By: Kara Sievewright
Once upon a time, far away in a little country called Slovenia, a country lost in the horrors of the Balkans and the history of Europe, there was a small war, a war of ten days. It started on the day that Slovenia declared its independence from Yugoslavia. Tanks rolled through the city and the countryside, and helicopters rained down leaflets with ridiculous proclamations: “Inhabitants of Slovenia, stay at home and at work. You are invited to peace and collaboration, for the Yugoslav People’s Army will fulfil their mission thoroughly and forcefully. Any resistance will be crushed.”
The next day the Slovenes shot down two helicopters and the Yugoslav military retaliated by bombing Slovenian communication towers. In the city, maybe the capitalists toppled the Tito statues, but the statues of the Partisans from the other war were kept in place, their red stars rising, arms extended into fists of eternal but faded triumph. These fists, some remember, the partisans stuck into the assholes of mules to keep warm as they fought off the Italian fascists. But this time, there was no need for such drastic measures for after ten days and thirteen people dead, the borders were built and the Yugoslavian People’s Army retreated, leaving the capital city of Ljubljana guarded only by greening bronze dragons.
The inhabitants of Slovenia were not really surprised by any of this, for the path from Party rule into independence had started long ago – not from within the ranks of the government or the business leaders (who assumed capitalism was inherently democratic) – but within the realm of civil society in the form of new social movements. If you happened to be peaking through the holes in the rusty iron curtain during the Eighties at the goings-on of this small country, you would have seen the public presence of avante-guard artists, punks and their mohawks extending into the blue sky, graffiti filling up the bland spaces, independent demonstrations against militarization, gay celebrations, the popularity of the weekly iconoclastic magazine Mladina. You would have heard on Radio Student a medley of punk, New York underground, “counter-revolutionary” neo-Marxist political analysis and French influenced critical theory. These movements and happenings succeeded to drive small but painful slivers into the rule of the League of Communists of Slovenia. So when the Yugoslavian military abandoned their barracks on Metelkova Street in Ljubljana and the capitalists and the democratics came crawling from out of the jails, the universities, and their various exiles, the Slovenian people were hardly shocked.
One hundred years ago the barracks of Metelkova were built to house the Austro-Hungarian Army on the grounds where public executions were held, in the district once known as the Valley of the Cows. For one hundred years Metelkova watched the blood of one, two, three wars seep between the cracks of the cobblestones.
In 1990, a year before Slovenia’s independence, over 200 individuals and groups – including artists, musicians, anarchists, students, political organizations, punks, theatre groups – initiated the Network for Metelkova, a plan to convert the military barracks into an independent cultural centre. When the Yugoslav military vacated the barracks and the prison after the Ten Day War, the dreams and schemes of the Network actually became realistic. Even the city of Ljubjlana and the government of Slovenia agreed to the Network’s program, and so the Network started a Metelkova zine which spread news and plans of the Metelkova conversion from the home of the war machines to the home of art, comics, politics and zines. In the fall of 1993 the Network petitioned the city of Ljubljana to let them move in before the winter fell.
But the city, employing the rationality of the state, suddenly decided that they were the rightful owners of the barracks. And because they had no present use for the buildings, they determined it was better to tear the compound down then leave it for a bunch of illegitimate young punks. After 100 years of housing the machines of war, for one night in September of 1993, Metelkova itself felt the devastating effects of destruction. Immediately the news of the bulldozers spread and approximately 200 people spontaneously occupied the northern section of Metelkova. Many buildings were damaged beyond repair and large gaping holes were knocked into the wall of the Hiev building – the Stable – but the occupiers and their supporters managed to stop the city workers before the barracks were completely destroyed.
Between the ruins of the government’s promises and the memories of other wars, people started to live in the buildings. Others set up art studios, put on film nights and art shows; bands put on shows; organizations, clubs, and societies claimed spaces. Although within a week of the occupation the city disconnected the electricity and the water, for three months, in the dark and cold, over 200 events happened at Metelkova. The squatting of the barracks in September of 1993 intensified and continued the strong and rich independent cultural and political movements of the Eighties. So while the monotony of free-market capitalism took over the streets of Ljubljana, autonomous culture grew and flourished in the former military barracks of Metelkova.
I never had my eyes glued to holes in the rusty iron curtain so I arrived in this little land not knowing anything of its existence. I was on my way through, travelling from the east – Romania, Hungary – and back on to Italy, on to the anti-G8 demonstration in Genova. From Hungary we took a train to the border but the tracks stopped a couple of kilometers away. It was night so we slept under a tree, in a field by the no-man’s land between Hungary and Slovenia, passports firmly in hand. Canadians, just tourists, we rehearsed saying, should we be awoken by the flashlights of the border police. The next day, we walked ten kilometres along the highway from Hungary across the border into Slovenia, a journey I documented by taking pictures of the roadkill we passed. We had heard on the internet of a nearby activist camp set up to prevent refugee deportations. We decided to check it out.
When we arrived at the camp there were people from all over Europe: an Austrian theatre group, some Slovakians, Croatian crusty punks, German hippies. Despite some of its occupants, the camp was a pretty dull place. But I did meet the amazingly articulate former zine-writer, erotic radio-host, festival organizer, and self-proclaimed hedgehog, Tea Hvala. Tea’s energy and commitment was the first indication that I was to find something truly exceptional in Slovenia. I eventually pushed on Ljubljana, capital city of Slovenia, but not before making plans to meet up with Tea again. One night, we stole bikes and rode through the park of the partisans, across the cobblestones, through the heart of town, past the old folk’s home, on through the gates of Metelkova. And there it was, this active, partly crumbling amazing mass of art and politics. Tea became my introduction, my historian, and tour guide to the incredibly rich independent culture of Slovenia.
The next night again we rode down to Metelkova on our borrowed bikes. We stopped in on a band of Germans that had set up a camp of caravans. They proceeded to put on a performance – a strange childish theatre with no words, just sounds and exaggerated mouths in the shapes of O’s. There were other Europeans around, a strange crowd wearing top hats, leather vests, white blouse, each with one long dangling earring, a pair of pocketed brown cord trousers and a big black leather belt with hanging tools. They swaggered through town like they did not belong, but like they had been around for centuries. I found out later that they were a guild of artisans, in the medieval fashion, travelling (for two years they swore not to go closer than 50 km to home), working only for food and a place to sleep. They came to Metelkova to do renovations in the Hlev building (the Stables) and they were also fixing up and sleeping in the cells of Zapori, the former prison. We toured the prison and found the remains of other foreigners in the cells – dissolving human-shaped sculptures, one cell full of the mementoes of a group that walked from Ireland to Yugoslavia, beautifully constructed beds, the residue of an international art show.
Throughout the year, Metelkova and the rest of Ljubljana are taken over by international festivals of independent culture including: Break 21 – a festival of comics, film, art and music, and the City of Women, a festival celebrating women’s art. In March, Tea helped to organize the third Rdece Zore (Red Sunrises) International Women’s Festival, a festival celebrating the DIY art and activism of Metelkova and Eastern Europe. The name Rdece Zore is taken from a children’s story about a rebel partisan girl with beautiful red hair – a metaphor for the subversively beautiful work of women artists and activists. It also translates as “red sunrises” in Slovene. Tea says that the festival “created a flow of people, but not the Friday-yuppie-kind of flow, but a flow of very different people, engaged people, people who came and fell in love with the place, with the people, and there were so many new friendships born, new collaborations…”
The flow of people in and out is the blessing and the curse of Metelkova, and of Tea’s life as an organizer and producer of autonomous culture. So many people come through in a glance: for a festival, as a visiting artist, on the squat tour. They stay for awhile, maybe even months, but then they always leave. In the English translation of one of her zines, Tea writes about this passing: “We share a cigarette like we are saying goodbye to smoke, when we were really saying goodbye to one more approach, never entirely touched, and when your self has left this town, the rain fell again and again, pretending nothing has really changed – and it hasn’t unless we can finally take what we thought was imagined for real.”
Metelkova, though always changing, remains a reality. In 1996 a group of artists decided to re-construct the Hlev building (the Stables), still heavily damaged and full of holes from the city’s 1993 attempted demolition. They repaired the damage and renovated – adding dormer windows, a deck, an orange metal staircase made from the leftovers of some big machine. Over the years they have slowly added more additions, but they have kept the holes in the walls left by the bulldozers; only adding mosaics of broken tiles, wire and a plaster David statue. The entire building looks like it is half under construction, half under demolition – a strange continuum between the past – of war – and the future, of something else, maybe art, culture, community. The Hlev building is now the home of the Biker’s Bar and Club, some art studios, a kitchen/restaurant, another popular bar which has shows and performances and the Gallery Alcatraz – an open art gallery space. Next door to the Hlev, is Klub Gromka which has readings, film nights, shows and a bar.
For the last ten years Metelkova has also been the refuge to the international comic anthology, Stripburger. Stripburger was formed in 1992 by Strip Core, a group of people involved in the Ljubljana hardcore and graffiti scene. This group decided to start a zine that covered music and alternative art and culture. As the story goes, by the time they had enough money to put out the first issue, all the content – band interviews, stories about the international hardcore scene – was out of date…except the comics. By issue #4, the idea of a comic anthology that regularly featured artists from Slovenia and other parts of the former Yugoslavia along with international artists was fixed. Tea introduced me to Igor Prassel, one of five editors for Stripburger and it is his fault completely that I have become obsessed with the small strange world of sequential art.
Soon after we met, with a mischievous grin and little-boy excitement, he started to pull from the shelves of his office: beautiful illustrated books, long graphic novels, simple photocopied comic zines, big beautiful books of full colour comic-porn and then later at his house, he brought out boxes and boxes of silk-screened foldouts, comics shaped like maps, tiny comics the size of a thumb, handprinted books, comics in strange shapes…a complete candy store of comics.
Igor joined the Stripburger editorial team in 1995 and since he was not an artist, he wrote and published reviews and theoretical articles on comics in Stripburger. He says, “I found in alternative comics a certain liberty of mind and when we started to do taboo-breaking projects, such as the Anti-Nazi calendar for the year 1996, the human rights themed set of postcards, Handyburger…I knew this was it.”
Before Stripburger there were no other comics magazines in Slovenia. The sole outlet for this kind of material were two comic pages in the weekly iconoclastic Mladina magazine. Formerly the voice of the Slovenian youth wing of the Communist Party, praising the great leader Tito, defending the great principles of the Party, in the 80s Mladina began to bulldoze all the sacred symbols and taboos of Socialist society. Mladina is infamous in the annals of Slovenian cultural history for an incident in 1987. Every year in celebration of Tito’s birthday, youth from all over Yugoslavia would run relay races, passing batons of brotherhood and unity until they reached a large stadium in Belgrade, where they would prostrate in front of the great leader. Some youth organizations spent almost 80% of their budget on this one day. The League of Socialist Youth in Slovenia was sick of the silly display of patriotism and loyalty, but they were obliged to do something so they sponsored a poster contest. The winning poster, done by the avant-guard group New Collectivism, was published in Mladina and was honored by the authorities. Only later did they find out that the artists had taken an old Nazi poster and switched the swastika to the Yugoslavian flag.
Stripburger has continued the iconoclastic tradition, breaking taboos with special issues such as HandyBurger focusing on disabilities, an Anti-Nazi issue against all forms of intolerance, and XXX(Strip)Burger, the sex issue (sadly, the European version is 216 pages, but the American version is only 160 pages). There are two regular issues a year and one special issue. Each regular issue displays a variety of artists from Slovenia and other parts of the former Yugoslavia, along with a special theme or a feature on artists from a specific country. The zine is partly in English, partly in Slovene but it includes an insert with a translation, an artist profile, and a scene report from both the featured country and from different places in the former Yugoslavia. The last issue, #31 featured artists from Montreal – Julie Doucet, Heneriette Valium, Geneviéve Castrée, Rick Trembles and many more. This year the special issue is StripBurek “Comics from the Other Europe” featuring artists from Slovenia, Poland, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Yugoslavia, Albania, Romania, Macedonia and even one artist from Kazakhstan.
The painting on the front cover of StripBurek imitates the lightness of the Russian artist, Marc Chagall: a cow flies above the moon, a little village with a church steeple bright in the night sky, a tractor with a red star plows the fields and a brightly coloured peasant woman with a headscarf floats in the air, handing out comics. The bright and cheerful village life of the land beyond. The painting continues on the back cover but there are no happy cows only the cement blocks of socialist housing and the towers of a nuclear power plant expelling words into the sky. In the foreground an idle peasant is sitting around smoking cigarettes and reading comics. Inside, many of the comics are filled with the darkness that you would expect from living under the black and gloomy skies of Eastern Europe. As Tea says “people in the Balkans have become experts in the blackest black humour.” The Yugoslavian artist, Miroslav Lazendic in his comic “The Bank” illustrates the dark story of an old man who receives his pension, goes to the store, buys some good salami and bread, eats his meal and then hangs himself. He leaves a note that reads: “I won’t die of hunger”. Many of the other comics are full of darkness but are lightened with little bits of hope like the Slovenian artist Ciril Horjak’s story about how his grandmother snuck in a note about the end of the war to his grandfather in prison. The prisoners used small mirrors to spread the good news through the jail and the “mirrors lit up the message of hope above the prison sky”. Croatian artist Danijel Zezelj illustrates a poem by Pier Paolo Passolini with black, slightly sinister brushed lines, but the whiteness and the stuttering backgrounds claim that there is something other than the darkness of the night sky.
For the past ten years, Stripburger has had a large influence on changing attitudes towards comic art in Slovenia. Igor even convinced the public library to devote an entire section to comic books and graphic novels. There still isn’t a lot of money for comics in Slovenia or elsewhere, so Stripburger encourages young artists to self-publish comic zines. They run workshops on how to make mini-comics, organize exhibitions and in 2000 Le Dernier Cri, a crazy comic collective from France, led a 4 day workshop on silk-screening which resulted in BurgerFaces, a 24 page handmade silk-screened anthology of some of the best Slovenian comic artists. Koko, one of the most versatile young Slovenian artists, attended that workshop, and he says that Stripburger has done much to motivate him to try different ways of illustrating a story. Koko says, “I’ve realized that I wasn’t satisfied with just one style (approach, technique, mood…), so I am doing comics every time in a different way…” This year, Koko released a 32 page self-published silk-screened book of illustrations. Tea says recently comic artists or bands have put out mini zine editions whenever they felt like they had something to say.
Zine culture has always been pretty strong in Slovenia, Tea claims “years ago, there were even zine meetings of all zinemakers of Slovenia and Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia…it all really stayed connected throughout the Balkan wars, you know.” She put out her first zine, “Psst” in 1996 and her most recent zine in March, an erotic compilation called Slasticarna. She also used to do a zine distro until Elf’s Reading Room was established in Metelkova. The reading room, run by the Cultural-Artistic Association Anarchives and Tom D’Elf himself, is an amazingly well stocked library full of zines, books in English and Slovene, magazines, journals, comics, videos – any resource that espouses radical, revolutionary, anti-authoritarian thought and practice. Unfortunately the Pesci building (Infantry), where the radical reading room is located has a troubled past.
According to the archives of Metelkova, after the first three feverish months of the occupation in the autumn of 1993, “Metelkova witnessed apathy. A lot of people left Metelkova, some angry, some disappointed, some tired. Because of the impossible conditions (work and life in darkness and cold), there were vandalism, burglaries and robberies.” Out of the darkness and the frustration a new enlarged Network called Retina was created in order to organize and legalize the situation of Metelkova.
In the summer of 1994 the government gave the unoccupied southern section of Metelkova to the Ministry of Culture to be used as a museum and art gallery. One building, Metelkova 6, was given over to non-institutional cultural devices. Today that building holds the offices of Stripburger, the Peace Institute, SKUC-LL – a lesbian office and reading room, a free and busy legal advice office and other arts and ecological groups. At the end of 1994, squatters, artists, cultural and political groups still occupied the other buildings in the northern section. Retina, with the help of an architect, produced the Metelkova Development Plan, an official plan for the development of each building. In December of 1994, a fire burnt down the roof of one of the squatted buildings and the squatters moved to the Pesci (the Infantry) building.
Finally in 1996 the city gave one of the best-kept buildings, the Lovci (the Hunters) — now home to the Women’s Centre, a disabled youth organization, and a gay and lesbian club – and parts of the Pesci building, water and electricity, which were distributed throughout Metelkova. But again the city threatened war: they announced that they were going to bulldoze the buildings that were most heavily damaged in the 1993 attack. The people of Metelkova managed to halt the demolition, but they did agree that the city could tear down the building with the burnt roof. In 1997 the city agreed to give money to renovate the Pesci building and later that year the city signed leases with active Metelkova artists under the agreement that they were not to live in the space. The city kicked out the squatters and the artists moved into their newly renovated studios.
From the beginning of Metelkova, there were conflicts over the official plan, over the use of individual buildings, over who had the legitimacy to be there. The war from the outside continued within; a continued conflict between culture and survival. In the official Metelkova plan, the prison building is slated to be a youth hostel. This as yet unrealized vision has long been a source of conflict, as such projects often lead to gentrification. In many cities around the world, the owners of old Single Room Occupancy Hotels along the outer edges of Skid Row kick out the occupants and turn the rooms into bunks for backpackers at $20-30 a night. The conflict between those who would create a tourist friendly cultural space and those who want the space opened to the dispossessed continues in other ways. One of the main conflicts in Metelkova right now is between the artists and group of heroin users who use the property and one of the huge abandoned buildings as a shooting gallery. The artists have put up anti-needle signs everywhere but there is no indication that a solution or compromise between the artists and the junkies is forthcoming. Tea writes, “I am always wondering why people think it is too much of an effort to go beyond personal sympathies and/or dislikes to keep Metalkova healthy. I mean we’re all fucking crippled anyway, fucked up in the head in one way or another so why not take it as the only common ground we have?”
In trying to explain Metalkova and the Balkan indie culture scene, Tea told me about a film, a short 15-minute documentary called “The Movements of June” about the student occupation of the Belgrade University in 1968. The film ends when a scream suddenly cuts through the continuous speeches and chants of the students. The director, a Serbian filmmaker known primarily in the avante-guard film scene of the Ex-Yugoslavia, did many short “fictitious” documentaries on the theme of rebellion, and has said about the works: “All the revolutions are only half-done. Undone. Welcome, I say.”
In Metelkova the revolution is half done, and some are more welcome than others. Regardless, the sprawling complex thrives and changes, its very existence a permanent victory. Sometimes fiercely, sometimes in the quietness of the rubble waiting to be rebuilt, the struggle continues.
Kara Sievewright is a zinester and writer living in Vancouver.
to order StripBurger Comics in Canada and the USA:
Top Shelf Productions
PO Box 1282
Marietta, USA 30061-1282
Stripburger c/o Strip Core
Forum Ljubljana, Metelkova 6/1
SI – 1000 Ljudljana, Slovenia
many of their comics and artists are on the web: www.ljudmila.org/stripcore/com.htm
send zines to elf’s reading room:
alkatrez gallery wwws.arnes.si/~ljkudmr1s/alcatrez.htm