A Response to Carlo Bollino’s “Defense” of Bunk’Art 2

By Vincent W.J. van Gerven Oei,
A Response to Carlo Bollino’s “Defense” of Bunk’Art 2
The inside of the entrance bunker. Photo © Exit.

In a long article in his own newspaper Shqiptarja, Italian journalist Carlo Bollino was kind enough to respond to my review of Bunk’Art 2, published here at Exit on November 21.

In his response, Bollino referred to me as “the Dutch collaborator” of Democratic Party newspaper Rilindja Demokratike. Apart from the ironic fact that “collaborator” is a word typical for the language of the communist dictatorship, it seems that Bollino fell prey to a situation that is all too common, and that I would expect someone of his experience in the Albanian media landscape to recognize; Rilindja Demokratike had copied, without my consent or the consent of Exit, an Albanian version of the article published on December 3. The result is that Bollino spends most of his article attacking “ridiculous arguments” of “Berishian analysts” which only exist in his paranoid imagination.

In spite of this rather amateurish lack of fact-checking – I am not employed by Rilindja Demokratike, nor do I endorse its editorial policy – Bollino’s article gives us a new fact about Bunk’Art 2 that had remained unclear to me at the time when I wrote my review: Carlo Bollino has nominated himself its “general curator.”

Let it also be clear, once again, that Carlo Bollino is actually the owner of several media close to Prime Minister Edi Rama, including newspaper Shqiptarja, which had the exclusive rights to cover the opening of this “museum” that Bollino himself had curated. In fact, Bollino tells us, Bunk’Art 2 is not a museum, but rather “modern video-museal exhibition,” in which history is explained “in an attractive, and when possible, artistic form.”

Unfortunately, Bollino’s artistic acumen is as developed as the quality of his journalism. While he was unable to find out the simple fact that I have never worked or written for Rilindja Demokratike, he now appears also responsible for the rather shameful mistake of attributing the opening, and most important quote of the exhibition – “All those who forget their past are condemned to relive it.” – to Primo Levi rather than to George Santayana. A “general curator” should know better.

The "Primo Levi" quote. Photo © Exit.
The “Primo Levi” quote. Photo © Exit.

In his article, journalist Bollino complains about the “cultural blockades made out of prejudices and taboos” of both communists and anticommunists that make his curatorial work unappreciated. He doesn’t seem to understand that I, neither communist nor anticommunist, am not at all interested in throwing up cultural blockades, but that I reviewed Bunk’Art 2 based on rather simple and common principles, such as 1) whether the information that is given to me is correct; and 2) whether it is understandable (for both Albanians and foreigners).

As I indicated in my review, several elements of the exhibition are simply false. Moreover, the English translations are of such a poor quality, that an innocent tourist can easily get the wrong idea. Bollino fails to respond to either of these observations. As for the understandability of the exhibition he finds it absurd that I ask for “interpretation”:

The Holocaust Museum Yad Vashem in Jerusalem (as I have lived nearly four years in Israel as correspondent it was inevitable that I would be influenced) doesn’t make any interpretation of Nazist extermination that it tells about: it just shows.

First the parenthesis, which is supposed to justify Bollino’s cheap plagiarism (not “influence”) of Yad Vashem at the entrance of Bunk’Art 2. If he indeed was so “influenced” by the heritage of the Holocaust, how could he get Primo Levi wrong? Or did he just say that to show off?

Then, the problem is that Bollino confuses what I call “interpretation” with “explanation.” Apart from the fact that it is a gross misunderstanding and simplification to state that Yad Vashem “just shows” (just check their website), I didn’t ask for an explanation of the crimes of the communist dictatorship and the people who have suffered under it. I asked the exhibition to show an interpretation of the historical facts because that is the only way to “tell a story”: cause and effect, action and reaction, logical connections, a coherent narrative.

I can give a concrete example. In my review, I contested the claim that Bunk’Art 2 is located in a nuclear bunker. There is no documentary evidence that the bunker was constructed in order to withstand a nuclear attack, nor is it ever – to my knowledge – referred to in official documents as “nuclear bunker.” Bollino’s argument, on the contrary, is based purely on speculation:

Constructions from the years 1970–’80 with walls of 240 cm of rock, iron, and concrete, with five armored entrances, are not nuclear [bunkers]? What other technology against nuclear attacks could Albania possess in those years to do more than that?

To call the construction below the Ministry of Interior Affairs a nuclear bunker, as Bollino does, is therefore an act of interpretation, suggesting a narrative that links the Albanian bunker to the larger context of the nuclear threat of the Cold War.

Bollino rhetorically asks, “In the end, what does it matter if it’s against nuclear weapons or not?” I would say it matters a lot; because to try calling things by their right name, to use proof, and to discuss, defend, and develop arguments in an open debate, are the beginnings of a true dialogue with the past. If Bollino doesn’t care about such “details,” he should have never started a project dealing with the communist dictatorship.

The result of this indifference toward facts is clear in the entire exhibition. Because Bunk’Art 2 doesn’t interpret and tells us no story, it is just a simple timeline that starts with the gendarmerie in 1913 and ends with the forensic laboratory in 2000, with the “communist terror” sandwiched in between unrelated “artistic” installations and confusing sounds. To compare Bunk’Art 2 with Yad Vashem is delusional, if not worse – an insult to the latter.

Perhaps, in another context, we could forgive Carlo Bollino his amateurism and lack of knowledge; after all, he never studied curation or art history, he never published anything substantial on the communist past. Maybe, inspired by the shining example of his patron (who, by the way, also doesn’t shy away from plagiarism), he thought that he too could make something “in an artistic way.” Moreover, amateurs are always the ones to overreact to any criticism – so perhaps we should understand his paranoia about Berisha’s henchmen persecuting him at every turn of his career, and just let the matter rest.

But we cannot and should not forgive Bollino for Bunk’Art 2. Because it has been built with public money – money of the Albanian citizens, who would like the government to take its history seriously, rather than turn it into a theme park in the hands of an Italian journalist. The money irresponsibly wasted by Bollino could have been well spent: on real research, on a real exhibition, on something that will withstand the test of time, or at least, the next elections.

Bollino’s final defense, which is the weakest, is that Bunk’Art has been “successful.” How has it been successful? And for whom? Because it has improved our understanding of the communist past? Or because he, very successfully, earns 500 lekë for each visitor that he tricks into entering?

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