Sz. Berlin - Alexei Monroe: Reconciliation and synthesis

Preliminary findings of an investigation into the condition of Nova Gorica

To ‘be modern’ means to modernize – compulsively, obsessively; not so much just ‘to be’, let alone to keep its identity intact, but forever ‘becoming’, avoiding comple-tion, staying underdefined.”

― Zygmunt Bauman

Too new. Too dispersed. Unfinished. Unclear. Conflicting layers. Neglect. Abandonment. Fragmentation. Dispersal. The failure, shrinkage or atrophy of grand visions. For an artist these frequently expressed negative assessments of Nova Gorica (and similar places) can be sources of inspiration which can be transmuted, and Sz. Berlin’s codification of the technique of “dissonant synthesis” has emerged directly from some of these themes.

Yet for a writer the situation is more complex. The task is to gather and work through such a complex of contradictions, but the city resists the creation of a single stable interpretation. It has other ideas, though perhaps it cannot or is not fully interested in, or capable of, articulating them.

Nova Gorica’s symbol is a kitschily stylised rose, but the rose is a much more ambivalent signifier than is generally understood. German poet Hilde Domin expresses this well in her poem Nur eine Rose als Stütze. In the verse she reaches out for something solid, but finds “only” a rose as support, and to grasp a rose carelessly can be painful. Rainer Maria Rilke’s epitaph also famously described a rose as a “pure contradiction”, a verse that seems very apt in this modernist city of roses.

Perhaps it is not “a” city at all, but a series of contradictory, conflicting series of sub-,semi-, crypto- and pseudo cities. As an ex-Londoner, I am very familiar with the lived experience of parallel subcities and suburbs competing with each other, but to encounter this volatile plurality in a “new” city is surprising. It has even been said to me that this disruptive, fractured identity is what defines the place.

In Baumann’s terms, it is a “liquid” city that no one can clearly or consistently define (even experts have conflicting and sometimes conflicting interpretations). As Simon Kerševan and others stress, it is probably too young or unfinished to have a stable identity. Even though parts have already fallen into dereliction, it’s still in formative flux. In geological terms the plates have shifted, but the magma is still cooling, and fault lines can be seen at street level.

Architecturally, it has a solid presence but can be curiously transparent and intangible. It is hard for a critical consensus to cohere around it. On the one hand are the maximalists, loyal to the ideals of Ravnikar (and before him Corbusier and Maks Fabiani). For them, Nova Gorica’s unfinished and partly realised nature is a “tragedy of Slovene urbanism” in Vinko Torkar’s striking phrase. There were too many cuts, too many aesthetic and functional compromises. The built result is a shadow of what the city might have been. Instinctively and aesthetically I partly sympathise with this view, but this is the luxury of an outside perspective, and is contradicted by much of what I have seen and heard. I would not have had to live with the consequences of a totally uncompromising new city directed from the centre without local involvement. The colossal historical “what if?” of a sprawling Primorskan equivalent of Novi Zagreb is intriguing, but would inevitably have brought its own set of issues and disturbances, as well as possibilities.

Perhaps we are almost at the technological point when such what ifs could be simulated and their possible consequences accurately calculated, showing us how an unconstrained and uncompromised “Ultra Gorica” might have looked. We might even be able to inhabit it virtually. It would be built not with brigades of pioneers and prisoners of war, but with a vast army of virtual code shock workers. Given what we now know about both the ecological consequences of concrete production and the demolition of large concrete structures, perhaps the creation of virtual maximal architectural utopias is a way forward that avoids the contradictions and failures of much “actually existing” architecture (no matter how utopian the intentions behind it). Even with an awareness of all these factors, as Nataša Kolenc noted, the gravitational-aesthetic pull of the unbuilt remains strong. The metaphorical shadows cast by the city’s unbuilt structures sometimes overshadow or dwarf the built present.

Mostly at the periphery, but sometimes at the heart of the city, abrupt gaps and discontinuities break the rhythm of the city. This disruptiveness infiltrated and structured the glitchy aesthetic produced by Sz. Berlin for the project Sprava in sinteza. The title is derived from Vladimir Kulić's definition of Ravnikar's “strategy of reconciliation and synthesis”.

In both its ruined state, and its prestigious past, the ruined Ideal factory casts a shadow. The memory of its achievements acts as a rebuke to a shrunken present often lacking the type of vision and ambition that produced it. As a ruin that plays the role of the city’s “heart of darkness”, it shines darkly, in a tragic contrast to the way in which the city was intended to shine across the border.

This (anti)-Ideal threshold location shines across the border between life and death, past and present. Together with vulgar commercial architecture, its disrepair threatens the city’s “identity of modernity”, which Maja Šinigoj claims is ultimately the only identity that people of the city have (even if many of them are indifferent to it). It seems like a warning to the city to remember that without its past future it is mortal.

Sprava in sinteza is perhaps both an elite and a popular modernist project. From a populist perspective, it is a return to the (allegedly) elitist idealism of the city’s visionary initiators. Yet it also attempts to reconnect with and summon the spirits of late 20th century “popular modernism” that Mark Fisher described in the context of postwar Britain (which had its Yugoslav equivalents).

This echoes a remark made to me by Saša Dobričič, who – paraphrasing Ennio Flaiano – stated that due to her distrust of the future, her optimism can only be built upon or located in the collective past and that accessing the city’s past is the only way to positively shape the future.

From the perspective of both writer and artist, this optimistic summoning seems necessary because of a curious absence – or void – in the city’s popular culture. While it’s true that in the current neofeudal era, popular modernism is mainly present in spectral, nostalgic forms, in Nova Gorica even this seems absent. There seems never to have been an equivalent to the sonic futurism that was heard in British New Towns such as Basildon (home of Depeche Mode) or the futuristic bleep techno that emerged against the backdrop of Sheffield’s brutalist blocks. Even Nova Gorica’s most radical architecture never inspired any popular futurist response. Rock, metal and hardcore punk prevail here and I suspected from the outset that this was a kind of reaction to the city’s architectural hypermodernity. If so, it is symptomatic of the type of “Future Shock” already diagnosed by Alvin Toffler in 1970 , which I have argued was also present in Yugoslavia.

Maja Šinigoj agrees with this diagnosis and observes that “if you have a town without tradition, people try to put tradition first … therefore, the modern concept of a city collapsed soon”. Similarly, Nataša Kolenc observes that “we [the general city population] don’t see the good in it”, however the ECOC project may help remedy this situation. Perhaps this text and exhibition can also contribute to reilluminating or recovering the popular modernist ideals that are literally built into the city. Even at its most dissonant and “Gothic” moments, the artwork is created in a constructive spirit and despite its contradictions, the artistic encounter with the city and has generated a new and colourful optimism, taking Sz. Berlin into a futuristic space it has never previously entered. The default artistic stance has shifted from a commentary on what Mark Fisher infamously described as our era’s “slow cancellation of the future”, to an active defiance of these future cancelling forces, powered by future-constructing visions from decades ago (however compromised and flawed some of them may have been in practice). Roofs may have leaked, but for some, spirits would have soared in the thrilling encounter with the “white heat” of Nova Gorica’s newly built futures.

For some, it is easy to accept the cliched populist narrative of a soulless and ugly place that its inhabitants could never take pride in. The accusation of soullessness so frequently and lazily levelled at modern cities was denied by those I spoke to, but there was less consensus about where it was to be found and what shapes it assumes under which conditions. The city’s soul appears thorny but intriguing, concrete and transparent, nomadic and fixed. It would probably be more accurate to speak of souls in the plural number, sometimes hiding, sometimes emerging, sometimes cooperating and sometimes fighting each other for control.

A compromised and disputed built future is easy to take for granted, especially as it ages and metaphorical cracks and weeds appear (although the city is generally much better maintained than some other new postwar cities). Just as the achievement of building a new border city shouldn’t be overlooked, nor should the factors that produced its discontinuities and glitches: constant shifts in political leadership and administrative structures; the financial crises that badly skewed its early development; the neglect of a peripheral location by governments first in Belgrade and then in Ljubljana; the loss of momentum as Nova Gorica shifted from being a prestige ideological project to an “actually existing” city whose population had day-to-day needs that needed to be addressed urgently, the “amateurs” in the city administration that Tomaž Vuga recalls battling with, and many more.

In the discussions which informed this project, the balance was constantly and subtly shifting between the negative assessments mentioned at the start of the text, and more positive assessments. Kolenc emphasises that Nova Gorica is “a good place to be experimental” but traces a regional avantgarde tendency back as far as Maks Fabiani’s 1917 reconstruction plans, intended to encompass the area from the Alps to the Sea and “to prepare it for the future”.

This text and the creative work that it accompanies, is written in a similar spirit. With an awareness of the conflicts and compromises but also an awareness of the opportunities that this unique place could still provide, both for its population and for creative wanderers who stop in the city long enough to encounter its essence and work through it, also letting it work through them. It is also written with great respect for many of the city's concrete and undeniable achievements, and for all who contributed to these. An unfinished city that retains its potential for experimentation seems to demand an unfinished and experimental text. Therefore, I leave undeveloped space on which the answers to these questions might be constructed.

What is and will be the future of Nova Gorican futurism and experimentation?

Alexei Monroe

Author: Sz. Berlin

Alexei Monroe - Sz. Berlin

Alexei Monroe (1969) is an Istrian-based cultural theorist, photographer (cdx-foto) and sound/visual artist (Sz. Berlin). He is Research Fellow at Burren College of Art, Ireland. He is an expert on industrial music and culture, known for his long-term research and books on Laibach/NSK and Autopsia. He edited and co-edited books on NSK State and British industrial group Test Dept., and has published many articles and reviews on industrial and electronic music. He has organised academic events on Laibach/NSK in Slovenia, Germany and London. Another key research interest is architecture and Brutalism, and he has worked with the Nonument project in Ljubljana.

As Sz. Berlin, he has performed and exhibited at events including Time Machine Biennial, 2nd NSK State Folk Art Biennale, Primal Uproar Hamburg, R.o.R. Festival Nova Gorica, Bruital Uproar Berlin. Sz. Berlin’s analytical approach has explored subjects including including East German, Yugoslav, Irish and German history, as well as technical and architectural subjects, including Brutalism and infrastructure (cranes, railways, shipping). The first Sz. Berlin solo exhibition, Disposizione Schematica opened at DKC Lamparna, Labin in December 2022.

The project is co-financed by the public institute GO! 2025 – European Capital of Culture, Nova Gorica.

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