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Milano 2009: Where Are You Culture?

Bertram Niessen

Milan is a mean city. People know and have always known it. It is the capital of industry, money and productivity. However, for a long time, Milan was also something else.

Like all big industrial cities, for a long time it cultivated, in its working-class neighbourhood, the immigrants’ street culture with all their conflicts. At the same time, it was the city of the cultured middle class, of the publishing houses, of the daily newspapers, of graphics and, for some time, of art. Then, at a certain point, something broke. In the vortical processes of social reorganization after the end of Ford’s economic ideas, Milan tried to become a cosmopolitan city, open to new trends and able to radically innovate in fashion and design. According to many people, it was at that moment that Milan lost its soul, in the vortex of fashion, cocaine and corruption started in the Eighties.

t is difficult to judge and understand if something true that was then destroyed really existed. On the contrary, what is easy to see is that at a certain point Milan came into collision with itself, blinded by the culture of image and television. In a sadder and sadder cultural panorama, where every place of resistance linked to the traditions of the old districts has been programmatically demolished and replaced by fast-food restaurants or shops of important international brands, Milan has lost the awareness of itself and the image that was created by few people for few people’s benefit prevailed on all the urban area, as if the few hundreds of square meters of Via Montenapoleone and of the fashion districts represented the whole city with its million and three hundred thousand inhabitants, its contradictions and paradoxes.

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The element that is maybe the most harrowing is that this process of systematic impoverishment of the quality of life has been celebrated many times by Milanese people. More and more lost in a city, in a country and in a world whose dynamics they do not understand, the inhabitants of this disheartening cement expanse have competed to sell pieces of their individual and collective freedoms in exchange for security. Security. The magic word, what everybody seems to look for; but it is exactly the search for security that kills. More and more urban spaces are empty, less frequented and Milanese people are more and more alone. And more and more insecure. The effects of these dynamics are countless and, unfortunately, often long-term.

What I would like to share with Digicult’s readers, instead, is a brief reflection on the relationship between the obsession for security and the practices and disciplines Digicult monthly deals with in these pages. In the process of impoverishment that hit the city in the last few decades, three aspects have grown particularly: ignorance, monotony and intolerance.

First of all, the attention of the cultural institutions towards lower and alternative forms of culture has constantly reduced; some of them were able to achieve good results thanks to the efforts and the resolution of single professionals, but there were not the will and the ability to give a course and a coordination to these activities. The pernicious effect of this laxity is the annulment, on a long term, of the good things that these few people have done.

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Secondly, we have witnessed a constant appeal for traditional values and for the sense of homogeneity and belonging; it is as if the older and older inhabitants of this older and older city have forgotten that the results they saw in their youth were very often linked to the mixture and the combination of enthusiasms and differences coming from different areas of Italy.

Finally, Milan ‘s community is less and less able to manage conflicts, forgetting that a community without conflicts is not possible at all. In this way, each smallest form of departure from standards and average has become an affront to the integrity of the city and everything that was labelled as “uncivilized” is now a “crime”. And, above all, to show the rest of the city the necessity for an otherness, the need (which is first of all existential and not political) for cultural codes that are different from the dominating ones has become criminal. The flag that is waved by the champions of security is that of legality: “Illegal practices cannot be tolerated”, thundered Milan mayor Letizia Moratti. Every student attending the second year of the faculty of sociology could explain to the mayor that a society cannot exist without spaces of liminality, dark areas and ambiguous codes made up of dim lights.

Because, and this is the most serious thing, a city managing its social, and thus cultural policies, basing on the equation between deviance and criminality is a city that is bound to die.

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Milan wants to be a creative city. And its administration is convinced that to be a creative city it is enough to have an adequate number of workers in certain professional fields. This is not sufficient and everybody can see it. There is not creativity without social innovation and there is not social innovation without experimentation. Milan has a vital need for informal spaces. Milan needs illegal practices.

The relationship between new media and the centri sociali in Italy and in Milan has always been very close, much more than in other countries. Starting from the world of BBS and of the cyberpunk in the Eighties, passing through the experience of ECN and of the Hacklabs and coming to the countless artistic experimentations linked to music, the centri sociali have often been the only places that were open enough to let those who wanted a different relationship with technology try, succeed or fail. I do not mean that this relationship has always been easy. They are short stories of enthusiasm, conflicts, illusions and disillusions. However, if in the other big European cities, maybe suffering, the funds for festivals and exhibition spaces were placed at disposal by the local administration, Milan has lived a story made up of collaborations in occupied places. In illegal places. In places of experimentation and social innovation.

To remove these places means to remove one of the few cultural institutions working well in a city. And the consequences of this nth impoverishment of the collective heritage will fall upon all the Milanese, for such a long period that is too painful to imagine it.

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Marco Mancuso

I am taking my cue from one of the first protest letters I wrote in the pages of Digicult on the same day of the eviction of Cox18 in Milan, as evidence for what has happened in Milan in the last few days and as a warning to myself against landing in boredom and in the pietistic resignation of an emergency cultural and social situation.

For those who live in Milan , who love and hate this city and everywhere in Italy identify Cox18 and Primo Moroni Calusca Archive as an important political and cultural heritage for any form of counterculture and activism in Italy , Thursday 22 January was an extremely sad day. At dawn, in a devious, forced and mean way and without being informed, against the law, according to which an official legal amendment after the current eviction case had to be waited for, the police entered the occupied and self-managed centro sociale Cox18 and the rooms of Calusca City Lights and of Moroni Archive, taking possession of the rooms of the centre that, at that time in the morning, were completely empty.

Unlike other historical countercultural situations in Milan and surroundings, Conchetta has been and still is, together with few other experiences, a place of memory, a testimony of a period that maybe ended, a place where to freely suggest ideas and cultural events, a place of personal memories and friendships, the seat of the very rich Moroni Archive, the last true antihero of this city, one of the last people that really loved it and with Calusca collected texts and videos, whose possible confiscation would be one of the heaviest loss of audiovisual material that the countercultural movements of this country could ever experience.

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The eviction of Conchetta, because of the ways in which it was carried out and for its political and social reasons, is maybe the last definite theft and offence act not only against the young people of Milan counterculture, but against all the people that in Italy want to have freedom of speech and expression, to identify themselves with a place, with a series of initiatives, against all the people who do not want to run away from their history but to resist, against all the people who, from Rome to Turin, from Venice to Palermo, are experiencing – I am certain of that – the repression, the loss of their identity, the groundless and arrogant insults by institutions, by any kind of institution, the aggressive ones that repress and the indecent ones that say nothing.

The days after the eviction were, from a certain point of view, an important historical moment in Milan , a place where to be to really sense the discontent of a whole generation of young people, students, professionals, creative people, artists and intellectuals. For those who saw it and for those who were not there. From the first still sleepy and upset 30 people who came to Via Conchetta 18, the number of young and old people wanting to protest gradually grew: I witnessed the first defence actions, the block of Viale Tibaldi, one of the main roads in the city, the march of demonstrators in the district streets from Porta Genova to the Darsena (dock); these are all historical places of Milan counterculture, read La luna sotto casa by Primo Moroni, that Primo Moroni who is certainly screaming from his grave because of what is happening, and you will understand what I mean. And also demonstrations near Palazzo Marino, solid interventions by the intellectuals of the city (among them, Paolo Rossi and his protest cry against Palazzo Marino during the meeting of the city government on the Conchetta case), concerts in XXIV Maggio square and the great demonstration on Saturday 24 January, in which many people took part.

However, we must acknowledge something: the Moratti government has succeeded in what no political movement and no social utopia had succeeded in the last twenty years. The eviction, the repression by the police and deputy mayor Riccardo De Corato’s arrogant words, his threats to close all the occupied centri sociali that are properties of Milan (Conchetta, Pergola, Torchiera and Cantiere), mayor Moratti’s lack of respect because she wanted to arrogate to herself the right to manage the cultural heritage which was collected by Moroni, whose daughter reacted with a desperate appeal, united everyone under the same banner of protest, of indignation, of rage, which are determined by tiredness.

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Yes, tiredness. Because when you talk with those I like defining “non-protected minorities”, tiredness is the prevailing feeling. Tiredness because of a situation of cultural and urban degeneration, which seems irreparable: the closing of Conchetta seems a warning, it is the nth symbol of which this city has been deprived, a city that is living a social and cultural impoverishment and is not able to find the key to the problem among superstar councillors for culture, petty politicians, shrewd and dishonest people, lobbies of politicized intellectuals and laxists who cannot see beyond their small gardens, which were created after years of esteemed activity, who are incapable of sharing knowledge, who are not interested in the growth of the new generation of artists and producers of culture, to which I belong; on the contrary, they are more guilty than other people of their silence, their indifference, their class-conscious attitude. And this is not my opinion, it is a shared opinion: I am not the only one who thinks that, as a journalist I try to put down on paper a general feeling, which I think must be listened to…and everyone must sense!

inally, tiredness is not a physical or mental condition, but it involves our souls. And this does not mean to pity ourselves, to speak always ill of this city, but it means to understand where discontent lies and from where, on day or another, the germ of social disorder will come, because there will be that day, it is now inevitable. It means to understand well the difficulties in economy and life that my generation of culture people is suffering in this city, which does not offer opportunities, jobs, which has been emptied of energy and lifeblood and is forced to survive clinging, tooth and nail, to the hope of a revival we cannot yet see. The city of Marinetti and the Futurism, of Gianni Colombo’s Gruppo T and of Bruno Munari, of Luigi Russolo and of the RAI studio of phonology, of the magazine “Re Nudo” and of the experience of Lambro Park, of Shake and Primo Moroni, of Memphis Group and of Ettore Sottsass, of the Virus and Deposito Bulk centres, of Studio Azzurro new media group and of Otolab, and of many other experiences of artistic, literary and social avant-garde.

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In a city that has already begun to propagandize its future projects for the Expo 2015, its cultural DNA open to diversity and sharing, in a racist and intolerant city, indifferent to the ethnic minorities living in it, incapable of being concerned about nothing but profit and culture with small “c”, that of great exhibitions, of great events, the so-called mainstream culture, the eviction of Cox18 seems not to concern those who continue to complain, who do not identify themselves with this city but do not take sides, who run away without taking responsibilities, who do not practise what they preach and take offence when you point that out to them.

The occupation of Cox18 by the police concerns those who are generally called “movements” by mass media, but whom I prefer to identify with a formless and colourless area of faces and experiences, of artists and intellectuals, often linked to alternative art expressions, those with which Digicult deals in its specific field of electronic and digital culture, of the good and bad use of old and new technologies, of its applications and expressions, both in the well-known areas of festivals and art exhibitions and in the areas of centri sociali that only few people know and from which these cultures come (as other social and cultural experiences at a European level witness in Germany, Spain, Holland, England and in the North European countries).

The past days and the coming ones will thus be full of initiatives, both in the streets and on the Internet. There are many doubts and questions about what it is better to do and the way in which it is better to do it: in the last few days there have been many discussions with friends and acquaintances. I do not know what strategy will be successful, but as for my natural professional bias I think that the mixture between “real” and “virtual” action is maybe the best solution or at least the only one that we can practise, until Morpheus has found a new Neo that will take all of us to Zion . I am also convinced that until we have attracted the attention of mass media, until it has been talked about you and your discontent have been deeply perceived, we will be bound to tilt at windmills.

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My appeal is not so much to the most famous artists at this moment who, according to precise codes of false provocation, typical of the world of contemporary art, condemn the short-sightedness of the institutions that then invite them and pay them a lot of money, as to the intellectuals and artists who really love this city, understand the emergency situation, know it very well and can represent a voice that otherwise, for the umpteenth time, will be alone in fighting for what it considers as its right: culture, the cultural work that can derive from it and the free spaces without any political, economic and lobby logic, where to practise it!

s far as I am concerned, I want to be a nemesis, a worm, and use the only weapon I have. As Ettore Sottsass told me during an interview some years ago: “You have a weapon that is more effective than many others. Word. Use it.” There is a sentence of De Andrè that continuously comes to my mind, still today after the first text to which this refers, and I am sure that many of you remember it: “And if in your neighbourhoods everything’s the same as yesterday, without barricades without wounded people, without grenades, if you believe the “truth” of television, although at that moment you have forgiven yourself you are all the same involved.”

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  • Marco Mancuso Marco Mancuso

    Marco Mancuso is a critic, curator, consultant, journalist and teacher in the field of Multimedia Technologies applied to Arts, Design, Contemporary Culture, Online Publishing, Art Management and Communication. Founder and director at Digicult and Digimag [...]

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  • Bertram Niessen Bertram Niessen

    Bertram Niessen is a researcher, teacher and electronic artist. He researches, writes, teaches, designs and advices about a (somehow) wide range of topics: urban contexts, cultural economy, DIY 2.0 & desktop manufacturing, network economies and [...]

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