauty of a countryside washed with grim memories. We reach Peja, the city that survived especially hard shelling during the war.
I was here six years ago, shortly after liberation, and the place was a shambles. Now, kids are bustling in the streets, the shops of cheap market economy Balkan style are lined up relentlessly, and there is hardly a trace of the fires that raged through these streets. We are greeted by Sokol Beqiri, the video artist and president of Exit. Just like in his video's, he is a stout bearded man with eyes so soft they work unsettling. And there is Erzen Shkololli, his younger colleague and friend, a prodigy of the international arts scene. Just back from a dazzling trip to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, he cracks jokes about his looking Jewish, with his straight white face and dark-rimmed glasses.
Erzen is a master of tightly controlled short video's showing dead-pan versions of traditional Albanian music and folklore, which would be hilarious if there was not an undertone of true despair about a culture being left behind by Europe. They call him the live Google of the Balkan arts. Juggling offers from Tel Aviv, Havana, Amsterdam and New York, he seems happy to be back in his mother's kitchen. Together, Mehmet, Sokol and Erzen offer me a day in Peja which opens up with infinite smoothness, as if someone parts a curtain without a sound, presenting me with a small universe of fine art, defiant independence and gentle jokes. Not to mention black coffee, mellow rakija and tender lamb chops. I can only wonder how I ended up here, suspended somehow out of time, welcome as if I was not just another stranger sailing through. The Exit gallery is empty. It is in between exhibitions. The relations project, funded by the Bundes Kulturstiftung, has reached the end of its two-year period. A new application is in the making, but true to the Kosovar tradition of stubborn independence in the face of whoever pulls the strings, these gentlemen are not about to bend over backwards to convince their German donors that it is worthwhile to keep this place running. Just the perpetual humiliation of getting visa for a trip to the partners in Frankfurt - when the officials at the German embassy even demand a letter from the president of the Kulturstiftung to prove that this is an officially registered enterprise - is enough reason to think twice about applying again. And yet, it is probably their only hope in the new funding reality which doesn't seem to understand that places like these will vanish if they will not receive support on a structural basis. We take a ride into the mountains bordering Montenegro and get out in a place surrounded by pine trees swirling in the fog, called Camp Rugova. An improbable setting of wood cabins, a cage with an unfathomably bored bear, ponds milling with fish, and a restaurant where Sokol chooses the menu with great care. Last year, when they hosted a group of Frankfurt art students here, he took over the kitchen to cook for a company of a hundred people. Sokol is a man who takes life very seriously, especially where the pleasures of food and drink are concerned. His art too is long in the making. He keeps returning to it, he explains, in order to correct every detail until it no longer fails his standards. 'Primitive and proud', is his motto, and he promises to shoot me if I quote him inaccurately. These three are keenly aware of the prejudices with which many from Western Europe approach them, and they are experts at playing with the stereotypes. Hours later, after a lunch that switches easily from stories from the international art world to local playfulness, we return to Peja for coffee and sweets. Then it is time for them to retire into their homes, while they leave me at Exit to do my e-mails. At eight, we meet again. Erzen stays behind to finish an application for the Swiss ambassador, Yvana Enzler, the only diplomat they regard with true respect, because she takes the new Kosovar art seriously and is building up a private collection. Sokol takes us, as he calls it, to 'deep Peja'. The car slides and grinds into a dark neighborhood, past the point where the new road ends amid freshly restored houses and follows a dirt path. In a private house, an elderly gentleman and his wife run a neighborhood eathouse. Men are sitting around small tables in a brightly lit room, with the tv turned to a Kosovar show of traditional music. Again, we exchange anecdotes and I hear tales of the fossile older generation in the local arts.
While these stories drift along without weight and there is hardly a moment of truly serious talk about their work, I feel that somehow this day, drifting from the high mountains to the depth of the city, is telling me more than I could possibly learn from stearn interviews and ambitious theory about the essence of their work in a society that has been on hold for decades, if not centuries. Carving out meaningful exhibitions, paintings, video's and text which are faithful to the common spirit of this place while distancing itself from pomp wherever it comes from, it cannot be easy. It has to be merciless, in the middle of powercuts, provincialism and dwindling budgets. But they keep on doing it. After another wine at a downtown cafe, where we are joined by Ilir Bajri, the musician who is yet another example of the relaxed but determined Peja generation, I am walked to my hotel by Erzen, who wishes me good night with a sophisticated politeness that breaks my heart.