ROG: an urban squat of quasi-public nature

By Jenny Kanellopoulou and Nikos Ntounis

The ongoing project titled “Making and managing Ljubljana’s urban squats: inclusive and participatory practices” (funded by the BA/Leverhulme Small Research Grants and supported by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), investigates the way Ljubljana’s squatted areas Metelkova and Tovarna ROG are used and managed by both the official institutions and the communities of their respective users. It aims to appreciate the power dynamics that emerge in their everyday running and to critically evaluate the role that institutions play and the influence that they have vis-à-vis these particular urban settings. In this post, we wish to offer a brief elaboration on the spatial particularities surrounding ROG, namely its recent recognition by the Slovenian legal system as a “quasi-public” place. 

Our overall project is a continuation of work undertaken in the summer of 2016 (http://blog.placemanagement.org/2018/02/19/heterotopias/), where we focused on the normalisation of Ljubljana’s landmark squat Metelkova, through place branding. This time, we turned our attention to Metelkova’s “infamous” neighbour, ROG that has been the subject of ongoing political, social, and legal disputes. During our three-week stay in Ljubljana in November 2019, we had the opportunity to experience ROG’s functions up close, participate in activities in its premises, and speak to a number of relevant stakeholders representing both the institutions and ROG’s communities of users, past and present.

The history of ROG is rather long and contested: during the 14 years of its continuous occupation by activists, artists, athletes, as well as refugees, academics and live-in squatters, it has been both promoted as a cultural project across Slovenian and international media platforms and objected as an incivility by the Municipality of Ljubljana (MOL), pursuant to the latter’s ever-changing plans for the redevelopment of this former factory area. The relationship between the MOL and ROG has switched from co-existence to acceptance and from “open battle” on the streets to litigation, revealing a cacophony of conflicting pursuits and priorities from both sides along the way.

The clash culminated in eviction proceedings initiated by the MOL against certain individual ROG users in front of the Slovenian Courts, ultimately reaching the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court’s judgement of September 2019 (VSRS Sodba II Ips 219/2018) signalled a brief victory for ROG striking a blow to the MOL’s eviction plans. Thanks to this decision, the Supreme Court of Slovenia declared ROG a quasi-public place of “public good” nature, open to all citizens of Ljubljana. This decision puts an end to the Municipality of Ljubljana’s eviction attempts against the collective of ROG users (since no such collective was found to exist in law) by highlighting the purposive nature of the acquisition and the enjoyment of property, introduced by Article 67 of the Slovenian Constitution:

 “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 Supreme Court reiterates that for as long as the people of Ljubljana through their use of ROG perform these functions, the place’s essence is fulfilled, not least thanks to its ownership status: ROG is owned by a public entity and is equally being enjoyed by the public. As far as the SC is concerned: “what the Municipality decides to do with the place is a matter of public policy rather than a matter of law.”

A quasi-public place is one where public activity takes place. Ownership rights are relevant insofar as they include rather than exclude the public.

This judgment appears unorthodox from a UK perspective, where public order arguments would most likely prevent any legal authority from describing an urban squat as a “public good”. Domestic courts would be highly unlikely to take such a liberal approach towards a squatted place, notwithstanding any arguments for adverse possession; besides, ROG’s ownership status was never under dispute nor was there a collective of users that could potentially replace the MOL as rightful owners. This would go against the crux of the case:

A quasi-public place is one where public activity takes place. Ownership rights are relevant insofar as they include rather than exclude the public.

Radical as it may seem, this decision further accomplishes something that neither the users of ROG nor the MOL had been able to: it crystallises a depiction of ROG that might or might not correspond to its current state. As far as the official and institutional elements are concerned, ROG is amorphous, anonymous, and lacks any hierarchal representation; these are the attributes that afford ROG its “quasi-public” status. This particular image of ROG becomes delineated in space and time, and constitutes a perpetuate legal construct; any departure from this would have to be officially justified or overturned by a court of law, based on subsequent relevant findings. Pursuant to this decision, ROG represents a space officially recognised by law to possess certain characteristics. The extent to which these characteristics might change over time is of no importance to ROG’s official representation, which henceforth creates its own parallel (and static) reality.

This particular image of ROG becomes delineated in space and time, and constitutes a perpetuate legal construct; any departure from this would have to be officially justified or overturned by a court of law, based on subsequent relevant findings. 

Nevertheless, this official representation is not the only “truth” present at ROG. ROG, as a relevant legal space incorporates various narratives, past and present, many of which did not find their way into the Slovenian Court System in order to become evidential. These narratives continue to co-exist alongside the legal one, developing in a parallel manner, changing, or even vanishing altogether. Here lies a further paradoxical element: the representation crystallised by the courts is neither the one advocated by the institutions governing ROG (the MOL/ proprietor) nor the one that corresponds to its current reality, as a few years have passed since the initiation of the legal proceedings. The MOL considers ROG either an urban “wasteland” or a valuable piece or real estate, whereas ROG itself is gradually becoming more hierarchal and organised, due to the decreasing numbers of active users.

Whilst a socio-legal viewing of the case of ROG sheds light to the legal, spatial, and social elements, it appears that the element of time remains underrepresented in this official narrative. ROG as a relevant legal space exists in multiple dimensions and timelines. To this end, it is worth examining ROG as a chronotope (Valverde, 2015), in order to accentuate the multiple temporalities (McFarlane, 2011, Massey, 2005, Citroni and Karrholm 2019), which constitute ROG, throughout its journey of 14 years. A chronotopic viewing of the legal space allows us to move “away from metaphysical notions of ‘space’ and/or ‘time’ and to explore more fully the intertwined relationship between temporalisation and spatialisation in our study of governance” (Kotiswaran, 2015).

This viewing allows for more flexibility and space-sensitivity when approaching the issue of ROG: the institutional elements remain split in their approach and their priorities with respect to this urban space, fostering a debate about the ownership and the use of private versus public places. Viewing ROG as an assemblage of multiple temporalities enables the move towards the examination of both un-hierarchical management structures and of more mundane practices that are “left out” of official communication attempts. In turn, these could be employed to assist in the evaluation of places of contested nature like ROG. Indeed, whilst places that have achieved some level of maturity (Brighenti and Kärrholm, 2019) such as Metelkova, are easier to “read”, govern, and study, assessing the functions of ROG and the practices of its users, requires a more creative methodological tool.

More information about ROG and our ongoing project can be found at the following address: https://autonomousljubljana.home.blog/.


References

Brighenti, A. M., & Kärrholm, M. (2019). Three presents: On the multi-temporality of territorial production and the gift from John Soane. Time & Society, 28(1), 375–398.

Citroni S. and Karrholm M. (2019). Neighbourhood events and the visibilisation of everyday life: The cases of Turro (Milan) and Norra Fäladen (Lund). European Urban and Regional Studies, SAGE Publications Sage UK: London, England 26(1): 50–64.

Kotiswaran, P. (2015). Valverde’s Chronotopes of Law: Reflections on An Agenda for Socio-legal Studies. Feminist legal studies, 23(3), 353-359.

Massey, D. (2005). For Space. SAGE: London.

McFarlane, C. (2011). Assemblage and critical urbanism. City, Routledge, 15(2): 204–224.

Valverde, M. (2015). Chronotopes of law: Jurisdiction, scale and governance. Oxford and New York: Routledge.