City of Women 2017: a reflection

We arrive late at night on 2nd October 2017, to Metelkova City, a squatted military barracks now autonomous social centre in Ljubljana. Greeted by Amela Meštrovac holding a box of tea bags, milk, Štruklji and keys to an artists’ residency flat called The Asylum Studio (Atelje Azil).

We are Mary Osborn and Emma Møller (osborn&møller), two curators and producers who have come together to form an international curatorial collaboration. We are interested in performance as a practice that can disrupt structures of oppression, rethink hierarchies, illuminate the slippery boundaries between bodies and offer a space for critical empathy. We have been invited to Ljubljana as curators-in-residence, to spend the next two weeks immersed in City of Women’s artistic ideas and programme.

We speak about resistance.

Over fourteen days, we see a diverse range of art. A solo dance piece in a large theatre (Oona Doherty), an immersive promenade through a gallery (Eszter Salamon), exhibitions of sculptures made not for us but for the ocean (Špela Petrič & Miha Turšič), a sound walk through the city (Irena Pivka). We attend lectures, we talk with new colleagues at conferences and over the sharing of food. Porous, complex, and non-discriminatory in its prescription of form, all that we see and hear points back to resistance.

We find resistance embedded deep in the festival programme but also in the daily life of Ljubljana, glimpsed as graffiti on the streets, harnessed and exemplified in squat culture and overheard and explained to us in day-to-day conversation.

We listen closely, we watch intently.

On our second night, over beer, we are told the festival this year is taking place in the charged run up to local and national elections. We are told about a new political party that has emerged, the Voice for Children and Families (Glas za otroke in družine - acronym G.O.D). Born in a country which has had two recent referendums on same sex marriage (the first rejecting, the second recognising) this is a party that ‘expects divine assistance’ in it’s aim to overturn same sex marriage laws, maintain binary gender norms and family structures, that would replace the words embryo and foetus with “unborn child”. During this conversation, we notice our first bright yellow 3D printed clitoris pin badge - the symbol of this year’s festival. We are given our own, we wear them proudly in the street, in the theatre, in the gallery, in bars, cafes and at bus stops, in Ljubljana and in our home cities. We see glowing clitoris’s everywhere, and in this soft and playful public action, we see pleasure exemplified in resistance, and how pleasure can powerfully resist.

At the same time we understand that what is evolving in this place and in wider Europe is a state of emergency. We’re reminded of a text that has been seminal to the development of our collaboration, Rebecca Solnit’s ‘Hope in the Dark’ where she says that ‘Inside the word "emergency" is "emerge"; from an emergency new things come forth. The old certainties are crumbling fast, but danger and possibility are sisters.’ Pleasure and fear, danger and possibility, emergency and hope, City of Women exposes the social reality in which art is produced, and it quickly becomes clear to us that they do not shy away from possible sites of difficulty, conflict and contradiction.

Laia Abril’s exhibition On Abortion is the first materialisation of this. The exhibition takes place at Kresija Gallery in the centre of town and documents personal histories of abortion. A woman is sharing a confession booth with a priest in Rome where she has been given one Holy Year of Mercy, where Pope Francis - in an apparently ‘transgressive’ move - has given priests special permission to absolve women and others involved in abortions. Not to undo the sin, but to let forgiveness be possible (as though that were as good as we should ever expect). Her secret recording of this personal moment is no longer secret, because we are invited to listen to it through gallery headphones in the exhibition. We hear the woman be asked how many sins she needs forgiveness for, just murder or adultery too? We think about power, fear and shame and the forceful way bodies are made to internalise these intimidations, and these hidden dark spaces that offer false refuge for them to be supposedly released. As we listen, we look at the bright gallery walls and the large windows that point out to the busy street, and hope that this woman knows how powerful it is to hear her words escape from that place into this space.

As well as being in a central shopping and tourist area, Kresija Gallery is situated opposite one of Slovenia’s most famous Catholic churches. A church that - this time last year - was home to an anti-abortion campaign which used a projection of an “unborn child” across the entire front face of the church as it’s primary public landmark. The exhibition is open for the duration of the festival, welcome to those who have read about the exhibition and those who stumble across it, simply drawn in by the eye-catching eeriness of the sepia prints through the open shop-front style windows:

We appreciate the boldness in spatial proximity. We speculate over potential protests. City of Women understands that sites of potential conflict and difficulty are where the real work happens, and pushes out far beyond itself.

We continue this conversation during a lecture by Paris based professor of sociology Éric Fassin. Fassin’s lecture takes us through the importance of the “Nature” argument in order that religion and tradition might maintain a transcendent form of authority that is removed from politics and democracy, outside of the history of control. This is illustrated in a decree from Pope Benedict 16th, that “Human nature also needs to be protected, just like the rainforest”, implying that ‘natural’ institutions like heterosexual marriage are at risk of extinction and the state must therefore step in to support. Fassin illuminates the sinister way that this argument has been used in nationalist and anti-immigration rhetoric, as these groups argue that it is necessary to preserve ‘endangered identities’ (e.g. a vote for us is a vote to return to the countries ‘natural’ state) and in anti-immigration politics (e.g. ‘A rise in Islamic communities is a threat to women’s and LGBTQ rights’, from groups of people who have no intention of being transgressive in this area), a kind of ‘homo-nationalism’.

On a more hopeful slant, Fassin has observed a shift in these authorities attempts to claim control of the body (i.e. abortion) to the control of symbols (i.e. same sex marriage). With this he playfully points out that “if all you can hope for is to control symbols, well it can only be symbolic”. Sexual democracy, therefore, where there are no transcendent authorities and the body itself can be a site of transgression and democracy - in and of itself, beyond symbolic politics - brings us great hope. At City of Women, we see, hear, and feel this embodiment of sexual democracy move from theory to action:

The tart sound and red smart of a body repeatedly slapping themselves in the lower belly bulge. (Jiji Sohn, Performing Gender) // A medley of guttural sounds and indistinguishable references forming in the mouth and limbs of a body as it becomes a site of transformation, perhaps even an exorcism, of repressed masculinities (Oona Doherty, Hope Hunt) // Two bodies moving between rooms and the stone walls of a gallery usually exhibiting fine artworks, exposing breasts, spit and embodying a living archive of a forgotten female force (Ezter Salamon and Boglårka Börcsök, The Valeska Gert Museum) // Five dancers attempting to make visible a process that reflects the performance of gender as a fluid process of becoming, of shapes, sounds, endings, beginnings, repetitions (Performing Gender) // An imprint of a body on a bed of fresh cress, caused by an artist who stands in wait blocking the sun from the growing seeds, marking a relationship between humans and nature that makes neither transcendent of the other. (Špela Petrič, becoming.a(thing))

Fassin’s lecture asks us to think about gender through a different lens, beyond identity politics, he demonstrates that to talk about gender is to talk about relations of power. This conversation continues at the conference on the final festival weekend. Over two days, we hear representatives from organisations, artists and activists from Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Italy, Macedonia, Serbia and Slovenia come together for a rare opportunity to speak about their work and the social and political challenges faced by queer and feminist communities in their local contexts, and to acknowledge the wide range in difference amongst ex-Yugoslav countries. We hear inspiring stories. Despite a common narrative of hostile environments and limited resources, there is no limit in energy and necessity to make these festivals, events, publications and actions happen. And, as discussions unfold, we record conversation snippets:

share resources // demand a permanent confrontation with the past // take action // educate // choose antimilitarism // recognise difference // engage young people // face hierarchies between different generations of feminism // talk about feminisms, not feminism // “As a woman, I have no country” (Virginia Woolf) // go beyond identity politics // give public figures the most sexist statement of the year award // break out of isolation // break out of the safe space (safely) // occupy spaces that are off limits // be seen // be dirty // invite more members // open up // show alternative representations of the body // include contradictions and open up to new encounters // unlock the values of feeling // don’t just represent, embody // make space for both possible and impossible feminisms

We speak about the balance between a need to create safe spaces and an urgency to disrupt public spaces that are out of bounds. We think back to Laia Abril’s ‘On Abortion’ still sitting opposite the church.

The next day, we speak about archives, history and the potent power of erasure. We talk about archiving as a luxury - a process that needs time and resources not available to the independent sector, and we reflect that this in itself is the first oppressive step in removing marginalised histories from the books, by ensuring history is only for those who can afford to write it. This goes beyond the question of contemporary art histories, to local contexts such as the divisive ‘Skopje 2014’ architectural project that aimed to draw in more tourists and try to reclaim aspects of Macedonian history (and patriotism) from neighbouring Greece. Costing somewhere between €200-€500m, it has resulted in a completely new city centre made up of new building fronts stuck on the existing city-scape. Kristina Lelovac (Tiiiit!) explains that creating archives has an added urgency in a country that re-writes and covers up history with every change of government.

We find hope in the different ways that the members have actioned against this, for example, by forming online archives that make visible women of the past and the use of facebook and other free online resources to make a permanent imprint. This thread is echoed in the festival programme: Ezter Salamon’s remounting the life and works of the forgotten German 1920s avant-garde artist Valeska Gert, and Laia Abril’s artist-anthropologist practice seeking to unbury female histories and take on shame. The programme conducts a kind of digging. And as we dig our own way through the preserved catalogues of 23 years of festival history in the days following the conference, we find City of Women asks us to think not just of the work that we do in the moment of the festival, but the legacy that it will leave. They ask us to think of archiving as it’s own act of resistance, that ‘history is full of people whose influence was most powerful after they were gone’ (Solnit), so let us resist limits to our present or our future power.

On one of our last days in Ljubljana we visit Rog (factory). Accompanied by Tanja Završki (from City of Women and activist), we visit some of the different collectives, activist groups and spaces that breathe life into the squat. Apart from its aesthetic impression, and tales of its precarious longevity, the stories of the people stay with us. The day that we visit Rog coincides with a collective cleaning action, which means that a lot of the occupants and inhabitants are present. One of the spaces we visit is Ambasada Rog, a community centre run by refugees, asylum seekers and activists, a safe space carved out in the centre of the city. We meet a hairdresser who runs a weekly pop-up salon and whose asylum case is one of Slovenia’s highest profiled, but has been suspended in limbo for several years. For him, Rog has become a place of refuge. Similarly, in Rog Social Cen

There is a necessity now to believe in the potential of hope.

Hope for an alternative. Hope that fuels action. Hope that dares navigate through conflict and uncertainty. A kind of hope that we find at the very foundations on which City of Women was built 23 years ago, and at the heart of what prevails. It is therefore of little surprise to us, that the people who help build City of Women are people of resistance, a small ‘republic of unconquered spirit’ (Solnit). We also find care and compassion: a small but huge team of unstoppable women who pick you up from airports, make sure you are fed, clothe you in clitoris’s and take time out of a busy festival programme to show you why City of Women can only have been born in Ljubljana. They take us to sites of art and politics, beer and conversation, introduce us to people who build communities out of art and activism, and fill us to the brim with the astounding beauty of hope and resistance that can be found in this city.

“Hope just means another world might be possible, not promise, not guaranteed. Hope calls for action; action is impossible without hope.” 
― Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Dark


Until next year, thank you City of Women.

Mary & Emma