Srđan Šaper: On the other side of the "box"

In an interview on the occasion of Bitef Festival, to which I&F Grupa is a partner, Srđan Šaper talks about the cooperation that brings refinement, about why people are silent in the theater, just like in the church, about VIS Idoli and about what used to upset him earlier and what still does today.

In one of the interviews, you said that when it comes to the success of the I&F Grupa, what you are most proud of is the fact that you always try to think out of the box. How challenging is it to think out of the box in Serbia today?

Thinking out of the box is always challenging, because it is the only way to become your own surprise. The size of that challenge has never been linked to a time or a space. That is the principle that Mira Trailović and Jovan Ćirilov applied when they created Bitef, and I believe that Ivan Medenica applies it today as well. The only thing that has changed over the years is the “box” and its limits. What used to be unthinkable a decade ago is now normal. On the other hand, some peaks which were conquered long time ago are now unreachable. Pushing the boundaries, surprising yourself and your surroundings has never been easy. Sometimes, it can cost you your life, symbolically or literally even. The fact that it is not easy is what makes it more rewarding when you put into practice an idea which was generated through thinking out of the box.

Apart from that, on what else do you insist in your team? What individual characteristics, team work, what kind of attitude towards partner and clients?

Curiosity is very important. Curiosity encourages you to broaden your knowledge, to ask the questions that could take you to the other side of that box which we have just talked about.

After the period of artistic creation, you ventured into the world of business. You have obviously managed to find a common thread for both of those fields. How much freedom have you kept upon entering the business world?

Due to a combination of circumstances, I have never had anyone above me, apart from my own limitations or prejudices. After being a freelancer for a long time, I started my own business. I have always had freedom to make my own decisions, but what it brings along is responsibility and some kind of loneliness. Responsibility towards your clients and towards your employees. I had a complete freedom to put my ideas into practice, but also the responsibility that they could turn out to be successful or not.

You were a part of the new wave. The band Idoli was one of the founders of this genre in our music. Even today we can see that period being idealized, not only by the older generation, but by the young, too. Were you aware of your revolt at the time? What was it that kept you going, what was it that motivated you, who did you rebel against, and is it true that revolution devours its own children at some point?

Each period idealizes its beginnings, just like each old age idealizes its youth. Whether the new wave happened at the beginning of this time or at the end of some previous one, I cannot tell anymore. In any case, to many it meant more than just a music, more than art, it represented our image in an ideal mirror. We are now some other people, the mirror has broken, and whether the idea died somewhere “beyond the good or the bad”, time will tell.

The sociopsychological context of the eighties was crucial for the creation of the new wave, for the young people back then, for their awakening, but also for abandoning themselves to vice. After their grandparents (the generation of communists), and their parents who were those communists’ children but whose generation was mixed - there were children of partisans, of pre-war bourgeoise, but also of dissidents - the schizophrenic atmosphere created a backdrop against which the members of the new wave grew up. Everything was seemingly under control, the regime was stable, but Tito’s death only accelerated what was simmering under the wave of that apparent perfection. The young were dissatisfied, decadent, self-destructive. What is it that used to upset you then, and what is it that upsets you now?

The new wave unsettled us all. That new music did not care how well you played but how you felt. Tito’s death was, in a way, the death of Yugoslavia. We lived and died in a country and in a society, without having felt that. Like in the film The Alien, those years caused something alien to grew inside of us. We were incapable of fighting for a great cause, while young people of today are, although very few can see that. Unfortunately, back then I was upset by an illusion while today it is the essence that upsets me.

Idoli song “I Rarely See You with Girls” was more than subversive at the time. How do you see the current music trends in Serbia, what, if anything, is subversive today?

That song was created out of an unspoken desire to conquer the space of liberty. No matter how modern Yugoslavia was, intellectually it was oppressive. Censorship and self-censorship were extremely powerful. People cannot imagine that conquering that kind of freedom was quite an accomplishment. That was the challenge we took up - let’s throw down the gauntlet to everyone, we thought, and let’s see what happens. The music of today is intimate, that is the difference.

Since its inception, Bitef has been bringing various kinds of art, supporting new cultural spaces, experimental forms, it has dealt with social, political and cultural contexts, but also with the consequences of theatre… This year, political performances become an important part of the selection. Among them is also Oliver Frljić and his performance Gorki - Alternative for Germany? which poses the question of the actual strength of theatre today, and of its limits. What would you say, what is the social role of the theatre?

If theatre were not powerful, would we talk about it today? If it could not influence the society, would we have listened for weeks about last year’s Bitef and the performance Olympus? I am sure that this Bitef will also cause some turmoil. Theatre poses questions, makes us confront our shadow over and over again. I see the social role of theatre as some kind of religious ritual in the secular world. In theatre you keep quiet, like you do in church.

I&F Grupa and Bitef have cooperated for two years now. Why Bitef as a present to Belgrade?

I believe that what is important for the existence of a community, apart from the material wealth, is what its soul and its cultural capital are made of. Cultural heritage is the proof of the uniqueness of a society. People I work with are dedicated to the promotion of culture and cultural heritage. This is not our first project linked to culture, art, and creation. We have carried our several campaigns whose idea was to have art make people happy again, the people who had forgotten about it.

On 6th September this year, in the gallery November, we presented the project of Bitef archives digitization. What motivated you to cooperate with Bitef on this project?

I think that it is very important to keep the memory of Bitef. Bitef should outlive both us and our memory. Mira Trailović and Jovan Ćirilov did a huge thing for theatre, for Belgrade, and for our country. All the nations that are keen to protect their identity, digitize their memories, making them thus more accessible to the ones who are familiar only with digitized world. That is how our memory is passed from our “analogue” generations onto the “digital” ones.

Last year, Bitef organized its first Donor Dinner with I&F Grupa. It was very successful, some famous visual artists donated their works. Investing in art is very important for companies, for their social responsibility, their business, but it seems that in our country, due to various crises, business people still have not reached that level of awareness. How could we change that and improve corporal social responsibility?

I think that cooperation projects like this one enrich both the society and the companies, and contribute to the community development. The word company makes people think of something cold and impersonal, but companies are made of people. Those people wish to share their success with the community, to support projects and the institutions with which they share common values. Our research has proved that people expect a lot from the brands they like. More than they expect from social networks. And that is binding.

One of the themes of this year’s program is focused on remembrance, on memories. How do you remember past Bitef festivals? What has Bitef brought to Belgrade?

This festival has managed to keep the spirit of the new and progressive in theatre for over half a century. Bitef made it possible for Belgrade audience to follow the evolution of theatre art. Bitef has been teaching us for years to be open towards the accomplishments of others and to learn from them. When I think about Bitef, I think that back then it used to connect the East and the West, and now it can connect the untied links between the South and the North.

Last year, you handed the Audience Award. What significance does it have for you to be a part of Bitef in such a way?

It is the audience that keeps a festival alive, which is why the award reflecting the audience’s opinion is very important. I am happy I had a chance to give that award. I was honored to be a voice that represents Bitef audience.

What is the first thing that comes to your mind when you think of the world without people?