The Old Publishing House – BIGZ Building, Belgrade
From its commanding position on the busy Bulevar Vojvode Mišića in Belgrade's Senjak district, the tough, solemn facade of the BIGZ building can be spotted from the top of Kalemegdan hill in old Belgrade. Once filled with the operation of the Beogradski Izdavačko-Grafički Zavod (the Belgrade Publishing and Graphics Institute) that established itself in 1831, the use of the building has been recently transformed. For the last 1½ years, the BIGZ building has morphed into a semi-abandoned, graffiti-clad hybrid of working business premises and creative hemisquat. It is a place that pumps out an atmosphere of low-key commercialism amidst the echo of drums along its dark corridors. The padlocked units found on the various floors are now inhabited largely by designers and musicians, as well as alternative groups such as circus collective, Cirkusfera. BIGZ publishing also retain an office in the building. However for daytime visitors the most accessible feature of the reinvented BIGZ is the rooftop jazz bar, Čekaonica, that showcases a panorama of the Serbian capital – a charming view of old Belgrade in the distance, of the river, its half rainbow of bridges, and the city's intertwining rail and road network. Though I prefer the framed view through the glass blocks of the building's upper tower section. Old wooden box chain lifts are on hand and working to transport you to the roof to take in the view. Then at night BIGZ shows a different side, when low profile clubs that have popped up open their doors in the upper and lower corridors.
The most alluring thing about the BIGZ experience is that some of the abandoned parts remain untouched. Forgotten furniture remains in place among heavy old dismounted radiators; cleared desks with 80s magazines left in the drawers stand below faded posters flaking away from concrete pillars; torn typewritten documents are taped to reinforced windows; packing materials and ripped up carpets heaped in loose piles. Looking back in time, BIGZ publishing were in full flow in the 70s and 80s, releasing editions such as this piece of BIGZ nostalgia, a 1984 Serbian translation of Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer (pictured) that was purchased second hand in central Belgrade for a very specific 162 din. Following its publication in France in 1934, this seminal book was banned in North America until the 1960s. A BIGZ edition of the companion Quiet Days in Clichy was also produced, with a 1894 nude from Toulouse-Lautrec filling its cover. This slim volume joined the BIGZ back catalogue of titles by authors and poets such as George Orwell, Vasko Popa, Charles Baudelaire and Jack London.
The variant BIGZ building, then, is a welcome stimulus for an emerging art scene in the Serbian capital that has not yet reached its potential. But let's not invite complacency; Belgrade still needs more of the crucial and less visible mobile artists – the writers and painters who don't require the secondary habitation of a hub like BIGZ. That said, further inspired cultural injections, like BIGZ, could well build up a verve that attracts international writers and painters to Belgrade on a long-term basis. Once this occurs then the city could become an artistic centre of the future – it's certainly full of bars and cafés ripe for being adopted by littérateurs....
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