Imagining What’s Possible in Rijeka, Croatia


Rijeka’s waterbreak pier has served two purposes since it was built in 1888. It protects the city from the severe winds on the Adriatic Sea and forms a harbour for ships and fishing boats. As part of a commercial port – one of the largest in Europe up to the turn of the twentieth century – the pier runs the length of the city centre.

A distant view of the two-kilometre pier in Rijeka’s waterfront. Credit: Shawn Van Sluys

A distant view of the two-kilometre pier in Rijeka’s waterfront. Credit: Shawn Van Sluys

In 2008, the Croatian Port Authority decommissioned the port and allowed access to the space for the public for the first time in 120 years. As a former industrial site, the pier had all of the rough intrigue of rust, concrete, ropes, rubbish, and fishnets. Whereas the site had once been an icon of productivity, progress, and connectivity, it became a symbol of the city’s transition from being a regional – Yugoslavian – industrial centre to being a small struggling city facing global economic and social crises. This is the context within which Musagetes first visited Rijeka in 2009.

High school students interview Rijeka’s residents as they walked on the pier. Credit: Dean Miculinic

High school students interview Rijeka’s residents as they walked on the pier. Credit: Dean Miculinic

In 2010, Musagetes convened the Rijeka Café, a three-day conversation among local and international artists, cultural thinkers, policy-makers, and practitioners. The main question that shaped the dialogue was this: “How do artists – especially those with socially engaged practices – negotiate the relationship between individual social responsibility and collective desires for positive societal transformation? How can the arts and creative industries fill knowledge gaps left behind by deindustrialization?”

Musagetes believes that art brings an awareness of what can be transformed – of what our communities, spaces, cities, and, indeed, ourselves can become through the imagining of new possibilities. For this reason Musagetes works to make the arts more central and meaningful in peoples’ lives, in their communities and societies.

One of the intentions of the Café gathering in 2010 was to establish a conceptual frame within which to invite artists to work with Musagetes, the City of Rijeka Culture Department, and various cultural and social collaborators. Through the conversations, the pier emerged as the main site of interest with its layered significance historically, spatially, symbolically, and metaphorically. For a century, the pier was Rijeka’s global connection, a major employer, and an industrial icon. Now it is a symbol of painful deindustrialization as well as of hopeful possibility.

Musagetes and its local collaborators recognized that the pier could be a place for deep thinking and for healing – a place that, when animated through works of art, makes it possible to relinquish fear, check social regression, and take hold of the city’s transitional state of affairs as an opportunity for the betterment of the community.

With that in mind, Musagetes and the City of Rijeka invited two artists to visit in 2011 to create artistic installations on the pier: Laetitia Sonami and Matthew Mazzotta. Both artists expressed a desire to include participation by residents in the creative process – a way of working that Musagetes encourages.

As part of “Pier Shear”, artist Bruno Velčić created a platform at the end of the pier and furnished it comfortably with a wool-covered easy chair. Credit: Dean Miculinic

As part of “Pier Shear”, artist Bruno Velčić created a platform at the end of the pier and furnished it comfortably with a wool-covered easy chair. Credit: Dean Miculinic

Laetitia Sonami is a sound artist based in Oakland, California. As a sound-instrument inventor and a creator of immersive sonic environments, she has, and encourages others to have, a ‘sonic curiousity.’ She arrived in Rijeka with eleven cassette recorders and lent them to students at the Gradjevinska Tehni.ka .kola, a high-school arts academy. She combined the recordings by the students with her own field recordings to create the first artistic project that ever animated the pier in its post-industrial state: Sound Gates. Laetitia reimagined the bases of abandoned cranes as symbolic gates welcoming residents to the newly opened pier. She installed and camouflaged four homemade speakers – made of aluminum buckets and simple electronics – on each corner beneath the crane structures. An audio player was connected to motion sensors and a random selection of sounds quietly emanated from above when walkers activated the sensors. The volume was subtle enough not to startle but just loud enough for passersby to become vaguely aware of the presence of the sounds. After a moment listeners became fully conscious of, and then transfixed by, the sounds. The sounds ‘showering’ from Sound Gates were a combination of voices – conversing, singing, laughing – and recognizable sounds of the city – of metal in the shipyard, church bells, the bustle of the Korzo, and the creaking of swings in the playground. The sounds evoked memories of Rijeka’s past and looked forward to a brighter future.

Matthew Mazzotta (from Newfoundland and Boston) referred to the pier as one of “the physical and metaphorical landscapes of our lives.” In his work, he collaborates with local labourers, academics, engineers, builders, community members, activists, artists, poets, and anyone else who is willing to be involved in something experiential and participatory. He acts as a conductor or community organizer and so for his project in Rijeka he collaborated with seven local artists to create a series of artistic installations on the pier, collectively titled Pier Shear/Striženje Lukobrana. The collaborating artists were Milijana Babic, Tomislav Brajnović, Vesna Jakić, Marina Mikolčić, Nika Rukavina, Bruno Velčić, and Dražen Vitolović.

All of the artistic projects related to the theme of sheep and wool. Sheep are abundant in the surrounding rural lands, but their raw wool is considered to be useless; it is too coarse for clothing so it is often piled up and burned. Its only real use is for making felt. Matthew saw an opportunity to juxtapose the repurposed pier (a hard, concrete, industrial object) and the raw wool (a soft, abundant renewable resource) to create a space for Rijekans to consider possibilities for the renewal of their city. The wool artworks installed on the pier addressed historical issues, current political, social, and economic situations, utopian visions, storytelling, globalization, craft and formal artistic perspectives.

On April 21, 2012, Pier Shear/Striženje Lukobrana opened with much anticipation and celebration. Hundreds of Rijekans poured onto the pier. For many this was the first time that they were seeing Rijeka from the front of the city, from the sea.

Now, a year later, the pier is well-established as a public space. Artistic events and projects are happening on the pier every month. Musagetes continues to work in Rijeka, currently creating a film directed by Althea Thauberger (Vancouver) with 70 local child actors.

By Shawn Van Sluys
Musagetes Foundation

Musagetes is based in Guelph and was founded in 2007 by Michael Barnstijn and Louise MacCallum, formerly of RIM. Musagetes promotes the arts and artistic creativity as tools for social transformation.