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Iva Radmila Jankovic

CHANGE REALITY. RENAMING THE STREETS OF ZAGREB

 

translated from Croatian by Višnja Rogošic

In his literary-essayistic studies about spaces that determine us as individuals and as a community, Georges Perec defines the street morphologically, as a "space framed by houses, usually on its longer sides; the street is what separates houses one from another but also enables us to walk from one house to the other one, down or across the street. Also, due to the streets we can mark houses. There are different methods of marking, today in our region the most widespread method is to name the streets and number the houses: naming the streets is extremely complex and often problematic theme we could write several books about…" this is all he mentions about the subject of naming when speaking about city streets, however, with this short last section of the sentence he hints at the complexity hidden in the naming process.
In certain anthropological approaches dealing with the problems of space it was attempted to define the difference with what is determined by the term place. For example, Marc Augé considers the space more abstract than the place and refers to the happening (the place of the event), myth (a place under the sun) or history (a significant place). A street with its name in that context can be both, depending on whether one is the passenger or its inhabitant. For Michel de Certeau thing is reversed, place is an abstract term while space is the dynamic one ("passable place"), something marked with a network of relations (crossroads of "mobile bodies"). Neither he will preoccupy himself with the problem of naming more elaborately and, like Perec, will simply conclude: "names impose an order to the place given by somebody else (some history…)". In the foreword of the book the Women's Guide through Zagreb Vesna Kesic will write about that: "The one having political power names and renames public spaces and in that way shapes and reshapes, erases from the public memory the inappropriate past and creates its desirable image and with it a historical period or a political moment, especially the transitional one…"
The work of a German group REINIGUNGSGESELLSCHAFT is in complete accordance with the essence of this year's UrbanFestival marking the syntagm "space politisation" with a simple and direct procedure, since, where can it be more directly manifested?
The REINIGUNGSGESELLSCHAFT group is one of the self-denying initiatives which courageously stepped out of the aesthetic art frames into the everyday life, using the platform of art as a starting point to question, freely and without any burden, certain essential manifestations which we are immersed in but, taking them for granted, stop thinking about them. Their action differs from the previous ones, only by the problem it deals with. Previously on various places and in various contexts they dealt with the subjective comprehension of work, leisure and balance between life and work (Spirit of Work, Work Life Balance, The Future Promise). The connection between all their projects, with which they have been successfully realising the community art idea for around ten years, is a profound strategy of connecting social groups which, oriented towards their spheres of interest, rarely contact with each other.
In the work designed for Zagreb, they perform a simple but efficient intervention. In the manner of artistic game in which real street signs are simulated, they leave naming practice, which is always subject to the decisions from the position of power, to the ones who exist as the op-position, to the voice of minority. In this game of reversal a lot can be found out about the city. The names given to streets and squares by the members of non-government organisations, without any doubt, seemed confusing for the passers-by, some provoked laughter and some were provocative enough to make us thoughtful. However, none of the signs left us without a reaction. If we accept the attempt to define the difference between the space and the place, no matter which definition we accept, we understand the meaning of the necessity to separate the two. Spaces became places by the act of renaming, places whose names we accept as given, were revealed as dynamic spaces in which for a short while voices proposing other possible options became audible.

Iva Radmila Jankovic: How did you come to the idea to rename the streets?

RG: We wanted to do something that is directly related with the idea of this year's festival dedicated to the politics of space and when we arrived to Zagreb we were interested in what was going on in politics in the social sphere. We heard that in the last 15 years a lot has occurred in Croatia. We were interested in history, in the way it is rewritten, why does the renaming of streets happen? We thought that a good starting point might be: how to change such a perception? After our first arrival we have decided to create a collaborative work, wrote a suggestion, got informed on which non-government organisations exist in Zagreb…
The point of our analysis was that with the change of social system street names always change as well. Numerous streets from the times of socialism have changed their names into the ones representing national concept or the ones that should help in strengthening national identity. Such a concept that occurred here does not represent an especially progressive idea. Significant changes occur in today's society mostly related to the economic situation, to the perspective of the European Union as well as to the concept of globalisation. Our idea was to point out such changes in a certain way, turning to different initiatives which deal with civil society development or organisations which are connected with minority rights since we are aware of the importance of their social role in creating developed democracy.


Iva Radmila Jankovic: Are you satisfied with the results? Do you expect citizens' reactions?

RG: As far as we can see some of the new names are truly provocative. The main square, for example, Ban Jelacic Square, is renamed into The Square of the Patriarchy Victims, for example. Other suggestions are more sensitive, react more to a specific situation but we suppose that some of the names will get much attention.


Iva Radmila Jankovic: Still, the situation with changing streets and squares names is not a typically Croatian one. You realised a similar project in other places. Is it possible to draw parallels?

RG: We created the project last year in Leipzig, Germany and this really isn't typical just for Croatia. What makes Leipzig and Zagreb similar is a process of transformation from a once socialist and communist system towards capitalism. Contrast appear, new symbols of power established by large companies, which become more and more visible in city centres. On the other side, where today there is lack of identity, once was a strong aspect creating the identity in the value production system. Both projects show that in a similar way. In Leipzig it was different since REINIGUNGSGESELLSCHAFT changed the names. We chose the names such as: The Street of the Last Worker, The Street of the Unemployed, The Street of Taxpayers… We worked with sociological, cultural and political subjects which at that time were characteristic for Leipzig area. In Zagreb we decided not to do that alone but to leave the decision abut street names to non-government organisations. It was important for us to help in making the civil society more conscious of their role and significance, give them the voice, help with the way they are perceived in the local context. On the other side, the fact that many organisations depend on government finances and in a way compete between each other was interesting for us. There is the possibility to develop certain contents independently but still they depend on those who finance them. As we have heard the attention of foreign countries has changed lately. In the earlier days financial support often came from foreign organisations which were helping in strengthening the discourse of the minority. Today it seems that the situation is more complex and more difficult. I think that the project has brought the idea that all those initiatives can create a joint platform within the city. The intention was to refresh the communication between the initiatives.