Belgrade Design Week 19.08.11

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We had been in Belgrade less than 24 hours when the news broke that Ratko Mladic had been arrested. Mladic, a former Serbian military commander, had been on the run for a decade, evading an indictment for war crimes committed during the wars that tore apart Yugoslavia. While he remained at liberty, Serbia remained a semi-pariah in Europe; with his capture, EU membership now beckons for the republic.

Belgrade Design Week has a conference format: a succession of speakers showing slides and talking about their recent projects. The formality of this structure doesn't stop it being subject to scarcely believable late running, often accumulating to three hours by the end of the day. The flash about Mladic came as we waited on the first morning. There was no jubilation– the relief that everyone I spoke to expressed was tempered by anxiety that months would now be spent raking up the extremely painful and sensitive recent past. National root canal surgery was about to be performed in The Hague, and its necessity and the benefits down the line didn't make the immediate prospect much more appealing. Plus there was the potential for troublemaking by the nationalist far-right. That night, the mood in the city was tense. Riot police ringed key buildings like the parliament and trotted from place to place in businesslike columns. During a seemingly arbitrary operation to clear a major street, Icon was briefly kettled, along with a British trend forecaster, and the student volunteer who was accompanying us to a restaurant, and no one else.

These volunteers work punishing hours shepherding foreign visitors around the city. For a foreign visitor, BDW is a crash course in the redemptive power of the creative industries – or at least the great faith that some have that such a power exists. In the carousel of European design weeks, biennials and festivals, a lot of bushwa gets talked about how the creative industries have the ability to turn rustbelt backwaters into thriving Monocle-friendly Hipsterburgs. In Belgrade, however, you get a sense that it really might work – or at least that it really deserves to. Belgrade positively steams with potential. The volunteers are palpably hungry for an end to Serbia's two decades of isolation – it is hugely refreshing to encounter such enthusiasm for the European project, and for design as a vehicle for transnational dialogue.

The programme itself is a curious affair. Top names from European design – this year the roster included Patrik Schumacher, Arik Levy and Stefan Diez – talk about their work to a predominantly local audience. The foreign press contingent feels a little surplus to requirements, until you realise that you're there to help sanitise Belgrade's image, and to help get the rest of Europe talking about the city in connection with something other than, you know, Mladic. Now he's caught, a good next step would be to link with Mixser, a simultaneous festival of local design, combining BDW's continental name-recognition with more homegrown talent.

Belgrade Design Week. Jugoslovensko Dramsko Pozorist, Belgrade. 23-28 May



Belgrade Design Week



William Wiles

quotes story

Belgrade positively steams with potential. The volunteers are palpably hungry for an end to Serbia's two decades of isolation

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