Walking hastily past Formigoni's Pirellone bis building, many suddenly had an amusing thought: are the Lavoratori dell'arte completely mad? Could this be Macao? The group continued along Via Galvani towards Milan's central station but then, just after crossing Via Gioia, their thought became a certainty: they are mad!
On Saturday, 5 May, the Torre GalFa — an acronym based on the fact that it stands on the corner of two streets: via GALvani and via FAra —, with all of its 31 floors and underground garages, became Europe's largest occupied space. The idea of turning Melchiorre Bega's 1950s skyscraper — initially "home" to an oil company and then a bank before eventually being purchased by Italian developer Salvatore Ligresti — into the Macao arts centre verges on the sublime. "We didn't want a space with previous implications, like a museum, a theatre or a cinema; and we didn't want to merely re-appropriate a public space used for culture", explains Maddalena, one of the minds behind the occupation, "We raised our game because we are interested in an artistic — and cultural — concept that is far broader in the urban and social fabric."
"We want to show how the culture industry produces disparity, in Milan and beyond it, on both the work and urban fronts", adds Angelo. "What does the event economy leave on the ground — from the Furniture Fair to the EXPO, the Venice Biennale and the Forum delle Culture in Naples? Basically nothing, not for the citizens or the so-called creatives. It commandeers free labour and public space. It produces gentrification, like the huge Porta Nuova area behind here has done in the Isola district."
Getting inside Galfa is easy, simply bending the corrugated metal fence. For years, since the building was abandoned and cleaned out, the fast-moving local youths have been in their element here. The first space we enter, with the lifts and rooms overlooking the street, still has a floor, water and electricity but nothing more. From the first floor up, everything has been ripped out: pipework, furnishings and insulation; you walk on rough concrete surrounded by the full light of the ribbon windows. Climbing the stairs, you begin to see the bleak terraces of the surrounding offices decorated with the Camunian rose, the symbol of the Lombardy region, then the helicopter pad of the new Regione building — the Pirellone bis— and a huge number of green spaces on its serpentine roof. By then, you are overlooking Milan's fastest changing area, with all the new buildings from Porta Nuova to the Garibaldi station and from Corso Como to the Isola district.
Within 15 minutes, at least ten people with computers and memory sticks have spread the news and a few hours bring an immense flow of people — everyone recording it on their phones, cameras and video-cameras. The average age is low. One of the first actions of the evening, after setting up the bar and some concerts, is to find those squatting on the top floors and block access up there to avoid the worst. The night is a delirium of shows, performances and concerts.
The next day is even better. Volunteers start coming in: a whole procession of architects, artists and designers with projects for greenhouses, shells, emergency furniture, cardboard beds and concert platforms. Ferdinando coordinates the workforce, assertively: "First, we need bathrooms and a concrete screed to cover the dust or we will suffocate in here! We have to live well". There is disconcertion. Architects always think on a grander scale, plans in hand. Then one comes up with the idea of used tarpaulins, another can bring tiles and pallets. Minds are switched on to recycled materials and they discuss warehouses. The cleaning and safety operations become acrobatic, with even a girl on stilts removing rotten cork from the ceiling.
On Monday, they start organising the working groups, young professors bring students of their own age to conduct lessons in the courtyard, and the odd office worker comes to take a look during their lunch break. Workshops, encounters, exhibitions, shows and concerts are planned and the desired coordination verges on the impossible because this is a revolution with "no bosses", so it takes longer to work out who does what, who decides the priorities and who chooses the concerts, shows and debates. The website and social networks are in a frenzy, with voices overlapping in merry chaos. "There is a working group focusing on programming, but it is destined to disappear; we don't want to become alternative curators, the time will come when all this energy has to govern itself", continues Maddalena.
At the same time, Macao would like to produce and promote exploratory art and not become a circus for artistic and intellectual exhibitionism. "The art system is perhaps the most treacherous of all because now, at its highest levels, works of art have become financial products. Biennial curators simply suck energy from international political movements and appropriate the latest radical thought, while the mass of artists on the outside is structurally the most dispersed of the whole band of cultural operators", adds Jacopo.
What will they do with all this space? Keeping it closed indefinitely would be an unforgivable crime. "We shall open one floor at a time and the pace of upward expansion will be in step with the projects and people willing to put them into practice. We could already fill many with those we have now", ends Angelo.