Damjan Kocjančič and – Terrah, Peter, Vojc, Elena, Tomaž, Dušan, Marko, Boštjan, Emir and MaričaDamjan Kocjančič presents a series of large (1 x 1 m) photographic portraits to be hung on the outside wall of the Metelkova City square along Masarykova Street in Ljubljana. This is the wall that ‘borders’ the city of Ljubljana and thus the photographs will be on view to all accidental and intentional passers-by.
Metelkova City is a ‘city’ within the city of Ljubljana. Metelkova City is an emblematic city, a city of historical significance. After Slovenia declared independence in 1991 and the Yugoslav Army left Ljubljana and Slovenia, an agile group of independent artists and creators, activists, punks and new-age populists put forward a proposal to the Ljubljana authorities that they change the perfectly infrastructurally equipped territory of the former barracks in the middle of Ljubljana, at the juncture of Masarykova and Metelkova streets, into a centre of new youth and off-culture. But the city authorities, willing to promise everything immediately after the ten-day war for Slovene independence, soon broke their word and secretly started to destroy the buildings behind the walls of the Metelkova barracks. A bulk of the independents who waited peacefully for what had been promised immediately squatted the half-ruined buildings on Metelkova Street. In rage and weakness the city of Ljubljana cut their electricity and water, literally turning Metelkova City into a ghost arena for more than a year, during which only the fittest and most deprived survived. The city authorities’ action pushed many of them into the most marginalised social groups.
The crucial issue within the framework of the abandoned military complex at Metelkova Street in the centre of Ljubljana, which changed into Metelkova City a few years later, has been a request for the reorganisation of social life and the cultural microcosm. The action represented more than just a solution to spatial and social deprivations in Ljubljana; it was a ‘programme’ and mobilisation of independent creators and, not least, a request for the architectural/urbanistic and social/cultural transformation of Ljubljana. In 2001 this mobilisation, as well as the whole Metelkova City scene, faces an uncertain fate. Metelkova City has survived due to the conceptual and practical engagement of its inhabitants. It has survived as the creative action of a number of people who have endeavoured to materialise the entropy of alternative cultural systems and to emphasise the possibility of the revitalisation and integration of existing cultural systems in Ljubljana, and of the creation of new (dys)functional ones.
Ljubljana, as a pulsating, heterogeneous and complex entity, is founded precisely on its ‘otherness’, on the cultural, artistic, social, political and civil production of otherness. In relation to underground phenomena in the so-called East-European countries (Russian soc-art and apt-art movements, Polish post-conceptualism and so forth), which are supposed to be entirely distanced from the system and oriented against the state, the struggle for Metelkova – metaphorically speaking – is ‘a struggle for the state’; it is not an act of some anonymous mass but of a mass of artists and activists with clearly defined goals.
Regardless of the plan to inhabit it with several eminent artistic and cultural institutions, the question should be posed of the current character of Metelkova City. It is an explosive, dynamic aggregation within the complex, which the city authorities have changed into a pit; and it is a pulsating, uncompromising and stubborn structure of Metelkova City inhabitants – artists, organisers, marginalised visionaries (in short, individuals with a reason to be there).
The portraits by Damjan Kocjančič are all about these issues. They present the visibility diagram of all people living behind the walls of Metelkova, in the space which the city authorities have partly ruined and destroyed, changed into a void. The visibility of the photographs registers the disappearance of an architectural urban space and warns, at the same time, that we are dealing here with a highly active social space. Kocjančič’s portraits have made it visible, laid it outwardly open. His photographs are like a glove turned inside out which exposes its own texture, bulges, sensations, sutures, touches, invisible patchworks and combined fragments. The photographs of people from behind these walls reveal their faces, situations, styles and views. They show a matrix of individuals who daily transact with the emptiness produced by the city authorities and give it a new meaning.
It is important to note that the visibility of Terrah, Peter, Vojc, Elena, Tomaž, Dušan, Marko, Boštjan, Emir and Mariča does not cover the abyss or implant it with a positive substance. These photographs do not cover or hide but, rather, additionally emphasise the void. The portraits of the people from Metelkova make the abyss in the centre of Ljubljana even more open. They function as registers that do not ‘represent’ a certain previously established infrastructural network; it is this representation that establishes the socius of Metelkova City within the city of Ljubljana and gives it a new, different meaning.
With these portraits the space of Metelkova City – the space into which people and groups inscribe themselves, and persist, work, live, produce and also disappear (die, fall ill or despair) – has acquired a new meaning. The portraits are not merely traces of some positivity but, rather, have a negative symbolic function. The portraits delineate the Metelkova matrix in a new manner; they are disturbing traces, the point of disruption, the traumatic spot in the imaginary agreement adopted in Ljubljana with the silently instituted dictum that the fact of Metelkova, ruined and destroyed by the city authorities, in the
middle of the city of Ljubljana, is no longer a scandal but merely a consensually accepted reality that has to be ultimately erased from the city map.
These photographs are also a slip, or product, of this abyss, of this emptied space, but they are not part of the machinery of power that destroyed Metelkova and turned it into the place without historic memory.
The logic of registering, produced in these photographs, could be described as follows: every individual in the complex is a differential trace, a bundle of differences and characteristics, motivations and revolts in relation to other traces, and these photographs now institute his/her topological motion. Placed beside each other, these portraits delimit and outline mutual relationships and the inner/outer space. The ex-position on the outside wall on Masarykova Street functions as a surplus meaning, as a newly drawn map; the portraits are like signifiers and their visibility registers an inner void – which is, however, generated from the outside.
At first we notice one face, then another, the third portrait, and so forth; what we had previously perceived merely as an informative, general view of happenings within Metelkova City, shot from a neutral, ‘objective’ distance, now suddenly turns out to be the Metelkova City inhabitants’ view of the city of Ljubljana. This neutral view has become subjective: it is the gaze of Metelkova City over Ljubljana, not the other way around. Thus the city of Ljubljana has been marked by a new frame and included within a new symbolic network. What has been thought of as a palette of portraits for Ljubljana turned out to be the ‘subjective’ gaze of Metelkova City’s inhabitants. Ljubljana remains the same as before but it nevertheless acquires an entirely new meaning: it is differently marked.
These photographs are disturbing signs reaching beyond the imaginary pact between civil society and the political city authorities; they are signs that can expose but not annul the deep and persistent alienation in Slovene society which is, when not aggressive, at best indifferent towards artists with different traditions, work and lifestyles. The photographs point out that Ljubljana should not be read as a perfectly rhetorically and topologically consumed but dematerialised and unhistorical structure. Have you ever seen a Ljubljana refugee centre or a shelter for foreigners?
These photographs convey the effect of ‘suturing’: what only a moment ago seemed to be a defeat now turns out to be – from the new perspective, the new register – the triumph of Metelkova City’s inhabitants. The photographs are markings, for their very ‘stability’, their self-identification and their massive presence, prevent other elements of totality and power from undisturbingly, calmly and secretly coinciding and thus realising themselves in full force as totalitarianism.
What else does this specific relationship of photography and the social have to offer? Here photography is not a secondary medium but a primary and challenging medium of realising and staging/combining the social and the psychological. The difference in looking at the two-dimensional photo-screen is primarily the difference in comprehension, or a new concept of comprehension of the visual, and a form of sacrilege of social ritual. Namely, this transition from one medium or space to the other, if we refer to Walter Benjamin, is precisely where the aura of a unique artistic work is lost, for we are witness to duplications, numerous replicas of otherness, of something which until today had been considered as unrepeatable. These photographs show the social space of Metelkova in an almost screamingly anti-naturalistic image. The photographs oscillate between an affirmation of the laws of documentation of social space and their transformation into a new language.
Since different visual segments or portraits retain their autonomy, time and space, even when Kocjančič compares and juxtaposes them within the same entirety of time and space, a countless number of possible combinations, variations and rhythms ensue. The photographs emphasise events in close-up, a fragment of the scene, relations between the persons portrayed. Thus the result is not the adaptation for the photograph but the adaptation of space and the temporal remodelling of the photographic light diagram.
And how could we define the specific social character of the photographic medium? Photography – the social + the intensity of signs, traces and feelings. With photography we have to perceive artefacts – gestures, distances, substances, light that overflows the photograph, beyond the abundance of its outward language. The portrays are like a labyrinth, an enigma which the aleatoric techniques and techniques of associative figures present as the possibility of some new visual and media approach to the social text.
Kocjančič also creates in collaboration with a specific Ljubljana art and cultural collective – Strip Core. In collaboration with this collective he has developed, in the photographic field, a remarkable socially motivated photography, related to significant hybrid processes in the field of art and photography. He has revealed the life and principles of fringe cultural and artistic collectives, their aesthetics, poetics and lifestyles. With this activity Kocjančič inscribes himself at the very peak of global tendencies in photography, which is situated – within the specific urban and vital cultural scene – somewhere between document and monument.
THE FACE = A HIEROGLYPH OF A CERTAIN BIOGRAPHY, THEORY, AND POLITICS
Damjan Kocjančič & Miha, Tina, Andrej, Goran, Marko, Tomaž, Matija in Katerina
This second text about a new series of photographic portraits of the people of Metelkova City by photographer Damjan Kocjančič and entitled The Face, has been in my head for some time. Whose faces? The faces of those individuals who work in Metelkova City and live for Metelkova City, the first post-socialist squat that turned upside down the sleepy and sickly Ljubljana mentioned in that Pankrti song a quarter of a century ago.
When writing about the first part of The Face project, I described the entire context that structured the environment of these photographs. I wrote a story of the saga called Metelkova: of ‘Metelkova City’ living in the heart of the city of Ljubljana and waiting for its erasure. I have woven a whole sociological-political texture in the background of these photographs.
The Face, however, is not merely a story about politics.
These photographs, which girdle so magnificently the walls of the most threatened ‘fortress’ of the third millennium in Slovenia, are not merely a story about repressive sociality (about the short-sightedness of the Ljubljana municipal politicians, about the repression of city authorities, etc.) but, also and first of all, a story about the present of photography itself. According to Walter Benjamin it is precisely and only ‘the face’ that has retained cult value at the time of universal technical reproducibility, at a time when art has lost its specific aura. Benjamin claims that the cult value of photography can be retained on the human face alone. Photography finds its ultimate refuge on the face. It resorts to the undefined expression of the portrayed person, to her/his psychological undertone, her/his enigma.
The Face = Enigma.
Even more. The photography of a face, wrote Jacques Derrida, is a hieroglyph of a certain biography, theory and politics. Walter Benjamin placed the portrait in a privileged position between the cult and aura of art on the one side, and the technical reproducibility of reality performed by means of a photographic camera on the other. The portrait is said to stand midway between psychology and politics, authenticity and reproduction. Both the face and Metelkova City are cultic indexes; the face is a cultic allegory of life while Metelkova City is the cultic-traumatic real of Ljubljana.
In 1905 the painter Cézanne wrote the following sentence in a letter to Emile Bernard: ‘I owe you the truth about painting and I’m going to tell it to you.’ Cézanne did that with the help of the inner structure of every individual painting. A century later Kocjančič does something similar. Today, the portrait has a quite anachronous function – namely, it finds its most significant location in personal documents (from identity card to passport). When we have a valid passport with our most analogous photograph, we can travel, move around, depart, arrive. It is only in these official documents that the portrait attains its full meaning; this is where its truth lies, so to speak. Kocjančič’s portraits are not only a ritualisation of life and the life ‘credo’ of the portrayed; they reveal a very significant political reading of portrait photography. The portraits of the Metelkova City people represent a form of their undeniable visibility: a significant inscription of themselves into the city map.
The portraits of the Metelkova City people are the establishment of the subject in the visible.
Nowadays, portrait photography is not the romantic impression of a state of mind but, rather, a thing to be archived, to serve as a trace in registers, perhaps to ‘guarantee’ – when we become prey to various bureaucratic procedures – that this is really us. This is the political substance of portrait photography, since it delineates a specific trace revealing that portraits inscribe and register us – both too much and too little – on the map of society. The portraits of the Metelkova City people also represent a certain camouflage, and this is the essence of mimicry. And mimicry is being used, writes Lacan, on the real battlefield as well.
These are the faces of the most stubborn, most obstinate Metelkova City people – those who will need to be carried out of the place when the time comes, for they will not leave just like that. It could be that Kocjančič’s portraits of Miha, Tina, Andrej, Goran, Marko, Tomaž, Matija, and Katerina are unknown to chance passers-by, but for those who live in Metelkova City, and for all of us who regularly frequent this spectral city, these portraits are a vivid index of time and revolt. These are public personalities, writers, activists, organisers of cultural programmes and musicians, exposed in their most intimate and vulnerable image, for these faces are open to views just like maps.
The mapping of Metelkova City is made through one sole astronomical photographic positive of a face. Metelkova City is a city of labyrinthine corners and partly demolished premises, which have become live with cultural activities; the faces in their astronomical enlargement also function as a map. Here the texture of skin is just like the design of the city labyrinth structure.
Last but not least, these portraits are shown in an impossible profile. In most of the cases it is only one eye that speaks to us while the other one is hidden. The eyes are like giant telescopes enabling us to travel to the inner imagination of the gaze. The photographs display faces as if cut in two. The photographs expose brilliantly the difference between the seeming and the true essence. These photographs are as a parade of doubles with which the Metelkova City people engage in the fight for Metelkova City. It is a play of sight and blindness, a fixation to (one) eye. Kocjančič works from the fact that there is something in society that induces a breach, a division. Delusion plays a decisive role here. Photography always contains something that can be noticed as absent.
Here, on these photographic faces, is inscribed the psychology of pressure and the wish for resistance.
Marina Gržinić, September 2002