”Is it possible to make culture here?”

A conversation of students in MA Eco-Social Design and Rosario Talevi with Robida Collective

A group of students and teachers of the MA Eco-Social Design travels from Bolzano to the village of Topoló/Topolove – at the border between Italy and Slovenia – to encounter Robida collective, a young association that takes care of the abandoned terraces, occupies houses and gardens, opens a communal space (Izba) and re-imagines the village’s future, while editing a magazine, broadcasting radio shows and hosting cultural events. In this conversation with Vida Rucli and Aljaž Skrlep, the group discusses their work-life experiment, potential livelihoods, the urban-rural question and limits of their resources, time, and quality of their encounters.

How do you differentiate between work and private life? And how do you balance the two?

Vida: In relation to Robida, the definition of work is already complicated. For many of us it is not work. Here we connect to the question of economies and to the fact that many of us have to work on other jobs (some are working at schools, others in some institutions).

Aljaž: Basically, everyone in the collective has a day job. Except for Vida who is totally committed to the project. If it wasn’t for her, all of this wouldn’t be possible.
We try to find ways. For example: I work 3 days a week in a school, which still leaves space and time to work on Robida related tasks. Of course, living in Topolò is economically very different in comparison to living in a city. We can work one-third of the time a person living in a city does. One of the reasons is that we have the privilege of living in a house that was owned by Vida’s grandmother. So we don’t have to pay rent. In the end, we could say we are privileged to have the opportunity to mix private life and work.

Vida: I think the question is if we consider Robida to be work. It’s not a proper job for many of us in the collective, since it’s not properly paid and no one is employed. For some specific projects, we get some funding, but most of the work is done voluntarily. For example, for the magazine, which is a project that we have been carrying on very seriously and very committedly for ten years, no one has ever been paid. If we consider Robida work, even if it’s not really paid, then within Robida there is no distinction between life and work.

Another element is the fact that the residents and the artists coming to Topolò are (or become) our friends. Then it’s hard to think about the time we spend together (also the time we spend developing projects together) as work. We don’t count hours. But that also depends from project to project.

I think that the balance comes – and it’s very beautiful to observe this – in a seasonal way. Winter is a more private time, dedicated to reflection, less social interaction, but more observations about what sediments down during the year. Then from spring on there is the time of openness and conviviality. And it’s nice because this seasonal change is very concrete: it is related to very concrete things that happen here in winter, which is that we have very rudimental ways of heating our houses with one fire stove which is capable of heating just one room. So everything becomes very, very intimate and very small and very reduced to this only room. So of course you cannot host people because the rooms upstairs are cold and you have little space to use. The winter is the time for our own things: a more authorial time of writing and imagining projects. Then spring comes and the convivial time starts: a permanent assembly somehow, a permanent sharing. So in the everyday practically we cannot define these boundaries, but it’s a long-term, cyclical process.

How does Robida sustain itself?

Vida: Robida is an association. The initial funding was provided by the region. At that time, they had a special fund for young associations. The fund was also a training moment for us to understand how to write funding applications without having to compete with big and experienced organizations. Cultural resources in this region are divided evenly through the territory since there are no big cities that attract all the available funds. At present, we receive support from different entities that allow us to finance the Summer School and the Academy of Margins. It’s important for us to rely on different fundings and funding-systems. There are also non-monetary forms of support. We also have some little support from private foundations. For example, last year the printing of the magazine was supported by a private foundation. We were also able to win some prizes. Prizes are special because you don’t need to explain how you will use the money you get. Last but not least, we have quite a good production of things (magazine, books, honey!) that we are also able to sell. Unfortunately, we don’t have a very strong business plan. But we just got an enormous interregional European project!

Aljaž: Some of us consciously decided that this was just going to be a hobby that makes our lives worth living.

Vida: I think that we could possibly live with Robida earnings, without having other jobs. The issue is the structure of the collective: the work is spread among many people. If fewer people would work on Robida full-time instead of many people working very little time, we could pay them a salary. Robida started from a very strong collective motivation, as a nice activity between friends, so we carry on with this spirit, and generally, we are more likely to spend money on external expenses and keep too little for ourselves. But giving a bit more attention to that aspect, I think we could live from it.

There are collectives and cooperatives that start as students, have more or less all the same needs, and divide the earnings equally between the members. Then needs change and things get complicated: some inherit a flat, some have children, some others don’t. It gets more complex as you go through life. How to keep things balanced? How are you doing it?

Aljaž: For us, at this point, this is quite easy: there are certain people in the collective who decided to have a day job. They are part of the collective, have more creative freedom but carry fewer responsibilities, and therefore get less or no money – depending on the project and on the work they manage to put into it. This way of dealing with the economic aspect doesn’t create problems between us: the key it’s to be clear from the beginning and be sure that everyone has their basic needs covered.

Vida: Moreover, when applying for funding, we always have a person responsible for writing the project. Other members of the collective help and the work will always be shared, but the person carrying the responsibilities for the project will always get a bit of earnings from it.

What happens if some of you, who have a job in an institution, get tired and feel they need a break? Would you switch roles? Would a person working full-time in the collective be open to getting a day job and giving this other one the opportunity?

Vida: If we consider the collective as a whole, we should also consider this interchangeability. But this is still very precarious and undefined. We are in a phase of our lives in which we are still trying to see what the best system could be for us. Maybe, at one point, we will need to reduce Robida to the essentials and support our living with other jobs. We don’t know. Maybe it will be a loss. Maybe, in the end, we will not be able to give a positive answer to our question “Is it possible to make culture here?”. It depends a lot on the desire for stability of the different people in the collective. But we can say that generally cultural work is not very stable.

What’s the economic flow between rural and urban? Is Robida affected by economic streams coming from the city? Are the day jobs of the people in the collective related to cities? Would you say that you have to deal with the city to make a living?

Vida: It depends on what you mean by city. Aljaž teaches in a “city“ of 25.000 inhabitants, while Dora and Elena work respectively in an institution and a school in a village. Antonio, who’s an architect, works remotely for a studio in Porto.

Aljaž: We never meant to cut our relationship to cities and live completely in a rural way. On the contrary, we want to maintain a relationship between the two and create new and less obvious ways to connect rural and urban areas. Our way of living here is very different from a traditional rural one.

Vida: Our specificity is that we produce content, while many other festivals in villages host content coming from the cities. We support the idea that culture and cultural production can come from rural areas. But of course, we are also fed by the urban. I think we have quite a healthy relationship with the city. People who come here don’t come just for a retreat in nature, they always give back something to this place.

Do you collaborate with local organizations and other communities?

Vida: We collaborate a lot with local organizations. It can be extremely challenging: sometimes we have to deal with very different points of view on what culture is. But we feel the responsibility of participating, we are part of a very beautiful and strong community, which produces a lot of culture in very different ways. They are very fond of us and supportive since we are a very rare case of young people coming back from the city to live and produce culture here.

Aljaž: This is very much related to the history of this area. We are close to the border and we are part of the Slovene minority which always had its own strong cultural production. A lot of money and time are invested for this purpose. This area was emptied systematically during the Cold War, not many young people were left, and we came back to live and produce culture here. And culturally we are part of the Slovene minority in Italy. Vida as the president of our association is also part of different boards of other local institutions that have some political power. They want us – as young people engaged on a local level – to have a say on political matters. So, we could say that we have the local fraction of Robida and the international one!

How do you reach out for collaborations and summer school participants?

Vida: For the summer school and the magazine we always go through open calls, which is also a way to get to know new people and not remain stuck in a closed circle. For some other activities, we do it through invitation. Afterwards, some people return and keep returning. This forms Robida’s expanded community.

Aljaž: All of the relations that we build here with different people end up building friendships. Since we open our houses, there is not only a limit in terms of space and privacy, but also a desire to develop deeper connections. I find it challenging, the amount of requests we get from people wanting to come and do residencies because I want to prioritize quality and not quantity.

Vida: Someone once asked if we perceive ourselves as an institution. How do institutions do residencies? They provide artists with space, time, money, a comfortable setting in order to develop their own project. So institutions work like this: the residence is at the service of the artists, which is a valuable and beautiful thing.
Somehow we were behaving or wanted to behave as an institution, but it did not make any sense. We don’t have anything in common with an institution: we don’t have stability, we don’t have a professional system. Maybe the only thing we have in common with an institution is the fact that we have spaces where to host people, events, and projects. So we realized that for the kind of work we do it might be more valuable to have some specific people coming back time and time again, instead of having a constant change. In this way, we could build long-lasting projects and relationships rather than just offer residences to artists who just happen to need a space to develop their own projects. So the idea is to involve these people in processes that are already happening in our community, instead of starting something completely new and disconnected. To participate in certain dynamics, reflect with us, or propose new things but always in a certain context of thoughts and projects. This was an important realization for us: we can’t think of ourselves as an institution at the disposal of others. Everything we do is part of a conversation with the place.

How do you deal with boundaries? How do you manage to understand the limit of your resources, time, and quality of your encounters? How do you keep yourself open to new encounters without becoming a service provider?

Aljaž: This was a point on which Vida and I had several disagreements. Vida is the kind of person who would always host people in her house since she believed this could be beneficial for the quality of the encounter with the people visiting. On the contrary, I believe it would be more balanced if people would stay in other houses (at least for the most part of the year) and host in our house just our close friends. How to keep our intimate space among ourselves without losing that special quality of relationships with people that happen by hosting them in our own house? But coming back to boundaries: I think we managed to set some boundaries in the last year. What do you think, Vida?

Vida: Yes! Izba, the communal space we opened in 2021, was one of these boundaries.

Aljaž: Actually we had to, since some of us tend to be passive-aggressive in certain ways. We think other people understand situations, but people actually don’t if you don’t tell them. So we had to put rules in our houses. If you come to our house, our personal space, you will see that there are rules: how to clean dishes, how to pee… Making it explicit was very important but also shocking. The same happened to Izba: all of us had to gather in Izba and decide how things were going to be done, for it to not become too authoritative. But in the end, people appreciate it a lot if you tell them how things need to be done. If you know the rules, you also know the freedom you can have around them!

Do you ever want to leave topolò? Do you ever feel the need to escape?
Since all your projects are related to the place you live in, does it ever feel like it’s too much?

Vida: I wouldn’t say we ever feel the need to escape or that we’re longing for the city. But when it happens that we spend longer periods of time in the cities, we realize that being away can be very important in order to be farfrom specific dynamics of such a small place, micropolitical dynamics that happen in this microlocal level (Robida group – village – area) and see these things with perspective.

Would you describe this with the possibility of being anonymous in a certain environment? To have the possibility to act in a more “irresponsible” way?

Vida: Absolutely. The thing I’m suffering from the most living here is the lack of anonymity. Not only the fact that your neighbour knows everything that you do. That doesn’t bother us so much, but mainly the fact that by living here we have a certain role that is recognized, observed, judged. This also connects to another question: How do other local people perceive us? It’s interesting because then you’re inevitably stretching the common perception of what work, culture, everyday life is. I think it’s good but it’s also tiring. It could be perceived as a political action, somehow. Political activism. Our presence here inevitably stretches the local perception on many aspects of life, since we do things that people are not often confronted with on this local level, while in cities it might be a normal thing to do.

Do you have any suggestions of what kind of work is possible after two years of master in eco-social design?

Aljaž: First thing, I would try to persuade everyone to not live in cities. My specific mission with Robida is to show that this kind of work can be done in rural places. Rural areas are cheaper and relieve a bit of the economic pressure from your shoulders.

Project 3 Students: Gaia D’Inzeo, Kirsten Ansorge, Viola Redaelli, Sarah Binkowski, Nina Wittenbrink, Margherita Poli, Irene Delvai, Iraitz Gerriko, Adrià Cano, Jacopo Margaglia, María Daniela Salgado Ochoa, Yeva Kupchenko, Greta Papaveri, Virginia Schraml, Tessa Hinz, Maja Hauke, Inci Aslan, Johanna Eger, Sven Kammerer, Laïsa Cordes, Clara Vardon, Koen Reerink, Rosario Castro, Lorenzo Oliva, Anne-Sophie Virgini
Project 3 Course Leader: Rosario Talevi

Robida is a collective that works at the intersection of written and spoken words – with Robida Magazine and Radio Robida – and spatial practices developed in relation to the village of Topolò/Topolove, where the collective is based.