On Access to Housing, Anti-Capitalist Struggles, Decolonization and Mothering in the Balkans

A conversation with Ana Vilenica

This conversation with Ana Vilenica is a part of the new series of contributions titled Voices from the Balkans: Unsettling the politics of divide. The series is organized and curated by Emina Bužinkić, AGITATE! Editorial Collective Member.

Emina: Ana, I stand in awe of your work, of how thoughtfully woven and delivered it is. I am psyched about this conversation with you today. With butterflies in my stomach and having imagined this conversation many times, I am eager to share the wisdom and energies of your work with AGITATE! audiences.

We first met in November of 2019 in Rijeka, Croatia, in a space where we envisioned radical social transformation with a group of transnational colleagues and comrades. We gathered as the Pirate Care Syllabus Network and spent days weaving together community syllabi and pedagogies that counter dominant representations of subordinated social groups by offering strategies, ideas, and tools for resistance. You were particularly focused on the struggle against housing commodification and social inequities, that you have been immersed in for a long time as an activist, artist, writer, and editor on radical housing ideas. Could you speak to that work, what refusals, challenges, and imaginations does it entail?

Ana: Our homes, contradictory places of countless acts of care that sustain our lives as well as places of capitalist, patriarchal, and racist violence that reproduce the status quo are increasingly becoming battlefields for the majority of people on earth. In East Europe and Serbia in particular in the period of transition to a capitalist economy and in its aftermath homes gained “national identity” in wars and became a part of the process of fascist ethnical cleansing, followed by the process of privatization, restitution of property to pre World War II owners, financialization of housing through predatory mortgage lending, and as a means of repaying accumulated debt. This has led to extreme housing precarisation, including evictions and homelessness, that was more or less on hold during socialist experiments. Today very few are safe in their homes. I joined housing struggles almost 15 years ago in an attempt to become an accomplice in the struggle of people under eviction during racist informal settlement cleansing in Belgrade in 2009. From that moment on I have been part of different groups and movements that have tried to articulate struggles against housing dispossession on different levels, from groups struggling against elitist mega-developments in the cities such as Belgrade Waterfront to the anti-eviction movement and groups envisioning housing alternatives such as cooperative housing. Housing struggles as I see them are not only struggles for shelter and they are not confined between the walls of any particular home, they constitute housing scapes whose scopes and stakes go beyond residential accommodation and speak to wider social and political issues.

Becoming an activist, organizer, artist, researcher, writer, and editor on radical housing ideas has been a constant process of reinventing myself as an individual and as a part of different collectives and movements, including a language I use to celebrate our victories, to reflect on pitfalls, to bring forth new and old potentially life-saving information. These processes or reinvention have not been only about the intellectual production but as well as about working with affects, complexities of human relations, and the ways we organize and do things together in the midst of our progressive but still racialised, gendered, and class affected spaces. This has not always been an easy task. I carry with me the burden of many decisions, some of which I am still proud of while others have been a part of learning things the harder way. My approach to thinking about social emancipation has been based on feminist practices that focus on the reproduction of human life as opposed to capitalist practices of individual enrichment through exploitation and oppression of others, but also models of government in which people have no influence on practices that shape their lives. Politics today does not reside in political parties, but in the capacity of human beings to shape and give shape to a society based on interdependent reproductive work and enjoyment.

Emina: I was recently invited to your workshop series on decolonizing Eastern Europe. What particular meanings does the labor of decolonization have in the geographies of Eastern European spaces, given its histories and contemporary (dis)integrations?

Ana: East Europe is a place of different forms of ‘contradictory decolonization’. In Serbia for instance anticolonial stance against the US and the EU has been used to preserve allegedly endangered Serbdom and to justify Serbian neo-colonial wars within the borders of former Yugoslavia. Ambivalences and contradictions are an inseparable part of East Europe’s “epistemic in-betweenness”. East European countries supported colonial projects while at the same time the region has been conceptualized as a colonisable space. East Europeans have been looked at as ‘non-whites’ while they at the same time benefited from whiteness and racialized other groups during their histories including the enslavement of Roma people in Romania.

In Serbia, reasoned anticolonial criticism of knowledge production in academia, art, and local activism has been for years generously shared by the Roma anti-racist and decolonial theorist Jelena Savić in the articles published on her blog, on social media, and in articles published in books and journals. Nevertheless, the resistance to de/anti-colonial criticism and knowledge production has been enormous. This is both due to perceiving anti/de-colonial discourse as a part of the right-wing vocabulary in the eyes of liberals and the left, as well as due to opportunistic stances of those whose careers and jobs depend upon the perpetuation of (neo)colonial politics and practices of ‘white saviors’ working in the local and supranational NGOs.

These complexities of East Europe’s peripheral-self and (anti)colonial histories are perhaps the reason why this region is usually left out from discussion on decoloniality, especially in the US space. My attempt with the proposed Lexicon on Decoloniality in the making is to ‘stay with the trouble’ while taking meaning from local East European experiences and creating an index of reference that can assist in future criticisms, debates, and practices.

Emina: Looking at your energetic, uncompromising, and creative involvement in the struggles for freedom, housing, movement, and art liberation–all the struggles lived on the streets and at the same time in invisible places, can you speak about what it means to do research and activism? What kind of personal and community labor does it take to navigate those turbulent waters? How do the urgencies of the struggle shape your approaches and particularly the silent work of thinking and writing?

Ana: Until this moment the research that I have been doing has been an inseparable part of the struggles that I was a part of. This work belongs to different registers of our fragmented realities. For example, one stream of my research work has been to show mechanisms of housing dispossession in Serbia and in the Balkans. The function of this was on the one side to give better arguments to the anti-eviction and the right to housing and the city movements, while on the other side the aim of this work was to reject neo-colonial narratives on housing transition in Eastern Europe including the narratives of the inability of the East to catch up with the West, that have dominated academic space in the last 30 years. My research work has also been a space for self-reflection regarding the work that we do in our movements. I have used it to speak about things that movements could not find the time, will, or language to address such as problems of reproducing witnesses and machismo in our circles. This work has been a part of articulating and rearticulating politics in different registers with different rules. For example, academia uses specific ways of writing and knowledge production that are not always accessible to those who need this knowledge. The fields of cultural production and journalism have been more welcoming to other kinds of more accessible forms of storytelling that I have used at times when I judged them necessary. There is a significant asymmetry between all of these fields with their own problems and forms of violence but they can become on occasion spaces of production what some have called the ‘undercommons’.

Emina: Ana, your recent book Radical Housing Struggle: Art Struggle Care is among many of your publications. For us in AGITATE! who (re)think radical publishing, to see such liberated writing that sews politicalities, dedications, and calls for the radicalization of thought and action strengthens our commitment to collaborative pursuits in challenging traditional academic modes of writing and publishing. Could you speak to the intellectual and political commitments that shape and occupy your writing and publishing praxes– one that smoothly crosses boundaries between academia, activism, and art–and often emerges in collaboration?

Ana: For more than 10 years now I have been dedicated to working in opposition to the corporate model of journal publishing blurring the line between journal, platform, and community. These alternatives to mainstream publishing, such as uz)bu))na)))–a journal for politics, art, and activism that was published online in Serbian and English language from 2011 to 2015, Interface–a journal for and about social movements that I have joined in 2019, and the Radical Housing Journal that was founded in 2017, have different organizational forms and formats but what connects them is open access, being non-for-profit, and caring for radical knowledge production.

The Radical Housing Journal that I have dedicated the most of my time to in the last years is a free online publication and collective that seeks to push boundaries of how we think about housing, tenants’ struggle, and urban global justice beyond academic limitations. It is a space to debate ideas, theories, and practices that challenge the forces that make the world unhomely and uninhabitable. We are a group of 15 collective members who in different capacities take care of the day-to-day life of the journal such as caring for papers and issues as well as doing the invisible and emotional labor of collective work and care. Our organization structure is in the making through constant conversations about the politics of organizing, and trial and error. Practicing horizontality and caring for radical knowledge production is not always an easy thing in our overworked lives. Nevertheless, in my experience, it was possible only through continuous practice and learning from our own errors and ongoing struggles for transformative justice. In the RHJ we like to say that our work is not about transforming something out there but embracing transformational reality by inhabiting it the best we can.

Emina: Lastly, what does it mean to become and be a mother in the periphery and in neoliberal capitalism? Recently, (collective) writing of mother scholars grappling with the neoliberal educational institutions is becoming more prominent, particularly in the Western academy. How did your writing on the experiences of a mother, scholar, activist, and artist emerge and unfold over the years?

Ana: Intensive repatriarchalization of society in the former Yugoslavia was a part of a post-socialist package of measures that, together with racism, nationalism, and class differences, were implemented in new nation-states, which emerged together with mass graves and a new cycle of primitive accumulation of capital through plunder of societal property. The return of nation-states and the return into the arms of imperial Europe meant the satanization of everything related to socialist emancipation, including, to some extent successful, the emancipation of women in the autochthonous Yugoslav way. In the war narratives in Serbia, for example, the mother was constructed as the heroine of a nation that gives birth to soldiers for wars of conquest, in which her sons become war machines, who kill and die for someone else’s economic interests.

Maternity regimes in which I gave birth were gendered, classed, and racialised but presented as neutral and equal for all reproductive workers for the national cause. Due to historical reasons that we can talk about on some other occasion, Yugoslav feminists didn’t address issues related to maternity and child care and I took this as my intellectual and political task in early 2000. Today this topic is vocalized by many and I can be only proud that the edited volume Becoming a Mother in Neoliberal Capitalism had two editions and is still widely read and used. As an organizer and a mother, I tried hard to bring issues related to the necessity of organizing child care in movements with little or no success in the long term. Though I have worked a lot to organize child care for parents in political meetings and conferences, and organize events where I tried to address the importance of collectivisation of child care, there is still no structure to put these necessities into practice. As a migrant worker with a child living in the core countries in Europe, I have experienced many hardships that have included othering and violence in school which has subsequently led to a decision to continue my son’s schooling in Serbia and years-long separation. Border and Visa regimes brought stress, sadness, and anxiety to my life. Raising a child to be a righteous, kind, and confident person in a deeply unjust world is a challenging thing. I can only say that I am still learning by trial and error how to do mothering in a liberatory and revolutionary way. This implies openness to all the messy aspects of these complex relationships between us and the world. These processes, full of contradictions, are sometimes mediated by and reflected in my writing and organizing work too.

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