One of Europe’s most spectacular music venues is under threat. Christine Kakaire visits the former slaughterhouse in Milan to hear its story.
Milan’s renowned sense of chic is most evident in its city centre, with its wide, clean streets, decorative filigree balconies and streetside flower sellers. Just south of the centre, the tourist-friendly Navigli neighbourhood has a network of historic canals surrounded by lovely cobblestoned lanes. In one such lane, on a warm Friday evening in May, among the al fresco diners and after-work wine drinkers, Ral8022, a cocktail bar, embodied the fascinating split-personality of Milan’s nightlife.
To the right of the bar’s entrance there was a kinetic blur of cocktail shakers and a soundtrack of silky boom bap hip-hop, as patrons sipped drinks in pairs and small groups. To the left of the doorway was the headquarters of the online station Radio Raheem. The Danish breakcore artist HVAD was scorching his way through a DJ set, dancing in the glass-fronted booth that looks out on the laneway. He was wearing a gold chain that looped in front of his blonde hair extensions, which were plaited into his beard and hung down to his waist. Little attempt was made to buffer the sound of one side of the space from the other, making standing in the doorway disorienting.
Out in the lane, a group of people wearing black were gathered in front of the Radio Raheem window, talking animatedly. The broadcast was a preview for Dance Affliction, a party taking place the following night at Macao, an alternative arts space. HVAD was playing with two of Dance Affliction’s organisers: Arcangelo De Castris and Francesco Birsa Alessandri, the cofounder of Haunter Records. This was the fifth edition of Dance Affliction, a biannual party with an experimental music programme that begins at midnight and extends well into the next day. There was an air of excitement about tomorrow’s party—someone told me that the event attracts people from all over northern Italy. When people learned that I hadn’t been to Macao yet, I was told several times that I needed to experience it for myself to understand what it’s about.
Macao has no legal right to be where it is. Its founders occupied the current space, a once-abandoned building, in June 2012, and remained there more or less unbothered since then. But earlier this year, the property’s owners said that they now intend to sell, more than likely for the purpose of commercial redevelopment. Macao’s founders, however, have a unique two-pronged plan: with the infrastructural support of an independent housing project initiative based in Germany, they will purchase the building themselves, under the proviso that the property is never to be sold again. The funds used to make the purchase will be publicly crowdfunded via donations and subscriptions, and in keeping with their egalitarian principles of cooperative ownership, any individual’s contribution will ensure that person a part-ownership of the space. Their proposed solution is still being defined internally and assessed externally by the property’s current owners.
After the radio show we got together at a nearby restaurant, where, over the din of bachelor parties and birthday groups, Alessandri and Manuella Gama Malcher laid out the wider context for Macao’s threatened eviction—gentrification, corrupt politicking and municipal mismanagement of public funds.
Gama Malcher suggested heading to Macao that night for Tofu Banana Cucumber, a night thrown by one of Macao’s six other collectives, Hangar Games. As you head eastwards out of the centre of Milan in the direction of the Calvairate neighbourhood, there’s an abrupt change of scenery. Smart shop fronts and eateries give way to shabby bars and large housing complexes in drab colours. Viale Molise is the busy arterial road that runs north-south through Calvairate, and at the northern end there are telltale signs of modern residential redevelopment: large plots of land behind security fences, hills of gravel and fresh stripes of lawn yet to merge with the earth and conceal their seams.
To the east of Viale Molise is a huge, 445,000-square metre tract of land known as Ortomercato, an area that Macao describes on their website as “the largest abandoned area in the entire urban context of Europe.” When it opened in 1965, Ortomercato was a centre for wholesale trade logistics and a large fresh produce market. Just a handful of its original pavilions remain in trade today, and most of it has fallen into disrepair. After being evicted from their former location—an abandoned skyscraper in the city centre owned by Salvatore Ligresti, a developer currently imprisoned for corruption offences—the Macao collective occupied one of the four empty buildings of Ortomercato that face out onto Viale Molise.
They’ve remained there since June 2012, until it became known earlier this year that the owner of Ortomercato, a company called SO.GE.M.I. S.p.A., planned to auction off the buildings. Although it’s officially a third party entity, the controlling share of SO.GE.M.I. S.p.A.—99%—is owned by the Municipality of Milan.
The Dance Affliction crew readily admitted that the groundswell of support for Macao is helped by the way the building looks. “The aesthetic side is important,” said Alessandri, “because people come and are amazed that such a beautiful place isn’t run commercially.” Despite the doors having just opened, and the space still being relatively empty, my gasp was audible over the music. The UK producer Logos perfectly described Macao the following night: “This looks like the kind of underground nightclub you’d see in ’90s movies like Blade.”
Macao is divided into three areas. The entrance leads into the Hall, a large space of palatial decadence and ruined glamour. On the ground floor and up on the balcony level, paint hangs off the walls in uneven patches.
A roof of transparent perspex tiles and a floor studded with patterns of glass bricks allows for a dramatic passage of light, both natural and artificial, to shine vertically through the room. Pillars reach up to ornate cornices. A series of doors off the Hall lead to a mess of offices, band rehearsal spaces, rooms with piles of stock for the bar, scattered tools and jumbles of mismatched furniture.
On the upper floor there are workshop studios, a small cinema and sleeping quarters. Macao’s second room, Temple, is narrower but still has a type of old-world grandeur, with creaking floors and high ceilings. An outdoor area, The Garden, seamlessly transforms from a whimsical space with fairy-lit trees at night into a hideaway open-air afterhour spot in the morning.
The building has enough gritty atmosphere to be a popular attraction in itself, and it’s also malleable enough to suit the variety of daily programming that takes place there. This includes boxing matches, video-making and photography workshops, experiential theatre, capoeira classes, concerts, anti-establishment art shows and all-night raves.
Milan strictly regulates afterparties, so Macao’s off-the-grid status helped to form Dance Affliction at a crucial time for each of its founders. As they were drawing closer to the idea of creating an open-minded rave community, each had a growing sense of disillusionment with the political activism and left-wing collectives they’d come from.
“We were not creating anything, culturally speaking,” said De Castris, “only fighting against others, so my attention got shifted from political environments to music.” De Castris began to put on parties in Lecce, his home city, which began to offer him some sense of purpose. “I could somehow link my past experience in collectives to certain values like respect for nature, respect for other people, the refusal of any profit, and the power of aggregation of people.” After moving to Milan to attend law school, De Castris approached Macao to do a series of daytime parties there. “They were not very frequent, one per month more or less,” he says, “but after a while it kind of felt a bit limiting because the time of day couldn’t really give you the freedom of experimenting in a wide range of styles. We were a really incompatible sound for the situation of afterparties. I started to think about longer timing. It came to my mind to start this 12-hour party together with Francesco, Manuella and Daniele [Guerrini, the other cofounder of Haunter Records] and we created Dance Affliction.”
The event’s first edition, in spring 2015, was followed by the crew’s deeper integration into the fabric of Macao. “Us and another crew of kids were already doing some parties here, and we ended up being part of the organisation of the first edition of Saturnalia Festival,” explained Alessandri. “From that we got invited from one of the people who actually created Macao to become the new tavolo suono, or ‘sound table,’ which was the in-house sound collective. Macao was divided into subgroups who took care of the different disciplines: a sound table, a theatre table, a video table.”
Altogether, Macao’s various tables include around 80 members, with 25 of those working on sound and music programming. In the interests of transparency, accountability and egalitarianism, a sound table meeting is held at Macao every Thursday at 9:30 PM. It’s open to the public, and all programming decisions are discussed and finalised at these meetings, by consensus. Every member has a say, and every voice holds equal weight, which means the meetings sometimes go on for several hours.
At times the meetings have been backgrounded by intergenerational tension between Macao’s old-guard founders and the newer sound table, whose parties now bring in the lion’s share of Macao’s income. “Initially they took us for people who just wanted to party and get shitfaced,” said Alessandri. “They didn’t understand what our culture was and what we were trying to make. The music was the problem, because they saw people dancing, raving for long times and maybe taking drugs, and they started judging us for only being hedonists. It took a really long time to communicate, to have a productive conversation with them.”
“Sometimes we fight, of course,” said Gama Malcher. “There are many different people, many different views. Everyone wants to explain their needs and sometimes they don’t meet. But every decision is made together.”
In the hour before Dance Affliction started on the Saturday, a dinner for the crew and artists—HVAD and Logos, plus KABLAM and Giant Swan—was served on tables that had been set up in the centre of the Temple room. The conversation eventually turned to the dilemmas surrounding Macao’s utopian vision.
For instance: how to deal with people who ask to be let in for free because they can’t afford the universal entry fee of €5 (let them in), versus the haughty types attracted by Macao’s reputation who refuse to give money to an illegally occupied space (let them in as well, but “it’s important to try and infect these people in a way and draw people into our own mentality, and make them come back more and more”). How to make Macao more easily accessible to the local community? And how best to welcome their neighbours, when relations might be frosty due to Macao’s all-night noise? There is talk of adding more nuance to their current system of distributing money within the collective, to more fairly and accurately reflect the level of participation. Inevitably, though, all threads of conversation lead to the same point: there’s a strong chance that Macao will no longer have a home in which to resolve any of these issues.
Back when it began in the 19th century—and as it continued through the 20th century—The World’s Fair, or Expo, served a clear purpose. The travelling global convention showcased important technological advancements—like the construction of the Eiffel Tower, and the development of the telephone—to the public for the first time. Expo continues to this day, albeit controversially. It has arguably become what The Guardian called a “bloated global extravaganza,” wherein peacocking nations and corporate entities invest money to construct ostentatious pavilions and expensive gift shops. Nevertheless, in 2008 Milan submitted a bid to host an edition of Expo, with an understanding that the public funds plunged into the bid and the hosting of the event would be earned back through positive publicity, Expo tourism and future foreign investment potential.
The bid was successful. A theme for Expo Milano 2015, “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life,” was announced. But planning for the event quickly became mired in controversy. Expo Milano’s organising body opted not to redevelop any publicly held space for use as the Expo site. Instead, Milan purchased land from a private seller, at a square-metre price that was estimated to be 15 to 20 times above standard market value.
As the opening date drew closer, the strife deepened, with multiple Expo officials arrested on corruption charges. In a story titled “Milan Expo 2015: What’s the point?” the UK newspaper The Telegraph published the following account of the site’s delayed building works: “‘We’ll be ready for the opening day,’ said an official. ‘We’ll be 90% ready,’ said another. ‘I’d programme a visit for June rather than May, to be on the safe side,’ said a third.”
Expo Milano 2015 had the unfortunate opening date of May 1st, International Worker’s Day, a locus for anti-capitalism mobilisation. Milan’s anarchist fringe, anti-capitalism groups, social activists and critics of the wastage of the event coalesced around a key message: #NoExpo. Street demonstrations and clashes with police marred its opening day. In his opening address for Expo Milano 2015, even Pope Francis seemed to distance himself from the event. “In certain ways, the Expo itself… obeys the culture of waste,” he said, “and does not contribute to a model of equitable and sustainable development.” The promised injection of foreign investment never arrived. “There is a mandate from the city government now to draw money in because the city is in debt, mostly because of Expo,” explained Alessandri. “We got sold this thing that Expo was going to be very prolific and productive, but of course it only ended up making the rich people richer.”
Just a few months after he wrapped up his five-year tenure as CEO of Expo, Giuseppe “Beppe” Sala was appointed as the new mayor of Milan. In early 2017, it was announced that the €470 million Ortomercato regeneration plan had been revised to a much more modest €80 million, and that SO.GE.M.I. S.p.A. would now sell the four art nouveau-style buildings that run along the Viale Molise border of the property. One of these was the former slaughterhouse occupied by Macao.
Dance Affliction’s opening act was Presente, an Italo-Filipino producer from Bologna whose cinematic downtempo set matched the dramatic look of the Hall. From midnight, the sheer rate at which partygoers poured into the venue was remarkable, as was their trajectory: they quickly visited the bar and then diligently filled up the dance floor from the front to the back.
The demographics were also notable: long-haired thirty-something men in button-down shirts; health-goth types in long black sleeves with white lettering; dreadlocked Afro-Italians; ravers who claimed their dancing space with their expressive moves; amorous couples; hyperactive lads. By the time Giant Swan began their live show an hour later, the Hall was full. KABLAM opened the Temple to the same immediate enthusiasm. Sometime later, the anonymous duo Pact Infernal were chirpy about the atmosphere of the party, rolling up cigarettes backstage with sweat glistening around the orbits of their balaclava eye holes. The night progressed, and as the sky brightened, the outdoor soundsystem was set up for the resident DJs.
If there is to be a happy ending for Macao, its saviour will likely come from outside the collective, and outside the country. The German cooperative Mietshäuser Syndikat has offered financial and administrative support to self-organised groups in Germany for two decades, empowering them to collectively purchase what are primarily live/work creative spaces, and withdraw them from the commercial real estate market permanently. Fortuitously for Macao, Mietshäuser Syndikat would like to extend their operations across Europe. “We would be the Trojan horse in Italy to open this new network,” said Gama Malcher. The two organisations will embark on the process of forming a joint legal entity in Italy, so Mietshäuser Syndikat will then be able to act as guarantor for a loan application to a non-commercial ethical bank, to allow Macao the funds to purchase the property at a fair market price and operate as an official non-profit organisation.
It would be the ideal resolution, but it’s one that Gama Malcher and Alessandri are wary of becoming attached to. A few weeks after the party, we caught up on Skype, soon after Macao’s first municipal meeting regarding the sale of the building. Mietshäuser Syndikat submitted a letter of intent for Macao, but the best case scenario will still require a two-year period of financing, meetings and negotiations. “It’s still unclear,” said Alessandri. “Our hope is that they don’t stop this process. They’re constantly trying to push this agenda that we should not be here at all, and how this request from our part is an abuse of the municipality’s trust. Right now we are under even bigger scrutiny by the process of law, and of course police, and even media attention. I’m a little worried that this could be all for show and trying to save face and save their more left-wing electoral base. They never talk about Expo but it’s actually pretty evident that one of the main reasons for the selling of this land is basically the huge amount of debt that the city is in after it. They could come in full force and evict us.”
If they are evicted, any footage of the incident will undoubtedly include the huge sign made of bold red letters that sits above the entrance to the graffiti-covered building. It was made by Macao’s resident artists, both in ironic jest and defiant protest. It says, “Vendesi”—for sale.