In Conversation with Astrit Ismaili

Astrit is a performance Artist.
Born in Prishtina, Kosovo. Living and locked down in Amsterdam, The Netherlands.

‘Many times i’m just the wind and often just an idea, once i was a tear, a few times a memory, 7 times a seahorse, lately a flower but most of the time i am water.’

I met Astrit in 2018 when they performed UNIKAT with their sister Blerta in A Corner in the World 3: Earth is Flat? Once children pop-stars in their home country Kosovo, the siblings gave a delicate, sensuous and personal performance composed of the collision of sounds and images, shaping various facets of identity.

Astrit studied Theater Directing in Prishtina and received their MA in Performance from DasArts, Amsterdam. In 2012, they co-organized the biggest performance art event in Kosovo called ‘Prishtinë – mon amour’. Their work is somewhere between visual arts and performance which deconstructs and reconstructs identities as well as artistic forms. On top of that, I think they’re one of the very few talents that can solidly put their body as the centerpiece of their art in such a powerful and beautiful way. I believe the term ‘queer’ comes closest to describing their multifaceted persona, the phenomenal being that they are, which defies categories. Well, they may even defy that category!

This email correspondence took place between Fatih Gençkal and Astrit Ismaili from April 28 to August 24, 2020.

From: Fatih Genckal
Astrit Ismaili
Sent: Tuesday, 28 April 2020 17:23

Dear Astrit,
I want to start an interview experiment. I will ask you one question everyday and you will have 24 hours to respond to it. Then I will ask the next question based on your answers or my curiosities. You can also ask me questions in your answers and interview me in a way. It will be like a conversation.
If you answer quickly, I can ask the next question right away, so we don’t have to wait 24 hours. It can turn into texting each other too. Or not.
Please feel free to write as you are speaking.  Follow the spark the question starts in you.
So here is the first question:
What do you see happening with you and around you since the beginning of home confinement?

Astrit Ismaili 4 May 2020 21:59
new traumas on top of the old ones. reevaluating reality. more time. ending of superficial relations. birds are singing more then usual. uncertainty. a need to be grounded. listening to the body sometimes way too much. filter what matters and what doesn’t matter. construct a new routine. deconstruct. quiet empty city. anxiety. sometimes i think i can’t breath. yesterday today and the day before were good days. i do groceries once in 10 days and i spend around 70 euros on grindr i only chat and exchange nudes. i forgot to take my supplements yesterday i don’t remember if i took them today or not vitamin c vitamin d

Fatih Genckal 4 May 2020 22:42
‘Thank you for your feedback.’
This is the line gmail recommended me as a response to your message. At first I thought you spent 70 euros on Grindr. Must be a lot of extra hidden features there, I thought. Any closer to figuring out what matters for you through all this?

Astrit Ismaili 4 May 2020 22:50
if i am not mistaken, i spent around 15 euros or maybe more on tinder gold and it was worth it cause i found a romantic lover that sends me flowers and makes me lil surprises i spent most of my time with them what matters the most and i always knew that is to feel good to be alive as cheesy as it sounds that’s what i truly think

Fatih Gençkal 5 May 2020 15:18
Are you in Amsterdam? What is the situation about home confinement there?

Astrit Ismaili 7 May 2020 16:53
Hi Fatih, yes im in Amsterdam. It is not so strict here. Of course schools, theaters, museums, galleries, clubs, bars and all the group social activities are closed but you can still go out in the street, parks and supermarket any time you want. Are you in Istanbul now? How are you?

Fatih Gençkal 7 May 2020 21:01
I’m in İzmir, where I live now for the last year, lucky to be at home with my wife and 2 cats, not having to work. All group activities and meeting places are closed and there have been weekend curfews for the last few weeks. The government announced ‘a normalization plan’ few days ago and spoke about starting to loosen the restrictions. Opening up malls was among the first things to be announced which indicates what they care about most above all. I find it really disturbing that governments everywhere are exercising more control than they normally can on society due to the pandemic. They almost monopolize the flow of information and decision-making. We have not much to do but obey. I realize this more and more and don’t like it. On a personal level, I am going back and forth between making the most of my time by reading, writing, watching in an attempt to ‘understand’ what’s going on, thinking of new projects, ways to make myself useful and just being with myself, enjoying my time home. Do you feel a similar dilemma? What are you busy with these days?

Astrit Ismaili 13 May 2020 15:42
Hey Fatih, nice to hear that you are with family. it is indeed frustrating to follow these measures dictated by governments which often do not represent our voices. on the other hand, there is a common sense which makes me prevent myself from the virus by avoiding as much as possible physical contact with people I am not surrounded by in daily basis. more than everything i miss hugging my friends! its funny, sometimes we meet and we of course keep distance but I really want to hug them cause touching is an important element in our lives and we cannot. its such a big change! on the other hand, the situation here is slowly getting back to normal which in one hand is good, but in the other hand there is no vaccine yet available so i am not so sure if the normalization is rational. i am trying to keep myself busy also! sometimes it works but often is very very hard! i really hope that this situation will get better soon! big virtual hug to you!

Fatih Gençkal 13 May 2020 15:59
The need to keep distance is really weird. We visited a couple and their 1 year old baby a few days ago, our good friends, in their garden. We sat for a few hours with 2 meter distance from each other and the baby. I am not a particularly touchy person but I also realize that meeting people with physical distance is really awkward. I somehow get restless, I almost feel like we are not ‘really’ meeting when we have 2 meters between us, that I’m not really there. And even with the normalization, this is going to be the situation for quite a bit. I appreciate my sense of touch more and more. On the other hand, my sense of sight seems to wear me down these days as I depend on it too much. I am always looking at something, usually in the same body position. And it is actually causing my body to shrink. Do you feel any change or realization with your senses in this way?

3 Jun 2020 20:16
Hey dear, I haven’t heard from you in a while. Is everything ok?

Astrit Ismaili 4 Jun 2020 17:03
hey fatih, everything is fine! I had a big deadline this week, it was quite a lot of work and a few project proposals i had to submit. I guess things are slowly getting back to normal here. on the other hand, i have been mentally busy with what happened in minneapolis, trying to reflect and do as much as i can to be an ally. i participated in the BLM march last week in amsterdam. it was touching to see that the protest surpassed the expected number of participants from 300 to 5000 people.
this year is literally opening all the unhealed wounds which makes it painful to feel them but gives hope for regeneration and healing. i was telling an iranian painter sam samie who is also a friend of mine; what did I deserve to experience both war and a pandemic in my life time? while we were contemplating on identity discourses outside the usa and specifically racism. what happened in minneapolis generated a lot of discussion about racism all over the world. with my friend we were arguing wether it is linguistically correct to define the serbian discrimination towards albanians during the 90s and even before that as racism. at least in kosovo, it is perceived and articulated as racism, which is understandable because the mechanism of oppression and violence were very similar. but on the other hand, there are no racial differences between albanians and serbs, kurds and turkish, iranian and afghani. what are your thoughts on this? did the killing of george floyd started a discussion about race in turkey?

Fatih Gençkal 7 Jun 2020 22:49
I’m not an expert on terminology in any sense. My feeling today is that racial, national, ethnic, gender or other discrimination needs to be condemned solidly and on equal moral and political grounds. In Turkey, for example, the killing of George Floyd was condemned by all parts of society but there has been no mass marches or any popular political action as far as I have seen. Conservatives and nationalists were among the first to condemn it as a way to snatch the chance to attack the US and re-introduce the bullshit lie that there is no racism in Turkey and how we are a society of harmony etc. At the same time the Hrant Dink Foundation was receiving death threats (the foundation established in the name of the Armenian intellectual and journalist Hrant Dink who was shot dead in the middle of the day in a very central part of İstanbul after being targeted by nationalist media and politicians and stood trial for insulting Turkishness!), a young guy was killed because he was listening to Kurdish music during prayer time and Syrian, LGBT, Alawi and other ‘minorities’ have been and are being systematically discriminated against and occasionally suffer violence. I am so sick of this hypocrisy. Not to mention there of course is racism as we like to understand in ‘racial’ terms against Afro-Turkish or other people of African origin and of course there was slavery during Ottoman times. It’s very frustrating to see how people can unite in condemning something and overlooking countless others. This is also for the world at large who is very responsive to this and not responsive at other situations in other places such as the murder of Iyad el-Hallak by Israeli police. I don’t know which of these examples are called racism and which not and I don’t really care because being anti-racist is only part of a larger moral and political standpoint, I believe. For Kosovo and other Balkan states, I think it would be a similar situation. I don’t think it matters if Albanians, Serbians or Bosnians come from the same race or not. We need to stand against discrimination which in one way or another leads to violence. On moral and political grounds. On rights grounds. Otherwise, the oppressors always find excuses for their actions and describes the situations in different ways to escape responsibility or blame. This could go for Kosovo, US, Europe, Turkey, or any other place, I think. You mentioned this year opening unhealed wounds. Do you want to talk more about that? How are you experiencing this period and how is it healing?

Astrit Ismaili 18 Jul 2020 14:58
well, it mostly opened the wounds of the war i experienced in 1999 in kosovo. i started dreaming about it and had difficulties sleeping! this was partly related to my legal status in the netherlands! i live there since 5 years and just before the lockdown, the extension of my residency permit got rejected. i had to find a lawyer and file an objection, but basically the immigration office gave me two weeks to leave the country. it was so stressful and it made me realize how easily my life could completely change, how precarious my situation is! it made me conscious about my position in society, the disadvantages but also privileges. anxiety started to hit the fan. now everything is good! with the help of my lawyer which was recommended by mutual friend Deniz Buga, i got my papers sorted out!
i am in berlin now, preparing a performance after few months of a break! we will have 3 shows on a boat performance called: anothermap to nevada. i am so excited to finally be performing! i feel like the confinement other then the anxiety it aslo gave me clarity and a stronger agency. it somehow filtered the relevance from irrelevance.
for this event in berlin i decided to perform ‘Miss Kosovo’ a fragment from my performance ‘MISS’ which derives from my personal experience of the Kosovo war and independence. It is also inspired by the chain of global events that marked the 90’s. for instance: the fall of the Berlin wall, the separation of Yugoslavia and the birth of new national identities in Europe, which caused many unions to divide into smaller parts. To a certain extent, such conflicts have ended, but Miss Kosovo’s subjectivity still battles on. Miss Kosovo as queer body demands recognition of identities that are still invalidated locally and internationally. in these times, the political voice in performance gets a different attention. therefore, i believe the situation really had an impact on the decision to perform this part!

Fatih Gençkal 24 Tem 2020 19:01
A performance icon in Turkey died last weekend: Seyfi Dursunoğlu, better known as his drag character Huysuz Virjin (the Grumpy Virgin). A wonderful entertainer, a great singer, an excellent performer who was able to do almost anything on prime-time TV and get away with it. Such directness, quick wittedness, and a deep knowledge of the Turkish social psyche, he would elude any possible attack before it happens. Also a very eloquent speaker. Such a big inspiration in many dimensions, from a performance point of view but also politically -although he never really was directly ‘political’. His death came at a time when the LGBT scene is blossoming in Turkey and it is being attacked more and more. Targeted repeatedly through hate speeches by the government, there is growing solidarity. When you mentioned Miss Kosovo, I thought about what queer figures actually do. I used to think that there is a lot of visibility for them in a context like the Netherlands, especially in the arts field and hence their effect is diminished compared to a context like Turkey. But the queer body actually has a lot of potential to challenge and undermine the status quo in any context as it’s fluidity already screws up very basic assumptions about who we are and how we see each other and targets our desire for certainty which a lot of times leads to violence. It can also expand and change shape to include many different identities. That’s precisely what I loved in your show you did in our festival: UNIKAT and also watching the video of Miss.
On this occasion, would you like to say a few words about how you relate your work to queer performance and to the context in the Netherlands comparing it to other contexts maybe?

Astrit Ismaili 24 Ağu 2020 23:36
i identify as non binary and believe that queerness is the ideal attitude and political position against patriarchy. considering my background and art practice it makes sense that people conceive me as a queer performer. but i guess the queerest part of me actually refuses this epithet. the main reason why i am queer is the possibility to exist within this category as a transitional being with the potential to become anything i can be without having to be defined as one thing. in patriarchy and neoliberalism everything needs to be categorized, defined, put into binaries. its funny how these processes of categorizations which i see as very unnatural, in societies have become pillars of norms and codes of behavior that often limit us to become our dreams. queerness to me allows to be playful with identity and mess around with expectations. i am privileged to belong to queer scenes and subcultures here in the west which enabled meto have access to information and queer histories and movements. i don’t think it would have been the same if i only lived in the ‘isolated kosovo’. however i refuse to call myself a queer performer. sometimes i am, sometimes i am not, many times i’m just the wind and often just an idea, once i was a tear, a few times a memory, 7 times a seahorse, lately a flower but most of the time i am water.

hmmmm i as much as i believe in queer agenda i am also aware of the complex intersections within it! as an artist with a platform i use my body and the stage to create worlds, personas and realities to liberate myself from daily restrictions. i became 29 years old, i am an adult and i am still laughed at or bullied on the street, sometimes praised, appreciated and even applauded just for being the phenomenal creature i am. it is hard to believe that there are people who are disturbed or threatened by somebody’s existence just because its different from their own. queer bodies and queer resistance are a force to be reckoned with. our experiences have made us invent bodies, realities communities that did not exist to liberate us from societies that refuse to recognize us. therefore, i am looking for communities in which inclusivity, diversity, political awareness and sensibility are traits and mechanisms that support and nurtures the ones that need it the most!

Conversations is produced by A Corner in the World, 2020
It is realized with the support of The Consulate General of the Kingdom of the Netherlands.

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