Author : Kiblind Magazine
The twentieth century was not exactly gentle with the Serbian capital. A one-stop monument to all the hell that Europe unleashed over the course of those hundred years, Belgrade now openly bears the scars of history: on its walls, around its neighbourhoods, in its political repercussions. From the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, which triggered the First World War, to the UN bombs aimed at toppling Slobodan Milosevic, via the protracted regime of Marshal Tito, for many years Belgrade was the nerve centre of a dangerously unstable continent. The city now serves as a mirror of those turbulent years, the architectural and urban traces leaving the visitor lost in a haze, somewhere between fascination and incomprehension. And with the walls still plastered with posters for current President-Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic – voted in after just one round of elections in April – and with the working-class district of Savamalla disfigured by the mindless Belgrade Water Front development, the future may seem somewhat bleak at first glance. But that would be to ignore a new generation of actors – nay, activists! – who harbour no intention of going down without a fight. And these spirited locals can call upon one formidable weapon: hope.
Before we even had the chance to meet this irrepressible generation, it was the rain that came to greet us. Rain that accompanied our first hesitant steps in a Serbian capital made all the more mysterious by our lack of hotel, map, light or internet, not to mention knowledge of the Cyrillic alphabet. At the very least, this enticing experience set the scene: we were in a country where tourism does not rein supreme. Far from it. And after all, a few small mishaps cannot tarnish one’s image of an entire city. Certainly not a city that is home to a festival like Resonate. A city where parties spring up in the most improbable places. A city whose adventurous youth have appropriated a former slaughterhouse as their spiritual home. And it was towards that magnet of creativity, known as Drugstore, that we were now heading. It was time for our first Serbian adventure, our first stroll for two along the infinite and somewhat burnt out pavements of the Bulevar despota Stefana.
Drugstore has everything that a European cultural actor could ever dream of: an uncrowded feel, vast open spaces, an industrial past, and relatively generous security rules. It is here that Resonate showcases its musical riches, including – on this particular night – Yves Tumor, Peder Mannerfelt, Roly Porter and local duo Stepniak, the latest brainchild of producer Jan Nemecek, leading light in the new wave of Serbian music.
The latter is better placed than anyone to give his views on a city that is culturally coming to the boil: “We’re going through a real creative boom. It’s a great time to become an artist here,” he outlines. The arrival of independent venues such as Drugstore and KC Grad, the emergence of new dimensions to the city’s nightlife and the arrival of the Resonate festival have created a cultural scene that has brought locals together and helped artists grow in confidence. At 28 years of age, by local standards already a veteran, Jan Nemecek has witnessed the recent explosion of the Belgrade scene at first hand. As a programmer, he is also one of the craftsmen behind Resonate’s essential musical lineup. He recognises the importance of giving young local artists the chance to rub shoulders with their peers from Europe and beyond: “Witnessing new people doing new things can’t help but inspire young artists.” So seeing musician and Belgrade native Regen take the stage that evening alongside Barcelona-based creative coder Alba G. Corral, as part of a Serbo-Spanish artistic creation initiated by We are Europe, could not help but bring a smile to Nemecek’s face.
Just like this exclusive collaboration, the Resonate festival is designed as a meeting point for digital artists of all disciplines. And it is a project that is progressing nicely, which is good news for a festival that swears only by the fusion of artists and genres. This is how the festival is presented to us by Jelena Piljic, team member and faithful defender of its vocation to break down inter-disciplinary boundaries. “Fusions between disciplines are very important. That’s why we need to organise workshops and conferences with participants from all different fields of digital culture. Today, you need to be able to do everything. It’s all in the mix, all in the fusion.” It is a philosophy that the festival is determined to bring to life in front of the Serbian public. In the unique context of today’s Belgrade, “very underdeveloped in terms of the digital arts”, it is even more important to invite the local public in, and to offer students and aspiring Serbian artists the opportunity to take part. It is a cultural lifesaving mission and, what’s more, one that is completely independent. No – before you ask – “the local government does not support the festival.”
On the right bank of the Sava – in the working-class district of Savamala, currently undergoing zealous disfiguration at the hands of the improbable, UAE-financed building site that is the Belgrade WaterFront – the story is the same: there is no cultural public policy, no support either financial or moral. Meanwhile, across the river stands a perfect testament to the political trials and tribulations on the matter: a brand new contemporary art museum, which has been awaiting its public opening for nearly ten years. The same part of the riverbank is nevertheless home to one of the city’s most exciting structures, the Mikser House, which is itself patiently awaiting eviction at the hands of the BWF developers. In many ways a harbinger of the city’s recent cultural renewal, the Mikser House was born out of the vacuum created by an absence of cultural policy. “There is no clear political strategy regarding culture here. The public institutions and the ministry have less and less money to spend. There are many associations requiring the space, time, networks, and the sort of energy that we’ve created here,” explains Maja Lalic, who runs Mikser House. What had started as a multidisciplinary festival found a permanent home here and now offers vibrant young residents of Belgrade a venue to meet, discuss, see and hear. The site symbolises the shared determination of a part of the population to express itself, in spite of everything: in spite of the lack of resources, in spite of the obstacles being slyly laid in their path by the authorities. The unity and togetherness on display at Mikser House are proof of an extraordinary energy, the likes of which is all too rarely seen elsewhere.
Later on, having successfully negotiated the potholes that blight Belgrade’s tired streets, and passed in front of post-war residential buildings of unreliable cladding and suspicious durability, we arrive at Nova Iskra. Another demonstration of the creative power of Serbia’s youth, and just like Mikser House and Resonate Festival, the site was founded in the groundbreaking year of 2012. This is a generation driven by a shared impetus, coming together at one shared moment to form one shared family. As Jelena Piljic puts it, “the teams are connected, everyone knows everyone.” For five years, Nova Iskra has been helping young entrepreneurs working in design, graphics and IT development to get off the ground and to form networks. In other words, it is a hub. What Mikser House does for socio-cultural associations, Nova Iskra – presented to us by Relja Bobic – does for young professionals. More than a simple coworking space, Nova Iskra has positioned itself as a facilitator, an organism that responds to the demands of local residents and then goes one step further by banking on the interaction of these actors. For Relja, the philosophy is simple: “together, we’re stronger”. A sort of unofficial slogan for Belgrade, and one that encourages its inhabitants to push beyond what they see and what they hear of the city.
The need to come together at the local scale has naturally given these actors a taste for meeting and interaction. And while Serbia is not yet a member of the European Union, there is one point on which Maja, Jelena, Jan, Nikola, Relja and the others all agree: Europe is the future. The central position of Belgrade in the Balkans and in Europe offers its residents the possibility to establish connections, to see what other have to say, to import knowledge from other countries, to come across differences and to set common goals for art and society. Resonate Festival – together with We are Europe, the network to which it belongs – is in this sense a central element, an essential meeting point to “try to inspire change through intelligence”, as Maja Lalic and the others are all hoping to do.
As we take one last stroll through Belgrade, that improbable and initially unappetising urban maze, we cannot help but recall the words of architect Nikola Andonov: “Belgrade is the fruit of the architectural layers that history has left behind for us. It is so rich: in one glance, you can draw inspiration from different eras and different styles.” This is what is known as seeing the glass as half-full, or a visceral need to see the bright side of life. It is a breath of optimism, like the one that fills the air in today’s Belgrade. For while the walls are still plastered with posters for Aleksandar Vucic – Milosevic‘s former information minister, lest we forget – and while students are still taking to the street to protest against his election, creative Serbs cannot for one moment lose sight of the bright future that is their due. The energy that is driving them on was forged against the current, and it is all the more unstoppable for it.