INTERVIEW WITH JOVAN JELOVAC – NARATIV

The initiators of the current social development are the companies and individuals with progressive visions of up-and coming trends. Nowadays, small teams consisting of only a few experts, can in a shorter period of time achieve better results which until recently could have been achieved only by complicated state-funded institutions. One of the inspiring examples comes from Belgrade. It is called: Belgrade Design Week, in short BDW, which thanks to amazing international activities, transparency, and excellent diplomacy, demonstrated a new level of modernization of the city and promotion of the aspired society of knowledge. According to the leading Italian business newspaper “Il Sole 24 Ore”, Belgrade Design Week has made Belgrade come second on the list of the world’s top 11 destinations of 2011 for the specific time-period during BDW-a festival which, for the past five years, has featured the world’s most prominent professionals from the world of design, architecture and advertising.

This year BDW will be held between May 23 and 28 at the Yugoslav Drama Theatre, and it will be entitled “Future2”. Among other things, you will have the opportunity to listen to and learn from Stefan Diez, Harri Koskinen, Martin Gran of Snøhetta, Javier Mariscal, Mike Meire and many others. The Croatian designer Goran Lelas will present his collection of toys called “Somewhere City”, a part of the permanent design collection at the New York’s MOMA museum store. He recently adapted it for an iconic puppet TV show in Serbia.

We used this occasion to talk to Jovan Jelovac, the founder and visionaire of this entire festival, a person who gives it its unique “juice”, for which it is featured in major international media such as the British Guardian, Icon, Financial Times, Monocle, Wallpaper, Daily Telegraph, dezeen.com , the American International Herald Tribune, etc.

There are almost no design institutions in Serbia, and BDW has emerged at your personal initiative. You are the spiritus movens of this Festival that not only became well known and respected globally, it also started to actively implement the knowledge-based society in Serbia, and constantly provides new impulses
to its creative industries. After five years of organizing BDW, what do you recognize as its most significant impact and results?
The development of creative industries is, in my humble opinion, perhaps the only right path for Serbia. We really are the pioneers working on positioning our society in the world as, for starters, a place to create partnerships and share the most relevant global experiences in the creative industry.

The now world famous international conference has definitely been the heart of the festival since its foundation. With its quality and amazing atmosphere it attracted great attention of the public and it was only natural that such energy attracts many creative ideas, spontaneously turning into a proper festival – which is what BDW is today. Because of the experiences they had in Belgrade over the past six years, each of the now over 150 speakers at the conference has in some way become an ambassador of our city and our country. It is of massive importance for Belgrade today. We are constantly making and nurturing the bonds with those people, and we invite them to visit us again, and whenever and wherever possible, we emphasize Belgrade’s position on the world map of design and creativity. For example, last year we kindly asked them to write letters of recommendation to the EU for Belgrade’s candidacy for the European Capital of Culture in 2020.

BDW was visited by many global leaders in the creative industries of today, and the Festival itself became Belgrade’s prominent ambassador. Each year BDW generates an worldwide PR value which amounts to approximately 5 million euros. How else does BDW support its society, and particularly the City of Belgrade and Serbia?

By bringing the world’s greatest creative minds of the 21st century to Belgrade, and btw this is usually for their first time, much to their surprise as to what “we” in Belgrade are really like, BDW fulfills its mission of seeding the idea of a “society of knowledge” to Serbia, as well as the appropriation of our country and our city, and our entire region, by the global creative opinion makers. To our ongoing surprise, not only do these amazing people donate selflessly their valuable time and knowledge to us here, they also continue to promote Belgrade and BDW throughout the year, which helps us organize an even better conference each following year. World-renowned professionals and leading global media often give us a response like this: “You know, I’ve never heard of you, and it seems a little strange to me that something like this exists in Serbia. So I went to your website to check out who your guests were in recent years. There I found my good friend Shin Azumi and asked him about his impressions. You know what – and this never happened to me before – he told me that I HAVE to go to Belgrade, that BDW is the best conference he ever attended, that the audience is amazing and the atmosphere unique. That is why I agree to come to your conference this year, and I am looking forward to it.”

In this regard, I think BDW is particularly beneficial to Belgrade, especially to our strategic partner, the project “Belgrade 2020”, aimed at Belgrade’s candidacy for the European Capital of Culture in 2020. We appreciate this project immensely and we promote it globally probably more than any other institution or festival in the city does, just as we would support any other good initiative aimed at creating preconditions for a culturally rich and prosperous life in our society.

Lectures from renowned, successful and experienced creative people have enabled a significant amount of new knowledge to be generated in a very short period of time. Can the indicator of this impact in some way be measured in your environment?

I think it is undeniable that BDW literally raised a whole new generation of not only Serbian, but also regional creative minds. Those are not only designers, but also businessmen, entrepreneurs, architects, photographers, and even administrators, public officials… They are our audience, thousands of people each year, those who are the most progressive and ultimately the most inquisitive people of South East Europe. We sell hundreds of tickets to visitors from Croatia, Slovenia, Hungary, Macedonia, Bulgaria, Greece and the rest of the EU… There are as many foreign visitors as there are visitors from Serbia. However, in my opinion, the most interesting thing is the general level of professional quality these people demonstrate.

Each year literally hundreds of people make contacts with each other during BDW, they initiate new projects, cross-border partnerships, people from Serbia find jobs or at least internships at the most prestigious creative studios in the world, and vice versa. For example, Daniel Libeskind came to BDW to deliver a lecture, and left Belgrade with the commission for a project of a new settlement on the banks of the Danube, worth few billion Euros. On the opposite side of the spectrum, one must understand that there is a terrible cynicism of the creative scene in Belgrade, which in times of prosperity during Tito’s era, were raised with high expectations when it comes to festivals. Today, they are completely unprepared for solidarity and professionalism, for example, in terms of purchasing tickets. Our people expect to get free entry as some sort of “birthright” almost… We have radically put an end to that. That alone is a huge contribution to our battle against the lies of populism.

It is impossible to be on a professional mission, to be independent and earnest, and not to live off of ticket sales, because it is the most honest of earnings. The audience must be the largest “corporate sponsor” of BDW, rendering it impartial to business-or political interests. And that’s the way it will always be, because of our uncompromising attitude. The model of common consciousness for us is the old society of Dubrovnik, where I listened to stories about the island of Lokrum as a child, about how a botanical garden was created by captains of Dubrovnik’s historical merchant fleet. They were obliged to bring from each of their travels the most exotic plant they could find, and to plant it on Lokrum upon return, for the common good of the city, developing it for future generations who would pay for its upkeep. Those creative leaders of the 21st century are my plants from around the world which I bring from each voyage. BDW is my botanical garden for Belgrade.

BDW is also a platform oriented towards connecting the creative sector with the Government representatives, institutions, businesses and educational centers. Can you present a project in this segment to which you are especially proud of?

In cooperation with engaged entrepreneurs we have completed several projects that have resulted in new connections between industries, jobs creation and initiated new goods production in Serbia. These projects were initiated during BDW in form of workshops and competitions. Among several, one outstanding project we are proud of must be the design AND industrial production of the first national eco-produced piece of furniture: “Sitting Green”, on behalf of USAID. The goal of the contest was to establish a collaboration between leading Serbian furniture designers with the national production and sales sector, in order
to promote export and raise competitiveness of the Serbian furniture industry. Another success was achieved in collaboration with the Swiss pharmaceutical giant Roche. At our workshop for key Serbian designers special tools where designed for patients suffering from rheumatoid arthritis, and the winning entry will be mass-produced by Roche. There is another BDW collaboration we are proud of, with the Serbian Center for the Promotion of Science in New Belgrade. We managed the first international branding competition in Serbia for them, conducted according to highest international standards, involving BDW’s alumnis, leading global creatives and journalists for the jury. This project has the opportunity to become Belgrade’s first “destination icon”, like the Guggenheim is for Bilbao.

They have already organized a momentous global architectural competition, resulting in an amazing winning project that now will be built. We serve as technical advisers and promoters for the project’s branding – our donation to the project. You know, a prerequisite for the creation of the so called “society of knowledge” is the introduction of a strong culture of knowledge, which will not allow valuable initiatives to fail, regardless of whether they are private or public. We MUST help each other!

We all know how difficult it used to be, and how especially difficult it is today to provide sufficient funding for the implementation of projects. How do you manage to maintain the quality of the festival, in terms of finances, year after year? To what extent does the City of Belgrade, and the state itself, support the activities of the festival?

It is very, very difficult. This issue is really the weakness of the entire BDW concept, which is not just a program of a one-week festival at some given date during the year. First if all, BDW is a completely non-profit production by a private association of citizens. Not only do people work for free, in addition to their full-time day jobs, but because of the disastrous approach of institutions in the country towards this festival, and the current poor condition of the economy, they also donate funds to produce the festival each year. I honestly don’t think such a thing exists anywhere in the world. Second, since its foundation BDW hasn’t received
a penny from the Ministry of Culture or from any other Ministry in the country. We had just begun to hope that we have created a stable relationship with the City of Belgrade, to whom we proposed to cover only 20% to 25% of the budget for the festival, but even that didn’t materialise. Last year we received 6,000 EUR funding from the City, compared to our annual budget of almost 250,000 EUR. Or another example from the Tourism Association people, who know well how hard it is to bring top international media to Serbia: “These journalists would not normally come to Belgrade”. This year BDW will again bring 15 major global design- journalists, who will then write about our city and our people. That costs precisely 15,000 EUR, which is peanuts compared with the PR, basically. Do you know how much the Tourist Organization of Belgrade has offered us as support? 1600 EUR. And we are still grateful for that, because they are among the few ones who help each year. The Ministry of Tourism, Economy, Education etc, and all those other Serbian state institutions have not even answered our calls for a meeting. At the same time, all the media in the country announced that the famous Italian newspaper IL SOLE 24 ORE, the most important business daily in Milan, has named Belgrade the second most important destination in the world in 2011, particularly because of the Belgrade Design Week conference! I think it is devastating for our country that BDW survives primarily on the loyalty of its ticket-buying audience. Which, again, are sold at lowest possible prices as we are strictly non-profit, but they are still expensive for our standard. And most of all, thanks to the international community and institutions working in Serbia such as foreign businesses, cultural centers, embassies and chambers of commerce. And finally, thanks to this small group of enthusiasts, the BDW team, smart and hardworking people – tip on the hat for their performance – which lasts throughout the year. They all saved BDW again this year, with a number of small benefactors and friends. And that’s it, really simple, but extraordinary, still.

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Belgrade Design week unlike so may other city design events has a wonderfully essential vibe about it. Nothing pretentious in the air but big bags of energy and enthusiasm. It feels like the Serbs haven't already decided what design is and so are open and ready to riff off the ideas that come in to sharp focus over these precious days. The city itself has a gritty charm about it which complements the event perfectly.

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