24 hours in Budapest Archives – Telekom Electronic Beats

24 hours in Budapest: Ábel Zsendovits (part six of six)

Nowhere is the contrast between the progressive drive of Hungary’s creative class and the current government’s reactionary politics more visible than in the sprawling capital Budapest. The city is known as the Paris of the East for its art nouveau architecture and flâneur-friendly boulevards, though extreme budget cuts and rampant racism under Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s nationalist Fidesz party are rapidly degrading its potential as a creative hub in what many see as an only nominally united Europan Union. We met six protagonists from the city’s varied art, music and cultural scenes who remain cautiously optimistic about their individual futures amidst the collective crisis. This is the final part of a six-part series. Click here for parts one, two, three, four and five. All photos by Rosalia Kullick.

Ábel Zsendovits is one of the four founders of the city’s oldest “ruin” bar, the Szimpla, in Budapest’s downtown 7th district. The bar’s combination of carefully maintained decaying architectural ecclecticism and alcohol provide Bohemian respite from the country’s current wave of reactionary politics.

 

11:34pm: A drink with Ábel Zsendovits

The cities of Berlin and Budapest have a mutual connection that dates back to the ’20s. The whole idea of turning an abandoned building into an improvised “ruin” bar was inspired by spaces like the famous Tacheles squat in Germany’s capital. Ten years ago there simply weren’t any bars in downtown Budapest where young people could go, other than the usual and pleasant beer gardens where everybody would hang out. Only after we opened the Szimpla, things started to change. Today the whole seventh district is covered with ruin bars, each trying, more or less, to recreate our success. The other day I actually counted them and it was more than thirty bars. But still, we were the first. When we moved to the premises in 2003 the building was already partly demolished. I even took photos of the crane with the wrecking ball. We then started to rebuild the rear part of the building by setting up a plastic tent in the debris, renovating all the remainders of the original structure until we eventually completed the roof. We furnished all the different parts of the complex with liveliness and with functionality.

In my opinion, the story of Szimpla accurately mirrors the last ten years of nightlife in Budapest. To put it simply: I feel we had instigated a new clubbing culture. Before Szimpla, you’d just drink in an average pub, but after we set up the bar, drinking became socially connected to a location, a place with real music that soon became recognized as a meeting point for the city’s hipsters. Also, this eventually became a destination for the young tourists. Of course, the immense expansion of ruin bars in the seventh district also led to some problems with the neighbors. I guess you could call it a kind of gentrification as many of the old neighbors felt forced out because they couldn’t stand the masses of drunken people night after night any longer. A new, younger generation that’s attracted to the same lively club scene that scared the old tenants away has filled the vacant flats since then.

Even though Szimpla has been an astounding success, the last few months have been a struggle for us. The municipality wanted to impose a curfew on all ruin bars to clear the noisy crowds from the streets at night. They wanted us to close our bars at midnight—an act that would have effectively meant the end of all the ruin bars, as our evenings don’t really start until then. Say what you want against the current government and the municipality, we only realized recently that if all the bars join forces we can put pressure on the authorities. Together, the city’s ruin bars have the economic power to set our own terms and conditions, forcing them to understand that they can’t invent laws that compromise our freedom to open our bars whenever we want. We have to pay a new tax now, but at least we’re allowed to stay open. The other day I was asked how this could have happened, and the answer is easy: tourism seems to be the only industry in the country that is still making money. Budapest has 2.7 million tourists a year. They spend approximately 2.79 nights in the city. It’s simply a textbook case of economics, I would say. ~

 

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24 hours in Budapest: Gábor Szilágyi (part five of six)

Nowhere is the contrast between the progressive drive of Hungary’s creative class and the current government’s reactionary politics more visible than in the sprawling capital Budapest. The city is known as the Paris of the East for its art nouveau architecture and flâneur-friendly boulevards, though extreme budget cuts and rampant racism under Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s nationalist Fidesz party are rapidly degrading its potential as a creative hub in what many see as an only nominally united Europan Union. We met six protagonists from the city’s varied art, music and cultural scenes who remain cautiously optimistic about their individual futures amidst the collective crisis. This is the fifth of a six-part series. Read part four here and part six hereAll photos by Rosalia Kullick.

Gábor Szilágyi is a curator who has felt the financial strain of the current government’s funding policies, which have included pulling money from projects not considered representative enough of the Hungarian state and culture.

 

8:30pm: Dinner with Gábor Szilágyi

Budapest’s cultural scene is facing a kind of exodus at the moment. Many creative people are leaving town to start again elsewhere, be it Berlin, Vienna or London. For most of us, the future in Hungary is extremely uncertain, but those who complain about the terrible past two years tend to forget that it wasn’t much better before. If you want to understand Hungary—and therefore Budapest—you have to realize that every government we’ve had since the fall of the Iron Curtain has been more corrupt than the next. They lacked democratic legitimation to say the least, and Hungary’s problems come from these upsetting continuities in its political culture; every government over the last two decades has played a role in the disastrous financial crisis the country is going through at the moment.

Earlier today I was listening to a radio interview about the history of the Hungarian secret service before and after the fall of the Iron Curtain, how it’s still the same set of people who wield that specific power. In Hungary, ex-secret service members infiltrated the parties, the economy, and the cultural field too. Some of our artist heroes, it turned out, were police informants who wrote reports about other artists in the ’70s and ’80s. Those kind of problems poison society and it’s not finished yet; they leapt from communism to socialism to capitalism, but otherwise nothing has changed in 2013. Whenever money is being spent on changing the city or whenever laws are changed to restructure the country’s cultural scene from top to bottom, these same people are involved.

As a curator I had to bury a lot of dreams and projects when the right wing Fidesz party came into power in 2010. They received a sensational 68 percent of the votes, which essentially means they can rule the country without opposition. Anybody involved in the arts is greatly affected because it means that the government ultimately decides what’s art and what’s not and cuts budgets accordingly. It’s unbelievable how much stress they put on the definition of Hungarian art. The last major project of mine that I had to shelve for this very reason was CoDA, the Budapest Architectural and Design Triennale, which had been in the planning stage. After a very good start and funding from the old government and the European Union, we suddenly faced rejection from the new authorities. The associated Scales exhibition would have dealt with the huge changes European cities went through after the big political shifts in 1956, 1968, 1989 and the EU extension in 2005—a broad and pertinent subject that can be examined from many different angles. Suddenly, all of this didn’t matter anymore.

The big problem when it comes to cultural politics in this country is that everything has to represent Hungary. It’s a shame, but there’s always a new project to invest your energy in. At the moment I’m preparing a science exhibition about volcanoes, again sponsored by the European Union. Did you know that the northern part of Lake Balaton in the west of Hungary was formed by volcanic activities? I like volcanoes; I embrace the idea that every situation can suddenly change—with a loud explosion. ~

 

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24 hours in Budapest: András G. Varga (part four of six)

Nowhere is the contrast between the progressive drive of Hungary’s creative class and the current government’s reactionary politics more visible than in the sprawling capital Budapest. The city is known as the Paris of the East for its art nouveau architecture and flâneur-friendly boulevards, though extreme budget cuts and rampant racism under Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s nationalist Fidesz party are rapidly degrading its potential as a creative hub in what many see as an only nominally united Europan Union. We met six protagonists from the city’s varied art, music and cultural scenes who remain cautiously optimistic about their individual futures amidst the collective crisis. This is the fourth of a six-part series. Read the third part here, and the fifth part hereAll photos by Rosalia Kullick.

András G. Varga is Electronic Beats’ intrepid Budapest correspondent and a freelance cultural promoter. He recently advised Tyler Brûlé’s Monocle magazine for their editorial on Hungary’s capital.

 

4:00pm: Coffee with András G. Varga

I have a strong commitment to culture and a keen interest in music and fashion. In 2008 I graduated from Corvinus University in Budapest with a masters degree in start-up management. This means that whenever a small shop or label wants to set up in Budapest’s utterly un-transparent and restrictive cultural environment, I can be of potential help. I’m proud to say that I was the babysitter for many ambitious start-ups and helped entrepreneurs to establish their brands, equipping them with the skills to survive in Hungary’s post-socialist, turbo-capitalist ecosystem.

Today it’s pretty difficult to start an enterprise in Budapest: it requires a lot of capital and the local market is small, isolated and inflexible. However, I remain an optimist and believe that willingness and creativity will go a long way. One thing I always tell my clients is that they not only have to serve the increasing number of tourists in Budapest, but that they also have to think internationally. They have to leave their own language behind and learn English in order to form international networks from the very beginning. In that sense, the A38 people have done just the right thing by opening their business up to an international audience. The same goes for a new generation of DIY record labels like 8ounce and Farbwechsel, fashion brands like NUBU and Nanushka, and many other artists and designers fluent in international business strategy. Not a single one of them would have survived if they’d focused on the Budapest scene alone.

One of the problems is that people here still expect support from state subsidies for their creative ventures. I think that instead we have to have initiative and I see it as an integral part of my work to bring people together and to convince them that they can help each other by pooling expertise and creating symbiotic networks, as it’s only through these means that you can grow. When I lived in London, I witnessed a kind of pro-active, community approach to running small businesses, and by contrast I’m always a little shocked when I encounter a certain kind of Hungarian ignorance traceable to a lack of trust and self-confidence. I truly believe Hungarians have many overlooked talents and that they have the potential to achieve great things. Likewise, I am certain that this city will revive itself in a couple of years in the same way that Berlin has regenerated itself over the last two decades. There are many parallels between the two cities, and you can already sense that Budapest could and will ultimately style itself as a hub connecting the west and the east. Yes, we’re going through a dark time at the moment, but I feel that the creative prospects of this great capital will come back stronger than ever. That’s why I’m always eager to help foreign magazines when they’re preparing city guides or editorial spreads about Budapest. I can become almost evangelical when they ask me to introduce them to all the members of the city’s burgeoning contemporary art, music and fashion scenes. There are many, many reasons to remain optimistic.~

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24 hours in Budapest: Zsuzsanna Bende (part three of six)

Nowhere is the contrast between the progressive drive of Hungary’s creative class and the current government’s reactionary politics more visible than in the sprawling capital Budapest. The city is known as the Paris of the East for its art nouveau architecture and flâneur-friendly boulevards, though extreme budget cuts and rampant racism under Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s nationalist Fidesz party are rapidly degrading its potential as a creative hub in what many see as an only nominally united Europan Union. We met six protagonists from the city’s varied art, music and cultural scenes who remain cautiously optimistic about their individual futures amidst the collective crisis. This is the third of a six-part series. Read the second part here, the fourth part hereAll photos by Rosalia Kullick.

Zsuzsanna Bende is the booker at A38. By pulling in larger acts and making serious investments in the soundsystem and club architecture, A38 has survived the wave of extinction that has ravished the city’s club landscape.

 

2:00pm: Lunch with Zsuzsanna Bende

The A38 was founded in April 2003, almost exactly ten years ago. Back then we had a boat and a love for music, but we didn’t exactly know what our direction was. All we knew was that we wanted to present great international acts, even if we didn’t know how to get them. We had good intentions, but because there was essentially zero basis or expertise, we couldn’t pay fees that would match international standards, nor could we refer to past merits. It was, in short, very, very difficult. To install a challenging program and to build up confidence for a venue in an ex-Eastern Bloc city such as Budapest requires patience and a huge amount of responsibility, and only by properly booking and organizing concerts can you gain credit. Over the years, my strategy of booking primarily international acts paid off very well and today we are known for exactly that. We are proud to say the A38 has become Hungary’s first stop when it comes to current cult international performers, ranging from Jane Birkin to David Lynch to The Brandt Brauer Frick Ensemble. Of course, we book outstanding Hungarian artists too—DJ Titusz, for instance, has a residency at the A38.

We’ve invested a lot of money into the A38 over the years and we now have a great sound system and capacities to film our concerts professionally. We even have an art exhibition space and a restaurant on the boat. Still, even if we aspire to be a live music space primarily, we also know that the real money comes from organizing parties. To book a DJ is always cheaper than paying a band and their entourage for a gig, so we came up with the idea of double billings on Fridays and Saturdays: first a concert, then the party. This concept has helped us enormously to navigate the brutal financial crisis that our country has seen over the last three years, and now we’re out the other side and very much looking forward into the future. Of course, it helped a lot that we were voted “The World’s Greatest Bar” by the readers of Lonely Planet and this past January we were voted “Best Venue 2012” by the readers of Electronic Beats online, picking up even more votes than the Berghain in Berlin. We’re already noticing the positive effects of these poll results, and as we build a more international audience, we face fewer problems booking for the forthcoming months. But despite these recent developments, the A38 strategy will always remain the same: we have to trust our personal taste as we feel it is our role to survey the market. The A38 never was and never will be a space focused only on one particular kind of music, and that is its strength.~

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24 hours in Budapest: Gábor Csabai (part two of six)

Nowhere is the contrast between the progressive drive of Hungary’s creative class and the current government’s reactionary politics more visible than in the sprawling capital Budapest. The city is known as the Paris of the East for its art nouveau architecture and flâneur-friendly boulevards, though extreme budget cuts and rampant racism under Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s nationalist Fidesz party are rapidly degrading its potential as a creative hub in what many see as an only nominally united Europan Union. We met six protagonists from the city’s varied art, music and cultural scenes who remain cautiously optimistic about their individual futures amidst the collective crisis. This is the second of a six-part series. Read our first part here, and the third hereAll photos by Rosalia Kullick.

Gábor Csabai, the godfather of Hungary’s independent radio community, continues to be a key figure in Budapest’s musical underground. 

 

12:00pm: Meeting Gábor Csabai AKA ‘Papo’ at Rádió Tilos Headquarters

The term tilos means “forbidden” in Hungarian, so Tilos Rádió literally means “forbidden radio”. Perhaps you’ve read the famous children’s book Winnie-the-Pooh and you remember Piglet’s house inside the beech tree? The tree has a wooden sign nailed to it that reads: “Trespassers w…”—some of the letters are missing but I could imagine that the original sign read, “Trespassers will be shot”. The famous Budapest underground pub Tilos az Á had named itself after that sign and was the station’s first location. When we started our program on August 21, 1991, we named it after that pub.

After the fall of the Iron Curtain, the Hungarian government promised to give out radio frequencies to free radio stations. In reality the situation was slightly more chaotic because during the transitional period founding a radio station like Tilos was still consid- ered illegal. However, the owner of the pub was fearless; the guy had a lot of experience running an offshore pirate station in the Netherlands, which would send its signal from just beyond the fifteen-mile boundary into the country. What’s more, in the pub a young DJ named Zsolt Palotai had already earned a reputation for spinning the strangest and most obscure music to date. He soon became DJ Palotai and Tilos’ first musical director and editor. With his stunning mixes he informed a whole generation of young Hungarians, feeding into the creative mood that flourished in Budapest. Besides that, I would consider the Tilos az Á the first “ruin” bar in Budapest, which is pretty forward thinking, as well.

In its infancy, Tilos Rádió had to broadcast from a variety of different locations in order to outrun the authorities. I remember moderating a radio show from the rooftop of a building, the top of a ten-story tenement and even outside from the top of a hill. In hindsight I’m sure the authorities could have ended this cat-and-mouse game pretty quickly if they wanted to—after all, they were well equipped with detection equipment and experience. Still, you got the impression that the situation was somewhat ambivalent. Maybe they just had to report that they were trying to get us? I know from various sources that at least some of the people who were chasing us were actually enjoying our program! However, we were always careful and would always monitor their communication, as well. That’s how we remained secret.

Compared to the romantic and adventurous start-up days, we’re now facing serious threats by the government to destroy the genuine community radio stations such as Tilos. Establishing a quota that obliges us to play fifty percent Hungarian music in our program is nothing but a bad joke. I mean, how are we supposed to fulfill the quota from only a handful of Hungarian albums when we are doing, say, one of our regular reggae programs? Even worse is the newly implemented obligation to provide a daily news service which forces us to build up an entirely new editorial department, something which places great strain on a listener-supported station. The final insult is that religious radio stations—as well as certain commercial ones—are suddenly being assigned “community radio” status just like us, which is of great concern. It’s an affront to what we do because the European Union clearly defines community radio as non-commercial and volunteer based. It renders the intention of Hungary’s new media act painfully clear: by means of bureaucratic bullying they are trying to turn politically neutral and independent institutions like Tilos Rádió into conformist entities. Yet we refuse to be intimidated and have developed our own responses so we can meet them head on. For instance, we now claim Hungarian “authorship” for skillful DJ mixes to meet the quota, in the same way you could say that Kruder & Dorfmeister’s DJ Kicks album, which curates tracks from international artists, was a genuinely “Viennese” DJ statement. Of course the struggle continues but one thing is certain: we will never give up.~

 

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