Logging on in Sarajevo

Davey Spens, Boat Studio

We set our swivel chairs a few feet back from the webcam, and had created an elaborate branded backdrop from of piece of black polyboard, pinned precariously to the wall with a couple of picture hooks. There was a stack of carefully placed magazines on the table, and a touch of greenery courtesy of a sorry-looking rubber plant. I angled a desk lamp towards our two faces. We were preparing for an appearance on Bosnia’s most popular TV station, a ten-minute slot devoted to our publication, recorded live over Skype from our office in London, for their 5.30pm news. 

These days it’s so simple to emailgoogleskypewikitweet someone from a foreign place to find something you didn’t know, that it’s quickly become a substitute for finding out things with your own two feet. Don’t get me wrong, the information superhighway is great, the world is about a thousand times smaller than it was when I was watching the Wide Awake Club, but the danger of leaning on the internet so much is that about ten percent of the planet is fairly well covered, and ninety percent of it, frankly, isn’t.

We made Boat Magazine this year as a legitimate vehicle to be grown-ups but still go globe-trotting two months of the year. We visit some of the forgotten cities of the world, bring the most talented people we know with us, and hope to hit a great big ‘refresh’ button. The premise is simple: how can you help inform people’s views of these places when the only information out there is dated and tied to past events?  The internet is very good at presenting stuff that’s trending, but it’s also pretty good at keeping some things in the dark.

Take Sarajevo. It’s not on Google Maps. There’s barely anything written about it in English.  All I pictured before I went there was Torvill and Dean in sequined spandex, skating to the Bolero, and gruesome images of war. When the siege ended in 1996, the journalists went home and haven’t been back since, leaving the ideas we have in our heads, the same ones they showed us back then, a Sarajevo war-torn and depressing. Google Sarajevo, and this slideshow is replayed ad nauseum, like a stuck record playing a funeral march since the mid-nineties.

We went in January. It seemed a crazy idea at first. To pick up our eight-month-old design studio and relocate to Eastern Europe for a month. In a recession. We rented an apartment, invited writers, photographers, illustrators and musicians to stay with us, gave them a blank canvas, and set them loose on the streets.

We wanted a good mix of content: writers and artists from the places we’d come from and local Bosnian contributors. The goal of the publication was to find out stories we couldn’t glean from our laptops at home, so whilst there were some web-led discoveries, most of it came together on the ground, over pints of beer and crossed fingers. Sarajevo is as warm as a radiator. Nothing prepared us the magnitude of our reception, the mind-blowing talent of the people we met, their pride and generosity.

We arrived with nothing, no previous issue to open doors and barely six Bosnian words between us. We left with a magazine packed with contributions from Dave Eggers and Sophie Cooke to pieces from the VII photographer Ziyah Gafic, interviews with Enes Zlatar, whose band Sikter supported U2 and album was produced by Brian Eno, and the Dvaesedostrica, a ‘boyband’ of twenty thirty-something men who have been together for two decades, and whose rehearsals are focused drinking sessions, interspersed with heated arguments. One contributor led us to another. Each opened their little black books and sent us beetling around the city. So that after an evening in the Youth Theatre with a man in Speedos dancing in a cage, we found ourselves eating chicken curry with the Oscar-winning film director Danis Tanovic. The thing about freewheeling, and going where the wind takes you, is that you end up in places you wouldn’t find any other way.

When you start a magazine, profile is everything. A few days after launching, the chance to appear on prime time national TV was priceless. I had my iPhone laying on my desk on speakerphone and the lady at the Bosnian TV station counted us in. For ten minutes we answered questions and talked about our newly published magazine to the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina, on the equivalent of BBC1. We’d prepared answers for the questions in advance and made sure we spoke slowly enough that the translator could keep up. When our time was up the presenters thanked us, I reminded the viewers of our web address, and that was that. We sat back in our chairs and took a breath. “I bet our site’s going nuts right now,” I said. I fell into the same old trap again. When I logged in to analytics in the morning, our stats were down on the previous day. How quickly we lean on the internet.

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