Written by: Davor Mandić
“You don't say?”, rock and culture may not be synonymous, but they are emblematic of Rijeka, at least where Croatians and others are concerned. And while you don’t say? is a cute catchphrase devoid of any deeper meaning, rock and culture - which are inextricably linked to multiculturality - are far more serious markers of Rijeka' s urban identity – especially having won the prestigious title of European Capital of Culture 2020, beating strong competitors in the final including Pula, Osijek, and Dubrovnik.
Rijeka abounds with events and institutions that make up the fabric of its independent sector -which is what, in the end, led to the ECC title - and it’s a small few who still haven't heard about the Small Scene Theatre Festival, which is traditionally held at the usually packed Croatian House of Culture in Sušak. Rijeka Summer Nights, a music and theatre summer festival, attracts a bevy of visitors as usual, with its diverse programme that ranges from outdoor theatrical performances, literary evenings, and performances, to concerts from musicians that cover a wide array of genres. There is a high demand for shows by the Croatian National Theatre “Ivana pl. Zajca” and the Rijeka City Puppet Theatre. The acting studies which were initiated by celebrated actor Rade Šerbedžija in Rijeka will ensure the flow of local acting forces into the theatre and theatrical life of Rijeka, which also enriches a whole range of enthusiasts of the independent cultural scene. Ri Theatre, Traffic, Prostor Plus, and a strong Rijeka performer’s scene are not just there to fill the holes in the official institution programs with their staging, but often push the boundaries and perspectives with their research.
It's not like the art scene is lagging behind; far from it. The institutions of the City Museum of Rijeka or the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art and the many art galleries in Rijeka prove that the art scene in Rijeka, backed up by the Academy of Applied Arts, is very much alive and kicking.
If we turn our attention to the film, the existence of the institution called ‘Art-Cinema Croatia’ is notable, and is considered by many as one of the most successful projects of the Department of Culture of the City of Rijeka. A theatre that doesn't exist in most bigger Croatian cities, and with a programme that wouldn't be out of place in a Parisian art movie theatre with a much longer tradition, is a well visited cultural venue of Rijeka. The strong scene of documentary filmmakers in Rijeka is also vibrant, with contributions from private business owners and associations such as Filmaktiv, Ukus, and Okodok, whose movies have reaped success even on the national stage.
The literary scene in Rijeka isn't kept alive by just the two writers' associations' branches of the Croatian Writers' Association (DHK) and the Croatian Writers' Society (HDP) in Rijeka, but also by the local publishing branch of the Croatian Literary Association (Hrvatsko književno društvo), and the less formal but no less significant initiatives like Ri Lit. Literary gatherings attract up to 300 visitors, which is good news for any prospective similar activities, and the various book fairs such as the one organised by Kičma, V.B.Z.'s VRIsak, or Bookfest, have made Rijeka the country's most relevant spring literary hotspot. Associations play an important role in the scene
based on books, such as Katapult which is an important element of that scene.
Music has always had a special place in Rijeka. The so-called sound of Rijeka has been a mainstay in music ever since the “new-wave period”, when bands from Rijeka ruled the roost in the former Yugoslavia and its DNA is still present in the music of bands that transcend local boundaries. If we only mention Jonathan here, in all unfairness knocking many important bands out, we’ll have said almost everything about it. The Ri Rock event is a symbol of the city's rock identity, while countless other festivals that range from rock and jazz to electronica push the boundaries of perception.
It should be noted that the culture of institutions and independent culture share a strong bond in Rijeka and constantly re-examine each other. The strength of the independent scene in Rijeka and its numerous associations is showcased by the fact that three very important cultural checkpoints, the cult club Palach, the multifunctional venue of Filodrammatica, and the former paper factory Harter are run under the auspices of the city of Rijeka.
The idiosyncrasies of the city's cultural identity make a strong point for Rijeka's announced 2020 European's Capital of Culture bid. Croatia and Ireland will have cities representing them in this project started in 1985, and Rijeka's bid is based on the four identity markers of the city: labour, minorities, the sea, and the port.
All these peculiarities of the Rijeka cultural identity have merged into the candidacy for European Capital of Culture 2020. Rijeka has long reproached its perennial loser status, which certainly has a foundation in many lost candidacies and first places, but this time it had to capitulate before the fact that at the end of hard deliberations it simply was the best candidate. Obviously, the real work and rising to the challenge is yet to come. The bar is set rather high to reinvent the essence of a city that has lost 25,000 industrial jobs, but has gained almost as many students, with the empty industrial plants crying out for redesigning. Culture, right?