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.
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.”