“Metelkova” and Other Projects in Ljubljana: Actions in Zones of Indifference

Until 1991, the army barracks of the former Yugoslav army were located in Metelkova Street in the city of Ljubljana, Slovenia. However, after the Yugoslav army had been obliged to leave Slovenia in 1991, the City Council of Ljubljana was asked to let the abandoned military complex to the city’s various independent art and culture organisations.(Marina Grzinic, A City of Strong Underground Activities in the Past. From: 18 artists, 18 cities.) While officially granting the public request, the City Council secretly planned to tear down the barracks and put a commercial business center in their place. Therefore, the city’s activists, intellectuals and artists began to squat the building that is still a battlesite of the independent art and culture scene and the Ljubljana City Council today.

At first, the Metelkova barracks were run by a group of artists and activists that called themselves Network, or Action Committee for Metelkova. This Network demanded the restructuring of the city’s social cultural life. The Net sought the political mobilisation of artists and, above all, future architectural and cultural innovations.

In 1993, the City Council cut Metelkova’s water and electricity in an attempt to prevent the artists’ cultural programs and to force the activists to leave the squat. Today Metelkova is called “Metelkova City,” thus symbolising its history and its past battles, as well as being a cynical reminder of the center’s proper position in town.

The establishment of Metelkova City was not the action of an anonymous mass, but a public attempt by a large group of artists and activists to re-articulate space. Besides exploring possibilities for the integration of existing subcultures into dominant society, the activists were concerned with the creation and materialisation of new cultural movements.(Marina Grzinic, Strategies of Virtualization in the City. Urbanaria– SCCA. Ljubljana 1994.)

Metelkova City also stands for a 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 a symbolical death.

As Marjetica Potrc, an architect and sculptor from Ljubljana, pointed out in one of her lectures (at her solo presentation at the Gallery Skuc, Ljubljana, in March 2000), one can detect so-called ’empty zones’ or ‘voids’ in old historical city centers (in 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 symbolical structures are the bearers of surplus meaning, and they represent a countertrend to the eighties, at which time 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, only there in opposite direction: the “favelas” (slums) of Latin America, for example, are wildly growing peripheries that lack all formal structure and infrastructure. Nevertheless, with their almost baroque dirtiness and chaotic existentiality, these are the places that generate a meaning of life. The favelas spread much like cancer does, metastasising 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 skilfully hidden by the cities’ authorities. The empty zones, or, as I called them, 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.

In January 2000, Joze Barsi (an artist from Ljubljana) installed a toilet in the “public space” of Metelkova; a toilet as monument. This also signifies that the functionality of cities and their formal spaces has changed radically. Thus we can detect a re-location of the a-topical city center, which has little to do with presentation but is due to a re-location and re-articulation of the voids in urban space.

Let me pose a question that is not only relevant to the psychological space of the city, but that also represents the condition sine qua non of every urban paradigm of the nineties: What is the new urban monument of our decade? According to Mary Jane Jacob, an American critic and theorist who recently published an exhaustive study of public art in Chicago (with special emphasis on the activities of the Sculpture Chicago Organisation and its last project: Culture in Action), the new urban monument has changed in a specific Slovenian context, and is increasingly becoming the representation of a moment and movement in time. Metelkova is one example of this change.

With Metelkova, a trajectory from the passive arrangement of buildings in a public environment towards a social topicality was made. This change from a simple renewal of the physical environment to complex processes of living and producing is what Mary Jane Jacob refers to as “Culture in Action”. 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 that by its political and cultural atmosphere much resembles a dormitory. Due to its socialist background, Ljubljana and its institutions have been asleep too long. Metelkova points to Ljubljana’s urban dilemmas, for it regards the city as open territory.

Metelkova is also a useful paradigm of Slovenian cultural politics in general. One of the most important analyses in this context establishes a parallel between the Metelkova project and the Reports on Slovenian Cultural Policy that have been researched by a team of European experts, and were written by Michael Wimmer.(Michael Wimmer, Cultural Policy in Slovenia. European Program of National Policy Reviews, Council of Europe, CC-CULT (96) 22B) 1996.) This excellent and 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 (i.e., one with a clear outline). The second important characteristic is the “over-institutionalisation” 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. Hence, the national institutions have a specific but powerful influence on the way culture is perceived, distributed, relocated, and practised. Hereby, the main role of the Ministry of Culture is to satisfy the wishes of the cultural state institutions and their directors. Moreover, the report highlights the completely chaotic relationship between the regional and the national level of handling, developing and realising cultural projects.

Given this, it is not difficult to understandhow the municipal administration developed its authoritarian methods against Metelkova. It has to be granted that the alternative groups of the eighties took an extremist position. Still, their being demonised and portrayed as a threat to the city was nothing but a carnivalesque game. The European Report comments that the independent Slovenia succeeded in utterly paralysing the subcultures of alternative art, which in the eighties had enjoyed a very fruitful existence.

Another cultural tendency of our time has been individuated by experts of cultural and artistic strategies, with the support of the Slovenian Ministry of Culture; this tendency being a turn towards tradition, or, in other words, the European humanistic tradition of high art and culture. For Slovenia, this represented a radical turning point, as the new tendency differs radically from the flourishing modern and experimental art and culture that the Slovenia of the eighties had seen. According to the European Report, the imagined tradition of humanist art is a way to redirect art and culture (from modern and experimental productions).

During the height of the socialist period, the largest public events of urbanity were parades and celebrations of past victories and of the party congress. Indeed, socialism had its own forerunners of interactive mass media, and those even in real time! The Ljubljana alternative art scene created its own history 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 practises (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 recognised Ljubljana as “urbs” after experiencing that behind its topologically closed city structure, explosions of artistic production and social movements burst forth. The eighties also confirmed that Ljubljana deserves the title of an urban topos, because it was from within its underground that the “coming out” of homosexuals and the constitution of gay culture took place.

One must also not overlook those projects that took place in private residences (e.g., a performance titled The Retro-Garde Hinkemmann Happening by The theater of the Sisters of Scipio Nasica which took place in a private apartment in 1984, as well as the exhibition Was ist kunst by the group IRWIN which was also displayed in a private room in 1984). Through and in these projects, the otherwise carefully preserved boundaries between the public and the private blurred.

In the post-socialist nineties, the idea of a telematic society that is omnipresent and absent at the same time has been virtualised by the Irwin NSK State in Time project. The NSK State in Time implies the complete absence of physical territory, as it transmits data only temporally, linking cause and effect not through space but through information. The public within this virtual state has attained a whole new autonomy, but also a new kind of segregation (e.g., at a NSK State performance in the Berlin Volksbuhne in 1994, instead of a ticket, one had to show a passport with a valid visa in order to enter).

Peter Weibel would argue that these are the elements of a post-socialist decontrolling of space, a step further from the post-modernist decontrolling of space. Weibel opposes the post-modern decontrolling of space with what he calls the “modernist fetish of totality” and the supervision of artistic output.

To him, the first degree of the modernist project subsumes the whole idea of space in the transfer from one social space to another. The second degree, then, represents the state in which most (post) avant-garde art finds itself today: external operations become the internal structures of the work itself. However, it is the third degree that above all determines the comprehension andoperation of parameters such as urbanity, space, representation and public in culture and art most radically. Weibel calls this degree the observer/viewer oriented approach. In contrast to the first two, which, as Weibel stresses, demonstrate throughout that the meaning of a work can only be constructed through its social context, it is the observer/viewer-oriented approach that actually incorporates the social context into the work itself. The post-socialist step of decontrolling space goes even further as it develops strategies for the absolute fictionalisation of the city. I would like to give some other examples from Ljubljana, beside the ones already discussed:

On December 15, 1999, Dragan Zivadinov’s “Noordung Cosmokinetic Cabinet theater” performed a parabolic art project named Noordung Biomechanics in the Russian cosmonaut training aircraft IL – 76MDK (registered RA 78770) at 6660 m in the skies above Moscow; the aircraft was operated by the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training facility, which is based in Star City, just outside Moscow.(Marina Grzinic, Dragan Zivadinov Noordung Cosmokinetic theater. from: Fama, No. 1, Frakcija & Maska & Dance 7, München 2000.)

Since director Dragan Zivadinov’s first conception of the Retrogarde theater in the early 80s (as part of the Neue Slowenische Kunst movement), it went through several metamorphoses. In the mid-80s Zivadinov renamed the theater Red Pilot Cosmokinetic theater, and in the 90’s he called it The Noordung Cosmokinetic theater.

The Noordung Cosmokinetic Cabinet theater performed its Noordung Biomechanics at a state of zero gravity, as it was interested in the changes taking place in the human body in a situation of weightlessness. Thus, Zivadinov’s Noordung Biomechanics analyses phenomena of contemporary theater and performance by using the plethora of new technological and electronic means. This particular performance had been developed by combining elements of theater, the body, mobility, subjectivity and mechanics with more general social and physical phenomena such as the physiological changes that take place in the human body at zero gravity. Zivadinov inspects the kinetic conceptualisations of new technologies, elaborating on issues such as simulation, simulacrum and the cyborgs/cybernetics/cybernauts. In his Biomechanics theater, the contemporary time-and-space paradigm takes on a central role, as does the problematic of the “subject” turning actor and performer in the modern electronic era.

For Zivadinov, the actor becomes the final destination of numerous networks that are placed within global data webs. In the weightless theater, acting is not merely theorised about, but indeed physically created through the medium of (spacecraft) machines.

In his seminal book Terminal Identity (Scott Bukatman, Terminal Identity. Duke University Press, Durham and London 1993. pp. 18-19 aand pp. 150-160.), Scott Bukatman defines terminal culture or cyberspace as an era in which the digital has substituted the tactile. He further argues (using Jean Baudrillard’s terms) that physical action in terminal situations – of which the zero gravity situation is one example – returns as a strategy of communication, combining tactile and tactical simulations.(Jean Baudrillard, Simulations. Semiotext(e), New York 1983, p. 124.) The visual and rhetorical recognition of terminal space therefore prepares the subject for a more direct, bodily engagement (Bukatman). Moreover, cyberspace is founded on, and concentrates on, the cybernaut. Timothy Leary reminds us that; “The word cybernetic-person or cybernaut returns us to the original meaning of ‘pilot’ and puts the self-reliant person back in the loop”.(Tmothy Leary, The Cyber Punk: The Individual as Reality Pilot. from: L. McCaffery (Ed.), Storming the Reality Studio, Duke Press, Durham 1992, p. 252.) The construction of a new cyberspatial subject thus relies on a terminology of perception and kinesis (Bukatman): piloting, mobile distancing, travelling, gravitating.

This is exactly how the subject/actor develops who is generated by Zivadinov’s process of physiognomic reconstitution at zero gravity. Writers such as Jean Baudrillard or William Gibson also rely on metaphors and metaphorical actions of human perception that are based on mobility, in order to construct electronic space as a paradigm, or a matrix, open to comprehension.

Dragan Zivadinov’s emphasis on the primary role of perception and mechanical mobility corresponds to the paradigmatic processes of visualisation, all of which are shared by the narrative, scientific, and philosophical treatment of electronic space. Yet Zivadinov goes beyond mere visualisation -he transcends it.

“Biomechanics” refers to a process that combines life forms with mechanics; it is about motion and the effects of physical forces on the body. Although the word “Biomechanics” is not listed in Webster’s New World dictionary, it is strongly present in Russian tradition, from theater to physiology. What for the developed West is associated with technology and transformation, and is usually termed “genetic engineering” is to the Russians known as Biomechanics. It is in fact possible to think of Biomechanics as a new artistic form of genetic engineering. The primary domain of Biomechanics is physiology, that is, science dealing with the functions and vital processes of living organisms and mechanical movements. Biomechanics, as it was first understood by Leonardo da Vinci (1452- 1519), is today widely used in military medicine. It was Vsevolod Emiljevich Mejerholjd (1874 -1942), the conceiver of the Revolutionary theater (the theater is perceived as a mobile space with constructivist elements), who introduced biomechanical elements into the theater, rendering the stage a site of dramatic performances and actions.

Zivadinov differentiates between three stages in Biomechanics, all of them containing, and making use of, certain technological gadgets, political references, and body parts:

1.) Historical Biomechanics (until the beginning of the WWII)

2.) Telepresence Biomechanics (starting with WWII and connected to a proliferation of research on rocket technology and astronautics)

3.) Cosmic Biomechanics (inaugurated by Zivadinov’s parabolic art project Noordung Biomechanics)

I would like to draw a parallel between these three periods in Biomechanics, and between the differences and continuities of optical, electronic and digital technologies. Historical Biomechanics were a period of mainly auditory and optical technologies, radio being the most important medium. The body of an actor who participates in historical Biomechanic performances is like the body of an acrobat. In the period of Telepresence Biomechanics, television became the central apparatus, which makes it easy to see the connection with our present period of electronic technologies and images. The actor mutates from an acrobat to an experimental body (examples are, in this order: Cindy Sherman, Dump Type, Stelarc, Orlan). For Cindy Sherman, the body is a screen that is used for all sorts of roles plays, indeed for the complete masquerade of identity. A Dumb Type actor is not a theatrical character but a life character: the leading actor/character in Dumb Type represented an Aids bomb, with the actor himself the container of the virus; he was the virus, but also the potential illness, continually reminding us of a potentiality that waits to become a reality. Stelarc, then, is a potential cyborg (muscles manipulated through the Internet), while Orlan is the unfinished form of a cyborg; a modern Frankenstein who considers cosmetology much more important than cosmology.

If, according to Bukatman, art poses the enigma of the body,then the enigma of technique poses the enigma of art.

For Zivadinov, computers, meaning “intelligent television,” are the path leading to the third stage of Biomechanics. Cosmic Biomechanics imply the politics of digitality; this is a movement from the visual linearity of TV to the 3-dimensional complexity of life at zero gravity in space. Noordung Biomechanics theater is all about the science of motion and the effect that physical forces have on bodies. The project shows different bodies in parallel worlds: physical bodies, sexual bodies, social bodies, technological bodies and political bodies. Each territory produces a borderline-body. In Cosmic Biomechanics, the muscles and the skeleton of the subject change. The Russian astronaut Krikaljov, who spent more than a year in space at a zero gravity ambient, demonstrated this clearly: according to Zivadinov, he experienced changes both in his bones and in his skeleton structure. In Cosmic Biomechanics, the actors are cosmonauts. As Zivadinov argues, at zero gravity, biomechanics are not a question of psychodynamics anymore, but one of space vectors. Hence Zivadinov’s reference to “Krikaljov’s vector.”

Any animal transmitting a disease-producing organism is called a vector, because vectors are carriers. Mass, speed and acceleration are all typical vector dimensions that can also be characterised as orientation, path and sum. At zero gravity, the body, too, starts to function like a vector, because it reaches the absolute sum of intensity. The transformation of the actor’s skeleton is a transformation of Biomechanics; inner bone substance is used for food or fertiliser. These changes can be described by algorithms. In general terms, algorithms are a way to solve certain kinds of mathematical problems, just as LIVE is a very simple computer program. In this sense, LIVE is nothing but a special algorithm.

Gravity pulls all bodies in the Earth’s sphere towards its center, but at a zero gravity ambient, the force by which mass attracts and is attracted equals zero. For instance, objects that have been artificially put into the Earth’s orbit –such as satellites– and astronauts are in this condition. Because of centrifugal forces, the bodies move away from the center of rotation, and the Earth’s gravitation is abolished. Bodies in a spacecraft, whether they are human, a grain of dust, or a drop of water, are weightless. As a consequence, bodily fluids are not expelled anymore, thus seriously complicating and inhibiting the performance of common physical functions, such as urinating. Yet until 1966 it was a common assumption that living in a zero gravity ambient has no physiological and biological effects on the human body.

In Noordung Biomechanics, theater and performance meet reality. If theater is a symbolic space (where the actor represents something or somebody else), and performance a representation of reality (where the actor articulates his or her subjective, non-mediated reality), then the Noordung actor who has been transformed into an astronaut is the Real of both theater and performance. The “real” bodies of Noordung Biomechanics invade the zero gravity space as a vertiginous display of their depthlessness. One should bear in mind that the Real, this indivisible remainder that eternally resists its own reflective idealisation, is not “a kind of external kernel which idealisation and symbolisation are unable to swallow –to internalise– but an irrationality, indeed the very madness that lies at the bottom of idealisation/symbolisation.”(Slavoj Žižek. The Indivisible Remainder. Verso, London and New York 1996. p.51-52.) We may extend this idea into a broader concept of human experience as it relates to art criticism and the anti-rational qualities of science and modern technology. To quote a passage from Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception: “All my knowledge of the world, even my scientific knowledge, is gained from my particular point of view, or from some experience of the world without which the symbols of science would be meaningless. The whole universe of science is built upon the world as directly experienced, and if we want to subject science itself to rigorous scrutiny and arrive at a precise assessment of its meaning, we must begin by reawakening the basic experience of the world of which science is the order expression.”(Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception. preface, p. XI.) The emphasis on experience constitutes the practical dimension of this argument, while the strengthening of an experience that is centerd in personal subjectivity has a practical impact. It is the demand for ‘subjectivity’ that is aware of the contradictions within the social body, because it explores itself, its own desires and drives. This would make art the highest form of critique, because only art can fulfil the task fully and powerfully. “To return to the things themselves is to return to that world which proceeds knowledge, of which knowledge always speaks, and in relation to which every scientific schematisation is an abstract and derivative sign-language, as is the geography in relation to the country-side in which we learnt beforehand what a forest, a prairie or river is.”(Ibid.) One could say that art offers a privileged opportunity to experience such alternative countrysides.

I stated that cyberspace concentrates on the cybernaut, the subject in cyberspace. Cybernauts are perceived as kinetic urban subjects, as his or her entry into cyberspace is strikingly kinetic. Cyberspace must have a 3-dimensional quality in order to permit physical mobility and make the individual the dramatic center and active agent in a spatiotemporal reality. The phenomenology of perceptions is transformed from a mere description of the subject’s passage through life -a passage marked by continuous re-orientation and re-adaptation-to an evaluation of human experience, and consequently, of human control. Merleau-Ponty seems aware of this danger when he writes: “Mobility, then, is not, as it were, a handmaid of consciousness, transporting the body to that point in space of which we have formed a representation beforehand. In order that we may be able to move our body towards an object, the object must first exist for it, our body must not belong to the realm of the in-itself”.(Ibid. , p.133.) The physical engagement with the body enforces a simultaneous construction of the subject and the world. Bukatman, for example, believes that normal space becomes the site of alienation when compared to cyberspace. Thus the duality of mind and body is superseded in a new conception that represents the mind as being embodied itself.

In the year 2000, the Slovenian artist Marko Peljhan moved his auto-sufficient laboratory (an autonomous lab containing people, instruments and technology that has no fixed location) to Australia. Various people from all over the world joined the project, all of them completely on their own account. These people live in the lab, but also use it to produce energy and research auto-sufficient modules of existing and future technological data, which are then transmitted via satellite, radio waves etc. The Macrolab uses the home-made technology of radio transmitters, satellite decoders, etc. to research the production and distribution of information.

The projects and structures I have discussed here do not aim to construct eternal buildings of knowledge (the “Eternal City”), but rather they should be seen as movements and environments, and, most importantly, the re-instatement and re-definition of categories such as public/agents/actors/survivors. If I make reference to Marko Peljhan’s Macrolab, it is on the account of his attempted restoration of physical contacts and orientations in the environment, among other things. All these projects are in a direct opposition to realism, but develop strategies for an absolute fictionalisation of the city. This is also true for Metelkova: it is a subversion of the city, its negative structure, its traumatic paradigm of cancer.

The Italian philosopher Mario Perniola speaks of simultaneity and transition in space, but the projects I have described are neither hierarchically nor temporally ordered and set. What’s more, we move from a physical to a mental space, until, like on a Moebius strip, we find ourselves in the traumatically real, socio-political urban society of Metelkova, or in the fictionalised and virtualised space of the NSK State in Time. At the same time, Dragan Zivadinov’s project and Peljhan’s Macrolab point towards increasingly telematic relations within the city, which today operates with de-materialised information, a structural fluidity of communication and a de-territorialized public.

*Dragan Zivadinov’s Noordung Cosmokinetic Cabinet theater

* Macrolab by Marko Peljhan at http://makrolab.ljudmila.org

*Irwin – NSK State in time at http://www.ljudmila.org/Embassy