Isola Art Center, some concepts

Charles Esche / Isabell Lorey / Gerald Raunig / Bert Theis

In October 2011, at the end of the Autonomy Symposium at the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, Charles Esche, Isabell Lorey, Gerald Raunig and Bert Theis had a debate to clarify and deepen some theoretical elements related to the Isola Art Center practice. The discussion was suggested by Gerald Raunig to allow other artists, critics, theorists and art historians to benefit from the Isola experience and enlarge the debate itself. The following text has been re-edited by the participants.

To begin with, we should underline the fact that when Isola Art Center started to work in 2001 under the name of Isola Art Project, our ideas were not clearly defined. The only clear decision was to insert a long-term contemporary art project in a conflict between inhabitants of a former working-class district and a neo-liberal urban development project, working on the side of the neighborhood associations. The concepts we will develop here have gradually emerged in a process of over ten years of work and reflection. This process was not linear and we certainly made several mistakes, more than once, then trying to fix them collectively. Many of the ideas we have developed were inspired by and drawn from other initiatives such as Park Fiction, the Urbonas’ Protest-Lab, Atelier d’Architecture Autogérée, and many others. Our own research, which we’d like to deal with more in depth, has led us from site-specific art to fight-specific art, from white cube to dirty cube and from dirty cube to dispersed center.

Isola Art Center

From site-specific to fight-specific art

Bert Theis: We originally coined the term fight-specific art to describe forms of art related to our urban fight. Our work focused on the Isola district has undoubtedly been site-specific. But the decision of siding with the movement and supporting the alternatives suggested by citizens, of fighting against the neo-liberal policies promoted by the political leaders and building speculation, made it necessary to extend the site-specific concept to the new fight-specific one. For us the decisive elements of a siteare the people that live and work within the site itself. If the people begin to organize and to take action, fight-specific art becomes possible. Fight-specific art depends on a “warm” situation, meaning a situation of conflict and struggle. Thanks to its contribution, art can help to turn a “cold” situation into a “warm” situation.

The concept of fight-specific art can also be extended to different works in art history, such as the Rosta placards by a number of Russian artists, namely Vladimir Mayakovsky, Mikhail Cheremnykh, Ivan Maliutin, Anton Lavinsky and many others, to support the Soviet revolution (an experience referred to in the “Isola Rosta Project”). It is also related to John Heartfield’s collages to support the German anti-fascist fight in the 1920s, and the placards and postcards painted by artists such as JoanMiró to support the Spanish republic during the Spanish Civil War.

The more recent interventions of the Situationist International in the movement of 1968 can also be classified as fight-specific, like the work of the artist Emory Douglas to support the US Black Panther Party in the 1970s, and the Dazibao project to sustain extraparliamentary opposition movements of Group Material at Union Square in New York in 1983. Moreover, the project against gentrification “If you lived here…” by Martha Rosler for the Dia Foundation of New York in 1983, the Vienna Volxtheaterkarawane interventions during the G8 in Genoa in 2001 and during the “no border camp” in Strasbourg in 2002, and the participation of the Grupo Etcétera in the protest movement in Argentina in 2001 all belong to the fight-specific concept.

Charles Esche: I have known about Isola Art Project since the days when the Stecca was still there. The first time I visited it, what struck me is what Tania Bruguera called commitment in the symposium. This is not a commitment in terms of political ideology but in terms of time and presence. I think that this idea of commitment is something I first observed for real in Isola, and also with Oda Projesi in Istanbul around 2002-03. I came across these projects at approximately the same time, and subsequently I kept an eye on others – but, for me, Isola and Oda Projesi defined a way of working that immediately impressed me and won my sympathy because I could see them in development and actually working. They feel like projects that want to change the system, and I had become used to artists (especially in England and Scotland in the 1990s) mostly wanting to make the system work for them as individuals. Going to Milan and Isola was a breath a fresh air at just the right time for me, and it has shaped my curatorial work ever since. In Isola, since the site was disputed and eventually cleared by the developers, and the commitment to being in that neighborhood for Isola Art Center strengthened, I understand what you mean by fight-specific and it was also clearer to me that the commitment we are talking about here is, in a sense, never ending. That is a hard conclusion perhaps, because it puts a lot of strain on the artistic role.

It is also true that each fight-specific practice develops its own formal language and kinds of events that function differently in Milan, in Turkey, in Seoul – all these distinctions are important for fight-specificity. What Isola also shows is that people can make use of Isola Art Center for their own ends or for their own struggles, to try and get certain rights recognized, or to raise awareness of exploitation. But I think it is vital that fight-specificity also have a wider frame and quality that reaches beyond the immediate situation in one place. That’s the issue facing us now – how to be specific and general – or how to build up a kind of “universalism from below”, perhaps, even given the troubling legacy of that word.

Gerald Raunig: It’s a nice slogan, from site-specific to fight-specific, and it rhymes – wonderful, that’s one aspect. It’s a good slogan for a specific art practice in Milan, but the point is that it is also a marker for a very fertile conceptual transformation of political art practices in a broader context. It’s not just about community art and socially engaged art, we can’t use these terms anymore in an innocent way, considering the long critical discussions in the art field starting in the Sixties and Seventies, but especially in the Nineties, mainly in German-speaking critical art discourse, and then in a late-in-coming reprise during the first decade of the 21st century, on the part of people like Claire Bishop, criticism dealing with participation and so on. Of course we should not dismiss this whole critical discourse in the German-speaking countries by artists like Andreas Siekmann and Alice Creischer or by critics like Christian Kravagna, Stella Rollig or Christian Höller, in journals like Texte zur Kunst or Springerin, but we have to take into account that the artistic-political practices have changed – maybe exactly as a result of these critical markers, but also because of broader changes happening in the social movements and political struggles of the last 15 years. And this transformation of practices also points to the need to develop new concepts – that is why, at some point, I tried to experiment, for instance, with the term instituent practices. This is one way to conceptualize these new practices as a follow-up of earlier strategies of institutional critique, and as a trajectory from site-specific to fight-specific. When I was writing the first texts on instituent practices I had this example of Park Fiction in mind, and its totally unimaginable time-scale of, I don’t know, ten years and more of an ongoing power to institute new practices. It’s not just one idea that is then prolonged, repeated, slightly developed; it’s an instituent practice, instituting ruptures and duration, permanently. So time, the fact of reterritorializing not only space, but also our time, is really an important factor here, also in cases like Isola.

Isabell Lorey: Could you explain a little bit more, Bert, what you mean by Isola Art Center being fight-specific, taking part in a movement? Which movement do you mean

Bert Theis: The larger movement in Milan, of which we are a part, is composed of several networks of committees and associations that do not accept and fight against the urban transformations determined by the interests of financial capital and real estate groups, such as Forum Metropolitano or Libere Rape Metropolitane. The fundamental question this movement raises is: who is ruling the city? In whose interest are decisions of urban transformation made? This is similar to Recht auf Stadt / The Right to the City in Hamburg.

Isabell Lorey:  Would you take part in uprising movements against the financial crisis or in the movement of the so-called “precarious” workers, also in Italy? Would Isola Art Center take part, or is that too far away from its background as a neighborhood project?

Bert Theis: It is already part of it. The link between the world of global finance and the transformation of Isola is more than evident. The American real estate company Hines, which operates in Isola, has created three speculative hedge funds in Luxembourg named Isola to manage the financial aspect of their projects in Milan. One part of their investment comes from the American Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association – College Retirement Equities Fund. The biggest skyscraper they built is owned by the bank Unicredit. We devote part of our work to explaining and refuting the gentrification process generated by this financial power.

Regarding the “precariato” (job security) question, we are also working with the new movement of Lavoratori dell’Arte (Art Workers) and Macao, which deals with the lack of security in such professions and the lack of experimental art spaces.

There is no contradiction between having roots in a local territorial fight and dealing with global problems; the two are actually quite complementary. During the recent revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution came out of the Committees for the Defense of the Districts. Our work is focused on the preparation and genesis of this kind of organism, generating experiences of self-organization in an instituent process, as Gerald calls it.

Gerald Raunig: On the one hand I think that of course with instituent practices you institute a certain movement, but at the same time there is a process of reterritorialization going on. And if this reterritorialization just closes down the process to a certain territorial community, as can be seen in many community art practices, then there is a problem. But Isabell’s question hints at the point that maybe this linking up with ever new social movements brings new deterritorialization in this territory, and this is a chance for practices like Park Fiction or Isola. Without that possibility to become part of such a stream of a new social movement, the danger of reterritorialization in its bad sense is quite big.

Isabell Lorey: Do you think the danger comes because it’s “only” a fight for a park, a community-based park, a neighborhood space?

Gerald Raunig: I think it is about being open, at least, to influences that come from outside. One influence of course is that negative influence of the city planning and multinationals, but sometimes maybe there is a positive influence coming from deterritorializing streams that don’t necessarily have to be social movements, but maybe also micro-political machines. I really wanted to put the finger in the wound of community art, that’s why I also reminded us of the critique of the Nineties. This is a problem of striation, of reterritorialization in its bad sense.

Charles Esche: But I don’t think the critique of community art has so much to do with its territorialized nature or reterritorialized nature. I think it had more to do with its homeopathic aspect, that it was seen to be something that was solving a problem for capital by making life more tolerable for oppressed communities or simply serving to clean or “greenwash” corporate interests. Of course, there were important examples where community art, particularly in the United States or England, did produce an active agency for a community, but they were overwhelmed by the mural painting tendency, if you could call it that. My sense of Isola is very different, also judged by the opposition it creates.

Gerald Raunig: These are two arguments, and they both were often discussed. Reterritorialization, in other words, is the problem of othering, producing identitary communities, or the problem that the artist identifies a community and, in this moment, closes it down and objectifies it. But of course there is also the issue – as Christian Höller put it in an early article – of Entstörung instead of Störung, trying to solve capital’s problems instead of causing them.

Isabell Lorey: But how do you deal with this problem that during ten years or longer there must have been moments when your work, your art, your struggles, your fight-specific perspective became useful for the restructuring, the gentrification of the area. Moments when you seemed to be working for pacification, to help restructure the complete area and gentrify it…

Bert Theis: In ten years the conflict never stopped and pacification didn’t happen. When we didn’t accept to collaborate with the real estate company and to move into the alternative space they offered us, they said to us: “For us, you no longer exist”, and destroyed half of the Stecca building with the artworks (including a mirror by Michelangelo Pistoletto) and other materials inside it. We filed a lawsuit against them and the city administration, and it is still going on. Recently our lawyer sent a letter to them asking for two million euros in damages.

The risk of being integrated in their urban transformation project exists of course. In an indirect way, we have undoubtedly influenced the transformation. They coopted several of our ideas by creating a playground for children, offering activities for families, constructing the “New Stecca”, called Art Center on the renderings, working with artists on the fences of the construction site, for example. Even the “Vertical Forest” towers can be seen as a (cynical) response to the people’s request for green spaces.

All these are policies of consensus building, but there can’t be pacification, because they took away all the green and social spaces from the neighborhood. In addition, the “new-build gentrification” cancels the whole past of the district and artificially creates a new zone for rich people. At this moment there is still an “Isola from below” with which we are working in order to take over a new self-governed green and social space. The gentrification process has started but is not yet achieved. If it is completed, Isola Art Center would probably stop working there.

Charles Esche: Hito Steyerl said that we don’t really need to worry about gentrification because the financial crisis will produce a de-gentrification anyway.

Bert Theis: That would be nice, but I’m afraid the financial crisis won’t stop the growing polarization between rich and poor and the territorial class-struggle linked to it. Gentrification in all its different versions runs the risk of remaining a topic the art world will have to deal with also in the future, faced with a choice of having to take sides.

Charles Esche: I think you are starting to see de-gentrification in the United States already, but that it is not necessarily about allowing communities more power over their environment. The question is one of control rather than economic development or decline, and this is what we should focus on. A project like Isola Pepe Verde is maybe actually the beginning of the growth of a city quarter in terms of the like quality of the inhabitants, even if it comes about because there is no other productive use for the land.

From the white cube to the dirty cube

Bert Theis: The occupation of the “Stecca” site allowed artists, critics, curators, philosophers and inhabitants to experience a new type of center in architectural conditions we have called the dirty cube to differentiate it from the white cube which is the neutrality standard of contemporary art display. The industrial site that we cleared and made accessible was left intact, on purpose. The reason was not nostalgia but the choice not to cancel the traces of the past, and to make the artworks and other activities interact with this situation. At the same time in Paris, the Palais de Tokyo spaces were put artificially into a similar rugged state, but of course with the difference that our project was self-managed, non-institutional, with no budget.

The dirty cube concept is strictly connected to the platform concept, a form of open organization allowing artists, activists, curators, theorists, individuals, different persons and collectives to freely carry out their own proposals and projects in a fight-specific frame. The platform is not a collective having defined members: collectives have joined the platform either sporadically or over the long term. Neither is it an “artist-run space”. As a matter of fact, there is no director or curator who has the last word on the program or the projects to be carried out. Decision-making is horizontal and rhizomatic.

Charles Esche: One aspect that I think is important to understand about the Stecca is the relationship with your own work as an artist, Bert, and also the work that you did before the whole Isola Art Center project emerged. Your work often concentrates on the production of spaces for activity or platforms that are often located in public space, in town squares or parks. A lot of the knowledge you built up through that practice went into the Stecca, and this idea of the dirty cube. By inviting other organizations or artists to take on certain roles at the Stecca you were extending this idea of the platform to a larger scale. That attitude was certainly something we were thinking about when we worked on the 2002 Gwangju Biennale together and how it fit into the different practices in that exhibition. It’s quite important to remember Thomas Hirschhorn at the conference, saying that he simply asked people to help him. It is important for both you and Thomas that you are present with your own demands, and this makes the work different from the classic idea of community art or homeopathic art. I see even a project like the Stecca as also fulfilling ambitions you have as an artist. In that sense, it is not only responsive to community demand or community involvement, but also to a negotiation of aesthetic manipulation of space between different parties.

Gerald Raunig: If Bert Theis as an artist would be responsible for a community forming itself, I think I would have doubts about the project. Specific forms of expertise, as you said, in this case of an artist, come together with those of others, so perhaps we should ask Bert himself what he thinks about his role in the whole thing. I like to think of the Isola project like a transversal project, where it’s not about an artist founding a community. This question is open. You mentioned Thomas Hirschhorn, and I was positively surprised by his presentation yesterday, I liked his vigor – no, not vigor, his presence, in a way – and presence was also one term he used, presence and production, two important terms. But still, there were also some discussions about him producing an aestheticization of the precarious (especially in his “Bataille Monument” at Kassel). To escape the white cube does not necessarily mean you escape the aestheticizing grasp of the art field. There is not much difference between the institution and the small, self-organized collective, because post-Fordist capitalism or machine capitalism also exploits these micro-aspects of self-organized small groups. The important point, for me, is that you are inserting these small forms of resistance in the process of deterritorialization. For instance the idea to kind of secure or safeguard the whole Stecca building, though it was not successful, of trying to safeguard the whole building by inserting artists’ work into its walls, into the architectural infrastructure… these are the aspects that go beyond the Palais de Tokyo, without exploiting the aesthetics of the precarious. It’s not a question of institutional models here, of bigger or smaller, and not the aesthetics of more or less clean or dirty cubes – it is a question of finding forms of resistance that produce reterritorializations even if it is just for a small period in time.

Bert Theis: My role in this project is that of a sub-curator, not of a curator, but as somebody who makes sure that everything is working. For example, when Adrian Paci decided to curate of a show that took the name of Tania Bruguera’s piece “Revolution is on hold”, and he organized everything himself, I had to do practically nothing. I could help him with communication and other aspects. But sometimes nothing happens, sometimes nobody has an idea, and then I have to do a lot. If the platform doesn’t work, then I have a big job to do.

Gerald Raunig: It’s interesting to hear it like this, like a joker position, but of course I think I would try not to essentialize the position of the artist, especially in these kinds of art practices or art/social practices, instituent practices.

Charles Esche: But I think it’s stepping back from this sort of service provider role, inserting the agenda of the artist. It is clear to me that Bert’s approach to the Stecca and Isola, and Bert’s approach as an artist, are not completely divided identities. That is what makes it more real as a project for me.

Bert Theis: Isola Art Center is a conceptual platform. It has to be handled in a different way than the wooden platforms, where my work finishes once they are installed. Conceptual platforms are driven by energy. They need every two, three years a new generation that uses them for new projects. Without this energy, the platform dies. We are only a small group who keeps on following the evolution from the beginning, but today a fourth generation of artists, activists and curators is running the center.

Gerald Raunig: And sub-commandante is maybe a certain background to your self-designation as a sub-curator?

Bert Theis: Yes, of course it was, but take it with humor! 

The dispersed center

Bert Theis: Having lost the battle to preserve the Stecca and the gardens, Isola Art Center’s reaction was to adapt itself to the new situation, and to shift from being a dirty cube to the idea of a dispersed center hosted by friendly sites in the neighborhood, like shops, bars, a restaurant, a bookshop, cultural associations and private spaces. Dispersed center is derived form the concept of dispersed museumcoined by Charles Esche. From 2007 to 2012 this new form of presence has made it possible for us to be more active in the life of the zone, as compared to the past. Thanks to the “Isola Rosta Project” the center used the storefront shutters as a new exhibition site, allowing art and criticism of urban projects to be displayed in public space. The dispersed center is currently aiming at fulfilling its fight-specific objectives, denouncing gentrification processes and collaborating with the new Isola Pepe Verde movement to gain a self-managed green community area and to make the dream of having a center for art and for the neighborhood come true.

Charles Esche: I love the idea of the dispersed art center and use it for the idea of the dispersed museum here at Van Abbemuseum as well. The thinking actually comes from a Greek architect who suggested a house in which the various rooms were distributed across the city, so you would have your bedroom by the sea and the kitchen in the middle of the market, and so on. It’s a beautiful puzzle and it undermines the iconic power of architecture, that has been so much of what art institutions have been producing over the last 25 years. In Isola, I felt for the first time that I really saw the idea of the dispersed institution in action. In a bookshop you do a reading, there is a music event in a music shop, in the 2 restaurants in the area people eat and talk. In this way, you don’t need to build the dispersed institution but you use the existing infrastructure, where art and gathering of people can simply take place. But also, by claiming these places temporarily as parts of Isola Art Center, you have actually gained large real estate space for this institution, without anything being owned or controlled. Also, with the commissioning of paintings on shop shutters you have a presence in the evening, when the streets become galleries, in a certain sense – so both time and space are used to scatter what would otherwise be contained. I have to admit that, for me, thinking about how I work, the loss of the Stecca was actually a gain, because it forced you to develop something much more radical and woven into the community and its facilities.

Isabell Lorey: I like this idea very much because I’m completely convinced of this coming together of dispersion and center, dispersion and museum. It was Walter Benjamin who spoke of the fact that against an idea of art absorbing masses through contemplation and concentration, one has to think of a dispersed mass absorbing art. Indeed, we need to break through the oppositions of concentration versus dispersion, high culture versus culture for the masses, attention versus enjoyment, to understand dispersion as something other than the negation of concentration, as something other than the destruction and dissolution of concentration – so that Benjamin’s emancipatory dimensions of dispersion can unfold and concatenate with the (process of) assembling, of reterritorializing, of putting up a temporary center. Going beyond the customarily dichotomous relation, dispersion and concentration condense into an assemblage of two foldings: there is an intensification, a densification in dispersion, which does not necessarily consist in concentration or contemplation. And there is a dispersion, a multiplication in assembling, which does not consist in unification. Instead of the dichotomy of concentrated and dispersed mass, we should conceptualize masses, in which the potentialities of assembling and dispersing are no longer understood as opposites, but actualized in their exchange. Masses as multiplicities, and the public not as a figure of reception, of contemplation, of immersion, but as one that stays dispersed in its assembly and carries out intensities and concentrations in dispersion.

Gerald Raunig: I would also like to see the flip sides of this emphatic approach to a dispersed center, for instance when you try to analyze the practice of Isola as a dispersed art center, it sounds quite paradoxical…

Bert Theis: Some people come and ask: Where is the center? They have seen our website and are convinced that there must be a building.

Gerald Raunig: Concerning the term dispersed museum, seeing it abstractly from Isola, there is a certain danger, that especially Charles as a director of a museum can see, drawing the line of subservient deterritorialization, obedient deterritorialization. The very institution of the museum itself or its director says: Ah, we can disperse ourselves; in one respect, it is cheaper, of course.

Bert Theis: This was one of the critiques that came up when we discussed the concept.

Isabell Lorey: How to deal with this notion of dispersed museum without getting the museum’s doors locked tomorrow, because there is no more money?

Charles Esche: That danger that you are identifying is one we are currently going through in Eindhoven. For us, the dispersed museum is not enough on its own, so I use two terms, transparent museum and dispersed museum, to describe our relations and activities. A transparent museum is a museum in which the working processes are visible, so it could even be related to the dirty cube. But in all events, we will receive less money in the future, and I see that as an inevitable development as Western Europe loses its capacity to protect the public sphere. I’m not against the cuts in financial terms anyway, because the old social democratic justifications have run their course. They were based in a Cold War logic that is long gone, but I want those of us engaged with, let’s say, the emancipatory side of the art world to develop new rationales and ideological discourses for the public funding of art institutions. Closing the museum or sharing its collection are all possible for me if it makes something more urgent or vivid possible in the process. Much as with Isola Art Center, it is not money that is the defining aspect of art’s potentiality.

Gerald Raunig: So my question, maybe the last one, would be addressed to Bert: do you see any similar problems with your dispersion, maybe not only with the term, but with the practice of dispersion? You hinted at something before, that maybe the artists don’t need the center but there are others that need the center or the reterritorialization, the territory…

Bert Theis: The two parks near the Stecca were exactly the social space the inhabitants of the district and the city needed. Latin-American and North African immigrants met there to play football, Ukrainian women to have a picnic each Sunday, elderly people who cannot walk well rested in the shade of the trees, children came there to play and run around without danger, and many others used the two parks in different ways. All those who have not enough money to go to the seaside or the mountains every time they have a day off are feeling the lack of a space like this, for five years now. That’s the reason why we created Isola Pepe Verde. Though this lot owned by the city is much smaller, a kind of bonsai version of what we have lost, it still allows us to focus again on the desires of Isola from below, from the people, and to develop new fight-specific art projects. The dispersed center for us is not a deus-ex-machina or a dogma. After five years in the Stecca we had tried out nearly everything you can do in the framework of a dirty cube. Now, after five years of operating as a dispersed center, we have the same feeling again, that we have tried almost everything, so hopefully the new situation will lead to new experiences and concepts. As for your instituent practices, we should never arrive at a dead end, a stopping point. Isola is interesting for this reason, not because we did it or because it happens in this specific territory of an Italian metropolis. Our work is about permanent experimentation, not about creating models, hoping that others can find ideas and inspiration for their own urban practice from it.