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The Collective Body
Notes on Milan in the Early 2000s

Alessandro Nassiri Tabibzadeh, Cinema Take Away, 2005, Milan, rickshaw, projector, DVD player, speakers, courtesy Alessandro Nassiri Tabibzadeh

Questo articolo è disponibile anche in: Italiano

Francesca Guerisoli

In the first decade of the 2000s, there were a number of cultural workers, born between the 1970s and the first half of the 1980s, who looked both at social practices and at work in teams. In Milan in particular, the ‘young’ workers of the artistic universe had their intellectual formation and took their first steps in a vibrant territory offering many cues. They directly experienced the discussion on art and relational and social practices – a discussion urged on by curators, lecturers and artists who had addressed national and international questions through anthologies and reflection on what ‘public art’ was and what different expressions it was taking on. Here we need only mention collectives and associations such as Connecting Cultures, founded by Anna Detheridge in 2001; Anna Stuart Tovini and Vincenzo Chiarandà’s FreeUnDo, a network for contemporary art set up in 1995; the Isola Art Project, an aggregation of artists and curators created in 2001, which later became the Isola Art Center with Bert Theis; as well as the lectures by Alberto Garutti or Stefano Boccalini, and the meetings and exhibitions curated by Gabi Scardi and Marco Scotini. To name just a few…

During that decade, art in Milan was marked by a clear drive towards social engagement alongside communities, especially with regard to issues concerning housing and urban areas of conflict. Various associations on the ground paid close attention to urban transformations and their consequences, experimenting with sustainable methods and bottom-up practices to deal with the metropolitan city context. With the aim of championing their work, the inContemporanea network (2006-2009) was formed, curated by Gabi Scardi and supported by the Province of Milan, bringing together aMAZElab, AR.RI.VI. , Assab One, Atelier Spazio Xpò, Careof, Connecting Cultures, FreeUndo, Isola Art Center, Museo Teo, Neon>FDV, O’, Reporting System, Uovo, Viafarini, Wurmkos. There was no shortage of independent spaces, without formal recognition as associations, and discussion groups on the state of art and the work of its practitioners. So, there was a buzz in the air, perhaps also because the generation of artists, art historians, critics and curators who were then entering into working life were the first to experience the direct consequences of market deregulation. This process made the terrain of subsistence in art – which is in any case slippery by nature – even more unstable, and pushed to the margins those unable to survive in such an expensive city. The artist, who was increasingly precarious in a world undergoing economic regression, sought to become an actor in social change, to make her own contribution to society’s wellbeing, increasingly breaking away from her studio to forge ties with communities of citizens. Those were years when there were still no funding calls for artistic research such as the Italian Council, which only came into being in 2017; getting by in the sector required either being able to count on family income or considerable multitasking skills, managing to combine artistic research with a full-time job.

The young artists of the time operated internally to this landscape. One example is Alessandro Nassiri Tabibzadeh (Milan 1975), in the 2000s one of the leading figures in the Milanese area. He made relational practices and immersion in the city the cornerstone of his projects, always dressed with a veil of irony and playfulness. In Cinema Take Away (2005), he takes his artists’ videos to the streets and public squares of Milan by means of a rickshaw mounted with a projector, a DVD player and loudspeakers: ‘Cinema Take Away – Cinema Take Away is a portable movie theatre. / Cinema Take Away is available to all the projects in search of an audience. / Cinema Take Away moves freely along the streets, you can drive it also in pedestrian areas. / Cinema Take Away arrives to its audience, if the audience can’t move. / Cinema Take Away is ecological. / Cinema Take Away has everything you need for a projection. / Cinema Take Away is available to all the artists who want to share their ideas. / Cinema Take Away doesn’t need to pay the parking. / Cinema Take Away is free and it always looks for a new video to be shown. / Cinema Take Away is under your house. If you want’.[1] Through the projection this work generates temporary communities, and at the same time brings art to citizens: at nightfall, a selection of videos by the artists present in the Careof associatio’’s archive – including Stefano Romano and Francesco Lauretta – are projected in Piazza Gramsci, Piazza dei Mercanti, near Piazza Sant’Eustorgio and in various other locations, such as the Caravaggio art school and the Milan Triennale. Nassiri’s action/installation also highlights the intention of ‘teaming up’, appropriating a plural vocabulary in choosing videos that are not his own; Cinema Take Away thus becomes a mechanism that weaves together relationships on several levels, both among artists and between artists and audience.

There were evident social tensions running through certain areas of the city, for example Via Paolo Sarpi, known as Milan’s Chinatown, and Via Padova. This was also why artistic interventions were concentrated there. Entering into the heart of the conflict – owing to the uninterrupted offloading of goods in the Via Sarpi area – in April 2009 were Andrea Masu (Milan 1970, a member of the Alterazioni Video collective along with Paololuca Barbieri Marchi, Alberto Caffarelli, Matteo Erenbourg and Giacomo Porfiri) and Elisa Giardina Papa (Medicine 1979). They introduced Il carrellino d’oro, a playful collective action created within the framework of the Chinatown Temporary Art Museum,[2] in which various artists living in the area participated, at the invitation of FreeUnDo. ‘The initiative deals in an ironic way with what has become one of the symbols of conflict in the Sarpi neighbourhood, in order to find common ground for confrontation and dialogue’, Masu explained to La Repubblica. This action (whose name translates as ‘The Golden Cart’), ofwhich there was also a second edition, consists of a race along a street in the neighbourhood, equipped with the trolleys used to transport goods. Like in a video game, the skill lies in weaving one’s way through obstacles resembling everyday ones: mothers with children, bicycles, traffic wardens, reversing cars, with penalties for any accidents. The competition, open to all, required each cart to carry the same weight. ‘Participating means disregarding danger and having fun, without winning anything’.[3]

Each area had its own quarrels, ready to become material for art: in particular the Isola/Garibaldi district, affected by issues related to planned urban changes and the consequent risk of gentrification, was central to the actions of associations such as Isola Art Center. One of the most significant projects was Wild Island (2002) by Stefano Boccalini (Milan, 1963), an artist of the previous generation and a lecturer at NABA, who had created a community garden in one of the two parks in Via Confalonieri, with the aim of informing inhabitants about the urban transformation underway, and at the same time developing their sense of belonging to the area.

One of the hottest topics in Milan is greenery, a focus of interest for artists and associations. Paradigmatic in this regard was the Verdecuratoda… project (2005) by Ettore Favini (Cremona 1974), which explicitly evokes Joseph Beuys’ Defence of Nature (Bolognano 1984). Favini seeks an urban reforestation aimed at the redevelopment of unused public spaces: roundabouts, public flowerbeds, and small neighbourhood gardens. The operation originated in the exhibition Rough End (2005), held at the Alessandro De March gallery, and was then presented in the Green Island (2006) exhibition at the Garibaldi station, curated by Claudia Zanfi of aMAZElab. The programme consists in the redevelopment of specific areas, through tree planting; every citizen can become an active participant. The project reached its maximum extension in Turin’s Falchera neighbourhood, a working-class district created in 1972, pervaded by social frictions. Today it has moved from being a symbol of the periphery to the district with the highest number of green areas relative to housing capacity. With Verdecuratoda… , Favini has created an orchard consisting of six species of protected ancient fruit. The variant of the work, Verdecuratoda… voi (2013), introduces a playful element: a distributor issuing gadgets (like children’s marbles) is offered for citizens’ use. When they insert a 1 euro coin, a ball containing seeds and sowing instructions is dispensed: ‘Choose an area you like, plant the seeds following the instructions on the leaflet …. and then every now and then go and check your seeds, report to where you have planted it, through Google mapping software, and together with other citizens you will contribute to the creation of the world’s largest plant sculpture’. The distributors are currently located in Milan, at the De Nicola primary school, at the Fondazione Ermanno Casoli in Fabriano and at the MAIF Social Club in Paris.

Many artists and curators, whose activities explored social contradictions, worked in Milan during that decade with interesting results. Many, however, were forced by necessity to change city or country – or in other cases, street.

[1] From the artist’s website, in the section dedicated to the project, <>.
[2] The press release states: ‘The actions proposed by the authors involved are for the most part “anti-spectacular”, that is, they are not created to be followed by an audience of journalists, curators or insiders, elevating themselves to the status of performance; they are designed to happen among passers-by, they are moments that make their way into common spaces. Coexisting’.
[3] Also worth mentioning is the work conducted in Via Padova by associations such as Assab One and by Pasquale Campanella, a member of Wurmkos, at the Caravaggio artistic high school located in this area. La terra dei meloni (2007) by Marcello Maloberti (Codogno 1966), a performance where people danced to the rhythm of Romanian dance music, became especially iconic.