Of everyone working on The Culture Lobby I was the least familiar with the region in which we immersed ourselves for three years on and off, questioning and researching and photographing. When Cindy first suggested that we create and develop a project about this rapidly-changing part of the world, I immediately realized I could bring an outsider's point of view and perhaps be an untainted, unbiased vehicle for facilitating dialogue with our interviewees. Aside from a very, very basic grasp of the Croatian/Serbian/BiH language, I knew little else about the region's history. I knew it was rich in culture and I knew it had a complicated past. The rest of my extensive yet informal education came in the field. Cindy and I both realize the power of art to further understand change within society. This has been the starting point for most of our personal artwork.
As we worked through the research stage of the project, we sensed how special it was to be entrusted with each person's answer, each one being a piece of the overall picture that would become our archive. Basically, our job was to hunt the treasure described to us by someone we'd just met.
One of those finds was a brown bear shelter in the nature reserve of Kuterevo, located in the Velebit mountains of Croatia. We were told that while building the super highway connecting continental Europe to the Adriatic coast, wild animals were being displaced. Concerned citizens had built a shelter for some of the brown bears, mostly orphans that were affected by this change. We traveled there in August 2007 and spent an afternoon taking incredible pictures of these bears in their contained but quite natural habitat.
We had plenty of encounters withthe region's past and communism's legacy, especially in the south of Serbia. Shuttered factories, extremely large facilities and infrastructure crumbling, waiting patiently for a new economic model. Our hunting led us to the Western Balkans' rich natural resources – from healing mud pits to cacti and rosemary-abundant lands, from incredibly beautiful mountainous passages to deep evergreen forests. We also sought answers in the dense capitals of each country and most of the surrounding villages, enjoying the hospitality of its people along the way and securing a future for their personal stories.
Early 2007 was the first time we traveled to Albania. We drove from the south of Kosovo to the Albanian border. It was beautiful: a grand desert peppered with huge mountains outlined by flows of shallow rivers. Our small hatchback serpented the landscape for the best of four hours stopping every now and then to let cattle and farmers pass. Cindy snapped countless photos of makeshift carwashes and their foamy Mercedes Benzs. Up the mountain, around the mountain, around the streams we chugged until we finally made it to the grand capital of Tirana where we explored, interviewed, photographed and drank excellent coffee.
It would be two years until we returned to Albania, in the autumn of 2009. Traveling the same highway from Prizren, we arrived at the border, astounded to see before us – built seemingly overnight – a paved and accessorized super-highway. The country was in high gear, unfurling a massive reconstruction effort and we were among the first to see it. Lanes were not yet defined with the standard painted lines, goats and cattle were still crossing the fresh asphalt, mistaking onramps for their centuries-old trails and skipping over metal guardrails in defiance. The construction bridged mountain tops, eliminating our chugging round the mountain in first gear. It was incredible. It was incredible to see progress so tangibly defined, to see the past encountering the future.
Countless such experiences felt like a validation of our efforts. Change is happening, it's inevitable, bull-dozing an often seemingly haphazard path through the traditional world of this region, for better or for worse. And yet, there - drawing of the economic map of the Western Balkans, instigated partly by the EU accession, is creating hope for a brighter and more secure future. So let's go forward then while never forgetting whence we came.