These stark obelisks dominate the skyline of Belgrade’s residential districts. Concrete-clad and gargantuan, they serve society not only as ascendant hives, but as monuments to the human condition.
Irrespective of its size or locale, any space, provided it has been inhabited or maintained by humans, will carry a trace of their values and history. Architecture is an absolute medium, a physical and structural projection of the designer, and as such it will carry the sentiments of the cultures they originate from. Belgrade is no exception to this rule, and its history seemed to be quite literally constructed around us, to the point where it was inescapable. Perhaps the departure from our native spaces played a part in our stark observations, I would argue that our pre-departure research and fixation on Serbia may had also had some effect on our perception, but ultimately traces of history and ideology manifest themselves everywhere: Sometimes it is the more abstract forms of representation, a building or a street for example, that bear the most explicit marks.
It was the final stop on our itinerary, having already visited a previous cultural space, as well as the University faculty of political sciences, and Broadway-inspired Terazije theatre, not to mention conducting a number of successful interviews with best-selling Author Uroš Petrović, B92 executive Veran Matić, and the nationally adored journalist/talkshow presenter, Olja Bećković. But for me, the Mikser house had been the one venue I was most excited about, and I had been ever since I made contact with them a month or so prior to our departure. Considering my own personal and professional interests in visual content and creative enterprises, I found myself drawn much closer to the cultural centers than other areas of our research. We had the pleasure of meeting and talking to Maja Lalic, the creative director of Mikser Beograd. We talked politics, arts and the origins of the Mikser House.
The moment we stepped into the Mikser House we were greeted by an eye-catching array of artistic exports, friendly faces and the smell of fresh coffee. As we waited to meet our host I couldn’t help but marvel at the genius of the place. Comparable to a small warehouse in size, but with an interior design much like a studio or venue hall. Stylish and self-sufficient, it could only be described as a modular space which could suitably accommodate for just about anything a cultural centre would have wanted, be it live music and theatrics, to the production and distribution of all things artistic and desirable.
Despite the peaceful atmosphere, I sensed a total lack of stillness, its occupants worked tirelessly from every corner of the room. Groups of people moved from table to table, presumably managing creative projects, whilst others swapped between the bar work and shop keeping. There was a lot of physical work to be done, stage-prepping, camera setting and sound-checking, but all done so quietly, peacefully carried by the familiar sound of Alt-J in the background.
In an effort to mobilize the arts as a greater source of cultural, social and economic capital, several spaces have been constructed to serve as central hubs for local creatives. Primarily located across Stari Beograd (The cultural and tourist region of the capital, more commonly referred to as ‘Old Belgrade’), the likes of Mikser House and similar venues are independently funded, having acknowledged the futility of the old state funding. This socialist heritage, which Maja describes as “A badly managed policy” still operates within the Balkans across a range of institutional programs, such as theater and broadcasting media, and as such has been directly challenged by adopting a more rugged individualist approach to business.
“we try to be politically correct but then a new strategy is reinforced… if you try to create money instead of waiting – it’s a hypocritical situation! Not only art but people need to provide for young people of design and we need to pay wages here.”
Considering the financial instability of the region, those responsible for the upkeep and development of the Mikser House have quite literally had to rely on their entrepreneurial smarts, practical skills and an exceptional sense of purpose. As I learned through speaking with Maja Lalic, their enterprise had gone through countless hardships before it became what it is today. But to see the space when I did, and to hear of its stories and undertakings was nothing short of moving.
There was a lot I wanted to ask Maja when I finally met her, above all else I had a genuine curiosity for the story of Mikser, to know what they had gone through and where their artistic backgrounds lay. But perhaps most important of all was the question ‘why? What did they hope to achieve in casting their net to rally the artists of Belgrade, and how successful had they been?
Her answers were steeped in Mikser’s history and her own personal experiences. With a political backdrop as tumultuous as Serbia’s, it was evidently clear that one of the most prominent losses to the country (as a result of the late Yugoslavian crisis) was a national identity, a cultural brand if you will. Maja proceeded to talk passionately of the need to reinvigorate the arts as the first step towards reconstitution and recovery, as it fills the void that such a history of warfare and isolation creates. She explained the entrepreneurial prospects of the Mikser House and like minded spaces. The venue itself generates some sort of revenue through the selling and distributing of local artists’ goods, such as clothing and publications, and the system had gone through a rigorous process of trial and error sales to focus on the most profitable and successful goods. She told me candidly that it is necessary not to be too idealistic or ‘utopian’ when trying to generate an income from artistic goods, and that not everything will sell. I saw for myself the benefits of such a black and white approach, the quality of the goods was incredibly high as a result of this premium mindset, and the artists who were involved with Mikser (either through collaborations or distributions) were pushed to be the best they could be.
But she stressed the importance on employing an open, multi-disciplinary orthodox. Mikser’s financial health could not be sustained alone on sales, but on the house’s potential as a bonafide venue for live events, festivals and markets. The space itself regenerates much of its overhead through its rates as a venue for hire, not just for artists but for NGOs and social initiatives, but does so in relation to its surroundings as opposed to outgrowing them, ensuring it remains an accessible part of society for everyone.
“In addition to this, prices have been scaled to fit the needs to the people. The very core of a business should be creative content then the periphery of the core should be adapting to the priorities, not to marketing but to emotional and social levels”.
As we discussed, this ultimately gave Mikser a peculiar position of power: The capacity to generate a social income, if you will, by generating interest and pulling a larger demographic of people to the venue. Maja emphasized the power to inform and influence large numbers of people, by breaking up the daily habitus with something new and exciting. She went on to explain the chain reaction one venue, if used correctly, could have on a local area. Creativity, entrepreneurialism and hard work can generate revenue, but it can also give something back to society, a sense of purpose and belonging, and eventually this can influence politics. To think that all of this has been essentially founded through creative thinkers, artists and their work for the sake of everyone is nothing short of staggering, as Maja put it, “we are everyday heroes.”
Born and raised in Belgrade and having spent his youth within 90’s Serbia ‘under Milosevic’s leadership, Vladimir Milivojevich developed a career as a street-photographer influenced by his local surroundings and the changes they went through. Now based in the states as a commercial photographer, Boogie often returns to his routes in Belgrade as a source for inspiration.
In my search for a more aesthetic representation of Serbia, I searched through Flickr and other photo sharing sites to see the country through the eyes of its homegrown photographers and visual artists, Boogie is one of several artists that has gained recognition as an influential member of the photographic community.
As an enthusiast for photography myself I’ve grown to appreciate his and similar works on a number of levels. Initially I was drawn to them for their technical expertise and distinct image, but as I learn more about Serbia I start to see these photos as an honest and indigenous portrayal of what they see. As Bazin and Vertov emphasized in their works, the camera and the image reflect the user’s perspective and mindset, creating not only a visual artform but a snapshot in time.
Boogie updates the blog on his official website frequently, largely consisting of his inspirations, and shots from his returning visits to Belgrade. Having come across his portfolio I intend to find additional photographers that showcase what might be considered ‘centre’ life in contemporary Serbia.
One of the biggest challenges we face when investigating any culture as outsiders is the identification of the centre. It’s all too easy to be drawn to the extraordinary, the liminal, characters and stories that sit on the periphery of normality within a society. It is crucial to grasp some sense of what the norm actually is, in order to avoid the pitfalls of fixating on that which is not representative of the majority’s ideals. As outsiders, locating the centre could prove be a close to impossible endeavor, having little to no true emotional and social connections to the subjects we observe. In addition, as researchers concerning ourselves with cultural and social fields we are often naturally inclined to locate the under-represented and the alternative.
Though we may never experience the same connection with a space as its native inhabitants, we can potentially understand it to a greater extent through the consumption of its cultural exports, social phenomenon and an adequate understanding of its history.
This category will link back to some of our findings from our preliminary research on Serbia’s culture, including artists, academics, events and exports: Most of which can be located within of contemporary Serbian society, or linked to its respective history.
Despite its significance in European history, the Yugoslavian wars and the subsequent formation of the independent nations is severely overlooked and misinformed in Western culture. Perhaps due to the historic ties with the Soviet states, our understanding of the history is limited. Personally I was never taught about it in school, and I heard even less about it on the news; looking back at the media coverage of the time and considering my somewhat renewed understanding, I’ve started to deduce the possibility that the Western World’s depictions of the Yugoslav crisis were framed in such a way that the violence and international tensions surrounding the conflict were larger than the countries themselves, effectively presenting the people’s struggle as a spectacle for the rest of the world to observe.
This transcending idea of war and violence has, in American culture especially, become a source of distraction and entertainment, with Hollywood directors and game designers casting this faceless, vague, Eastern-European identity as a war-mongering antagonist, the cultural industries gain a new genre to export. Taking for example the 2001 ‘Behind Enemy Lines’ blockbuster, which featured the Yugoslavian crisis as a violent, albeit subdued background in which an all-American protagonist can be the hero.
Beyond that comes the recycling of the East-Block identities in video-games that simulate ‘Modern Warfare’. One of the most poignant titles would be Criterion’s 2006 release ‘Black’. Again, Yugoslavia is constructed as a drab, repetitive playground for the western gamer to indiscriminately commit their own war atrocities without consequence, destroying buildings and murdering countless faceless enemies.
I intend to explore this institutional fascination with Yugoslavian representations further, and will be incorporating similar examples in future posts.