Wednesday, March 8, 2023
"Art of the Cancelled": Stalker's Sites of Internal Displacement and Decolonialization
Forgotten historic evictions, massacres and “sudden lakes” are explored in the performative works of the Stalker group in Rome. Using a wide variety of aesthetic social practice tactics, the group resurrects historic memory, agitates for biodiversity, and enacts solidarity with evicted migrants.
John Halpern and Emily Harris set up an online interview with a Roman architects' group called Stalker. Their work in aid and solidarity with community groups and migrant squats in Rome is inspiring, important and fascinating work. The entire talk is online [all links are below]; what follows are my notes.
The two interviewees, Giulia Fiocca and Lorenzo Romito, work under the name of Stalker, Giulia since 2007 and Lorenzo since the beginning in 1995 when he and five friends founded the group and named it after the Tarkovsky film of 1979. The story of that movie is about the Zone, an area that is forbidden to enter – maybe polluted, radioactive – it’s never made clear. The Stalker is a kind of guide who regularly goes into the Zone despite the peril. In the film he leads an artist and a scientist.
Giulia and Lorenzo are both trained as architects. They became politicized in 1990 with the occupation of their university. This talk reminded me of the important role architects of all kinds have played in supporting squatters, and adapting guerrilla occupation tactics directly into their work.
The duo presented three projects: one a recovery of historic memory about a Roman shantytown of left persons evicted from the city during fascist rule; the second on support for the public appropriation of a “sudden lake”, the result of illegal property development; and the third support for a big-building squat of migrant persons in Rome.
The first project was presented in the form of a film, “Borghetto Prenestino” made by collaborators Myrice Tansini and Pierre Kattar. That was "La Zattera" (the Raft), in January 2021, This complex project was an investigation and animation of a piece of waste land in Rome which had been a shantytown, cleared in 1980. It was built as the outcome of a 1939 fascist law against Italian migrants which was re-animated by Berlusconi in 2009 to use against foreign migrants. The "La Zattera" project, then, was conceived as a "time warp, linking present and past".
A bit hard to follow, the project began with a newspaper, informing participants – residents nearby, relatives of the families from that time – about the place. This education, part of a School of Nomadic Urbanism founded in 2018 by Giulia and Lorenzo as the educational tool of Stalker activity, has as its brief to surface the "invisible and forgotten memory of the city of Rome”.
The film includes an elder who speaks of his mother who suffered this law in fascist times, who was bussed to this "clandestine zone" to live in the shadows of fascist Italy. His grandfather arrived in Rome in 1927, then was internally deported as a resistant to fascism, a "dissident to the state".
I transcribe throughout this text very roughly from the speakers:
Lorenzo Romito: These situations we organize we call them "circumstances". We get out, choose a site, and then we work on it, through a schooling process, the school is open. We gather researchers in different disciplines, but also inhabitants, migrants, very diverse people, with diverse knowledges and competences on spaces, on stories. We put together different time frames, memories that are forgotten, or have been cancelled. They're not part of a main narration. Then we entangle them, with a moment that is social but also performative.
The idea, he said, is “to create a dimension of co-existence by exploring memories…. to create a rite, a myth, to reconnect people to the place”.
The second project, was done in support of a state appropriation of ecologically significant land, the Lago Bullicante, or Lago ex-SNIA Viscosa. This is a newly arising lake created by an illegal development in 1992. It’s called "ex" for the SNIA Viscosa factory which produced rayon. They closed in 1956; the area was abandoned until bought in 1990 by enterpreneurs. After numerous corporate title transfers, an ill-advised shopping center construction project began. Excavation for a parking garage broke into a buried river and an ancient geological acquifer, flooding the site and creating a “sudden lake”.
Said Giulia, "nature stopped" the developer. Since then, nature has had the time to retake this space as a “spontaneous ecosystem”. The lake area is tremendously biodiverse, with over 500 plant species, and 72 counted birds. The water is pure enough for swimming.
A local agitation for the lake as public domain began in 2013, and Stalker joined in the fight to preserve this new urban wilderness for public use. In 2014, the local agitation led to a small expropriation by the government of part of the land. The developers, however, didn’t stop their work.
Rome as terra incognito
Rome seated above Chronos is a cave in a 17th c. image
In 2021, together with the Forum Territoriale Parco delle Energie, community groups, schools, and other institutional actors, Stalker launched a campaign to preserve more of the land. They produced a kind of “rite”, a procession to the government center walking across the city carrying branches that had been cut down by the developer. This was the “walking forest”, an allusion to the play Macbeth, in which an advancing army camouflaged with trees signals the end of the usurper king.
Another project of historic memory coincided with an exhibition about the famed film director Pier Paolo Pasolini.
Lorenzo Romito: The issue, the unsaid, the cancelled was Italian colonialism in Africa. In Italy we didn't have to go through the Nuremberg process, because the Allies decided, we don't want to get rid of all these right-wing fascist people because then the left could take over. So a lot of criminals in the colonial times, the fascist times, never had to pay for their crimes. We didn't go through a process of decolonization, where the colonized claimed their independence, we simply lost the war and lost the colonies. So there is this idea that Italians are good people.
Forgotten is the massacre of 1937, called "Yekatit 12". This followed a failed assassination attempt on an Italian general, viceroy of Italian East Africa (present-day Ethiopia).
A 2017 history estimates the dead at 19,200, a shocking 20 percent of the population of Addis Ababa.
LR: So we wanted to share the knowledge, starting again with the school of the city. Sometimes the knowledge of the past is terrible. But we also want to discover the beauty of the present, Ethiopians in Rome. So we made up this new ethnic group, the Ethio-Romans, to understand what happened then and why we never talk about it.
This project was also about a building occupied by 800 Ethiopians that was evicted in the middle of the night.
LR: So we linked the different questions, the massacre of the '30s and the eviction of the migrants today. But we also had the pleasure to share rites, and ways of living, and we brought in the issue of Pasolini. At the site of an exhibition about Pasolini, we made a collapse and overlap with the colonial exhibition of the '30s at that site which was inaugurated by Mussolini himself.
We called this a scene from a movie never made about the past, present and future of Africans in Rome. We placed a plaque in the Piazza dei Cinquecento (the square of the 500, commemorating Italian soldiers killed in the invasion of Ethiopia), a central crossing of stations of Rome. We renamed it Piazza delle Cinquecetomila, the 500,000 estimated victims of Italian colonialism in Africa.
Giulia Fiocca: In the same moment that we act on this memory, we act in the public space, and we become an archive of ourselves, leaving it to the future.
John Halpern asked if the actions were permitted by the authorities.
GF: We don't ask permission. It is our city. This is public space. We are not dangerous. We are in Rome, we are not in the United States. [Blush.]
Rome as a civilization was founded on the idea of including the other, in a wide sense, Lorenzo said. He cited the Asylum, a site in ancient Rome which gave the word to the idea of hosting foreigners. He read an image of Rome (allegorized as a woman) atop Saturnus or Chronos (time) in a cave, and recounted a dense mythological background of the city.
The work they began in 1995 took this idea of the Zone from the movie "Stalker" to stand “for us, and for all the territories in this geographically enormous wide city which we don't know…. Rome emerged like a new planet" from their analysis.
John Halpern asked about the group’s relation to the squatting movemet. (The question I would have asked if I’d been able to stay awake.)
Our work is an intellectual expression of squatting. We explore contemporary ruins, seeing through mythology how Rome regenerates itself, how it is inhabited by excluded communities, from Aeneas of Troy forward.
We work with abandoned areas taken over by nature that we put in contemporary position. We link the community to the genius of the site [in the ancient pagan sense it seems], and create a gathering.
We are 20 years at this, following the narrative that nature is giving, rather than the explanation of the situation by human society. The territory can change your perception; that nature is doing.
In Rome there are a lot of occupied structures. It's one of the few places in the West where the Occupy movement didn't die out, but survived, and then found new energy through the presence of migrants. We are working in a squat next to our house where there are 26 languages spoken. There's 450 people living. At the same time it's a public building, squatted in 2013. It has a lot of spaces. And these spaces started to be spaces for social and cultural activities, so this brought in a link between the squatters and the community.
For us it was most interesting. We've been in the years past promoting this kind of action, and then we saw it taking place, and we started to participate there. In the basement of this building we have this space which we call MAd'O, the Museum of the Act of Hospitality. So there we were able to expose and share the incredible co-existence of people from 26 different languages in an informal settlement. That is something that public housing never achieves, but it works there because they're self-organized.
We proposed the MAd'O museum after Sébastien Thiéry, fellow at the French Academy’s Villa Medici in 2020, proposed including the act of hospitality in the list of UNESCO intangible cultural heritage. We staged a procession to promote the application. Among the projects for this initative, We worked with visiting African young artists to make images that contest the Italian restrictions on citizenship. There is no birthright for migrant children born in Italy; that is only available after age 18 upon application.
Their conceptions are actualized in their teaching. Lorenzo is teaching in Linz, Austria, where he has asked the students to occupy a space and figure out what to do. Giulia is teaching in Rome, asking students to pick a place like the lake ex-SNIA where nature is redefining the space.
Episode 38: Stalker, Tuesday February 28th, 2023
I talked to Emily and John about my own researches on squatted social centers a couple of years ago. Episode 16: Alan W. Moore, Tuesday, January 26th, 2021
website of journalist and filmmaker Pierre Kattar
the "sudden lake" -- Lago ex-SNIA Viscosa
Pier Paolo Pasolini
Yekatit 12 [massacre]
The last edition of the newspaper done for Circostanza Pasolini- yekatit is linked here, together with the other editions:
The Guardian was among the news media which covered the massive 2017 evictions of migrants and struggles in Rome – Italian police evicted 800 Eritrean and Ethiopian refugees... https://news.cgtn.com
25 ago 2017 —Police use water cannon as refugees evicted from Rome square
24 ago 2017 — Police in riot gear clash with refugees near main train station after about 800 were evicted from office building on Saturday. 'I love Rome, but Rome doesn't love us’...
19 feb 2018 — A building which used to be squatted by refugees on Via Curtotone in ... Violent evictions of refugees in Rome reveal inhumanity
No way to find home: common stories of Eritreans in Italy and the Netherlands; Refugees cannot start a new life if they are not allowed to create homes for themselves.
"The area remembered as the site of the sanctuary established by Romulus to attract new settlers" https://www.digitalaugustanrome.org/records/asylum/
I was in Rome 10 years ago with SqEK. I told the story in the book Occupation Culture (2015). since this blogger was last in Rome. At the time, I posted “Squatters of Rome” in 2014. In poking around online, I see that Stalker is involved with some of the projects we saw then, which, like Metropoliz, continue.
The cafe in Metropoliz, with its science fiction themed mural, recently photographed by an artists group installing in the museum