Physical, Digital and Literary Spaces
Groups, Collectives, and Networks in Milan

From the early 2000s to the present, artistic communities have been a constant presence in Milan. In the 2010s, no few artists — often assisted by curators, critics and cultural animators — came together in associations or collectives, forming communities and sharing studios and spaces for engagement also with the public.

In the world of art and culture, organised groups arise mainly for two reasons: to respond to a model that does not satisfy them, by creating an alternative, oppositional or integrative one; and to find solidity in the group, in order to overcome the fragility of the individual condition.

In Milan, a highly creative but extremely difficult city, this second reason is often the dominant one. On the other hand, the city’s liveliness is also historically well estbalished. As early as 1909, it had a space like the Casa degli Artisti, which housed workshops and art ateliers, and which was renovated after the war by figures such as Luciano Fabro, Hidetoshi Nagasawa and the critic Jole De Sanna. This is a place that has recently been refounded and managed by various associations as a centre for residency, production and fruition, open to the city.[1]

Today as in days gone by, young artists have realised that being together is better than being alone. However, in some cases this conclusion stems more from an instrumental calculation than from any idealistic ambition. Yet, this dual nature has always coexisted in all collectives: grouping together makes for greater strength, and everyone helps each other. The difference — a substantial difference — lies in the underlying desire: that of either gaining recognition as a group in order to then make it as an individual, or else to imagine an alternative community dimension.

If in a city like Bologna the disorganised artistic liveliness of the student world gives rise to a multitude of experiences with an anarchic and underground flavour, the independent art scene in Milan, although home to numerous artist-run spaces, is today lacking in radicalism, either in its politics or its imagination. Certainly, this does owe in part to the digitisation of physical space, which has increased distances and weakened the community’s fabric of physical connections. One recent example is the Residenza La Fornace, curated by Edoardo Manzoni and Giada Olivotto in a provincial country farmhouse. Although it brought together a number of projects and artists in a rural context, the location remained unknown, and the project was only disseminated via the media. However, the combined efforts of artists — even if with little or no institutional help — have sometimes created the basis for a collective experience with a broadly participatory and community vocation. In these cases, the intent of the artists involved — within the context that we have outlined — is absolutely worthy of attention.

In outlining the profile of the last twenty years, the many different forms in which communities have arisen or identified themselves began to become clear. In Milan, in particular, they have gathered either around an independent or artist-run space, a community network or, finally, around a magazine. It is beautiful, almost astonishing, that despite the decline of publishing and the rise of the digital, an idea of community can still today develop around the printed word, in a manner not too dissimilar from what happened in the first half of the twentieth century.

These three forms of coming together allow us to understand, by way of comparison, how the idea of collectivity has changed, between the early 2000s and its expressions that remain active currently. In this text, we have thus decided to recount the most significant experiences that have coloured the Milan art scene in the recent past, up to the present day.

Artist-run spaces, especially those that flourished at the turn of the 2000s and 2010s, testify to the desire to co-create and build stable relationships with the public as well as with the artistic community. The Brown Project Space was exemplary of the sites of real engagement between artists and curators. The first artist-run project space, from 2008 to 2012 it was directed by Luigi Presicce and Luca Francesconi; this experience followed the publication of Brownmagazine, around which artists, curators and critics had gathered. Brown’s exhibition spaces were a real laboratory open to the public where ideas, practices and tools could meet face-to-face: this was not just a shared studio or exhibition space, but a single, unified subject.

MARS was also launched in the same year, as a space run exclusively by artists and open to the art public. Taking up a different formula, Mesopotamia, founded by Alessandro Nassiri and Matteo Zarbo, also gained a certain following. Between 2012 and 2013, they organised twelve meetings in a studio that was emptied once a month to host a public meeting held by an artist, critic or curator.

Today, after the experiences of Gasconade, Tile Project Space, Current and many other projects that did much to train artists and curators, there are few artist-run spaces that resist the centrifugal force of the regional capital. This pushes them to disaggregate and “re-individualise”, directing their members to each pursue their research elsewhere.

The artist-run spaces long established in the urban context include Spazio Serra and Edicola Radetzky, both run by artists, for artists, with great generosity of spirit. The two spaces, each born from public-use sites — the first by redeveloping a metropolitan space, the second a former newsstand on the Darsena — have been pursuing an open and experimental programming for many years now, with scarce funds but remarkable tenacity and organisation. They have been joined more recently by the Co-Atto experiment, in the Garibaldi railway station.

In Milan’s recent history, the cosmos of independent research spaces has often combined with various forms and expressions of activism, sometimes in a programmatic manner. The issues of housing and public space in Milan, combined with the defence of the commons — itself also inspired by Ugo Mattei [2]— have given rise to and cemented multiple communities of artists and art workers, who have created various discussion spaces open to citizens. An exemplary case was Isola Art Center, a project born in 2001 that brought together a group of critics, curators and artists with the aim of collaborating with the associations of the Isola neighbourhood in defence of public space and for the creation of an art centre.

Between 2003 and 2007, the group occupied the Stecca degli Artigiani, turning it into an exhibition space, and supported the neighbourhood residents’ struggles against top-down urban planning. Together with numerous other autonomous personalities active in art and culture, the group Lavoratori dell’arte was founded in July 2011, which met at the ARCI Bellezza in public discussions which enjoyed a great deal of participation. After a demonstrative act — the occupation of the PAC (Padiglione d’Arte Contemporanea) in Milan, on 2 December 2011 — the initial group broke up and other figures and activists converged. This gave rise to the occupation of an abandoned skyscraper, Torre Galfa, renamed Macao, which was then cleared out and moved to Palazzo Citterio in Brera and, later, to a former slaughterhouse in the Calvairate area. This same period saw other occupations of cultural venues around Italy, Rome’s Teatro Valle the best-known among them.[3]

A peculiar case of artistic and social activation in the form of the network is the idea of the platform. Relying (also) on media-based communication, this idea has changed considerably in the space of a few years. Twenty years ago,, which was active between 1995 and 2015 thanks to artists Anna Stuart Tovini and Vincenzo Chiarandà (Premiata Ditta), was able to involve hundreds of authors and art practitioners in the construction of a platform for online and in-presence dialogue and sharing with regard to artistic production — a “participatory model that develops the sharing of research, resources and knowledge, collaboration and exchange”.

Today, the most important and ongoing experience that straddles art and activism — first emerging in Milan before then extending even beyond Italian borders — is the multiform Tomboys Don’t Cry. Founded in 2011, it is an open platform for girls of all genders and non-binary people, at the intersection of lesbianism, queerand transfeminism. It is an activist collective, but also an touring event, a performance group and an artistic investigation. Beyond definitions — something which Tomboys Don’t Cry seems to do everything possible to shy away from — the founders wanted to create a social network that supports and sustains itself, driven by a will to resist and unite. Each initiative accompanies a political and social discourse that had not hitherto found identity and recognition in either the artistic or the commercial and musical dimension. Tomboys Don’t Cry is today one of the main reference points for the LGBTQAIXYZ community in Italy, but its founders are also the driving force behind Sprint, the independent publishing fair that takes place every autumn in Milan, now coming to its tenth edition.

To stick with the world of publishing, many new magazines have been created or self-published in recent years, from the most historic, Kaleidoscope,to the more recent Frankenstein Magazine.

Where the magazine transcends the physical confines of the printed page, bringing together a broader set of ties and relationships, it can be seen as the expression of a collectivity. The extended universe of the magazine is concentrated in the printed reality of the publication, at the same time vehicle and container of a community 2.0 principle. This, whether it is based on an aesthetic canon and an affinity for experimentation, as with Kaleidoscope, which is closer to fashion and brand identity, or else specifically oriented to a theme, as with Frankenstein Magazine.

Kaleidoscope, which has been active since 2009, shares — together with Slam Jam and Carhartt Wip — the creative direction of Spazio Maiocchi, a former industrial building converted into an exhibition space, brimming with events and shows including screenings, exhibitions and meetings. The distinction between the artistic direction of the magazine and that of the physical space is sometimes blurred; so, we can see how the magazine can represent the corollary of a broader development of projects or, conversely, how the space can be an auxiliary to the magazine, even though this latter is a well-defined object-work.

Frankenstein Magazine was founded only in 2019, by Stefano Coizzi, Emiliano Fadda, Marcello Mosca and Dario Guccio. It is now a reference point for a community of writers that spans everything from comics to creative writing and graphic novels.

In some ways a classic collection of comics, the magazine — with each issue more substantial than the last — gathers a plural array of contributions, at the intersection of different stylistic and narrative approaches. The stories told, like serials, are often divided across multiple issues, to give a sense of continuity and more space to the authors, as well as a sense of belonging. Last year, it was also integrated into the organisation for Drawing Week, the week dedicated to drawing in its various forms, in collaboration with the Ramo Collection. This culminated in a meeting at Caselli 11-12, around the eighth issue of the magazine.

Community can take many forms, united by the desire and inclination to give up part of one’s individuality in order to build something shared. In Milan, perhaps precisely because of the stress to which the city subjects the individual — and the artist — the need for sharing has always given rise to and created space for proactive initiatives seeking to rediscover a sense of connection that stands above work, career, authorship or money.

But despite the numerous examples of active groups and collectives, we may well doubt that in this new millennium the artist’s highest aspiration is to find a place for herself within the social chessboard, adapting to certain norms and expectations, rather than rejecting them in order to imagine new forms of relationships. While, in words at least, the desire to create an alternative society is extremely widespread, we may wonder how far imagining and rethinking collective life are concrete objectives, more than rhetorical formulas which have entered everyday vocabulary by force of habit and repetition.

After all, following over two months of radical, collective questioning of Western society both within the art world and outside it, during the first COVID-19 lockdown, little appears to have changed — least of all in Milan.

[1] Following the awarding of the tender for the management of the property, launched by Milan city council’s Municipio 1, a temporary association of purpose (ATS) was set up including the five non-profit organisations that took part in the tender: ZONA K, as leader, That’s Contemporary, Atelier Spazio XPÒ, NIC Nuove Imprese Culturali and Centro Itard Lombardia, with Future Fond as external partner.
[2] Ugo Mattei, Beni comuni. Un manifesto, Bari, Laterza, 2012.
[3] M. Watson, La lotta comune di Macao. Produzione, sovversione, proprietà, «Operaviva», May 2017 <> (February 22, 2023).

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