The Secret in the Mix or How I tried and tested

I arrived in Belgrade late on Friday, excited to kick off the P2P European Creative Hubs Network Exchange with an edgy concert. As I was walking down Gavrila Principa, a side street which runs parallel to the main Savamala District avenue – Karadordeva, trying to get a hold of my bearings in what I had read was the hippest and hype-est district of the Serbian capital, my arrival felt somewhat uncanny. I wasn’t expecting the oddly familiar sight before me. I had never seen Belgrade before, even though it’s basically a stone’s throw away from my hometown. However, what should have been a familiar Eastern European atmosphere was charged with a reality I wasn’t expecting to encounter full-on – the faces of Gavrila Principa were faces I had seen so often online in the past year, faces of people whose lives are on hold, faces of people in limbo – faces of refugees.

Even though I wasn’t aware of this at the time, this was my first official contact with my host creative hub – Mikser House. I was to find out the following day that Miksaliste, the refugee aid centre set up by Mikser House & its partners, is located about halfway down Gavrila Principa. Walking down that street felt like the whole year had been warped in very hard nutshell, which I’m still not entirely able to crack. I felt as dissociated from what’s going on in the world then, as I have time and again over the past year – clichéic-ly unable to make sense of everything, to find meaning or do anything particularly significant other than watch it all unfold. It was a miserable and reassuring walk. I was speaking recently to one of my colleagues & dear friends, who commented on one of those paranoid-but-believable social theories arguing that creative industries have always received significant governmental support before the outbreak of a massive conflict. This is certainly not the place to go into the philosophy of art as a coping mechanism, but it’s worth pointing out that despite the lure of pointlessness in the face of such a harsh reality, it was truly reassuring to see precisely these wonderful people which I was about to meet at the heart of both cultural and social change. One of the first things I found out about Mikser’s business strategy is that even though they have a couple of modules in their business, they don’t mix capital or bounce it from one module to another – it seemed to me that what they do trade in is energy. Call it positive energy, call it resourcefulness or call it giving back, but that hip and hype cultural atmosphere they harvest in Mikser House has a social impact in many other places than Savamala or Belgrade.

So: Mikser House turned out to be a landmark of Belgrade in more ways than I’d anticipated. The popularity of the creative hub was impressive from the very outset, visible in something as basic as asking for directions. Everyone I talked to in Belgrade, from my AirBnB hosts to people in cafes, knew where Mikser House is. Coming from a hub with a very targeted audience and a city in which many people are to this day, one year and a half since the inauguration of our activity at the Teba Factory, unsure of how to get there, it seems like a big deal to me. As I was making my way towards Mikser House on Friday evening, the stream of refugees slowly gave way to another stream of people, which seemed to flow in a very precise direction. Mikser House was hosting the trendiest alternative noise-pop band in Serbia – Artan Lili. I personally had no idea who Artan Lili were, but there was no doubt whatsoever in my mind that I had arrived at Mikser when I saw the stream turning into a small crowd in front of a building. I was checking the place out from a relative distance when I was approached by a very excited reporter, who upon learning that I’m foreign, quickly proceeded to tell me all about how cool and amazing this band which I was about to see is. That turned out to be very true. It also gave way to my very first dilemma of the exchange – how would I go about marketing a very cool Serbian band, which no one in Romania had probably ever heard of? And provided the first lesson I was to learn at Mikser – turn your creative hub into a brand and people will respond to your proposals even when they have no idea who’s who. This is what Anja, the programme coordinator at Mikser House, told me when I eagerly questioned her the next day – are there always so many people at their events? would she invite a Romanian band which Serbians hadn’t heard of? how would she market that? what’s next on their agenda? and so on, like a kid at Disneyland. Speaking of, our meeting on Saturday, to establish our work agenda for the week, took place at Mikser House, which was now hosting a Child & Parent Fair for recent mothers, young mothers, mothers to be – I’m not sure about the name of the fair in Serbian, but in my head it was the Mommy Fair and the atmosphere was as relaxed and appropriate for our meeting as it was for all the participants. Every type of event seemed to somehow fit into Mikser House. The Mommy fair was up and running at 9AM on Saturday and the layout of the place was completely different from that of the previous evening. I would never have assumed a concert happened there only a couple of hours before – the whole thing had finished at about 2-3 in the night. Anja assured me this kind of thing happened all the time – their production schedule was always full, especially in December. We took a short break while Anja had a meeting with one of Mikser’s clients – they were organising a private event for World Bank Day the following week. And surely enough, this meeting took place at a table right next to the one Anja and I were sitting at and still, everything seemed to go naturally and smoothly. This gave me a chance to update my team back home and throw around the idea of organising a wider variety of fairs – we’d hosted two handmade fairs in the previous year but the idea of going into more thematically specific fairs was appealing.

Agenda in hand, Anja and I were ready to take on the coming week – which roughly consisted of another concert, three more corporate events, topped off by the Rakia fair the following weekend. While the first three days in Belgrade were dedicated to exploring Mikser, Samavala, the city, the audience, the people, the next 5 days seemed like a crash course in how to efficiently use resources – logistical & production resources, human resources, marketing resources, creative resources, Mikser House has a tried and tested strategy for everything. I was coming to realize more and more the operative words at Mikser House were tried and tested. This was a perspective that Nana from Nova Iskra also insisted on highlighting when I met up with her on Wednesday. I’d met Nana during a workshop on “How to be a better co-worker” she’d held in Timișoara for the Architecture Biennale BETA. As I was committed to making the most of my Serbian experience, I decided to visit Nova Iskra as well. The team at Nova Iskra turned out to be even smaller than the one at Mikser and I began to realize the feeling of not getting enough done, of not having enough resources wasn’t a question of how big your team was, but of how well organised it was. Nana also gave me a much needed respite, in the form of a deadline – give it three years before you draw any long-term conclusions. Meanwhile, try & test & persevere.

By the following Friday all the people in Anja’s team knew me (and potentially had already had the chance to grow tired of my ceaseless questioning – the overexcitement I felt initially, that kid at Disneyland impulse, had not subsided much during the week) and had given me their cup of tea on each department at Mikser and how they’re run. I was particularly keen on finding out more about how they developed their brand and how they run their communication department, which incidentally was the only department run by a new team member, who’d only been working at Mikser for two weeks. He’d previously been running the communication department for Exit Festival in Novi Sad for a couple of years, though, and I felt I’d scored a home-run meeting him. Anja had already told me that for most of their higher profile artists they do a small tour, inviting them to Novi Sad and Zagreb, where they have partner organisations. Why not invite them to Romania as well? The more I networked with the team at Mikser and their collaborators, the more my list expanded – we could host a week-long festival with entirely Serbian performers based on that list. And yet, despite the progressive accumulation of all these contacts and information, I still relentlessly questioned, avid to find out more than their strategies, to find out the essential, the secret, what makes them tick. Along the way I had realised how similar the profiles of CitiZenit and Mikser actually were – the same objectives, the same business model, similar strategies, with a slight difference – ours were intuitive, theirs were tried and tested. The secret ended up uncovering itself as being no secret at all. Genuinely. The Mikser House team taught me there is no recipe, no full-proof strategy, no secret. I am woefully aware of how cliché both my revelations during this experience were – the inability to make sense of the world, capped one week later by the inability of other to make sense of the world for you. What I did end up gaining after a week at Mikser turned out to be somehow more valuable than full proof strategies – I got charged with their positive energy, their willingness to try and to persevere.

Now, such a happy-go-lucky type of conclusion is probably not what any programme coordinator, grant giver or institution is thrilled to hear. I get that, especially since happy-go-lucky revelations are usually non-transferable, so I’d probably be fighting really hard to suppress a sigh if I’d be reading this from someone else right now. But no matter, the unshakable confidence that CitiZenit is going the right way, even when no milestones are in sight down the road, even when it seems pointless and tiring and senseless, is still a much more valuable resource for our creative hub than all the know-how gained through this exchange. Don’t get me wrong, there was plenty of know-how. But sometimes, knowing how isn’t enough to get a good mix – sometimes doing it right requires the confidence and perseverance of tried and tested.

By Oana Furdea