Adopt space, preserve life
By re-appropriating empty spaces in the old city center, project Voids is building the foundations for a new imagination of the urbanity of Split.
FOTO: Culture Hub Croatia / Facebook
Year by year, winter strolls through the old town of Split are becoming more melancholic, and the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic have prompted the desolation of streets and alleys in old Diocletian's Palace. What the frenzied mass tourism started, the pandemic finished off: the last sparks of life of the eerily empty cultural old town in the off-season have been extinguished. Diocletian's Palace, along with the historic old town, has been under UNESCO protection since 1979, and the life that has taken place inside the palace walls since the fourth century when they were built in recent years increasingly resembles a seasonal backstage. Just as curtains cover the theatre stage after the play, so most business premises, restaurants, bars and tourist agencies in the centre of Split covered their shop windows with old newspapers or supermarket catalogues and the inscription closed due to collective vacation, closed for renovation or lately ever more frequent – for rent. Bar owners and other tourism workers have closed their shops in order to keep hold of the premises until the next summer season, guided by the proven Split strategy of waiting until international flights to Split resume and state incentives for seasonal workers restart.
The fact that after only one pandemic-stricken tourist season, the inscriptions closed for renovation have been replaced by more dangerous ones, suggesting the definite end – for rent – speaks volumes about the unsustainability of tourism policies and practices used in coastal cities in recent years. The growing exclusion of the local community and the unavailability of contents in the old town to the local population have resulted in the decline of crafts and catering facilities during the pandemic, whose offer is adapted exclusively to the needs and requirements of tourists. There are so many of those that the exceptions can be counted on the fingers of one hand. One such exception, that the people of Split remember with longing, was the cult café Na kantunu, one of the few places which was open throughout the year, and also kept the city's identity and prices affordable to the locals. Unfortunately, that was not enough for it to survive, so in 2019, the city was left without this homey oasis.
Split was once a city on a human scale and spaces in the old town predominantly served the needs of its inhabitants (small specialized shops, grocery shops, services) until the mechanisms of unplanned tourism turned it into a city of ATMs, a wine & dine Potemkin village that sinks into hibernation with the first leaves falling. In the last few years, city life in the historic centre of Split has been further discouraged since the local population was forced to meet their needs in shopping malls, where all commercial activities moved. Since 2017, there has been a plan to adopt the Old Town Management Plan, a document that would regulate the management of Split's historic old town and whose drafting would provide the city with a more favourable position in the competition for EU funding. The Management Plan went through several stagnation phases, only to be completely abandoned in the end. The draft Plan was criticized for the lack of legal regulations, incoordination, unclearly defined source of funding, lack of specific goals and deadlines for implementation. It did not take long for the pompously announced Plan to fall into oblivion due to the inefficiency of the governing structures, leaving room for the further devastation of the old town.
Cultural life on the brink
The fact that the local population's interests are not represented in the management of old town premises and that urbanity is not the main criterion is best illustrated by the fate of cult places of Split's cultural and social life. From the 1950s, Kino poduzeće Split managed five of its cinemas in the historic old town: Central, Karaman, Tesla, Marjan and the Bačvice open-air cinema. With the privatization in 1994, Kino poduzeće Split became Ekran d.o.o., and the cinema premises managed by Ekran became more and more attractive to investors. Since 2011, Split has been deprived of two cinemas: the Marjan cinema was converted into a restaurant-cafe, and the Tesla cinema was briefly turned into a club, to soon have an even more surreal purpose – it has become Froggyland, a permanent display of stuffed frogs. In the place which used to see lines of people queuing to buy cinema tickets, today only the smell of stuffed amphibians remains. The next unrepentant blow to cinema came in late 2015 when Split’s largest cinema, Central, closed, a place where many (including me) watched their first film (in my case Harry Potter, of course). The only remaining cinema in the old town is currently the Karaman cinema, but this is only thanks to the temporary protection provided by the Conservation Department, which has already expired, so the fate of this cinema is not entirely certain either.
Like the cinemas, the city bookshops share a similar fate. The cult gathering place of the Split intelligentsia, the Morpurgo bookshop, is one of the three oldest in Europe, but the only one that has not changed its location since 1860 when it opened. The famous Morpurgo bookshop closed its doors in June 2017, the same week that another bookshop from Narodni trg (the so-called Pjace) closed – the Krleža bookshop. Unlike Krleža, there is still hope for the Morpurgo bookshop because it is on the list of protected cultural assets of the Republic of Croatia, so the activity performed in its premises must be exclusively related to book selling. Until Morpurgo reopens its doors, the people of Split have only one bookshop left in the historic centre.
Most of the cultural content in the old town premises during the socialist modernization was aimed at awakening the cultural spirit from the provincial drowsiness. With the transition to a market economy there was a transitional stagnation, the city made a full circle and returned to general drowsiness in the winter months. With an innovative and creative approach, the non-profit organization Culture Hub Croatia is trying to address the problem of winter (non)use of old town premises. Their project Voids activates temporarily closed spaces in the historic centre and thus seeks to breathe life into the empty streets of the city palace. As citizens of Split and cultural workers, the founders of the CHC project decided to shift the focus to active action instead of a futile critique of the problem of mass tourism that devastated the old town. The project conceived by Marina Batinić, Jasmina Šarić and Kristina Tešija returned the eventfulness and creative contents to the centre of Split by re-appropriation, that is, by adopting unused and empty spaces in the old town.
Pilot project Voids2020 converted closed spaces in the old town into open studios for artists, but also made them available to citizens to use for various activities. As stated in the description of last year's edition, this is an initiative in which citizens and civil society organizations had the opportunity to propose and implement an activity in one of the spaces through a public call. Its rich program consisted of open studios of eight artists from Croatia, North Macedonia, Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo, as well as workshops and pop-up events (talks with artists, workshops and meet-ups). Positive reactions of participants and visitors of Voids encouraged the organizers to continue with the project in 2021, despite the pandemic circumstances. Five new spaces in the old town were made available to artists, citizens and other civil society organizations in Split as part of the Adopt a Space initiative in the period from 30 January to 20 February 2021. The project revived half of Dominisova Street: the UJE restaurant space was adopted in Dominisova 3, Splitlicious travel agency in Dominisova 9 and Pikulece tapas bar at number 4. In addition to the premises in Dominisova, the space of the souvenir shop Diocletiano in Bosanska 4 and the UJE wine bar in Rodrigina 1 also emerged from hibernation.
The five premises that have been given a new purpose within the project otherwise work tirelessly during the summer season, especially UJE catering facilities, that are in high demand in the summer months as opposed to the winter months when the premises are shut. A small handy studio of the independent radio KLFM was temporarily installed in the UJE premises, which resulted in an all-day program of the Radio in the Ghetto in the restaurant on 19 February. A few days later, the Redakcija and Queeranarchive collectives organized a screen-printing workshop in the restaurant space, with an exhibition of visuals and the distribution of fanzines. From 8 to 14 February, the premises of the wine bar became an open studio of the Albanian artist Donika Çina, who set up her installation Off Season there. "I have to admit I got a great space to use, the wine bar has the original wall of an ancient Roman palace, while interacting with technology", Donika commented on her temporary studio during Artist Talk held after the exhibition. Montenegrin artist Teodora Nikčević adopted the space of the travel agency, where she continued her work on the project There will be no other end of the world. For the duration of Voids2021, exhibitions in pop-up open studios adopted by local and regional artists such as Tin Dožić, Tanja Deman, Ivana Radovanović, Marko Gutić Mižimakov and Bojan Koštić could be visited in Split old town.
In addition to being exhibition venues, the spaces were also used for other purposes: creative workshops, interactive installations and video projections, and interviews with project participants. In the premises of the temporarily closed restaurant, the authors Ružica Gašperov and Sara Kopeczky Bajić held a creative writing workshop, so on 16 February 2021 interested participants could learn How to tame a story. At the end of the workshop, Gašperov said that attendance was satisfactory given the epidemiological measures. "The idea of 'adoption' is excellent and given that the participants said they would like to continue attending the workshop, we concluded that the city lacks such projects throughout the year, and especially in winter. We hope that our city will revive and that people, especially young people, will have a place to meet and get some good vibes going on, that are painfully lacking in this city", she added.
This ingenious and sustainable concept of space re-appropriation nurtures the existing urban heritage, while building the foundations for future models of cultural practices that would be welcome in order to preserve the urbanity of Split. While all parties once involved in drafting the Old Town Management Plan successfully protect their interests, citizens and their interests remain unprotected. Although most locals live off tourism, the year spent in the pandemic taught us that we cannot rely solely on that sector – or at least not on the present model of mass tourism characterised by seasonality, aggressive apartment building and congested infrastructure. Dubrovnik already learned its lesson after a UNESCO warning that overflowing tourists and poor cruise tourism management would threaten its World Heritage status, which the city promptly addressed by introducing a limited daily number of visitors. In addition to tangible heritage, we must also preserve life, bring back residents and citizens into the city and turn to the development of sustainable tourism strategies, if we want to avoid the frustration and dissatisfaction of the local population to escalate into the so-called anti-tourism movement which is already spreading in cities like Venice, Barcelona, Rome and Mallorca, where the monoculture of tourism threatens to completely stifle the life which sustains it.