The Metelkova Case: From Army Barracks to Museum of Contemporary Art

Bojana Piškur

When the Yugoslav People’s Army vacated the barracks at Metelkova in 1991, some of the space became available for contemporary art. But the emptied space had lost all of its previous performative functions. Instead it became “susceptible to being diverted, reappropriated and put to use quite differently from its initial one”,1 thereby enabling different configurations of forces, performative acts and social relations that called the future museum of contemporary art into being. Zdenka Badovinac has pointed out that it was the war in the former Yugoslavia and in the Balkans that marked the beginning of our contemporaneity. Similarly, it was the former military complex that marked the beginning of Moderna galerija’s Museum of Contemporary Art.

Metelkova, ex-army barracks, 1990s, Photo Matija Pavlovec, Courtesy Moderna galerija, Ljubljana

I would argue that what has given this space a specific meaning was neither its architectural frame, that is, its representational and ideological function, nor the notion of space as a “historical idea”. Instead I would like to call attention to various performative functions; performative acts and repetitions that have defined it, and vice versa. In performativity, as it is generally understood, repetitions through time play a vital role and are connected with the concept of identity. When something: a sentence, an utterance, an act, is repeated often enough, it gains power; it constructs an identity. For example, in communist Yugoslavia the slogan “Protect brotherhood and unity” became a kind of a performative speech act, where, according to J.L. Austin, to say something actually means an action has to be performed to realise its effect. The slogan “Protect brotherhood and unity” designated the official policy of ethnic relations in former Yugoslavia, and the authority behind the particular performative speech act was the Yugoslav People’s Army. Whenever the effect, i.e., the unity of the country was put into question, the sanctions that followed demanded an intervention. In the eighties, when the political situation changed, this normative ideology regained new performative functions and repetitions, which no longer demanded unity but instead, fragmentation of the country, leading to the breakup of Yugoslavia.

Similarly, the museum’s legitimation consists of those discourses that have the capacity to produce what they name. What they name are the works of art. And this is what performativity in an art context means: the way the identity of a work of art is constructed and invested within the art environment. This was the museum’s main objective until the second half of the twentieth century.

When we not only investigate conflictual acts, events, gestures, forms of behaviour, and affects, constituting so-called counter-knowledges within such performative environments, but also connecting them with the body, with desire, really interesting things emerge. What does this “counter-knowledge” do? Through it, identities, borders, disciplines, hegemonic narratives and automatic responses are being questioned and deconstructed, subsequently leading to the production of a different sort of space. Now, this contradictory new space is being produced out of differences that are found, for instance, in “lived bodily experiences”, “socio-spatial tactics” and “rhythmanalysis” and should be considered, as Henri Lefebvre pointed out, “with all the senses, with the total body” in order to become aware “of the conflicts at work within it”,2 or, more specifically, to become aware of the forces that demand its normalisation, its abstraction. In art, for example, once the particular environment recognises it, the difference between inside and outside cannot disappear again. In the context of the contemporary museum the repetitive acts that grant the artwork its identity are inevitably linked to the subversive repetitions that question that very same identity. Subversive repetitions may be seen as analogous to the Deleuzian model of time, where a repetition actually makes itself the form of time. It is this antagonistic relationship between repetitions-as-time and performativity that has legitimised the idea of contemporary art, and later on, that of the contemporary museum over the last fifty years.

The barracks on Metelkova Street were built between 1883 and 1895 for the Austro-Hungarian army. Michel de Certeau put it very precisely when he said that the tendency of functionalist totalitarianism was to erase everything that compromised the univocity of the system.3 Following his idea, the relationship between spatial practices and constructed order can be observed more clearly. The same logic could be discerned at the Metelkova complex. The formalised and strict architectural order of the military complex fostered authority, hierarchy, discipline and control [Figure 2]. All of these operations subsequently effected the routinization of human actions, efficiency, and disciplinary bodily activities; in other words, the construction of a “docile body”.

The regulated bodily acts and the repressions of desire that prevailed in these military spaces were an inevitable part of the “performative exercises of power”. In military barracks, any potentially dangerous or disturbing behaviour was sanctioned, life was strictly planned and regulated, and time was dictated and organised in schedules. In other words, “the space of a (social) order [was] hidden in the order of space”.4

Fig. 2: Blueprint of the Metelkova street army barracks, 1895, Courtesy Viljem Treo, Source: The Historical Archives Ljubljana

When the Yugoslav People’s Army moved in after the Second World War, it exercised its power precisely through these same regulated forms of behaviour, instrumental actions and punitive social conventions, outwardly manifested also in embodied performances such as military parades and other highly performative acts and spectacles. In order to impose an authoritarian order, these performative acts had to be repeated in time.

Fig. 3: Yugoslav People’s Army military parade. Source: YouTube
Fig. 3: Yugoslav People’s Army military parade. Source: YouTube

As previously mentioned, performative acts, which are inevitably linked to power, make us rethink the disciplinary boundaries not only of embodied behaviour in culturally restricted, regularized spaces but also of the counter - behaviour that occurs in those very same spaces.5

The first gesture of such rebellion is, as philosopher Mladen Dolar says, an “epistemological rupture, which establishes authority as an object”.6 The subversive acts then occur as interruptions disturbing the stability of the system, where the ideology of those in power is called into question and can therefore no longer be valid as such or taken for granted. Its performative power is lost forever.

Fig. 4: Tomislav Gotovac, Zagreb, I love you, performance, 1981. Photo Ivan Posavec, With permission of Sarah Gotovac

The list of various “subversions” in the context of the former Yugoslav People’s Army and the dominant ideology of that time is too long for the scope of this talk. But there were also cases where artistic subversions which could somehow be considered “events” disturbed the continuous linear time of the dominant ideology to such a degree as to enable the beginning of something different. Many such works are now part of the Moderna galerija’s collections. What makes all of this especially interesting is the antagonism between two environments / two spaces: one that banned subversive (artistic) expressions and persecuted their authors, and another that has recently, or to be more precise, since the beginning of our contemporaneity, included and conceptualized those expressions within the museum narrative.

In 1969 Želimir Žilnik filmed Early Works, which is set during the time of the student riots of 1968 in the former Yugoslavia and has four young people as the leading characters. They leave home and travel around the country looking for genuinely revolutionary socialism, with the intention of raising the workers’ and peasants’ revolutionary consciousness. But theirs is a mission that cannot be realised and the film endeavours to express this state of helplessness on the part of the revolutionaries who are trying to change society. Throughout the film, slogans such as “Down with the red bourgeoisie!” can be heard, although instead of performative utterances they can be interpreted as a mocking of the system. The film was banned.

Fig. 5: Film still of Želimir Žilnik, Early Works, 1969. With permission of Želimir Žilnik

In 1972 Karpo Godina made a short film, which was originally commissioned by the Yugoslav army as a propaganda film. Instead, the picture called On Love Skills was pacifistic and took the hippie maxim “Make love, not war” as its point of departure. Where the army repressed and encoded differences and desires, the film not only openly showed them but constituted a desire in itself.

It was an act of rebellion, a threat to the system, doubting the authoritarian ideology via embodied counter-behaviour, in the sense of Lefebvre who said, “Any revolutionary project, whether utopian or realistic, must make the reappropriation of the body, in the association with the reappropriation of space, into a non-negotiable part of its agenda”.7 All copies of the film were destroyed and Godina was forbidden to direct any new films for ten years.

Fig. 6: Film still of Karpo Godina, On Love Skills or Film With 14441 Frames. With permission of Karpo Godina

Fig. 6: Film still of Karpo Godina, On Love Skills or Film With 14441 Frames. With permission of Karpo Godina
Fig. 6: Film still of Karpo Godina, On Love Skills or Film With 14441 Frames. With permission of Karpo Godina

In his 1971 work Streaking, Tomislav Gotovac runs down the street in Belgrade naked shouting, “I am innocent!” Gotovac’s performances were embodied subversions par excellence of the existing socio-political order, where his naked and desiring body was the protagonist of the action. Such expressions were dangerous because they questioned the very system based on control and discipline, destroying the established culture of normality in a society that did not tolerate nonconformity and difference.

Fig. 7: Tomislav Gotovac, Streaking, 1971. With permission of Sarah Gotovac, Lazar Stojanović

In 1987, New Collectivism (or shortened, NK) took part in the visual design competition to commemorate The Day of Youth, May 25, President Tito’s birthday, which was one of the major performative acts/spectacles in the former Yugoslavia. NK won the competition, and the poster it designed was to be distributed and displayed all over the country. However, a striking similarity to Nazi artist Richard Klein’s painting was soon discovered in the design, only there, the Nazi symbols had been replaced by Yugoslav ones. The events led to the so-called Poster Scandal, embarrassing the “ideology of those in power”.8 In the proclamation that followed, NK stated that a political poster should have some disturbing appeal to the masses and that its slogan was humanistic propaganda. Tomaž Mastnak, a political philosopher, pointed out that the key moment of any social or political struggle was the outbreak of the “strange utterance”, leading to a restructuring of ideological speech. This was also the case with the Day of Youth poster.

Fig. 8: Newspaper clip from Politika, the Day of Youth poster, 1987

While the military complex in Metelkova corresponds to a repressive, dominant space legitimated by repetitive performative acts and “man’s servitude to quantified time”, the Museum of Contemporary Art Metelkova corresponds to the appropriated, differential space, or, to be more precise, to an ideal/utopian projection of that space, which Michel Foucault would have called heterotopia.9 Why so? Because the fact is that there are various frictions at work: not only antagonism between the forces of domination and differentiation, but also between abstract space and the space of lived experiences, of the in-time, which demands of us an answer to the question of how to preserve human temporality and its “pure historical essence”. When back in the early 1990s the Moderna galerija acquired a building at the southern end of Metelkova, a new kind of museum model had been envisioned, a future model which would foster a relationship to those practices from the 1960s onwards in which artists would manipulate time in a variety of ways, not only in order to become historians of their own time but to challenge dominant, ideological time. For this to be possible, what was needed was “not a new chronology but a qualitative alteration of time”10 with, as Giorgio Agamben might have said, an authentic history. So it is actually the antagonistic relationship between the “liberating time” of authentic history and the “continuous linear time” of dominant ideology, or between repetitions-as-time and performativity, that defines our idea of both contemporary art and the contemporary museum.

Fig. 9: Museum of Contemporary Art Metelkova, 2011. Photo Ana Mizerit

The text was originally commissioned by CIMAM, International Committee of ICOM for Museums and Collections of Modern Art, and presented at CIMAM's 2011 Annual Conference ‘Museums and the City’ that was held in Ljubljana, Zagreb and Sarajevo from November 14 to 17, 2011 in collaboration with Moderna galerija, Muzej suvremene umjetnosti MSU and Ars Aevi. Please find complete CIMAM publications at

  • 1. Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space (Blackwell, original French edition 1974, English reprint 1999), 167.
  • 2. Ibid., 391.
  • 3. See Michel de Certeau, “Walking in the City”, in the Practice of Everyday Life (University of California Press, 1988).
  • 4. Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space (Blackwell, original French edition 1974, English reprint 1999), 289.
  • 5. See Diana Taylor, “Acts of Transfer”, in: The Archive and the Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas (Durham: Duke UP, 2003), at, accessed 16 Sept. 2011.
  • 6. Mladen Dolar, Odsekati kralju glavo (Ljubljana: Založba Krtina, 2009), 100.
  • 7. Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space (Blackwell, original French edition 1974, English reprint 1999), 166–167.
  • 8. Rastko Močnik, “Demokratične sile in poskus vpeljave izjemnega stanja”, in Mladina (Ljubljana: 27 March 1987), 8.
  • 9. Michel Foucault elaborated the concept of heterotopia in his text Of Other Spaces. Foucault spoke about various heterotopias; in the text I refer to heterotopia in the sense that several different spaces can be juxtaposed. I also refer to heterotopia as being an effectively realized utopia.
  • 10. Giorgio Agamben, Infancy and History, On the Destruction of Experience (Verso: London-New York, 2007 (first ed. 1978)), 115.