The Critical Classroom – “Metelkova as Autonomous Heterotopia”

Nathan Siegrist and Håkan Thörn, University of Gothenburg

Metelkova as Autonomous Heterotopia” focuses on relationships between autonomous space and neoliberal urbanism through the empirical example of the cultural centre AKC Metelkova Mesto, in Ljubljana, Slovenia, conceptualised as an autonomous heterotopia. We argue that the most important implication for political practice of our study is how the case of Metelkova underscores the potential of autonomous spaces to create, sustain and defend an open space, and an alternative public sphere in an urban context, making possible novel forms of political action. This implies that its political significance is not limited to the grass-roots movements that inhabits the space, but also concerns the defence and potential for radicalisation of democracy as such. While such publicness is always under the threat of commodification in a neoliberal city, the case of Metelkova demonstrates how, in shadow of an authoritarian capitalism emerging out of the dark side of liberalism, it becomes even more fragile.

To accompany the article (which is open access and can be downloaded here), this educational resource is geared towards students working towards a BA or an MA, within urban studies, social movement studies, studies on social change or adjacent fields. It can beneficially be used in courses relating to themes of political participation, resistance, public space or urban social movements.

We argue that the most important implication for political practice of our study is how the case of Metelkova underscores the potential of autonomous spaces to create, sustain and defend an open space, and an alternative public sphere in an urban context, making possible novel forms of political action. This implies that its political significance is not limited to the grass-roots movements that inhabit the space, but also concerns the defence and potential for radicalisation of democracy as such. Furthermore, the article explores the “publicness” of Metelkova and how it relates to threats from harshly implemented neoliberal urbanism as well as the rise in authoritarian illiberalism. A core theme in these discussions is the theoretical notion “autonomous heterotopia”, which we coin in order to aptly theorize Metelkova’s role and potentials within its specific contextual setting.

From engaging with the article and its core themes, students can learn to think creatively on novel theorisations of empirical cases – in particular relating to studies on urban resistance or similar objects of study. To add to this, we encourage students to also engage with Foucault’s (1986) “Of Other Spaces”, wherein the term heterotopia, which we seek to develop in relation to the empirical material, is first fleshed out. From this, students can think critically of both Foucault’s text, which is criticized as lacking in the article, and contrast it with our theorisations as well as the wider discussion on research on heterotopia. Such a comparison can be fruitful to raise questions, discussion or objections in relation to our paper as well as Foucault’s.

Additionally, the student-produced website http://metelkova.goucher.edu/history.html – in itself an educational resource focusing on critical engagement with Metelkova as an autonomous space – can help students develop their own discussions on the paper as well as on Metelkova. Notably, this website holds a video archive of activist interviews, each presenting novel and interesting views on the potentials and risks of Metelkova, and the site also contains valuable historical information about the autonomous space. From such resources, students will be able to conduct their own analyses and discussions of the space itself, how it relates to the notion of “heterotopia” and the paper in question. For these purposes, we also include Metelkova’s official webpage – http://metelkovamesto.org/ – although we acknowledge that the English version of the website is lacking. It is, however, still an interesting resource and contains links to the various clubs and collectives within Metelkova’s bounds.

For more in-depth discussions of the public-ness of autonomous spaces we suggest comparing Metelkova with rather similar, yet also different, examples in Europe. For this purpose we have listed a free-to-download book on Christiania (Thörn et al. 2011), and an article that compares the history of Christiania with that of an autonomous space in Sweden (Thörn 2012).

Resources

Foucault M (1986) Of other spaces (trans J Miskowiec). Diacritics 16(1):22-27
Good basic text for engaging with the term “heterotopia”. One of the earliest renditions of the term and arguably the most lucid of Foucault’s texts on the term. Clocking in at just six pages, it’s an easy and nice read and would thus work well in an educational setting.

http://metelkova.goucher.edu/history.html
A student project at Goucher College presenting a biography of Metelkova, some analyses and more. Importantly, the site also hosts videos of interviews with key Metelkova activists presenting different visions of Metelkova and its position vis-à-vis the city. Could be an interesting source for discussion in relation to the paper itself and the other resources.

http://metelkovamesto.org/
Metelkova’s own webpage could also be a useful resource, though most of it isn’t available in English. Either way, it’s nice to have the official web page with links to the varying collectives within Metelkova.

Thörn H, Wasshede C and Nilson T (eds) (2011) Space for Urban Alternatives? Christiania 1971-2011. Stockholm: Gidlunds Förlag (free to download at Gothenburg University’s Publications Electronic Archive: http://gupea.ub.gu.se/handle/2077/26558)
Ten scholars contribute to this volume, published in connection to Christiania’s 40th anniversary as a free space. The book brings perspectives from various disciplines such as sociology, anthropology, history, art, geography, political science and landscape architecture.

Thörn H (2012) In between social engineering and gentrification: Urban restructuring, social movements, and the place politics of open space. Journal of Urban Affairs 34(2):153-168
With an emphasis on the interplay between structural context and urban mobilisation, this article provides an example of how to compare autonomous spaces by identifying a set of significant similarities and differences.