Someone once said that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism. We can now revise that and witness the attempt to imagine capitalism by way of imagining the end of the world. (Frederic Jameson)
I am in the theatre again, watching another disaster unfold. This theatre is in fact not a theatre at all but a small magnolia room in some municipal building in the centre of Maribor. We are squeezed along two walls, the rest of the space given up to the stage area. The room is a mess. A familiar assemblage of post-catastrophe trinkets; cardboard boxes, blood stained mattresses, buckets, tarpaulin, a table lamp, objects swaddled in bubble-wrap. Three figures chatter incessantly, ducking for cover at imagined sounds, circling each other with tiny silver pistols, dripping fake blood onto fake wounds, skittishly performing their rituals of animal survival. It’s the end of the world as we know it, as we’ve known it so many times before.
I watch and as I watch I remember all the times I have sat in similar performances watching the world coming to an end. The fake blood, the smoke machines, the failing lights, the mania, the old routines of modern life persisting into this catastrophic new world like the muscle memory of a thousand boring dinner parties. My own work has all-too-often been drawn in this same direction, seduced by fantasies of floods and riots and monster attacks, rooms filling with smoke both real and imagined. I have told stories of disasters that bring down whole cities, recreated with giddy melodrama by performers in giant Godzilla-shaped slippers.
This woozy millenarianism is I think a kind of longing; a longing for escape that can only name the place it is trying to escape from not where it might want to escape to. It is a kind of utopia perhaps, a version of Cicero’s idealised rural retreat for a time when nature no longer seems as distant and untouched by society as it once did; when capitalism appears so all-encompassing that its only opposite is total nothingness. As such these apocalyptic dreams are not so much born out of a fear of change, but rather a fear that nothing will ever change.
‘The terrible scenario is not that the world is going to end, but that it is not, and we are going to have to continue to live in it.’ This is how Karolina Babič begins her tour of Maribor. We are standing in the ageing ticket hall of the city’s modest railway station. We are here partly because it was the railway that built Maribor, a convenient junction on the journey between Austria and Italy, but also because its current emptiness is important. Not many people come to the city. Like so many places across Europe it is an industrial town stripped of its industry, struggling to cope in a global economy that no longer has much use for it. Karolina defines places by movement – a city is somewhere people go to, and a town is somewhere people stay, willingly or otherwise, and by these definitions Maribor is very definitely a town.
All our collected stories of romantic annihilation have little to offer to a place struggling with the very ordinary problems of deindustrialisation, a global recession, out-of-town shopping centres and chronic underemployment. Instead Karolina tells us a story of what it means to stay. She tells us about the slow and unglamorous work of transforming a city and a community through economic policy and social enterprise. We visit thrift stores and bicycle repair shops. We hear about strategies for getting the long term unemployed back into work and laws that enable new social enterprises to secure three years of free rent in government-owned properties. Later in another conversation with a group of local artists we will hear similar stories of slow and careful development – of new collaborations forged in moments of collective adversity. Stories of the time dedicated by those who stayed – theatres built by hand in empty casinos and old nightclubs, exhibitions presented in living rooms and public toilets. The first fragile shoots of something didn’t exist before.
What emerges from these stories, and from the city itself, is a collective attempt at re-making Maribor as a site of collective ownership and collective responsibility. A polis, with no distinction made between the city and its people. A place that is held together by something more than commerce. At a time when the desire to leave my own city has, for a variety of reasons, never felt stronger, it is heartening to see in this quietly beautiful city what it might mean to remain.