Interview with Teja Reba, Artistic Director of the Ljubljana – European Capital of Culture 2025 project

9. 10. 2020

Teja v2

“We Have to Do Our Best to Bring Back the Public”

One of the most prominent Slovenian artists, Teja Reba has studied and worked in France, Germany, Japan, India and Brazil. Since 2016, she has been Programme Director of the City of Women. This year’s festival, which is currently underway in Ljubljana, is the last edition she is coordinating, as another important assignment awaits – artistic direction of Ljubljana – European Capital of Culture 2025.

You are the artistic director for Ljubljana’s bid for the ECoC 2025 title. How did you approach the creation of the programme and what did you focus on?

Our vision for the programme is centred on the culture of coexistence, cooperation and diversity, with a particular focus on environmental and digital justice as well as gender equality. We’re focusing on community processes and projects that bring us together, seeking a harmonic coexistence between culture, science, welfare and the private sector, fostering interdisciplinary dialogue and encouraging collaborations which are essential for the development of a vision for the future of our city, region, country and Europe as a whole. What kind of future do we want? ECoC offers us an opportunity to use culture and art to pose important questions. This is what we call solidarity.

As I’m planning the programme, the first question I ask myself is thus: what is our problem and what is our goal? Our goal is to make culture the priority of all public policies of the city, as we believe culture can offer fundamental answers to challenges related to welfare, spatial issues, politics, the economy, the environment, employment, as well as housing. What that means is that we’re looking for, supporting and creating projects that operate at these intersections. However, as these challenges aren’t ours alone, ECoC offers us an opportunity to reflect on innovative solutions in collaboration with other European cities, international partners and citizens of Europe.

Does that mean that, should Ljubljana receive the ECoC 2025 title and thus realize the programme, this will also affect the city’s region and the country as a whole?

A programme is always founded upon the community, culture, heritage and history of its area, taking advantage of its geographic realities, its unique circumstances and advantages. In this sense, Ljubljana has much to offer. However, the key to our bid is that we’re competing as the Ljubljana Urban Region, i.e. with the support of 25 other municipalities. We have great hopes for this, the project is development-oriented, aiming to transform the whole region, reverse migration flows from the centre to the surrounding region, facilitate the establishment of new creative centres and creation of new jobs, and to connect natural and cultural heritage with innovative contemporary practices that will attract a different class of tourists, one that I like to call “temporary inhabitants”. We believe we can endow the whole region with a new cultural identity, while being aware that Ljubljana will have to play a key role with regard to national culture; this much has become clear after March 2020 and the shocks experienced by the culture industry.

To what extent did the Covid-19 pandemic inform the artistic programme of LJ 2025? What can we do about the security of the arts and artists in the future?

In the words of Manca G. Renko, my colleague from the bid team: not only has our concept changed between the pre-selection and selection stages of ECoC 2025 – the world has changed as well. I don’t have answers as to how we’re going to live, create, meet, learn, or even survive; I do know, however, that safety and security are essential to the creation and preservation of a society of peace, basic well-being and a sense of belonging. I associate such security with universal basic income, universal housing, healthy food and forests, community centres and a functioning public sector.

On the other hand, security in this sense certainly has nothing to do with arms purchases, direction of public funds into private pockets, instigation of hatred towards those who are different, or thoughts about withdrawing from the Istanbul Convention. As with the right to freedom, people have fought for and won the right to security throughout history. These are important advances of civilization. In this time of new normalcy, we thus have to work towards new such advances, not to so-called laws of nature. Art, which has always been a part of who we are, cannot be a mere afterthought – it must remain an integral part of us and of our society. Most importantly though, art is contemporary, changing as we are – the more diverse our communities, the more diversity we see in art, i.e. art is manifold rather than singular. Politicians have no business judging what is or isn’t art. Politicians should instead be worried if art is dying, as that would mean humanity is dying as well. They should thus make sure that artists will continue to be able to do their jobs.

You have a lot of international experience, both as an artist and as head of international projects. Can we look to foreign cultural production models as an example? How do Slovenia and Ljubljana compare?

I’ve spent almost half my life abroad and I place Ljubljana high on my scale. In terms of the number of projects that receive support from the European Commission, Ljubljana-based producers rank among Europe’s best. This is especially true for NGOs, which have been developing extremely compelling projects and production models, however, despite their great results, there’s still a huge difference between the funding received by NGOs and that received by the public sector, both at local and national levels. The artistic quality of our artists is exceptional as well but remains inadequately exploited; we’re far behind in terms of support for independent artists – e.g. multi-year financing, which is standard practice elsewhere, doesn’t exist in Slovenia. Which means there’s a lot of room for improvement, particularly in the field of cultural policy – this is also evidenced by the newly adopted cultural strategy of the City of Ljubljana.

How do you balance your creative work and the planning of such a high-level programme?

When I assumed the position of Programme Director of the City of Women, my creative work ground to a halt. There was a lot I had to learn, and the vision I had for the City of Women was too ambitious to leave me with time to develop my own art projects. Five years later, I’m leaving the City of Women extremely satisfied, as we have accomplished most of our objectives. One, however, where we have failed, is a reduction of working hours. In that respect, I’d really crashed and burned, as the hours have only gotten longer. In arts and culture, the attitude towards work is pretty complicated, as those of us who persist generally love what we do. We’re financially insecure and sensitive towards social inequality, which means we’re susceptible to attrition.

What do you think is the key to creating a solid vision for a programme or cultural policy in general?

 I’d like to invite everybody involved with the planning of public policy and public programmes to take to the field, to go among people, particularly those who live in environments different from ours. Large-scale plans developed without a familiarity with the realities of people’s everyday lives and with the difficulties and challenges they face, as well as with the diversity of people’s personal circumstances cannot lead to a public result – instead, we remain at the level of personal, theoretical or political convictions. In this sense, we’re living through a crisis of the public. We have to do our utmost to bring back the public.

Ana Schnabl

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