A Walking Discussion with Bert Theis

A Walking Discussion with Bert Theis

Isola Art Center is a project founded in 2002 by a group of international and Italian 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 following is a discussion between Bert Theis, artist and one of the founders of the Isola Art Center, and Vasif Kortun on April 4, 2007 in the Isola district of Milano about the emerging Art Center, the local urban transformation, and the political climate in which it is taking shape. Bert Theis & Isola will participate in the 10th Istanbul Biennale. The discussion was in the form of a walk between Via Farini and Isola.

Bert Theis: The isolation of “Isola” created also the name. The relative isolation from the city center made also that this district is one of the only ones near the center of Milano where all the post-Second World War transformations did not happen. Since it is not crossed by big streets, you have less traffic because you cannot go through it, and the neighborhood remained working class, but also very mixed. It is a bit like a village in the city. You have a big quality of every day life, because you have everything you need in five minutes—you can walk to it. And it is very good connected to the subway stations. What is important is that is was always a worker district. It was the center of anti-Fascist actions in Milano. For example, the hidden center of the Communist party during Fascism was here in the shoe factory. In the shoe boxes, they took out the propaganda material.

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

BT: There is a very slow change. The new middle classes were coming in…architects, designers. But 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 put in the district the middle class buildings to change the social nature. And one of the famous Italian architects—Giuseppe Terragni—built three buildings in this district. Modernist buildings. But it did not really change. So today, you have 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-war, tried to destroy the protected character of Isola. Big projects should be realized here. The planned road is a highway-feeder road. Several projects and plans 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 sky scrapers ends in nothing. It was thought like a highway, but was stopped even by the priest. It is a really rare situation in Milano for something to remain untouched by the big changes. And now in 2001 a new project of urbanism for the area was presented. Now what they want to do is use the street we are walking down (Via Volturno), where now you have nearly no traffic, to bring the traffic there to where the open situation starts and then try to go through the district to the center. This would mean that here the situation becomes 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 that is working 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: That was always new movements of citizens and associations and architects and political parties. They took legal action, because the city did not observe the standards.

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 art pieces to pay the lawyer. It was necessary, because it was one of the only ways you can stop things.

[They arrive at the current location of the Isola Art Center]

Here, they already started. They want to build a commercial building that is fourteen floors. So it will be more or less double of this building if they do it. It will block the whole panorama. And this is one of the only places in Milano where you can see something like the 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 urbanization here together with the Italian capital. So they give the land and the Americans bring the money, bring the architects—for example, there will be a big skyscraper made by Cesar Pelli, an Argentinean-American architect, and a big skyscraper made 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 few curators and few artists, we had a wooden fence of one hundred meters painted white, like a symbolic barrier against the 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 up an example for all the rest to come. And your status is still a squatter status?

BT: We don't consider us as "normal" squatters. We take care of a public building owned by the people. When it was not anymore a factory, the city rented it in part to craftspeople and associations. And one of them is a carpenter and he 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 that he gives 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 make these buildings. This is based on change of land. Because where we are now and the two parks there are owned by the city. And the private ones own land on [the other] side. So to make this…they have to change the land. And we simply said, “don’t change it.” Let them build anything they want, where they own it.

This is a drawing we made based on what the people told us how they would like to have the building—outside and 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 tax and to realize a center for contemporary art…without knowing exactly what this means. It was based on all our work that was done for a few years. But they understood that it could be good and useful in 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 we want to keep the grounds 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 nearby. (Strange sickness…that this is a kind of art center.)

This project was formed by Boeristudio, 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 pretext of what could be, we hoped there would be a compromise. But when we saw the project [he presents a picture of it]….people of the neighborhood said, no, it is impossible, because the park will be like a private garden of these houses. This is now an open situation between the park—people will get cut off. We never asked for such a heroic sculpture building, because this is the sign you put that gentrification will happen. It indicates: the district is changed; it is like a landmark for 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 fashion is not interested. Armani, Prada…everyone has his 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 joined it myself 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 was first working with us here and then he 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 it can work in other contexts. We have, for example, a drawer who makes the illustrations that the neighborhood district needs to express themselves. Because the big companies have big means to show what they want. So we try to do too. On the other hand, here, there are more groups working besides the shows we do. One is Love Difference. This is the Pistoletto Foundation, group of Milano, 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 also this space to do their things. It’s a collective. And now the neighborhood associations meet here because they have no place to meet. And we create with them “Forum Isola.” With them together we work 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 suggested to build a big balloon with the people of the district. So we are in the houses collecting plastic bags that will be put together and then we will make them flying in ten days. And in the same time, there are balloon workshops for children of the 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 and enthusiasm. We only got two times the financement: once from the province of Milano 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 to lose this building, but I think that in six years we build relationships so the project can even go on. When they 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 Isola Art Center can also be in Istanbul. So 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 the big show in December with artists from Canton. They found money in China to come here. Then when the artists come they are in our houses, they live in the district…so it’s really local. It’s extremely local. It’s not even Milano, 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 town. We are now in the situation that in ten days we have the next opening, as I said with Tomas Saraceno, who came already to meet the people here, who’s working with solar energy driven balloons. The Korean architects from "Flyingcity" worked in the district. They made nine models of how Isola could change that will be in the show. And we’ll show it. 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 situationist practice. I am also interested in what is still valid from the situationist concepts. You can use it, you can copy it…but they gave many interesting inputs in checking what still can be used. And then after this show, Katia curates a show in May with two artists from Bulgaria.

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

VK: So it’s that urgent?

BT: We know now the city of Milano signed a contract with the Americans for the change of the land, but it will only be valid when the city is able to get the building empty. So this means a big big pressure on the crafts people to leave. They offer them money to make them go away and many went away. And then there were several alternative associations here and they 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 throw it down because it’s criminal, it’s dangerous. This is our situation.

So the city 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. But we are working on other images, because for the moment, people see only the nice skyscrapers…so we try to answer to it.

Since the interview, the building in which the Isola Art Center hoped to exist has been destroyed in part by the city in order to facilitate the construction of new city skyscrapers.