Interview with Iva Cukic from Ministry of Space

No comments

In Serbia’s capital Belgrade we met Iva Cukic, who is a member of the urban development organisation Ministry of Space. They often squat urban spaces that are abandoned or neglected, even after the spaces are privatised. Ministry of Space revitalises these spaces by rearranging them as workplaces, housing or alternative art galleries, starting from the concept of everyone’s right to the city (see the eponymous essay of sociologist Henry Lefebvre). They strive for a city in which every community and citizen can participate. Moreover, they study urban planning and laws in order to appeal against illegal decisions of the city government and to advocate the civil rights of vulnerable citizens. Moreover, they organise two educational programmes, respectively concerning the concept of the commons and the so-called ‘Right to a Different City’, in which examples of righteous urban development from all over Europa are being analysed.

 

 

“Our main focus is reclaiming space by squatting, using public space as an open window.”

 

Ministry of Space was founded in 2010-2011, but under different names. We started four different initiatives. One was related to a street gallery trying out the idea to see how bureaucratic systems change in order to use a public space. The second initiative was a squat in my neighbourhood. The third one was a campaign around the privatisation of cinemas. And the last one was a film festival where we screened amateur movies.

 

The original idea was to have a hundred of different people working on the same projects: fostering cities as participation, the ‘Right to the City’ concept, etcetera. But after a few months, we found out that there were only five people actually doing this, so we decided not to pretend anymore, to team up and give a name to ourselves somehow. In 2012, we had an election and every time we have an election on national level, it comes with a lot of changes in the names of the ministers and the numbers of the departments. So ‘Ministry of Space’ in Serbia sounded very logical in some sense. The first few months we actually had the huge success to get the private addresses and phone numbers of actual parliament members, just by introducing ourselves as a member of Ministry of Space and nobody was thinking twice about whether such a ministry actually existed or not. Then after two or three months, suddenly people realised that we were not an actual ministry and we got busted. Luckily for us, there were only tiny consequences tied to this stunt, which is also cool.

 

Our main focus is reclaiming space by squatting, using the public place as an open window. Public space is very important in our workings. It’s not only the public space, our focus is also on public property. There are many empty buildings in Belgrade that got destroyed, neglected and left as a ruin until somebody comes along, buys it and then again, does nothing with it. All while there are so many people in the need for space for decent housing, for existential problems, but also work space and space for some artistic and cultural production. That was the idea when we started: how can we manage the public property and public space in a just and proper way? We wanted everyone to join and participate in the discussion. In public space are different bars or parking places and therefore are not public anymore, because I have to pay for it. It’s very regulated in a consuming way and also privatised.

 

“[I]n the end I collected information of about 100 different initiatives that are claiming the right to the city in 42 towns in Serbia.”

 

I was born in Belgrade and I want to make it the best place ever. I live 0.5 km away from the street gallery, it was used as a legal parking and has been a public toilet for twenty years. So we have to fight for some space that looks neglected, but is not neglected at all. There are so many different levels that exist there, and they are all fighting. Once you enter that fight, you suddenly become the enemy of all the people that surround you. However, we not only have enemies, but also very close collaborations with several initiatives and groups from Serbia. In 2012-2013 I did a research project, ‘My confession‘, about urban activism in Serbia that existed from 2010 to 2013, because that was the period when we started to do different things. We travelled a lot around Serbia and talked a lot with different people, presenting our case, presenting what we were doing and what our friends from Croatia, Montenegro, Bosnia or even Europe were doing. Then I send a questionnaire to all the people I met and nobody answered me. So I started to write a book with the memories that I experienced and some other things. I did the graphic design of the whole thing as well and I called the book ‘New map of Serbia‘. It’s a book with a poster map and I sent it to every one of them.

 

Then suddenly, they all sent me texts and more tips. They sent me context of other initiatives that exist and in the end I collected information of about 100 different initiatives that are claiming the right to the city in 42 towns in Serbia. In the end it became an unbelievable publication about different city movements. And it helped a lot. But my experience is that when you go from Belgrade to a smaller town in Serbia, they see you as an alien coming from another universe, because there were a lot of stereotypes like Belgrade being so big that everyone has opportunities there. But, for example, there aren’t any close relationships among the citizens and decision makers like there are in the smaller cities. So you have to give attention to the image of the big city that lives in smaller towns. We figured out that the book would help smaller initiatives in smaller towns to work together as well. And that happened in many cases, because before, they felt lonely, like they were the only ones who were doing what they were doing. After getting to know each other, they also started to cooperate.

 

“[W]e are trying to combine [many different strategies] into the main project which is a just city development fighting for a city for all of us and city participation.”

 

We use many different means to get people involved, because we come from different backgrounds and different interests, but we are trying to combine them all into the main project which is a just city development fighting for a city for all of us and city participation. This discourse is also part of the ‘Right to the City’. So basically, we have several different lines on how to act. One is using art and culture to mobilise people to raise awareness about all different things and to create new spaces. Then we have the theoretical discourse on bureaucracy where we react on different things by analysing laws and analysing plans. For example, on the Facebook of Ministry of Space, you can find the comments on different detail plans. If you’re a citizen and you don’t know how to react if they demolish your house, you can find the comment on a specific plan on our Facebook and then you can go for it and actually advocate to keep your house. It’s usually very open in Serbia. Then we have two study programs. One is a study of commons. Through this study I know Aleksander Matkovic since we are working together on it. For this project we have four different subgroups: one is Urban Commons, which I moderate. Then comes Solidarity Economy, which he moderates, and then Commons around Culture and Education and Digital Commons. And parallel to that, another educational program with the name ‘The Right to a Different City‘ brings different practices together about cities from all around Europe. Also, we present cases, which we discuss. And all the material is published, so you can use that as a theoretical framework.

 

The discussion about the commons came into our vocabulary not even two or three years ago. There has always been a kind of discussion about public spaces, but then again, these places are not really public. Not everyone can enter and it has some kind of regulation based on how we decide to be organised. And it has also another problem, which is related to our socialist past and how buildings, housing and companies were self-managed back then. You have to be careful how you use specific terms when you want to gather people around an idea, because some of them are traumatised by the period. The vocabulary of ‘socialism, communism, commons’ doesn’t work in all cases. However, for ‘commons’ we have a translation in our language, which means ‘the good that we use all together’. So it’s not self-management, it’s a bit different from the socialist period.

 

“[I]f you are an artist in Serbia and Belgrade specifically, nobody covers your expenses, you have to do it all by yourself.”

 

We try and influence people of the city every day. We actually work with bottom-up initiatives and we’re not into elite circles. For example, this morning, people from my collective went to stop an eviction of a very poor family and also last week we defended workers that were using some flats illegally. We now exist long enough that people call us, send an email or just come over. We also work with different collectives that are covering different topics that we organise all together.

 

There is no one who is the boss, everyone is completely equal. It’s a principal. We have a meeting once in a week, in which we discuss everything on the agenda. We’re all sitting together around one table, nobody at the head of it. Right now, there are eight people in the office, five are fully employed and two are interims that just started to work with us. The rest are a few of our friends, who use the space and who also help around with different things. We don’t receive any money from the government anymore. For the street gallery project we received money from the Ministry of Culture, but that was next to nothing. We didn’t get any salary for that. We are, however, covering the production costs of the exhibition, which is very important for me. Because, if you are an artist in Serbia and Belgrade specifically, nobody covers your expenses, you have to do it all by yourself. It’s very different to be an artist here.

 

“We did a campaign for four years to state that the privatisation of cinemas was illegal and to ask what happened with the spaces once that they were sold.”

 

There are some associations that support artists, two actually: the Ministry of Culture on national level and the Secretary of Culture on the city level. That’s it. We also have two museums that have been closed for several decades, so that visualised the state of the cultural sector. In 2007, they closed 14 cinemas in one day. They got the idea that nobody wanted to go to cinemas anymore because you can watch films on DVD now. So they sold the space. In the socialist period cinemas and cultural centres were built in the centre of the city or in the peripheries, in the middle of the communities. These lots were great real estate and selling them raised a lot of money. We did a campaign for four years to state that the privatisation of cinemas was illegal and to ask what happened with the spaces once that they were sold. In the end, there was only one cinema left, called Zvezda (Star), next to the city assembly. It was the only cinema whose existence was guaranteed to the workers, because the cinema was a shared company and the workers actually owned it. You can go there, it is still active. They opened a terrace a few weeks ago. It’s an occupied cinema. That was a great success. The government pretends they don’t see it, but it’s in front of their nose, literally: it’s across the street of the city government.

 

The right to the city is an important right for us. To participate in decision-making, because the city belongs to all of us. We all should be included in the discussion. When you for example listen to decision makers, politicians, they always say that they’re making cities for investors and tourists. This is a super dominant narrative. The citizens are just lost. Citizenship is not important. They ignore the fact that there are two million people who are not investors or tourists, but they’re the ones who need to take care of these investors and tourists, and of the city. It’s the same problem with the Belgrade Waterfront Project: they declare it as a project of the national significance and they gave 100 hectares of the city centre for free to an investor from Abu Dhabi. They will build the highest tower and the biggest shopping mall in Europe and the most luxurious apartments and residential and office spaces in the Balkan, but for who? The average salary in Serbia is around 300 euros, while one square meter in one of those buildings costs more than 4.000 euro.

 

“There are genuine solidarity networks, for example if somebody gets evicted, we know that 100 people will come at 6AM to stop the eviction.”

 

I don’t know whether the younger generation is developing a new kind of citizenship that discusses things more, that negotiates more and creates solidarity networks. It depends. Sometimes I have the impression that I live in some kind of bubble, where all those things exist and people are incredibly self-organised, for example I count on so many friends and other people to borrow me something, to organise a concert quickly, to print some stuff if I need it, to borrow a car, whatever. There are genuine solidarity networks, for example if somebody gets evicted, we know that 100 people will come at 6AM to stop the eviction. But, on the other hand, there are so many young people who are leaving the country. Besides this, I also work at the Faculty of Architecture, on the Department of Urban Planning and many of our students leave the country after they graduate. This year, for example, we had in one group of eight students and three of them already left for America.

 

I once considered the idea to move to another country. In 2010, because I didn’t know what to do after I quit my job in the architectural office and I was devastated. As an architect, you are trained to feel like god, like the world is waiting for you and your ideas, and then you get thrown on the market and it’s not an option at all. Jobs are shitty, you work for investors and the 1%. I was very disappointed by that, I couldn’t figure out what to do. I was thinking to move. But then I realised I didn’t want to move, because I adored the city and I really wanted to put all my knowledge and effort in everything to change it for the better. The whole fight and struggle is incredibly inspiring.

 

“A strong network of very well organised cities […] is important.”

 

I also hope that people like us will take political power one day and use it in a good way, but I don’t have the ambition to become a politician. However, some of my friends who are part of the initiative of the Belgrade Waterfront, they will go for the elections in April next year. This initiative has significant support from Ada Calau. We believe we can change the existing structure of politics in the city, but you have to change it from inside. You have to struggle on the municipal level, that’s the way. The city is the first entrance actually, in that way, you can approach as a citizen. Without any ambitions to try to create change on a national or European level, it’s impossible, you have to start from the bottom and then figure out your way up. By European level I mean a strong network of very well organised cities that is important. That’s why I mentioned this conference ‘Fearless cities‘ that will take place in June. It’s the idea to make different networks to cover so many cities and municipalities in Europe and bring people from different contexts together to figure out how we can actually make a bottom-up network.

 

“For me the European project is about sharing knowledge to work on a local level. You cannot just transfer things from one place to the other”

 

For me the European project is about sharing knowledge to work on a local level. You cannot just transfer things from one place to the other. It doesn’t work like that, because the contexts are very different, but you can learn many things from different contexts. These things are incredibly inspiring. For example, we were very inspired by the whole 15M movement in Spain (Indignados) and how they entered the city government. We collaborate closely with them. There, the government once was a regular bottom-up initiative, from La Coruña, from Barcelona En Comú, then from [Cambia Con El Baso], that’s also a movement from Sicily, they’ve got a mayor who was a former anarchist but they succeeded to change things and they are changing things in more than just the city. There is also a case in Croatia, where the ‘Right to the City’ movement turned into political movement, called ‘Zagreb is ours‘, and they were elected to the city parliament a week ago. So now they will have five members in the city parliament after seven years of fighting on the streets.

 

“In the near future we will see if different leftist movements can collaborate and join up for the elections.”

 

I don’t want to think about the right-wing populist threat too much, because I don’t want to be scared. You can’t ignore the fact, but there is very specific thing that I notice, it is that the right-wing vocabulary is incredibly simple and there are some things that you can agree with, while the left is doing everything complicated. We have to discuss every tiny detail, you have to apologise for being white men and well educated. This is the place where the left is lost. They even lose my attention, while we should be on the same side. It’s a one-up game: trying to find who is more left and therefore it’s getting more and more complex. It’s always like that. In the near future we will see if different leftist movements can collaborate and join for the elections. There was some success in the recent months, but still, it took a very long and hard discussion to unite them. On the other hand, you have the right wing that is rising, because they use very simple words and schemes.

 

Luckily, we don’t suffer from state repression. The squads are somehow tolerated. Because they don’t even know what to do with all those empty spaces. For example, they tried to evict us from the warehouse that we used two years ago but after that action failed, they gave us the space to promote things in public, so we gained a huge public attention. Now, it’s not very easy to just come and kick us out.

 

But there are a lot of problems with the smaller initiatives, they often have direct confrontations with the government. For example, in the Belgrade Waterfront movement, we suffered a lot of direct confrontation. A year ago, a friend of mine was attacked on the street during a demonstration, so she called the police. They came, but they told her: “You choose this by yourself, so what will you do?” We had planned a demonstration tomorrow morning to call for the mayor to resign, but the city hall postponed their meeting, so our protest is cancelled. The mayor blamed us because we blocked the entrance of the city hall. I just heard the news that he will resign after all because he can no longer function under the pressure of our protests.

 

A year ago, during the election night, we didn’t get the results of the election until the morning. This had never happened before, we normally get it after a few hours. We felt that there was something wrong. Then we heard that during the night there had been a raid on a building in the city centre. In the morning one guy sent a message from this place with the message that he was tied up in some place and the whole block was demolished during the night by 30 people with balaclavas and bulldozers in the city centre. When you get that information you can’t believe it. So for a few days, everybody was super confused and we went there and indeed, everything was demolished. People who were there during that moment were tied and those hooligans took their phones, so they couldn’t film it. The guy who was the main witness, he died of injuries and that’s how everything started. The city government said that they had no idea about what happened. The mayor told us that the city government is directly involved with the demolition, however, because they couldn’t get the license to demolish that area and rebuild it, because it was privately owned.

 

“I’ve always had strong reactions on injustice. I couldn’t control it, it just came from my stomach.”

 

My friends give me hope. Also, when I see 30 thousand people on the streets of Belgrade, I feel very energised. Those are small steps, but you feel great. I mean, even if we have an exhibition opening and a hundred people show up, you feel like you’ve succeeded. I’ve always had strong reactions on injustice. I couldn’t control it, it just came from my stomach. I tried, but I can’t. My grandmother was also like that, she is my role model.

 

We don’t often use terms like ‘revolution’ or ‘being radical’, maybe for fun, but not seriously. We do need a revolution, but I try to do that with a smile. I don’t know whether I believe in the European project. Here, if we have a candidate to enter something and then finally it needs to give the meaning to your life, and it’s presented like that, then you’ll never enter. There are so many tasks that you have to fulfill, but everything that you fulfill is actually against your ethical values. And that is something that I cannot figure out why it’s happening. I mean, there are European values that I follow and I appreciate. We work on it and we as a society should behave like that. But then again, everything that comes from the top level as a task to fulfill in order to enter that happy community is something completely against all those values that we believe in. And that’s why I can’t figure out how I feel about that. By working together European citizens can increase their power in creating citizenship networks, I do believe that. It’s really about the ambitions, about the goals. My personal goal will never be a social revolution, because it’s something that I don’t even understand. But small steps I can manage. That’s also how we, as Ministry of Space, cooperate. Small steps and in the end, we’ll see what exactly we’ve achieved. If that’s a social revolution, great.

 

“I think that you have to combine ideological discussions and practical solutions.”

 

I think that you have to combine ideological discussions and practical solutions. Ideology is very important, but you have to find a way to translate the whole thing into simple language. There was a great example of the initiative some time ago when there was a Pride in Belgrade and we decided to put a flag with the symbol of the initiative on our Facebook profile. All of a sudden the discussion started. Before we tried to explain about LGTB rights, human rights… but only after making it concrete, you enter the dialogue. That’s how we work: explaining things to people through different actions that are happening. In parallel, we do write books and translate different works. We publish, organise conferences, join conferences, but that’s only the circle of the elite and the well educated. This circle is also good to have on your side, but those are not the people that you can count on very often in a practical sense. My ideological references include Henry Lefebvre and some other thinkers and writers like Margaret Meyer.”

Interview by Victoria Deluxe
Photo by Maria Little