From Metelkova to ROG: a long, short journey

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.

RogLab faces the ROG Factory area
The Factory overlooks the river; a silent, monolithic structure

Recognition

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).

Klub Tiffany, a Metelkova clubbing institution

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.

Communication

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.

Advertisement

The quasi-public functions of ROG: numerous, unrelated, and unknown

The Supreme Court of Slovenia has recently issued a decision ( VSRS Sodba II Ips 219/2018) on the challenging, much publicised and politicised legal battle between the Municipality of Ljubljana (MOL) and certain users of ROG Factory. It is the culmination of the 2016 eviction proceedings against 8 individual users of ROG; a legal journey that followed MOL’s attempts to demolish part of the factory area in the summer of 2016. In this most recent judgment, the Slovenian Supreme Court makes certain intriguing (and perhaps radical for UK standards) remarks with respect to the protection of property and the use of a place owned by public entities. Furthermore, this decision demonstrates a liberal approach to the concept of squatting, an action that is progressively becoming institutionalised and appropriated across European urban centres (e.g. Copenhagen or Berlin).

The background

In the summer of 2016 the Municipality of Ljubljana (MOL) decided to start renovation works in the area of ROG (which the municipality had purchased in 2011, having had a lease on it since 2002), by attempting the demolition of part of the factory’s surrounding wall. The attempts were reinforced by the presence of private security guards, and were met by the users’ and the broader city’s outcry: flyers and graffiti promoting the defence of ROG appeared in every corner of Ljubljana. Consequently, a number of individual users of ROG filed lawsuits against the Municipality claiming disturbance of possession. Each one of these individual users declared themselves an owner of the disputed property through prescription (Article 42(2) of the Slovenian Property Code/ SPZ). Ultimately, interim injunctions against MOL’s renovation plans were secured. The municipality countered with separate eviction proceedings (emptying and extradition) against the same, individual claimants.

The more recent Supreme Court decision of the 19th of September 2019 constitutes the culmination of one of these evictions proceedings against an individual defendant/ user of ROG. No other legal route against a collective of users can be possible under the current state of things: it appears that the “community” of ROG users performs as one by name only, as the lower Slovenian Courts also reiterate. In essence, the lack of an organisational hierarchy within ROG means that the collective of its users lacks legal standing, and can neither sue nor be sued. This precludes the filing of a single lawsuit that could order all ROG users to empty and deliver the premises; the Municipality can only act against one individual user at a time, something that has been declared as impossible to pursue.

This sole fact constitutes one of the Supreme Court decision’s most intriguing attributes, as it essentially points to Slovenian property law’s inability to deal with the squatting of ROG at first instance. A closer look at the decision, as well the decision of the lower court that is being appealed, reveals the Slovenian legal system’s unique stance towards squatting and towards the use of public property more particularly.

The petition at the Supreme Court from the part of the MOL concerned the rejection by the lower courts of the Municipality’s claim that the defendant deliver the property vacant of all persons and belongings. This inability first observed at the Court of First Instance, led the MOL to claim that the courts were unable to protect the Municipality’s constitutional rights, contradicting existing case law that enables the delivery of property free of all persons and belongings in similar situations. The MOL reiterated that the defendant user, having himself claimed exclusive ownership of the area in the aforementioned disturbance of possession proceedings, would be in effect able to deliver the property as requested. The Municipality suggested that the disturbance proceedings single out the defendant as a prominent member of the ROG users’ community, and that in any event there exists a single community of users that can be ordered to empty and deliver. MOL’s claim finally stipulated that the ROG factory area is in such decline that the property’s economic and ecological functions, introduced by virtue of Article 67 of the Slovenian Constitution, can not be fulfilled. The factory is in such a dire state that intervention for refurbishment is vital for its existence.

The Supreme Court dismissed the MOL’s petition primarily on the premise that the defendant (or any single user of ROG as a matter of fact ) cannot possibly be ordered to deliver an empty property. This inability does not contradict any prior case law; rather it stems directly from ROG Factory’s unique features: notwithstanding that ROG is a squat, it is nevertheless owned by the MOL. Furthermore, the particular squat of ROG Factory remains relatively open in nature: everyone can be the user of ROG. These facts afford the place a unique/ quasi-public character.

In other words, since the number of users that remain active in ROG or at least participate in events and social activities therein remains open, and since diverse and unrelated persons frequent or occupy the factory’s buildings, the Supreme Court has acknowledged that the squatting of ROG performs a quasi-public function. The “community of ROG’s users” cannot be a legal entity in the strictest sense, as their number is constantly changing. There is no hierarchy among the even the most active users, who are neither organised nor connected in any way. Rather, ROG’s users constitute an “amorphous, anonymous, and ever-changing social formation” which by definition escapes the arm of the law as such.

Even more important seems to be the reiteration that such areas of extensive and vibrant social life tend to be owned by municipalities or other public entities, which also happens to the be the case here. Indeed, we are dealing with a place of quasi-public nature owned by a public entity, performing a public social function, as it is dedicated to the getting together of the public for the purposes of activism, recreation or sport. Of course here the Supreme Court takes notice of the variety of activities represented at ROG, ranging from political activism, including refugee rights advocacy and LBTQ+ representation, to artistic production, to dance and music, skating, boxing, or even acrobatics. The SC agrees that this place is as diverse as the surrounding city.

All property rights are simply not equal, explains the Supreme Court. First of all, the Slovenian Constitution does not distinguish between privately and publicly owned property; it does nevertheless place limitations upon the acquisition and the enjoyment of property by way of Article 67:

The manner in which property is acquired and enjoyed shall be established by law so as to ensure its economic, social, and environmental function. The manner and conditions of inheritance shall be established by law.

All property rights are simply not equal, subject to their respective functions. More importantly, property owned by a public entity cannot be the subject of a human rights claim or dispute as would have been the case with property owned by a private individual. Public entities are simply not bearers of fundamental human rights. What the Municipality of Ljubljana decides to do with the place is not a matter of law but a matter of public policy. Consequently, the overarching issue with ROG Factory is not a legal but political one.

The users of ROG can be -theoretically- as many as the people in Ljubljana; everyone is free to visit and perform various functions and activities in its premises. The anonymity of ROG users can therefore be deduced. More importantly, this anonymity is exactly the reason why the Supreme Court went on to explain how ROG bears the characteristics of a “public good” pursuant to Article 19(1) of the SPZ:

(1) A public good is a thing which may be used in accordance with its purpose and under the same conditions by anyone (general use).

Even though a building cannot qualify for public good status without the decision of the competent authority pursuant to Article 245 of the Slovenian Spatial Planning Act, the SC did acknowledge the similarities between the wording of the Act and the very nature of ROG; in the present case, full civil protection remains impossible.

Notwithstanding that the defendant in the particular case is still required to ensure that no more events organised by him take place in ROG, and that by extension he stops securing people access to MOL’s property, this is but a small fraction of the story:

ROG is used and frequented by people who are not connected or even known to each other, who are by no means considered a community, and who represent the people of the city to the extent that this is a de facto quasi-public place, despite its ownership status. For as long as it remains this way, there is only so much protection civil law can afford the Municipality of Ljubljana…

Autonomy and the City

Featured
LJUBLJANA IS NOT A CORPORATION

A Brief Introduction

Tovarna Rog has been a conflicting issue in Ljubljana ever since the initial occupation of the former bike factory’s derelict buildings in 2006. A small scroll around the internet will reveal a wealth of information about the place’s conflicting past, as well as an ongoing battle for autonomy against the municipality of Ljubljana’s plans for regeneration. The story is well known throughout Slovenia and has lead to heated debates and power struggles on various areas: at Rog factory’s buildings, on the street, across media outlets and at court.

As the economic stagnation brought forth by the global financial crisis of the past decade, halted the municipality’s regeneration plans, the occupation of the industrial complex flourished with a wealth of grassroots activity ranging from activism, to artistic expression, to music and parties as well as athletic events. Across this broad spectrum of activity, consensus might be hard to achieve (since there is no single hierarchical representation) however, the preservation of the place’s autonomy appears to offer some common ground or common perspective to Rog’s groups of users.

And indeed, for the time being Rog’s users have managed to buy some valuable time ever since the court battle between Rog and the municipality has led to a standstill: the municipality’s ownership rights not withstanding, individual eviction notices will have to be served against hundreds of Rog users, as Rog factory lacks any legal status and any centralised form of representation and management per se. It follows that such a task can be impossible to enforce and administer, whereas any intervention by way of private security and demolition attempts is met by the community’s backlash.

Adding to the uncertainty that arises from the current situation, the plans of the municipality seem to lack any concrete focus: the primary aim has been to redevelop the land as a hub for the creative industries, following an overall strategic/ neoliberal theme for the city of Ljubljana as a whole. Prior to that, attempts for commercial and residential redevelopment where met with a lack of relevant funding, a story that has been well-known around Ljubljana and which has resulted in the addition of many a construction-site-in-progress around the city.

It appears that in a city that still struggles to re-invent itself in the global neoliberal setting, answers about the common use of urban surpluses can be found in the spaces of Tovarna Rog, as they are currently used. What remains however, is a power struggle or a game of dynamics between the lawful ownership, aiming to assert its presence and legitimacy top-down, and the current state of affairs within ROG, which is however characterised by lack of common vision from the part of the groups, as well as by the progressive degradation of the physical environment and the lack of infrastructure, all of which point to a rather unstable and unsustainable future.

As the physical needs of ROG become even more pressing, issues of place use and management come to the limelight with increasing speed. Any solution about ROG ought to stem from ROG as such. It is an interesting endeavour therefore, to map and analyse what ROG is in order to envision what its future can be.