Cultural Centres

In Memoriam Rog

AUTHOR / Zala Kramperšek

As a unique phenomenon with an important place in the wider Slovenian artistic environment, the alternative Rog factory certainly represented a space almost impossible to replace. The rich variety and diversity of the people there, their interests and aspirations that worked closely and strongly in harmony with the space of the old factory, characterized the space. It was the people who made Rog a place that we all know and remember.

Rog bicycle by the entrance to Rog factory (photo: Petar Milošević)

What made the place so unique and different from other spaces of artistic expression was the fact that it was a squat, a community, and a social cultural centre. It rose from the ruins of an old factory and, with the people who took it as their home, evolved into a sanctuary, a shelter, a place to escape to or a space for many to gather and create.

Rog’s pure beginning can be traced back to the year 1871, when Ivan Janesh bought a plot of land on Trubarjeva Street, which was then the suburb of Šempeter, and built a small ground-floor building, a leather tannery that within two decades became a two-storey leather workshop. As the settlement was known for its industrial activity and had always been inhabited by craftsmen of all kinds, the factory blended into its surroundings perfectly, even though it was also adapted to the common suburban environment. At the turn of the century the building was bought by Karel Pollak, who expanded it for purposes of the war and converted it into a production facility for the manufacture and supply of war and naval materials. Until 1922, the exterior of the factory was formed by a three-storey reinforced concrete structure with a skeleton superstructure that was famously invented by the French engineer François Hennebique. It was – and still is – truly unique and stands out among other modern skeleton façades in Ljubljana. Until the early 1960s the factory passed from one owner to another until the nationalisation of the Indus leather factory led to the creation of the newly formed Rog company. Consequently, the factory’s present appearance can be attributed to its post-war development, unmistakably marked by the earliest beginnings of the legendary Rog bicycle company and factory. The final reconstruction and redevelopment of the building initially evolved in parallel with the start of bike production there, and then later in a second wave in 1963.

At the beginning of the 1990s, Rog’s management left the Trubarjeva site owing to logistical costs and merged all production activities on Letališka Street. Bicycle manufacturing was also nearing its end, and in hopes of preventing its destruction the management proposed protection of the abandoned factory building on the banks of the Ljubljanica River. The industrial complex was soon discovered as the perfect space for various cultural activities and events, thus the process of denationalisation of the old factory began. At the international colloquium Euroculture – Rehabilitation of an Urban Area, organised by the Department of Urban Planning of the Municipality of Ljubljana (hereinafter referred to as MOL), the participants proposed that the factory be protected and dedicated to public and mixed use (public-cultural, craft, and residential). The building was entered in the Register of Cultural Heritage Properties (RKD) and classified as an urban heritage site. The privatisation process ended with This chapter in the life of the factory ends here with its privatization, with the factory being purchased by MOL through a leasing contract with LB Hipo d.o.o.

The loneliness and decay associated with the hulking building, left unused to its own devices, angered the neighbours, admirers, and all those who had plans for and designs on it; even those who simply appreciated it as a building wanted to protect it. In 2006, after all production activity had long ceased and was relegated to history, the space became occupied by students, artists, creators, and activists of all kinds, cultural and socially-oriented groups, especially young people, all of whom were eager for a space that would offer them the possibility of boundless creative work or a quiet refuge. Only they, themselves, made any effort to renovate and adapt the premises, which had through years of neglect become anything but comfortable. The interior was redecorated, repainted, and furnished, giving the factory a new purpose – a new future. Many activities began to develop under their regimes, and many were also created anew: the Social Centre for Political Activists, humanities workshops, debates, seminars, performances, music events, film nights, dance performances, skate tournaments, studios, and many more. The forgotten factory was embraced by all those who saw in it a bright future and who made it into the “Alternative Factory Rog” (AT Rog) we remember so well. As a space that provided people the opportunity to express themselves and act without obligation, it became a meeting point for alternative, creative, and social people of all kinds, backgrounds, and interests – which is why a very singular group, the Rogovci, came to form within its walls. At the same time, AT Rog as a community operated in a very scattered, fragmented, and complex way, without any inclination of who if anyone really had a comprehensive overview of what was going on. Such a unique environment hosted and spawned a diverse range of groups and individuals; there was no shortage of variety, with people interested in many fields of expression, from artists both professional and amateur, students and activists to skateboarders, musicians, and performers. However, if we look at Rog from another angle its very uniqueness can also be seen as its greatest limitation. Such fragmentation was precisely the reason why the factory was never able to develop those characteristics that could have helped the squat survive. Problems with the neighbours and the complexity involved dividing the space fairly were always, more or less, at the root of the problem.

AT Rog’s main activities can be divided into five main groups: firstly, artistic and cultural creation, which includes fine art, contemporary art, multimedia, graffiti, sculpture, theatre, circus, music and similar. Secondly, many recreational sporting activities organised at Rog include skateboarding, kung fu and tai chi training, silk dancing, pilates, football, and basketball. Social and musical events such as concerts and parties were also held here, and the premises were used for crafts and handicrafts too, such as repairs, tailoring, and bicycle repair. By the same token, important activism developed mainly through education, rallies, counselling, direct action, and informal political organisations. Belonging to one or any of these groups was by no means obligatory or necessary; some people found it easier to organise their activities through group work, while others craved time for themselves and became more involved in the community later. Slovenian visual artist Tatiana Kocmur described her place in the Rog community as follows: “As students, my friends and I were talking about wanting to have a studio outside the Academy, a bigger, spacious one. As we were in the 3rd year of our studies, we wanted more space for experimentation. When we started talking about it, Marko Šajn said he knew someone at Rog. He contacted Matej Stupica. So, we went to Rog one day, where Matej took us to the studio on the 3rd floor. It was huge and I fell in love with it immediately – it was colourful, the walls were painted in different colours, it was bright, and it reminded me of spring. And, yes, that was the beginning. We got the keys the same day and started cleaning and organising the work area. Initially I didn’t care much about the assemblies, I was more of an outsider, just wanting my own space to create. Towards the end of my time there and around the first assault on the complex, I started to engage more and became part of the assembly.”

All in all, there were some 15 permanent collectives of 50 individuals working at Rog, and those were at the centre of a wider circle of participants that included roughly 100 people and a few thousand occasional users, visitors, and supporters. There were some 52 spaces in use, with the rest deemed largely unsafe or in some stage of demolition. The most dangerous spaces were at Galvana, where bicycles frames used to be galvanised; building 21, where the iron pillars were partially defective; and the rooms that were covered with asbestos roofing, the particles of which were quite dangerous to breathe. Of the art spaces, the studios were undoubtedly the most numerous – 23 in total – but they were more private in nature, as each artist sought a quiet corner for their own creative expression. In addition to the more intimate corners, Rog also had a theatre, a concert hall, a music rehearsal space, and the Kljub Vsemu Gallery. Second Home, a self-organising organisation for refugees, migrants, and asylum seekers, was also particularly active.

“I’ve made a decision that while I’m at Rog I will be open to anything because I have nothing to hide – whether you need something or are simply a tourist looking for information. I mean, I didn’t like the situations where I felt like an info point, but that’s a community. If someone ran out of something, like a tool, they borrowed it but then brought it back. Now, in retrospect, these were my favourite moments at Rog, and the ones I miss the most; the flow of people and the socialising. I can hardly imagine being asocial during my time there, and it would probably have bothered me a lot,” artist Tilen Mihelič Kurent says of his experience working in the “golden age” of Rog.

In the summer of 2016 MOL started spreading threats about eviction, which led to the formation of the Ohranimo Tovarno Rog (Let’s Save Rog Factory) movement, which successfully stopped the eviction attempt – at least the “first strike”. Shortly afterwards, eight members of the factory filed a lawsuit against MOL for violation of the property rights of the Rog users, claiming that they had the right to possess the premises given their 10 years of activity at the factory. In response, the Court issued a temporary injunction in favour of the exercise of possessory protection by the users of AT Rog, due to the excessive force used by the private security services in the eviction attempt. This protected Rog residents from unannounced entrances and the start of demolition of the factory. In response, MOL initiated, and won, a civil action for damages against the residents of Rog. Six of the eight users who complained to the Court had to leave Rog, as their attempts to prove that they were still using Rog’s premises were unsuccessful. All this, with all the battles in between, led to the final blow on January 19th 2021, when, after five years of fighting against the loss of their homes, studios, property, and art, a large number of users of Rog found themselves on the streets. MOL started the promised demolition. The eviction was monitored by police officers, who were requested by the MOL-hired security company due to the violent nature of the Rog inhabitants. This sudden and shocking event triggered a series of high-profile protests against the actions of the municipality, which in turn created an even bigger, irreconcilable split between the people of Rog, their supporters, and the authorities. “Of all the things I brought here with me were a non-functioning fridge and a washing machine, which were placed outside the entrance to the main building. There were two more statues next to it, but they took some of my stuff away. They later moved the fridge and washing machine to the Povšetova waste collection centre. That same day my friend Deso and I went to get his things, because he thought he had a furnace there. Then we saw how they had started throwing down all the things I couldn’t save, including statues from my friend. They kept a washing machine that didn’t work and a fridge, and wrote in the article that they saved sealed household appliances. They only things they left untouched were those things they felt had some potential cash value,” recalls Tilen of the eviction process, drawing attention to the misleading media he observed at the time.

One extremely important element of Rog, however, was its factory-like architectural form, in which many artists saw a solution to their spatial problems. It offered a lot of unutilized room that was suitable for projects of any size. Spaciousness was key to Cirkusarna, which served as a training space for various circus-related skills as well as a theatre. Good examples are also the skateboarding community that set up its own skate park in Rog, and the graffiti art that adorns its interior and exterior. The setup definitely differed from other gallery spaces because no one had overall power and control over its operation; but it is also true that this non-hierarchical and egalitarian aspect was the thing that attracted most people. In its own way, Rog was able to work cohesively with and among artists and provided spaces for those who wanted them, especially for the younger artists who were still finding their place on the Slovenian art scene.

This opens up the question of freer art spaces that are not subject to state and municipal control which, in turn, calls into question the work of critics, curators, gallerists, and museum professionals. It can be understood as an attempt to create an alternative space dedicated solely to the artists’ desire to express themselves; their only obligation to try and hold on to their studio was, therefore, self-initiated. The use and maintenance of the studio was essential for the artists and their well-being, but there were never any rules that bound the artists to a (time-)limited number of productions. Even the joining process wasn’t demanding, for there was no need to prove your artistic activity, no calls for tenders or the submission of a portfolio. If you simply said you wanted to work in Rog, you did. It should be noted, however, that despite the easy accessibility and financial independence of the space, it wasn’t all so idyllic. “Even though it was free, there was plenty of other work to do, which is why some people left. It’s not like you just turn up and have everything at your disposal. There were big procedures, and before you started creating you had to pass the test of discipline, which was an educational experience. It was definitely free, and if you were a poor student, you could afford it,” says Tatiana of her beginnings at Rog.

As an example of industrial cultural heritage, its rich history of evolving from a smaller facility to one of the most famous factories in Slovenia and as the site of one of the best known and influential artistic movements in Slovenia, AT Rog will live forever. It will always be known for the perseverance of its people, who fought for it down to the last day and established a harmonious body of artists that is truly unique in this country and beyond. What will happen to it in the days and years to come is anyone’s guess, but there is little doubt – and plenty of evidence – that a huge number of people will fight for it, fiercely, again.

Images: Lana Požlep