You have to combine ideological discussions with practical solutions

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INTERVIEW WITH IVA CUKIC (Ministry of Space). Iva Cukic is a member of the Serbian urban development organisation Ministry of Space. Ministry of Space revitalises abandoned or neglected spaces by rearranging them as workplaces, housing or alternative art galleries, starting from the concept of everyone’s right to the city (ref. the essay of sociologist Henry Lefebvre). They strive for a city in which every community and citizen can participate. To make this possible, the members of Ministry of Space study urban planning and law, so they can appeal against illegal decisions of the city government and to advocate the civil rights of vulnerable citizens. They also organise two educational programmes, 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 Europe are being analysed.

Iva Cukic: “Ministry of Space started in 2010 and 2011 as four different initiatives. One was related to a street gallery. 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. In 2012 we decided to team up. We needed a name. As it happened, in 2012 we also had a national election in Serbia. When that happens, afterwards there are always a lot of changes in the names of ministers, departments. So in the slipstream of that, we came up with Ministry of Space. It sounded completely legitimate, so in the first few months we got actual phone numbers and addresses of actual parliament members, just by introducing ourselves as members of this new Ministry of Space. Nobody thought twice about it. Eventually, we got busted, though luckily for us, there were only tiny consequences tied to this stunt.”

Right to the city

“Our main focus is reclaiming space by squatting and using the conquered public place as an open window. Public property folds into that as well. There are many empty buildings in Belgrade that get destroyed, neglected and left as ruins. Then some developer or investor comes along, buys it and often does nothing with it until it gets sold again. And all the while there are so many people who don’t even have decent housing, there is a huge lack of space for artists and cultural organisations. So we asked ourselves the question: how would it be possible to manage public property and public space in a just and proper way, not in the overly regulated, commercially exploited way that it is now.”

“In 2012 and 2013 I conducted a research project called My confession, about urban activism in Serbia. We travelled a lot around Serbia and talked with many people. We presented what we were trying to do with the Ministry of Space in Belgrade, and similar initiatives of our friends from Croatia, Montenegro and Bosnia. I started writing and designing a book called New map of Serbia, which had a poster map, and sent it to all the people I met on these travels. Everyone started sending me texts and emails with tips of initiatives all over Serbia that were claiming their right to the city. In the end it became a huge publication about all these different city movements.”

“When you’re from Belgrade, and you visit a smaller town in Serbia, there are some misconceptions. People think that because Belgrade is so big, everyone must have opportunities there. For one thing, there aren’t any close relationships between citizens and decision makers like you find in a smaller city. Aside from that, we figured out that the book would help smaller initiatives in smaller towns to work together. They felt lonely, like they were the only ones who were doing what they were doing. After getting to know each other, they started to cooperate more.”

“We have different approaches in achieving our Right to the City. One is that we use art and culture to mobilise people to raise awareness, to create new spaces. Then there is the theoretical discourse on bureaucracy, where we use law and planning analysis. On our Facebook page, for example, you’ll find detailed city development plans and lots of comments. Say you’re a citizen in Belgrade and you get notified that they are about to demolish your house, you can come to our Facebook page, find the comment on that specific plan and use it to advocate to keep your house. We have two study programs. One is a study of commons, the other (named: The Right to a Different City) joins good practices about cities from all around Europe. We present cases, have discussions, and we publish all this material, so it can be used as a theoretical framework.”

Commons

“The discussion about the commons came into our vocabulary maybe only 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 this period in time. The vocabulary of ‘socialism, communism, commons’ doesn’t work in all cases. However, for the word ‘commons’, we have a translation in our language, which means ‘the good that we use all together’. So it’s not self-management, it resonates a bit different from the socialist period.”

Our work is with bottom-up initiatives, not elite circles. This morning, people from my collective went to stop a poor family from being evicted.

“The people living in the city are our first concern. Our work is with bottom-up initiatives, not elite circles. This morning, for instance, people from my collective went to stop a poor family from being evicted. Last week we defended workers who were staying in some flats illegally. People know who we are now, so they call us or come over if they have a problem.”

“No-one in the Ministry of Space is boss. Everyone is completely equal. It’s a principal. We have a meeting once a week, in which we discuss the agenda. 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. That’s very important for me. If you are an artist in Serbia, and in Belgrade specifically, there is no funding. You have to do it all by yourself.”

Occupied cinema

“Officially, there are instances that support artists, but barely: the Ministry of Culture on national level and the Secretary of Culture on the city level. That’s it. The state of the cultural sector is perfectly symbolised by the two museums that have been closed for several decades. In 2007, they closed fourteen cinemas in one day. They figured they weren’t needed anymore, since everyone watches DVDs now. In the socialist period, cinemas and cultural centres were always built in the centre of the city, in the middle of the communities. So, we’re talking great real estate. Selling them raised a lot of money.”

“We campaigned for four years to argue that the privatisation of those cinemas was illegal, to find out what happened to those spaces once 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. It’s an occupied cinema now, in a way, very active. They opened a terrace a few weeks ago. The government pretends they don’t see it, but it sits there right in front of their nose. It’s literally across the street of the city government.”

“The city belongs to all of us. We all should be included in the discussion. Listen to politician, and it sounds like the cities exist only for investors and tourists. They don’t seem to think that citizenship is important. So they ignore the fact that there are two million people who are not investors or tourists, who live and breathe in this city, and without whom those investors and tourists couldn’t even be taken care of.”  

“It’s the same problem with the Belgrade Waterfront Project: they declared it as a project of national significance, but really they just gave a hundred hectares of our city centre away for free to an investor from Abu Dhabi. And what are the plans? To 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 300 euro. Renting even one square meter in one of those buildings will probably cost more than 4.000 euro.”

Start at the bottom…

“Is the younger generation mobilizing to develop a new kind of citizenship through solidarity networks? I’m not sure.  Sometimes I have the impression that I live in some kind of bubble, where all those things exist and people are incredibly self-organised. I do personally count on so many friends and acquaintances to help me out in so many ways. If there’s an eviction, we know that at least a hundred people will show up at six in the morning to help prevent it. On the other hand, so many young people leave the country. We all consider it. So have I.  As an architect, once you graduate, you mainly work for investors and the 1%. I was very disappointed by that at first, I couldn’t figure out what to do. But then I realised I didn’t want to move, because I adore my city and I really want to put all my knowledge and effort in to change it for the better.”

You can’t just transfer one good practice from one place to another, but you can still learn a lot and be very inspired by all these different contexts.

“Ministry of Space believes it can change the existing structure of politics in a city, but you have to change it from the inside. You have to struggle on the municipal level. The city is the first entrance actually. Start at the bottom and then figure out the way up.”

“For me the European project is about sharing knowledge to work on a local level, a strong network of very well organised cities. I realise every urban context is different, and you can’t just transfer one good practice from one place to another, but you can still learn a lot and be very inspired by all these different contexts.”

“In our case, that means the whole 15M movement in Spain (Indignados) and how they entered the city government. There is also a case in Croatia, where the ‘Right to the City’-movement turned political. It’s called ‘Zagreb is ours‘, and they were elected to the city parliament a week ago.”

… and take small steps

“We don’t really suffer from state repression in Serbia, the way some of these other European movements sometimes have. Our squats are somewhat tolerated – it’s not like the governments know what to do with those empty spaces anyway. About two years ago they did try to evict us from a warehouse we were using, but once that failed, they went the other way and gave us the space so we could promote some of our actions in public. And we’ve gained huge public attention, so even if they wanted to, it’s not that easy anymore to come and kick us out.”

“The smaller initiatives we support, like the Belgrade Waterfront movement, have suffered some direct confrontations with officials. A year ago, a friend of mine was attacked on the street during a demonstration, so she called the police. They came, but they basically told her it was her fault for being there. My friends do give me hope. Also, when I see thirty thousand people protesting on the streets of Belgrade, I feel energised. Even if we have an exhibition opening and a hundred people show up, it feels like we’ve succeeded.”

“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. 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 in my experience, those are not necessarily the people that you can count on very often in a practical sense.”

“We don’t often use terms like ‘revolution’ or ‘radical’. Not seriously anyway. I also don’t know whether or not I believe in the European project. 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 is a social revolution, great.”

This interview is an edited summary. You can read the original version on http://theartoforganisinghope.eu/research

Original interview by Victoria Deluxe

Photo by Maria Little