Slovenia and the story of a fight for culture as a common good.
After a week in Austria, next on the program was Slovenia. I decided to stay at Ljubljana, do a daytrip from there and after 4 nights move to the coastline, Piran. I heard many good stories about the Slovenian nature, lakes and mountains but was not sure what to expect from Ljubljana. Maybe it was because I was looking forward being in the city again, but I felt very comfortable in the streets and the atmosphere of the city.
I stayed at the Vila Veselova hostel, part of the I travel Balkans network that features a couple of hostels located in the Balkans. The hostels are a bit small with a cozy atmosphere and friendly staff who are happy to join you for a glass of wine and some real advice on how the travel in their country. This is very convenient in the Balkans as they have a very dense bus network, which it quite complicated if you don't know the local bus company.
Because everyone advised us to do so we went to Lake Bled for a day. Obviously it is very pretty, but at the same time very constructed for tourism. A lot of tourists only go for one day and so busses with tours are dropped, everyone walks one round along the lake and returns to where they came from. It is maybe the destiny of such extraordinary places that they become less amazing because of the tourist industry. The Slovenian tourist industry is growing rapidly and it is becoming one of the most popular destinations in Europe. The prizes are a bit higher than the rest of the Central Europe and the travel network within the country but also within Ljubljana is very developed and easy accessible for tourists. Therefore it is not hard to find nice hostels, good tips for nightlife, daytrips and very nice local restaurants.
The second night in Ljubljana we went to Metelkova Mesto. It used to be a military terrain build for the Austrian-Hungarian army and the army of the Republic of Yugoslavia. After the independence of Slovenia, artists and activists started petitioning to turn the area into a cultural center instead of commercializing it. Unfortunately the government did not respond on the petition, so the community decided to squat the area. While first the government was not to happy with this development, now it is tolerated and sometimes even financially supported by the government. Over the years they have developed the area and the Guardian labeled it in 2015 as one of the most successful squatted areas of Europe.
While you can enter the terrain for free and bring your own drinks, it is a perfect spot to meet people and enjoy the youth culture of Slovenia. Around the terrain there are some clubs, art exhibitions, debates and other cultural related events all runned by the community. What made it special in my opinion is that it has been able to keep their artistic and liberal atmosphere without becoming victim of commercialization processes that are so common. We kind of went in without a plan and accidentally went to a dubstep night. We literally jumped around in the club, acting quite insane, releasing all our energy, losing ourselves to the atmosphere of the club. It was one of those experiences that is unique because of a set of factors coming together at the right time and place.
Mladi Levi, contemporary theatre for everyone.
My last day in Ljubljana I planned an interview with Alma Selimović from Bunker. I try to let my interviews or conversations develop naturally so I don’t plan beforehand the specific questions I want to ask. This approach makes it possible to have a spontaneous conversation that can turn into the direction of what interests both of us most and to something that I could not have expected beforehand. This time we talked about much more than just the institution and their festival, she also talked to me about the problems and the successes of applying for European grants, Slovenian maternity leave, the new generation and Slovenian politics. She gave me enough to digest for a couple of days.
Though Bunker organizes performances and projects all year through, their main project is the Mladi levi Festival. This is a festival of contemporary performance art, mostly dance and theatre. It started to fill a gap of contemporary art in Ljubljana, to bring a platform for the younger generation in contemporary art. It connects the local artists of Ljubljana to an international network that they created during the years. It is not a standard performance festival, a fact that you realize as soon as you start reading their book ‘Lion Tales’. In this book journalists, performers, directors and colleagues explain the relevance of the festival for the development of the Slovenian performance art, city development, cultural policy, education and much more. The book combines so many stories of people who are or have been part of the Mladi levi community that I am not going to reproduce that, but I do recommend to read the book on their website, http://www.bunker.si/eng/festivals/mladi-levi . The book offers an unique insight to what a festival can do for its surroundings and how enormous the influence can be for the society, politics, individuals and the urban development. I’ll go into some parts of the influence they have, the parts that Alma told me about the most, including new people to the contemporary theater and how they organize their budget.
As the conversation between me and Alma Selimović drifted away a couple of times, we talked about the role of culture in our European society nowadays. Mladi Levi festival is dependent on grants and subsidies from the state, private organisations and lately also the EU. As she is one of the person's who drafts the applications for the grants, she also reflected on the process of getting grants as cultural organisation. In Western Europe, culture has not been seen as a common good for quite some time already, when tax money is spent on culture it has to serve a certain goal or benefit. Slovenia is turning this direction, or is already there, but as I wrote earlier already, there is still a tradition of free events and street festivals in Central and Eastern Europe. In order to maintain this tradition and making culture accessible for everyone, applying for international funds, like the funds from the EU is getting more important to complete the budget. While the European states are cutting their cultural budgets, the EU has become more important for cultural festivals like Mladi Levi.
The national cultural budget cuts and the growing dependence on the EU are also causing another effect. The story of a cultural institution and what the benefits are to society, is becoming a bigger part of the producers tasks. Alma Selimović is balancing between the cultural policy side of her job and the general appreciation of culture and performance art that can’t always be put into policy terms. We also jumped between these topics in our talks, on the one hand her passion for theater and the Mladi Levi festival, while on the other hand her interest in politics and cultural policy.
In this light her other project fulfills the responsibility of the Bunker institute as educative platform and at the same her passion for culture and how to transfer that to the younger generation. This project aims to make the younger generation familiar with performance art. They organize three days with high school students to get to Ljubljana and experience performances. Not specific performances just for these kids, but they get tickets to go to the regular performance. They are treated as normal visitors to give them the whole experience of going to a performance, the fun of the cultural night out. And though some of them are shocked by the contemporary dance, the nudity for example, the total experience of going to the city and experience this culture, is in general a positive one.
Since 2004 they have obtained a main venue for events of Stara mestna Elektrarna, an old power plant. With the settlement and managing of the location of Stara mestna Elektrarna they also decided to take a more prominent role in the rest of the neighborhood. The idea of the cultural quarter of Tabor park came into being combining the locations in the area. Because every theater performance also needs space and therefore creating cultural space and infrastructure has been a major part of Bunker. Before 2004 they adopted many different locations in the city for their performances and after 2004 they still used open and outdoor spaces for events, like the opening of the festival. Making the festival less closed off and part of the city life resulting in an audience that not only connects but also returns. By letting the performers choose their location, the city can be seen by different perspectives and new public spaces are redeveloped or created. In this way Bunker has contributed enormously to the current cultural infrastructure of the city.
Another contribution of the festival is their openness and accessibility. One way of showing this is that the festival is completely free and based on donations of their visitors. As the success of a performance is often measured in amount of visitors, they measure it by the amount of returning visitors and their opinions on the festival. The set-up of the festival has changed many times, some changes with positive feedback from the visitors, and some changes resulted in less positive feedback. The strength of the organisation is that they are not afraid to experiment but also admit when a new plan or format did not work out. They organize talks on topics relevant for the sector and adopt a bar during the festival which is used as place where the journalist, performers, technicians, visitors etc. all come together and discuss what they have watched. Also the place where the volunteers are rewarded for their work and are inaugurated in the Mladi Levi family. As their budget is often cramped and theatre an expensive art form is, they depend highly on their network and therefore the festival also centers around the meetings, drinks, debated and a picknick in the mountains. They don’t only stimulate their own network but also the European.
The Mladi levi festival has over the years brought many benefits to Ljubljana as a city, to the Slovenian society but also the European public sphere. These accomplishments should not be overlooked or pushed away as made up policy narratives. The festival and organisation breaths enthusiasm, development and power. Before I went into their office I did not know what to expect, but after having enough time to digest, read their book, read their stories and listening back to the interview, I can only conclude that I stumbled upon a very special and important organisation. The work that these people have been doing the past decade is of enormous importance, not only for Ljubljana or Slovenia, but for the whole European network in contemporary art. They have the power to connect people and work to get a better quality of life, one of their main goals with the festival.
And after all the beneficial things they have done for society, she wanted me to also understand that sometimes art is just art and should be appreciate without the policy narrative, without other benefits than just enjoying something interesting, talented, new or beautifull. I did not expect to find so many inspiring initiatives in Slovenia, but I would advise the rest of cultural Europe to go there, take a look and learn some wise lessons of their perspectives and way of managing their culture, despite of the government. Their strength to fight for what they believe in and start such a successful festival or cultural quarter without a fixed subsidy, is truly inspiring. The cultural sector of Slovenia may not be the best known, or international oriented, but it is of international quality, Bunker, Metelkova and many other initiatives have proven that. And as also in the post communist states the role of culture is changing, they keep on going and stay creative in order to reach their goal. These organisations that I have visited during my travels, are independent cultural entrepreneurs who do not expect to have the right to something but just do it themselves. This attitude could be an example for the slightly spoiled cultural scene in Western Europe, combine that with the European infrastructure and together they can fight the fight for culture as common good.