travel notes

Croatia & Slovenia, June-July 2011.

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CITIES, spatial poetics

To je ta Evropa, o kojoj piše malograđanski štampa da je velegradska i zapadnjačka, zagrebačka Evropa. Međutim, sve to samo je esplanadska kulisa. Dođite, molim vas, sa mnom prijeko na drugu stranu kolodvora, iza Podvožnjaka, ni dvjesto metara od gradskog centra, slika je zakulisno kobna, kao što je sve fatalno što je zakulisno: trnjanske petrolejke, blato do gležnja, prizemnice s trulim tarabama, seoske bašte (krastavci, tikve, ribiz i grah), kudravi psi bez marke, krave na melankoličnom povratku iz Vrbika, u predvečerje, selendra bez građevinskog reda, bez plana, sve gnjile kolibe s vlažnom horizontalom vodene razine od posljednje katastrofalne poplave koja se tu javlja s matematskom neizbježnošću: sezonski pravilno dvaput, svakog proljeća i svake jeseni, već kako padaju kiše oko Rjavine i Mezaklje na Feldesu. Patke po barama, otvorene toalete, malarija, tifus i sedam hiljada drugih bolesti, kao sudbina felaha u nilskoj Delti, sve sivo, sve bolesno, sve beznadno, sve antipatično, sve balkanska tužna provincija, gdje ljudi stanuju na smeću, gdje ljudi krepavaju kao pacovi, gdje slabokrvna djeca crkavaju od gladi i gdje se uopće krevapa više nego živi u ljudskom smislu […]

Skretati pozornost na prosjačku, zakulisnu bijedu nekih dekorativnih laži nije nikakvo naročito otkriće, ali kad se te dekorativne laži uzdižu na žrtvenik jednog samozaljubljenog idolopoklonstva, koje iz dana u dan sve više gubi najminimalniji smisao za procjenu istinitih vrijednosti, onda nam upravo ljubav za bijedu i neimaštinu naše stvarnosti nalaže da istini pogledamo u oči smionim i otvorenim pogledom.

Miroslav Krleža, in: Stefan Treskanica, Ukrudbene povjesnice, Zarez, XIV/346, p.25

Krleža

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CITIES, policy & design, spatial poetics, things I have liked, travel notes

Rijeka, or on the meanings of architecture

Whoever is regularly in my vicinity, gets a certain amount of lecturing on how beauty is a function of proportion, not decoration. The building above is a fine example of what I mean by that, proportion, but it is also something else, something entirely more.

Being in Europe, and low-cost flights also being in Europe, it has now become possible for me to do the unthinkable-in-Australia: to fly back to my hometown for a two-day roam-around. And once I was there, it dawned on me immediately (it exploded upon me, even) that I need to do this more, that I need to do it regularly, because having access to Rijeka I have access to my own history. Those two days left me feeling grounded in a way indescribable: they have made me remember where I come from. Losing the sense of my own history is inevitable when I live in Melbourne, Australia, because Australia is the end of the world, far far away from Rijeka. But it takes so little, a few days, a few thorough walks through my hometown – because Rijeka is a distinct place. Very, very distinct.

I have had the good luck to live in some very particular cities: Rijeka; Venice; Berlin. Melbourne was the only place I lived in that could in any way be called normal, a city from which one can extrapolate conclusions that apply to one or more other places as well. But I come from Rijeka; and I don’t come from Venice, Melbourne, or Berlin. Generations of my family have lived in and around Rijeka, but that in and of itself means nothing – Rijeka is a distinct place, as I say. It marks you far faster. It is enough to arrive, get off the bus or train or car, and start walking up and down its steep streets and stairs, and it is as if I suddenly remember how to walk again. It is in this act of walking, in the distinct rhythm of steps that shapes one’s life in a place, and life-in-a-place always being life itself, that I remember who I am (where I have been walking, why I set off). Six years on another continent mean nothing. I have never felt like a stranger in Rijeka. I cannot imagine the number of years I would have to spend in another place (and I have, so far, spent 10 outside Rijeka) before I stopped being from Rijeka and became from somewhere else. Nothing like K, who stops being from Brisbane every so often and becomes from Melbourne – whether because of personal identification, for simplification purposes, or simply because of time invested elsewhere. The city of Rijeka, with its history, geography and culture, is like no other, and my own being-like-no-other starts sitting better within me the moment I start climbing its rocks and jumping over its creeks, cutting rubber soles of my trainers on the shards of limestone, running down its hills through private gardens and along historical staircases.

Rijeka was a part of six different countries only in the past 100 years or so, including a period of 18 months it spent as a self-governed, pirate-anarchist city-state. It has its own dialect, its two winds (bura, the northern mountain wind, bringing cold and dry weather, and jugo, the warm and humid sea wind); its karst landscape, with soft and poround limestone forming tall mountains and deep canyons; and its culture of extreme tolerance to difference, focus on one’s own affairs, and frankness which would be brutal, if it wasn’t so non-malicious.

The living landscape of Rijeka is one half Mediterranean urbanity, tight stone towns ranging from sizeable to small, built by the sea, between cliffs and gullies, connected with medieval roads that were even then a feat of engineering; and one half complete and utter wilderness, forests and mountain tops and islands and the Adriatic Sea. When our bus stops on the side of the road cutting through makija (or maquis, as it tends to be known in English, the low Mediterranean forest), to drop off a frail old woman seemingly in the middle of nowhere, on a cliff, K is incredulous and concerned. Where is the lady going? I point to the town at the bottom of the hill, hundreds of metres below us, by the sea. But how is she going to get there? There will be a road or a staircase, I say, but K’s good Australian heart is not at peace until he really sees the road, going down the hill at an angle of a ski slope.

This is a cityscape without suburbs. A city can sprawl unchecked and unplanned only on relatively flat land – not when urban growth requires feats of engineering. Among the many distinct topographical formations of the karst landscape, not one is flat. There are 200,000 people living in Rijeka, but one can start walking from the national theatre, with its opera ensemble, ballet ensemble and orchestra, and arrive to the forests in 15 minutes.

It is a city without suburbs. What looks like suburbs, technically is just a lot of edge: city here, nature there. The insistence of Melburnians of all kinds that they are ‘just a suburban boy/girl/family’ is something I cannot relate to, because to me all suburbs look and feel like pitiful wasteland of both nature and culture, and Rijeka has never had any. In our teenage years, we have been known to go hiking on the hills outside the city for hours, then bush-bash our way down the hill and proceed straight to a punk concert or theatre performance. To have to walk, on flat suburban wasteland of houses and petrol stations, for 30 minutes just to get a carton of milk, is to me a personal, non-generalisable tragedy – not so much because it clashes with my values, but because it confuses my sense of walking.

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But I wanted to talk about something else – about architecture and beauty.

We walked up and down hills, through the city centre, and arrived at this building, the so-called Mali neboder, ‘Little Skyscraper’. With its 10 1/2 storeys it is hardly a skyscraper, but it was a tall building when it was built, and so the name stuck. I am generally a fan of early modernism in architecture, buildings built not in cookie-cutter repetition, but as thought-through one-offs. The promise of modernism exists in them still: buildings as a promise of the more efficient future, signals for how to make things rationally and intelligently, lighthouses of technological enlightenment, of engineering which makes life better for everyone.

There are many such buildings in Rijeka. They fit in with the Mediterranean sense of beauty (on which hopefully more later), they are unadorned and simple and truthful to their materials. ‘Mali neboder’ is a building made for its location: it respects the curvilinear street and the slope of the hill it sits on; its balconies open up to the view of the bay and the city centre; its colours are muted, and its windows have (FFS) the kind of blinds that buildings in hot climates need. It is a good building in every sense of the word: high-quality, honest, unpretentious, sensitive to the environment, modest. It did not demand changes of context – it was designed to slot in nicely, and yet it has a beauty of form that is distinct, unrepeatable. It is just that bit higher than other buildings on the street to say, hey, this is what human species can do now, let’s discuss where to go from here!. It neither pretends to come from a time before industry, not does it insist on ignoring the entire city before its time. It doesn’t pretend to be in Paris or New York. It simply makes as much New York on that corner as Rijeka can honestly work with. The story goes that the owner built it as tall as he could sell apartments: the building was finished when the market demand ran dry.

Stendhal said nicely: “Beauty is the promise of happiness.” The promise of this building, in 1939, was of a future that would be different, and perhaps better, without pretending to forget the past. There are many such buildings in Rijeka, and there has never been any discontent with modernist architecture there. The people of Rijeka never blew up any buildings on the grounds of ugliness. Today, they don’t build medieval-looking houses for a comfortable fantasy of a better past. It is an honesty which could be brutal, if it wasn’t so non-malicious.

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CITIES, poetics of life

Basically, what I learned from Japan is that creativity isn’t solely the domain of individual artists or inventors. Groups can be creative too. It took me a while to realise this, but when I did it made me happy, because it resolved an apparent conflict between two of the things I hold most dear: collectivism and creativity. I think you can say that Japan is capable of producing both the cliches of the manga industry and the originality of someone like Yuichi Yokoyama, whose quirky abstract mangas depend for their impact on twisting the conventions of mainstream manga. It’s not like Yokoyama defies manga, or appears courtesy of divine lightning.

– Momus, The Rumpus Interview

This feeds into a number of conversations I’ve been having recently, through which I have unearthed the roots of my own understanding of a meaningful life in the diet of socialist-approved children’s books my generation grew up on in Croatia; books in which gangs of smart children come together and make awesome things come through, generally accompanied by either a complete disinterest, or active sabotage, of adults (Vlak u snijegu, Družba Pere Kvržice, Junaci Pavlove ulice, Emil i detektivi, Blizanke, Koko i…). This, to me, ties directly to the fact that the most interesting initiatives in art, politics and design in Central Europe (not merely post-socialist, but all of Central Europe) are collective pursuits (art, design and curatorial collectives, magazines, festivals, movements, protests), as well as to the fact that contemporary young Australia is woeful in all of these categories. Coming together to work on a bold, brave project is shrouded in a kind of sublime poetry over there. Here, people shudder and say I hate group work, and ‘arts management’ is understood as the art of midwifery for many individual little geniuses.

Groups can be creative too.

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CITIES, poetics of life, theatre, travel notes

The Museum of Broken Relationships

I remember when this opened, some years ago, under the name ‘Museum of Failed Relationships’. I liked that name better – it echoed of wars, revolutions, fallen heroes and honour in defeat. Broken… eh… anything can break. I visited it in June 2011. I was at the end of a relationship, that moment when all sadness gets a bit grimy already, and I was in the right mood to read about the ‘ex-axe’, and similar exhibits. In anyway, it was one of the most enjoyable museum visits I’ve ever had in my life, and I recommend it to anyone.

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‘Kvart’ is a Croatian word that only really lives in Zagreb. ‘Kvart’ means ‘quarter’, 1/4 – as in quartiere, quartier, viertel; in other words, district, neighbourhood, part of town. Continue reading “Ville Radieuse; Croatia.” »

CITIES, travel notes

Ville Radieuse; Croatia.

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CITIES, how the world works, spatial poetics, travel notes

A note on violence

13 June

As I’m writing this, the first gay pride parade in Split (second biggest city in Croatia, biggest coastal, smack-bang in the middle of the area that was heavily bombed during the war, therefore, somewhat predictably, somewhat right-leaning) resulted in a violent riot, as the parade (of 200 mainly non-gay people – activists, intellectuals, supporters) was met by a rock-hurling counter-protest (of about 10,000 by the police estimate). Croatian media are exploding with commentary, all condemning the violence in the harshest possible terms. This is great improvement since the LGBT issue was first raised, only about 12 years ago, when no one spoke about it, and the general opinion was not far from an assumption that there are no homosexuals in Croatia. But, in a very strongly masculine culture, homosexuality is, of course, destabilising for a whole series of cultural paradigms. As one journalist wrote: Continue reading “A note on violence” »

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CITIES, how the world works

Guest post: Protests in Croatia – Manufacturing the politics of moderation since 1995

I’m slightly worried about writing anything, saying anything, because I’m not sure what I would try to tell you – I’ve been watching Croatian news almost non-stop for the past week, and the language of the Croatian media is far from moderate. I have nothing moderate to say, either. Instead, I will simply re-post a text by Sabrina Peric, which says everything I could possibly want to say, to an English-speaking audience. (Sabrina is a very smart woman from my hometown (Rijeka), and a current PhD candidate at Harvard. The text is reproduced with her permission, and her blog is here.)

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This short piece was written in response to the unbelievable lack of media coverage of the protests in Croatia, especially English-language media coverage.

The astonishing lack of international media coverage of protests across Croatia this past week has drawn attention to the growing domestic discourses on ‘protest’ ‘stability’ and ‘order’ in the Balkan region.

For the past six days, citizens all over Croatia have been demonstrating every other day in cities across the country, demanding the resignation of the current ruling government coalition. Though the protests originally started as a gathering of war veterans, bolstered by the appearance of several right-wing politicians and celebrities, the war veterans themselves have become fractionalized along the issue of support for the current ruling conservative HDZ (Croatian Democratic Union) government. The seemingly trivial fractioning of this consistently HDZ-voting bloc though has opened the floodwaters to a questioning of the political programs of an entire spectrum of political parties in this very small yet very corrupt Balkan state.

Since Saturday, the veterans have been joined by unemployed workers – those both with and without postgraduate degrees, farmers, fishermen, pensioners, students, left-wing politicians such as Damir Kajin and Dragutin Lesar, and a slew of disenfranchised citizens to protest not only the actions of the ruling government, but the very way that government and citizens have engaged each other in the years since the end of the war in 1995. In an act of defiance towards the entire class of ruling elites, protesters on Wednesday night burned both the flag of the ruling HDZ party, as well as the flag of the main opposition SDP (Social Democratic Party of Croatia).

Many Croatian politicians have been quick to judge this as indexical of the ‘radical’ or ‘extremist’ elements at work amongst the protesters, outside commentators have worried about the structural ‘right-wing’ or ‘fascist’ implications of these acts. And it is true that the state of Croatia has much work to do in dealing with nationalism and hate speech amongst its citizens. These acts of flag burning however were key for exactly opposite reasons: they did signal a new and particular kind of solidarity amongst demonstrators, but it had nothing to do with a realignment of contemporary Croatian politics. Rather, it was a class solidarity, and a recognition of class solidarity above other kinds of divisions. Furthermore, the flag burning was directed not only against political elites in the state of Croatia, but against the fact that, in Croatia, political elites are synonymous with class elites. A common joke in Croatia goes along the following lines: a young boy says to his mom “Mom, when I grow up, I’m going to be rich and shower you with gifts, travel all over the place, meet celebrities and hang out with soccer players and live in a palace.” The mom says “Oh, and what will you be then when you grow up?” “A politician” answers the boy.

Protesters too have been quick to point out the lavish lifestyles of many of Croatia’s politicians. The discovery earlier this week that Ivo Sanader, former Croatian Prime Minister who is currently awaiting trial for the Hypo bank affair in Austria, received a commission of 3.5 million Croatian Kuna in the negotiations with Hypo, has done more than any one single affair to consolidate the loose alliances amongst protesters created via newspaper websites, Facebook pages, Twitter feeds, talk on the streets and phone calls between family members. Croatian media reports have come back to the claim that protesters do not have an agenda or an end goal, however, the class agenda here seems very clear. At the protests following Saturday’s initial veterans’ demonstrations, banners and posters held by participants in the cold Zagreb winter displayed only economics statistics, personal experiences, food prices and contempt for elected officials.

The number of 350 000 officially unemployed in Croatia masks the tens of thousands who are employed but have not received a salary in six months; it masks the tens of thousands who are paid in a combination of cash and ‘store credits’ that they have to spend at particular grocery stores by a certain date; it masks the fact that many families have either only one or no income; it masks the fact that pensions are not enough for pensioners to live off of, and therefore most become dependent on their children for financial support; it masks the irregular arrival of both pension and disability cheques; it masks the growing credit crisis in a country where very few guarantors are left to sign the astonishing number of loan contracts, handed out irresponsibly by foreign banks. At the beginning of the week, Prime Minister Kosor met with large food producing and processing corporations, including Agrokor and Dukat, to make sure prices of basic foodstuffs would not rise. However, this reassurance will not do much for the large number of people who already cannot support the already exorbitant food economy (nor will it do much for the Croatian politicians’ ever-expanding and exorbitant waist lines).

Though some have drawn a line of connection between these protests in Croatia and the uprisings in progress in the North African and Middle East region, it is more important to put all of these protests and uprisings in the larger context of the economic programs, international geopolitics and financing of the (at least) past 20 years.

Though international media have barely touched the current situation in Croatia, domestic newspapers have been overflowing with statements from Croatia’s government officials (coincidentally, the fewest number of statements have come from the HDZ Prime Minister, Jadranka Kosor, who has been the most prominent target of demonstrators). The largest trend amongst these statements has been the call to ‘order’ and ‘moderation,’ and the simultaneous portrayal of protesters by HDZ officials, amongst others, as ‘hooligans’ and ‘troublemakers.’ Earlier this week, HDZ member and former presidential candidate Andrija Hebrang accused the opposition of paying each protester 250 Croatian Kuna to rid the protests of their peaceful character. The president of the opposition SDP, Zoran Milanović reiterated “we are not Libya, we will not hand over power in the streets.” Most common of all however has been an underhanded and veiled public threat promoted by a range of political actors that these protests will threaten Croatia’s European Union ascension bid. Yesterday Milanović reiterated “the talks with the EU must be finalized, we all know what the dynamic is towards that goal.”

The veiled threats over EU ascension have been coupled with foreshadowings of an even more grim general economic situation. Minister of Tourism Damir Bajs warned the public that they were endangering the upcoming potentially lucrative tourist season with their protests. He stated in public that “there have not been many questions from foreign news reporters, and let’s hope it stays that way.” Deputy Prime Minister Domagoj Ivan Milošević called reporters to a briefing and said that “protests affect the investment climate very negatively,” and continued to reiterate that “we will be entering the EU soon. All this might be slowed by the protests.”

The demand for stability, economic success and the answering of class grievances has for many years in Croatia been equated with the question of EU membership. Since the beginning of Ivo Sanader’s government, the HDZ has ruthlessly pursued EU membership at all costs, and as a remedy to all problems, political, economic and social, in Croatia. All government officials have resorted to the language of order, progress, incrementalism and, most importantly, moderation in pursuit of this goal. Similarly, all dominant parties in the European Parliament (EP) have reinforced this language through their own teleological narrative of EU ascension.

The signing of the Dayton Peace Accords in 1995 might be marked both as the culmination of years of regional intervention and humanitarianism, but also the beginning of these particular narratives of statehood. Marked at first as a state ‘in market transition’ away from socialism following the collapse of Yugoslavia, then as a post-conflict state ‘in transition’ to the cosmopolitan profile of the EU members, Croatia’s position is not unique in the region. Indeed, all the former Yugoslav states have been discussed within the ideological framework of the social and political maturity of the European family of nations on the one hand, and of the Balkans’ developmental ‘handicaps’ and peripheral condition, at the edges of EU membership, on the other hand. In a stunning complement to Croatian President Ivo Josipović’s declaration that protesters “offended Zagreb with their savagery,” Jadranka Kosor, in her speech yesterday at the opening of the centrist-right European People’s Party Congress in the European Parliament stated that “we will do our job, and proudly, with head held-high, enter the European Union and return home to the circle of European Civilizations.” Both thereby implicitly contrasted current Croatian society as ‘primitive’ and ‘backwards,’ not a part of ‘European civilization,’ with the almost messianic possibilities offered by the ‘cultured’ European factors.

The purpose of this brief digression has not been to promote or justify violent behavior amongst protesters. To the contrary, the protests have been remarkable precisely for their peacefulness. On Wednesday, many protesters threw tulips at the feet of Zagreb riot police controlling the event, and chanted “we love you” in a chorus to the officers. Rather, my goal is to stress how the language of moderation, order, progress, culture, and has been at odds with what Asli Bali and Aziz Rana in an article on “The Fake Moderation of America’s Moderate Mideast Allies” for ‘Foreign Policy in Focus’ call “any tangible commitment to actual moderation – understood as an internal project of democratization or political openness.” Since the announcement that there would be protests every other day until the government resigned, the protests have been characterized by the very qualities extolled by moderate pro-Western factions: a dedicated focus on human rights and the right of the majority to choose its elected officials.

These events in Croatia, and reactions to these events highlight what Bali and Rana call “the falseness” of the chaos-order dichotomy as the frame through which we must understand the events in Croatia. The chaos-order dichotomy has been more than complementary to both playing on citizens’ fears of a stumble back to so-called atavistic conflict, as well as the fear that Croatia may never enjoy the ‘stability’ ensured by entry into the geopolitical playground promised by NATO and the EU.
But more than anything, the chaos-order dichotomy has been most crucial for the installation and manufacture of politicians of ‘moderation’ in the years since Dayton. The politicians ‘of moderation’ have effectively, through their installation as the beacons of moderation and as harbingers of European membership, both assured and strengthened their own legitimacy in the eyes of European and “Western” powers. Simultaneously, the legitimacy offered to these politicians of moderation by “Western” powers has discursively prevented critique from a disenfranchised, increasingly impoverished population. Despite their façade of democratization and the discourse of ‘local commitments,’ these political elites have created a state that is extremely corrupt, that can no longer fiscally carry the theft its politicians have orchestrated, and a state apparatus that has placed itself in a class position that the average citizen cannot relate to.

The burning of the EU flag that took place on Wednesday night might then be read also as citizens taking a stand against the legitimacy of domestic politicians who have narrativized the EU ascension process, and who, for most of Croatia’s citizens, represent European legitimacy in the Croatian public sphere.

What brings together the Croatian case with other protests in the Middle East region might best be summarized not by the transition from ‘autocracy’ to ‘democracy’ nor by the transition from ‘socialism’ to ‘capitalism.’ Rather, Croatia, along with the other Yugoslav states, has been, in the past 20 years characterized by the transition from decades of non-aligned policies and politics to the current ‘interventionist’ world order, where local rulers rule longest (and with most legitimacy) if they tow the dominant (whether it be Europeanist or Americanist) geopolitical line. The air of moderation and rhetorical talent of most of these leaders has for years masked the pillage of national treasures, treasuries’ reserves, natural resources, industry and individual citizens’ lives.

Right now, over 10000 protesters have gathered in Zagreb, and their numbers are growing even larger. Their demands are far from ‘hazy’ or ‘disarticulated.’ To the contrary, their demands are clear. The current ruling government must step down. The current prime minister and her cabinet must step down from their positions. Early elections need to be convened. And a new era of class politics, of realigned political concern to local situations, must be recognized in Croatia, and in the wider region as the key to long-term stability.

Sabrina Perić is a doctoral candidate in social anthropology at Harvard University.

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CITIES, travel notes

The question of soul

I was struggling, back in Melbourne, to explain what the difference was, when I thought I found it.

“We have a lot of soul.” I told my perplexed friend. “That’s really the best way of putting it. We’re soulful people.”
“What do you mean by soulful?” he asked diplomatically, being of a race that prides itself on not showing emotion. He would gently remind me, later, that it is an integral aspect of every nationality to be lyrical about its own qualities as a people. “How does this soul manifest?”
“It’s like when you read Dostojevski…” I mumbled.

I couldn’t tell him then, except that it was the opposite of sentimentality, that it was a kind of emotional verticality, a layered depth, and that it explained our proclivity to violence. Aggression as a kind of overflow of soul. It was one of the most attractive things about my people, and as such intangible.
Continue reading “The question of soul” »

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