This summer, French maker Julien Goret vagabonded the railways with his family. 5,000km through Central Europe, stopping at PIF Camp in Slovenia and a DIY art center in Slovakia.
Trenta (Slovenia), Žilina (Slovakia), correspondence (words and photos)
During their time off, makers aren’t always fearless travelers. There’s always a project to finish, a big idea lying dormant in the back of the garage, or simply helping out friends in need. It’s what we often end up doing. But this year, we decided to go on vacation.
Thanks to our Interrail passes, which gave us access to most trains in Europe for a month, we made a 5,000km loop around Central Europe with our two children, aged 4 and 7.
To determine our itinerary, we used several different maps, such as Trans Europe Halles (a repertory of alternative spaces hosted by reassigned buildings), Makery’s map of maker summer camps, Atlas Obscura (a repertory of strange places around the world) and, of course, various recommendations from friends, as well as our own mental maps of Central Europe, where we often went as French teachers a decade ago.
From Bordeaux, France, our itinerary stretched to Slovenia and Berlin, passing through Austria, Slovakia, Czech Republic and Poland. Some stops were directly linked to maker culture, others less. I’ll talk about two of those that were: PIF Camp in the Trenta Valley of Slovenia, and Stanica, a DIY artist-run space in Žilina, Slovakia.
Stop 1, Trenta (Slovenia): PIF Camp 2017
I discovered PIF Camp from Makery’s map of summer camps. It was too late to participate, but the dates made it a perfect first stop on our European tour.
PIF Camp is a maker camp co-organized by two Slovenian collectives, Ljudmila and Projekt Atol. The concept is five days of hacking and one day of restoring the produced projects, for 60 makers from Europe (and beyond), in a stunning natural environment.
We arrived on the final day of public restoration, so we missed the genesis of the projects, but we were immediately struck by their decompartmentalization—each person came with an idea, and in the end everyone contributed to their neighbor’s project.
First we met Yaïr Reshef and Zohar Messeca-Fara, two Israelis who created augmented sweets that virbate or light up when touched. They also helped out on other projects and built a very simple and totally awesome audio headset.
The kids love them too, but are chased off by the wasps. They end up at Rampa Lab’s electronics workshop, making a slightly creepy goat.
We also explored various audio hacking projects: punk synthesizers, circuit bending and an augmented accordion provided a saturated and unpredictable soundtrack for the event.
Nearby were Mika Satomi and Hannah Perner-Wilson, performers who dance dressed in materials directly lifted out of nature, but just as augmented. On-site skills added capacitive sensors to their costumes that “listened” to their gestures, where the flow of data modified their soundtrack in real-time. Augmented shamanism.
Neighboring stands range from modular molds to kombucha cultures.
But bits and bytes are not everything at PIF Camp. The natural environment is there to lift our noses from our soldering irons, and a guide, Dario Cortese, organizes botanical walks. That day, we learned to recognize edible flora in the valley.
The objective of the camp was not just to reunite nerds of open software and open hardware, but to extract open methods from their original fields, in order to develop a social and political project. Tina Malina, one of the organizers, insists on this aspect: “At PIF Camp, what’s important is not just art, technology and hacking in general. What’s important is hacking your own mind and living in a community to eat, work and coexist.”
“It’s not just about soldering. Hack yourself and be a better human!”
Tina Malina, co-organizer of PIF Camp
The first “method” of the community is documenting and sharing projects. The organizers have a dedicated team that films and photographs in order to keep a trace of the whole event. Participants document on their own media (personal website, Instructables, etc.) the details of their projects from day to day.
The organization doesn’t force anything, based on the principle that the community “has a need to share” what it produces.
The same politics apply to mixing up the projects. No assigned workgroups, brainstormings or Post-it organigrams—five days and careful casting of participants does the job better.
And the “casting” is surprisingly large. Alternative culture is alive and well in Slovenia, with a community that is present in Metelkova in the center of Ljubljana, as well as in several artist-run spaces. Many of the people associated with these spaces and the maker movement are here in Trenta. But there are also makers from well beyond Slovenia: Israel, Czech Republic, Netherlands…
Tina Malina attributes their successful recruiting to the attractiveness of the venue, probably one of the most beautiful valleys in Europe. We would have added the creative environment offered by the organizers and the multidisciplinary aspect.
The participants’ experience is clearly exceptional, and this was the goal. On the other hand, PIF Camp isn’t a massive public event (and doesn’t aspire to be). The opening day is open to the public and free of charge, with a friendly welcome, but it’s difficult to reach the many hikers camping nearby, or the residents of the valley, who in this season are busy working day and night in the shops and camps to keep up with the wave of tourists.
PIF Camp is a kind of (bio)reactor, a cradle of practices originally organized by practioners for practitioners. While it’s not a big public rout, it is a demonstrative event, where transversal projects are invented, and where a real community weaves itself.
Stop 2, Žilina (Slovakia): Stanica, punk DIY train station
Given our chosen mode of transportation, we couldn’t miss Stanica. This secondary train station of Žilina, Slovakia, is now an exceptional artist-run space.
Localization first: Žilina is a medium-sized city, at the base of the Tatra mountains. It’s not gentrified, better known for being home to a giant automobile factory. But Žilina is where the idea to recycle a vaguely abandoned train station into an art space was born. In 1998, an association called “Spherical Thing” was created to lead the project, and the station was occupied in 2003. The urban landscape is totally improbable, the site is surrounded by highway ramps, access is through graffitied underpasses, and a few local trains still stop there.
On the ground floor is a bar, some studios. Under the debris lies a concert hall, and around it murals, a sandbox and homemade games for children.
We arrive in the middle of the afternoon without an appointment and set our kids up at the games, among other families, apparently from the neighborhood. Chatting with some of the locals, we meet Karine Ponties, a choreographer based in Belgium, currently in residence at Stanica.
I visit the space with her, although she doesn’t rehearse in the station itself, but in the annex room.
As soon as we arrived, we noticed a bridge pier that appeared to be dressed in plastic crates. In reality it wasn’t a pier, but a self-built theater. The highway bridge serves as a roof, while the walls are made of beer crates and mud. Two attached containers are used for storage and toilets. Inside are tiered bleachers and newly installed control gantries and professional lighting. A masterpiece of punk architecture…
The project is radically DIY, not only in its methods, but also in its activities. In addition to the performances and various workshops, there is a bicycle studio in one container, minded that day by Agathe, a French “European volunteer”. It’s a popular bike studio, in the literal sense—cyclists don’t just leave their bikes, they can also participate in repairs.
My impromptu guide confirms my impression: “Here, they don’t wait to do things.” Proceeds from performances and a few public and private grants keep the place afloat, as it remains independent.
The Stanica method seems to be recognized locally. The organization is partly in charge of another project, this time downtown. A synagogue had been abandoned and lay in ruins since the war. Someone had the idea of reviving it as an art center. The renovation is sober, nothing visibly DIY, as this is a unique historical monument: a place of worship built in a modernist style.
I visited the space (unfortunately hastily) before reboarding the train. The current exhibition is a sound piece by Milan Guštar, playing full blast in the nave, complemented by more intimate listening installations. I exchange explanations for thanks with the people at the reception, in an English more screamed than spoken.
Going back to the station, I cross the city again, with its little pedestrian street, its monument dedicated to the Red Army soldier and its trolleybuses. I can’t help making the analogy with my travel book: Le concert posthume de Jimi Hendrix, by Andreï Kourkov (not translated in English), a story (among others) about former hippies and other strange people in Lviv, going from suspect status to almost anonymous citizens.
The founders of Stanica may not call themselves hippies, but they succeeded in building by themselves a space to host minority cultures. They applied DIY methods to cultural practices… which is very political and not always possible.
Other stops, other possibilities
Trenta and Žilina were the two stops most directly linked to maker culture, but we also encountered other “DIY moments” that occasioned often humorous exchanges.
In Poland, a fox ate our shoes (really), so we had to find an artisan cobbler to fix them. He did the job brillantly with his antique Singer machine, in exchange for our high recommendation online.
In Berlin, we tried to repair the mechanical display of the oven at our friends’ house where we were staying. It was a delicate job initiated by our host in the middle of the night, in a very hackerspace atmosphere: beers, neon light, the smell of mechanical grease.
In the ex-nations of the Warsaw Pact and in ex-Yugoslovia, DIY comes in particular forms. Their network of micro-artisans is more dense than in France: minuscule shoe repair shops, computer repair shops, taxidermists… As the Trente Glorieuses missed these parts, do-it-yourself has long been a necessary way of life to access basic necessities. Today, however, the relationship to DIY is ambivalent—it’s a skill that’s both useful and rendered outdated, even old-fashioned, by the irruption of consumer society. DIY has also been a way to work around prohibitions.
What’s left of these pirate practices is an attitude, a predisposition toward alternative spaces to initiate projects without any institutional support and without waiting to act. This is what we were happy to find.