Cultural Cleansing: EXIT, Novi Sad and Serbian Culture

It has become one of Europe’s biggest music festivals. The current issue of the inflight travel magazine on Serbia’s national airline JAT goes so far as to call it a global event. They are not the only ones. The name of this barnstorming event is Exit (July 10-14), the venue Novi Sad, Serbia’s second largest city, that beautiful Belgrade on Valium, to use an expression wedged in one of the tour guides. Held at the Austrian built fortress of Petrovaradin, it has become a tourist beacon, a noisy attraction if only for a few days.

Exit, for all its zany excitement, has another story. It’s that of carefully cultivated public relations. Serbia wants admission to the European Union, an inexplicable desire in the broader sense given the implosive potential that arrangement faces. The sense in Serbia is that dictate has followed dictate. Hand over the war criminals. Check. Modernise economic structures. Check. Have hearty festivals of noisy welcome. Check.

Such trumpeting, it is assumed, will get you far in the cultural stakes. And Serbia has been a victim as well as a villain of playing the culture game when it comes to gaining acceptance in the European community. Rogues one day become the fairy tale heroes the next. Roles shift; images dance and alter. The narrative of the brute has been replaced by the narrative of the party reveller.

The experiment has worked. The British Daily Mail, mandatory reading for many of the lobster-coloured Brits who would actually visit the festival, writes in true trashy prose about impressions of Serbia. Marcus Barnes, in a June 17, 2011 issue, makes usual reference to bombing scares on arriving in Belgrade and stumbles over basic cultural points. (He confuses, for instance, Orthodox with Catholic.) He is, however, generous. He is impressed by the salaš farm houses that have become dens of iniquity for nouveaux riche decadence. To Barnes, they are merely “rustic” retreats. To many locals, they smell of liquor and moneyed infidelity.

There is little doubt that the organisers of Exit have been impressive in terms of scale and exposure. The venue, with its labyrinthine solidity and picturesque backdrop, assists. Patrons get expansive bang for their buck. Additional money from the public purse likewise, though this has been a source of discontent for local culture vultures who shake their heads at the priorities of the Serbian state and those of the city of Novi Sad. The Serbian government’s budget on cultural expenditure is a barrel scraping 0.83 percent. If a cultural program can’t become a chest-thumping exercise of excellence, it won’t be funded. Witness, to this end, the Belgrade Design Week held in June last year (Forum d’Avignon, Sep 17, 2012), festooned with political razzmatazz.

Certainly, a cast such as Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Snoop Dog aka Snoop Lion, and Bloc Party do nothing to suggest a Serbian flavour, though they do everything to highlight the broad church that is music. Besides, Snoop Dog has done has fair share of “exiting” over time, having achieved “R:Evolution” in accordance with the event’s theme. (The old cool is the new cool, namely, simulated illiteracy.)

There is the Main Arena and the Dance Arena and 20 other stages featuring a range of musical genres. The festival is also spiked by political themes, a protean ensemble ranging from immigration to the sex trade, depending on what hot issues arise at the moment. The more romantic, and perhaps wishful thinking types see in Exit the birth of a political reaction to a Serbia that was suffering under Milošević in 2000, going so far as it call it a mobilising tool against his regime. It was not so much the day the music died as one which resulted in a birth, music as political catharsis. Exits can be symbolic, a matter of escaping one world for another.

The project’s mission was described by co-founder Bojan Bošković in 2006: “The mission may have changed since getting rid of Milošević – but we are still using music as a powerful tool.” But the art of politics is often the art of expediency, and the festival made headlines when its organisers got into bed with Serbia’s right-wing Radical party after it won control of Novi Sad’s city government. Given that the party’s pugnacious leader, Vojislav Šešelj, is currently facing war crimes charges in The Hague, the matter left a bad taste in the mouth of critics. Had the ideals of the 2000 founders been betrayed? Bošković’s response to this calculated tryst was consistent: for the festival to survive, organisers must make decisions. Then, it was to ensure the continued use of the fortress.

There have been other points jotted down in the negative column. Analysts in the tourism industry have not found much in the way of what Exit returns to the local economy. Yes, there are the fees for concerts, not in themselves exorbitant, but the young patrons, despite being by and large “western” do not tend to fork out as much as they would at other events. They are, as one study in Geographical Institute “Jovan Cvijić” puts it, young and “unemployed” in the main. Then there is the spike in prices during the days of festival, with variations in quality of supply.

Damage also accrues to the fortress each time the revellers stomp through its environs. True, it was designed to sustain considerable amount of wear and tear, but the modern party goer is a breed as ferocious as any Ottoman invader or standing garrison.

The uncritical eye will see the event as one of genuine enjoyment, the image of a state stripped bare. Few countries do musical festivals better than Serbia. In 2010, a study found that 49 “traditional pop music festivals” were held annually. No longer estranged, Serbia is embraced, even if it requires a heavy dose of alcohol and window dressing. In 2006, as former editor of Ritam Magazine, Dragan Ambrozić, remarked, foreign performers were greeted by a different scene to the conventional bogeyman image, finding instead a “knowledgeable, passionate audience – very different to what the media had led them to expect.” The Austrians of the eighteenth century would have been amused by all the fuss.