If you live in Milan, especially in the Bocconi area, you know this building. Locally known as a “buco nero” or “fortino delle droghe”, countless rumors circulate of rampant drug use and illegal activity. There was once a literal Al-Qaeda hideout in one of its studio apartments. The derelict façade and seemingly cheerless courtyard do not aid in improving its image. Bligny 42 juxtaposes greatly with the academic and lively area it finds itself in. Often left out of this building’s discourse, however, is its powerful and significant contribution to Milan’s contemporary art scene.
“42- storie da un edificio mondo”
Built in 1895 (and seemingly not renovated since), Bligny 42 is referenced by many pejorative names, though Francesca Cogni and Donatello de Mattia prefer to call it the ‘World Building’ as per their 2009 short film “42 – storie da un edificio mondo”. The world building references the extremely diverse community of residents between the four stairwells, representing people from all walks of life: immigrants, students, Italians, members of the LGBT community, and others.
Cogni and de Mattia bring the viewer into the building that so few dare to enter to show the reality, normalcy, and peculiarity of life inside this city within a city. A mixed media film, it combines stop-motion animation showing an intimate account of residents living their daily lives. There is the immigrant mother cooking dinner for her crying child. The nosey nonna looking down into the courtyard from her balcony. The struggling artist working in their studio. A lively courtyard with music and drinks. Italian, along with other languages, can be heard throughout. These scenes are starkly contrasted with live shots of the neglected and decaying building with an eerie audio in the background. Although not portraying Bligny 42 as an idyllic building, it normalizes the residents and their situations while revealing the beauty of this vibrantly diverse community few can completely witness or understand.
The ending of this film depicts a woman going into labor in the entrance of the building, where the only help she receives is from the doorman. The following powerful scenes show a world of complete black being illuminated by the child being born and crying. Though this scene shows the residents as only having each other to rely on, it evokes emotions of hope and progress. In creating an artistic film with Bligny 42 as its subject, Cogni and de Mattia politicize the building and call into question the stigma Milan carries against it.
Meaning “light” in Farsi, Spazio Nour was founded in 2014 and fronted by Mahmoud Saleh Mohammadi right in the courtyard of Bligny 42. It was founded not only as an art studio, but as a safe place for people to explore and learn about contemporary art. Bligny 42’s diverse community is the perfect setting to conduct cross-cultural exchange, as Spazio Nour’s main mission is to “create a place for mediation between the language of contemporary art and the context in which it was being used.” In a seemingly hopeless place, this studio aims to heal while bringing the magic and beauty of art to a demographic that is often overlooked, that being the lower class.
Spazio Nour maintains an emphasis on participatory art as it blurs the line between artist and audience. Mixing passive and active participation, it facilitates exchange between the community, the artist, and wider society. Mohammadi’s “The Last Supper” in 2015 is one such participatory piece, consisting of a long table positioned in the courtyard. Invitations were sent out to welcome participants to the experience: “The tenants of Viale Bligny 42 officially invite you to dinner, bring a delicacy from your home if you like, and above all, if it rains, bring your umbrella!”
Obviously recalling da Vinci’s “The Last Supper”, this participatory social performance had the intention of bringing together vastly different people from across the city, representing the world, to the same table to share a meal and their cultures. The discomfort of vulnerably entering a notorious building heightened the pleasant and inspiring meal to come. This example of social art carried the goal of opening the minds of its participants to make them aware of the beauty of an often-overlooked part of society, and to understand that we are all human.
The Pianist in the Courtyard
Spazio Nour also partnered with Piano City Milano to host Massimo Carrieri in the courtyard in 2016. This performance brought not only a grand piano into the unlikely setting of Bligny 42, but also an audience from across Milan. The dichotomy between this high-culture artistic medium and an outwardly low-culture setting heightens the experience. Not only is the art found in the Carrieri’s music, but also in experiencing the setting along with all its socio-political connotations. Bringing this performance to a new context, Carrieri democratizes and exposes the residents of Bligny 42 to classical music. He sees the residents as deserving of this kind of music, hence facilitating further community dialogue. They did not need to go to La Scala to experience high-culture, they simply had to open their windows.
Viale Bligny 42 represents a beautiful microcosm of Milan with its multicultural community. Though it carries a legacy of crime and squalor, this should not overshadow the myriad of lived experiences that the residents carry with them. Participatory and contemporary art aims to share these complex nuances in a constructive way with hopes to heal and bring people together.. This building along with its people, history, and stigma is a living sculpture with a loud message: “We’re not going anywhere.”
The next time you pass by this building, I urge you to take a step into the courtyard to see the giant painting of planet Earth. Maybe even say hi to the doorman or a resident on their way in or out, I promise that we’re really friendly!