SOFT HAJDUK // NEW CRAFT ARTISTS IN ACTION + QUEER SPORT SPLIT // SPLIT CROATIA
In August 2017, The NCAA was invited to Split, Croatia to work with kindred spirits, an activist/art collective called Queer Sport Split.NCAA Team Captain Maria Molteni and Boston artist Melanie Bernier spent 2 weeks on the Adriatic coast exploring spaces throughout Split and several Dalmatian Islands. Together with their QSS host artist Tonci Batalic they offered several community craft circles at a local bar and youth advocacy nonprofit where artists and organizers often meet. QSS + NCAA utilized local grant support to create art and craft based interventions in underutilized recreational spaces, a ubiquitous phenomenon that speaks to a complex social and political history of the city.
Split is an ancient city whose distinct culture draws from a beautiful coastal landscape and turbulent political history. Today, local life rapidly changes as Croatia manages the transition from socialism into a market-based economy, and an explosion of tourism redirects resources into private development. Meanwhile, the international refugee crises continues to produce Syrian transplants for relocation in the city. As new ideas and cultures populate the area, the politically marginalized LGBTQ community has begun to assert their place as equals in Croatian society. QSS draws attention to issues of LGBTQ rights. They also advocate for community access to, and care of, public commons, which are being increasingly privatized for tourism and development. They share a “Soft Power”approach to activism with the NCAA. In most cases craft-based knit or crochet intervention is a tactic. The collaboration was quite natural since both create public work with intersectional implications for community, recreation, reclamation, and inclusion.
Prior to our arrival, Tonci had documented a dynamic site for our intervention, what appeared to be an overgrown slab of concrete installed between two towering housing projects in the neighborhood Trstenik. Intersecting patches of tall grass, the surface was painted with broad red lines, resembling athletic court markings. From a bird’s eye view the lines actually spell “R4”. The same city zoning labels claim backboards of two rimless would-be hoops. Bookending the court were net-less football goals and wildflowers that stood like a sea of spectators. Several patches of black graffiti sprayed on the concrete by locals made bold statements. Their English translations assert: City Planning is not a rape tool, Stupid Urban Plan (GUP GLUP), Traffic Jam, and We want playgrounds, not parking lots. Tonci explained that this court, once a recreational space built under the Soviet-era Split 3 urban plan, is now the site of lively protests. Like many recreational spaces it is vaguely declared “80% private/ 20% public” so that the occasional pet relieving itself is the only day-to-day activity it sees. We asked neighbors and pedestrians who confirmed that it was seen as a no man’s land. We sought to draw attention to this neglected area and reassert its potential as a public common.
1 2 3 SPLIT! COMMUNISM RISES AND FALLS
The cascading geometric buildings of Split 3, now a larger section of the city in which Trstenik is situated, were built in the late 1960’s as part of an urban plan by Slovenian architects Marjan Bezan, Nives Starc and Vladimir Music (Music had studied at Harvard). The plan sought to humanize what many see as unsuccessful brutalist modern housing project models (local iterations are known as Split 2). The new plans would create engaging, communal neighborhoods for an initial 50,000 residents who relocated from smaller villages in the region. Inspired by pedestrian-centered streets and squares of old Roman design, this “city within a city” would decentralize the downtown (centered around the 4th Century Medieval Diocletian’s Palace, aka Split 1) but run accessibly parallel to its 2 main commercial pedestrian streets.
In an article written for the Guardian, Back to the Future: The Curious Case of Split 3 Public Space, Diana Magdic describes a harmonious image of Split 3 that even won the heart of modernism’s harshest critic, Jane Jacobs.
“The urban plan and buildings themselves were kind of manuals for good contemporary living… places where people meet, interact, engage in joint activities, to play, to learn. And it was successful, proved by longitudinal surveys of their satisfaction with living conditions through the last 5 decades. Citizens of Split 3 are still able to walk to the sea or to the school or to the store without having to stop at any traffic lights; they have playgrounds and sports fields and green areas just outside their homes; they even have a great architecture that accompanies that brilliant urban plan…”
Strolling through Split 3 this summer, the neighborhood still feels active and vibrant, even if some commercial spaces stand empty. This was the only area where we saw people using a basketball court - a group of young women at that! But Split 3 plans were not meant to be isolated, rather replicated throughout the city. In the 1980s many areas of its development were halted. After Tito’s death, Yugoslavia began to deteriorate, the beginning of the end of communism, finally terminated by wars of the 1990s. Today, half-finished concrete buildings crowned with rotting metal support beams litter the bluffs of Trstenik. Playgrounds overgrown with fennel, mint, and grass squat throughout Split 3 and the entire city. Most recreational spaces are under-maintained, half finished or completely abandoned. Remnants of equipment and scattered building material do however present an appealing and colorful culture of design, an 80s pop brand of coastal ruin porn. This is the rich backdrop of our abandoned Trstenik court.
“THE BEST OF OUR PEOPLE”
The dusty spectacle of cotton candy urban casualties creates a distinct aesthetic motif, the appeal is almost like a Mediterranean Miami. Even the forgotten, frozen playgrounds seem more vibrant than modern US complexes. To an outsider it feels surreal, more enticing than depressing. As for the presence of public art, all spaces are largely dominated by clubs of football superfans called Torcida who depict, through ambitious and well executed mural works, the object of their obsession- Hajduk.
When we first arrived in Split, we saw the Hajduk crest EVERYWHERE- on cars, garage doors, stories of building facades, store windows- a checkered grid of red and white squares, as is found in the Croatian flag, encircled by a blue ring that supports white lettering- “Hajduk, Split” often accompanied by the dates 1911 or 1955. Looking a bit like an automobile logo, we assumed it was a commercial ad campaign, but Tonci and our new friends in Split explained that it represented Split’s local football team. While the notion of extreme sports fandom is not at all foreign to visitors from Boston, we agreed that this blew even Red Sox hysteria out of the water. One might only compare the support of Hajduk to fans of the Celtics, Bruins, Sox and Patriots combined. Of course we wondered about the history of the movement and the socio-political implications of Torcida’s solidarity. Here is brief summary of our findings…
Hajduk is a professional Croatian football club founded in 1911. As the story goes Croatian students who were studying in Prague gathered in a centuries old bar founded during Austro-Hungarian rule. The young students had just come from a professional football match and decided that their city, Split, should have its own team. They officially registered a new football club, soliciting advice from their professor, Josip Barač for a name. Barač suggested “Hajduk” as the best representation of Croatian people. Slavic history tells us that Hajduk were 17th-19th century bandits- guerrilla fighters and highwaymen who resisted the Ottoman Empire. Like Robin Hood, they were known to steal from the rich and protect the poor in the name of ”humanity, friendship, freedom, bravery, protection of the weak, and defiance of power”.
The team enjoyed success leading up to the World Wars and into the post-war Yugoslav league system, their “golden era” being in the 1970s. In 1950 they organized the fan base inspired by Brazilian fans, “Torcida” who attended the 1950 World Cup. Today Hajduk is majority owned by the City of Split with around 40,000 owning club members. The queer artist and activist friends we met during our residency explained that the strength of Torcida has surpassed the strength of the city in most circumstances. Some murals depart from the basic crest or lettering and depict elaborate narrative scenes in which tough members of Torcida face off with the local police force. Citizens of Split seem only to effectively organize when the matter relates to Hajduk. This combined with the increased nationalistic, racist and intolerant attitude of many of the fans (some have begun to demonstrate the nazi solute) is something that Queer Sport is frustrated but also motivated by- a cultural polarization, sometimes branded “culture war” that is all too familiar to resistance groups and art collectives like the NCAA in a gentrifying, militarizing, alt-right-normalizing United States.
SOFT HAJDUK- IF YOU BUILD IT
NCAA and QSS put our heads together, improvising to address this interesting context found in both of our countries and toreassert the positive, inclusive potential of public commons and sport in Split. QSS’s Tonci and Tomislav bolted fresh new rims on the naked backboards of our Trstenik court so that we could install the Net Works created during open community workshops. We crafted the nets using fishing rope, calling to mind Croatia’s seafaring history. It turned out to be a durable, colorful and accessible material. Small businesses and specialty stores are dwindling in the city, as it’s overtaken by cheap souvenir shops and trinket kiosks, but fishing and diving stores are holding strong since these activities are supported by tourism.
The diving ropes were also excellent for the first ever football/soccer net we would create! Piecing together granny squares in an array of coastal color schemes, Maria and Melanie recreated their take on the Hajduk crest, at once queering the design while engaging with their fans. Harkening back to the original ideals of Hajduk, we encourage the Soft Power that stands for a more just and kind movement. We referred to our new crest as “Soft Hajduk”, attaching it to the center of a functional macrame football net that was crafted on site. Unsure how our work might be received by neighbors, we’d hardly tied the last knot before 3 boys, carrying a colorful soccer ball, scampered out onto the court for a round of penalty kicks. They walked straight up to the net and started caressing and petting it- Tonci told us they kept saying how beautiful it was. One saw the checkered shadow cast on the pavement and shouted excitedly “Hajduk!” We had the honor of watching them repeated kick the ball, like a rocket, into the strong, sturdy net.
THE KIDS ARE PLAYING BASKETBALL!
Our work in Split concluded with a QSS-sponsored “Right to the Beach” party, where Melanie led a seaside Punk Rock Aerobics workout. During our residency we learned how sports, activism, and craft empower QSS members to take an active role fighting for public space and LGBTQ rights in Split. We knew the nets would draw attention to the abandoned lot in the heart of Trstenik. Still, we were conscious that we were outsiders who could be seen as tampering with an important cultural icon. We had utmost respect for the deep heritage of Hajduk, hoping to find a way to meet in the middle while advocating in solidarity with like-minded host artists. As with many other NCAA projects, we looked to the roots of our subject as a way to innovate and expand its future impact. The great news is the project was an overall hit! It was featured in several local papers and even a TV Broadcast.
We left Croatia in August and were delighted to receive an e-mail from Tonci in November- subject line: “great news- kids are playing basketball!” He continued…
I have met an artist living at Trstenik and he told me kids have cleaned the area around one of the nets and they play basketball there regularly! Amazing, isn’t it!
As soon as I return form Belgium I will go there and take some photos!
We couldn’t be more thankful for our time and community in Croatia. We’re proud of the work we were able to do together!
Since 2011, Queer Sport Split has organized gatherings and interventions with “soft activism”: activism that intervenes in the public space of the city through crocheting and knitting. The first such intervention was during the planning of Split Pride in 2012, where knit flags pointed to the right of all citizens to public space, rights which the LGBTIQ population was denied by the local government. In 2014, Queer Sport Split held the Marathon On Needles, a public knit-in, to promote access to public space, guerrilla activism, and social participation.