One-on-one | COVID-19

Davor Mišković: Culture is marginalized, but we expect too much of it

The sociologist and activist talks about culture and festivals in the time of COVID-19.

By - 20.05.2020

On Saturday, February 1, 2020, Rijeka — the third largest city in Croatia and the country’s biggest seaport — became the European Capital of Culture (ECC) along with Galway, Ireland.Throughout the year, the Croatian city was due to host more than 600 cultural and art events scheduled to involve numerous artists as well as cultural institutions and organizations from Croatia and abroad.

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, however, the March and April programs had to be canceled soon after the launch. On April 17, it was publicly announced that 59 employees had been laid off, leaving the remainder of the planned activities hanging in the balance. In spite of this, the program is set to continue in May and June.

K2.0 sat down with one of the key figures in Rijeka’s cultural scene, Davor Mišković, to discuss the pandemic’s impact on the planned events and how these in turn influence culture in the city and in the rest of the country, including the state of local culture itself. The sociologist and president of the association Drugo More (“Another Sea”) leads a major thematic segment within the ECC program called Dopolavoro (Italian for “After Work”).

Photo: Davor Mišković’s private archive.

K2.0: The global coronavirus crisis hit just as the ECC program was heating up. How did it spoil your plans?

Davor Mišković: We canceled everything that was due to take place in March and April. Seven solo exhibitions, one big group exhibition, setting up a large installation, various concerts. We called off a lot of events. From the very beginning, we were hoping that the situation would return to normal, but that was just “looking the other way.”

Unfortunately, most of these were in an advanced stage of implementation.The works had been readied, the venues on standby, the PR already done.

With circumstances in Croatia having stabilized and certain measures eased, we’re planning to get on with some productions. For example, in the Dopolavoro program, May 19 will mark the launch of “Yesterday Is Cancelled, Tomorrow Is Irreversible,” an exhibition by the Vienna-based artist Oliver Ressler.

When it comes to the overall European Capital of Culture program, it will be kicked off in June, in line with the prescribed measures, of course; meaning that there will be no big exhibition openings, that only a limited number of people will be allowed into the venues, and that all visitors will duly have to go through a disinfection procedure.

We’ll start off with productions in an advanced stage of completion that involve local and international artists. Naturally, everything is uncertain because we don’t know what the epidemiological picture will look like in the future.

Over the course of the entire year, more than 600 events were due to be held in the city, which means that the exhibition and other spaces have come under a huge amount of strain. So it will be a problem if all of these happenings have to be “crammed” into a period of six or even, three months.

Another problem is that our program, and especially our Dopolavoro segment, was indeed planned to bring together international artists. So, we depend not only on the situation in Croatia, but also across Europe, in the United States, Japan, where our artists are coming from.

Moreover, this is a program that affects every one of us and all of our priorities.The question is how interested people will be to attend these cultural events. Their focus and their interests have changed.

Have you tried to adjust the program to the current situation or have you been developing some new topics in light of the ongoing crisis?

As the Dopolavoro team, we’ve been dealing with the issue of labor as an activity crucial to people not only in terms of the production of new items and service provision, but also in terms of the self-fulfillment of the human role in the world. We’re interested in what way labor issues, leisure, and labor types are regulated. And in what way an individual’s role in the labor process is transformed under the influence of new technologies.

While developing the program, we came up with several ideas, having tackled the problem of high unemployment rates and society’s attempt to respond to this. In other aspects of the program, we explored critical infrastructure, logistics, the internet. So, currently, each of these topics are in fact considered to be hot!

However, it isn’t easy to shift focus overnight. We needed to adapt some content quite quickly — for example, the Pirate Care project was very soon “reset” and the blog was used to issue coronavirus-related instructions: How to function in circumstances like these, how to look after the vulnerable and elderly. People were given literature on the epidemic and the corresponding society-wide response. This is one of the program segments that works really well online.

In February, Rijeka became the European Capital of Culture along with the Irish city of Galway. Photo: Press EPK.

On top of that, we have set off to create a website and Facebook group with the assistance of Jennifer Lyn Morone, an American artist examining occupations of the future; via these platforms, we have been trying to gain insight into what are some of today’s main vocations and see how people approach these matters.

Since the borders are already reopening, we’re thinking a live presentation of these topics could be given in August or September, should the circumstances prove favorable.

Culture is on the margins, but a lot of projections are made about it, a lot is expected of it.

We’re thinking about how a big conference we have planned could be held online. Perhaps, online interviews might be made instead of presentations. Given that we’ve been witnessing an overwhelming amount of online content, we’re set to find a proper format going beyond a simple Skype conversation, a format that could capture people’s attention.

To me, it seems like much was expected of the ECC program itself. Was it reasonable to expect this program to “revive” culture in the city and beyond, in the rest of Croatia?

In Rijeka, culture was supposed to be in the spotlight over the course of the year 2020, bearing in mind this is the most significant cultural project in Croatia.

I think it’s positive that culture managed to attract such attention from Rijeka’s citizens this year. Yet, it is questionable to what extent it will be reflected in a permanent interest in art programs. Culture is on the margins, but a lot of projections are made about it, a lot is expected of it. As if there are a lot of things culture is able to solve!

There were and still are some projections about what’s going to happen when Rijeka becomes the culture capital — the city will be clean, building façades will be fixed, the infrastructure will be taken care of. However, the ECC budget amounts to 30 million euros. I don’t know how much that is in motorway kilometers, six or seven? Does anyone’s life change for the better when six or seven kilometers of motorways are built?

From the perspective of a cultural organization, such a project has a generous budget, but from the perspective of an infrastructure project, this is no budget! Setting up such high expectations for culture, expecting cultural policies to change the face of the city, all of this seems rather dangerous to me.There’s a plethora of other policies through which these burning issues ought to be solved.

An event like this can’t change the city’s development trajectory. Personally, I believe it’s unrealistic. It can contribute, it can do good, it can do harm, but for it to be the main factor, the single decisive factor, that’s not realistic to me.

What is more, I believe this “European” dimension has led to confusion among some residents of Rijeka. People here are focused on the fact that Rijeka has become the capital of culture, which resulted in local artists and culture workers having great expectations to take part in Rijeka-based projects.

Since it’s a European capital of culture, the subjects we were to discuss shouldn’t have been pertinent to Rijeka only, but supranational, and this has served to hire workers and contractors from all around Europe. As for Dopolavoro, we haven’t insisted on having topics necessarily associated with the city, because we believe if we make a program that is to open up the audience to some new perspectives, the audience members will be the ones who will subsequently take its agency into the city.

Rijeka is known as an industrial city and it was among Yugoslavia’s industrial centers back in the day. Since Dopolavoro explores human labor, have you conceived the program so as to touch upon the specificity of Rijeka as an industrial city?

It’s hard for me to talk about the specificity of Rijeka in terms of industry. What makes a city specific is, first and foremost, the blend of various activities it boasts. No industrial aspect of it is particular to Rijeka only — ships were built elsewhere, too; all shipyards looked alike, no matter where they were; paper was produced in many other places.

As a city, Rijeka was in fact developing with respect to its industries and to what it had to offer the industries that were located there.

To me, Rijeka, as well as other places in Croatia and abroad, look at the past with rose-colored glasses.

The port developed due to its bay being quite deep; the paper factory was developed on the city river, Rječina, because these were the normal spots to have factories set up at, bearing in mind that substantial amounts of water are needed for producing paper in such facilities. Of course, these industries gave the city a specific “touch” and shaped it in a way that we can see it as something special.

Few cities have something truly unique, something that exists only there. But, uniqueness and distinctiveness is brought about by the fusion of every single thing they have, as well as the configuration of terrain and those who live there.

In the Dopolavoro program, we didn’t want to go back in time and make a comparison between what the city used to be like and what it’s like now. To me, Rijeka, as well as other places in Croatia and abroad, look at the past through rose-colored glasses.The past is seen as some golden age, an era much better than what we live in today.

Of course, it’s possible, or even very much certain, that in some respects it was like that, but when we discuss labor, I believe that not everything is as ideal as people would like to think. Harking back to the past by means of comparison constitutes a rather slippery slope because the past can be analyzed only in the context of a given time.

Do you explore the local context by breaking down other topicalities such as automatization?

Automatization has been an extremely important topic to us since it’s present throughout the  world and thus in Rijeka as well. The truth is that a great deal of industry across the region went to the dogs in the ‘90s. 

That period was marked by war, privatization, and — last but not least — widespread plunder. A whole series of processes made the sea the only resource coastal cities have at their disposal. That made tourism and the shipping business the only things they can do. But, if something was left of the industrial [sector], it sure wouldn’t employ so few people.

As labor productivity changes, so does the city’s appearance, its demographics. Because, the number of workers employed in production processes is dropping, while the service sector is growing.This is altering the structure of the city itself and experiences in the city.

The port of Rijeka is a good example. Nowadays, it’s often said that the port is no longer operating because people can’t see ships sitting there like they used to in the past and because too few people work there. People remember the port as it was in the ‘70s or ‘80s. However, if we compare the cargo transport rates, there are no large discrepancies between now and then.

What has changed is primarily the technology used. Ships no longer sit in the port for long, they aren’t docked for days.The port is now automated and the terminal handles the same amount of cargo despite the port employing much fewer people than before. 

Through the program, we aim to show where we stand today and what’s really happening in the world of labor. We wanted to focus on today’s developments so people could see what’s going on and have a clearer picture of how these processes influence the city’s development and its general prospects.

However, I think people tend to forget the following: The loss of industry results not only in the loss of jobs, but also the loss of knowledge accumulated for decades, knowledge passed down from generation to generation.The knowledge that’s there is something that needs to be made, be it a ship or paper.This is what’s been lost in Rijeka and what’s probably the greatest catastrophe of deindustrialization and transition.

The service sector is a low-productivity sector requiring a large number of people to perform jobs where no highly specialized knowledge is needed. And that’s one of the things we’re touching upon in the Dopolavoro program. However, we’re not dealing with the comparison of knowledge but with the assertion that this knowledge is important. Not just in economic terms.

Knowledge is a sort of an experience gained through work, but it boosts labor productivity as well. Many technological innovations were made while people were carrying out work tasks related to a production process in a factory or lab. This has been lost.

In Croatia and beyond, in the region, Rijeka enjoys the reputation of being an open, alternative city. Do you think this brand identity is correct (even today)?

Well, the general characteristic of brands is that there are deviations from them (laughs). When I talk to the people who earned Rijeka this reputation, I realize that the situation back then was similar to what we experience nowadays i.e., that the places they would go out to and the events they partook in were marginal.

I don’t think the image of Rijeka as a “Rock [and Roll] City” is an entirely made up story. Rather, there were certain contemporary processes accentuating it, probably because it was a step ahead when compared to other places or the time they took place.

Rijeka was in pole position to build this rocker identity.

In the late ‘70s and ‘80s, similar processes were occurring in the entire Yugoslavia, in all the big cities. Rijeka may well have been marked by its proximity to the “West,” as well as by the fact that it was a seaport and had thus been privileged as per cultural transfers from abroad starting from the ‘50s. Sailors would bring vinyl records from foreign countries, keeping up with international trends.

Rijeka was in pole position to build this rocker identity. At this juncture, most places don’t fit the image of a “Rock City,” but I wouldn’t problematize it much. It used to be the same before.The bigger question is how influential this culture is on the margins, away from mainstream.

A handful of bands from Rijeka, like “Denis i Denis,” “Parafi,” “Let 3,” had considerable impact on the culture back then, not only in the city, but across Yugoslavia. In that way, the image of a perfect spot for the alternative soon came to fruition!

Nowadays, it seems to me that culture in general is marginalized not only in Rijeka, but in the entirety of Croatia. During the ‘90s, culture had a powerful impact, although it was exclusively aimed at forging a national identity, so we were witnessing a return to the past, the reuse of topics from the past.

That was (almost) gone by the 2000s. For the past 20 years, culture has been devoid of anything that can cause a stir in the wider public the way a football game can. Culture was pushed to the marginal position. Meanwhile, when you ask people how important culture is to them, it turns out they cherish it. What matters to them is that it exists, even though they don’t delve into it.

The spectacular opening took place in the port of Rijeka in February. Photo: Press EPK.

I’ve got an impression that the whole image of our society has changed considerably in comparison with the ‘70s or ‘80s, when culture had a lot of impact. We should bear in mind that various youth clubs were formed back then.That sort of culture was important to political leaders at the time, but no investments have been made into youth culture in this form since the Croatian declaration of independence. Since no investments have been made, culture has lost its importance and since its impact has been diminishing, further investment has diminished as well. And here we are in a vicious cycle.

Then how warranted is it for Rijeka to carry the brand of an “Open City,” which is included in the ECC project title itself: “Port of Diversity” ?

People coming to Rijeka to attend this year’s exhibitions and performances will get a picture of Rijeka as an experimental city or a city of culture and this won’t match the real picture. It’s only a moment in time as I think culture in Rijeka is normally as conservative as everywhere else.

On the other hand, it must be said that Rijeka took some considerable steps unseen anywhere else. For example, Oliver Frljić was the director of HNK Rijeka (The Croatian National Theater Rijeka) and he was ingenious in leading the theater and challenging a wide variety of issues [including the treatment of the Serb minority in Croatia or LGBTQ+ community]. It’s really fascinating because this happened maybe in a couple of other cities in Europe, no more.

However, what he did in Rijeka hasn’t been validated here. It sparked off controversies; a number of protests against him have been organized by veterans and football supporters. He left before the end of his term. Nevertheless, despite the openness in Rijeka being a complex issue, I don’t know of any other city in Croatia or abroad where Oliver Frljić could head a Croatian national theater and be engaged in this way. A sort of openness is certainly present, an openness toward some form of experimentation.K

Feature image: Davor Mišković’s private archive.