Research, Politics and Paywalls

‘Il Valle non c’è più’. ‘the Valle is no more’, said F. bitterly at the end of his intervention to what was arguably the most heated debate at the 2014 Euronomade meeting in Passignano sul Trasimeno. We were a large group, at least fifty people, crammed outside the auditorium under the afternoon sun. Few seconds of silence followed F.’s words.The thought of having lost the physical and symbolic centre of of an extraordinary movement suddenly hit us. One thing is reading about it on the paper, another one listening to the occupiers’ voice.Ruminating over the end of the occupation might not be the most useful activity, and yet, this is perhaps the right moment to start reflecting upon the Valle’s achievements, potential and setbacks. At Euronomade we only begun to scratch the surface.

teatrovalleoccupato esterno

For those among you who do not know the Valle Occupato’s story, you can have a look at the special issue of Theatrama or at the documentary Occupying the Commons, both good introductions for the English speaking public. I have been following the occupation since the very first days, albeit from afar.  Their work was so unique and inspiring, and yet so little known in British theatre circles. I got in touch with the occupiers in the summer of 2012 but I managed to visit them only in March 2014. It was a difficult moment. The Angelo Mai collective had been evicted only a week before my arrival, the dialogue with Rome City Council was at a standstill, and the authorities had just rejected the Teatro Valle’s application for legal personality. Tension was palpable. And yet I found many occupiers willing to talk to me, happy to answer my questions or to have me around during assemblies. Considering the circumstances, they had been incredibly generous with their time.

I went to the Valle out of curiosity and political solidarity, and with the best of intentions. I wanted ask questions, to understand, to listen. I hoped I could be able to help. I listened, I asked my questions, I observed, I tried to understand. Helping, though, was a different matter altogether, and I left the Valle feeling in debt, a debt I could not repay. I justified my trip to Rome telling myself that academic writing that could potentially amplify artistic practice. And in part, it is true. My paper on Teatro Valle at the IFTR Conference gathered quite a crowd, and the Q&A went far beyond the allocated fifteen minutes, eventually taking up most of our lunch break. Researchers from all over the world wanted to know more, to understand, to dig deeper to see if the Valle’s story could illuminate other political and artistic practices.Yet, I cannot help wondering if I am the best person to tell this story. What perspective can I possibly bring? How do I relate my reflection to the occupiers’ struggle? Although sympathetic, I am outside of that struggle. I cannot consider myself an activist. And I cannot shrug the feeling that my research parasitically exploits their work.

Three years of observing and listening to the occupied Valle – and indeed the other occupied arts spaces all over Italy -were bound to have an impact on my practice too. The rich debate around the commons, the backbone of Valle Occupato, eventually compelled me to radically reconsider the nature of academic work and scholarly research. What can research give back to struggle or to an artistic practice if only other scholars listen to our conference papers? How can we engage in a broader discussion if our articles hide behind a paywall or are available only to the lucky few affiliated to an academic institution? Who are we writing for? Does our work benefit anyone or anything except an increasingly self-referential academia? When I stepped into the occupied theatre I expected to encounter a lively political experiment. What I could not foresee is that the occupation would slowly but irreversibly transform my understanding of scholarship, my conception of the researcher’s function, my view of academic institutions. And that, at the same time, it would confirm that there is still a higher education worth fighting for.

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