Episode 5: Versed in Democracy | Ljubljana, Slovenia
Today we talk with Anja Zag Golob, a fierce voice in a movement to protect cultural and democratic rights in Slovenia. Anja is often described as a rising star of European poetry, winning awards such as the Jenko Poetry Prize for best Slovene Poetry Collection and the 2020 Kritiško sito award for best Slovene book. Anja also participated in the Culture Action Europe project, “Amplify: Make the Future of Europe Yours,” collaborating with fellow artists and cultural workers to demand more for the cultural sector in Slovenia and across Europe. Ahead of the upcoming national elections in Slovenia this Sunday [24 April, 2022], Anja reflects on how the Slovenian arts and cultural sector has been impacted in the previous two years and the work that lies ahead for both artists and politicians.
Why is this upcoming election particularly significant?
It’s probably one of the most important elections since our Independence. Most importantly, in Slovenia, in 2019, at the same time as Covid started, the government fell…This new government then ruled for a little more than 2 years. We were faced with various issues…and you could see the erosion of democratic standards. It was palpable in society.
Anja says that one of the biggest things she is most shocked about is how the current government, led by Prime Minister Janez Jansa, has created distrust and divisiveness between citizens. She talks about how people at the community level have started to communicate and interact with each other differently; linking this change in attitude and trust to the way that the right-wing party has shaped their narrative over the past two years.
We could see Twitter democracy and attacks on media. We saw the lowest government representatives could go. It’s very hard to have a dialogue. These two years made it very hard to cohabitate among others in Slovenia.
In addition to Jansa’s attacks on Slovenian media outlets, he has also replaced the directors of some of Slovenia’s most important museums, including the National Museum and the Museum of Contemporary History, leaving artists and cultural workers to look at these changes as a way for the government to control the museums and cultural work into more conservative and nationalist directions. This anger from the cultural sector has been strengthened after the ministry of culture under Jansa terminated the leases of a number of arts and community organisations, targeting spaces that have a legacy for holding public dialogue and supporting independent artists.
There is a building in Metelkova 6 in Ljubljana that, since Slovenian independence, has been a public initiative for independent arts and organisations. There is one building of offices for independent organisations. This building came under attack because the prime minister wanted to put a new museum there, where there are already 20 organisations housed.
Anja also talks about the issue of access to voting for many Slovenians, especially for those currently living abroad. This year, the voting commission of the country issued over 100,000 ballots outside of the country. Of the voters registered to vote in this upcoming election, about 5% of the voting body is comprised of Slovenians currently outside of the country. The fear has not only been about waiting for the ballots to arrive in the mail, but also the concern if they will even be able to get them back in time to be counted. Anja, currently in Austria for an artist residency, is one of the many Slovenians concerned about the handling of the election process itself.
I already wrote to the commission proposing thy prolong the time to receive ballots, but this year it won’t be possible. I made a public appeal on Facebook for the next Parliament to address this issue and change this part of voting legislation to make it possible for people who are abroad to have their constitutional rights.
© Anja Golob
Aus: VESA V ZGIBI
Ljubljana: Mladinska knjiga, 2013
Audioproduktion: Literaturwerkstatt Berlin, 2015
Translated by Tadeja Spruk
What is the current state of culture, politically, in Slovenia?
I am extremely worried because under the last minister for culture put to work by this right-wing government, we’ve seen cultural politics deteriorating. They always say there is more money for culture, which, of course, is because we are pumping out money that we will all have to pay back. The problem is that the money is not being dispersed as it should be in order for it to be properly used.
Anja goes on to talk about the situation for independent cultural workers, outlining the mounting difficulties for those in the sector to continue working under an independent status. Anja, who also holds an independent status, describes that the process for re-applying as an independent cultural worker has become increasingly difficult, leaving many artists to either pay out of pocket for their own benefits or find work outside of the sector.
It gives you the feeling that this is being done deliberately or in negligence. There are close to 3000 people that have this status, but they cannot be employed otherwise. I am a poet. I cannot be employed as a poet. I have the status to be able to work. But of course every 5 years I must prove that I am still worthy of the status and if I can’t, then it is taken away from me. Someone from the ministry has said that this is a gift. It’s not a gift. It’s something that we work very hard for. I know a lot of people that changed from working in culture to working in other fields, especially after covid when so many artists couldn’t perform or go to readings.
This type of strong-arming is found across sectors. Anja is also a columnist for a Solevnian press agency and says that in January of last year, new leadership in national television and radio decided not to renew the contracts of Anja and her 5 other colleagues. They claimed that this was a saving measure (even though there was a simultaneous call for new journalists) which prompted them to move forward and carry out their work pro-bono. However, even with their bold efforts, leadership still decided to scrap the whole show entirely this March, one month before the national elections.
How do you see that there will be changes after the elections, especially for the cultural sector?
The changes will not magically happen. People will come to power. Whoever is elected, this is not something that will just happen. It’s very important to understand that the past two years have been a lesson that we need to remember in our daily lives moving forward. It was a good showcase of how not to do things. This is something we need to envision as we start to rebuild the country and different sectors. We don’t only have culture in ruins. We have public health and education in ruins. We have a huge debt. Young people are leaving the country because they can’t start their lives there. The rent is too high. It’s not just a problem of culture, but about how to reapproach change.
In what ways do you see people being part of this change?
We need to put this work on ourselves. The way we communicate needs to change. The way we see ourselves as people, as folk, needs to change. We need to become active. For 2 years we had a protest on bikes every Friday. People took this work upon themselves. We have to follow. It should become the norm for how we think and rethink ourselves as citizens in the country.
Another one of Anja’s key focuses is the publishing house, VigeVageKnjige. With Anja as the co-founder and editor-in-chief, the publishing house focuses on raising awareness about graphic novels in Slovenia. She says it’s important to deal with the prejudice that the graphic novel genre faces in the literary world. The publishing house tries to lead by example by publishing books that demonstrate why these books are significant pieces of literature or why they should have a place in school curriculums. The publishing house also raises awareness about how to read them and takes into consideration that most people have not had the opportunity to come into contact with graphic novels. Anja also talks about how many children stop reading or writing as they get older, choosing to take their interest with phones and computers. She sees graphic novels or comics as a bridge for children who are not reading to enhance their literary interest and allow them to find different ways to engage. Because of this, VVK is very careful with language and grammar and how they are translated, taking care to edit them at least 4 times before they go to print. Anja believes it’s important to be a leader as an independent publishing house in the industry, especially around issues such as how contracts are signed, how workers’ rights are treated, and how translators and authors’ works are valued. She gives a bit of background of the publishing house, as well as their experiences with EU funding schemes.
I’ve been there as editor-in-chief since 2014. At first, we didn’t have any co-funding from the country so at first, it was just us. Of course, this wasn’t enough for us to grow bigger. We tried to apply for European funds. Both times we were rejected because we didn’t get enough points. But we didn’t get enough points because it was impossible to get enough points. At the time, the European Literature Award could give you more points if you chose their books to include in their program. The problem was that we couldn’t choose any of those books because none of them were graphic novels. In the same call, the graphic novel was identified as a genre that was endangered. But yet it still wasn’t possible to get the grant if you were specialising in graphic novels. If this is a mechanism to use in order to turn away people who cannot even apply for available grants, then this is an issue.
Tell me more about how you make graphic novels accessible to both children and adults across Slovenia?
I think it’s important that people and children who cannot buy books have the chance to read thm. The Slovene library system is one of the best things in Slovenia. That’s why it’s important for the publishing books that are books are available there, so people who cannot buy them can also borrow them. We figured out that sometimes the shelves for graphic novels and comics in libraries are often located in places like basements or near bathrooms. We are working to get them more upfront.
When you publish a book in Slovenia, you need to get a number in order to put it in the system for libraries to use to shelf books. We have always had the comic number, but we asked if we could also get a number for literature. So we now have two numbers so people in libraries can also put the books in the literature section and more people have a chance of seeing them. This is a small thing that happens behind the scenes, but it’s really important.
As Anja and thousands of other Slovenians await the results of the election on Sunday, she takes inspiration from her current writing residency, reflecting on the freedom and growth that comes from being allowed to take creative risks and being given the liberty to fail. She says that artists and cultural workers need the space to investigate the realm of possibility for themselves, their work and the wider cultural sphere.
There’s no time to be bored. There’s no time to be lonely. There’s no time to try and fail. And these things are vital for art. Of course, I must prove that what I do is ok. There must be standards. But after I prove this and after others prove this, this possibility has to be a standard. If it can happen in Austria where I am at the moment [for an artist residency] then it should also be possible for Slovenia. I don’t see why not.
Under the coordination of the organisation Motovila, Anja participated, alongside other cultural agents in Slovenia, in the Amplify project. You can read their contribution to the Conference on the Future of Europe here.