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ROG: AN UNFINISHED PORTRAIT

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Empty-pocketed with a quest for family roots. So I am in Ljubljana at the end of October, 2007. When I call him, my new cousin recommends that I visit Metelkova, a well-known complex of former military barracks occupied by a group of cultural producers in September, 1993, soon after the dismemberment of the Yugoslavian Army. I do so. A very small man with impossible arms and hands grills like a puppeteer some plescavica, the typical Balkan burgers. A small crowd meets inside one of the numerous clubs at the ending night of City of Women, one of the oldest feminist art festivals in Europe. Later that morning at the train station, a white-bearded, one-eyed man invites me to go begging with him to Trieste and Milan. I kindly refuse. I rather decide to take a walk in Tivoli Park. I sketch there a portrait of a young man playing didgeridoo. He’s from Greece and joins with a Spanish couple and a Ukrainian girl. We go together to Rog, a newer squat in an old bicycle factory, in the very center of Ljubljana. There is a club named Trotsky there, where we hear some punk tunes. Some people overnight in the zone, which comprises various buildings in an area of approx. 7000 m2. That night, an artist who also leads a gallery downstairs visits us on the first floor of the main building, abandoned around 1991, privatized at the end of Socialist times, bought back by the Municipality of Ljubljana in 2002 and protected as an industrial heritage site since 1998. I outline a portrait of Žiga. That piece of paper will be very significant for me in the future, as you will see.


A mural painting by Tina Drčar on the staircase of Rog’s main building.
FOTO: Francisco Tomsich

A counter position to Metelkova’s “establishment” and at the same time its continuation, the new age of Rog factory began the end of March, 2006, when a small group of individuals devoted to architecture, urbanism, social work, activism, critical theory, arts and alternative culture decided to take over the industrial complex after the Municipality of Ljubljana cancelled the permission for using the space as the staging area of a festival. However, the conquered territory was not intended as a place for living, but rather as an always-temporary working space, the headquarters of a non-profit, open and autonomous community of users dedicated to radical social, artistic and political activities. “A generational experience”, as Barbara Beznec and Andrej Kurnik, two members of the first wave of Rog people wrote in 2008, Autonomous Tovarna Rog was also a hardcore, utopian, contradictory and exciting experiment, whose spirit can be perceived in memories and documents of the time, like the collective documentary short film Tovarna Rog: We are temporary.

Barricades at Rog’s main entrance during the siege.
FOTO: Luka Cjuha

Galleries, festivals, concerts, skate parks, clubs, artist’s studios, ad-hoc collectives and sport, dance and performance stages flourished in Rog throughout 2006-2007, as well as an essential Social Center, mainly dedicated at that time to the situation of ”The erased” (Izbrisani, a not so well known appendix of the Yugoslav wars), covering what the community saw as fundamental lacks of attention in Slovenia’s official cultural and social policies. This extraordinary, seminal period, however, could not last too long, but the political commitment that imbued it lead to an inner vision of the community not as occupiers but rather liberators of public space, as artist Žiga Pilih points out. This self-perception will have a big role in the future, helping to feed a spirit of resistance against the repeated attempts of the Municipality of Ljubljana to evict the users and develop in the area a project of a Contemporary Arts Center conducted to renovate the main building and replace some of the others with a high-design hotel, parking places and facilities for creative industries.

Demonstration in support of Rog, Ljubljana, 25, Maz, 2016.
FOTO: Matevž Čebašek

The situation of Rog was quite less lively at the end of 2007, in part due to the fact that the mayor of Ljubljana (Zoran Janković, still on charge) refused to sign an already agreed legal contract with the users. Some of the initiators, for the other side, started to fade away and a series of divisions within groups and initiatives came into light. The film director Franci Slak, whose last production assured power supply for the complex, died, and the situation of Rog in general started to look very fragile, with no possibility of getting basic public services (electricity, water, sewage). By the beginning of 2009, the original impulse was weakened, despite local and international campaigns of support.

In 2014, I decided to go back to Ljubljana and I wrote to Rog’s mail-list in order to know what was going on with the place. One person answered, saying that we should have an encounter and take a look around. We met at the entrance, and I noticed that he was the same man I was trying to sketch seven years before. Like him, Rog was the same and at the same time a very different presence, with its endless layers of paint and decay and new paint, its unintended museum of graffiti, the numberless objects of unknown origin and purpose scattered all around and so many tracks of former users of odd and enigmatic corners. The Social Center have moved its main focus to the migrants and refugees, providing a series of facilities and services (from legal advice to language courses) that evidenced the scarcity of official policies in this respect. The ambiguous legal position of Rog was also evident: at the entrance, day and night, kept an eye on the area a security guard, paid by the authorities. “Since 2013 the community of users was invited to the discussions about the plans of the municipality”, writes Ivan Tosič in a recent article, but they “evaluated these occasions as being invited in the role of a subordinated partner, as all the major parameters of the municipalities’ plan were already fixed before the discussions”. Rog’s assembly (skupščina) raised a series of counter-proposals aimed to include the current users in the future plans for the complex, but they were ignored.

The excavator intended to start demolition works in Rog was painted pink and
became a symbol of the resistance during the siege of Rog_
FOTO_Henrike von Dewitz

Rog’s struggle against the Municipality of Ljubljana reappeared in 2016 and reached its highest peak during the summer, coinciding with a fertile and effervescent period of activities and initiatives. On Monday, 6th June, at 03:15 AM, a group of construction workers and private security guards entered the space with an excavator, being immediately confronted with some people who were staying there as night watchers and a growing flux of users and sympathisers who succeeded in breaking the cordon at the break of day. Close to midday, security guards were evacuated by the police, and users took control over the whole complex for the first time in ten years. Celebrations, festivals, exhibitions and numerous public activities coexisted for the rest of the summer with defensive strategies, barricades and endless meetings between Rog’s users and representatives of other institutions and the media. After these events, seven individuals filed a temporary court protection which turned into a lawsuit against the city government, still ongoing. At the same time, the Municipality of Ljubljana launched individual property ownership lawsuits (for 200.000 euros each) against these individuals and another one. This is a sharp sword of Damocles upon Rog’s head now. The city government, forced to re-allocate the reserved funds for next year’s budget, cannot start any demolition or restoration work until the court decision is made. Meanwhile, new projects, initiatives and collectives are taking new positions inside the area.

After more than ten years of persistence, Rog (and also its website) became a palimpsest of Ljubljana’s alternative visual culture of the last decade as well as a lively representation of its paradoxes and a unique case of organic, autonomous, self-developed “monster institution”, wherein the tension between market-oriented public policies and grassroots ways to confront civil rights and responsibilities finds architectural metaphors and artistic responses.