Military conversion

IssueJuly / August 2011
Feature by Michael Pooler

Almost twenty years ago a group of artists and political activists squatted a disused army barracks in Slovenia, a republic in the former Yugoslavia, in an act of defiance against local authorities. The site has been transformed into the Metelkova Autonomous Space, a hub of cultural creativity and positive resistance.

After the 10-day war in 1991 which followed Slovenia’s declaration of independence, the Yugoslav army withdrew from the nascent state – leaving behind the Metelkova barracks, situated near the centre of the capital Ljubljana. For over two years a network of around 200 organisations petitioned the authorities to hand over the premises to be used for peaceful and creative purposes.

Yet, in thrall to the new capitalist economy, the local council broke off negotiations in September 1993, and commenced to illegally demolish the barracks. Within a day this triggered a mass occupation of the site and “Metelkova Mesto” – a new independent cultural space – was born.

Social movements

While the squatting of Metelkova was a spontaneous act, it relied on a strong network whose roots can be traced back over the preceding decade.

Andre, who is politically active in Metelkova, explains: “The occupation itself came after a period of struggle for autonomous alternatives to the system. Throughout the 1980s there was a very strong peace and anti-militarist movement, while the feminist and gay and lesbian movements were growing. Alongside that you had the emergence of alternative culture in performance art and punk music. These laid the foundations.”

One of the strongest themes was that of anti-militarism, which found resonance throughout Slovenian society. At the peak of its influence there were widespread calls for the abolition of the army and a successful campaign was fought against compulsory military service for women.

Together the disparate currents found common ground in their shared desire for a break with the ossified and authoritarian institutions of Yugoslavia.

“There was the need for new spaces which allowed the articulation of new forms of politics and art,” says Andre, “free from the restraints imposed by the state. After independence, anti-militarist sentiment was high and many people saw the Metelkova site as a perfect space for this”.

Colourful street art now adorns the walls of Metelkova while weird and wonderful metallic installations protrude from the ground. Large wooden balconies have been added to the old buildings as walkways and shelters, and monstrous sculptures herald a gallery. The centre is no longer residential but home to artists’ studios, bars and galleries as well as an open outside space for people to congregate in.

Politics in practice

The centre of political activity in Metelkova is the Infoshop, founded in 2006, which describes itself as a laboratory for the theory and practice of anarchism. Home to an extensive library, the Infoshop collective describe it as a social space open to groups who share an affinity with anarchist principles.

One of these is the Urban Gardening Collective, who run three communal food-growing plots located on reclaimed sites across the city – continuing a Slovenian tradition of turning unused city land into allotments.

Sonia, involved with the project, explains: “Growing food is the best way to put into practice anarchist principles of collectivism and self-management, as well as a way of resisting corporate control. We aim to start a project involving people in the local community who aren’t using their gardens, so that we can co-operatively make use of them to grow food”. A weekly vegan public meal is held at the Infoshop for a donation and all profits are invested in new gardening tools and equipment.

Conflict of values?

With several bars and concert spaces operating inside Metelkova it is tempting to wonder how such commercial ventures square with the radical politics which were at the heart of the centre’s genesis.

Andre is quick to answer: “Metelkova has always been a place of contradictions, with many narratives: cultural space, site for politics, autonomous zone. It is not as simple as characterising it as radical against commercial values.”

Other people in the courtyard give me an example: occupants and users of the centre recently came together in April to host a benefit night for migrant workers who were sacked (with wages owing) by the construction firm Vaegrad.

“This was an expression of solidarity with the migrant workers,” says Clemen, “all money went to the IWW [Invisible Workers of the World, the trade union organising the campaign] and it showed how the politics are still alive in Metelkova, regardless of the different activities”.

Threats and survival

While Metelkova has gained prominence on the cultural landscape, the journey has not been without its bumps, with the centre fending off numerous threats to its existence over the years. “In the early years things were very uncertain,” recounts Cookie, a member of the Infoshop collective. “People had to protect the centre from attacks by the police, there were people in front of bulldozers and the city council turned off the electricity and water.”

This came to a head in 2006 when the council demolished a building on the grounds that it was unsafe for use. However in recent years the authorities have softened their stance, possibly in recognition of the cultural magnetism of Metelkova – evidenced by its listing in the Lonely Planet guide and the groups of tourists from the local hostel taking photographs.

It seems somewhat ironic that the survival of a countercultural icon may rest in part on its pull on tourists; and while those I speak to around the centre are keen to downplay this factor, its influence is apparent.

Nowadays it appears that the greatest threat facing Metelkova is that of “legalisation”. As the centre has no formal legal basis for its existence, there is constant pressure from the council to enter into a contractual agreement – a move resisted by the centre’s occupants for a number of reasons.

Aside from the principle of autonomy from government authorities there is the concern that any legal relationship may result in the introduction of rent charges and consequently financial barriers to those wishing to use the space. And the grounds for these fears are visible, as a mere glance over the wall at surrounding apartment complexes shows the effect of gentrification on the local area. But the resolve of those at Metelkova has not waned in the face of this ongoing battle, as Infoshop member Nika says: “The city didn’t just get used to us being here; with every new mayor we have had to negotiate and fight it over again.”