Interview with Marija Biljan of ‘City as a Person’

Born and raised in Croatia, Marija Biljan currently resides in Zagreb, returning there after a few years in Palermo. Working from a cultural anthropology background, Marija has been exploring concepts of home, belonging and identity through several projects.

City as a person‘ is a project that combines art and anthropology, illustration and storytelling. Marija also likes to play with the concept of subjective mapping, using the idea of creative mapping to discover new viewpoints on dwelling in cities. When she leads workshops, she uses maps and mapping as a tool to awaken the senses and as media to transfer participants’ perceptions of life, routine, routes, and all other experiences in physical places.

Pedestrian Space: What was your inspiration for ‘City as a Person’?

Marija: The idea of imagining a city as a person was born a couple of years ago during my five-month stay in Valencia, Spain. What was troubling me there was the feeling of not being able to befriend that city. I couldn’t understand why I was disliking it so much, as there was no logical reason for it. I felt detached and even repulsed. Then I realized that I developed feelings towards the city as I normally develop feelings towards a person. I started thinking about other cities I lived in, at that time it was Zagreb and Lisbon, and realized I felt differently about them. I started writing down impressions and eventually created a list of questions, such as: If a city were a person, what s/he would look like? Who would it be, a man or a woman, a young or an old person? Where do I see that person? What time of the year is it? If s/he had a bag, what would s/he carry inside? Do I talk to this person, what does s/he tell me?

Zagreb Illustration, Iva Visosevic

I started experimenting – asking these questions to my friends, but also people I was meeting randomly. It ended up with me collecting more than 100 interviews about more than 15 cities. With time I started collaborating with visual artists who were illustrating those interviews. I was playing with the text – sometimes I would just edit the interview, but the most present form I like to use is poetry. At the moment I am creating postcards of Zagreb; these are a combination of illustration and text.

In the book that is about to be published in Italy (“Palermo as a person”), I also used photography as a way of documenting and presenting the city and my perception of it. 

Zagreb, Marija Biljan

Pedestrian Space: What are the cities that you have included thus far in ‘City as a Person’?

Marija: So far I have collected stories about Berlin, London, Barcelona, Madrid, Lisbon, New York and Paris. I worked the most on interviews about Zagreb and Palermo. 

Pedestrian Space: Are there some cities you are currently thinking about including in the project in the near future?

Marija: I would like to include cities that are disappearing or changing rapidly (for example due to war, earthquakes, or similar). I believe it could be a nice way to preserve a memory of them but it can also have a “healing” effect on participants/Interviewees who, while sharing their story, can possibly transform their experience. I noticed it during the interviews I conducted with inhabitants of Zagreb, after the two earthquakes we had in 2020. It felt as their stories were full of vulnerability and sadness. Some of them reflected melancholy, but also hope and optimism. 

Zagreb Illustration, Milena Apostolovic

Pedestrian Space: How do you move around your city? What is your favorite choice of mobility?

Marija: I walk or ride my bicycle. I prefer walking as then I can think better and observe more.

Pedestrian Space: What do you think about getting to know a city’s character by walking?

Marija: Walking is probably the best way to get to know the place and see the details, notice situations that each time create a bigger and more complete picture of the place I live in. While walking, one can eavesdrop better on random conversations that tell a lot about the city’s inhabitants. Also, walking is the best for street photography, which I am fan of.  

Zagreb, Marija Biljan

Below are a few excerpts from Marija’s earlier sketchbook

Visit Marija at ‘City as a Person’ online at Instagram @cityasaperson & on Facebook at City as a Person. Stay tuned for the publication of her book ‘Palermo as a Person’