METELKOVA: ACTIONS IN A ZONE OF INDIFFERENCE
Until 1991, the army barracks of the former Yugoslavian army were located in Metelkova Street in the city of Ljubljana, Slovenia. After the Yugoslavian army was obliged to leave Slovenia in 1991, the City Council of Ljubljana was asked to let the abandoned military complex be used by the city's various independent art and culture organizations. While officially granting the public request, the City Council secretly planned to tear down the barracks and construct a commercial business center in their place. In response to these veiled intentions, the city's activists, intellectuals and artists began to squat the buildings; today Metelkova still represents a terrain of battle between the independent art and culture scene and the Ljubljana City Council.
At first, the Metelkova barracks were run by a group of artists and activists who called themselves Network, or the Action Committee for Metelkova. This Network demanded nothing short of a complete restructuring of the city's social and cultural life. The Network sought the political mobilization of artists and, above all, future architectural and cultural innovations.
In 1993, the Ljubljana City Council cut Metelkova's water and electricity as an attempt to prevent the artists' cultural programs from continuing by forcing the activists to leave the squat. At that moment, the Metelkova Network began to invite public figures, from intellectuals to politicians, to sleep for one night in the cold and without water and light in the Metelkova complex, and to write, by the light of a single candle, a one page reflection that rethought the position of Metelkova within Slovenian cultural and political reality. After a year, the Ljubljana City council returned the use of electricity and water, but the year-long siege left deep imprints. Metelkova city was emptied of its art citizens (in such conditions of cold and deprivation only the most resistant and really homeless were capable of staying) and during this time the art production was cut in half.
At the end of the 1990s Metelkova re-named itself Metelkova City. Some of the buildings and open air places in Metelkova also received new metaphorical names - for example, one of the outdoor places is called the "place without historical memory." Through these processes of renaming, today Metelkova stands as a cynical reminder of its position in the very recent past.
Besides exploring the possibilities for the integration of already existing subcultures into dominant society, the activists were concerned with the creation of possibilities for the materialization of new, yet undefined cultural movements. The process of establishing Metelkova City was an act of re-articulating a public space by a large group of artists and activists who endeavored to emphasize the possibility of revitalizing and integrating existing subculture or alternative systems and to create new (dis)functional systems of cultural and social action in Ljubljana. Metelkova City is also a symbol of the new meaning that the voids of modern cities have acquired. Ljubljana today is a major city that has been totalized by a surge of middle-class architectural purification, and that shows signs of a historical and inter-geographical amnesia, with objects, places, facts and structures forgotten in less than a minute. Paradoxically, it is the ease of life in Ljubljana that causes its symbolic death.
As Marjetica Potrc, an architect and sculptor from Ljubljana, pointed out in one of her lectures at Gallery Skuc in March 2000, one can detect so-called "empty zones" or voids in old historical city centers (cities such as Ljubljana, but also in Münster, Vienna, Munich etc). These voids are made up of large complexes of vacant buildings, areas in the city with no formal past or designated map location. These symbolic structures are the bearers of a surplus meaning, and they represent a countertrend to the eighties, a time when the old European cities derived their meaning from beautiful architecture or famous historical buildings and places. The same process that can be witnessed in the cities of the West is going on in the third world, but in the opposite direction: the "favelas" (slums) of Latin America, for example, are wildly growing peripheries that lack any formal structure and infrastructure. Nevertheless, with their almost baroque dirtiness and chaotic existentiality, these are the places that generate the meaning of life. The favelas spread like cancer, metastasizing uncontrolled in space, with deregulated structures and infrastructures. As such, they are new zones of meaning, error, survival, death, and entropy.
In the cities, especially in the historical cities of old humanistic Europe, voids are generated and produced, but also very skillfully hidden by the cities' authorities. The empty zones or the a-topical city topos (they are a-located locations) are not to be found on official city maps; they exist invisibly, erased from the city's official topography. The city's administration feels ashamed and at the same time terrified by these newly created voids and by what they imply; a new political formlessness that forms the city.
With Metelkova, a trajectory from the passive arrangement of buildings in a public environment towards a social topicality was created. We can understand Metelkova as an instance of what Mary Jane Jacob, an American critic and theorist, calls a "culture in action." Jacob notes that the new urban monument in Slovenia has shifted from a simple renewal of the physical space to complex processes of movement in time. Rather than just representing an expansion of the urban ethos, Metelkova replaces it; the entire community of Metelkova is creator and user at the same time, thus building a city within the city. Metelkova can also be seen as a symbolic protest against a city whose political and cultural atmosphere resembles a dormitory. Due to its socialist background, Ljubljana and its institutions have been asleep too long. Metelkova points to Ljubljana's urban dilemmas by regarding the city as an open territory.
Metelkova is a paradigm of Slovenian cultural politics in general. One of the most important analyses that establishes a parallel between Metelkova and the Reports on Slovenian Cultural Policy is a research project conducted by a team of European experts whose findings were reported by Michael Wimmer (Cultural Policy in Slovenia. European Program of National Policy Reviews, Council of Europe, 1996). This archetypal report draws a very accurate picture of the contemporary cultural policies in Slovenia. First, it establishes that Slovenia has in fact no real cultural policy (in other words, one with a clear outline). The second important characteristic is the "over-institutionalization" of Slovenian culture. The report concludes that the cultural and artistic life of Slovenia is largely ruled and consumed by state institutions whose employees' mostly hold tenure for life. Consequently the national institutions have a specific but powerful influence on the way culture is perceived, distributed, relocated, and practiced. The main role of the Ministry of Culture is to satisfy the wishes of the cultural state institutions and their directors. Moreover, the relationship between the regional and the national level of handling, developing and realizing cultural projects is completely chaotic.
In this context, it is not difficult to understand how the municipal administration developed its authoritarian methods against Metelkova. The alternative groups of the eighties may have taken an 'extremist' position, but their demonization and portrayals as a threat to the city by the authorities was nothing but a carnivalesque game. The European Report concludes that the independent Slovenian State succeeded in utterly paralyzing the alternative subcultures which in the eighties had enjoyed a very fruitful existence. The tendency of the nineties, directed by cultural and artistic experts with the support of the Slovenian Ministry of Culture, has been a turn towards tradition, in other words, the European humanistic tradition of high art and culture. For Slovenia, this was a conservative turning point that differed completely from the radical flourishing of modern and experimental art and culture during the eighties.
During the height of the socialist period, the largest urban public events were parades and celebrations of past victories and of the party congress. The Ljubljana alternative art scene created its own history and urban events in the eighties. It opened up a whole range of issues by consciously sticking to non-institutional environments (underground clubs), as well as by encouraging a whole line of artistic and social practices (at the time, graffiti was the language of a stratified urban community and of marginal groups) and by investigating inner and outer public environments. The underground movement recognized Ljubljana as "urbs" after experiencing an explosion of artistic production and social movements behind the scene of the topologically closed city structure.
In many ways, the subcultural movement that arose twenty years ago in Ljubljana was the historical subconscious of Metelkova. This subculture was an exceptional underground collision of art, culture and politics. The movement arose within the Student Culture Center in Ljubljana (SKUC) and in close relations with Radio Student (established in 1968, after the Student riots in Ljubljana) and Mladina, a youth culture weekly magazine. The end of the 1970s in Slovenia, commonly referred to as the end of authoritarian politics, was followed by the growth of the new youth subculture of "punk." This was more than just a style or a passing fashion and signified a reconfiguration of the social and artistic arena. A network of clubs and public meeting places was created, as were new ways of accepting "deviant" social and artistic activities. 1984 was the year of the coming out of Ljubljana homosexuals, the establishment of the gay social/art club Magnus, and of the lesbian sub-group within the Lilit's section for women's issues - the first organized gay and lesbian movement in the socialist countries of Eastern Europe.
The Slovenian alternative movement of the 1980s introduced autonomous production and organizational forms of culture and art which were developed independently and in parallel to the existing official, mostly impotent, cultural systems and channels. The alternative subculture represented an intrusion into official cultural and artistic production, as well as a shift into the social and political sphere. The alternative movement was not simply a marginal movement that ultimately, according to the logic of political isometrics, functioned as a reconfirmation of "the center as center." The most significant strategy of the Ljubljana alternative movement consisted not in finding alternatives to the Communist system, but alternatives within it. In the space of ten years the alternative scene brought a completely new perception of the concept and strategy of art - as an inherently political paradigm, connected to daily life, mass media and technology. During the 1990s many political and art historical accounts erase this entire history, silencing its potential, seeking to return to a tranquil continuity with Slovenian culture and art that no longer exists. If the weight of this subcultural history still has the power to provoke, it is within the parallel city within a city of Metelkova.
Metelkova does not aim to construct an eternal building of knowledge (the "Eternal City"). It is a movement in time and a lived environment that redefines categories like public/agents/actors/survivors. Metelkova is a subversion of the city - its negative structure and its position as a traumatic cancer represents the negation of the realism and literal functionalism of any city. Metelkova forces us to move from the physical to the mental structures of urban space - as if on a Moebius strip, suddenly we find ourselves in the traumatically real kernel of a city without a name.
A longer version of this text was first published in Art Margins (www.artmargins.com) in February, 2001.
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