Almost a year after the (still on-going) occupation of the Teatro Valle in Rome, on 5 May Milan bridged the gap with MACAO, which is what the Lavoratori dell’Arte (art workers), a group of self-proclaimed ‘contemporary operators’ labelled the cultural ‘free zone’ generated by the occupation of an empty skyscraper in the city centre, just off the Central Station. (Its name is Macau in Italian, which refers to a faraway place. It’s also spelled M^C^O, the empty vowels standing for the spaces one can fill in by acting/occupying/imagining.) The Torre Galfa (Galfa Tower) was brought back to life by concerts, panels, lessons, meetings, parties, visits, sessions of guerrilla gardening and public readings. It was a symbolic and short-lived occupation before the police moved everybody out on 15 May.
Nonetheless, MACAO generated much public debate, social media frenzy and a stream of support among the Milanese, with a thousand people visiting the place and several musicians, actors, movie directors and architects stepping on stage to show solidarity or climbing the building’s 31 floors to see the city from above. A long banner covering a side of the skyscraper’s façade, declared: ‘We might even think of flying’, in an allusion not only to the breath-taking views from its top, but also to the possible need of a pinch of utopian vision, in order to change things. In a city characterized by a chronic absence of public spaces for the production of art – there is no contemporary art museum, and the public support granted to independent spaces is next to nothing – MACAO was a welcome newcomer, as well as a practical way to denounce the possibility of recycling existing structures, instead of pouring money into starchitects’ conceptions and stellar budgets.
The Torre Galfa has proved a particularly momentous target, given the dynamics relative to land use, speculative overbuilding and urban developments it highlights, even more so in the light of the upcoming Expo 2015. Designed by the architect Melchiorre Bega in 1956, during the optimistic years of the economic boom, the Torre is owned by Salvatore Ligresti, one of the city’s main developers, who is currently financially floundering: the building has been abandoned for 15 years, while several new office blocks keep growing all around it. It rubs shoulders with two iconic high-rises: one is the slim, Modernist Pirelli Tower (or Pirellone), designed by Giò Ponti in the 1950s and used by the Lombardy region as headquarters since the 1970s; the other is the mammoth Palazzo Lombardia, inaugurated in 2010, which hosts the new offices designed by Pei Cobb Freed & Partners for the region, whose governor (Roberto Formigoni) is currently under attack for scandals and bribes. The Torre Galfa is also very close to one of Milan’s largest inner city developments, the Porta Nuova area (built by the multinational developer Hines, with a masterplan by Cesar Pelli), again symbolized by a new shiny skyscraper, the Cesar Pelli Tower, which is the tallest in Italy. It’s helpful to remember that, in order to make room for its muscular new office buildings and deluxe apartments (including the Vertical Wood, projected by StudioBoeri), in 2007 another occupied artist-run space, Isola Art Center, was first vacated and then demolished – the promise of a new base for it was quickly forgotten.
MACAO’s peaceful occupation was preceded by months of meetings. Announced on Facebook, the action was carried out by (mostly young) ‘artists, curators, critics, museum attendants, graphic designers, performers, actors, dancers, musicians, writers, journalists, art teachers, research fellows, students, and whoever operates in the world of art and culture’, who identify with an Italian network of recently squatted spaces which include Nuovo Cinema Palazzo in Rome, Teatro Valle Occupato in Rome, Sale Docks in Venice, Teatro Coppola in Catania, Asilo della Creatività in Naples and Teatro Garibaldi Aperto in Palermo.
After the eviction, the participants reorganized themselves as a crowded open-air assembly on the street below the Torre Galfa, while the major, Giuliano Pisapia (the head of a left wing coalition), promised that some spaces would be made available for them at the new Officine della Creatività (Creative Workshops), which the municipality is bound to open soon in ex-Ansaldo, a large post-industrial area in via Tortona. MACAO turned down the invitation and didn’t participate in Officine’s first open meeting held by the Councillor of Culture, Stefano Boeri. “It isn’t merely a matter of space”, claimed the collective, which declared it is not willing to enter any public competition for the allocation of exhibition areas, nor to bypass any other Milanese association already on waiting list for ex-Ansaldo.
Instead, on 19 May, MACAO occupied another huge vacant space in the city center: the 18th century Palazzo Citterio, a few steps away from Brera, Milan’s most prestigious State museum of old masters, as well as historical venue of the eponymous academy of fine arts. Bought by the State in 1972, partially renovated (only in its massive underground level) by the architect James Stirling in the mid-1980s in order to accomodate new exhibition and storage spaces for Brera, Palazzo Citterio has been an abandoned sleeping beauty ever since. In 2010, its existence was brought back to the public attention by the Fondazione Trussardi, which staged there Paul McCarthy’s solo show Pig Island. Two months ago, though, the Ministry of Cultural Heritage, the Department of monuments, the art academy and the Municipality signed an agreement for the relaunch of the Grande Brera (Big Brera) project, with a budget of 23 million euro, so that MACAO moved in when the first round of renovation works are about to start. Despite the occupants’ declaration that the occupation won’t stop the process, but that it instead MACAO wished to monitor it and contribute to a collective debate on the goals of Grande Brera, the group’s refusal to open a dialogue with the municipality as well as the choice of a “common good” as new target, shifted the balance of support, both from the institutional side, as well as from that of the public opinion. On May 22nd, the police evicted MACAO again: it’s still unclear how the situation will evolve, but it’s hard to consider as a bad sign the fact that, after ages, the subject of art, its production, circulation and teaching were again under the spotlight, at least in sleepy Milan.