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