„On 9 September 1993 the city council replied with an unannounced, illegal and hurried attempt to demolish all Metelkova buildings with machines and wrecking balls. Ha! Exactly the opposite of what they promised! As a response to this quite unethical act, approximately 150 self-organised individuals occupied the Northern section of the Metelkova barracks.“
Amongst the group of people fighting to save what is now a famous and lively hub for creatives of all kinds in the centre of Ljubljana was also Nataša Serec. She would later found KUD Mreža, a network for experimental music at the Metelkova site. In our interview she tells us how the network came into being, about their concert series FriForma or the International Feminist and Queer Festival Red Dawns, and the changes over the years – and last months…
Dear Nataša, KUD Mreža is active in a wide variety of disciplines and fields in the arts. You organise series of improvised and experimental music concerts, manage two art galleries, set up urban arts projects, offer residencies for foreign artists and also provide cultural education programmes for children. How do you bring all of these different activities together under one roof and what is KUD Mreža’s central mission or approach?
Well, first of all, KUD Mreža’s basic mission is closely connected to the Autonomous Cultural Centre Metelkova mesto in Ljubljana, which is basically an open space for innovation and dialogue on several levels. Our long-term presence within such a heterogeneous cultural space has given us the tools to think constructively about promoting openness and the richness of differences, and to emphasise the importance of diversity. We support artists who dare to take an active role in our modern world, who question the roles of artists and various art systems within our current society, and strive to find creative answers. As our name suggests—Mreža means “net” or “network” in English—we also connect, collaborate, network and co-produce with many high-profile public and non-governmental, local and international, cultural and educational organizations beyond the walls of Metelkova.
In our organisation we usually work in smaller teams of 2 or 3 professional and extremely dedicated colleagues, who have trained within the association and have independently managed their chosen projects over the years. These include curating two of our galleries, organising annual festivals and series of concerts, running creative workshops for children and young people and so on. Some joined the association as local volunteers, some via the European Voluntary Service, and some simply as part-time staff. At present, two of our colleagues are full-time employees. The rest of us are mostly self-employed producers of culture or artists. All of our diverse projects are coordinated and brought together under the same roof by a team of three people who provide administrative and technical assistance, joint PR, and other kinds of support in addition to their own professional projects.
If we took a magnifying glass to all of our activities, we could make out a great number of advantages, mainly reflected in our highly qualified and truly committed professionals and volunteers. One of the biggest must be the free rental of production facilities and our excellent location in the city centre of Ljubljana, which is also a very popular destination for tourists. The visibility of alternative artistic approaches in general and our great public are also huge advantages. The association works in the public interest in the cultural realm, a status the Ministry Of Culture Of Slovenia bestowed on us more than 20 years ago. This is a big advantage in terms of securing funding from different public sources. There are significant opportunities to expand international partnerships, and consequently the possibility of attracting EU funding. And last but not least, we have started to see opportunities to increase our internal finances by putting more emphasis on marketing.
It’s a long story but I will try to keep it short. The story of Metelkova began in the second half of the 1980s with an extremely strong national independence movement, which actuated a highly vibrant social and cultural scene. The initiative to convert the military barracks along Metelkova Street into a multicultural centre sprung up, and over 200 individuals and several NGOs formed an association called Mreža Za Metelkovo or in English: “Network For Metelkova”. Half a year after the Yugoslavian Peoples Army departed, in autumn 1991, the City of Ljubljana and the Government of the Republic Of Slovenia officially declared that the barracks were to be run by Network For Metelkova. Everything seemed to be going to plan. Activists had already started to set up the foundations of an information and documentary centre, they defined their programmes and promotional goals. We had already started the Metelkova fanzine, but the legal procedure was suspiciously slow. Under pressure from the public, the city council promised to answer these unsolved legal matters but on 9 September 1993 they undertook an unannounced, illegal and hurried attempt to demolish all of the Metelkova buildings with bulldozers and wrecking balls. Ha! Exactly the opposite of what they had promised! In response to this quite unethical act, a self-organised group of approximately 150 individuals occupied the northern section of the Metelkova barracks. Among them was a young student, who hurried on foot across the city with a sleeping bag under her arm to “save“ Metelkova.
At that point, Metelkova looked like a bomb site. It was a mess. A week later the city council disconnected the electricity and the water supply followed. The cultural programmes and other activities that were organised at Metelkova were still extremely rich and inspiring. There were over 200 cultural events and art happenings in the first few months, from September to December 1993.
It terms of its architecture, Metelkova is made up of two complementary sections. The northern section is made up of buildings owned by the Municipality Of Ljubljana. It is comprised of six separate buildings that retained military names: Infantry (now art studios, concert halls, offices, recording studios, handicraft studios), Hunters (art studios, GLBTQ+ community spaces), Hangar (a music club), Stable (galleries, residency studios, art studios, info shop), Garages (art studios) and Prison (Celica youth hostel). The Ministry Of Culture has officially given over the southern section for the establishment of a new home for the Ethnographic Museum, the Museum Of Modern Art (MSUM+), the Rectorate for the Protection Of Natural And Cultural Heritage, and building Metelkova 6, which still functions as offices and rehearsal spaces for some of the most prominent Slovenian cultural NGOs.
KUD Mreža was established in 1997 with the main goal of improving the infrastructure and production conditions at Metelkova. We first started managing a gallery in the former military kitchen, established on the initiative of young students from the Academy Of Fine Arts as an exclusively artist-run space. I joined the association at the beginning, but first became more active two years later. However, I was among the squatters who occupied the barracks on the crazy night of 9 September 1993. Many art associations formed soon after, and we began to employ staff, but the main focus of the association was still on Metelkova as a whole: improving working conditions, doing renovations, installing electricity, Internet and water, communicating with the municipality, and of course, the most difficult of all, internal communication and solving problems between the various Metelkova “residents”. Prior to that, I was involved in creating the Development Plan For Metelkova, under the leadership of the American architect Kevin Kaufman, in 1994.
When we met during the “International Visitor Programme” you talked about Ljubljana’s vibrant art scene. What makes the city and the scene so special for you?
The diversity, richness and progressive nature of Ljubljana’s independent art scene is rooted in the early alternative cultural movements that were an important factor in democratisation and civil society in Slovenia in the 1980s. At the time, alternative culture in Slovenia consisted of various punk and post-punk scenes, youth clubs, organisations, artistic and social movements, and some youth media outlets like Radio Študent and weekly magazines such as Mladina. The provocative and renowned art movement NSK—Neue Slowenische Kunst—was also founded during this period, generating the subversive band Laibach, among others. It is interesting to note that all of the organisations I have mentioned still exist and operate with the same intensity and progressiveness as 40 or even 50 years ago.
Those who joined the independent cultural scene in the 1990s certainly had good role models who helped them in their endeavours and encouraged critical thinking. In normal times—before the pandemic—so many events take place simultaneously in Ljubljana, a town with less than 300,000 inhabitants, that protagonists in the scene are sometimes bitter that they constantly overlap and “steal” the audience from each other. But it is also often the case that five concerts take place at five different locations on the same evening, and they are all extremely well attended.
Personally, I am happy that the variety and selection here is so huge, while the quality remains pretty high. Not a day goes by without there being an interesting cultural event somewhere in Ljubljana. I even find it worth paying the more expensive living costs in the capital in return for this cultural richness. Cultural and social events disappeared from the venues and streets of Ljubljana during the pandemic, and suddenly Ljubljana felt very poor and empty.
It is also important to add that the independent cultural scene can only flourish with the support of the city’s Department Of Culture, which co-finances NGO programmes and projects with 3 million Euros a year. Until the arrival of our new government last March, contemporary art was still well funded by the Ministry Of Culture, but by the end of the year they had made several harmful decisions, which clearly indicate tough times ahead for the contemporary art scene in Slovenia.
What role does KUD Mreža play in the local art community and what do you wish to provide? Do you collaborate with other initiatives and organisations?
Our trademark is mainly distinguished by the truly authentic “Metelkova art style”, characterized by recycled art, which cultivates the awareness that artistic interventions in space are not limited to the field of art, but can take the wider social environment into account too. By 2020 over 200 individual urban art projects had been created in Metelkova, together forming a complex and comprehensive public sculpture. Due to the clear association with Kurt Schwitters’ Merzbau, we have called this collection of urban art projects Gesamtkunstwerk Metelkova.
Gesamtkunstwerk Metelkova has actually been one of the most attractive cultural locations in Ljubljana for many years, and is becoming one of the most visited tourist destinations in Slovenia. The British newspaper the Guardian exclaimed “Ljubljana? Metelkova!” in their article “How an abandoned barracks in Ljubljana became Europe’s most successful urban squat”. Metelkova has become known as Slovenia’s second capital. No joke. Although this description is a bit over the top, I often get the feeling that Metelkova is more appreciated abroad than it is locally. However, we have a really good relationship with the city authorities, and it seems they are proud of Metelkova. We also cooperate with the University Of Ljubljana – Academy Of Fine Arts, and hope to work with some open-minded professors from the Academy Of Music soon. It is all about mutual support and empowerment. Without cooperation we simply cannot accomplish our mission.
There is a big difference between institutional culture (museums, orchestras) and independent culture (independent musicians, composers, etc.) in Germany. Do you also see this distinction? How do you experience the relationship between institutions and the independent scene?
The situation is pretty similar here. The managers at bigger public institutions are less enthusiastic about cooperating with smaller independent cultural organizations. When we stage music or sound events that are more technically demanding—which can only be hosted in a space with a lot of speakers for example—or we need a concert piano, everything gets desperately expensive for us. The next obstacle is booking a desired date for an event, which is pretty hard and often means accepting second best. For example, we tried to organise a concert for the Cologne-based quintet Emißatett three times last year. We wanted to put them on at the largest national hall, Cankarjev Dom, but it was difficult to book the date we wanted as the venue gave preference to their own productions. Ultimately they were all dropped anyway due to the pandemic. I recently watched an Emißatett livestream and almost cried. The music they played was so beautiful. And we couldn’t make this happen in Ljubljana! But we haven’t given up and will try again this year. Another example: we recently received three very interesting offers for international partnerships in 2021 and 2022, and they all involve experimental, improvised or new music. One came from Graz and is called V:NM Festival, the second is an exciting initiative from Berlin, and the third one is from Quebec, Canada. The same concern is already emerging: will we be able to provide suitable venues to host 20 to 30 international musicians in Ljubljana or not? We will certainly strive to cooperate with bigger institutions, not only for the reasons mentioned earlier, but also to expand our possible audience. These bigger public institutions have much larger PR services, and can reach a much larger audience than we can.
You curate and organise two series of concerts with László Juhász: FriForma (since 2016) and FriFormA\V (since 2018). What is you curatorial approach and how does FriFormA\V differ from previous series?
The FriForma concert series promotes creative music, a weird mixture of genres that we usually label free improvisation, free jazz or experimental music. The innovative aspect of the series is in combining contemporary academic music and entirely self-invented approaches, and basically everything in between. We try to present a carefully assembled balance of various concepts and approaches, which can be contrasting or completely different from each other, while combining them into an organic unit that we call FriForma. Our audience appreciates this careful selection.
In addition to the common stage performances, we also offer residency stays, video and audio documentation, more serious sound recordings, video production, presentations or lectures, and even international tours. All of the activities within the series strive to establish fruitful cooperation between renowned international artists and talented local musicians. These international collaborations over the last couple of years gave birth to several music releases on Edition FriForma, which is a local sub-label of the international record label Inexhaustible Editions. In terms of FriFormA\V, it is a performance series that offers unique artistic creations which involve video, light and photography in contemporary sound environments, either in the fields of sound art and sound installations, or in the fields of improvised and composed music. FriFormA\V was established in response to the need to artistically upgrade or add further value to our existing concert series. Both series of events aim to explore new and innovative works and artistic potentials of the younger generation of Slovenian musicians and visual artists. It is important to add that as we are not tied to a single venue. Our events take place at various, sometimes surprising locations in Ljubljana, from clubs and bars, through art galleries and museums, to functioning churches or other historical locations.
With FriForma and your residency programme Studio Asylum, KUD Mreža has focused on international collaborations and artistic exchange with local artists. What kind of effect does this exchange have on your organisation and the local scene?
“An artist on a work challenge” is a one- to two-month residency stay at our Studio Asylum in Metelkova, which allows artists to get a feeling for Metelkova, Ljubljana and Slovenia. The working visit challenge also requires intervention from the artist. Not only does the international artist get to know the local art scene, the emphasis is also on what happens in the other direction: the introduction and transfer of skills, knowledge, ideas and reflections that the new temporary resident brings to Ljubljana. This is not the only priority of our residencies, and often these programmes do not have predefined guidelines. We don’t invite artists via annual open calls—they can apply any time via a very simple application form on our website. We are clearly aware that it is important for artists to move away from their everyday environment sometimes and work somewhere else, so we offer them a free stay in a space that allows them to work in peace and quiet, while still being in an inspiring environment.
How many artists visit each year and what do you look for in applicants?
I take care of the residency programme myself. In a good year, I can set up five or six longer working visits, each hosted at Studio Asylum in Metelkova. This is unpaid work for me and is only driven by my enthusiasm to help artists achieve their desired plans or results. Our previous residents include Seijiro Murayama, Samuel Dunscombe, Irene Kepl, Léo Dupleix and Simon Roy Christiansen, just to name a few musicians who come to mind immediately…
KUD Mreža, and others, has been organising the International Feminist and Queer Festival Red Dawns, which you also co-founded, for over 20 years. The discourse around women* in art has been changing constantly in that time. How has your festival kept up with and maybe even adapted to different discourses?
Although it was always feminist at its core, what is now the International Feminist And Queer Festival Red Dawns started out as a Women’s Festival, and was once even called a Women’s Pocket Festival. “Feminist” was added to the name in 2007, and shortly after it became a “Feminist And Queer Festival”. In 2016, the festival team Slovenized the adjective “queer” to kvir(ovski), to better suit our needs. The changes in the festival’s name correlate not only with the discourse about women in art, but also with the changes in the members of the voluntary team that organises the festival, changes in political situations, and the growing need to be more inclusive in the festival’s statement of intent—which is displayed through the events the team organizes. As Tea Hvala, a former long-time member of the programming team, put it in an interview in 2011: “One of the definitions of queer that Red Dawns leaned on was the coalitional—the one that defends political cooperation based on mutual solidarity, not on private interests as determined by the individual’s gender, sex, class and age affiliation. We labelled the programme events that disapprove of the assimilation of gay and lesbian politics and those that discuss sex and gender diversity “queer”; so bodies, expressions and wishes of people for whom, with strictly prescribed manners and appearances for (necessarily feminine) women and (necessarily manly) men, there is no space in society.” Heteronormativity, or any kind of normativity, needs to be questioned and addressed continuously in order to avoid social exclusion. This is what the festival events have aspired to do throughout the years, while evolving with the flow of changing times, with its many participants attracting a feminist and queer public in Ljubljana. Since the very start, the idea of the festival was, firstly, to honour the mostly invisible creative and organizational work done by women at Metelkova, and secondly, to create a platform for expression, to redefine public space to make it accessible for creativity and for women to socialise on their own terms, in an non-hierarchical, non-exploitational and anti-capitalistic manner, based on and still using DIY principles, through collective effort, not only of the team, but also the individuals and organisations participating. The feminist struggles of the past have proved that attempts to define women by gender or even by common features of character are misleading: they are concerned with the metaphysics of “femininity” and “masculinity” instead of dealing with the reality of everyday hatred, disrespect and exploitation of people of all genders, not just women and men. The festival does not advocate a further polarization of genders. Instead, the creativity and the mixing of the participants questions the boundaries we take for granted, the isolating boundaries that separate people regardless of gender.
How did the pandemic affect your work? Did you have to deal with restrictions? And what kind of changes did you have to implement?
Our organisation is predominantly involved in visual art and, as I already mentioned, the establishment of a gallery for contemporary art in a former military kitchen was our very first act. In 2020, the programme schedule for Alkatraz Gallery, our semi-street gallery, the Night Display Gallery Pešak’s programme, and of course the Gesamtkunst Metelkova schedule were all fully booked. The galleries started to host exhibitions at the beginning of the year and then the constantly changing instructions from the government and the national institutes of health began. Vernissages and finissages, which are really popular social events, could no longer be put on. The only option was to open the gallery doors and supervise every single individual visit. So no crowds, no socialising. From June onwards we established an outdoor venue, right in front of Alkatraz Gallery and Klub Gromka, and organised some open-air events. We just managed to catch the right moment in September, right before venues were completely closed again due to the second wave of Corona. The penultimate FriForma concert was partly public—with legal permission for only 15 visitors—and partly live-streamed, followed by 263 people. Our last FriForma concert in December took place completely online via the Vienna-based streaming platform Echoreaume, and we had 123 individual viewers. So that’s how we moved slowly from closed spaces to open-air and then to virtual spaces.
Which artistic perspectives and issues do you think will occupy art and culture professionals in the field of experimental music over the coming years?
I sincerely hope that governments in the EU will take serious action and help musicians make up for the creative and financial opportunities they have lost. When people suddenly found themselves locked inside their homes, art helped them to overcome their anxiety. Many swore they would go crazy without listening to music, watching movies, or reading books. I hope they will remember this and support musicians by attending concerts when the situation improves. From conversations with musicians—László also conducted several interviews last year—we learned that some took advantage of time without live performances to reflect on their past works, make plans for the future, while other artists composed or edited their sound archives.
What might the art and culture scene look like in a post-Corona society? What do you hope it will look like and how do we get there?
I am afraid that attendance to concerts and other live events will remain limited for quite some time in the near future. For our experimental, boutique concerts, a limit of 50 listeners is not a major problem. It is a much more painful outlook for festivals with hundreds or thousands of people, and it is certainly devastating for the music industry. I am also concerned about how international transport and travel possibilities will function in the future. I wonder if putting on concerts will become more expensive due to security measures, which will surely last for some time. Hopefully our audience will not have shrunk by the end of the pandemic, but that more and more people will be hungry for real, in-person experiences.
What formats and potentials have you seen emerging from the current situation that might point to how we will work in the future?
A positive experience that I would definitely like to see continue into the future is the live-streaming of certain concerts. However, they must be organised by professional teams. Professional cameras and real-time visualisation play very important role here, and eventually it can serve as a documentation in the form of an attractive video product. Of course, this kind of “fun” is also expensive. It is really exciting when you invite your friends from New Zealand, Japan or the States and watch a concert together online.
We thank László Juhász for his support in proof-reading the text, as well as Ana Grobler, artistic director of the Alkatraz Gallery and a member of the Red Dawn Festival team, for answering the question concerning the Red Dawn Festival. First and foremost, naturally, we thank Nataša Serec for this interview.