A Labour of Love

valle-occupato

Teatro c’è quando Dioniso danza.

Teatro Valle  Occupato

 

I’m not going to lie. The recent developments in US politics have left quite a mark. Although part of me feared the outcome (I grew up in Berlusconi’s Italy after all and I am well aware that our democracies are not immune from this type of pernicious populism), I wasn’t prepared for the excruciating soul-searching the European and US Left went through in the  past couple of weeks. The election of Donald Trump to office compelled us all to stop and think about our actions, allegiances, and beliefs. It was necessary and bloody painful. Many have written about it. Among many others, Rosi Braidotti and Yanis Varoufakis provided some of the most lucid and articulate reflections on the matter. Very different perspectives, yet both contributions are worth reading. I’m concerned, but not in a panic just yet. To paraphrase Giorgio Gaber, I’m not afraid of Donald Trump per se, I’m afraid of the Donald Trump in us. I’m afraid of what Trumpism legitimated in the US and beyond. The unleashing of misogyny and racism, the condoning of bullying and aggressiveness. Similarly to what Berlusconism did in Italy, Trumpism is giving free rein to the worst in our culture (our, yes: the power of American culture over the rest of the world should not be downplayed).

In the meantime, I, like many of you, live in a state of almost perpetual dissociation. I watch heart-shattering footage from Syria and Yemen, I witness the mounting paranoia around the influx of migrants in Europe, I hear racist, misogynist, and homophobic discourse legitimated on mainstream media (‘let him work and judge him by his policies’). Yet, I go on working, teaching, and writing. And research sometimes helps. Political theatre always believes that oppression is not inevitable and that we can inhabit this planet without slaughtering one another. It often offers fleeting glimmers of hope.

In the past couple of days, I have been going through my material on the occupation of Teatro Valle. The occupation ended in 2014 but it can still teach us a thing or two. The occupied Valle was living proof that in dark times only a leap of faith can save us, that debate is productive, that the encounter of living, breathing, thinking bodies cannot be substituted with any surrogate, that live performance still matters. But the thing I found most striking this week is the way the occupiers articulated their protest as a labour of love. Throughout their writings, the Valle activists incorporated love, care, and desire into their political discourse.  Occupying a historic venue meant looking after it (occupare, occuparsi). Sharing practice and learning a craft was the equivalent of a sentimental education. Opening the venue meant creating the conditions for the encounter of individuals and communities. An encounter moved by desire even when rife with conflicts and contradictions. An encounter that exposed vulnerabilities and passions. A politics of affect, if you like to borrow Brian Massumi’s definition. In the writings and practice of the occupied Valle, love is a radical political concept. A ray of light in dark times.

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I, Daniel Blake

End of the movie, the credits begin to roll. Most audience members are visibly shaken. Some are crying. Others are pretending they are capable of keeping their cool. We look at each other, doubtful and bewildered. No one speaks. Then the silence is broken. From one of the back rows of Cinema 1 at the Watershed in Bristol, a loud cry rises: “Fuck the Tories!” Some applauded and cheered. Others, like me, were taken aback. Was this the reaction Loach was expecting?

I, Daniel Blake is an important film. A welcome counter-narrative to a class bias that has become endemic and often turns into open hostility. In a cultural context in which the poor – British or migrant – is regularly demonized, scorned, belittled or, in the best case scenario, ignored, this story is necessary. And yet, at the end of the film I felt manipulated. Rather than letting the story speak for itself, the movie purposefully crammed a series of emotionally strong episodes without giving them the necessary weight. The result often verged on the melodramatic. Luckily for Loach, the movie is saved by the acting: Dave Johns and Hayley Squires are terrific.

Fuck the Tories. Yes, of course. I get it. And I kind of agree. Loach offered a necessary counter-narrative, and this is already a politically significant statement. The audience at the Watershed might be composed of Guardian-reading, avocado-eating hipsters who already agree with Loach (I am guilty), yet, we need to hear this story in all its rawness. Anything capable of bursting the cosy middle-class bubble we live in must be good. I, Daniel Blake is a punch in the stomach, but poor storytelling defuses the movie’s explosive material. Had Loach allowed its audience to go beyond outrage, beyond rage, his statement would have been much more powerful.

Post-factual Politics

With his usual clarity, John Foot reminds us that what we are witnessing right now in the US election campaign had happened before. Twenty-two years ago, to be exact.

Undoubtedly, there are uncanny similarities between Trump and Berlusconi. During the Nineties, Berlusconi allied himself with the Italian neofascist Right and with a populist and openly racist party. In 1994 he promised the world and harvested the votes of those tired of politics-as-usual. He monopolized the political debate and imposed his personal priorities to the entire country. Beyond the misogyny, homophobia, racism, arrogance, questionable business practices, there are other, more worrying aspects. Berlusconi represented the rise of a populist approach to politics that still inhabits political discourse and that has now become endemic in Europe and in the US.

For two decades the Italian political debate revolved around one man. Berlusconi shaped politics to his own image: the self-made man, the outsider, the successful businessman who speaks his mind. His persona dominated the political arena; parliamentary politics was hijacked for private interests. Not unlike Trump, Berlusconi was not only a political figure, he was the representative and the promoter of a culture that gradually took over the country. Berlusconism – with his undermining of the judiciary, his manipulation of mainstream media, and its dismissal of historical facts and scientific knowledge – was an early example of the post-factual politics triumphing now in Europe and in the US.

However, what worries me the most when I look at the US presidential campaign is the flattening of political debate to Trump and to his persona. Mainstream media has stopped discussing policies: the attention is always on the latest controversy, on the most recent absurdity, on the the daily misogynistic or racist remark. If the Italian experience is anything to go by, we should worry. Not only the Italian Left had been unable to fight on Berlusconi’s terrain (i.e. communication) but it systematically failed to put forward its own agenda. The party in power was shaped to the leader’s persona to such an extent that the opposition shaped itself against B. and against what B. stand for. Political discourse shrunk to two binary positions: support or opposition to one man.  Our vote during the 1990s and the 2000s was moved only by the urgency of electing ‘anyone but him’. All we had during the Berlusconi era was reactive, defensive politics. Thankfully, the impact of Italian politics upon the larger geopolitical and economic equilibrium was minimal. If the same had to happen in the US, the implications would be felt far beyond the US borders.

 

 

 

 

Change of season

change-of-season

In Sardinia, autumn is the season of new beginnings. After the harvest, it’s time to plan the year ahead. During the summer months we revel the warm evenings; we endure long idle afternoon hours sheltering from a merciless sun; we long for the sea. We secretly await September to bring some respite from the heat. Then Cabidanni arrives. Cabidanni is the Sardinian for September. Caput anni: the beginning of the year. Anything of importance is always deferred to cabidanni: house maintenance, weddings, studies, diets. September is the real start of the year; a new start without the pomp, the expectations, and the inevitable anticlimax of New Year’s Day.

I submitted my thesis a year ago and I was awarded my PhD this spring. I enjoyed a glorious Bristolian summer. The most extraordinary feature was the amount of time suddenly at my disposal. Beyond my nine-to-five job, I felt I had all the time in the world: guilt-free weekends, reading fiction, long chats with friends, and some long-overdue family time.

September, time of new beginnings, is the time to get back into teaching and research. The break from academia was beneficial in many ways. Finding an academic routine healthier than the one I experienced during the PhD and, crucially, more productive and efficient is not an easy task. There are exciting projects in the pipeline.

As I start my new career, one of my theatrical heroes passed away. I’ve never been able to comment on the news of the day, but Dario Fo’s passing is one of those events that marks the end of a cultural era. The world celebrates him, and rightly so. There isn’t much I can add here. Yet, if I have to single out someone, Dario Fo and Franca Rame are, without a doubt, the practitioners that made me fall in love with the theatre. In the darkest moments of my doctorate, their work reminded me why live performance matters. Their practice informed my understanding of the relationship between art and politics; their plays shaped me as a researcher and as a practitioner. Once again, I have to go back to their work. If you haven’t seen Mistero Buffo, here it is.

Notes on Idiot-Syncrasy

Procurad’e moderare is one of the most popular Sardinian protest songs. It was written during the anti-feudal uprisings of 1794 and it has become one of the most-loved songs in Sardinian language. It starts with a threat to the land owners (barones): if they don’t change their ways the people will soon revolt. But the land owners are soon put on one side, and the focus shifts on su populu, the people. An impoverished and exploited people who has suffered non only the landowners’ greed but also its own ‘ancient indolence’ (indolenzia antiga). A people that finally wakes up (finalmente despertadu) and acknowledges it is in chains (s’abbizzat ch’est in cadenas). Call me an old leftie, but it gets me every time. And I wasn’t expecting to hear it here in Bristol, at the Arnolfini during Mayfest, of all places. And yet, this is how Idiot-Syncrasy begins. Igor and Moreno step on stage, they stand still  and observe the audience for what seemed a long time. It’s a moment of playful scrutiny, cheeky smiles and complicit gazes go back and forth between the stage and the auditorium. It’s a silence we are not used to, a stillness we find difficult to endure in a world where we desperately cling to our smartphones at the slightest inkling of boredom. No, let’s stop for a moment, let’s look at each other and enjoy the silence. First come the silence, the stillness, the gaze, the discovery of each other, perfect strangers sharing the same room for the next sixty minutes. We might as well spare a few moments to see what we look like.

Then the protest song fills the room. Igor and Moreno sing beautifully and they linger on the song in the same way they stretched the exchange with the audience at the opening of the piece. Verses are repeated several times. They savour the words. We rejoice in their voices. I might be wrong but I have the feeling that the protest song was lost on the British audience. No matter. From the protest song comes the jumping. A quiet and subtle bouncing at first which grows and develops throughout the piece. The choreography is stripped bare. The jumping is explored from every angle. Igor and Moreno are technically skilled dancers, but they do not indulge in their own virtuosity. They are after the essential. They wear everyday clothes, no make up, a white vinyl floor covers the stage, white backdrop and three white wings add dynamicity to the space. Warm white lights, no music, just white noise. The jumping is interrupted only towards the end when singing comes back. This time the performers sing to each other, they hug, they hold one another as the light dims. It’s an intimate and moving moment. In dark times, stop and think about what you actually need. Look after what you hold dear. Look at the world around you. A protest song will bring us together to fight injustice, but looking at each other, holding each other, that’s what will keep us afloat.

Occupied Odéon

After similar occupations in Montpellier, Toulouse, Caen, and Bordeaux, workers in the entertainment industry have occupied the Odéon in Paris. Here is their statement.

Après les occupation de théâtres hTh – CDN de Montpellier, TnBA – CDN de Bordeaux, Comédie de Caen – CDN, et du TNT – CDN de Toulouse, c’est au tour du théâtre de l’Odéon – Théâtre de l’Europe à Paris d’être occupé depuis 18h30 ce dimanche.
Deux banderoles ont été déployées sur la façade : “De l’argent il y en a, construisons de nouveaux droits” ; ” Pas de droit du travail sans droit au chômage”.
Nous, chômeurs, étudiant.e.s, précaires, salariés en poste ou en formation et intermittent.e.s de la culture et d’ailleurs, avec ou sans papiers, occupons ce lieu public pour signifier notre complet désaccord avec les “négociations” en cours de l’assurance chômage comme avec le projet de loi travail.
Comme bien d’autres, les salariés du théâtre de l’Odéon ont fait grève contre le projet de loi travail les 9 mars et 9 avril dernier.
Ce 28 avril de nombreux salariés seront à nouveau en grève contre la loi travail dans tout le pays.
D’ici là, partout, des actions vont avoir lieu. Vu l’obstination de ce gouvernement, la mobilisation va se poursuivre et s’approfondir.
Les négociations de l’Unedic prévoient de priver les chômeurs, précaires et intermittents de 800 millions d’euros, alors même que la majorité d’entre eux ne sont pas indemnisés.
Ces coupes budgétaires brutales sont préconisées par le gouvernement. Et la plupart des partenaires “sociaux”, Medef en tête, avalisent déjà cette orientation catastrophique.
La CFDT et le MEDEF ont prévu de réaliser proportionnellement davantage d’économies à l’encontre des intermittents que des autres chômeurs (cf. lettre de cadrage du Medef). L’État serait prêt à verser au pot plusieurs dizaines de millions pour compenser en partie les économies faites sur les annexes 8 et 10. Ces rustines, ne règlent rien. Un tel financement “réservé” ne serait rien d’autre qu’une manoeuvre de division destinée à prévenir la mobilisation de l’ensemble des concernés.
La mobilisation en cours contre la loi travail a commencé à faire savoir que le droit du travail resterait attaqué en permanence tant qu’un droit au chômage ne serait pas instauré. Voilà pourquoi, l’État doit abonder pour tous les caisses de l’assurance chômage et leur trouver de nouveaux modes de financement.
Poursuivons la mobilisation !
Chômeuses, étudiant.e.s, précaires, salariés en poste ou en formation et intermittent.e.s de la culture et d’ailleurs, avec ou sans papiers, occupant le théâtre de l’Odéon – Théâtre de l’Europe.

After the thesis: out of the writer’s den

Writing a PhD thesis can often be a lonely process. Long days spent in solitude staring at a computer screen and trying to make sense of reading material, theory, case studies, and ultimately your own writing (that what-on-hearth-was-I-thinking feeling!). Through the process you soon realise that beyond being utterly exhausting and unnerving, many lonely weeks of scratching your head and chewing your pen can also be depleting.

I submitted my thesis in September and I passed my viva in December. The first few months after submission have been dedicated, for the most part, to tide over my finances. This new semblance of relative financial security made me realise to what extent researching on the breadline could affect not only your thinking, your productivity on an academic level, but also your sense of self, your sense of worth. I did not dare aiming higher because I was so afraid of what was going to come next. Insecurity was like a constant drop of water, hardly perceptible at first but extraordinarily powerful in the long term. Insecurity also meant that I always rolled up my sleeves and prevented myself from complaining. You need a certain degree of confidence to tell your employer that your working conditions are not good enough.

The break from academic writing was needed, and not only because I desperately needed to pay off a credit card debt. It was needed because the the PhD depleted my intellectual energies. I submitted not because I thought it was ready but because I had run out of steam. During the summer I realised that I had given it everything I had, there was nothing left, it was time to let it go.

The post submission break was productive in other ways. I reconnected with friends and family. And with my husband (not enough is said on the strain research puts on relationships, many friends in long term relationships have experienced a similar situation. As postgrads we were utterly unprepared to face this aspect of our work.

It is now time to start writing again, starting, funnily enough, from the thesis. After many years of extenuating work, I need to come to terms with a work that is far from perfect but that paved the way to some kind of intellectual maturity. A work I hope might be of interest to others, a work that might be even helpful.

It is now time to go back to writing with joy; to go  back to writing for myself, to go back to practicing being a better writer. Remembering that writers must get out of their den from time to time, they must nourish their craft interaction, emotion, connections, experiences.

 

Primo Levi’s voice

I had no idea this interview existed. Primo Levi speaks to Sue MacGregor on The Woman’s Hour in 1986

http://www.bbc.co.uk/archive/holocaust/5110.shtml

Levi is one of my favourite writers by far. Beyond his invaluable insight into one of the most shocking crimes of the Twentieth Century, his prose, elegant, precise, measured, evocative should be a model for any writer.

Thank you, BBC!

15 days into 2015

Grim start of the year. Ignoring the elephant in the room would be pointless.
There is something about the Paris shootings that shook us to the core. Is it because the ‘clash of civilizations’ hit our doorstep, a place culturally so close that we can almost hear the gunshots? The more I think about the Paris events and the debate that followed, the more confused I am. Unanswered questions pile up. Immediately afterwards all you could hear was the loud cries of those mourning the decline of the West, unaware (or maybe not) that they were endorsing islamophobic, racist, even colonialist agendas. It seemed like we could not mourn the dead without exhuming the good old ‘clash of civilization’ narrative – a great classic, we are never tired of it. In this fashion, what would normally be called ‘shooting’, became a ‘terrorist attack’ and a satirical magazine was glorified to champion of free speech. The immediate gut-responses have been disappointing at best, crass, boorish and borderline fascist in the worst case scenario. So far, I’ve found only two truly compassionate, insightful, and thought-provoking interventions, here and here. But then again, these are not ordinary minds.

Mainstream media and social media jumped on the bandwagon, felt compelled to defend freedom of expression via hashtags. Changing our facebook profile picture for the occasion makes us feel ever so democratic. A week later we finally started discussing what is it that we actually mean by ‘freedom of expression’, where does it turn into bullying and hate speech, and where do you draw the line. Journal irresponsable, admits Cherlie Hebdo’s subheading. Responsibility, cumbersome word. Should satire be responsible? To whom, of what?

Many complex issues interweave in the current discussions, terrorism, religious fanaticism, communication, free speech, responsibility. The debate that is likely to develop in the next few months should attempt to separate them.

I have no authority whatsoever to talk about crime, terrorism. I would rather leave any comment on the matter to those who have a better understanding.

I am a theatre expert, though. And a political theatre specialist. Representation and politics are my bread and butter. From this corner of academic expertise (limited as it is) something very interesting is happening. For the first time in decades we have started a broad, popular debate on free speech, often only by misquoting Voltaire, but there we go, it’s a start. The Paris events are challenging European values, uncovering the ambiguity of the narratives we live by. Questioning values we take for granted, reminding ourselves why they matter (or not) is usually painful but ultimately healthy.

As Michela Murgia argued, there is something disconcerting, and even ironic in the fact that the target of Islamic fanatics was a satirical magazine. Iconoclast religions – Islam is not the only one – are ill at ease with the West’s obsession with representation. The divine is unknowable and representing it in human form is a blasphemous attempt to invert the factors of creation – the creature substitutes herself to her creator. Good satire reminds us that our worshiping and trading of images, our dependance on images is ludicrous and that the the symbols we live by are often questionable. The tragic irony of this nasty story is that politics and media have now charged Charlie Hebdo with a set of symbolic meanings they perhaps never intended to carry (Western values, free speech, non-confessional democracy, etc. ). Those who dedicated their professional lives to ridicule symbols, have been transformed into symbols themselves.

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Few years ago Daniele Luttazzi reminded us that satire is essentially about four things: politics, sex, religion and death. True. And it is by definition grotesque, excessive, and, yes, iconoclast. Yet, defending satire for satire’s sake will not take us anywhere. I don’t buy the argument ‘you-either-support-free-speech-or-you-don’t’.  I wish it was that simple. Sadly, power relationships are always a lot messier. When it comes to communication, context is fundamental. The decoding of an image, any image, does not happen in a vacuum; it is embedded in and shaped by complex networks of images, narratives, social and cultural practices. It is precisely the relationship between the image and its context which makes it subversive or conservative, sagacious or puerile, irreverent or racist. It’s not only a matter of what we are representing, but of who is speaking, from where, from what cultural, economic and social background the image is stemming from. We should remember it next time we defend satire sight unseen.

Anyway. In far less important PhD news, I can finally see the end of the extraordinary adventure that has been chapter four. The section on Compagnia della Fortezza has shaken few assumptions about theatre in prison and confirmed the political relevance of their work. For more details, I’m afraid you’ll have to wait.