Even though the actual distance from Metelkova to ROG is but 10-11 minutes on foot, in terms of their respective uses and characteristics they seem to be rather far apart. Moreover, even though it is the same few institutional and political elements that aim to engulf these two places (to co-opt Metelkova and to demolish/ replace ROG), their levels of success are distinctively varied. Metelkova is celebrated as a successful art and civil engagement project across Slovenia, whereas ROG’s present and future uses are being challenged, following the Municipality’s plans for the redevelopment of the former factory.
Nevertheless, keeping close to the theme of jurisdictional heterotopias that we have developed elsewhere ( https://www.placemanagement.org/latest-publications/normalising-jurisdictional-heterotopias-through-place-branding/), one thing needs to be emphasised: whereas Metelkova is and remains an illegal squat that has gained normalisation through a. institutional gentrification attempts and b. recognition of its brand, ROG possesses neither a successful place brand nor acceptance and recognition by certain Slovenian institutions that openly contest its operations. It is however uniquely placed in such position where both normalisation and legitimacy can still be possible, thanks to ground laid by the Slovenian courts.
ROG has been declared a “quasi-public” place by the Supreme Court of Slovenia; it has also been described as being as diverse as its surrounding city, as “almost” open to everyone and as “anonymous” and “amorphous” at the same time. Opposing as they may seem, these characteristics have managed to safeguard ROG’s immediate future from the Municipality’s forceful demolition attempts, as seen in the previous post which presented the Supreme Court decision. Here, the aim is to briefly consider the parallel yet contradictory developments of these two neighbouring squats, and to offer some initial observations under three broad themes that can play a key part in their success and longevity: gentrification/ cooptation, recognition, and communication. This short parallel analysis attempts to shed light into place making and place management practices and attempts, and to help us consider what “makes or breaks” a “successful” squat.
Gentrification and Cooptation
Gentrification attempts have been engulfing Metelkova ever since the institutional museums made their first presence in its immediate surroundings. As explained in our previous writings, the autonomous part of Metelkova remains but one part of the story, since institutions, commercial interests and tourism expand inside and around it. Whilst autonomy still remains at the core of the brand, it appears rather void of any relevant meaning. Metelkova is an area dedicated to art and civil engagement, an area that can be visited, accessed, and “walked through” by locals and visitors alike. The Ministry of Culture, housed in an office building right across the street, seals the cultural significance of this alternative-style urban park, moving the debate from one of gentrification in the traditional sense to one of practices of cooptation from the autonomous to the institutional and neoliberal forces (Allmendinger et al., 2016; Hjorth, 2016; Ntounis, 2018).
In terms of openness and accessibility, the exact opposite can be said about the area where ROG is located: facing the river from one side and a residential street from the other, ROG appears rather “closed” and secluded, even though technically situated at the fringes of the touristic centre of Ljubljana. As a matter of fact, Trubarjeva cesta is currently being pedestrianised as part of the city centre expansion plans, but this expansion ends directly before the gates of ROG, ultimately leaving it outside the immediate reach of regeneration. ROG is surrounded by residential buildings and bicycle repair shops (thanks to the famous ROG bicycle brand), and even though the most visited locations of Ljubljana are within arm’s reach, ROG itself appears separated from any relevant action. Even the Municipality’s attempts to create and “enforce” its own ROG brand in the area, are hard to discern. ROGLab, the 3D printing facility which operates as a pilot for ROG’s redevelopment as a centre dedicated to sustainability and technology, is housed in a mobile unit right on the riverbank, visually disconnected and distinct from the factory area. ROG’s presence is felt like a monolith laying flat across the Ljubljanica river.
In terms of recognition, Metelkova needs no introduction to locals and visitors alike, as its presence has been made known through the official channels of marketing and tourism (https://www.visitljubljana.com/en/poi/metelkova-mesto-alternative-culture-centre/). Ljubljana loves Metelkova, and the parties there every Friday night have become legendary. The Metelkova clubs have become institutions on their own, promoting alternative music genres and types of entertainment, and supporting the local LGBTQ+ community. Activism, local engagement, arts and creativity, all form part of the autonomous Metelkova brand, which is not just recognised but also respected across the country. Metelkova symbolises the coming together of Slovenia following the break-up of Yugoslavia, and remains a site of resistance and hope to the mind of the people. Metelkova is a powerful and widely recognised place brand, both a blessing and a curse for its status as an autonomous, successful squat (Ntounis and Kanellopoulou, 2017).
In stark contrast, ROG lacks the powerful place associations that come to mind in the case of Metelkova. Still, the most dominant association with ROG is the eponymous bicycle. This is evident in the bicycle repair shops operating around the factory area, in the bicycle-theme decorations of the adjacent coffee shop, as well as on numerous ROG bicycle stickers that can be spotted on bicycles throughout the city. Recognition of the squat comes second to Ljubljana’s beloved bicycle. When it comes to the squat itself, the words “incivility” and “unsafe” seem to prevail in the mind of the people. This however, seems to be a direct result of the lack of internal consensus of what ROG as a squat means to its communities, but also of the Municipality’s inability to come up with a persuasive vision for the place, despite its many attempts to secure ideas and funding.
The fact that ROG’s brand recognition remains in limbo seems to align perfectly with its legal status as a semi-public, semi-open, un-hierarchical and amorphous place. Since nobody really knows what ROG – the place is, nobody can claim its success.
An other key factor in determining success and normalisation in the case of these squats, is the issue of communication. It is not only a matter of establishing successful channels of communication between people who share a common goal and vision about the squat; it is also an issue of passing along this message to others (e.g. the wider public). Naturally, communication is not only key (Ntounis, 2018) in the case of squats; its importance stems directly from the broader discourse of places as social communication systems (Omholt, 2013). Ultimately, the way a place brand is generated, perceived and communicated matters, as it can reveal how a place is experienced and managed, and even what a place “means” to its users ((Braun, Kavaratzis and Zenker, 2013). However, since in the case of ROG any brand associations appear prima facie “place un-related”, it is worth examining how communication between users take places, and most importantly, what the underlying message is.
At first instance, it is worth reiterating that the autonomous part of Metelkova, runs rather smoothly and through established channels of communication. Metelkovites attend the forum and take part in decision-making, including space allocation, budget, events and activities that benefit the squat. The continuous and successful occupation of the buildings for over 20 years, in conjunction with the recognition and the acceptance from the wider public, are partly due to the direct democratic principles that govern the place. At times, direct democracy can operate slowly, as consensus among various ideas and opinions is hard to be reached. This however, stems naturally from such horizontal proceedings and adds to the character of the place. Change should happen organically and over time, if change is required at all.
On the other hand, the many and often contrasting and anonymised functions of ROG do not allow for direct democratic principles to operate in full swing. There has always been a community of active, participating users within ROG, who do follow similar direct democratic principles and procedures, and the ROG Assembly has always been a focal point of communication and action. This Assembly however, has never been truly representative of all life in ROG, even before the events of 2016-2018, as categories of users would opt out of it e.g. the team operating the skate park notoriously stays out of all communal efforts and communications, as do several live-in occupants who pursue individual agendas.
It would appear that the core of decision-making regarding the daily operations, the management, and the strategies concerning ROG are still left at the hands of the Assembly, even though its membership fluctuates, subject to the active users’ internal struggles and priorities. Moreover, due to the vastness of the place and the inability to monitor ongoing activity (especially after the events of 2016-2018), the Assembly can never be truly representative of the community of all users, as the latter simply does not exist. This point was again reiterated by the Supreme Court in its recent decision. Democracy needs active citizens who share the common interest of participation in communal activities: there is no single community of users in ROG that can stand as litigant in court, come to agreements with the Municipality or be evicted. Similarly, there is no single community of users to manage and agree on what the place is or should be.
If it is to be agreed that communication between occupants plays a great part in the longevity and the success of a squat, it appears that the reverse is true in the case of ROG (at least as far as the law is concerned). Despite the existence of several social media outlets, a dedicated webpage, and a users’ mailing list, a lot of the activity in ROG remains either undocumented or disengaged from communal life.
Without a successful brand, a successful assembly deciding and implementing daily management and strategic decisions, and without wider recognition and acceptance (at least as of 2019), ROG factory’s present and future appear nefarious, and as far from Meterlkova’s success as possible.
On the other hand, it is also true that ROG has bought time for itself thanks to the very institutions squats normally seek out to oppose: the law and the Municipality. The legal system seems to have legitimised ROG as an open, semi-public place, thanks to the Supreme Court’s recent decision, at least as far as collective functions by anonymous users are concerned; and for as long as the Municipality’s own plans remain in administrative and “funding” limbo, it can be argued that even the city is yielding to ROG for the time being.