The Value of Autonomous Rog – Download the report

The report Value of Autonomous Rog: culture, citizenship, participation presents an objective evaluation and insight of the content, activities, and communities involved in the occupation of Autonomous Rog from its inception in 2006 until its demise in 2021.

The project investigates the way Ljubljana’s squatted areas are used and managed by both official institutions and their communities of users, aiming to understand the power dynamics that emerge in
their everyday running and plans for their future. It does this through the conceptual lens of place making and place management, which, as emerging areas of academic interest, seek to bridge the gap between various and often opposing voices with respect to the use of place.

We examine how regulatory uncertainty can be replaced by inclusive and participatory forms of management that do not jeopardise the place’s autonomous characteristics. We wish to highlight the place’s status within the city and consider communicative attempts between the institutional channels and the squatters’ communities with respect to the place’s use and management.

The report was authored by:

  • Dr Jenny Kanellopoulou, Senior Lecturer in Law at Manchester Law School, Manchester Metropolitan University and a Fellow at the Institute of Place Management (IPM)
  • Dr Nikos Ntounis, Lecturer in Marketing at Manchester Metropolitan University and Senior Research Associate at the Institute of Place Management (IPM)
  • Dr Aidan Cerar, project manager at IPoP – Institute for Spatial Policies

You can download the full report from IPoP’s website via the following link: https://ipop.si/en/wp-content/uploads/2021/06/Rog_web_14jun.pdf

You can also watch the launch event on YouTube: https://youtu.be/yQprdB3hs-U

In defence of autonomous urban value at ROG

It is with great sadness and disappointment that we are witnessing the events taking place at Autonomous Factory ROG since Tuesday (19/01/21). The decision of the Municipality of Ljubljana (MOL) to forcefully evict the users of ROG and throw away their possessions does not only disregard the Supreme Court’s Decision (VSRS Sodba II Ips 219/2018), it also demonstrates an unwarranted exhibition of police force and abuse of power against the citizens of Ljubljana. 

From our perspective as researchers dedicated to the study of autonomous places, we are condemning the lost opportunity from the part of the MOL to understand and appreciate the value created at ROG throughout the past 15 years. Tovarna ROG has been a place of social, aesthetic, creative, and broader cultural value, a unique representation of the spirit of the city of Ljubljana; a “quasi-public” place in the heart of the city, as per the wording of the Slovenian Supreme Court. 

The wide range of activities taking place at ROG now and in the past is a true manifestation of the diverse cultures it represents, a place where different voices and lives can find refuge; a place dedicated to the promotion of free expression and assembly, to the protection of refugees and the engagement in public life. Non-conformity has value and there is value in the aesthetically and physically different parts of urban life.  

Autonomous places such as ROG are habitually viewed as obstacles to a city’s development and smooth administration, whereas reality has shown the opposite. Autonomous areas add to a city’s urban fabric by allowing broader participation, including that of the most marginalised communities, cultural and political freedom, social engagement and solidarity. 

Sadly, more often than not, they fall victim of the neoliberal agenda that prioritises financial interests in regeneration and gentrification, under the guise of “green” or “creative” development, disregarding the values that autonomous places promote and represent: values of the surrounding city and society at large. 

The continuous focus of the neoliberal project in the expansion of markets for generating merely financial profit, comes into direct conflict with those who challenge and oppose such priorities by not fitting into the “good consumer/citizen” mold. Autonomous Factory ROG clearly does not fit the narrative and the image of a gentrified, clean, tidy and safe city; what it symbolises though is the struggle for minorities to be noticed and be present in an increasingly capitalistic and entrepreneurial urban regime. Through their everyday tactics and practices, users of ROG and citizens of Ljubljana challenged the dominant urban narrative, thus offering a fresh alternative to the continuous sterilisation and uniformity of the city. 

We call upon the MOL and other cities in Europe and beyond, who host such autonomous places within their jurisdictions, not to undervalue these autonomous zones.  We ask for the appreciation of the intangible cultural values created when expression and participation run inhibited. 

Ultimately, we urge for the recognition of these values as intangible cultural heritage in order to safeguard their success and guarantee their preservation. 

Dr Nikos Ntounis – Manchester Metropolitan University

Dr Jenny Kanellopoulou – Manchester Metropolitan University

The ROG factory as an urban surplus: What value is produced?

The continuation of our research finds us trying to shed light on how ROG Factory is used for the development of different kinds of value, how this value is tied to the plans of the Municipality of Ljubljana (MOL) about the building, and how the proposed ideas about ROG can lead to its redistribution for different uses from a potential new pool of users. In order to understand the current status of the proposed plans, it is useful to think of ROG factory as an “urban surplus” (Harvey, 2008) that has been initially occupied based on the right to use and redistribute the surplus created from the abandonment of the building. The diminishing value of the ROG area, combined with the initial occupiers’ opposition against privatisation and increasing shrinkage of available public space in Ljubljana, were contributing factors to the creation of temporary cultural, social, political and spatial value in this space (Kurnik and Beznec, 2008). However, what was always deemed as a temporary occupation became a permanent and autonomous endeavour focusing on more solid and continuous value production from numerous users, such as the Skatepark, the concert hall, and the various political and social groups around ROG. Whereas some of the previously very active user communities have now left ROG (which will be discussed in a following post), there is still value produced, albeit arguably to a lesser extent due to the reorganisation of the core inside ROG.

However, even when ROG was massively active (particularly during the summer of 2016 and the demolition attempt), it was probably quite hard to justify the burning question of what value is produced. In a country that has only recently been introduced to wider circuits of capital and just started to operate under the mantra of “urban regeneration” and “revitalisation” under neoliberalism, the production of any kind of surplus value that is deemed abstract, unjustified and unrealised through the realm of exchange processes of consumption is a hard concept to grasp (Soya, 1980). From our discussions with users of ROG and urban practitioners, this appears to be a contributing factor to the reluctance of the public to accept ROG as an area where alternative culture thrives and important social and political work is undertaken. In the case of visual arts production in ROG, Tomsich (2017) highlights the difficulty to frame and contextualise the surplus value from such activities in a squat, partly due to the ephemerality and temporality of art projects, and partly from the artists’ own reluctance to engage in further political commitment, and therefore a more open approach. He points out that the frequency and indeed political importance of the value of art production was mostly realised during the main conflicts between the users and MOL, particularly in the summer of 2016, where a series of alliances and exchanges between different studios and groups happened. The norm in ROG though is that the surplus value of the visual arts activity becomes internalised within the space and is realised only by a few people who work in ROG, despite the recognition of the factory as an arts and culture hub.

Even the most-used space in ROG, the skatepark, which is frequently visited by people of all ages, fails to showcase effectively how the use of these facilities delivers important social value via sports activities. Indeed, it seems like the skaters are already operating as if they are “with their one foot out at the door”, a statement to their non-involvement in the political conflict and to their passivity in terms of further defending their space should another eviction attempt occurs. In this regard, the production of surplus value in the most active space in ROG is also left unrealised outside the skating community. A similar sentiment about the loss of value and the failure to externalise it to the wider public can be assumed for most of the spaces in ROG, as the necessity to remain anonymous and operate in the margins due to fear of another lawsuit or eviction attempt prioritises survival first to the detriment of surplus value production.

Interestingly enough though, the question of value in this under-developed part of Ljubljana is one that even MOL does not seem to have an answer to. Since MOL bought the ROG building, there have between numerous attempts to deliver a technocratic project that would revitalise and gentrify the area. The initial idea of commercialisation of the ROG area has been attacked numerous times by the majority of the public in Ljubljana, and paved the way for a different endeavour that steered away from private investment and the public-private partnership approach to the creation of the ROG Center, which would focus the renovation attempts to the main building and would house the creative/cultural industries. Apparently this is now again not the case, and the focus of the future ROG Center activity has shifted to production of sustainable materials, 3D printing, and other practices that resemble more the initial use of the space, as the bulk of creative and cultural activity is meant to be housed in Cukrarna, a soon to be renovated facility just 400 metres from ROG.

In a rationalised way, the development of a new ROG centre could indeed point to a reorganisation of the urban space in a way that would allow its new value functions to be realised and enjoyed as part of a collective process of production and consumption practices by a wider audience. However, this uncertainty regarding what uses, and by whom, will be delivered in the building in the future bring the institutional side in a precarious position as well, which is also notable by the lack of a concrete plan after all these years. It remains to be seen whose groups’ approach towards the externalisation of surplus value can have a bigger impact in the status of ROG factory, with the caveat that immaterial production might have reached its peak in ROG, and maybe it is time for a shift into other material uses that can more easily bring out the surplus (but also diminishing) value of the area.

REFERENCES

Harvey D (2008) The right to the city. New Left Review 53: 23–40

Kurnik A & Beznec B (2008) Rog: Struggle in the city, available at: http://eipcp.net/transversal/0508/kurnikbeznec/en/print.html

Soya E (1980) The socio-spatial dialectic. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 70(2): 207-225

Tomsich F (2017) ROG is a symptom: Notes on the history of art production in Autonomous Factory ROG. Časopis za Kritiko Znanosti 45(270): 91-104.

ROG Factory visit – Cirkusarna NaokROG

After our first visit at Ambasada ROG, it was evident to us that we need to understand how other spaces work around. Our next visit to the factory was at a space where art, music, creativity, and physical exercise is combined. Cirkusarna NaokROG is operating at the ground floor of the main building, and it serves as an exercise space for different circus affiliated practices as per the ROG website, including aerial and silk dancing, acrodancing, and hand standing. Apart from its use as a gym, the space also accommodates rehearsals, theatre performances, jazz sessions and jam nights. Our first visit to the space was during an AcroDance class, and even though at first we did not intend to participate during it, we decided to take part and experience how the space is realised by the temporal users of ROG.

We take out our shoes and leave our stuff outside the main space where the class is taking place: the space is full of different objects that are used by the circus performers or the musicians that come to Cirkusarna once a week. With our presence, the class was a bit crowded for the size of the space, but this did not deter or annoyed the rest of the frequent class members. The section, usually taught in Slovene, was now explained in English to make it easier for us to follow. The idea behind acrodance is to explore different rhythms and interpretations of dancing with the help of basic acrobatic movements, and the use of different objects and techniques. The exercises and the different movements are explored through partnering with another member. It is a quite exhilarating experience for someone that is not familiar with this way of exercising, as it requires a combination of rhythm, experimentation, and control to master some of the movements. After the first shock and uncertainty though, one can immerse to the experience and appreciate not only the physical benefit, but also how the space contributes to a different understanding of one’s own body.

Giving full attention during the class…

As the class progresses, there is also a sense of playfulness and freedom that goes hand in hand not only with the act of dancing, but also with the very idea of squatting. Each movement contributes to it of course, but it is also the very act of being-in-place that actively makes people part of the squat, even temporarily. In this sense, the Cirkusarna space is one that is infused with multiple meanings and the experience of each individual, which adds to the necessity of preserving this place in a state that allows such type of experimentation to happen.

Trying to memorise the movements..

Furthermore, whereas for some of the participants the act of being in a place like ROG is only incidental to the actual activity, it shows that such participation largely contributes to the creative co-production that is happening on a weekly basis in Cirkusarna and other active spaces, which stems from the richness and multiplicity of the sensorial and emotional experience of place-making (Warren, 2012). This is an important achievement that adds to the extra-ordinarity of a place like ROG, and allows for a reciprocal exchange between people and place, which is based on openness and change rather than boundedness and stability (Cresswell, 2004).

The class draws to a close with a partnering massage and everybody on our team is now feeling a bit more relaxed. The rest of the regulars are taking a little break, as they are apparently also taking part on the hand standing class that starts after acrodance. We thank the instructor and also arrange to meet to discuss a bit more about Cirkusarna and the activities that the circus people are involved in ROG. That will not be our only visit in the space though…

REFERENCES

Cresswell T 2004 Place: A Short Introduction. Oxford: Blackwell.

Warren S (2014) ‘I want this place to thrive’: volunteering, co-production and creative labour. Area 46(3): 278–284.

ROG factory visit – Ambasada ROG

We arrived today at the edge of centre of Ljubljana at the Kavarna ROG cafe, a business that has no affiliation to the actual factory or the occupation of it, but it could act as a sign of things to come; a family-friendly meeting place, totally sanitised and gentrified, as apparently one of the imaginaries for ROG is. The surrounding area around Trubarjeva street is in the midst of regeneration attempts, but ROG factory stands alone as a “stain” to the area’s renewed image. The contrast is quite obvious too; the walls around ROG are filled with graffitis, and soon we get the feeling of entering to a different part of the city that we are not used to. We are about to enter in and see if that is indeed the case. 

We immediately encounter a barricade that is placed there to stop bulldozers from entering the factory and start the demolition process. After the 2016 incident, there have been a few more attempts from contractors and the municipality to continue the demolition process. This process is halted at the moment amidst continuous negotiations and legal battles, which will be analysed in later posts throughout our stay. Regardless, the ROG users seem to cannot take any chances, as even earlier this summer there were attempts by contractors to demolish certain parts of the walls around ROG. But today everything seemed very quiet and calm around here. 

We are taking some pictures of the main entrance and the graffiti, sculpture, and tag art around the peripheral buildings. The graffiti that adorns the main ROG building, a huge pink gun that is filled by pencils and books, stands as a symbol of solidarity from the alternative scene during the 2016 unrest. After browsing the area for a few minutes, we enter the main building of Ambasada ROG, a community centre that is run by volunteers, artists, refugees, and other activists. Whereas there is an official event happening today in there, it is not running today. As soon as we declared our identities and who we are, we were greeted and welcomed in by the users. In these situations, there is always a certain degree of uncertainty regarding who is entering the area, but soon the users showed us their hospitality, making us coffee and tea, and we start conversing about the daily activities and management of Ambasada ROG. Two French journalists had just finished interviewing the unofficial “manager” of Ambasada ROG. She is giving her time everyday to perform certain activities such as cooking, cleaning and even advising refugees who are trying to acquire permanent status, travel papers and documentation, and even flats and jobs. 

Throughout our stay, a few refugees pass by to have a hot drink, a smoke, and a conversation with the people in Ambasada. There is a pleasant atmosphere in the room, not only because of people’s kindness, but also because of the two little kittens that are playing around making everybody giggle every now and then. We continue our conversation mainly with the “manager” and a couple of refugees who are describing their life in Slovenia. One of them admits that Ambasada ROG really helped him regarding his status information and documentation. We were also told that another refugee will have his family really soon with him, a testament to the relentless voluntary work that pays dividends around here. As time flows by, we start to feel the sense of homeliness and “place” that Ambasada ROG strives so hard for. This is an important achievement for the volunteers and active users, who via everyday communal practices of maintenance, repair and homeliness have managed to forge a strong identity that resonates throughout ROG factory and puts it in a relatively strong position in the current debate with the municipality. For members of Ambasada ROG, work is the currency and everybody needs to offer something in exchange for some services or food and drink. The main business of Ambasada ROG, finding a home, work and offering information about the status of refugees is very time-consuming, so people need to provide something for the space’s daily operation. As far as the “manager” is concerned, very few people who ask for help do not give something back to the space. 

Our discussion continues and it now revolves around the co-habitation of the other groups inside the factory area. There are diverse activities and events that are happening on a weekly basis, from sports and relaxation activities (skateboard, boxing, football, yoga, silk dance, etc.) to cultural production and philosophical lectures. Of course, not all of these groups are on the same page regarding how ROG Factory as an entity should continue in the future, but now there is a good level of understanding and cooperation between groups and users. That is not the norm around ROG; a couple of years ago none of the groups were talking to each other, but these tensions seem to be normal in an environment like this. We do not get the full picture of why this was the case, but the political aspect of the activities around ROG seems to be less important for some of the users. We learn a bit more about the events that Ambasada ROG is running nowadays, and we were cordially invited to a TINA party which is dedicated to Mark Fisher and a working meeting, so that we can observe the group’s operations. We thank her for her time today, and we arrange to meet the rest of the Ambasada team soon as well. Hopefully we will be able to get a better glimpse of the rest of the groups in ROG during the weekend, as we start to map the groups and important nodes around the ROG system…