Travelling: notes on space (1)

Space 1: Fondazione Prada, Milan
Galleria Vittorio Emanuele. All around is the city of luxury brands and exclusive restaurants. It’s pouring down, today.
A bouncer stands by the elevator door; a young woman in pencil skirt and high heels notes my name down. Four floors up, I step into an elegant space, everything is minimal, immaculate. Concrete and glass, the rain taps on the windows. In no time, someone hands me the press kit and a plastic bag for my umbrella. A group has already gathered around the curator. He introduces the exhibition; the artist stands sheepishly next to him. The light points are cleverly though out, the pictures hang lower than usual – in the act of viewing, our entire body is involved. Waiters hand us blinis, glasses of prosecco, and cotton napkins. I’m out of place and strangely excited. How did I end up here? We walk around the exhibition and make small talk. How is the Milan exhibition different from the London one? Does it have to speak to Milan art world? Or to this space in particular? To this neighbourhood? I don’t belong to this city and I feel particularly foreign this area of central Milan – an amusement park for tourists and big spenders. Admission prices are relatively cheap, yet it feels like a site of extraordinary privilege. I am sharply aware that I am intruding.
Space 2: Parco Sempione public library, Milan.
A library that isn’t a library. I have issues with libraries with limited reading spaces. If you can’t sit down at a decently-lit table, then it is not a library. Yet, I love it. I love how this building – a glass pavilion designed by Ico Parisi in 1954. Glass and concrete, like the Galleria, yet it couldn’t feel more different. No bouncer or guest lists police entrance to this space; a silent motley crew inhabits it. Libraries are no longer spaces devoted uniquely to study. They are one of the very few public spaces in which you don’t need to be a consumer. You can come and go as you please, charge your phone, sit down somewhere warm and dry,  use a PC, have a nap, even read a book, if you feel that way inclined. Long live the public library!
Space 3: Macao, Milan.
An Art Deco building at the edges of the old wholesale market district. It laid abandoned for decades, a dispute over property prevented anyone from selling or refurbishing. In 2012 a group of freelance workers in the cultural sector occupied it. It has been a self-managed venue ever since. I’m here for the opening of an exhibition. No star curators here, no twinning with major European galleries. The young painter greets his visitors, there is finger food and local wine served in plastic cups. The building is in dire need of refurbishment. The occupiers do what they can: they cleaned most of it, repainted, checked the electricity grid, got a generator and have water delivered once a week. The structure seems to be solid. Visitors are at ease, many of them know each other, many are part of the collective. There is definitely a community here. They are designers, musicians, architects, painters, political activists, arts lovers. We sit in the terrace overlooking Viale Molise, talking, smoking, and drinking wine into the night. They are organising an antifascist and antiracist rally for 1st May. They tell me about the DJ sets and the political work, about their cryptocurrency, about care and struggle. It’s definitely spring in Milan. It’s a warm evening. You can feel a calm energy in the air. It transpires in spite of the waft of diesel.

Notes on a strike 1: the day after

Dylan Thomas Exeter

I had the weirdest dream. I was in Streatham campus, you know the main gate on Prince of Wales Road? There. It was packed with people: I didn’t know them all but somehow I knew they all worked at the university. We were holding banners and talking. The atmosphere was quite jolly. There were dogs and children too. We had soup and cinnamon bagels. There were students writing poetry on the pavement, classicists holding placards with quotes from the Catiline Orations, a band called ‘The Attachment Issues’ singing protest songs. There were professors from Philosophy and Geography knitting a blanket. I’m not sure how, but I found myself embroidering ‘we are the university’ on some bunting.

And then the dream goes from weird to outlandish.

At some point, the Vice-Chancellor showed up but he was a Lego figurine. I talked to him and he actually listened to my concerns. We posed for a photo together and he told me I am an extraordinary academic. No idea what a psychoanalyst would make of this. Then Billy Bragg arrived (!) and we all sang The Internationale – can you imagine Exeter academics singing The Internationale?
Ah, I almost forgot: students were occupying Northcote House in protest, then they came out and we greeted them with party poppers and a booming, sonorous round of applause. Beaming smiles, song, energy, enthusiasm. It was magical!

We marched through town and eventually ended up in the drama studio at the Phoenix Arts Centre where we talked about the university of the future and, wait for it, we discussed electing the Vice-Chancellor (!), boycotting the TEF, and abolishing tuition fees (!!!!).

I mean… I don’t know. It was probably something I ate.

Wait a sec…why do I have a party popper in my coat pocket?

How do we make space for time?


If there is no church in the wild, if there is study rather than knowledge production, if there is a way of being together in brokenness, if there is an undercommons, then we must all find our way to it. – Jack Halberstam
We invite you to join us in the break! For one night, we will occupy space, take possession of time, and think about what it means to ‘be with’ each other. Through a score of discussion and silence, activity and play, we will collectively make space for time and co-create a new institution*.
Is there something you wish you had more time for? Gazing at clouds, fly-fishing, cat stroking, laughing? Bring an object or idea to contribute to a playful potluck of unproductive activities and everyday expertise.

The Institute of Killing Time is a new (anti)-institute for the experimental study and exploration of time. This inaugural event is part of Antiuniversity Now 2017.

Do join us! Book your place on Eventbrite.

Stories we dare to tell

relentless optimism

Easter meditation. I have been absent for a while. The winter of my discontent is over. Every year I tell myself ‘this time it won’t get me’. It always does. Short days, feeble winter light get the better of me. And I always come out at the other end. In the meantime, we have been plunged into a dystopian world that would put Ray Bradbury and George Orwell to shame. An inarticulate, narcissistic white supremacist is now the most powerful politician on the planet and he seems determined to pick a fight. A schoolyard bully with weapons of mass destruction at his disposal. Can I freak out now?
No, I can’t. We can’t. I don’t know what the future will bring, but we’d better stay lucid.
From my privileged spot, I can campaign, I can protest. What else? I am fortunate enough to be able to turn my job into a militant practice. I am fortunate enough to be working with students who (most of the time) demonstrate a remarkable generosity of spirit. I can build a militant classroom, to borrow Kim Solga’s words. But how? Teaching and research are hardly predictable activities: if you are looking for neat and ordered stuff you might as well change career. Dealing with living, breathing human beings requires a good degree of flexibility and responsiveness.
What then? How do you turn academic work into a militant practice? I’m not sure, but somehow I’ve always known that my practice (on and off stage, inside and outside the classroom) boils down to sharing stories. Forget the post-truths or the alternative facts. Beyond the news, we have stories to tell. Stories that reconnect us with our resilience, kindness, and generosity. Stories to counter the pestilent narratives of the past few months; stories to heal, stories to overcome fear, stories to make sense of the illogical and frightening stuff the world throws at us every day. And, by all means, stories to explore the monsters that inhabit the deepest cracks of our conscience; stories to face our biases and our prejudices. Teaching and research are conversations: we build images, we weave narratives, we propose visions of the world.  I’m starting here. Is it enough? Of course not!
Happy new season, everyone.

War Scars

I saw my grandfather crying once. Only once. He was telling a wartime story. In 1943, he was 17 and enlisted in the Italian navy. On 8th of September, the Allies signed the armistice with the Italian government. The civil war had started. Granddad was in Venice at the time. The Italian army had no orders from central government and northern Italy was occupied by Nazi forces. He had two choices: joining the fascist army in northern Italy or run away. Granddad and a group of fellow youngsters decided for the latter option. Maybe it was fear, maybe hope, maybe it was the recklessness only 17-year-olds can muster.
It was a dangerous journey. He was a deserter and the Nazi occupiers were not exactly a conciliatory bunch. After many adventures, he reached Civitavecchia where he hoped to board a ship back to Sardinia. I’m sure he must have known fear, but his tale was always upbeat. There was almost a hint of self-complacency. We asked what was Civitavecchia like. The town was still occupied by Germans and grandad had to hide. In the meantime, the British were bombing the area. And as his memory went back to the bombings, the sirens, the shelters, civilians dying, buildings reduced to rubble in a matter of seconds, something inside him broke. He started crying. He could bear going back to his escape from Venice, the perilous journey through occupied Italy, hiding in Civitavecchia, but the bombings were still an open wound. I don’t know why, but I can try to imagine. The explanation I have given myself is that somehow he had agency over his desertion and his journey but he had no power whatsoever over death falling upon you from the sky. A faceless enemy, constant fear, not knowing what you would find when you come out of the shelter.
Years later, I found out that Grandad took medications for anxiety all his life. He rejoined the navy after the war, but he quit in the early Sixties, probably because of his panic attacks. I have no way of knowing for sure, but I can’t help wondering to what extent the war had shaped him.
Family stories emerge as I watch the news coming from Aleppo, as I think about the displaced, the dead, the injured, the city in rubbles. Even if the war ended tomorrow, reconstruction would take decades and it would only fix the material damage. The memory of violence shapes individuals and communities. Aleppo will never be the same again. Scars will be visible, wounds will remain open, survivors will wake up in the middle of the night paralysed by fear, they will have panic attacks and burst into tears many decades from now. Just like my Grandad.
I would like to write about my extraordinary first term at Exeter, about my students, about teaching, research, about the exciting feminist theorists I’m studying, but everything seems redundant now. All I can do now is contemplate the senseless violence humankind is capable of. I think about the survivors, racking my brain for solutions, focusing on the minuscule acts of charity within my reach. All I can do is think about the living, hold my loved ones close. Time will come for philosophy, for art, for beauty. Not now. Not yet.