Gentrification, autonomy, and the cultural space: 23 years of Metelkova Mesto

Gentrification, autonomy, and the cultural space: 23 years of Metelkova Mesto

The institutional part of Metelkova – as seen from the rooftop of the +MSUM. Photo: Nikos Ntounis
The institutional part of Metelkova – as seen from the rooftop of the +MSUM. Photo: Nikos Ntounis

by Jenny Kanellopoulou and Nikos Ntounis

Following up from our first blog entry on the normalisation of autonomous areas within urban centres, we embarked on a two week research trip in Slovenia and Denmark visiting the places in question, appreciating the communities that live and work in them, and engaging in fruitful discussions with them, as well as with the areas’ other stakeholders such as city representatives.

This blog entry is dedicated to the area of Metelkova Mesto, the semi-squatted cultural neighbourhood of Ljubljana, Slovenia, and the attempts of the municipality, as well as the state of Slovenia to “broaden” the cultural zone surrounding the urban squat and create a cultural space where all stakeholders can meet and contribute to the place’s brand: apart from the autonomous squatted buildings, the city of Ljubljana operates the Museum of Contemporary Art, whereas the state of Slovenia has also founded the Ethnographic museum in the same quarter. From state, to municipal, to autonomous level, the broader cultural zone of Metelkova Mesto creates the impression of a place dedicated to the promotion of arts and culture, a valuable asset to the city and to the country itself. [1]

Has this “broadened” perception of what constitutes a cultural place brand been accommodated by all stakeholders equally? And what about the squatters that have been occupying the buildings since 1993 that wish to remain unaffiliated and “untouched” by what they perceive as top-down gentrification attempts? It is certainly not a coincidence that the Slovene word for “gentrification” translates in English ennoblement, a word that clearly suggests a patronising approach to the non-conforming, or the alternative.

 The intersection of the institutional and the non-institutional part of Metelkova. Photo: Nikos Ntounis
The intersection of the institutional and the non-institutional part of Metelkova. Photo: Nikos Ntounis

As the visitor moves from the “institutional” cultural space to the autonomous zone, this non-conforming approach to art and space becomes apparent: modern architecture gives way to the squatted buildings of the former Yugoslavian Army, where administration and decision-making are left in the hands of the community, representing horizontal democratic principles.[2]

According to the representative of the autonomous art gallery Alkatraz, art life in the autonomous part of Metelkova adheres this system of self – organisation as the community decides on the distribution of studios to artists as well as craftsmen (a trade not represented in the institutional part), and art itself can take a more hands-on participatory approach since both artists and craftsmen are called to actively contribute to Metelkova’s space by designing the communal areas, adding sculptures to the green ones, adding murals to the buildings, and so on. The ongoing transformations on the non-institutional space represent the sense of freedom and non-conformity that are engulfed in the place brand of Metelkova. As such, the functional and symbolic aspects of the non-institutional part become intertwined in their association;[3] everything is designed to reflect the community’s internal values and initial vision.

Part of the building was demolished by the Slovene authorities in 1993, the wall was never fixed but was decorated instead to celebrate the autonomy and the struggles of the squatted area. Photo: Nikos Ntounis
Part of the building was demolished by the Slovene authorities in 1993, the wall was never fixed but was decorated instead to celebrate the autonomy and the struggles of the squatted area. Photo: Nikos Ntounis

Of course, artists, as well as art, can and often do cross the borders to the institutional part, especially when it comes to the most established representatives of Slovenian art, such as the experimental video-artist Neven Korda, whose work is exhibited both in the Museum of Contemporary Art and in the autonomous zone. The lines between institutional and non-institutional artistic and cultural space become blurred, not only through the movement of artists from one area to the other, but also through the so-described as “gentrification” attempts by one of the artists interviewed.

As such, gentrification or ennoblement in Metelkova Mesto, does not acquire the form of direct intervention in the place’s matters, rather it aims to engulf and appropriate the autonomous cultural zone’s brand, either through the expansion of the area in terms of static elements (e.g. new buildings and infrastructure) or through the promotion of art born and cultivated in the autonomous part by the institutional museum. The non-institutional part of Metelkova is slowly but steadily squeezed by bigger projects that aim to commodify the place product and take advantage of the place brand values that have been moulded by the squatters since 1993. These gentrification attempts risk leading to a static and non-evolving appreciation not only of the Metelkova brand but also of the art created therein; a brand belonging to a non-conformist past, something in itself fit for museum exhibition.[4]

PS- As Metelkova Mesto and its stakeholders present opportunities for multifaceted discussions, we endeavour to cover more of the issues identified in our interviews in forthcoming blog entries, such as participatory place-making, horizontal decision-making, and more on cultural space production.


All pictures taken by the authors.

[1] Metelkova Mesto operates not only as a cultural zone, but also a commercial area and as civil participation hub where NGOs are located. According to a representative from the Museum of Contemporary Art “there are three different Metelkovas.” However, for the purposes of the present blog entry, we focus on the cultural aspect of the area.

[2] The autonomous / squatted part of Metelkova Mesto consists of KUD Mreža, the association representing the cultural zone, Infoshop representing the anarchist community, and the club owners of that operate music venues.

[3] Giovanardi, M. (2012) Haft and sord factors in place branding: between functionalism and representationalism; Place Branding and Public Diplomacy, Vol. 8, No. 1, pp. 30-45.

[4] Currently, the Museum of Contemporary Art features such an exhibition into the history and the past of the squatting of Metelkova Mesto.