The Other Budapest Experience

In the Hungarian capital, change is visible in the vibrant and politically active urban art scene, so we took the “Alternative Tour”

The Danube is rising fast as we walk along the gangplank on to the A38, a former Ukrainian coal barge moored in Budapest. “I’ve never seen it like this!” said Lauren Groves, a Brit who has lived in Budapest for four years: “Usually the gangplank slopes steeply downwards from the bank to the boat, meaning the roadies have a nightmarish time pushing the equipment back out.” Now the bloated river is perilously close to the banks, an omen of the floods to come.

Around 10 years ago, this unglamorous old work-dog barge was converted into a 750 capacity non-profit floating (and creaking) state-of-the-art music location. It’s run on a non-profit basis, with concerts filmed and donated to the national archives. In recent weeks, the booking team has attracted internationally-acclaimed indie artists such as Whitest Artist Alive or Crystal Castles with ticket prices as low as €10 or €15. “Seeing these bands here is so intimate,” enthuses Lauren. “It is an incredible experience.”

The A38 is the final stop on Lauren’s “Alternative Tour” around the hippest sites of a city she calls “Vienna’s poorer but cooler sister”. She’s been running these tours for just over a year, inspired by a similar concept in Berlin. Fizzing with enthusiasm for her adopted city, she wanted to give people an impression of “what it’s really like to live in Budapest,” while supporting local small galleries and art initiatives. The things she shows us are what make her want to stay:

“It’s an incredibly cool place to hang out – especially if you are involved in alternative culture. There’s a lot changing and it is constantly growing. It’s an exciting place to live.”

 

Change is visible at off-beat hubs like the café Telep, in the eye-catching mural by Supre Neopaint (bot. r.), and on the A38 barge, which has been adapted into a live music venue | Photo: Christian Cummins

Change is visible at off-beat hubs like the café Telep | Photo: Christian Cummins

Fledglings of alternative culture

The first stop is a mural near the busy public transport hub at the Ferenc Deak square. Szines Varos, or “colourful city”, is a project trying to brighten up the urban space for city dwellers. A cubed face in blocks of colour stares out from the side on a fire-brigade’s building. It is a fairly innocuous design but it was a controversial project in a city that is traditionally wary of street art. If caught, graffiti artists face jail sentences and authorities are wary of the most politically-neutral street colour.

“The fire-brigade said yes to the Szines Varos project straight away, but it took 10 years to get all the various permissions,” explains Lauren, outlining Budapest’s Byzantine governance. Negotiations were halted for a while when a member of the creative team forgetfully used the word “graffiti”, a horror word for the local governors. Even now it is not the design the artists had wanted. “But it is a baby step to a new policy on street art,” says Lauren, “hopefully the artists will be allowed to make more daring works in the future.”

There are positive signs. In the artistically resurgent 7th District, there’s an eye-catching mural by the group, Supre Neopaint. This painted park scene on the side of a building overlooking a municipal playground, like a bright continuation of the real park, has been officially endorsed and is much loved by the local population.

This is a challenging time for the alternative arts scene in Hungary and Budapest. The conservative prime minister Victor Orbán has focussed on “asserting national values” since he came to power, with, for example, the public purse paying for a series of newly-commissioned paintings of historic martyrs and heroes of Hungary’s pre-20th-century history.

His ally, Budapest mayor Istvan Tarlos, is no supporter of alternative culture either. In 2003, when he was mayor of the district of Obuda, he attempted to have a gay stall banned from the Sziget music festival on one of the city’s river islands. “The current government has a very fixed idea on what culture is,” says Lauren with a scornful smile, “and that’s walking around wearing folk costumes and going to the opera. That’s obviously ridiculous.”

Many Hungarians complain that this development in politics is about more than taste. Since he has been in power Tarlos has provoked widespread protest by appointing a certain György Dörner artistic director of the New Theatre in Budapest (See Central Europe News Briefs, TVR June 2013). Dörner is known for his far-right views, and, in turn, appointed the known anti-Semite Istvan Csurka as his deputy.

Many also saw politics behind the decision to oust the Gödör Klub (the pothole club) from its location on Erzsébet Square. An avant-garde arts, music and civic action venue, the Gödör had been a haunt of the city’s bohemian youth since 2002, after it occupied the “pit” left by an aborted project to build a National Theatre in the square.

A new club Akvárium Klub is there now, whose managers are seen as more amenable to the authorities’ ideas on culture. “Everyone I know in Budapest was determined to boycott the new club,” she says, before adding sadly, “but it’s actually doing very well.”

 

Change is visible at off-beat hubs like the café Telep, in the eye-catching mural by Supre Neopaint (bot. r.), and on the A38 barge, which has been adapted into a live music venue | Photo: Christian Cummins

The eye-catching mural by Supre Neopaint  | Photo: Christian Cummins

The irony of insurgency

Paradoxically the alternative scene is thriving in these conditions, because they have something to protest against: Without the government supporting them, “artists are realising that they are going to have to do something for themselves.”

Next stop on the Alternative Tour is Printa Café – an eco-design workshop that doubles as a café. Eerily, the space-age chairs and white walls give you the initial impression you’ve stepped onto the set of A Clockwork Orange, but the effect is softened by the recycled T-shirts that hang from the ceiling, along with the racks of limited edition prints from up and coming Hungarian artists and a small gallery in a side room. At the back of the café you can see the designers at work, stitching together new clothes and accessories out of old cast-offs.

It’s a lot to take in, and I was glad of the caffeine jolt of an impressive cappuccino I sipped at the white bar. Printa’s owner Tibor Várady is an aficionado barista and it shows. Refreshed, I moved on to Madách Square to another café, a little alternative hub called the Telep, festooned with stickers, handmade backpacks and longboards.

Yet, for me, nothing you can do in Budapest beats soaking up the atmosphere of the city’s iconic ruin pubs (romkocsma in Hungarian). These partially open drinking spots in the graffiti-scrawled bellies of half-derelict buildings have recently sprung up all over the city. But we went to the oldest one, the Szimpla Kert on Kazinczy utca. There’s a delicious atmosphere of anarchy, as if you were drinking in a squat.

It was quiet in the mid-afternoon in the half-covered garden, but at night, when the music is blaring, every nook-and-cranny is crammed with non-conformists. From afar, I’d found it troubling reading of populist attacks on the Roma, censorship, and the heavily disputed media law (“Hungary: Still Struggling Over Values” – TVR June 2013). But in the punk surroundings of the Szimpla Kert, after a day among progressive, creative, questioning artists, I felt optimistic. This is going to be a tough bunch to subjugate.

 

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