Reality Check in Ljubljana, Slovenia. Winter/Spring 2021.

Rok Vevar
Rok Vevar

Reality Check, a series of essays initiated by Tanzquartier Wien’s theory curators, is currently dealing with the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic.

On Wednesday morning, 24th of February 2021, a woman entered the Museum of Contemporary Art Metelkova in Ljubljana and the young employee at the box office kindly reminded her to disinfect her hands in order to comply with the sanitary measures. She proceeded to do so and then asked whether the exhibition Autography, Uncanniness, Rebellion: the Photography of Božidar Dolenc was already open to the public.[1] “I’m very sorry, we usually host an evening ceremony on the day of the exhibition opening, but due to the pandemic we had to cancel the event today. So, from tomorrow morning on the exhibition will be open to the public until June. You’re most welcome to come and see it”, the young employee at the box office explained with a sense of guilt. “Right. Well, I’ll get back soon then.” “Yes, please do.” The woman turned around and left.

Someone who works in the field of arts and culture does not need to be especially sentimental to get immediately overwhelmed by bitter feelings in such a situation. Not everybody would have been so considerate as the woman in this example. Others might turn around and walk away without any intention of returning. After the October lockdown, galleries and museums in Ljubljana were open for a few weeks in March but closed in April, only to reopen now again. However, theatres and concert venues remain closed.

As in many other countries and cities these days, entering a gallery or museum feels like they all host Da Vincis or Giottos or some other treasures that might demand special precautionary measures to avoid being damaged or stolen. The number of visitors equals the number of guards, their faces all covered, while public debates on burkas seem long forgotten. At the moment, entering an exhibition space gives us the false impression that spectators and guards – so few in numbers – are both in on a secret heist plan, the dramatic silence in those spaces of epic time proportions somehow seems to suggest there is a silent countdown, as if they all just waited for the right moment. It’s tense, silent and lonesome.

Last year, when the Slovene right-wing government led by prime minister Janez Janša used the pandemic as an opportunity to mob the domestic population with over-exaggerated, constantly changing lockdown measures, police curfews and prohibitions of public gatherings etc. in order to distract people from an administrative and legislative coup d’état, Ljubljana turned into a calm and deserted city that almost resembled one of those countryside spa towns. When one tries to imagine the city without billboards and visual advertising and instead goes on to picture the general urban greyness of the socialist urbanism we once knew, there’s hardly any better moment to experience what Ljubljana looked and felt like in the 1970s. It’s exactly like the provincial and boring Slovene towns my friends and I couldn’t wait to get out of.

The Slovene version of orbanization during the pandemic has been so severe since the new government took over that some leading international media outlets have suddenly felt the need to report on it, especially after Janša congratulated Trump on his win on Twitter days before any conclusive electoral results. The European international affairs leaders were stunned and numb watching how one small and rather insignificant member state’s leader became even more radical than Orban. (This, however, was a surprise only to those who didn’t know Janša.) The governing political mob that used the undecided, naive or opportunistic centrists to form a coalition in March 2020 (including the centrist party, which was initially formed to oppose Janša and went on to win the 2014 elections) consists of the former Slovene Communist Party’s offspring, which was once considered a radicalized and therefore dangerous faction.

In only a few months, the free and liberal state of the Republic of Slovenia was drowned by the dominant political forces and experienced something not seen since the Italian fascists took over in 1941. The ongoing protests by cyclists and artists in Ljubljana and some other Slovene cities each Friday and the Thursdays gatherings in front of The Ministry of Culture lost momentum during the winter lockdown or were saving their strength for spring. However, on 27th April 2021, the day Slovenia celebrates Resistance Day to remember the uprising against Nazi and fascist occupation of its territories in 1941, more than 10.000 citizens gathered on the streets of Ljubljana, despite the police ban on all public gatherings, which the Constitutional Court of the Republic of Slovenia has since also declared unconstitutional.

During his first tenure as Minister of Culture, Dr. Vasko Simoniti, a retired professor of history from the Faculty of Arts and Humanities at the University of Ljubljana, and his cabinet have started an all-out attack on artists, freelancers and cultural institutions: first by changing the legislation, then by replacing the directors of museums, galleries and other public cultural institutions with an army of incompetent and obedient soldiers. “Even if the artists themselves cannot believe it, totalitarianism believes there’s no more dangerous and subversive thing than arts and culture”, Dr. Lev Kreft, a philosopher, professor of aesthetics and former politician, remarked in an interview with a daily newspaper a few weeks ago. No person alive in Ljubljana has experienced anything as destructive and hostile as the measures taken by the present government against the arts and culture sector. The prime minister Janez Janša is familiar with a critical public, since it was the civil society – intellectuals, artists and cultural workers – who mobilized and protested when he went on trial before the Yugoslav Army Court in spring and summer of 1988.

The story of success the now disbanded liberal party of the Republic of Slovenia once boasted about, the story of Slovenia’s relatively quick economic and political rise during the 1990s and early 2000s, is no longer being told. Still, Janša’s trumpistic political strategies were established long before Trump, around the time he was illegally selling weapons to the different factions fighting the Yugoslavian wars in the 1990s. He has never been officially charged or put on trial due to the statute of limitations. The inability of the Slovene legal system to prosecute Janša and his mob has had grave political consequences, as it helped boost the extreme right.

When looking back on the last five decades, one realizes that the political crisis that brought an end to Socialist Yugoslavia was arguably closely connected with the crackdown on the progressive forces of the student movements and liberal policies of the communist headquarters between 1968 and 1972, and was made even worse by allowing the conservatives to lead the state and federal communist parties in 1972. However, unlike our current government’s direct attacks on artists and cultural workers and the contemporary right-wing demagogy, constantly accusing artists and cultural workers of being parasites and slackers, the former central committees of the Slovene Communist Party had never or seldom dared to attack artists and cultural workers. At least, never because of their artistic or cultural work. Such conflicts had to be avoided, or more precisely: other reasons had to be found so that artistic and cultural labor and work could still be viewed as sacred relics of the socialist system. Once, the former Yugoslavian despot Tito, the most bourgeois fashion lover among ex-socialist leaders, declared at the opening of The Dubrovnik Summer Games, a festival of arts and culture organized by the citizens of this ancient city: “Only the best from arts and culture is good enough for the Yugoslav working class.” In the realm of contemporary dance the best meant mostly American companies, from Limon to Graham, from Taylor, Nikolais and Tatley to Cunningham and – however surprising this might be – even Anna Halprin’s company performed at the Zagreb Music Biennial in 1963.

Although we know about the cases of Slovene artists and intellectuals suffering because of their critical attitudes (mostly connected to their general social and political criticism, not so much their artistic and cultural work), arts and culture were very highly respected in the previous system. When the authorities of the socialist one-party system considered some artists or cultural workers to be a threat to the development of the working class, they usually employed different tactics: they took care of their social status and research or artistic conditions and made sure they wouldn’t gain too much publicity.[2] Working on the margins, out of the public eye and outside mainstream socialist media attention, in the underground and basements of Ljubljana, the arts, culture and activist work flourished in unforeseen ways during the late 1970s and 1980s. Knowledge, skills, creativity and ideas from the 1960s helped the witty cultural and intellectual products of the extended underground studio work generation turn Ljubljana into one of the most artistically and intellectually exciting cities in Eastern Europe.

There is one event in particular that opened the valves of Ljubljana’s cultural underground in October of 1977. The students of a local high school in the Moste district of Ljubljana organized a concert for their school band without knowing they were just about to listen to songs originating in the new Western rock music trend called punk. This band turned their guitar sound into a harsh-sounding critical force. The name of the band was Pankrti, a word composition that phonetically incorporates the English punk into the Slovene word for bastards. A year later, the label of The Slovene National Radio and Television released their first single, Ljubljana is Sick (Lublana je bulana, 1978), which turned the band into a social, political and cultural phenomenon that changed the face of the city and of the Socialist Republic of Slovenia.

The political establishment quickly became terrified and tried to stop the emerging punk movement with ridiculous accusations and actions, such as the Nazi Punk Scandal in which punk youngsters were accused of drawing Nazi symbols throughout Ljubljana. However, the public degradation was not successful. The advent of this new public force overwhelmed the dysfunctional Slovene socialist system, and there was no turning back. Different socialist institutions quickly started to embrace these new voices and found their radical humor (so-called groucho-marxism) extremely entertaining, witty and productive. The punk movement quickly spread throughout the whole of Yugoslavia and became the foundation for different cultural, social and activist movements. One of them was the new wave, which declared the urban culture of Socialist Yugoslavia to be the Seventh Republic[3]. It seems this might be the only true, vivid, multicultural, multinational and somehow »federal« remnant of Socialist Yugoslavia that still lives on today. Moreover, the artistic and cultural heritage of Socialist Yugoslavia is still responsible for the growing interest in Slovenia’s international artistic and curatorial landscape.

What causes post-Yugoslav nationalism true pain, though, is the fact that nothing artistically valuable from the period of Socialist Yugoslavia can be reduced to a pure »national substance«, including domestic contemporary art from the post-Yugoslav period. One recent international scandal took place at the beginning of 2021 when the Embassy of The Republic of Slovenia in Rome refused to support the exhibition Bigger Than Myself: Heroic voices from ex Yugoslavia at the prestigious MAXXI, curated by Zdenka Badovinac, the former director of the Modern Gallery+Museum of Contemporary Art Metelkova, Ljubljana. This exhibition, in which the most prominent domestic curator brought 14 Slovene artists (out of a total of 51 from the ex-Yu region) to international artistic attention, seems to be too much to handle for the current nationalist political establishment of Slovenia. Their current cultural mission is to produce pure and beautiful Slovene art, which gives them very little opportunity to support anything from the non-institutional realm or domestic public institutions or indeed anything from the capital, Ljubljana.

This city, which is small in scale but big in ideas, has proven to be indestructible throughout modern history and has built its international artistic reputation with wittiness, humor and disobedience. Throughout the last century – and especially since the late 1970s – its artistic milieu was well aware of how to critically upset the kind of public morality authorities always like to preach in a passive-aggressive political oratoria and »faint« when it seems necessary to perform offendedness. The artists have always made use of humorous anarchic tactics: how to instill a sense of moralism, feed it until it is bloated and then blow it all up. There is no need, though, to highlight the risks and real danger for artists and the public as they need to imagine an alternative society, project change onto a possible future or return to a forgotten past.

The period between the late 1970s and 1991 was such a time, one brimming with risk and creativity. After the photographer Božidar Dolenc had starved himself to death in 2008, his “camaraderie” discovered a series of chilling self-portraits that nobody was aware of, precisely constructed photographic signatures he took persistently throughout his career: the face barely visible above the torso or covered with masks of an unknown origin, multiplied gasping mouths reflected in the arranged mirrors, like Munch’s infamous painting through the filter of Xerox art, the contrast between the opaque and the artist’s own figure, the photographer’s visage merging with the portrayed person, a black backlit silhouette of the head – one could go on and on describing these self-images, images full of suffering and numb solitary confinement. Unbearable depictions of silent screams, voices that try to get out. Another series of figures features mannequins and dummies and some passers-by on the streets, human sculptures and statues with drunks lying next to them. The people that turned into images, the human suffering that goes unnoticed.

Life would be very bleak without both light and darkness. Božidar Dolenc was among the bunch of photographers who were running around with cameras and documenting everything that was happening in Ljubljana for years, especially in the period between the mid-1970s and the early 1990s. Most photos from this era had not been seen or shown until MG+MSUM Ljubljana took over managing the artist’s estate in 2016. The label ‘photo chronologist’ rings especially true once you realize that he attended every cultural and artistic event that has since defined the contemporary urban and cultural history of the city. Concerts, non-institutional performing arts productions and club culture events, including the first LGBT club event in Ljubljana in 1983, which marked the beginning of the LGBT movement in Eastern Europe, as well as contemporary dance and theater pieces at site-specific venues, on the streets or on institutional stages – they are all there.

The defiant, emotional and expressive young people on the streets are just as interesting to the photographer as the people on stage. Maybe even more so. The ones living on the margins, punks and drag queens, men lustfully kissing and touching each other, women embracing, kissing and caressing each other for the first time in public; but also the physical, muscular, weak and daring individual or collective bodies of the performers whose vision of life is so radically different from the one of those who sit neatly clad at one of Ljubljana’s jazz festivals, attentively analyzing compositions in the warm and brightly lit venues of the late 1970s.

During this period, Dolenc also took a range of photographs of the contemporary dance scene of the 1970s and 1980s (at the Dance Days festival and The Summer Dance School) and became friends with many dancers and choreographers. Some of them even became his close friends. »I’m not sure if anybody had ever really been his friend«, some remarked upon reflecting on their relationship with him. While some are doubting their late friend, the evidence points in a different direction: after taking photos, he would sometimes put down his camera, lay on the floor and join the dancers. When he started documenting the dance scene at the Ljubljana Dance Days and by taking photos of productions of The Studio for Free Dance in 1976, he was struggling with photographing and capturing dance. However, after having gained some dance experience, everything changed for him. Not only the way he went about shooting dance but everything he would try and capture with his camera.

“Perusing Dolenc’s photographic oeuvre produces the impression that its most real aspect is capturing individual and collective physical uncertainties in the process of evolving auto-narratives. Uncertainties perhaps still devoid of memory, as the experience is still fresh and the events have yet to be translated into speech. Methodical and transgressive uncertainties resisting the intended functional organization of disciplinary and disciplined social and individual time, which always has an anticipated and predictable ideological plan inscribed in it.”[4]

If Dolenc wanted to photographically record such processes and transitions, render them into images, produce them within the medium of photography, he had to change his approach: rather than remain a distant witness with a supposed total view of the situation he had to become part of it. Or, in the language of choreography: he had to become the physical dance partner within this contact improvisation. He had to experience the situation within the zone of its organism. Metaphorically speaking, he had to feel the “weight” of another individual or a collective body, to counterbalance the other body when the situation called for it, to equilibrate or move with the other. This became Dolenc’s kinetic photographic dynamic.

The most consistent traits of the Ljubljana cultural landscape in the impenetrable thicket of events captured by Dolenc’s images between 1976 and 1989 seem to be its relationality, the uncertainty of transition and incompleteness. The potential of new possibilities. An open space for possible future auto-narratives. And an electric, affective cultural atmosphere underpinning the potential of new subjectivities. It is difficult to speculate whether it was indeed contemporary dance that informed Dolenc’s sense of the possible ways of partnering up, but one particular series of photographs visually documents his learning curve, his process of realizing that he had to become part of what he wanted to capture with his camera. His photographs of the Summer Dance School, when final workshop performances increasingly took to the streets of Ljubljana in the early 1980s, are proof of Dolenc’s gradual shift in his photographic perspective, incrementally renouncing the total view and heading resolutely to a place where he became a participant.

“He was invisible”, one of his friends claims, a photographer who met him and became a close friend in the late 1990s. “I can clearly remember the situation in this photo but I cannot remember him taking the picture”, she continues as she looks at herself being caught on camera at one of the events in the early 1980s. “He was obviously around all the time. Although, the punk, club and other happenings were never really his thing. He went there looking for something. What that was is really hard to say. But he wouldn’t stay if there was nothing there for him”. Revisiting his oeuvre, it is hard not to make connections with the silent, solitary confinements in his self-portraits. No matter how much self-isolation may have been appealing to him once in a while, the public scream of the changing urban landscape of Ljubljana was a voice he was eager to capture on camera. And he never got tired of it. He wanted to capture it for himself, for us, for everybody in the photos. I guess, he didn’t much think about posteriority. It wasn’t his thing, or was it? Nevertheless, … he was there, he came close, closer and even closer. Click.

On the contact sheets from 1988, there are a few photos of an event that took Slovenia by storm in the spring of that year. Dolenc rarely took photos of political events. I don’t know, this may have been the only time. But it seemed like part of something he knew, something he photographed and followed closely. The logical continuum of everything he had known for more than ten years.

It’s June. A blindingly sunny day and hot like hell. Janez Janša leaves the building of the Military Court on Roška Road in Ljubljana, surrounded by the members of The Human Rights Committee and greeted loudly by a large crowd of people. He is there – it’s on black and white. Most citizens of the Socialist Republic of Slovenia first heard of him only few weeks ago. From the moment the National News released his name after his arrest, he has already become – along with three accomplices – a national hero. He seems calm, moved and trustworthy. Adored like some leaders from the South. There is no doubt the highly classified document they decided to make public holds instructions for the Yugoslav Army Forces to invade the streets of Slovenia and execute a coup d’état in case the oppositional political force continues to be a nuisance. But this force is unstoppable. What grew out of the cultural climate of a few punks at a high school ten years earlier has suddenly become a force to reckon with.

Spring feels like summer. It’s hot and it keeps on getting hotter. Everybody in the crowd anticipates something horrific is going to happen, only they are not exactly sure where and when. Their hope is something they need, embrace and share, time is something they count on as a driving force to prepare them for the future. The coming horror is something they are sure of, the only hope is that it may not affect them. This hope is contagious, more than any virus will ever be. They are close to each other, holding up flowers, laughing and crying, touching and clutching each other, happy for a brief moment as they are filled with optimism for better times ahead. For the first time, after years and years of a political vacuum, they have a sense of cause, a vision, and it’s real. It surrounds them like thick air and they are part of it.

The woman enters the Museum the next day. The one that promised to come back. »It’s open now«, the young woman at the box office says with a smile, »please don’t forget to disinfect your hands«. The lady eagerly runs to the second floor like there is no time left, taking off like she’s running for her life. She doesn’t look at the photos, there is a hunger in her which seems to eradicate all life, there is something else she’s looking for: she’s looking for her past self. She doesn’t care if she looks good or hip, because she’s looking for some other thing. Some spark. In these confusing times, she has to look closely and read everything in detail. What she once knew she doesn’t know anymore. It’s supposed to be there somewhere, and she needs to find it. She must rediscover whatever was lost. She simply has no other choice. I guess, one could call what she is doing a reality check.

Editing and rearranging the photo details like they are all windows into her past life, she’s behaving like Thomas in Antonioni’s Blow Up, looking for the corpse, the crime and criminal that have fallen into oblivion. The corpse can only be rediscovered once she has constructed a meaningful visual sentence. And she has. For a brief moment, it’s there. She feels she needs to bring it back to life, those times gone by and the things she felt back then. She’s not a nostalgic person, but she’s angry, asking herself what went wrong, how we have ended up like this. She finds a picture of herself at some club, her face only visible in profile, but she quickly realizes that she’s everywhere. She sees herself in the faces of all the other people she knew, one by one by one … She recognizes the others because she knows herself, she recognizes herself because she knows the others … it’s all in their faces, their spasmodic bodies, affects and expressions through which they exorcise the places of time standing still. The knowledge they possess, everything they managed to learn, the thoughts and feelings they experienced. They know they have to make it go faster. Time. They have to turn back to the past in order to make space for the future, a future where it’s possible for them to exist. Nothing more, nothing less.

 

[1] The exhibition Autography, Uncanniness, Rebellion shows the work of the late photographer Božidar Dolenc (1950–2008) for the first time since his artistic estate was donated to the Modern Gallery and Museum of Contemporary Art Metelkova by his brother in 2016. In addition to his known and previously exhibited photo cycles, which were especially selected and curated for the occasion, an extensive photo corpus from the neatly and precisely organized boxes containing thousands of negatives and contact sheets will be shown for the very first time and will give an astonishing overview of the cultural, artistic and activist landscape of Ljubljana from the period between 1976 and the early 1990s. The exhibition serves as a reminder at a time when Ljubljana and Slovenia have turned into potential past versions of themselves, something everybody once thought we had managed to escape from, unlike neighboring Republics of Serbia and Croatia. In view of the current pandemic and the extreme right-wing politics of prime minister Janez Janša and his government, the 30th Anniversary of the state’s independence day represents a historic and momentous anti-climax for 70 % of Slovenes. Votes for right-wing parties in the Republic of Slovenia have never exceeded 30 % and have always required coalitions with opportunistic centrist parties, which have formed and disintegrated on a regular basis for the last 15 years.

[2] The Slovene philosopher Slavoj Žižek, who held some ad hoc and insignificant secretary job at the Slovene Academy of Arts and Sciences in the mid-1970s, never forgets to mention how he managed to live on an invaluable residency from the state to do nothing for more than a decade. However, he always adds that he would have had a hard time securing such a position as a dissident. However, we do know of some individuals or collectives, such as writers Edvard Kocbek, Angela Vode or Jože Pučnik, who were banned from performing publicly in the Socialist Republic of Slovenia.

[3] After the Federal Constitution had been amended in 1974, the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia consisted of six republics (as in the case of the previous constitution) and two autonomous regions (Vojvodina, north of the Socialist Republic of Serbia, and Kosovo). One change that the 1974 constitution and legislation made possible was that public organizations could be founded without permission from the Ministry for Internal Affairs (police). That legislative change made a huge difference and people could now organize themselves without being part of a public institution or direct oversight.

[4] Rok Vevar, Photographic Representation of Uncertain Bodies: Traces of the Other Ljubljana in Božidar Dolenc’s Photographic Oeuvre, 1976–1990, translated into English by Tamara Soban, MG+MSUM, Ljubljana 2020, p. 76-77.)

 

Rok Vevar has been an active member of the Balkan network for dance, Nomad Dance Academy, and its various artistic, educational, and production programs since 2010. As part of the Nomad Dance Institute project he initiated the archiving and historization of choreographic practices in the region, and published the findings of this research in two issues of the journal Maska (Movements in Contemporary Dance II, Autonomy to Dance). In 2012 he established the Temporary Slovenian Dance Archives in his own apartment, moving it to MSUM (Museum of Contemporary Art Metelkova) in Ljubljana in April 2018. He founded and co-curated with Sinja Ožbolt the festival Ukrep, which was a festival for perspectives in dance in Ljubljana at PTL (Dance Theatre of Ljubljana), from 2008–2010. Since 2012 he co-curates the international dance festival CoFestival (Nomad Dance Academy Slovenija, Kino Šiška). A selection of his reviews and articles was published in the book Deadline (Litera, Maribor) in 2011, and in 2018 edited of the book Day, night + man = Rhythm: An Anthology of Contemporary Slovene Journalism 1918–1960, for which he selected materials and wrote accompanying texts. In 2020, his new monograph Ksenija, Xenia: The London Dance Years of Ksenija Hribar 1960–1978 (both books co-published by Maska, JSKD and Nomad Dance Academy Slovenia). In 2019 he was awarded the Ksenija Hribar Award for his work and in 2020 the recognition award of Vladimir Kralj for his contribution to the criticism and historicization of contemporary dance in the recent period in Slovenia.

 

 
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