Occupy Rome

(first published at http://www.extraenvironmentalist.com)

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In response to dramatic government funding cuts, occupiers in Rome, Italy are proposing radical solutions to the depressed culture industry.“The main problem is that culture is no longer valued – by people or politics”, lamented Digital Operator Fabio Crisante last Wednesday evening by the busy thoroughfare of Via Tuscolana, Rome, in a speech to persuade passers-by to sign a petition to save Cinecittà – the once grand film studios which produced Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita.

Workers at the infamous production centre, opened by Mussolini in 1937 to compete with Hollywood, have been occupying part of the establishment since July 4th in protest of a proposed renovation project by Cinecittà Studio Spa, the studio’s parent company, which would outsource cinematic work to sub-contractors and convert part of the site into a “film hub” with movie theatres and a hotel for visiting crews.

In so doing, Fabio and many other employees would probably lose their jobs – thus, occupiers argue, marginalizing highly-skilled employees – from sound engineers to set builders and costume designers – who have decades of experience in the industry, some having worked alongside legendary directors such as Pasolini, Coppola and Scorsese.

“It’s us who know how to make cinema” argues Crisante, “not the businessmen and economists sitting in their offices”, three weeks after prime minister Mario Monti announced further cuts to arts funding as part of a broader scheme to trim 26 billion euros from Italy’s budget over the next three years, and hopefully save the country from default.
Offering me a piece of asino (donkey) on mouth-watering pecorino cheese, Crisante uses food to illustrate a wider point on culture: “people don’t eat this meat anymore and young people can’t cook.” It wasn’t the same for his father, a pizza-maker’s generation when, he reminisces, “people valued culture” and “knew how to make things”.

Comparing food and film histories, Crisante recalls the pride he would feel entering the studios when he first joined twenty years ago, which were then a vital organism for the production of high-quality, innovative film. Now, he shrugs, “even television production is starting to decline.”

While recognising that Italy’s rich cultural patrimony is central to the nation’s economic growth and that the luxury associations of “Made in Italy” still hold international clout, since taking over the helm of the country’s sinking-ship-economy last November (post-Silvio Berlusconi’s unceremonious backstage exit), economist Mario Monti has defined his sole mission to be that of steering Italy clear of an economic default.

The practical leader, who admitted yesterday, he’d favour “The Graduate” any day, over “some very heavy Italian neorealist film”, risks, as he leads a government of unelected technocrats, putting short-term growth at the expense of Italy’s long-term prosperity, by undervaluing investment in culture and education: fundamental prerequisites for innovation.

Crisante is sad to “have seen the decline of something huge” of which he was a part, aligning Italy’s cultural depression with “cuts to arts funding” and the influence of Berlusconi’s media conglomerate which favours scantily-dressed dancing girls over art and information in a country where 80% of the population gets its news from television.

Today, most young creative talent knows to take itself elsewhere, and even established brands like Miuccia Prada, who have built their label along with the treasured “Made in Italy” tag-line, are transferring abroad (to Paris) where she believes the arts are taken more seriously. In an interview with La Repubblica earlier this week Prada declared, “the Made in Italy label is no longer enough”.

She explains: “the impression abroad is that the whole country’s establishment is disappearing, has always less resources, less culture, less protagonists, less ideas…” In such an unattractive environment, Prada argues that fashion will inevitably “go elsewhere”.

The culture industry looks bleak, and Crisante agrees. Though he brightens up when I refer to Teatro Valle Occupato, an occupy success story in the historic centre of Rome. In June 2011, after the government slashed support to cultural institutions and rumours spread the the historic theatre founded in 1727 (site of Pirandello’s opening performance of “Six Characters in Search of an Author”) would be put up for sale, hundreds of actors, musicians, technicians and their supporters began occupying the theatre, inviting the public in free of charge to enjoy a broad range of the arts – dance, film, theatre, concerts, poetry readings and open discussions.

One year on, the institution has hosted hundreds of leading figures in the arts and amateurs alike and has become a beloved location of the city’s inhabitants. As such, it is protected from government closure, which would risk widespread public criticism.

Hosting a press conference last week, they announced their vision for the foundation’s near future: a revolutionary five-season year; investigating the three fields of “writing”, “bodies” and “city”. The first season, beginning in September, will take inspiration from writing on the crisis, and be reflected in multifarious art forms – cinema, dance, theatre, commedy, music and the visual arts – between which the Valle emphatically does not delineate.

Art and politics are inseparable here. Il Valle, in its Statute published this month, calls for artists to “risk the turbulent experience of living the political act as artistic act an viceversa.”

Via self-management they have built a model based on collaboration, revolutionising the traditional hierarchical model of the theatre. Open 24/7, public assemblies are organised regularly which diffuse decision-making power to artists, workers and citizens in the creation of uninterrupted, diverse, contemporary activities.

Rejecting the “fossilisation” of the “artistic act” in “the art world of museums, critics, dealers and galleries”, Teatro Valle argues instead for art’s revitalisation within “social processes and transactions”. In so doing the foundation sets new precedents for institutions in the culture industry.

Their project sets new precedents for institutions in the culture industry. Rejecting the “fossilisation” of the “artistic act” in “the art world of museums, critics, dealers and galleries”, Teatro Valle argues instead for art’s revitalisation within “social processes and transactions”. In so doing the foundation sets new precedents for institutions in the culture industry.

Rather than a species of “consumption”, the idea of the theatre is more closely aligned to that of the “piazza” – an organism which constantly generates ideas through the plural discourses between artists, citizens, institution and city. Setting new precedents for the culture industry, Teatro Valle presents a model of reformed democracy and self-governance which could be emulated by schools, libraries and hospitals.

Whilst calling for a political commitment to fulfill the Italian Republic’s commitment to promote culture, they demand a public financing which is separate from political representation – a task which is near-impossible in Italy. Thus, in order to maintain autonomy, they propose methods of “crowdfunding” and “non-monetary exchange/barter”.

The Valle, Fabio agrees, gives Cinecitta reason to hope. If it is to be preserved, it must start looking towards alternative forms of funding and develop a revolutionary new structure. Crisante thanks me for the discussion and disappears to enjoy the swing-dance spectacle designed to re-invigorate the occupiers and draw attention to their campaign.

The performance by Swing & Soda dance club affirms the vital artistic force which still thrives in the city. Mid-performance, a near-empty bus passes by, heading towards the city-centre. A young man on board vaguely stirs from his ipod-induced lethargy, to glance over the colourful scene. Disinterested, he slumps back into his solitary trance.

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