EXIT's Bojan Boskovic - festival freedom fighting
And you thought a three-day festival was hard work
Ross Purdie - 20 March 2008
For as we lazed though the 1990s merrily pegging today's festival culture into place, the fields of the Balkans washed red with Europe's bloodiest conflict since the Second World War. With ethnic tensions boiling over, Serbian leader Slobodam Milosevic embarked on a campaign of genocide against his neighbours, while simultaneously ruling over his own people with an iron fist.
Like any war, little positives emerged from the atrocities which plagued the region, but one shining light was EXIT Festival. First held in the summer of 2000 in protest against the repressive Milosevic regime, thousands of students gathered in the city of Novi Sad for a staggering 100 days of music and art. From the outset the emphasis was on getting involved, a spirit which still resonates today.
One of the key figures in mobilising the first ever EXIT Festival was Bojan Boskovic, who became instrumental in stoking its momentum for more than three months. Significantly, the mass gathering ended a couple of days before the, now historic, September 24 general federal elections, which ended up becoming the first step in Milosevic's overthrow. The slogan of the festival was ‘EXIT out of ten years of madness’, an obvious reverence to the dictator's regime.
It was decided that the EXIT should become an annual event to celebrate the togetherness of youth and help rebuild bridges between the nations and denominations involved in the fighting. A ‘State Of Exit’ was declared, which still exists, and the festival has since gone from strength to strength. Reduced from 100 days to nine and now to four, the event is held every July in an old Petrovian fortress which provides perfect outdoor arenas, with the castle walls acting as natural sound barriers.
After EXIT Festival was voted ‘Best European Festival’ in the 2007 UK Festival Awards, it was clearly high time for Virtual Festivals to sit down with festival director Bojan Boskovic and find out just how significant a music festival really can be - and to try to persuade him to restore it to 100 days, of course.
Virtual Festivals: The first Exit Festival back in 2000 rallied thousands of people in protest against Slobodan Milosevic. Were you there from the beginning?Bojan Boskovic: “Of course, we were there even before then! Back then we were students at the university in Novi Sad and we took part in and organised a lot of student protests. As the regime became more repressive it was becoming more and more difficult to organise such protests so we had to be creative in making a free space. The first festival was free so that Serbian artists could use the occasion to address people, ask them to participate in the elections against Milosevic and be more proactive. The first EXIT Festival lasted 100 days. It was totally crazy. I don’t think I could go through that again!”
VF: Was it organised or just improvised?
BB: “We organised it all pretty much ourselves and had many people working for us. It was very spontaneous though and we had no previous knowledge about anything so it was like school. 100 days of pre-EXIT school!”
VF: What sorts of activities
were going over the 100 days?
BB: “All sorts of things. Concerts were taking place all over the place. The festival had three phases that slowly evolved into anti-regime activities. At the end we finished up with around 15,000 to 20,000 people having come to the event and we told them to consider staying to battle through the changes in government in Serbia and the fall of the evil empire. It had a lot of effect in mobilising people because at that time we had no festivals or anywhere where people came together, especially not one that lasted for 100 days.”
VF: Was it known
as EXIT Festival right from the onset?
BB: “Yes it was, that’s where our grass roots are. We started off as an anti-regime rally of sorts and later on we evolved. So professionally we try to facilitate all the events we do to the highest possible level, but socially we try to stick close to the kind of thing we started with, beginning with the promotion of free speech and the embrace of a higher life. We want to see Serbia and the Balkan region stable and integrated in the European Community.”
VF: In 2005 and 2006, you had a year dedicated to Visa rights. Was that just
for the peoples’ free movement around Europe?
BB: “The paradox is that Europe is glorifying this vision of community and yet today you have countries that are so isolated. EXIT really represents the only window to what is happening in the more developed world. It’s like having a Berlin wall there, only much much higher and very hard to budge.”
VF: Has there been much progress in trying to further the rights of Serbians in terms of access
BB: “I think it has had a lot of impact. Internally, we try to influence public opinion and the government in Serbia to become more proactive in terms of getting the country integrated into the European community. Every move towards that is a good one. We need to draw a line and move forward, which should happen any time soon. Externally you probably know that most of the people that come to EXIT have a very good impression of the festival. They have all had a good time and it isn’t expensive; it’s a good place to spend time, have fun and meet people. Meeting people makes EXIT one of the most interesting events. For example, this year we are selling our tickets in Kazakhstan, Ukraine, Russia and then all over the West, so that makes it a real meeting point. The mix of people is what makes the festival great.”
You’ve pushed other political campaigns, like the sex trade. Is there anything planned for this year at all?
BB: “This year we will be concentrating on issues that are important to young people in Serbia and the region. We want to make strong steps towards the Visa abolishment, free movement in the region and improving the conditions for students and their ability to struggle hard and to study. Making their studies compliable with Europe is also important.”
How do you that? Do you have people on stage giving speeches or do you host workshops and put on stalls around the event?
BB: “We issue various projects. We see Exit as a kind of open source of learning where everybody can bring something to the mix. We basically let good people, NGOs and other organisations with good ideas present their ideas at the festival and then it all adds up to some kind of collective debate. That’s what we do on that front.”
Obviously it was 100 days once, then you brought it down to 9 and now its down to 4. Are you happy with that now?
BB: “I’m very happy with four days. I’m too old for 100 days! The nine days was very demanding because it spans two weekends and the staff get very tired. The four days is acceptable because our aim is to invite people to see everything that we do, if possible. When it was nine days people would pick a weekend or a day whereas we want them to come and spend a good time with us. The four days is a good model and has improved our ability to book bands as well.”
You’ve had loads of different line-ups over the years. Looking back on some of the earlier events it seems very dance
orientated but this year you’ve got the likes of the Sex Pistols and Nightwish. Is that deliberate?
BB: “There are a couple of issues that we are trying to make peace with. First of all there is the financial issue. We were voted the best European festival last year, and if there was a prize for the cheapest festival in Europe we probably would have also won that! We try and get the best with the money we have. The prices of bands at the moment are skyrocketing so it’s very difficult to get the biggest. But we like our position in regards to quality versus huge names. We really think we have a great program on this year. It’s important for us to get a balance between the main stage and the dance arena. We have 25,000 people in the dance area and around the same on the main festival stage, so we thought it was time to introduce more rock’n’roll. I think it is going to work.”
VF: Is the dance arena the biggest
BB: “The main stage is the biggest with a capacity of about 30,000 then the dance arena with 20,000 to 25,000 depending on how crowded you want to make it and then there are many other stages. The configuration of the terrain gives us the opportunity to have many stages because it is very acoustic. It’s almost like the fortress in Novi Sad was invented for EXIT. It is perfect because you have an upper, middle and lower town with thick brick walls that separate each section. It was actually built by the Austro-Hungarian empire as a last defence from the Turkish Ottoman empire, and was built in such a way as to never get conquered. You can really use the configuration of the fortress to make the festival look and sound good. EXIT has this energy because of the fortress.”
VF: Is EXIT similar to anything that
you have been to in the UK?
BB: “It’s different, our role model is more something along the lines of Roskilde. The hype surrounds the venue, the mixture of people and the fact that we are not so much under influence from the market, as the big publishing companies don’t have an interest in coming to the Balkans.”
Do you find that every year the number of British people heading to EXIT is growing and growing?
BB: “It is very unfortunate but we need to limit the number of people coming to EXIT from the west. If you read the press a lot of people from the east think there are far too many tourists from the west. The ideal audience distribution at EXIT would be a third from the west, a third from the Balkan region and a third from Serbia itself.”
good that you’re not just going for the money.
BB: “We are doing this with a long term goal. We have a clear vision of where we want to be in five and even 10 years from tomorrow. We really know how we want to play this in the future. Even before, when we were starting out we could easily have taken more funding from sponsors like cigarette brands but we decided against it.”
VF: You have a blueprint of this idea called the ‘State Of Exit’?
BB: “The state of exit is a state of mind. It’s like embracing a set of common standards for all young people. For us this was very important from the very moment we started, for fans coming out of Croatia, Bosnia and from all over the region. The Balkans was the very divided region for the past few decades so it was important to push the idea that we’re all similar in terms of values and how we want to live our lives. And of course it’s about having fun together.”
VF: Is there anything new being brought in for this year?
BB: “What we want to improve on most this year is the camping. That means facilitating and making the camping conditions better and we’re thinking of changing where it’s situated. We are also trying to make it easier for tourists to reach the festival. There will most probably be buses from every airport in a circle of 500km around the festival and we are looking at creating more localised projects. I hope that overall people will have a fantastic time at the festival.”
EXIT Festival takes place at Novi Sad, Serbia, from 10-13 July 2008.