Isola Art and Community Center

Daniele Innamorato and Federica Perazzoli, New Museum, Isola Art Center face, 2006

Seamus Farrell, site specific work, Isola Art Center, 2005, photo by Nicola Bertasi

Isola Art and Community Center is a project founded in 2002 by a group of international and national critics, curators and artists, with the objective of working with the neighborhood associations for the defense of public spaces and the creation of the Art Center. The neighborhood is menaced by three urban plans that propose the destruction of the former factory called Stecca degli Artigiani and its green surroundings. Isola Art and Community Center was born in the second floor of this building, becoming a sort of laboratory where diverse social components participate around a common objective that has unified their differences by confronting their demands; different individualities through their contribution create a collective project, a movement of dissent against proposals that clearly jeopardise quality of life by following neo-liberalist logic and private speculation over what should be public space.

During these years this dissent has activated diverse struggles, strategies and tactics that have transformed according to the political horizon, and will continue to exist as an antagonist movement that refuses the idea of not having hope or an alternative, and opposes the acceptance of the truth of falsehood.

Alessandra Poggianti (curator)


Bert Theis, president of the association that runs Isola Art Center, interviewed by journalist Nicola Bertasi

Bert Theis and Mariette Shiltz, Isola Art Center, 2007, photo by Nicola Bertasi

Bert, how would you define Isola Art Center?

Our intention is to examine, in a critical way, global research from the point where the Situationists had lost their thread. The new center we are building now is an experiment in the union between art, theory and the social activities of the quarter, opposing its "gentrification". This tie contributes to maintain a mixed and opened social situation.

Isola art center changed the idea of "squat space" in Italy. According to you it is possible to reconsider the traditional shapes of urban antagonism?

Our plan acts against social fragmentation, on which others fuse their praxis. Our challenge could be formulated therefore to suggest that is it possible to take a "sculptural" approach to urban planning, that tries to transform the city from the bottom.

With regard to urbanism, your "building" situation is very complex. You are continuously threatened with eviction and the usual "aria speculativa" is breathed. What will happen to the Stecca (and to you)?

Since November 2006, Manfredi Catella has had a new project for the gardens and the "Stecca" area, drawn up by Studio Boeri. The Catella and Boeri project removes an arm of the planned crossing road from the original plan, it keeps a little part of the current gardens, removes the Stecca and proposes a civic center, of a very special form. The ninety thousand cubic meters to be built on the narrow gardens area are kept. It is expected that a twenty-six floor skyscraper on the Stecca area and the gardens will be separated from the quarter with a building barrier along via Confalonieri. On the lunette ground a so-called "new Stecca", private and of reduced dimension, would be built. This Stecchetta should allow to empty the Stecca of artisans. If the project were to be be realised as planned, the arts center and the quarter would risk being without a place suitable for working for years.

In the Forum Isola, what is proposed?

Our position, as Forum Isola, is this: do not destroy the organic district structure, move the volumes of the Hines property (a Texan multinational company represented in Italy by Catellandr), move the building with the commercial area downtown, remove the planned crossing road and create space within the project to be able to realise the Art Center for the district.

Is your alternative project supported by the district? And is it possible to appeal to a municipal referendum?

In 2003 a document proposed by the committee "I Mille" was already asking the council of Milan not to build the road, to save the gardens and restructure the Stecca and to realise the Art Center. This document has been signed by thousands of inhabitants and by all the district associations. The associations that are more settled and more representative, including the Parent Association, have organised themselves into Forum Isola, have organised a demonstration in the square with great success, a public meeting in the parish room, a party in the gardens, and other activities. On the basis of a extensive consultation in the district, the Forum Isola has formulated an unpublished proposal for an Art Center for the District in the gardens of the Isola. Support for the project comes from all over the district. There is also great support from the world of art and culture. Against the different urban programs, hundreds of citizens have resorted to a lot of appeals to the TAR that until now have not been discussed. These appeals have been financed partly with the proceeds of the auctions of contemporary art organized near the Art Center. The Forum Isola doesn't exclude any form of legal action. A referendum could be one of many possibilities. We don't forget that with thousand of signatures we have got already a public hearing at the Mayor House, a thing that ever happened before in Milan.

Nicola Bertasi (journalist)

Growing poison ivy

(Alberto Pesavento's text, from a recent encounter with Paolo Virno, retraces the history of the Art Center.)

"Which institutions outside, after, against the state?"

Such questions formed the core of Paolo Virno's lecture, recently held in the Isola neighborhood in Milan, just a couple of blocks away from Stecca degli Artigiani, the abandoned and subsequently squatted factory hosting Isola Art Center, an innovative center for neighborhood life and contemporary art born out of the conflict between the population and developers inside an area condemned to urban speculation projects - plans obviously including a contemporary art museum brought forth under the name of a "community center".

The revelation of the fundamental ambiguity in human nature as expressed in multitudes - as developed in Virno's thought - thus capsizes, crossing this other revelation's ambiguity: is art an apology for present times? For more than a decade, communication and creativity have been prerogatives of a global movement with practices often involving its own characterisation as a multitudinary subject; and all the while they diffusely substantiate contemporary art and its systems. Such practices, whenever taken as good and sufficient, per se, have proven ineffective for multitudinary activity, while museums and contemporary art centers heralded urban requalifications with the sole aim of raising property values, thus bringing David Harvey to titling his intervention with the theme "The Art of Rent".

As long as self-organisation and a territorial revaluation brought forth by local urban communities will conversely result in that territory's capital and property revaluation, as has often happened when art and its more or less museum-like institutions have lodged themselves in such contexts, we will abide by the equivoque and keep harming ourselves. As long as the momentum is purposely and strategically kept down so as to avoid all struggle, capitalist logic will be the only one reaping the benefits in the long run. If on the one side Isola Art Center, alongside the neighborhood association, aims at building a space that is open both to innovative practices and to more traditional aggregational forms, on the other it straightforwardly declines all peaceful relationship with what at the present time is easily identified as social. A common dimension for art, creativity in general and the multitude's political practices, instead of being localised within the latter's productive aspect (as for Negri and Hardt), could instead seek asylum in practices of human strike and defection, in some oscillating measure always belonging to the artist's and her work's form of life. We are now faced with the need for a new synthesis of critical thought, for philosophy and for urbanism, as for example the one under development by the o.u.t. group. From such a need has sprung a reasonable and radical position concering territorial vision, expressing in a unitary direction the artists' interests as well as a whole community's commitment.

Unfortunately, the territory has always been an image d'Épinal for most of those who deal with contemporary art. Public art has luckily ended long since, and contemporary art is now facing new practices envisioning more surprising and provocative dialogues between art and social phenomena. For example, the neighborhood community has recently been preparing an astonishing recycled hot-air ballon with the Argentinian artist Tomas Saraceno and the Italian curator Maurizio Bortolotti.

The Isola neighborhood in Milan has been almost everything except a bedroom community, once enclosed between railroad tracks and canals, and nowadays still connected to the city by two bridges - hence the name, italian for "island": a nest of Lombard shop-owners and worker; a haven in the Twenties for small-time criminals and bandits, boasting at times a warning for policemen not to enter; an irreducible anti-fascist and partisan community; a springboard for committees fighting demolition plans; an incubator of squats and occupations in the Nineties. Isola's social and urban singularities (a heterogeneous population nonetheless characterized by solidarity. Little traffic, irregular developments, flooding light and two public parks to relax in have long since been risking erasure, a slow and yet perceivable hindering aimed at flattening the neighborhood down to the residential and fashion districts' standards, cramming it with privileged inhabitants. Stecca degli Artigiani, Comitato i Mille and o.u.t. are the latest chapter of a radical discontent, of a series of effective proposals alternative to the institutional abandonment that has delivered the neighbourhood up to increasingly seductive communicational and co-optive logics, to a supposedly shared planning involving the inhabitants in projects of urban speculation inconsistent with the context.

Allowing Isola to become a postcard-icon tailored to fit the needs of those who can afford it isn't worth the parks and services we have been offered as compensation.

We'll go on defending our poison ivy; we'll even learn to grow it.

Is there the possibility of a multitudinary political proposition springing from a place devoted to art?

We shall not discuss here the purported or failed political aspect of the artistic work, but our possibility of mandating its institutions (in the term's broadest meaning, as Virno suggests) not to be a mere phantasmagoria of social layerings, as Benjamin's pages state of Paris' Passages for the 19th century and as Koolhaas and Fouraux's Guangdong museum could perhaps be for present times, that is, an inclusion of the existent, of the given, within the artistic field (be it even conflictual or multitudinary), but instead to find a way to raise a crisis within power relationships, from territorial struggles to everyday life, facing reality in its own terrain (including the possible, and the symbolic) instead of simply representing it.

All ambiguity on art's side is here paid for at great cost, the price here being not the collector's but that of art's own future.

Alberto Pesavento (researcher) member of o.u.t. (office for urban transformation -

(translation by Vincenzo Latronico)

OUT design, 2006