30 01 08

Archeology of an art center

Luis Miguel Selvelli

Nowadays, to be involved in activist practices within the metropolis is to deal with several issues of representation, in both the political and aesthetic meanings of this term. As we all know, the ideological and material conditions of our age have in fact given rise to such a wide and complex range of subjectivities, that they are not reducible anymore to any of the classical frames of political delegation and creation of symbolic discourse.

So which devices are indeed used today to represent the subjects and the events of the contemporary metropolis?

The hegemonic powers, that is the tight integration of public institutions and private corporations, although having lost most of their public legitimation, have learnt how to obtain better results out of the representation devices, in order to grant themselves the indispensable governmental “grip” on the subjects.

The effectiveness of these hegemonic devices is based on the power held on subjects by two primordial affects: the fear of the unknown and the desire of happiness.

The hegemonic representations broadcasted by the media are overall aimed to provide helpful “frames” to make sense of the metropolis: more than often, this superficial information is enough to satisfy the primary need of understanding, so typical of the contemporary western subject. After splitting the city in several separated areas, each of them can be easily provided with an oversimplified image, so that, in case of a specific need (urban “restoration” project, real estate speculation, international event, ...), it can be swiftly polarized in its accordance. The neighborhood could thus become dangerous, degraded, poshy, bohemienne, ...

But which, instead, are the representation devices available for the ones who work within the metropolis as non-hegemonic subjects? Which are the strategies to be used by the ones who, because of the relational practice involved in activism, find themselves sharing with the hegemonic powers similar issues of representation? How to make evident one’s difference, and who to address with one’s own representation activity (always considering it in both its political and esthetic meanings)? 

All these questions have been thoroughly faced by the ones who, since more than 5 years now, have been keeping alive the experience of Isola Art Center. This has been a very original case of activist space dealing with exhibiting and research in contemporary art, capable to reach international recognition without ever losing connection with the struggles of its neighborhood.

Everything started in 2001, when in the Isola neighborhood of Milano, stuck between the Porta Garibaldi train station and some main roads (but without being crossed by them: isola means indeed island), several residents got to mobilize against an aggressive urban plan of the municipality. The area had a long industrial history, still visible in the class composition and in the leftist ideals shared by most of its residents. But since the Nineties, it had become the focus of several big real estate interests. In that time, a spontaneous “gentrification” process was already ongoing, bringing in the neighborhood several students and young professionists attracted by low rents: but this had not yet come to affect the original charachteristics of the neighborhood, made of several craftman and family-run shops, and mostly long-time residents.

But in 2001, it was mainly this new class of residents (students and young professionists) to liven up the mobilization aimed to oppose the municipality plan, willing to construct 90.000 cubic meters of buildings and a big road, after tearing down an old industrial building (known as Stecca degli Artigiani, often just Stecca in the text since now). This building (and the two small parks close to it) was thus to become the symbol of the residents’ struggle, its many rooms, at that time only partly rented by some craftmen, being soon illegally squatted by the groups and associations taking part to the mobilization. Italian-teaching to foreign immigrants, bicycle-repairing, computer courses, organic farmers’ market: these and many other activities were worked out by the new different subjects of the Stecca, hoping to make clear to the municipality which was the socio-cultural potentiality of the building to be torn down.

In between them were also most of the future promoters of Isola Art Center, including those who can be seen as its founders: Bert Theis and Mariette Schiltz, born in Luxembourg but living in the Isola neighborhood of Milano since 1996. Bert Theis had gained some visibility in the art world after presenting a fake national pavilion of Luxembourg at the Venice Bienale of 1995. Since then, his career had developed within the field of public art, mostly dealing with the creation of works available to a further use, spaces that would open up the potentialties of dialogue and thought. However, as long as the Isola mobilization started up, the main issue became: how to use the tools of contemporary art to join the Isola residents’ struggle? First of all out (“office for urban transformation”) was founded, having squatted one big room at the first floor of the Stecca: apart from hosting several multidisciplinary meetings, the office committed itself to the neighborhood, providing simple visualizations of the urban plans, and representations of possible futures in order to stimulate residents’ hope and projectuality.

At the same time, Theis and Schiltz began to promote the creation of a contemporary art center at the second floor of the Stecca. With the collaboration of artists, gallerists, curators and critics (between them Katia Anguelova, Stefano Boccalini, Alesssandra Poggianti and Marco Scotini), several events were carried out between 2003 and 2004 within the spaces of the Stecca building. But it was only in fall 2004, when a group of 15 students of art and design (afterwards known as “Sugoe”) joined its activities, that the experience of Isola Art Center in the 1.500 square meters second floor of the Stecca could really find its start.

But in the meantime, because of the growing number of groups and subjects (almost 20) involved in the Stecca, the representation dynamics within it had progressivly gone out of control. Who and how should have taken the decisions regarding the whole collectivity? How was one’s own authority to be legitimized? Although enduring attempts of collective assemblies and negotiations, no “direct democracy” model came ever to be shared and implemented by all the groups, and the lack of communication between them started to bring to wider misunderstandings: at last, they started to gather in almost opposing factions.

In such a context, Isola Art Center preferred to pay less attention to the inner question of the Stecca, and rather focus itself on the neighborhood issues and struggles. For that matter, Isola Art Center had since the beginning chosen to collaborate closely with the neighborhood association “I Mille” (who had gathered more than 8.000 signatures and lodged five appeals to the Regional Court, in order to oppose the municipality urban plan) and the parents’ association of the local primary and secondary schools. Further enduring relationships had been established with the craftmen, the parish church, the local offices of the main leftist parties, and other associations. In this way, Isola Art Center had been making concrete its ambition to exist as an independent contemporary art institution, tightly linked to the struggles and the needs of its neighborhood.

During its almost 5 years of activities, Isola Art Center has organized, in the Stecca space and the small parks, 13 special events, 27 meetings and 28 exhibitions, involving more than 200 national and international artists (between them Marjetica Potrc, Maria Papadimitriou, Michelangelo Pistoletto, Vedovamazzei, Loris Cecchini, Luca Pancrazzi, Tania Bruguera, Dan Perjovschi...). Despite the heterogeneity of their languages, the curators of the art center have always tried to establish relationships and intersections between the activist and the artistic practices. A critical analysis of the accomplished results still waits to be done: given the wide amount of available material, this could prove as an effective account of the potentiality of artistic tools within the realm of contemporary political practice.

However, while Isola Art Center and the other committees and associations (gathered since 2006 in the Forum Isola) were experimenting original tools and ways of representation, capable to deal with many different kinds of subjects (old and young Isola residents, lawyers, politicians, journalists, architects, philosophers, artists, ...), the situation within the Stecca was worsening day after day. Because of the large amount of people coming during night time to a couple of bars inside the building, many drug dealers had started to gather around the Stecca. In the meantime, also the urbanistic pressure on the neighborhood had started to tighten up: since 2005, the Milano municipality had chosen to outsource the whole executive production of the urban plan to Hines, a huge Texas-based building corporation who had afterwards appointed the Boeri Studio of Stefano Boeri to manage all the design issues concerning the Isola section of the project. With such a deployment of hegemonic powers, media came soon to play their representation role: suddenly, newspapers started to focus their attention on the Isola case, in the local pages as well as in the national ones. Isola had now become a dangerous neighborhood, with the Stecca being the frightening “drug fort”. In such a (media) state of emergency, allowing Hines and the municipality to get rid of the Stecca at any moment, a feeling of impotence started to spread within the associations working inside it. Despite their internal divisions, they tried to find again a common solution to the drug-dealing problem, but no concrete result was obtained. At that point, some of the groups working at the Stecca (including Isola Art Center) got even to accept collaborating through informal links with some members of the drug-police, but to no avail.

The “final solution” came thus in the early morning of 17th of april 2007 (just the night before Isola Art Center had inaugurated an exhibition inspired to situationism): with a massive deployment, the police came to evict the whole Stecca building, building then walls to shut any possible access to it. After some weeks, the caterpillars started its demolition.

During the previous months, some craftmen and associations working in the Stecca had found an agreement with Hines, accepting to give up all “rights of resistance” in exchange for a new space where to go on with their activities. Isola Art Center instead, having always refused any offer or compromise with Hines, found itself with no place of its own. But nonetheless, the enduring links established within the neighborhood have allowed the prosecution of its activities also after the eviction, as a “guest” of other associations or exhibiting spaces. Moreover, during the summer of 2007 Isola Art Center got to receive important international recognitions, that is the invitation to present its experience at both the Mamco of Geneve and the X Istanbul Biennial.


In the upcoming event to be held on 1st of february 2008, “Strada per strada” (Street by street), it’s possible to notice how the promoters of Isola Art Center are still struggling to keep on the difficult duty of representing the complexity of the subjects and the dynamics of the contemporary metropolis.

The event is held in the Isola offices of the Punto Rosso association, together with whom Isola Art Center already started collaborating in october 2007, in the frame of the Rosta Project: five of the Punto Rosso road shutters were painted with images of four different artists, dealing with specific issues of the neighborhood struggle.

Its director Tiziana Villani and other authors will present the last issue of the philosophy magazine Millepiani, with whom Isola Art Center started to collaborate in 2005. The following up discussion will be joined by the curators Marco Scotini and Roberto Pinto, and the cuban artist Carlos Garaicoa (who participated to the Isola Art Center exhibition “Art-chitecture of change” in 2005), whose work has been mostly focusing on urban and architectural issues.

Isola Art Center will also present the video “Street by street” (all shot in the streets of Tirana) by the artist Fani Zguro, recent winner of the 2008 edition of the Onufri prize. 

Luis Miguel Selvelli


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