When I was told about an abandoned bicycle factory turned artistic squat in Ljubljana, you bet I was going to visit. Tovarna Rog, autonomous commune and personas non gratis to the local Government was bizarre, beautiful, and totally captivating.
When I first arrived in Ljubljana, I skyped my grandparents, who at eighty (and then some) have never left Australia. Much of their analysis of the world comes from two sources: me, and slightly hysterical news outlets. The latter apparently had a fairly grim (and erroneous, may I add) view of the former Yugoslavia.
“Well, have fun, but don’t go to anywhere you shouldn’t,” they pleaded, hopefully, but with a look that said they were resigned to me going to places they thought that I shouldn’t.
Several hours later, I was surrounded by severed dolls heads and signs that promised the post-climate change apocalpytic revolution was upon us. Was this the kind of place my grandparents warned me about? I wondered.
Despite realising that, yes, indeed, this was exactly the kind of places they’d hoped I’d avoid, I pushed open the door. Moments later I was in conversation with the residents of Tovarna Rog, community space in Ljubljana, that’s either “controversial” or “beloved”, depending who you speak to.
I’d like to tell you that I’m one of those effortlessly cool people who easily strikes up conversation. Alas, this is not the case. I’m awkward at the best of times; let alone when I’m not entirely sure I’m supposed to be somewhere and a gentleman in a tattered steampunk outfit beckons me over with a stern face and crooked finger.
Obligingly, I walked up to him and the roughly spray painted sign on the ground, which stated WELCOME TO THE RE-EDUCATION CAMP.
“You can come in.” He said, gruff but not unwelcoming, and pointed inside a building that had definitely seen better days. Trying (unsuccessfully) to hide how incredibly out of place I felt, I nodded sheepishly and stepped on in.
The first thing I noticed was a bookshelf. Like the socially awkward introvert I am, I immediately beelined for the comfot of cardboard covers and words on a page. Feminist texts, climate change science and anarchistic philosophy reigned supreme. Most of this, I could get behind.
After spending an inordinate amount of time pretending to be utterly engrossed in the books, I worked up the courage to start a conversation. My shy greeting was returned, to my surprise, by a clipped English accent asking me where I was from.
A short conversation followed. Brexit was discussed – because I am hopeless at avoiding controversy – but I was told that he wasn’t really following it.
“Anyway, feel free to have a look around. You’re welcome anywhere that the door is open. Oh and get some food if you want it.” He said.
I thanked him. “The sign said to donate if you want to take pictures?”
He looked confused, and I pointed to my massive DSLR. A look of some recognition appeared. “Oh, yeah. We have a tin. Let me find it.” He started poking around a cupboard filled with an assortment of crockery, cans and unidentified metal objects until something that vaguely resembled a donation tin appeared.
I dropped 10 euro in and told him to keep up the good fight. Although I still wasn’t really sure what that fight was. Perhaps the fight just to be yourself.
With that I was again left to my own devices, to wander around Tovarna Rog. Now, however, having got the nod of approval from someone who seemed to have authority, I walked with confidence.
Tovarna Rog: an Introduction
I spent the next hour or so equal parts fascinated and bewildered by Rog. The brutish, unapologetic name is perfect for the abandoned factory-turned-squat/art space, but it’s really a happy accident.
The name was first given to a popular style of bicycle that was produced in the Ljubljana factory from approximately 1947 to the fall of Yugoslavia in the mid-1990s. After the bikes moved out, the factory was abandoned and slowly began to crumble over a decade and a half.
In around 2006, a group of students/artists/people-who-give-conservatives-nightmares arrived and took over the space. Some say the Ljubljana local council consented; if that’s true, it has since been revoked. At any rate, the space was totally transformed.
Rog, at first glance, looks a little like something out of Mad Max; a dream for lovers of street art. Walking through the levels of the abandoned factory is like walking through a dizzying dream of colours, figures, symbols, shapes and phrases.
Greta Thunberg features on one wall, while discarded and headless mannequins are suspended from a ceiling nearby. A pile of dust-covered videotapes have rather eyebrow-raising titles, while political slogans are sprawled madly in venomous colours.
However, if you bother to peer even slightly past the debaucherous facade, you’ll find a community-minded organisation. A soup kitchen exists to hand out food to the needy. A skate park gives young people in Ljubljana a place to hang out. Artists are in residence, creating art from the beautiful to the downright bizarre (and usually both).
A makeshift community space hosts thinkers and philosophers offering up all kinds of ideas. It was filled with flyers and hand-outs, calls to action from activists around the world.
Then, yes, there’s the underground raves. Because you can’t tackle rampant over-capitalism without taking the odd party break.
I’m sure my parents will be pleased to hear I didn’t leave Rog with any intention of joining an autonomous commune. However, I did leave with a sense of admiration for those who are happy to give the middle finger to the profit-seeking society as we know it, and do things on their own terms.
All while creating some pretty damn fascinating art, and doing their best to bring everyone along for the ride.
Oh yeah, Rog also turned me into a massive poser. But seriously, this place kinda made me feel like Kate Moss circa 1997.
Visiting Tovarna Rog
In recent years, Ljubljana Council has been pretty clear: they want Rog out, with a view to turn it into a less autonomous, more regulated community space. Although in the past there’s been a degree of mutual co-operation, things seem to have gone south in recent years.
Importantly, I understand that in June 2019, the council won a court battle which basically gives them the right to evict Rog at any moment.
This means if you do want to visit Rog, it’s best to do it soon. It’s hard to know when or if Rog will be permanently closed down – arguably another victim to big cities’ love of ‘gentrification’ – but it’s certainly on the cards.
For now, you’re welcome to visit. As I mentioned, it’s a slightly disorientating experience – don’t expect a “you are here!” map or tour guide. However, it is a fascinating place to visit.
Tovarna Rog hosts frequent events, and you can check their (surprisingly well-organised) website here. It’s free to enter, but they do ask for donations if you’re taking photos.
A couple of points
- I have been asked if I experienced any “antisocial behaviour” at Rog. The place is certainly not set out like a library and may cause your conservative Grandma to have a bit of a dizzy spell. However, I did not see any illegal behaviour and felt 100% safe there.
- Let’s call a spade a spade: there is a dispute between Rog and the City of Ljubljana, and their occupation of the factory is on shaky legal ground. Make your own call about whether or not that affects your willingness to visit.