Urban Activism and Playground Ideology

In the Isola Neighbourhood of Milan

by Marco Scotini

There is a directly proportional relationship between development of the contemporary art system and an increase in economic disparities on a social level. Our future is at stake, argues Marco Scotini

Maria Papadimitriou, Hotel Isola, 2006, installation view of the exibition The People’s Choice

MILAN, APRIL 2007 – Milanese law enforcement agencies (police and special operations), on the morning of April 17, raided the former industrial complex on Via Confalonieri: an occupied ruin that has contained self-organised groups like the Stecca degli Artigiani and Isola Art Center for many years. Demolition of the structure began immediately, although it wouldn’t be completed until the start of October. While claiming to “restore security to a piece of the city”, the government was simply moving forwards with an old plan of real estate speculation in collaboration with the Texas-based multinational developer Hines. Some years previously, Hines had decided to revise the skyline of Milan to the tune of about two billion euros of investment in the Garibaldi- Repubblica district. However, this gigantic building project could not begin until the complex on Via Confalonieri was destroyed.

NEW YORK, MAY 2007 – Major economic imbalances started to shake up the financial market. The Wall Street banking giant Bear Stearns was forced to close its two most ‘dynamic’ funds that specialised in the subprime mortgage sector. At the start of 2007, shares in the well-known investment bank had been at an all time high. But in the months to follow, the unexpected plunge on the stock market wipes out the fame and profits of Bear Stearns, as real estate prices crashed. The extension of easy credit to subjects at risk suddenly became a boomerang, causing an avalanche of losses for banks that had subprime mortgages on their books. Bear Stearns was one of the first victims of the credit crunch, and its collapse was also the first and most important sign of the catastrophe to come, which in a few months would sweep through stock exchanges around the globe, changing the face of international finance. In 2008, Bear Stearns was forced to submit to a takeover by the financial firm J.P. Morgan, for a mere pittance. This was the only way for it to avoid imminent bankruptcy.

I progetti della gente, civic programme of Fondazione Catella, 2010

This effect of the rupture of the systematic exploitation and production of culture was immediately evident, on a micro-physical level, in the Garibaldi-Repubblica area of Milan, following the destruction of the Stecca degli Artigiani and the Isola Art Center. Here the new antagonistic capital/labour relationship encountered its own phenomenology: that of expropriation. Expropriation of social labour that is channelled to the private space of appropriation. With the growth of the massive Porta Nuova building site on the ‘ground zero’ where the Stecca had once stood, people decided to use that borderland – that public/private diaphragm with its hoardings and security barriers – as an open-air museum. Semiotic productions were fundamental in this scenario: the concealment of the building site (by the hoardings) was inversely proportional to the process of display they initiated. We might say that the urban as a commodity revealed its mystery here: the capacity to conceal capital through its public display.

At the start of 2009, a seemingly-infinite sequence of drawings by children appeared on the PVC fence around the building site in Milan. In a paratactic manner, urban vegetable gardens, soccer fields, circus tents, amusement parks, bicycle parks, running tracks, parks and fountains appeared on the hoardings that bordered the areas between Via de Castillia and Via Confalonieri, Via Sassetti and Via Melchiorre Gioia. Hopes of transformation, social desires and subjective projections lined the edges of the building site: their viewpoint was infantile, non-specialised and from the bottom up. The childish imagery was able to promote the rhetoric of human growth as urban growth, and perhaps more than that. The child, not yet shut up in a specific tradition, can challenge the limits of behavioural codes, expectations and pre-set repertoires. In spite of the skill in disguising the forms of territorial marketing deployed by the promoter of the project, the level of subjugation given form by this strategy is clear. This type of capitalist exploitation (of the urban and other things) permits the participation of forms of expression and creation as long as they remain excluded (on the out- side) of property (off limits). In a paradoxical way, the true promoter of the civic project perfectly exemplifies that dual, ambiguous character, which is a typical feature of post-Fordist production and exploitation. On the one hand, we are looking at a social agency with the mission of promoting civic and environmental initiatives, while on the other we run up against the cynicism of a powerful real estate developer (also with ties to J.P. Morgan) whose goal is to exploit and capitalise on what it says it wants to safeguard.

Were we to attempt to identify the parameters involved in the institution of an art and community centre, like Isola Art Center was, in a neighbourhood of Milan, we might find in them something absolutely original and particular.

This something would generate innovation through the form and matter of the urban: a molecular, conflicted, mutant, insurgent urban in a state of becoming. It would be in crisis, that is, with respect to its consolidated collective uses and functional hierarchies. The forms of production the centre has activated, like the distribution channels it has generated, can-not be separated from alternative economic
networks, systems of interaction and the mobilisation of collective energies, and the potential wealth
of embryonic micro-communities, which are poor in contractual power but filled with a desire for transformation. In this sense, the questions that have most directly engaged with artistic practices are as follows: how is a certain representation of the people in a neighbourhood, as well as their mutable relations with the space, to be achieved? How is an arena or a context determined in which people can define, debate and challenge the identities attributed to them, producing and reproducing their own circumstances of life, their own values and their own social order? How are affirmative forms of struggle imagined that do not call for the conservation of the integrity of a community that does not exist, but instead call for the right of the city to a radical democracy, in which groups and individuals control and actively design their life? Illegal actions of appropriation of space, design counter-proposals, ongoing assemblies, cycles of seminars on the philosophy of the urban and protest marches have formed the everyday fabric of the art centre. From the outset, such an empirical but theoretical program was organised around four points, with which the centre has kept faith: no budget, no show, no island hopping and no art ghetto. These points express the refusal of art to participate in market economics, to display it- self, to close itself off inside the limits of the art system, as well as the desire to give roots to artistic practices.

Tomas Saraceno, Museo Aero Solar, 2001

So, what does the local and marginal character of the eviction of an occupied space in Milan have to do with the major chapter of the global crisis of financial capitalism? Why try to arrange them together in a single chain of events if they are simply a matter of pure chronological coincidence? Is there a limit or an interaction between micro- and macro-politics, between the direct experience of a social work space and the less visible, less material experience of the hoarding of savings in stocks and shares? What is the relationship between these two orders of magnitude, between the molecular dimension (as field of ruptures, discontinuities, subjectivities, desires, conflicts, aspirations) and the molar dimension (already given declarative areas, majority determinations, institutional representations)? The neoliberal market policies against which, at the start of the 2000s, a collective, alternative and constituent mode like Isola Art Center emerged, have now developed to such an extent that nothing is left to chance or without control. Neoliberalism has spread its influence over everything: it has produced an unprecedented centralisation in which only authoritarianism (now with nothing liberal about it) can guarantee the reproduction of the present conditions of repression and capitalist exploitation.

The extent to which this parasitical system lives at the expense of another has become clear by now, thanks to the precise geopolitics of the new processes of exploitation: there is a directly proportional relationship between development of the contemporary art system and an increase in economic disparities on a social level. Art is promoted today to the status of a paradoxical new control device. In the same way in which it emphasises the promise of social, creative and emancipative redistribution, it encourages and creates consensus with respect to a private and competitive channelling of resources towards business and the holdings of the upper classes. The union between so-called social art and real estate speculation is a useful tool in the transformation of communities into audiences to be governed, in the transformation of the latter into customers to be exploited, and in the change from the process of renewal to that of gentrification.
A playground ideology is governing new forms of project planning, both in art and on the urban scene. Separated and protected from the dangers of the street, the playground is one of those limited spaces of tolerated and controlled freedom that has the same configuration in any part of the world. The form of contemporary urban socialising has its own area for free play, where what is at stake, I would say, is our future.

Bert Theis, Untitled, 2001

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