Building a Female Artery in Slovenia: the City of Women Festival

MAJA ŠORLI

ABSTRACT: The essay describes the performance I’m walking behind you and watching you (2013) at the City of Women festival that strengthened the female community and vitalized feminist artistic tradition in Slovenia. An artistic festival, as a kind of meta-event, can serve many functions. It can use events to increase awareness, bring different audiences together, focus in on a chosen topic, strenghten existing artistic practices or provoke new ideas, relationships, partnerships, and art. This was unquestionably true in the “post-modern 90s” when festivals proliferated. Today, however, when the festivalisation of everything, not just artistic events, but also of shopping, sport, education, popular entertainment etc., happens every day, new issues have emerged. The most important challenges can be summarised as follows: How to gain the attention of an audience when there are so many festival events and fewer resources for the arts? How to produce meaningful artistic events (for as many people as possible) and promote them to a target audience? How to ensure a sustainable future for a feminist festival in the 21st century? One suggestion is to include or create an event that embodies as much as possible of the festival’s spirit. In this essay I will present an event called I’m Walking Behind You and Watching You. Presented at the 19th edition of the City of Women festival in Ljubljana, Slovenia in 2013, it brought together a diverse audience, performing genres, and local as well as national women’s history and presence.

I’m Walking Behind You and Watching You performance part. Photo: Nada Žgank / City of Women.

I’m Walking Behind You and Watching You performance part. Photo: Nada Žgank / City of Women.

About the context

Feminist traditions and movements in Slovenia have been repeatedly fragmented by ruptures in national-political systems. From the Austro-Hungarian Empire to the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (later the Kingdom of Yugoslavia) to the socialist Yugoslavia and finally to the capitalist Slovenia, women were busy adjusting to new state orders. A variety of transformations within feminist movements occured in reaction to political changes. In 1991 Slovenia gained its independence and started its transition from a socialist to a capitalist country. Women had to defend the right to abortion in the newly adopted constitution, in December 1991, with public demonstrations, and won an important victory to which many of the future collaborators of the City of Women festival contributed. However, for the feminist community it was one of the rare events connecting women. In the new country, the visibility of women in public space dropped significantly until the birth of the City of Women festival in 1995.

Slovenia is today, in some respects, an emancipated country with equal legal rights for women, abortion on demand, paid maternity leave, legalised same-sex partnerships (adopted only in 2016, but not marriage, adoptions for same-sex couples and artificial inseminations for lesbians), the smallest gender-pay-gap, etc., but on the other hand many inequalities remain in the arts. In 1992 when democratisation hit the arts as well as society at large, an Office for Women’s Policy was established (in 2001 it was renamed the Office for Equal Opportunities and in 2012 it was dissolved and became the Equal Opportunities Department at The Ministry of Labour, Family, Social Affairs and Equal Opportunities). In 1995, four years after Slovenia gained its independence, the Office for Women’s Policy produced the first Slovenian women’s art festival, and for the following editions a private office of the Association for the Promotion of Women in Culture – City of Women was established. This Slovenian version of an international festival of contemporary arts was modelled after the Magdalena Project and named the City of Women. The City of Women addressed the feminist legacy: the festival was transdisciplinary and included not only performances, but also lectures, workshops, discussions, book promotion events, etc., as it still does today.

The Resurgent Half

One of the curators of the visual arts component of the festival writes about the lack of local works that could be described as “womanly or feminist” in the 90s or earlier (Stepančič 35). Put simply, only a very limited number of local artists were doing work, visual or otherwise, that could be labelled feminist, thus restricting the choice of work to be promoted by the festival. However, over the more than 20 years of the festival’s existence, this has changed. There are many different artists whose work can be and is promoted or even produced by the festival. Events that I present in this essay are the results of ongoing festival activity.

In 2013 the festival’s leading theme was “Let’s create a place for ourselves”. Five female artists created a show titled I’m Walking Behind You and Watching You (Hodim za tabo in te gledam). The performance consisted of four elements : a city tour, a live sculpture/monument, a radio intervention, and a video installation as part of the city tour.

I’m Walking Behind You and Watching You was described as a “female map of the city in which memory holders form missing and ignored stories of women who worked their way through this city”. The multilayered project had two main events: first, a Ljubljana city walking tour around the historical city centre exploring hidden attractions connected to Slovenian women from the 19th and early 20th centuries. It lasted about two hours with one or two female guides – one was always Barbara Kapelj Osredkar, the author of the concept of the project, and occasionally also an expert on the women in focus on the tour. The walk was created for a maximum of 30 people and included stops at houses where prominent Slovenian women had either lived or worked. Periodically the walk was interrupted by physical actions performed by three other artists in the project: Leja Jurišić, Teja Reba and Mia Habib. The actions were always connected to a woman discussed at that particular moment in the tour. At the end of the tour, the group went into an old house where a video installation (described below) was playing and two artists sang their interpretations of Slovenian folk songs.

Barbara Kapelj Osredkar, Leja Jurišić, Teja Reba, Mia Habib, Ana Čigon: HODIM ZA TABO IN GLEDAM TE, Vodstvo – instalacija – performans, 13.10.2013, Mesto žensk / City of Women

Barbara Kapelj Osredkar, Leja Jurišić, Teja Reba, Mia Habib, Ana Čigon: HODIM ZA TABO IN GLEDAM TE, Vodstvo – instalacija – performans, 13.10.2013, Mesto žensk / City of Women

The second part was an event called I’m Walking Behind You and Watching You: Alive Sculpture. Here the creative team stood together and formed an “X” with the help of female volunteers portraying the 129 women described in the book The Forgotten Half (Pozabljena polovica), “dedicated to the lives of 129 of the most important women from all fields of social and artistic activities in Slovenia from the past two centuries”. This manifestation took place at Kongresni trg, a special public square in Ljubljana where many important social, political, cultural and artistic events have taken place throughout the city’s history. The volunteers wore sashes, each labelled with the name of one of the 129 women from The Forgotten Half; the organisers of the event held short speeches from a small stage and podium in a conference format: besides short opening speeches, three guests spoke and at the end a female choir sang two songs. The event was concluded with a photo shoot and volunteers chose perennial plants in memory of the each of the event and woman represented.

I’m Walking Behind You and Watching You: Alive Sculpture. Photo: Almedina Meštrovac / City of Women.

I’m Walking Behind You and Watching You: Alive Sculpture. Photo: Almedina Meštrovac / City of Women.

The event creators also made an intervention on radio ARS, the third channel of the national Radio Slovenia. This channel broadcasts cultural programming, one such programme is The Stage, a weekly show about contemporary theatre in Slovenia. In the edition of October 8, 2013, the artists talked about the opening of a new monument dedicated to women. The majority of the show is fictitious: the monument is composed of 129 female statues made of white porcelain standing in water and thus through their reflections, they multiply to represent all other forgotten women. In the show they discussed the reasons behind the monument, the materials, the location, the production, they also name the contemporary artists who made the sculptures, etc. Only in the last 2 to 3 minutes did they reveal the utopian vision of the broadcast and that there will not be such a monument. They ended by inviting listeners to participate in the live sculpture monument.

The video Ljubljana City of Women (Ljubljana mesto žensk, 2013), part of the city tour, has two tracks – an audio track in which two artists are interviewing people on the streets. They are asked if they know of any important historical Slovenian women to whom they would build a monument in Ljubljana. On the visual video track, however, we see Vegova Street in Ljubljana, in reality colonised by male statues which in the video are transformed into female statues. It is a humorous critique of the lack of monuments to women in Ljubljana and an expression of the desire for a female artery in Ljubljana’s city centre.

Conclusion

The City of Women festival had a socially committed agenda from its beginnings: to promote female artists and to increase the visibility of women in general. The festival received a lot of publicity at the beginning, but in the 21st century it was absorbed into the sea of various cultural events and festivals and became less visible (see Šorli). Nevertheless it succeeded in building a small but steady community of artists who continue to make intersectional feminist artworks. Today, when many spend their lives in isolated bubbles, and when Slovenia no longer has the Women’s Policy Office, it is very valuable to have at least one continuous agency that deals with injustices shared by most women and their creative and artistic investigation.

The performance described above brought together 19th and 21st century history, social sciences (The Forgotten Half), radio, visual and performing arts, feminist legacies and visions, women of all ages as performers and audiences. Such a complex event in a short time span built a community of women, and thus vitalized feminist tradition in Slovenia. Although the connections made at the performance were brief, many women who took part continue their feminist work in social sciences and performing arts and meet at new editions of City of Women, providing a sustainable future for the festival itself.

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Stepančič, Lilijana. “Pionirski časi. Osebni spomin na prvi festival Mesto žensk.” [Pioneer Times: The Memoirs of the First City of Women festival] Časopis za kritiko znanosti. 43. 261 (2015): 23–39.
Šorli, Maja. “Podoba Mesta žensk v slovenskih medijij.” [Images of the City of Women festival in the Slovenian Media] Časopis za kritiko znanosti. 43. 261 (2015): 90–99.