Arts and urban change : the Zilina Project


FIRST PUBLISHED IN
Policies for Culture Journal,
winter issue 2003.
know more about policies for culture

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Marek Adamov
is the director of a Non Governmental Organization,
"Truc Spherique" in Zilina , Slovakia.

Reconstruction of Zilina-Zariecie railway station for
Open Cultural Space Stanica



Stanica

There is a railway station standing in Zilina, in the north of
Slovakia, on a small railway track to Rajec. Its name is Zilina-
Zariecie. In 1942, 18,000 to 24,000 Slovak Jews were
transported to concentration camps from this place. The last
transfer also included ill and mentally affected people. Stanica
was built in 1946 and since that time, it has stayed connected
with a family - the Michuleks - that has lived and worked
there. They had five children. They used to keep domestic
animals, just close by the railway track, and the cherries and
strawberries from their garden were renowned throughout the
town. In the eighties, a road overpass - Rondel - surrounded
the station building. Squeezed by the industrial scenery, the
station started to decay and a lot of things changed. By 2002, the Michuleks had definitely left
and, though the train was still operating, train tickets were no longer sold. The house had
begun to fall into disrepair. Finally, through the reconstruction of the premises into a cultural
centre, life is coming back to Stanica. (Truc Spherique archive).

The project Railway Station, inspired by similar centres abroad, starts by the conversion of a
functioning railway station Zilina-Zariecie, located in out-of-use industrial buildings
(kulturfabrik). It has taken more than a year - from March 2002 till summer 2003 - for the
first idea to be realised and for Truc Spherique NGO to start the conversion. As a result of
endless negotiations with the owner - the Railways of the Slovak Republic - Truc Spherique
has gained a long-term contract for a symbolic rent, on condition of completing the
reconstruction at its own expense for the purpose of non-profit cultural activities.

Concurrently with the negotiations with the owner, an equally slow-moving search for
financial and material support has begun, with the result that less than a third of the
necessary resources are covered. The reconstruction is carried out by volunteers - young
people and workers - in a self-supporting way, just as houses used to be built a long time ago
when each neighbour helped a little by what he could do. There is still a vision remaining, a
vision for a new centre of progressive cultural activities connecting the elements of public
space - an operating railway station - with the elements of a multimedial cultural centre, a
centre where creative, educational, social and presentation activities based on contemporary
arts will fill the gallery, the ateliers, the info-net-café and the theatre space.

The project Railway Station is becoming an example for the creation of new cultural centres in
Slovakia, or eventually for the transformation of the existing ones. As it is a completely
private initiative without any commercial aims, it also represents a new model of diverssource
founding, on the basis of legal and financial independence. This project is a model
example with local (community), regional and national impact and is closely associated with
the development of thought on cultural policy transformation in Slovakia. Yet this was not its
original aim. In the beginning there was only a dream about a space for a group of young
people, who would be sympathetic to contemporary art and who, apart from creating it, would
start to organize it and present it to others.

Private initiative

An ‘Island of the Land of Utopia’ will be created inside the conglomeration of the train station
Zilina-Zariecie and the ring -road overpass that surrounds it; the old Stanica will be its heart.
Just as, once upon a time, Dorothy flew from Kansas to the Land of Oz, we will also leave the
world defining what is possible. We will cross from the World of Coincidence to the World of
Destiny. It will be an adventurous travel. We will meet different beings and experience
situations we have seen only in our dreams - the dreams, neither good nor bad, which we
have already almost forgotten. It will be a world from before all worlds, which we know about
but do not think about. (The spectacular international feast A Way to the Station - Viliam
Docolomansky, director)

In many different ways similar centres have been or are still being created in other European
counties. They are often established by local county councils, regional governments, or
various institutions or businessmen. At the same time such centres can be the result of the
initiatives of young artists and people from the third (non-profit) sector. Although it is not
always easy to draw the line between these two types of initiatives - institutional and
personal - Stanica definitely belongs more to the latter. Today the project has been officially
recognized and is the subject of careful planning while at the same time looking for new
possibilities for organizing the cultural sector in Slovakia. Despite its present state, the project
began as a simple idea filled with emotions rather than reason, and imagination rather than
analytical thinking.

Stanica was not created on paper and it had not been part of a region or town development
plan (as issues of culture have not been discussed on this level in Slovakia). Quite the
opposite, it all started when, in the end of March 2002, my father and I got into a car and
drove around Zilina looking for an old building which we could reconstruct into a cultural
centre. Our idea was to find a space large enough to hold the projects and activities of our
company Truc Spherique. We did not ask the Zilina local authority or the County Council; we
did not ask anyone. Questions about whether the town needs such a cultural centre, whether
someone will support us, or whether we were to create and run it, were of no relevance to us.
We were as enthusiastic as when we established our company in 1998. Now, as then, we had
no other support than what we had in our own hands. We had our dream, ideas and our
companions - the circle of our own friends who finally came with us. This was enough; the
most burning questions found their solution later; many remained unanswered as the larger
part of the event was done without a penny of support. We were satisfied that what we felt as
our need had been realized; the rest was confirmed, analysed and argued upon subsequently.

In the abundance of empty and equally unavailable buildings around Zilina I fell for the most
difficult possibility - the Stanica station. I walked around it every day until the moment when
I suddenly realized that it was empty. I saw how beautiful it all was and the atmosphere it
exuded. I felt that this was the building we were looking for. This feeling was stronger than all
reasonable argumentation against it. I did not investigate the location neither its proximity to
the centre. I did not ask myself whether it was even realistic to acquire it (as it was still a
functioning station where trains were stopping), or whether reconstructing it could be reality.
At that moment, as in the moments of many of my important decisions, I felt as an artist, a
visionary, a dreamer, a fool, that can most of all get angry with others who tell him how crazy
his idea is.

At that time (and maybe to this day), I was thinking with a logic of my own. I was dominated
by an obstinate feeling ‘to do it’, to follow it, to shout out my idea and, above all, not to be
put off and let my vision be taken away from me. Perhaps no cultural manager could take
such a decision. Now, when the first days of enthusiasm and plans have eased up, I myself
have become a ‘normal’ cultural manager. I am again the director of Truc Spherique, looking
for down to earth ways of realizing the artistic idea that I find inside myself. Yet, it is only
now, when I look back, that I begin to realize better and better why I am so much amused by
it all and by what it all represented at the beginning.

To be subjective

Stanica is a place where people meet by chance. Passengers as they arrive and leave, bring
and take away with them their home, roots, tradition and history. Some of them are looking
just for a way to get back home or are remembering their homes. Yet, to look back is not the
only important thing; one has also to search for a new direction towards the future.

At Stanica is the only possibility these people have to get to know each other, to interact with
one another, and to experience a few unrepeatable moments together in a concrete space.
Maybe they will never meet again

Maybe some will fall in love, others miss their train, or finish with their life while remaining
unnoticed by those standing at the Station. For some Stanica can even become their home...
(A Way to the Station - Viliam Docolomansky)
Truc Spherique and Stanica, and all that surrounds them, are much more than just work for
us. I rarely counted the hours I spent at work as there has never been a clear line to separate
my work from the rest of my life. In fact I have never felt such a division. The life we lived
was reflected in our projects; the realization of our projects was and is our life.

I have always wanted to be objective and to create objective dramaturgy. Yet, the best
moments I have had and the best projects I have accomplished have been those chosen
subjectively. In 1999, after our visit to the labyrinth in the Cathedral of Chartres, we did the
project Into the Labyrinth. It was an international workshop of young dancers and theatre
actors connected with a public performance. For the project Maringotka (2001) we got the
inspiration and started to look for the actors and the director as a result of our travel around
villages with a wandering theatre. The film festival in a small village Strecno which we began
in 2001, started with a young student of film theory who came to us wishing to show a few
good films, nothing more. Our workshop centre for children and youth Atelier (2000-2003)
began when I asked one of our team what she would like to do after finishing her university
degree. The same happened with another of our projects - A Way to the Station - an
international workshop which took place in September 2003. The event had to be run by two
directors; there were sixty young participants and a staff of forty members. They all created a
‘baptismal’ performance that filled the whole station Zilina-Zariecie, plus the arriving train and
the garden, and changed it into a place of spectacular theatre celebration of the world around
us. This was again our first ‘Way to our own Stanica’.

The spectators are the passengers that will find themselves, together with the actors, in The
Stopped World. I am becoming Yourself as You are becoming Myself. Do you want to be a
tourist - are you chasing experience, or are you going by your feet and remaining? Are you
looking for asylum? Or perhaps you are just passing by? Talk to me from your living roots.
When the words will not be enough, you will sing; when the voice will not suffice, you will
dance. We will wait for you. (A Way to the Station - Viliam Docolomansky)

To an ordinary professional in a common cultural centre all these things are often unavailable.
They are unavailable to a politician, a doctor, or an employee... All such people have to obey
the strict rules of their profession and to operate inside its well defined structures. Art and
culture, however, are the few areas (maybe the only ones) where experiment without
certitude of result is the desired phenomenon; where all the truths and untruths can be of the
same value and can be said without upsetting anyone. Still, there will perhaps be many who
will say: ‘He’s just an artist, a fool; he can take the liberty to do it’. But in the end we are all
laughing at it; we cry, we follow, or wonder whether life is really like that, whether we really
find new solutions for the things that seemed to ask to be resolved, or never needed to be
solved. The artist can use the surrounding world as he wants; he does not necessarily need to
be definite and not at all objective. That is maybe the role of art, to express one’s own
feeling, one’s own opinion and one’s own vision. This, of course, is summed up in the famous
principle, ‘the more subjective the more original’. All the rest is just organization,
management and marketing, and they all deliver only a part of the artist’s inner vision to the
world. Hence art still remains one of the few subjective public spaces. In art man can afford
what he wants and say what he wants, even if it concerns just his own experience. This is the
reason why we need art.

Cultural policy

The need for cultural mission of the type offered by ‘Stanica’ is justified by the desire of man
to come back to himself. We are the dispossessed people who have lost their God, just as
theatre has lost its god after it had certainly had one (as in the golden times of antiquity).
Today, theatre is more an elitist question, or a question of proper and improper
interpretations of the basic meaning of life... Overall, there exists a certain basic sense of why
a person steps in front of another person to expose and give himself. This should be reevaluated
and an actor should be provided with all the necessary conditions for his work, to
enable him to find the profound sense of this kind of human activity. Otherwise, this activity
would simply turn into a very miserable and empty exercise. (Viliam Docolomansky in ‘Suede
and Chrome’)

Something we take for granted and never talk about is the fact that Stanica is first of all art,
and then a cultural centre; it is the reality of our inner life and then the institution that
organizes it. Yet for the outside world, Stanica is indeed an ambitious project, the first centre
of its kind in Slovakia. It is seen as the place where a group of interested and skilful young
people gathers to realize their dream. The context of the Stanica enterprise has now become
much larger and has started opening new questions on cultural policy; through Stanica we
have began questioning the cultural policies of the Zilina local authority, and of the whole
Slovakia.

It is commonly known that culture is the least transformed sector in our country, which to the
outsider may seem democratic and prepared for entry to the European Union. This is due to
the fact that most of the cultural institutions still function as part of the state administration -
on a national, regional or local level - and most of them get equal, routine institutional
support without reference to the quality of their production. Such institutions do not think
about new ways of communication with their public. Despite the insufficiency of their financial
resources, they still do not think about investigating other sources of funding and continue to
rely only on the established sources. At the same time these established sources (i.e. local,
regional and governmental authorities) think too little about the real needs of culture and how
best to support it. Leaving aside the freedom of speech, travel, trade, voting etc, the
existence of the third sector is perhaps the only place where there are tangible signs of the
change from a communist mind-set into democratic one. During the last few years, the
barrier between the third sector and the public cultural organisations has not changed at all
and everyone survives on his own resources and envies the resources of the other.

These are just some of the questions that we are beginning to think about in connection with
the reconstruction of Stanica. As a result of our project, the public authorities have begun to
show interest in Stanica itself and to be more open to considering the possibility of rereassessing
the current system of supporting the cultural sector. We now attend meetings
with the director of the Department of Culture of the Regional Self-Government and I was
elected to the Cultural Commission of Zilina’s local authority. We have also been invited to
organize workshops on the methods that we use with children in our ateliers. Institutions such
as the Puppet Theatre of Zilina and the Regional Library in Zilina use us as lecturers and
consultants for their projects. Thanks to Stanica - which is only half reconstructed and not yet
open - we have already begun to be actively involved in the decision making and
implementation of cultural policy. We have initiated a meeting between NGOs and the Ministry
of Culture, from which some significant ideas for a new grant system in 2004 have emerged.
There is only one thing missing for the process of transformation (or our role in it) to begin.
There is a strong possibility that in 2004 an audit of the cultural policy on the regional level
will be worked out, followed by its implementation. Together with the Foundation-Centre for
Contemporary Arts and the European Cultural Foundation, we will head the process.

Today however, as in the beginning - when we were faced with the insufficiency of our
financial resources for the reconstruction of Stanica - we are still confronted with our
subjective problem. Yet, as ‘artists’ who have become cultural managers and planners, we
have now started to struggle on behalf of the whole artistic community. Our desire is for a
total and transparent change that will have a positive impact not only on the organisation of
the third sector, but much more on the fusty cultural institutions of the state.

We need the fools so as not to become fools ourselves

The circus is full of energy. It is a place where everything is possible. There, every moment is
real and can also be therapeutic. Stanica is a powerful metaphor. A lot of people meet there
and this is always an occasion for celebration. (A Way to the Station - Per Spildra Borg, 2nd
director)

Stanica has taught us that public authorities and decision-makers in general should refrain
from legislation on the basis of their experience alone. They tend to be too far removed by
luxurious living and high salaries; their analyses and theories are short sighted and inflexible.
This also holds true in cultural policy. This is the reason why at every round-table that takes
place, every idea and plan that is developed should include people who are directly concerned
and are not there for any personal gain. The artists themselves should be involved as well -
even though many will say they are not interested - since their task lies neither in creating a
conception, a structure, nor an analysis - but is identical to what they are realizing in their
art: an original idea, not one, but thousands of original ideas, another view of the world,
everything that makes our world at the same time interesting and strange. The culture and
the cultural policy need the fools and the visionaries such as the artists - and not only to test
the models, but, first and foremost, to create them.

Modified on Wednesday 9 June 2004