“ECoC Means to Receive and to Give” Interview with Renata Zamida, acting General Director of ECoC Ljubljana 202514. 12. 2020
Foto: Mateja Jordović Potočnik
Former Director of Slovenian Book Agency Renata Zamida is one of the top cultural managers in Slovenia. A graduate of journalism, philosophy and general linguistics, as well as a fashionista, according to Petra Hardt, a former literary agent at Suhrkamp, a major German publishing house. Zamida has helped Slovenia become the guest of honour at Frankfurt and Bologna book fairs and has thus put Slovenian literature on the map of Europe. She is currently working as acting General Director of ECoC Ljubljana 2025 and will continue to do so until the eventual competition for this post if Ljubljana receives the ECoC title.
As we’re having this talk, the committee hasn’t announced its decision yet. However, I’m interested in how you’re preparing for your eventual appointment. In other words: how are you handling the stress?
The final stage, just before the results are announced, is always a tense period, even more so in the case of ECoC, where it’s not enough to create and submit a bid book – you also have to defend it successfully, firstly during the panel’s visit and secondly in the form of a formal defence. I readily admit that both are quite stressful, particularly as they occur in quick succession with just a few days in between. The stress also comes from two further factors: firstly, the epidemiological situation has changed the process profoundly – both the visit and the defence are being conducted virtually, which is demanding both in terms of technology and in terms of content and has required a number of adaptations. And secondly, I’ve joined the team during the second stage of the bid and have thus mostly been busy dealing with the management model, which is of great importance for every ECoC.
In your career you’ve touched on the majority of aspects of cultural management and have from the very beginning focused on international activities, primarily on representing Slovenian literature abroad. How have the global perception and reception of Slovenian literature changed during your engagement in this area?
Slovenian literature has always been considered a literature for connoisseurs, a well-kept secret … Which is nice but doesn’t result in the recognition and standing that our literature deserves. Just a couple of days ago, I listened to a lecture by an Irish researcher and writer who said that Slovenian literature often seemed to him like an “inside joke” – understandable only to those in the know, i.e. to Slovenian readers. I’ve spent a number of years promoting Slovenian literature as a whole, dealing with issues that transcend the recognition of individual authors – which requires a different approach; that is, I’ve been trying to improve the international standing and recognition of Slovenian literature in general, which is a process that cannot take place overnight. However, I believe that we’ve managed to open many new doors and break the ice; after all, being named the guest of honour at the Frankfurt Book Fair is certainly not something to be taken for granted.
Let me ask you a question that might seem naïve: What are you primarily focused on when you’re establishing and maintaining international ties?
On personal contact. Even globally, the book scene is quite manageable, we’re talking about a couple of hundreds of people who truly count in this area and an even smaller number of people, opinion-makers, deciders, who can really make things move and create new trends. So it’s all about socializing, networking, making friends, giving oneself away – as well as giving all that Slovenia has to offer. That’s what counts, those are the kind of ties that remain and are much more meaningful than occasional business card exchanges.
ECoC is even more complex than e.g. the guest of honour project at the Frankfurt Book Fair as it involves collaboration with organizations and individuals operating in a variety of cultural and artistic fields. What will be crucial for a successful implementation?
First and foremost, one needs focus. Focus and mindfulness are crucial if one doesn’t want to let the reins slip and things to get watered down. As well as balancing various expectations, demands, including those of political decision-makers and those related to funding. Risk management is one of the most important aspects of a project such as this – a project involving a number of vertical layers: the city, the region (Ljubljana’s ECoC project involves 25 other municipalities as well), the country, the EU. As well as so-called disappointment management, as an experienced international cultural manager had recently brought to my attention. In short, it’s extremely important to be able to adapt to the many challenges that will surely follow, including managerial ones. There are no guarantees here.
ECoC is simultaneously a local, national and transnational project. How can one balance these three levels? To preserve openness to the world and still be able to sign it with “Regards, Ljubljana”? Is it all about the programme or maybe something else?
ECoC means to receive and to give. Mobility and networking at local, regional and international levels, exchanges, participatory practices, experimental considerations, etc. – these all inform the artistic, cultural, ideological programme of the capital of culture, and the programme’s message is certainly a crucial part of understanding and accepting everything bestowed by the title. Our running theme is solidarity, embodied by our slogan: Wireless!
You’re also familiar with good models of other ECoCs. Which cities would you like to point out in this regard and why?
The ECoC title has been awarded since 1985, and the model of the programme has changed a number of times since then, including in terms of aspects that were decisive for the selection of particular cities, which ranged from individual artists through European values to citizen and audience involvement, which currently seems to carry quite a lot of weight. To judge which capitals were successful, we thus also have to use the criteria that were at the forefront in that time. Speaking from personal experience, I still remember Graz, the Austrian ECoC of 2003, as I’m from Maribor and used to visit the city quite often by train with my friends as a teenager. I still consider what Graz had done (and the reception it achieved with the people) with its futuristic bubble on the Mura river a great accomplishment. During that time, Graz somehow became cosmopolitan, and we started going there for major exhibitions instead of just to shop at stores that weren’t present in Slovenia. And visits to Vienna became somewhat less necessary. I think Graz used the title as well as its heritage well.
I often hear that Ljubljana could become “Berlin”. What’s still keeping it from doing so in your opinion? Is the ECoC title the one chance?
Well, Berlin already was an ECoC, but as West Berlin, in the distant year of 1988. So – if Ljubljana wins the title, it will certainly make a step towards Berlin.
You’ll be heading, at least that’s what we’re hoping for, a team of teams, experts’ experts who have already created major things in Ljubljana or its region and whose reputation transcends Slovenian borders. Do you think it’s true that an exceptional director can only be such thanks to an exceptional team?
Think and act positive without making false promises – that’s the principle I’ve always adhered to. If you do so, you’ll be heard, appreciated and acknowledged. A leader is a team player who makes decisions at crucial moments and takes responsibility for these decisions. And that’s impossible without a reliable and dedicated team. In any case, Artistic Director Teja Reba is a great partner to work with. I’m sure our ECoC team will be diverse and international, for it’s always good to learn from others, to include a view from the outside.
What is it about the project that you’re looking forward to the most?
The challenge. And art, in all its forms.