My trip began with arrival at our first sleeping place, the Forte Prenestino in the early evening. Walking through the park-like grounds, the first sign of the place is a large metal sculpture of an over-sized skeleton pope, reaching out a cadaverous hand. The Forte is a huge symmetrical military complex, built at the end of one of Rome's ancient roads during the late 19th century. After crumbling away for decades, it was occupied in 1986. Some two dozen collectives work there, doing all sorts of work, mostly cultural. There's a big kitchen behind the cafe, a couple of indoor bars, and a few more outside. The Forte is known for giant concerts. It can hold thousands.
In the morning we made for the first of our meeting points, the Centocelle center. It's a cozy basement under a school. Centocelle was squatted in the 1970s by a neighborhood association when the school was abandoned. Because they took care of problems in the neighborhood, the place became well established, and was legalized with a nominal rent. Recently a group from the larger Forte Prenestino started to work there. They changed the orientation of Centocelle away from the purely local, and “it became a social center.” The big issue these days is the TAV, a high speed rail link Italy is trying to build from Turin to Lyon. Militants have joined the people of the Valle Susa to defend their mountain agricultural communities which this construction of “useless infrastructure” would destroy. The fight has brought together all the radical elements in Italy, Eliseo told us. “Demonstrations are really articulated.” In response, the Italian state has militarized the area. (Salvatore's journal, Capitalism, Nature and Socialism, will soon bring out an issue dedicated to this struggle.) We enjoyed bottles of “No TAVino” for lunch and dinner, gifts from the vintners of the Valle Susa.
At the meeting at Centocelle we heard about the multi-year Movokeur project comparing squatting in different European cities. In a series of poster presentations ETC Dee's easily took the cake. His graphically exciting posters documented historical squatting activity in Brighton, London, and Rotterdam, all cities where he worked as an activist. (These need to be seen in squats around the world.) Claudio Cattaneo analyzed data from the Barcelona publication Infousurpa (est'd 1995) to see the cycles of the squatting movement there. The early ones in the 1980s had long lives. (Even now the average age of a center is 6.3 years.) Then punks learned from visiting music bands that to make their own concerts they needed to squat a place. In 1995, squatting was criminalized in Spain, and the movement picked up. (This is the seeming paradox Miguel Martinez has pointed out – repression breeds resistance.) The spectacular eviction of the Cine Princesa in 1995 unified the movement. (This story is told in the video by Octavi Royo, “Okupa, Crónica de una Lucha Social” [occupation, chronicle of a social struggle], 1996.) From 1995-96 was the “golden age” of squatting in Barcelona. Those years saw the biggest growth in squats and a well-functioning intersquat assembly. From 2000-08 Claudio calls the “mature phase,” with 40 to 50 social centers and a high rate of activity. Subsequently the number has decreased, in a phase of “decadence,” or “post-maturity.”
(Only days after our meeting, the long-lived Barcelona social center Can Vies was violently evicted by demolition, a repressive act that touched off days of rioting. If the cyclical theory holds, the city may be on the verge of another golden age of squatting. SqEK's 2015 meeting will be in that city, so we will have a chance to take the temperature of the movement.)
Eliseo and Bruno presented on the squats of Rome. (There is a highly informative chapter on this in the new SqEK book just out from Pluto.) In Rome three big groups are doing squatting for housing. People in emergency situations go to them and put their names on the list. Most are migrants, many are students. Then they are put into a training program, half a year of discussions, construction training, attendance at evictions – “You see what you have to do to protect a squat.” The group that is going to squat coheres its identity so that everyone knows each other. Then there is a squatting day for the whole city, with the three groups coordinating occupations. The last one was called “Tsunami Tour.” Usually between six and nine buildings are taken. Afterwards there is a negotiation; some are kept, some buildings are given up.
Most of the squatters are not politicized. They are simply excluded from the high cost housing market. While there is a lot of discussion, these groups have clear leaders. The assembly “functions as the place where decisions are made visible.” The next evening we saw a film, the final cut of a new documentary on one of these groups (“Casa Nostra” by Livia Parisi and Lucilla Castellano). The leader of this group was a woman, a crusty communist, who spoke to us afterwards. Their struggle has been hard. After eviction, dozens of the activists and the squatters they organized are being investigated for criminal conspiracy and extortion.
Tables at the Forte
The next morning we awoke in our dormitory with the morning swallows rushing in and out. It was time to face the cold showers. Thereafter Edward and I wandered up onto the ramparts of Forte Prenestino, a level above the main courtyards. There are little houses stuck in along a rampart so overgrown it's hard to see the features of the architecture. Some of these arch-fronted dwellings are ramshackle, with dirty yards, and others are neat and nicely planted. Cats played in the sun.
We soon moved to Scup!, a social center based on sports and education. There we had breakout sessions, with different groups concentrating on different problems. Three “tables” formed, one on internal conflict in collective houses, another on repression and eviction, and a third, my group, on institutionalization. Luisa, a Roman studying urban planning, noted that squatting and related practices have generated strategies of urban regeneration. These are being co-opted. Now, even as many squatted places are being shut down, autonomous practices are being aligned with the free market. How do we deal with these strategies of cooptation, and “avoid certain traps of pacification” so that the “antagonistic potential” of occupied spaces can unfold?
The Berliners outlined three main approaches to squatting by states: First is selective neglect, to put conflict on the back burner. This happens in Italy. Squatting becomes a problem that doesn't exist because no one talks about it. Second is the repressive strategy – stigmatization, criminalization, waves of eviction; the movements are dealt with like dangerous, subversive conspiracies. The third approach is institutionalization, temporary allocation of space for temporary uses. This entangles the movement in bureaucracy, as licenses are required and regulations applied. The squat is included, but integrated into city branding policies, as an aspect of the creative city or a feature of urban renewal. In Berlin, the recurrent IBA architectural exhibition (Internationale Bauaustellung) became a motor of institutionalization for squats.
In Italy, the squatting movements since the 1970s have generated different policies which resist or include them. After long struggles by the Leon Cavallo center in Milan, 1995 saw the passing of a law which permitted assignment of spaces for social centers. This law was proposed directly from the movement – but they still have to enter into a system of regulation. In the case of squatting for housing, new laws governing social housing and assignment of space for squatters were passed in 2004.
Now the Teatro Valle occupiers are raising a new question. They argue that culture is a commons, and that all places for culture should be considered commons. They have created a Foundation for the Common Good. (It is a kind of sister to the Spanish Fondacion de los Comunes, which produced the recent Rapto de Europa conference in Madrid where I met activists from Teatro Valle and the Milan-based artists' squat Macao.) Their cultural appropriation is generating new questions. Now Teatro Valle is working with constitutional lawyers, and working as well with other insurgent practices to find a solution for a self-managed commons in Italy. They have drafted model laws about commons.
This commonsing approach is related to the work of the Right to the City alliance. Activists' emphasis is shifting from the state as guarantor of rights to affecting the discourse on civil society. Later Eliseo spoke again about this tendency in the Italian movements. “The debate today,” he said, “is not on legalization at all. We are in another phase. The debate is on the kind of space you are producing. In the '90s we were producing a new public sphere. Now it's a common. What is a common? How do you define a common?”
Lucrezia stepped us back to 1995, passing out zine copies of a text of those times from the Italian movement – “Against the legalization of occupied spaces.” She and Claudio had discussed it via email. This argument, he said, is that in a way the best thing a social center can aim for is its own eviction. That is, you should not really aim to get kicked out, but to be antagonistic. In Lucrezia's summary of this text, legalization is the state's most effective remedy against subversiveness, against the “autonomous tradition of the totality of existence” from whence political squatting comes. Squatting, the writers argue, is and should be egotistical, so that what is taking place is authentic to the people who are doing it. It shouldn't devolve into providing welfare services, and being community organizers. “Occupation arises from the necessity to satisfy real needs.” When squats provide welfare services to the marginalized, add to the image of a creative city, or work as containers of youth culture, the result is the death of subversive activity. Regulated, restructured and controlled by the state, they are no longer antagonistic. Ergo, legalized spaces are counter-revolutionary.
This was not received without argument. Edward recalled that in Brighton years ago, the argument was whether or not to go the legal route. But now, after criminalization, the squatting movement is destroyed, everyone's forgotten the argument, and we are left with the few legal spaces. In the UK, he said, legalized spaces are “driving the scene.” He works at the Cowley Club, an owned space in a tolerant city. “It's important for me to go there, to feel strong, to feel part of the movement.” An emerging problem is people joining who are liberal, and bring their own values to project. How do we maintain antagonistic values?
Later in the day we returned to Forte Prenestino. We met in a courtyard, under a pavilion. Alan Smart set up his book machine, a metal framework designed to hold and present paper, so that we might visualize the long-running popular book project. After our discussions, we were given the grand tour of the place.
The fortress, built at the end of the 19th century from the tufa stone of this region is one of a number, built at the end of the main avenues of Rome to check a feared attack by the French. It is the only one you can visit. It is in the form of two symmetrical squares, in three levels. The level above is bucolic and overgrown. There are houses, as there were for military people in the past. Some houses have staircases inside so the residents can go downstairs directly. The squares below were for military training. The part underground is called “centocelli” for 100 cells, an allusion to Roman times. Munitions were stored there.
When they took the place in 1986, they found everything there – boxes, dead bodies, washing machines. They discovered old Nazi uniforms and a lot of military stuff. This went into a giant bonfire in the courtyards. It took 10 years to clean up all the rooms. They still have not explored all the place, especially the underground stuff.
We wandered with Francesca, an architect, up a path from the courtyard to the ramparts. We were in a Roman garden under a clouded darkening sky. There are many trees, like mulberries, fruiting when we were there. One tree is tart, another is sweet. Bees are kept, and gardens of vegetables. They had marijuana parties in the past. Now not many events happen upstairs. During anniversary parties at Forte people are everywhere. One time Mano Negra, played and people could not even get in the place. An electro festival that ran for 48 hours had four big stages and two small. 7,000 people came each night. They are not sure about the capacity of the place – “maybe 10,000.”
Many Roman squats came out of raves, momentary dance parties held in unusual places. In the 1990s they did raves in gardens and abandoned buildings. This started in 1994, and was mobilized by radio. “If you happen to be in this district tonight...” They went into one factory and danced for hours on a carpet of discarded photocopy toner. They only knew it when the sun rose and they saw each others' blue faces. On the other side of the Forte is the dormitory, a massage parlor, yoga gym, theater, and van parking. There is a kitchen for the travelers. They plan a place for camping also. Last week there was a convention of agricultural producers; 50 people needed to sleep, and they overflowed the dormitory. The wood shop makes fixtures for the place, benches, etc. The auditorium is fitted for jazz music. It is in one of two big bays, while the bay on the other side is a cinema. In the summertime a big screen is set up for an outdoor cine fest.
We also ventured underground. A big international comics exhibit in mid-June called CRACK, “fumetti dirompenti,” makes use of the underground centocelli. A few of us explored these earlier, and saw many strange mural paintings in each room. At the end of the long corridor of cells the space opens out. Here is the underground Enotica, an ecological wine project. The walls of the corridor leading to the bar are hung with pictures of ecstatic tasting and erotic encounters. The largest of these underground rooms is a two-story barrel vaulted party space with a wooden platform built for the DJ.
After the tour of Forte, we listened to a couple of architects who had worked at Forte for many years. Their group started in university, when they met after an occupation of their school. They chose the Forte as a place to work, and started making installations and other things in wood and iron. They organize a festival called BaBeL, “an independent biennial of critical housing.” An activist from Poland is featured on the cover of a recent publication of the festival. She fought against the privatization of social housing. She organized the tenants of her building against the many evictions. She was beaten, then abducted and killed. A reporter investigating her murder was also killed. The organization she built, however, continues to fight. The article was written by people in a social center now evicted. It's the kind of story that is marginalized in universities. The architects are part of the Right to the City alliance. Their website contains texts on this network, as well as conceptions of “creative citizenship” – “using creative power to get our rights.” They are working now against a proposed law attacking self-organized housing and social centers. The law would refuse legalization to any squat or social center, and cut off the inhabitants from any public services, basically taking away squatters' right to be in the city.
The great Forte Prenestino is an old-line classic social center, a counter-cultural world unto itself built inside an abandoned fortress. Metropoliz, the “mestizo” complex built inside a disused salami factory, is something else. It's an entirely new kind of formation. It's near the highway to Naples in an area called Omo. The factory is big, with many open courtyards and areas to hold the pigs which were processed into salami. The Fiorucci sausage factory moved away because the costs of upgrading the sewage treatment were too high. At first it was made into a kind of graffiti museum, and the walls are decorated with many old tags. Some 500 gypsies, Roma people, were encamped on the adjoining property. They came through a door in a masonry wall to use water from Metropoliz. When the Roma were evicted, the 30-odd squatters invited them to move into the big factory building.
In showing us the place, Leroy followed the “route of the pigs” from their holding pens to the salami factory. We saw the time clock, the changing rooms and showers. Now this is a quarter of Moroccan people called the Casbah. Leroy told us he had met a worker from the old plant who lives nearby. The man gave him this same tour, miming what he used to do at work. Where was once a yard full of pigs is now a football field. Kids were practicing for the fourth annual intersquat national football festival happening the next week.In a paved courtyard under a pavilion wash was hanging to dry. A man was finishing a tubular welded metal structure. We met an elevator repairman planning to make a basketball court.
Younger kids were playing around a ramshackle rocket. The squat museum has an outer space theme, and this was one of the larger projects. Combining social housing and an art museum is at the core of the mestizo concept of Metropoliz. Artists who want to make a work in the place come and propose their projects to the assembly which accepts or rejects them. Most conflicts, Leroy said, arise around political and critical art works. The outer space or “cosmic” theme, then, is ecumenical.
Continuing along the route, we came to a big nice house, the home of the guardian and the chemical laboratory of the plant. The run continues to where the pigs are herded into the factory. There is a cut-out door which goes to the veterinarian's office if a pig looks sick. We passed the giant boilers, “the most beautiful machines in the factory.... Here the pigs have a shower, then they die.”
A Roma Village
We drifted around the factory area, with its conveyor belt for pig corpses – hams – and a grisly mural. This is the “museum,” full of artworks, mostly wall paintings, one of the three levels of Metropoliz, the “museum of industrial archeology and art,” combined with a Roma village. Here there is also a big bar and dance floor, a cinema, and a cafe where we finished up for dinner. In the main factory building, the Roma have built houses inside each of the capacious floors. The corridors between them are like streets, with people passing continuously. Here and there are artworks painted on the walls.
Leroy talked about how they configured the space. One area of the floor is open, “the public square of the first floor,” where they hold parties. “We meet with them and find out what they need. We worked hard to leave this place empty.” They built a “convivial entrance” – like a stoop, out of concrete, where many people could sit by the door. A group working for Roma rights in the camp followed the community into the Metropoliz squat. Many volunteers come to study with the children.
Of the painting projects, I thought the best was one in French, big letters – “L'espace est a n/vous” – “the space is for us/you.” The painting was done by the artist with the people living here. Art is nice, but the main work here is about making living space. One man proudly showed us inside his house, which had been full of solid masonry, cisterns, which he had to demolish to clear the room.
We went to the roof, which looks over a vast abandoned military barracks next door. It's the biggest in central Italy, Leroy said, unused but held in reserve, and still visited regularly by soldiers. This (de)industrial area is full of gypsy camps and Chinese factories.
When do you think you will be evicted?
Not tomorrow is my guess. Like when you play with cards, you take a risk. You invest time and energy, but you don't pay rent.
After our tour we watched a film and talked with activists of the Metropoliz. The only way for people to claim their basic right of citizenship in the liberal tradition, we were told, is by violating the law. Most – 80% – are migrants. They have jobs, their kids go to school, but their right to housing is not fulfilled. The state attacks not illegality specifically, but only a part of illegality. Sixty or 70,000 people in Rome are living illegally, but they are attacked when they self-organize to manage things for themselves. In other countries criminals can control the squatted areas. Here people self-organize, and for this reason they are attacked. In Italy, Roma people can only go to camps. Metropoliz is breaking this logic of segregation.
The migration of today has little to do with colonialism. People are only seeking work opportunities. These migrants tend to be highly skilled, even PhDs, speaking multiple languages. They have helped to reinvigorate the agricultural sector after the emptying out of the Italian countryside. They contribute to the treasury of an aging population. They take care of the elderly, doing caring functions which are necessary to state. Italy always thought of itself as an out-migration country, sending workers abroad. Now, Italy has become a destination for migrants.
Another activist picked up the thread. Metropoliz is of the Blocco Metropolitano, she said, a collective formed in 2006. We were precarious workers who organized to satisfy our own needs. We were trying to put a spanner into the works of the neoliberal city, which appropriates through dispossession. The owner of this place is a big construction company. They planned to build condominiums no one would buy. This is part of the neoliberal city. We are deprivatizing this space. It is part of the history of Rome, its industrial archeology. Now it is a liberated occupied factory. The idea of Metropoliz is mestizo [mestizaje] – a coming together of people from different political and ethnic backgrounds to attempt another way of living together based on heterogeneity. The Roma is the most discriminated against minority in Italy. Out of diversity and sharing, we are challenging the neoliberal state. The law on housing was advertised as solving the problem of social housing in Italy, but really it favors the big financial interests and criminalizes those who cannot afford to pay a rent. A former communist party operative in the government was responsible for criminalizing squatting.
After these talks and a film, we repaired to the spacious cafe for dinner, then danced to a DJ playing contemporary gypsy rock. Oddly enough, one of the artist squatters was selling shots of classical absinthe, strained through a sugar cube, so between dances we enjoyed our own “heure verte.”
Culture and the Commons
The next day was more sober, with a panel on “Squats and Urban Relationships” convened in the civil and environmental engineering department of Sapienza University. One of the presenters was from the social center Angelo Mai, an important art center very recently under siege by the police. She told us that the housed people, the residents, “are in relation to artists and theater people.” Occupancy is undertaken not to gain leverage for access to public housing, but as a project of collective self-construction in a commons. Angelo Mai was “one of the first experiences that merged housing and cultural needs.” The right to housing and the right to culture are unified. The center runs summer camps for kids in nearby schools, and “thousands of workshops” there and in other housing occupations. There is no city cultural program for artists in Rome. There are no plans for social housing. “Rome is an open laboratory of occupation.” (An article in the new SqEK book from Pluto describes the five year development of these new kinds of Roman occupations.)
We heard from workers at the occupied Teatro Valle. “We are show business workers,” said Mavik, a category not really recognized in Italy. Teatro Valle is a classic Italian theater with a long history, located near the Pantheon, Piazza Navona, and the senate of the Italian republic. (Hans and I visited this beautiful old theater later, and spoke with some of the occupiers, among the dynamic Valeria Colucci who toured a New Statesman journalist last year. I met her in Madrid in April, at the “New Abduction of Europe” conference; Marc Herbst has blogged about that important event.)
The government closed this historic theater, and was thinking of privatizing it. A group of artists and workers there occupied it. “We entered as a joke,” Mavik said, “a three-day symbolic occupation. Three days became three years. We are still there.” The abandoned theater is a cultural and geographical metaphor. We “rethink this vacuum not in the order of service but the order of need.” Artists in Italy have suffered a void of institutions for a long time. Now we are rethinking the relation between artists and citizens, and that is new. Teatro Valle is open 24 hours a day. We never do shows; we free the stage. We take care of that place, think of it like a home open to everyone, where the public takes on an active role.
Mauro, a television actor, said that the theater was in a heavily gentrified center city area, “once a neighborhood, now no more.” They seek to counter this tendency to “make the center of Rome a museum.” They try to present a model of culture as common. In relation to his craft of acting, Teatro Valle is “like a 24-hour improvisation, doing art and life together.”
I asked if Teatro Valle or any of the other occupations had been supported by institutions. Mauro referenced the work of jurist Ugo Mattei, who has written a manifesto of the commons. A historian responded that Rome has a long history of occupation: “The catacombs were ancient occupations by the victims of ethnic cleansing” in the early Christian period. The Swiss Institute in Italy has run juridical seminars on the commons, which supports their efforts to stake out a legal position based on the Italian constitution. Some cultural institutions have tried to take advantage, he said, using our phrases and making them their own. Then a minority of political people, very minoritarian politicians support us. From time to time in assembly we touch the delicate issue of institutionalization. Our future. “What will we become when we grow up?” But our freedom has allowed rich experimentation. We like to talk about basic rights without institutionalizing our project. We like to compare it with the rights of a child born of a couple that doesn't want to marry.
That afternoon we visited CSOA ex-Snia, and attended a session about Roman gardens held in a new building in a park. On either side are abandoned squatted factories. Behind one is a complex of gardens which we drifted through after the talk. A talk on “renaturalization of the metropolis” introduced us to the history and particulars of some dozen land occupations in the Rome area. These urban gardens on occupied land are “islands of resistance” against speculative urbanization where a “degrowth philosophy” can be put into action. They stimulate “inclusion and solidarity” among cultivators. Rome is the greenest European city with 40% agricultural land. (Architects at studioUAP recently mapped the “Agro Romano.”)
Among the gardens discussed was the Garbatella, an “anti-speculation” urban garden started in 1992. It came from a popular mobilization against a plan to build 1.8 million square meters of housing. The area became public and was assigned to a “garden service” agency. At first it was funded, then the money was withdrawn. Citizens' groups started to occupy the land, in a form of political pressure based on urban agriculture.
Another we heard about was Eutorto, a garden run by former technical workers who lost their jobs in 2010. They wanted to stay together to “protect their political mobilization” and to provide food for their families. They worked against the “social and productive exclusion” of the unemployed. They protested, but also gardened together.
The speaker concluded that these and other forms of informal urban gardening practices are “profaning devices of power” (the reference is to Giorgio Agamben). The most interesting cases are those that “produce publics.” “Institutions should experiment with insurgent networks.” So far as the question of... (the speaker lost pace on that word, and Martin and Claudio pronounced it for him in unison) institutionalization, it should be a “soft targeted intervention.”
Afterwards we toured the gardens and visited the social center next door. We arrived too late to have a discussion with the fellow who was waiting for us. So we visited the bicycle shop in the back. Eliseo explained some things about the history of the place, how it was discovered during a rave. The lovely garden plants came from a rooftop exhibition by an artist at the U.S. embassy which gave them the plants to take away.
Costs of Knowledge
On our last day in Rome we learned that we could not return to the Forte Prenestino. The party on Saturday night had lasted until 6 a.m., and everyone was either sleeping or cleaning up. We held a kind of debriefing auto-critique with the Romans, reflecting on the week's meetings. The Rome meeting was quite amazing, but because of its size and length, some structural problems emerged within our group. (Those interested can look at the notes posted online.)
Eliseo explained that the Roman squatting world was so big and so involved it was impossible to give a general framework, only an introduction. We just met some groups. Other important centers we didn't visit. “There are over 160 squats, it's a jungle.” The organizers tried to avoid being identified, manipulated, or incorporated in some groups' agendas. “We could have a Disobedienti briefing, but then we would be identified with them,” and others would be offended.
Andrea – “I wish I slept more” – started with the question what are we?, meaning the SqEK network. Academic researchers in Italy usually don't come from working class backgrounds. Looking at ourselves, there's not much ethnic diversity. All of these questions – around diversity and class and gender – are expressed in tensions between researchers and activists. There is no way to have a structured meeting in the Roman movement, Eliseo said. It's not a normal situation. You are under eviction. The police can arrive at any moment, and then you have to decide what to do. We do not invite foreigners into these kinds of activities because they don't speak Italian, don't know what the police are doing, the lawyers don't speak English. Also me and Andrea have to survive this meeting. “We are under examination” within the movement. The next time you come to Rome we cannot go with you in a social center. “We cannot put our face in more than we did.”
The Roman movement is dynamic, remarkable, and very little-known. They are constantly producing solutions to urban problems which an idea-poor and corrupted government seems to have simply given up on. We were very lucky to have had this glimpse of it. Nevertheless, the knowledge SqEK is building both individually and collectively, comes at a cost.
LINKS LIST for Rome
"No TAV" movement
“Capitalism, Nature and Socialism” journal
ETC Dee's posters for Movokeur
SqEK, eds., "The Squatters' Movement in Europe: Commons and Autonomy as Alternatives to Capitalism"
Scup! social center
Teatro Valle Ocupato
Fondacion de los Comunes, Spain
BaBeL e SCIATTOproduzie
“How Italians are keeping priceless artefacts out of private hands,” by Daniel Trilling
Marc Herbst “On The New Abduction of Europe Conference”
Ugo Mattei. "The State, the Market, and some Preliminary Question about the Commons (French and English Version)" 2011
studioUAP architects' map of the “Agro Romano”