Andy Field. Maribor City Lab Part 1

We are driving through Europe. The setting sun whispers through low hanging clouds as we trundle along an anonymous highway in the back of an old white van.

We are driving through the splinters of a country that no longer exists, through borders that were not borders as recently as when I was in primary school. The evening following this journey we will watch a show in which a man wrestles with a giant oversized map of the region, its countries marked out in familiar geography-book pastels. He tries to point out to us cities on the map, but it is far too large for him to handle, overwhelmed he eventually wraps himself in it like a shroud. ‘Help me hold Yugslavia’ he says to the people in the front row, and they do, temporarily at least. The next morning I am still thinking of this image as Sodja tells us how frightened she is by the similarities between the rhetoric of those populist demagogues currently seizing power and the racist politicians who tore Yugoslavia apart in the 1990s. The ghosts of the monsters of the past glinting in the gold-plated smiles of the present.

This is our Europe. Amnesiac Europe. Fractured and still fracturing. Sodja leans over to me as we drive and says ‘I need to get out’.

This urge to escape is an ancient instinct, the muscle memory of half a millennia spent retreating from Europe’s flawed attempts at democracy. In her remarkable lecture on the first morning of the lab Svetlana Slapšak describes how Europe’s long history of escapology begins from an essential category error – the employment of the Roman republic as a blueprint for government rather than the direct democracy of ancient Athens. From this moment we are veering off course, away from any commitment to a share idea of the city that can resolve the its problems from within, and towards the idea of perpetually broken society that must be mended from without.

The spectre of Utopia slips into our dreams of a better future. As early as Cicero, Horace and Virgil any faith in the city’s ability to heal itself has been replaced by unreal retreats into idyllic nature, a longing for some other place that is everything the city is not. Svetlana traces for us a path from these early poets through Rabelais’s delirious fantasies of a new society forged in the isolation of a remote Abbey and onwards to the revolutions that have shaped the modern world, all of them similarly initiated by small cadres of people who retreat from society in order to reinvent it.

What spaces do we have left to retreat to? Where are the monasteries, where are the forests, where are the communes? What new sanctuaries can we build in which to shore ourselves against further ruin?  

What if sanctuary is not actually a place at all? Later in the same day we listen to the artist Maja Smrekar describing a series of works in which she seeks to initiate a kind of metamorphosis. She tells us about a piece that involves you clambering through a tunnel lined in wolf pelts, until you are crawling on all fours towards the scent of serotonin extracted from a combination of her own blood and that of her dog. In another piece, through a rigorous metabolic process she trains herself over the course of several weeks to lactate, enabling her to nurse a puppy directly from her own breast. She becomes at once a mother and not a mother, the manifestation of a state of perpetual female becoming that is its own kind of resistance to the oppositions that have structured patriarchal Western society since the Roman Republic.

Perhaps these states of hybridity and flux are their own kind of utopia, a sanctuary we can retreat to in which to imagine new desires and new freedoms. A forest of shadows in which we can escape from Europe and its histories and run with the wolves.