Kicking off ‘Changing the Story’ in Kosovo
The Kosovo strand of “Changing the Story” kicked off the phase I project called “ACT – Arts, critical thinking & active citizenship” with a workshop bringing together artists, academics and activists from Kosovo and the UK. The workshop, organized by the University of Prishtina “Hasan Prishtina” in partnership with Bournemouth University, was held in two spaces, reflecting the expansive nature of the project, including artistic and academic space. The first day of the workshop was hosted by one of the project’s local partners, Stacion- Centre for Contemporary Art in a space known as the “Boxing Club”. This was once a real boxing club, but disregarded by public authorities until an artist noticed it, researched its history, and opened the opportunity for Stacion to take over and use it as a space for art exhibitions and workshops. The Faculty of Philosophy, University of Prishtina “Hasan Prishtina”, hosted the second day of the workshop in the meeting rooms of the University Program for Gender Studies and Research. The Deputy Rector for International Cooperation, Prof Merita Berisha-Koçinaj, welcomed the participants and project. She emphasized that research projects which involve international and local partners, are very important for the University and the country. Project Co-Investigators Dr Nita Luci University of Prishtina’s University Program for Gender Studies and Research and Dr Stephanie Schwandner-Sievers of Bournemouth University’s Seldom Heard Voices research centre facilitated the workshop.
The Kick-Off workshop was organized with the aim of discussing the opportunities for civic education of Kosovo youth through the arts. The Kosovo branch of the “Changing the Story” project will be researching and working with different organizations in the country in order to establish, discover and develop new ways of youth engagement through the arts. The project combines research and applied components, producing alternative practices to be proposed to formal and informal educational institutions, as well as academic research and publishing. This will be done in cooperation with four local partners that work with art and youth in several Kosovo municipalities including: Stacion- Centre for Contemporary Art (Prishtina) (lead CSO facilitator), Anibar (Peja), 7 Arte (Mitrovica), NGO Aktiv (Mitrovica North) and Varg e vi (Gjilan). Additionally, participants from local and international organizations contributed, including: Kosovo 2.0, Youth Initiative for Human Rights (YIHR) and Opera Circus (from the UK) as well as independent researchers.
The research and applied approach of this project relies on equitable collaboration among the partners as much as a participatory style of engaging youth through the arts. The project highlights Participatory Action Research (PAR) as its core method in order to anchor its co-creative research in the communities that it seeks to involve. Professor Lee-Ann Fenge of Bournemouth University, director of Seldom Heard Voices, introduced the methods of PAR, drawing from her experience and research in the performative social sciences and social work through the arts with marginalized communities. The use of PAR enables a focus on community needs and on the process of the research as much as its outcomes. Indeed, the importance of trusting the process and context, rather than chasing pre-defined objectives (as typically required in standard project design), were recurring topics during the workshop. It emerged that only an inclusive, equitable bottom-up focus and process in researching civic education in its formal and informal settings, both aware and integrative of specific context and community situation, can elicit meaningful findings beyond external preconceptions. It became evident that many activists and civil society organizations and organizers in Kosovo perform duties that the state should hold, albeit not all or always in an formalized and registered manner. The upcoming survey, to be conducted by the project’s post-doctoral research fellow Lura Pollozhani, will deliberately include attention to such alternative sites of civic activism and education.
Travelling through Kosovo
The project focuses on four different municipalities in Kosovo, because we consider it important to look at the peripheral spaces beyond the elites and trends in the centre. The periphery is an often-neglected space of research and practice, which mostly focus on first cities. With this project, we aim to bring an exchange of ideas between different organizations in diverse cities, and to showcase the efforts that local organizations, activists and artists undertake in order to instill civic values in young people. Each of our partner organizations working in four municipalities of Kosovo other than the capital, Prishtina, have a track record of creative and innovative ways of engaging local youth, artists and activist, ranging from the organization of animation festivals, art exhibitions, theatre plays and city tours.
With our resident artist, Tina Ellen Lee from Opera Circus, we travelled to two municipalities to talk to local artists and activists on how they practice their art and how they and young people see their cities. Tina shared Opera Circus’ international youth programme The Complete Freedom of Truth (TCFT), a 10 year-long informal and reflective process using the arts to explore issues of democracy, gender, equality and inclusion.
Together we visited Mitrovica North, where together with our local partner Aktiv, local activists and artists shared with us the difficulties of being an artist and an activist in Mitrovica North. They highlighted particularly the difficulty they faced in drawing young people to be more active and engage more with the arts. A visit to the private gallery “Aquarius” on the other hand, showed a positive example of how art and artistic spaces are used to engage young people and to create alternative spaces of expression and engagement with one’s community. The gallery organizes classes, art competitions and exhibitions without any support from public institutions, but is very engaged with the public and contributes to the local community by organizing frequent public events.
In Gjilan, a city in the east of Kosovo, our partner organisation Varg e Vi piloted one of their ideas with us. Varg e Vi is organizing a city tour of Gjilan which aims to connect the participants with the present and the past of the city through its local monuments. Taking us through the city, Varg e Vi informed us of the city’s transformation after the war, and their own activism in trying to preserve history even where this was not seen as opportune in political or public discourse. In Gjilan, as in Mitrovica North, activists and artists alike struggle to find a stable setting where they can perform their activities, always negotiating both political and financial constraints. Yet, organizations like Varg e Ci, continue to provide alternative and new ways of engagement with their community, the city tour being just the latest of their projects.
The workshop and the visits to the two municipal cities highlighted the important work done by the partner organizations in Kosovo. They operate in a context where “high politics” takes precedence over other types of engagement, and try to create alternative spaces for young people, artists and activists. In moving forward with the project, the importance of being mindful of a participatory and equitable process throughout, the specificities of local context and communities, becomes very apparent. The project will thus continue to build upon this network of organizations and involve their expertise, experience and views in order to develop research which is useful and which will be applied in creating additional spaces for and with young people in Kosovo.