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In a Fight for the Soul of Milan, Artist-Occupiers Face Off Against Developers and City Council

For the past five years, the group Macao has run a thriving, radical arts center out of a former slaughterhouse in Milan. Now the city council wants to evict them.

The breadbasket-shaped Qatari pavilion with Expo Milano's on-site McDonald's branch — with solar panels and a garden on its roof — in the foreground
The breadbasket-shaped Qatari pavilion with Expo Milano’s on-site McDonald’s branch — with solar panels and a garden on its roof — in the foreground (photo by Benjamin Sutton/Hyperallergic)

MILAN — This city has transformed over the last 10 years, largely due to property development ahead of the international Expo of 2015, which featured over 130 national pavilions dedicated to the theme of food. The event met with widespread criticism even before it opened, not least because its curator, Germano Celant — a stalwart of the Italian art scene, responsible for the promotion of the Arte Povera movement in the 1970s — took a stipend of €750,000 (~$815,000), which many saw as excessive. This reflected the wider internal contradictions of an event that was ostensibly dedicated to issues of food scarcity and abundance (under the title “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life”), yet, far from sustaining the planet or even its host city of Milan, appeared to be nothing more than a vast profit-making opportunity. Entrance tickets cost €40, and the food offered inside by participating nations cost more. Beyond the prohibitive expense of the expo itself, activists in Milan protested the government’s use of the project as an excuse to redevelop and gentrify vast swathes of the city. Contracts for the developments went mostly to large multinational corporations, such as Hines, a firm whose motto is “Intelligent Real Estate Development” and whose global headquarters is located in Houston, Texas.

But the remaking of Milan — and the contestation of it — goes back to a time before the Expo. In 2003, architect Stefano Boeri, who was on the Milan city council at the time, undertook a development project in the Isola neighborhood as part of a wider planning scheme by the city council in conjunction with real estate investors including Hines. The development threatened the existence of a recreational and play area. In response, a group of activists, artists, and even local artisans occupied a former warehouse named the Stecca, managing the Isola Art Center on its second floor. In its brief life as a museum, the Stecca had hosted 27 exhibitions involving over 200 local and international artists, among them Ian Tweedy and Tania Bruguera. In 2007, however, the Stecca was cleared and destroyed. In its place, Boeri built Bosco Verticale (Vertical Forest), a set of luxury residential towers with tree plantings on large balconies on each of its levels. This novel solution certainly presented green spaces, but not ones that local residents could enjoy, unless they happened to inhabit one of the “forest’s” luxury apartments.

Macao’s occupation of Torre Galfa (photo by Luca Mata, courtesy Macao)

Four years after the dismantling of the Stecca, a group called the Lavoratori dell’arte (the art workers) was formed in the tradition of the Italian workerism movement, which sought in the 1960s to place labor conditions at the center of leftist struggle. The following year, members of the group occupied Milan’s Torre Galfa, a disused 1950s skyscraper, under the name Macao; they were evicted by police after 10 days. Though short lived, their gesture pointed to the failings of aggressive real estate investment: a functioning cultural space, the Isola Art Center, had been broken up to build more skyscrapers while others in the city sat empty.

A view of Milan from the Torre Galfa (photo by Eugenio Marongiu, courtesy Macao)

Macao’s action was part of a national movement of occupations that swept Italy beginning in August 2011, when workers occupied Rome’s Teatro Valle — the city’s oldest functioning theater — with the intention of declaring the space a bene comune, or “common good.” They were referencing article 43 of the Italian Constitution and following on a precedent set earlier in the year, when Italy’s water system was declared a bene comune by an overwhelming referendum. By the summer of 2012, the bene comune movement extended from Venice (Teatro Marinoni and Sale Docks), Milan, Rome, and Naples (La Balena) to Catania (Teatro Coppola) and Palermo (i Cantieri Culturali della Zisa and Teatro Garibaldi). Each space worked within the wider network to create a cultural program that demonstrated how public services could be offered via a model that was not state-, council-, or privately operated. Since then, Teatro Valle and Teatro Garibaldi have shut down. The former was evacuated in 2014 by the authorities, despite widespread public support and an internationally acclaimed theater program being offered for free.

“If there wasn’t Macao” public assembly to launch the path to collectively buy Macao’s building, Arco della Pace, April 24, 2017 (photo by Luca Chiaudano, courtesy Macao)

Macao’s initial expulsion from the Torre Galfa did not deter them. The group, made up of artists, cultural workers, and activists, moved to Palazzo Cittiero in Milan’s Brera zone, and from there to its current and third home, an early-20th-century slaughterhouse in the Calvairate district. The group is now fighting eviction, following an announcement by the Milan city council that it intends to sell the building. In the time since Macao’s June 2012 occupation, the space has hosted over 2,000 artists from across the world to participate in exhibitions, talks, workshops, and musical events, while holding regular assemblies and events on the theme of fair treatment of cultural workers. In fact, their situation became semi-formalized in 2014, when the city council held a roundtable discussion on the use and abuse of public space and finally passed a resolution conferring “the management of abandoned spaces to grassroots communities.” However, in August 2017, Beppe Sala, the newly elected mayor of Milan and former CEO of the Expo, appointed Cesare Ferrero, the former CEO of Bnp Paribas Real Estate Italia, as president of the parapublic entity which owns the building that Macao occupies. Ostensibly motivated by a desire to overcome a budget shortfall, Ferrero and his company, Sogemi SpA, are adamant that the building be sold at market value.

Macao has responded with a petition demanding that it be allowed to buy the property at a discounted price via the formation of a cultural association comprising artists, citizens, and activists, and it has, to date, more than 1,700 signatories. But the occupiers are just as interested in purchasing the building as they are in making clear the political motivations for the planned sale of it. Interviewed by the Italian language website Effimera.org, activist Emanuele Braga — an activist involved with Macao — argued that the Milan council’s real goal is ending a culture of occupation that challenges the doctrine of private ownership and makes clear the benefits of communal space. Macao has done this through projects such as the Wandering School, created in collaboration with around 30 students from the Dirty Art Department of the Sandberg Institute of Amsterdam, who lived and worked for three weeks at Macao on a laboratory for creative questioning. Following its development period, the project, which aimed to subvert the usual hierarchies of the exhibition space, opened to the public in April 2016 and featured the option of a dinner for two amid an ongoing rave; a rotating series of 24-hour solo exhibitions; and a symposium on alternative schooling hosted by radical educator Cyril de Menouillard.

Macao’s eclectic programming acts as an antidote to capitalist logic — the group is an advocate of the notion, shared by thinkers as diverse as Adorno and Debord, that the irrationality of art making can somehow upset the forward march of a market mentality devoid of humanity. In this light, it’s worth noting that swathes of the newly redeveloped Milan have in recent years been sold off to foreign investors, including the Qatari Emirates, which owns 100% of Porta Nuova, an area of the city that’s worth over $2 billion and was planned and completed to coincide with the Expo. To Macao, this is indicative of an underlying ideological motivation to redevelop Milan in line with a neoliberal vision of property investment. Under this vision, the needs of the community come second to profit.

An exhibition of work by VOINA, Soon we’ll be completely fearless, at Macao in December 2012 (photo by Luca Chiaudano, courtesy Macao)
“This is our body of revolution” during Non una di meno march, Piazza Duca d’Aosta, March 8, 2017 (photo by Luca Chiaudano, courtesy Macao)

The bene comune movement, of which Macao is now a central focus, aims to address this social malady at both a macro and micro level. For art workers involved in it, the fight is as much about how culture is produced as how real estate impacts the wider society within which the politically committed artist lives. As Eva Neklyaeva, the director of the Santarcangelo theater festival, argued in an open letter of support for Macao:

What is the most exciting art institution in Italy now?

For me, it’s definitely Macao in Milan.

And now it’s under threat of eviction.

After spending some days at Documenta, the most precious thing I’ve ‘learnt from Athens’ is it’s not only about What, it’s about How.

It doesn’t really matter what kind of amazing content we create as art organisations; if we don’t find the way to restructure the production process to reflect the same values we advocate for in our programs (feminism, anti-capitalism, ecological or post-colonial perspective…) – we are doomed.

The Expo was, in essence, the opposite of Macao: a spectacular example of culture being co-opted in the interests of capital. The unabashedly corporate event practically redefined Italy’s idea of commercialism. The boulevard along which the national pavilions were lined appeared as a Simpsons-esque parody of the experience of shopping: a city made solely for the purpose of consumption. A neoliberal model of eating was imported to supplant the naturally communitarian leanings of the Italian population.

Packaged foods, heated up on the spot in microwaves and ovens, in the Thai pavilion
Packaged foods, heated up on the spot in microwaves and ovens, in the Thai pavilion at Expo Milano (photo by Benjamin Sutton/Hyperallergic)

As Macao awaits a response from Milan’s city council, it’s clear that a way of life is at stake, and  that communal space is essential to it. As Camilla Pin, a curator and activist involved both with the Isola Art Center and Macao told Hyperallergic, “There is an innate will in the process associated with Macao to dismantle segregation after passing a life immersed in a culture based on individualism.”

When I asked the council whether Macao would get a chance to buy the building it occupies at a reduced price, a press officer answered, “The administration needs to evaluate the value of the property in accordance with the value of the market so as to avoid possible damage to revenues.” When I asked if there would be any effort to fund alternative cultural activities in the area, to help fill the gap left by Macao’s absence, should they be evicted, the officer replied that the council would evaluate different cultural proposals and accept the one it deemed most suitable for the property in terms of “social value.” The question then becomes whether the council, with its strong links to real estate corporations, can be entrusted with the cultural vitality of Milan — or whether the logic of Expo is indicative a corrosive neoliberal policy that local inhabitants would do well to resist.

A Macao event at Torre Galfa (photo by Eugenio Marongiu, courtesy Macao)
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