eipcp Policies
04 2012

Too Crucial to Fail: Paralegality in Italian Social Art Movements

Mike Watson

Mike Watson


Dedicated in solidarity to the CANTIERI CULTURALI ALLA ZISA DI PALERMO
on the occasion of Arte e Attivismo, 2nd May 2012:

It was on the occasion of Austrian artist Oliver Ressler's participation in Arte, Politica e Movimenti ('Art, Politics and Movements'), a talk given at Medionauta in Milan, alongside Lavoratori Dell'Arte (Art Workers, an arts activist group) and artist and activist Bert Theis, that I became aware of the history and ongoing activity of the Isola Art Center.

The Art Center began as the Isola Art Project in 2001 as curators and artists Bert Theis, Stefano Boccalini, Emanuele De Cecco , Gruppo A12, Roberto Pinto and Marco Scotini collaborated in utilising public spaces in the former industrial district called L'Isola for art projects. An expanded incarnation of this group became the Isola dell'Arte (Island of Art) in 2003, which started occupying the second floor of a former factory, the "Stecca degli artigiani" and hosted a series of one day events campaigning to save the building and the two nearby parks from demolition, transforming them into a Centre for Art and the Community.

From 2005 the Isola Dell'Arte was joined by a new generation of artists, activists, philosophers, becoming the Isola Art Center. It continued operating from the second floor of the Stecca, an ex-industrial warehouse which the art centre shared with cultural associations  and craftsmen until the space was destroyed in 2007 to make way for ‘Porta Nuova’, a controversial building development which has transformed the neighbourhood into a building site devoid of green spaces and play areas. The flagship building, called the Bosco Verticale (Vertical Forest), designed by Stefano Boeri, architect and Councillor for Culture, Fashion and Design for the Council of Milan embodies a clash of cultures that is emblematic of the alliance of capitalism with government and the role of art in challenging this situation. TheBosco Verticale are Boeri's solution to the lack of green space in the Isola ('Island') area of Milan - so called as it was bordered by two train tracks and a canal - , pointing to a fundamental gap between the mentality of the developers and the needs of the area's inhabitants. The luxury residential towers will host tree plantations on large balconies on each of its levels. If maintained well, the buildings will, to be sure, present a 'green space', in a novel format - extending upwards rather than outwards. A hanging babylonian gardens, perhaps, for those able to afford to live there, though impossible to access for the general public. A kind of visual joke attesting to the lack of regard that the developers have for the requests of the community that works in the area.1

In the continuing activity of what is now called the 'Dispersed Isola Art Center' – operating from bars, bookshops, cultural associations and local shops - and the associated project 'Isola Pepe Verde', which aims to recover a derelict grey triangle of public land near the Porta Nuova development and present it as a public gardens, a situation is presented which reflects a trend emerging across Italy.2In line with the adage that 'possession is nine parts of the law', the activities of the Dispersed Isola Art Center aims to demarcate a space for thought and action, even where the physical space it inhabits has been arguably co-opted to the Neo-Liberal project. Here 'Site Specifity' becomes 'Fight-Specifity' (a term coined by the Art Center) with the mechanisms of political activism which serve to empower local communities, most notably in terms of legislating, being undertaken as art.

What follows is a critical evaluation of this tendency via an initial consideration of the wider context in Italy, which will move on to a specific evaluation of the Isola Art Center. The question asked will be whether fight specifity and art activism in general are adequate to the challenges to freedom brought about in a global capitalist society. What is the potential for the growing involvement of art with legislation and politics in Italy? It will be argued that such a phenomenon has arisen out of a necessity – or, rather, of the impossibility of taking action in the concrete realm – and, as such, bears a huge responsibility.


The arguable complete abstraction of the social whole brought about by the political dominance of global capital has ushered in what might be termed a 'post-political' age. In this era, in which the usual binary political oppositions find themselves helpless in halting the absolute power of the market, which is chaotic, without fundamental logic and answerable to no one, we witness a growth in what could be called 'gestural oppositions' to the absolute dominance of global capital and the financial markets. These oppositions are gestural in the sense that they aim to draw attention to the injustices of global capital through gestures, rather than attempting concrete physical action in the form of either violent protest, or actual policy making. This can be seen in the Occupy movement across the Western world, as occupations become an end in themselves, a symbolic indicator of the possibility of still expressing opposition to global capital, which expends itself at the point of declaring that very possibility.

This situation is reflected in the various social art initiatives that have emerged across Italy since the summer of 2011, though with a unique complexion which gives some (albeit small) cause for hope. These initiatives have been strongly influenced by the occupation of Rome's Teatro Valle – the city's oldest functioning theatre – and plans by its occupiers to declare the theatre as a 'bene comune', or 'common land' in line with article 43 of the Italian Constitution and following on a precedent set in 2011 when Italy's water system was declared as a bene comune by an overwhelming referendum vote. To be sure, any comparison between water, which despite its privatization in many countries, remains intuitively a common good, and a theatre – or any other such institution, building or specific physical location – highlights the inherent contradiction in declaring what by necessity must have a limited public appeal and geographical scope to be a commonly owned 'good'. The solution to such a contradiction would reside surely in a proclamation of all public property as a common good, owned by all people individually and not by the state or by private business interests. Indeed the occupation of Teatro Valle rhetorically poses this option. If a theatre can be a common good - which functions in the case of Teatro Valle as a foundation which anyone can join with a minimal contribution - then surely so can a hospital, a school, an energy system, a nation, and so on. This initiative has captured the imagination of people across Italy, influencing occupations and arts activist groups from North to South.[1] Yet its fundamental premise remains untested. For now, the declaration of a given entity as a bene comune serves to create a lacuna for freedom within an unfree whole. The fact that Teatro Valle is an arts entity, with many creative people involved, imbues it with some kind of outsider immunity to reality. Yet this remains to be tested against the judicial system in Italy, and this is where things could get very interesting, for the line between legislative experimentation undertaken within an arts institution - as art - and legislation as undertaken by parliament is thin.

In a country where corruption is rife, where the media is controlled overwhelmingly by ex-Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi (who has become conspicuous for his absence from public life) and where the government is controlled by unelected autocrats who pursue a largely opaque programme of austerity measures and market reforms, but where, as the inhabitants say, 'si mangia bene' ('you eat well', or more correctly in this context, 'at least one eats well'), gestural opposition finds its expression in the boundary between art and politics. If things were worse, if Italians had to queue for food, or could not afford petrol, one wonders what kind of explosive force might be emitted from the many art occupations which increase in number monthly across the peninsula and its islands. For now, the relative stability of Italy in comparison to the Arab world and to Greece allows for a diligent exploration of a form of art activism which mimics the role of power in legislating, or in using legislation for its own ends.

Milan based group Lavoratori Dell'Arte – who work closely with the L'Isola Art Center – look to claim culture itself as a bene comune. The transposition in this way of a legal status 'bene comune' onto an abstract form 'culture', exposes the weak foundations of power itself, for power is always vested only in a concensus as to the viability of given legal system, state, government, currency or financial system. Where that concensus is focused upon the unquestionable authority of God, of the founding forefathers (as in the US), of a monarchy (as in the UK), of 'democracy', or of the ostensibly objective logic embodied in the numerical count (as with the global financial system) it is still no stronger than the belief vested in these phenomena. The proclamation that 'this is law', 'this is a nation state', or, 'this is the value of X', has no greater basis in fact than the Duchampian declaration 'this is Art'. The difference with the Duchampian statement is that it admits of its own basic fallacy from the offset, for 'art' is effectively without definition or purpose. Art is a system of profound disbelief which is opposed to the belief asked of people subjected to economic, political and state systems. Yet in undertaking law – for example – as art, the fundamental similarity between legislation and art gives the lie to the former, which has no greater basis than art itself. Both are predicated on  simple declaration as to their own validity and application to a given object or situation.

In short, in approaching art as politics the weak bases of power can be exposed and parallel systems can be encouraged. This form of questioning is undoubtedly positive, yet to what extent such forms of opposition remain purely gestural must be addressed. For, ultimately, within a social whole which is effectively unfair, the occupation of spaces and the declaration of those spaces as spaces for free thought, or spaces owned by all, constitutes the ringfencing of an Ideal within a wider reality which may prevent the fruition of that ideal. Such a cordoning off of space – both geographical and mental – provides the opportunity to think through initiatives which cannot be thought through in the concrete realm, where action is necessary, and where, for example, a propping up of the financial sector is arguably entirely necessary short term in order to avoid a meltdown which would be nothing short of apocalyptic. Yet what remains is to make use of the ostensibly free thought permitted within these occupied art spaces, to convert gestural activity somehow into positive action, to hollow out the rotten societal whole from within, whilst remaining aware of the difficulty – impossibility, even - of overcoming the grip that capitalism has over society.

Indeed, if we live in a social whole in which injustice and domination are ingrained it is important tactically to admit of this inherent total lack of freedom. This tactical necessity can be expressed via the following formula:

'To believe that we are free when we are completely unfree (naivety) would jeopardize any chance of finding freedom, yet to think we are completely unfree when we are in fact free (paranoia) would render us unfree in any case. Finally, to think we are completely unfree when we are indeed completely unfree (resignation) would impede permanently any chance of achieving freedom. We are left only with the option of assuming that we are completely unfree and then feigning freedom in response, as a means of enabling a fightback against that same unfreedom, should the conditions ever arise.'[2]

Such a tactic and formula can arguably be described as artistic, for only art can deliberately present such a fallacy whilst maintaining its credibility. The creation of a space for the expression of freedoms which don't exist in reality is necessary. The risk, however, is that such a tactic gives the appearance of there being a humane facet to an inhumane social whole. This can be seen, indeed, in the growth in recent years in community and 'relational' art projects which posit the artist as a kind of social worker, responsible for giving identity to disadvantaged communities, a former role of the state and education system. Art must avoid becoming a kind of deluded space of benevolence and charity, a drop in centre for beautiful souls which somehow for its presence inadvertently exonerates the state and the capitalist system from their responsibility to society and the individual.

Returning to the Isola Art Center by way of a case study what now follows aims at an extrapolation of the positive elements of the Isola Art Center – and by extension the movements which have grown up more recently across Italy – in order to mitigate against the possible future failings of the flourishing social art scene in Italy. The reason it is necessary to mitigate against such failings is simple: with so much energy being put into social art movements in Italy, their failure, just like the historical failure of the political left to strongly challenge capitalism would arguably merit a massive waste of resources which might otherwise be expended on more fruitful initiatives. Though more crucially, if the above formula is taken into account, and if social action must be (and can only be) undertaken as art, the success of such initiatives is not optional. It is, rather, the only option we have if we want to be free.

The Isola Art Center:

The Isola Art Center has a rich history of programming art events with a political content, whilst involving the local communit.y[3] To name just one example, the Rosta project of 2009, which involved artists and art groups from diverse backgrounds and nationalities painting the steel shop shutters in the Isola area provides gave a good demonstration of how art might enter the wider realm. Similarly, the use of the Isola Libreria Libri, a local bookshop, for events, screenings and exhibitions embeds contemporary artistic enquiry firmly at the centre of local community life. However, to focus on any of the hundreds of workshops, performances, exhibitions, happenings, and interventions carried by the Art Center in its various guises over the years would be to do an injustice to what these activities collectively point to, which is somehow more profound than the sum of its parts. This can be best expressed by reconsidering a controversy surrounding Stefano Boeri, the architect and councillor overseeing the Porta Nuova project.

With an apparent social conscience the architect worked early on with the Isola Art Center to propose some way of integrating the Stecca, the former home to the Isola Art Center, within new development plans. However, despite having been prominent in public debates on the necessity of maintaining public spaces in relation to the Isola, when alternative development plans become concretised in 2006, the architect defected, allying himself with the real estate developer, Hines. Explaining the difficulty in parrying the requirements of being a cultural practitioner and being an architect in a talk entitled On Architecture and Geopolitic, held at Goldsmiths College in 2008, Boeri described himself as 'Schizophrenic', an admission which was seized upon by Mara Ferreri in her article The Schizophrenia of Stefano Boeri for NOWISWERE contemporary art magazine in October, 2008. Writing on Boeri's negative reaction to the kind of inclusive architectural project planning seminars which aim to include the public (who, for Boeri, lack the technical expertise necessary to decision making as regards architectural development) Ferreri states:

It is now clear how, from this standpoint, the necessary exclusions performed by any architectural practice become in this context exclusions from the knowledge that would be capable to challenge the existing powers and act towards the elaboration of a different mode of planning and thinking urban life. Addressing his alleged schizophrenia from the angle of a power-knowledge struggle reveals something quite different: instead of an act of self-critique. Boeri's schizophrenia offers a pre-emptive excuse to play down inconsistencies and recede from an engagement with the implications of his professional stance.[4]

Aside from the personal nature of such a criticism, which is perhaps justified in light of Boeri's attack on the Isola Art Center in Perchè l'isola non è autentica (La Repubblica, Milan edition, 24 February 2007), in which the architect casted the critics of his project as perennial naysayers, emotionally opposed to change, Ferreri's piece points to fundamental problem faced by both sides in this debate. That is to say, that Boeri's self professed 'schizophrenia', surely aims to account for the highly dialectical nature of the debate which resounds in cities across the world between the 'gentrifiers', and the residents of an area who resist gentrification as an embodiment of capitalist power. Boeri seemingly seeks to articulate the difficulty in seeking to placate the opposing needs of the community with the ever onward march of capital. This dialectical model appears to find its parallel in the activity of the Isola Art Center which has in the past very much posited itself against an invasion and occupation of a previously unique and characterful area, home to a thriving leftist arts community and formerly the seat of the headquarters of Milan's communist party[5] (in, incidentally, the very same road in which Berlusconi – of humble extraction - was born). However, there is arguably an inherent problem in this dialectical model, in that the opposition of one social force to another creates a 'struggle' and thereby a blockage, as physical and mental resources - which might otherwise be directed seamlessly to the creation of a fairer society - are engaged not in the solution of societal problems, but in a direct conflict with their perceived opposite. This, indeed, seems to be one of the problems that the various Occupy movements seek to overcome and accounts for their lack of policy making, for policies can easily be categorised as 'right' of 'left' wing, and thereby immediately present themselves for attack by political opponents. Indeed, in Italy, where political polarities post World War Two culminated in sustained terrorist activity during the Anni di piombo ('Years of Lead', which spanned the late 60s to early 80s) Berlusconi arguably became the longest serving prime minister because he had no policy objective other than to maintain power, and could therefore not cause a violent fissure in Italian life by upsetting either of its political poles. Yet the trouble is, that if the opposition to capitalism seeks to let go of the polarities which have characterised political life in the modernist period, there can arguably no longer be a refuge from the injustice of capital within which that opposition can enconse itself. For without defined polarities we have one social whole of which we are all a part. And whilst this cannot surely require that we take responsibility collectively for what is wrong with society – how could we given the massive imbalance of power between the few who have wealth and the many that don't? – it does require a strategy less antagonistic than that which pits developers against the humble local community, capitalists against hapless workers, bad against good. We live in a world in which a self perpetuating capitalist force is ever present, appearing at points as an unleashing of tremendous force which can literally destroy neigbourhoods, livelihoods, lives, even. The question is over how one opposes such a force without drawing the opposition to that force into a struggle that contains all of its energies, whilst the said force reassembles and moves onwards, unimpeded and, indeed, strenghtened for the the fact that its opposition is engaged in a 'struggle'.

What is valuable about the experience of the Isola Art Center, in light of what has been said here about the potential of art in legislating, is the way in which the Art Center, after its home at the Stecca was destroyed, reassembled and declared itself as a 'dispersed center', a space for creativity and thought without a space. This is arguably not a deference to the developers, who won this particular struggle, as they do in the overwhelming majority of cases, but was precisely a recourse to the only option left other than outright passivity: to mimic the mechanisms of power via art. In this case it is power as 'space', as a zone in which to act, which is mimicked, imagined and declared, just as the developers declared their space, via legal means, with the law being nothing than a series of declarations which reach concensus, albeit under sustained coercive pressure by the state. Art takes on the role of the legal apparatus in defining the limits of the space within which action and thought can be enacted. What is to be taken from this situation in terms of a positive outcome, is the identification of the necessity of demarcating zones for creative action within a wider whole, of acting not as opposed to another pole of a dialectic, but as emerging from within that social whole. It is in this sense that one might declare as a readymade entity a dispersed space within the social whole, whilst being neither opposed to that social whole, or resigned to it. This is where Site Specifity becomes Fight Specific, although one must be careful to rid the term 'fight' of its polarised connotations. This surely only works if declaring this political fight as art neutralises the aggressive polarising tendency of political struggle. Indeed, it is clear that 'fighting' is intended to be undertaken by strictly non-violent means if one looks to the ongoing activities of the Isola Art center, which, as always, aim at education, forging identity and empoering the community.

Though the issue of precisely what, if anything, is achieved by all this - or by the claiming of a theatre, or of culture per se as a common good – still looms large. The claiming of phantom spaces, laws and, potentially, governments from within the art world must not become a passive diversion in place of the aggressive diversion that has in the past characterised the opposition to capital. The Isola Art Center, Lavoratori Dell'Arte, Teatro Valle - to name but a few initiatives which are firmly connected via a commitment to solidarity - find themselves at a crucial interstice between the necessity of carrying on in the guise they have come to inhabit, as kind of paralegal mediators between the state and the community, and the obligation to see concrete results arise from their pursuits.

What next? One is loathe to end by saying 'let's wait and see', one would rather urge this emerging trend to catch fire, to use all its intellectual, creative and paralegal resources to leverage from the merely gestural act a capacity for concrete action. To evince from the tens of occupations which have art and the avant garde notion of declaring what is not to be what is, a concrete programme in reality. For as long as we can think that something might be other than it is, there is the potential to make it so. And there is genuine potential in the art-political crossovers emerging in Italy today. For now, it is enough to conclude that out of a logical necessity and an ethical responsibility, those involved in - and those wishing to become involved in – initiatives such as Teatro Valle, Lavoratori Dell'Arte and the Isola Art Center must push on through to the other side of the potential suggested by art's recent dalliance with legislation and legality.


[1]  From Milan to Venice (S.A.L.E Docks, an occupied former salt store) to Rome (home of the occupied Teatro Valle - or, ‘Valle Theatre’ - which first sought to declare itself a common good) to Naples (where an ex-asylum has become occupied as ‘The Asylum of Knowledge and Creativity) and Palermo (where the Cantieri Zisa explores the potential of the bene comune), to name just a few.

[2] Taken from a book I am currently working on for ZerO Books, entitled 'Joan of Art: Towards a Conceptual Militancy'

[3] There have been so many people involved in the Isola Art Center that it would be virtually impossible to draw any meaningful list of the most important or significant (though Bert Theis and Mariette Schiltz warrant a mention for their extraordinary and unwaning dedication to the cause, whilst 'talking head', curator and academic Marco Scotini warrants a mention for the breadth of his understanding as regards social art, and the clarity of his insight). For further information on collaborators and projects, see the Isola Arts Center's comprehensive website: http://www.isolartcenter.org/

[4] P7 NOWISWERE Contemporary Art Magazine, 2 October ,2008

[5] Which is now a tower of luxury apartments.