Kristina Borg's Art Practice Empowers Community in Milan Neighborhood

Kristina Borg’s artistic practice focuses on public space and collaborations with communities. Originally from Malta, Kristina has been living in Milan for the past three years while completing her master’s degree. While in Milan, Kristina’s interest was piqued by a neighborhood called Isola (island), which seemed like such an anomaly in the middle of a major city. “I come from an Island,” Kristina says. “When I think of an island, I think of the horizon all around which is visible on the coast. Inland, there is no horizon or at least it’s a different kind of horizon.”

Kristina’s project centers on the inhabitants of La Casa Verde (the Green House) and the neighboring apartments. Isola was a traditionally working class area and home to a number of artists. In recent years, the residents have watched their neighborhood fall victim to “the arrogance of urban conventional planning that interferes with one’s intimate and private space. In 2005, a green lung of a green space around these residential structures was tragically destroyed so that the headquarters of the Lombardy region and its 160m-tall office building, the Palazzo Lombardia could be built.”

Kristina began her project by setting up a series of workshops with residents arranged around three themes:

1. My bed
You can’t get much more personal than your bed and in a very real sense a bed is like an island. Kristina explains: “While working on this project and reflecting on the term ‘island’ I happened to be reading Species of Spaces and Other Pieces by Georges Perec. In the chapter entitled ‘The Bed’ I came across Michel Leiris’s quote “lit = île”. As Perec explains in the footnote, this literally means “bed=island”; for Leiris the similar sound of the two French words has somehow determined the closeness in their meaning. I found this similarity particularly interesting and the first workshop focused on the term ‘bed’.”

2. Island
This second phase referred directly to the history and the urban transformation of the Isola district itself, with a special focus on the Green House.

3. Outside the window
What did we use to see outside the window? What did we smell? What did we hear? What about the present? What do you see? And in the future, what would you like to see?

The workshops resulted in a series of works, including two performance pieces. In the first, When the Greens Meet (2014) Kristina and a group of residents of the Green House walked from the Isola Pepe Verde (the community garden which the neighborhood managed to create and secure in an agreement with the local council) through one of the sections of Isola that has suffered the most due to the gentrification process. With them they carried a spool of red ribbon that they unwound, attaching it to lampposts and traffic signs on the way to the Green House situated a half mile away. When they arrived at the house, the ribbon transformed itself into a long red banner (reminiscent of the red flag used during revolutions when people moved out to the street to take back their city, e.g.: the Paris Commune), which was unfurled from the fourth floor terrace. 

“Last summer I took time for reflection,” says Kristina. “This was no longer the point of arrival; it’s actually the point of departure for the next piece. I could see there was a lot of availability and the urge to do something with public space. Basically, the residents of the Green House want to cancel the perception people have of them—referring to them as ‘these poor people remain entrapped by the skyscrapers’. They’re fed up with this idea and they actually want to transform the building into a monument of dignity, which has resisted all the transformation surrounding it.

“In November, I continued working with them and instead of focusing just on the Green House, I wanted to include the people who live in the neighboring streets forming the perimeter of the Lombardy headquarters. I created a questionnaire for them to share their narratives and ideas. One questionnaire was returned to me with two photos slipped inside to explain to me the view they had once seen outside their window before the skyscrapers were built. It was a beautiful vista of the Alps.”

For Costruendola Insieme! (Building it Together!), 2015, her second Isola performance piece, Kristina wrote a narrative, gleaned from the questionnaires, and this was also presented through a set of eight illustrations. She then drew details of these with pen and ink on pieces of material cut from the red banner used in When the Greens Meet. She made 100 of these “holy pictures” which assumed the role of religious relics and were distributed to people inviting them to the Green House during the first weekend in May. She chose this particular weekend because it was the official inauguration of the International Expo taking place in Milan. This was significant because all the projects: the demolition of the green space, the construction of the skyscrapers, the heliport (which still remains the current struggle of the residents) were all planned with the Expo in mind.

Once at the house, people could listen to the narrative, see the illustrations and get a complete picture of the story. There was also a model of the house that obtained the status of a temple: a shrine to host and protect the sacred soul of the Green House. Attendees were invited to take the talking-temple-house for a walk while listening to the narrative to see the references made to the district. An impressive 45 people showed up for the event.

Kristina’s process, which incorporates the use of evidential photographs, maps and other data is reminiscent of the lengths taken by a legal team for a complicated court case. And in a sense, her work on the Isola neighborhood is exactly that. It couldn’t be more appropriate to use this kind of “fire” to fight the fire of bureaucratic urban renewal.

In looking at these fully realized dissertations on civic practice, one is left quite breathless by Kristina’s supreme competence as organizer and archivist. But there is also a potent element of fantasy and surrealism in the work that transcends all the information. For example, the red banner obtains the status of the sacred soul of the building and the unfurling represents the diffusion of the soul of the house into public space. This haunting, raw emotion is central to Kristina’s approach. It imparts depth to this important work that gives voice “to those who never give up but continue to defend their rights and the value of the community from the privilege of the few”, as Kristina claims in the dedication of her narrative.


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