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Recollection: About a “Fight Specific” project at Isola in Milan
Bert Theis, Vasıf Kortun

The fol­low­ing is a dis­cus­sion between Bert The­is and Vasıf Kor­tun on April 4, 2007. The talk took place in the Iso­la Dis­trict of Milan and touched on the emerg­ing Art Cen­ter, the local urban trans­for­ma­tions and the polit­i­cal cli­mate in which the project was tak­ing shape. Bert The­is and Iso­la Art Cen­ter have par­tic­i­pat­ed in the 10th Istan­bul Bien­ni­al. The dis­cus­sion was in the form of a walk between Via Fari­ni and the squat­ted factory.

Bert The­is: The iso­la­tion of the “Iso­la” dis­trict is the ori­gin of the name (It.“island”).The rel­a­tive iso­la­tion from the city cen­ter is the rea­son why this dis­trict is one of the few near the cen­ter of Milan where all the post-Sec­ond World War urban trans­for­ma­tions did not hap­pen. Since big streets do not cross it, there is less traf­fic and the mixed work­ing-class char­ac­ter of the neigh­bor­hood has remained unchanged. It is a bit like a vil­lage with­in the city. There is a high qual­i­ty of every­day life, because you can find any­thing you need with­in five-minute walk­ing dis­tance you can walk to it. And it is very well con­nect­ed to sev­er­al sub­way sta­tions. What is impor­tant is that it has always been a work­ers’ and crafts­peo­ple’s dis­trict. It was the cen­ter of anti-Fas­cist actions in Milan. For exam­ple, the hid­den cen­ter of the Com­mu­nist par­ty dur­ing Fas­cism was here in the shoe fac­to­ry. Inside the shoe­box­es they hid and dis­trib­uted their pro­pa­gan­da materials. 

Vasıf Kor­tun: And how has the sit­u­a­tion changed since the fac­to­ries have slow­ly closed down?

BT: There has been a very slow change. The new mid­dle-class­es were com­ing in… archi­tects, design­ers. But now it is still at the lev­el where the gen­tri­fi­ca­tion is not so obvi­ous. It’s inter­est­ing that in the Fas­cist peri­od the Fas­cist gov­ern­ment tried to build dwellings for the mid­dle-class­es to change the social nature of the dis­trict. A famous Ital­ian archi­tect –Giuseppe Ter­rag­ni— built sev­er­al build­ings in the dis­trict. Mod­ernist build­ings. But it did not real­ly change. So today, there are still many crafts­peo­ple here—workers—but some new­com­ers like myself. I moved here twelve years ago. 

VK: Twelve is good. Twelve makes you a real neighbor.

BT: The city gov­ern­ment, since the post-Sec­ond World War, tried to destroy the pro­tect­ed char­ac­ter of Iso­la. Big projects were to be real­ized here.They planned a high­way-feed­er road. Sev­er­al projects and plans have tried to link the road to the city cen­ter. But each project was stopped by the peo­ple. So, for exam­ple, the big bridge near the two sky­scrap­ers ends in noth­ing. It was designed like a high­way, but was stopped even by the priest. It is a real­ly rare sit­u­a­tion in Milan for some­thing to remain untouched by the big urban trans­for­ma­tions. In 2001 a new urban plan for the area was pre­sent­ed. Now what they want to do is to use the street we are walk­ing down (Via Volturno), where now you have near­ly no traf­fic, to cre­ate a direct way, cut­ting across the neigh­bor­hood and the open area, straight to the city centre.This would mean that here the sit­u­a­tion could go crazy. Because there would be thou­sands of cars going, cut­ting through… 

VK: And it would also divide the street…

BT: Yes, the street. So this sit­u­a­tion now would be total­ly dif­fer­ent. And the small park—the only one that the dis­trict has—would dis­ap­pear and they would build on it. 

VK: What hap­pened when orig­i­nal­ly they decid­ed to use this or that side? You said peo­ple stopped it. What was the basis of the organization?

BT: There were new move­ments of cit­i­zens and asso­ci­a­tions and archi­tects and polit­i­cal par­ties. They took legal action, because the city did not observe the stan­dards for urban development. 

VK: So on legal grounds they were winning…

BT: Yes. And in this sit­u­a­tion we now have five court cas­es against the city gov­ern­ment. We did it with the peo­ple. And we sold our art­works to pay the lawyer. It was nec­es­sary, because it is one of the only ways you can stop things. [They arrive at the cur­rent loca­tion of the Iso­la Art Cen­ter] Here, they have already start­ed. They want to build a com­mer­cial build­ing that will be four­teen-sto­ry high. So it will be more or less dou­ble the height of this build­ing if they do it it will block the whole panora­ma. And this is one of the only places in Milan where you can see some­thing like a sky­line. At the begin­ning there were sev­er­al pri­vate Ital­ian com­pa­nies doing it. But the city gov­ern­ment asked an Amer­i­can real estate com­pa­ny from Texas—Hines—to plan the whole devel­op­ment here togeth­er with the Ital­ian real estate pro­mot­er Ligresti. So they give the land and the Amer­i­cans bring the mon­ey, bring the architects—for exam­ple, there will be a big sky­scraper designed by Cesar Pel­li, an Argen­tinean-Amer­i­can archi­tect, and anoth­er big sky­scraper by I.M.Pei—the one who built the pyra­mid of the Lou­vre. And here the sit­u­a­tion is still evolv­ing, so we are not at the end of the story.

When we start­ed to work here in 2001, as I said, with a few cura­tors and artists, we real­ized a wood­en fence one-hun­dred-meter long paint­ed white, like a sym­bol­ic bar­ri­er against the planned street. Of course a sym­bol­ic bar­ri­er can stop noth­ing. So we had to build a social bar­ri­er and a polit­i­cal bar­ri­er around it. So in 2002 we entered this build­ing owned by the city and we squat­ted the upper floor—it’s 1,500 square meters.

VK: This is quite a rad­i­cal change if they pull this build­ing through. Because it’s not just the build­ing, it sets an exam­ple for all the rest to come. And your sta­tus is still a squat­ter status?

BT: We don’t con­sid­er our­selves as “nor­mal” squat­ters. We take care of a pub­lic build­ing owned by the peo­ple. When it was not a fac­to­ry any­more, the city rent­ed part of it to crafts­peo­ple and asso­ci­a­tions. And one of them is a car­pen­ter and has used the upper floor for more than 23 years with­out pay­ing for it. So legal­ly, after 20 years you can say, “this is mine”. We did this with him three weeks ago. And I made a con­tract with him so that he has giv­en it to me for the art project. So offi­cial­ly we are total­ly cor­rect, we are not squat­ters. [The­is shows the pro­ject­ed plans for the city and the building] 

BT: You can see on the left…this was the first idea of the City Hall. You see now they would take it away and build these build­ings. This is based on an exchange of land. Because the place where we are now and the two parks are owned by the city. And the pri­vate devel­op­ers own the land on [the oth­er] side. So to make this…they have to exchange the land. And we sim­ply said, “don’t exchange it”. Let them build any­thing they want on the land they own. This is a draw­ing we made based on what the peo­ple told us of how they would like to have the build­ing— on the out­side and on the inside. And what is very aston­ish­ing is that in 2003, a doc­u­ment signed by the whole district—by the neigh­bor­hood asso­ci­a­tions, by the shop­keep­ers, by the school, the priest—asked to keep the build­ing and the parks and to real­ize a cen­ter for con­tem­po­rary art…without know­ing exact­ly what this, means. It was based on all the work we did over a few years. But they under­stood that it could be good and use­ful to the strug­gle of the community. 

VK: Because poten­tial­ly a con­tem­po­rary art cen­ter could do much more gen­tri­fi­ca­tion than…

BT: Yes, this is the real dan­ger! For the new project pro­mot­ed by Hines, after we said that we want­ed to keep the parks they said, “ok, we give you some­thing. We take away half of the road and we let you have half of the block. But we build 90,000 cube meters and it will be met in this way: you will have the sky­scraper on this building”–higher than the tall tow­ers of the sta­tion near nearby. 

This project was designed by the Boeri Stu­dio, the office of Ste­fano Boeri. So, in a way he got the job from the Amer­i­cans to find the solu­tion and when he got it, of course we dis­cussed with him what worked in our pro­pos­al of what it could become; we hoped that there would be at com­pro­mise. But when we saw the project [he presents a pic­ture of it].… the peo­ple of the neigh­bor­hood said, no, it is impos­si­ble, because the park will be like the pri­vate gar­den of these hous­es. There is now an open space between the parks— peo­ple would get cut off. We nev­er asked for such a hero­ic sculp­ture-build­ing, because it would be the visu­al sign that gen­tri­fi­ca­tion will hap­pen. It would indi­cate: the dis­trict has changed; it is like a land­mark of this. So this is the actu­al situation…we are here. And you see: where it’s not built it’s not so big, but all this area…they will change it from here to here. At the begin­ning they called the whole project “Fash­ion and Design City,” to have a title. But it was clear that the fash­ion indus­try was not inter­est­ed. Armani, Prada…everyone has its very own build­ing and they are not com­ing into a “fash­ion ghet­to.” So now the name will change, but the con­struc­tions remain. [He picks up a pam­phlet] This is OUT, the Office for Urban Trans­for­ma­tion. It is a team. I ini­ti­at­ed it in 2002…there are some archi­tects and artists work­ing in it. And we have anoth­er office in Mex­i­co City. They are work­ing on a dis­trict called San­ta Maria la Rib­era. It is a dif­fer­ent prob­lem, but we are in touch and so we are work­ing together. 

VK: Why did you decide to have two offices?

BT: It hap­pened. The archi­tect who cre­at­ed it at the begin­ning and was work­ing with us here went back to Mex­i­co and start­ed his own. 

VK: It could be necessary.

BT: Yes. Also, because I think what can be inter­est­ing is our method of work. So that it is not only local but also it can work in oth­er con­texts. We have, for exam­ple, a design­er who makes the illus­tra­tions that the peo­ple in the neigh­bor­hood need to express them­selves. Because the big com­pa­nies have big means to show what they want. So we try to do it too. On the oth­er hand, here, there are more groups work­ing besides the shows we do. One is Love Dif­fer­ence, a Milan-based group from the Pis­to­let­to Foun­da­tion, the philoso­phers of Millepi­ani, Osser­va­to­rio inOpera and oth­ers. We now have a group of young pho­tog­ra­phers com­ing from the art school work­ing here. So it’s a mix of groups that use this space to do their things. It’s a col­lec­tive. And now the neigh­bor­hood asso­ci­a­tions meet here because they have no oth­er place to meet. And we cre­at­ed with them the “Forum Iso­la”. With them we are work­ing out the project for a new kind of art cen­ter that would be not only for art, but also for neigh­bor­hood activ­i­ties. For exam­ple, next week we are mak­ing a project with Tomas Sara­ceno. He has sug­gest­ed build­ing a big hot-air bal­loon with the peo­ple of the dis­trict. So we are going to the local hous­es to col­lect plas­tic bags that will be pieced togeth­er and then we will make them fly in ten days. And at the same time, there are hot-air bal­loon work­shops for the chil­dren of the local school. 

VK: But this needs struc­tured fund­ing. How do you man­age all this? I mean, how does it hook up together?

BT: It’s built on ener­gy. Built on ener­gy, enthu­si­asm and sol­i­dar­i­ty. We only got fund­ing twice: once from the province of Milan for a show and the cat­a­logue for “The Peo­ple’s Choice.” And then from the Amer­i­can Cen­ter Foun­da­tion for our web­site. So, I think it’s pos­si­ble to do it, because there are lots of peo­ple feel­ing that this is the right way to work. So it’s now an insti­tu­tion­al project…it’s an art project and a social project. Now we risk los­ing this build­ing, but I think that after six years we have built rela­tion­ships so that the project could even go on. When they will take this away, we will build tents out­side and it will go on. So my idea for Istan­bul was to build a space that has this long form, like this build­ing, but smaller…in way of a tent. So that the Iso­la Art Cen­ter can also be in Istan­bul. So that it is not any­more anchored to a fixed build­ing. It’s a con­cept. And then we can go on invit­ing artists and cura­tors to work there. Because we did the Emer­gency Bien­ni­al in Chech­nya with Eve­lyne Jouan­no, and we had a big show in Decem­ber with artists from Can­ton. They found mon­ey in Chi­na to come here. Then when the artists come they stay in our hous­es, they live in the district…so it’s real­ly local. It’s extreme­ly local. It’s not even Milan, it’s this dis­trict Iso­la and it’s the rest of the world. It’s Chi­na, Mex­i­co… So we thought, how to rep­re­sent what we are doing? I thought, as I told you, there are so many peo­ple work­ing on the project, so many groups, and these peo­ple don’t even meet each oth­er. So we want to make photographs/portraits of the group to explain how we are work­ing. This is one of the pos­si­bil­i­ties. We also have video doc­u­men­ta­tion. One loose con­cept is also ded­i­cat­ed to these direct parts of the town. We are now in a sit­u­a­tion in which in ten days we will have the next open­ing, as I said, with Tomas Sara­ceno, who has already come to meet the peo­ple here, who’s work­ing with solar ener­gy-dri­ven bal­loons. The Kore­an archi­tects from “Fly­ingc­i­ty” worked in the dis­trict too.They made nine mod­els of how Iso­la could change that will be in the show. And we’ll show them. And the title is “SituazionIsola”.This is because the co-cura­tors Mau­r­izio Bor­tolot­ti and Mar­co Biraghi were inter­est­ed to check if what we are doing can be defined as a sit­u­a­tion­ist prac­tice. I am also inter­est­ed in what is still valid from the sit­u­a­tion­ist concepts.They’ve been used and copied, but per­haps some of their inputs can still prove use­ful. And then after this show, Katia will curate a show in May with two artists from Bulgaria. 

Katia Angelu­o­va: The sit­u­a­tion now is real­ly dif­fi­cult because we have this project but we don’t know if the space will still be here. 

VK: So it’s that urgent?

BT: We know now the city of Milan signed a con­tract with the Amer­i­cans for the land exchange, but it will only be valid when the coun­cil is able to get the build­ing emp­ty. So this means a big, big pres­sure on the crafts­peo­ple to leave. They offered them mon­ey to make them go away and many went away. And then there were some asso­ci­a­tions here, who split the move­ment, they were offered oth­er spaces —alter­na­tive spaces— so last week they moved out. Now we have the prob­lem that here down­stairs some spaces are squat­ted by African drug deal­ers. And it was with this pre­text they said we have to close this building—we have to tear it down because it’s crim­i­nal, it’s dan­ger­ous. This is our sit­u­a­tion. So the city coun­cil uses of course this sit­u­a­tion. Also, for the neigh­bor­hood it’s very dif­fi­cult and many peo­ple are say­ing, no, it’s enough. They can­not imag­ine that the sit­u­a­tion here could change. It could be dif­fer­ent. So one of the things we are work­ing on now is to show that the space could be dif­fer­ent. So we have images so that you can show one exam­ple of this pos­si­bil­i­ty. But we are work­ing on oth­er images, because at the moment, peo­ple see only the nice skyscrapers…so we try to reply to this. 

First pub­lished on the home­page of Plat­form Garan­ti, Istan­bul, April 2007 

Post­script 2009: Since the inter­view, the build­ing in which the Iso­la Art Cen­ter hoped to exist has been destroyed by the city coun­cil in order to facil­i­tate the con­struc­tion of new sky­scrap­ers. The real estate devel­op­ment agen­cies and the right-wing city coun­cil hoped to silence the oppo­si­tion by destroy­ing the fac­to­ry build­ing and by fenc­ing off the green areas. But eight years of com­mon fight for pub­lic space have cre­at­ed a strong com­mu­ni­ty. Iso­la Art Cen­ter con­tin­ues to orga­nize shows, lec­tures, meet­ings in squares and in sev­er­al oth­er pub­lic and pri­vate venues across the dis­trict, which host its projects out of sol­i­dar­i­ty: shops, a cul­tur­al asso­ci­a­tion, a restau­rant… The cen­tre is also using the shut­ters of many dis­tric­t’s shops as exhi­bi­tion space and is look­ing for new alter­na­tive sites for its com­mu­ni­ty activ­i­ties in the neigh­bor­hood. The result is an art cen­tre with­out a spe­cif­ic build­ing. In Jan­u­ary 2009 the court stopped the con­struc­tion of Ligresti’s mall for the sec­ond time. And soon oth­er courts will have to pass judg­ment on sev­er­al oth­er legal actions, which could vir­tu­al­ly bring to an end the whole devel­op­ment of the Garibal­di-Repub­bli­ca area. So the end of the dis­pute is far from settled.

Vasıf Kor­tun.