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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.