Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Our Memory Is a Never-Grey Wall

La nostra memoria è un muro mai grigio, our memory is a never-grey wall. And underneath, Corsari Milano, although it’s not a signature: the two graffiti were left on different dates, likely by different hands. However to this group, linked to the ‘Milan Autonomous Zone’ and to the movement of the social centres, belong other admonishments not to forget the past that I have had the opportunity to record during my last few visits home.

Carlo e Alexis vivi e ribelli, ‘Carlo and Alexis are still rebels, still alive’, a reference to the police murders of Carlo Giuliani in Genoa in 2001 and Alexis Grigoropoulos in Athens in 2008.

La Diaz non la scordiamo né la assolviamo, ‘We neither forgive nor forget the Diaz’, a reference to the abduction and torture by the police of tens of Left Wing activists and journalists at the Diaz school in Genoa during the G8 protests of 2001. And many others, of similar tenor, alongside the messages more directly linked to present struggles to reclaim public school and universities, fight neofascism and racism, protect social centres and shared spaces.

Milano vuole spazi sociali – Milan demands social spaces.

The repertoire includes indictments of the socio-economic order and its enforcers

linking through language to a paneuropean movement of radical resistance, or explicitly exhorting to join struggles that take place elsewhere, such as the escalating protests in Val di Susa, near the French border, against the devastation caused by the Turin-Lyon high-speed train project.

I have not been able to establish if the phrase that I have chosen as the title for this post was left by a member of the Corsari group, but it is consonant with one of the broader movement’s slogans, as evidenced for instance in this recent communiqué, that senza memoria non c’è futuro, ‘there can be no future without memory’, immediately followed by le strade sono nostre, ‘the streets are ours’. Together, the two lines make memory and direct political action dependent on each other. But it doesn’t take that many words to express this concept. As few as three will do.

Milano non dimentica, ‘Milan doesn’t forget’, but I expect that you will find variations on this slogan in all of our major cities. This, in a country whose republican history is founded on amnesties and amnesia, on erasing the memory of the Fascism that preceded it and failing to hold its own mass murderers to account, is one of the most defiant statements that can be made: we do not forget.

Di stato si muore, ‘Of State you can die’

There is a quietly powerful moment at the beginning of Paolo Sorrentino’s Il Divo in which Giulio Andreotti pauses during one of his ritual early morning walks in Via del Corso, Rome, in front of an accusation in block letters to himself and to his principal ally, Socialist Party secretary Bettino Craxi.

Stragi e complotti portano la firma di Craxi e Andreotti – Massacres and conspiracies bear the signatures of Craxi and Andreotti

I could not confirm whether the phrase was in fact ever written on that particular wall, nor if it is wholly apocryphal – it seems that it may have appeared in the early Nineties on a different street. Sorrentino’s speculative placement is intriguing because it creates a direct line between the writer and the politician, allowing the nameless accuser to speak truth directly to power, knowing that power would walk that very street the next morning before sunrise. But such limit cases aside, it is far too narrow to think of graffiti solely on the basis of their propositional content, of what they purport to say – to the extent that they even speak through language.

Our memory is a never-grey wall. And across the road, where Via Fioravanti turns into Via Bramante, is a large building with its windows bricked up and densely storied surfaces such as the one above (you can explore the whole building on Google Street View here). And that, too, is memory, that too a corner of the city that does not forget, not least because nobody bothers to enforce the laws concerning the indiscriminate removal of graffiti, from tags to political slogans to street art – the building, after all, is condemned, it has no aesthetic integrity to preserve, however drab. And so that’s where you will find the least-grey walls: outside of old factories, depots and warehouses, the empty shells of our industrial past; or outside of the social centres themselves.

The Centro Sociale Cantiere, not far from the house in which I grew up and in which my mother still lives, in 2009.

Casa occupata at the dockyard, 2007. (Photo from Wikipedia)

We must not insist to find memory and politics only where there is coherent sense: these walls articulate their own resistance – including a fundamental resistance to erasure, that is to say forgetting – and map their own social and property relations according to ideas of utility and fitness to purpose that are antithetical to those of the order without. In the case of the social centres, which live under the implicit and often explicit threat of sudden and forceful eviction, they operate most obviously as a signifier of difference and belonging, but also as a shield that is both literal and figurative – much like those wonderful book covers from last year’s demonstrations.

If there is a future, an idea of progress in any of this, it lies precisely in the alternative use of our built structures: not just to signify but also to capture whole sets of distorted, spectral images of the city. Ghosts, if I may be so fashionable – ghosts that haunt us in that way that the past has, as half a world away it haunts the city of Foxton, whose not-grey walls are also walls of memory.

We ought to think about this, at a time when seemingly every council, no matter how cash-strapped, has its graffiti removal taskforce, and they all operate with a zeal that is incommensurate to the actual problem of honest to goodness vandalism, of the taggers who do nothing except say ‘this is mine’ or ‘I was here’ (but the wall is still grey, only now it’s also scribbled upon). That there is so much consensus to be gained by pledging to clean our cities in such a narrowly cosmetic sense speaks to deeper anxieties, graver concerns about a material and economic rather than social decline, to which we cannot seem to respond except by literally sprucing up the façade every time a new crack appears. Coat upon coat of grey paint – although it is much kinder to call it off-white – and to hell with how by now it’s no longer even a metaphor.

In the end, it may be that there are just two kinds of walls: the walls that we look at and the walls that look at us; and that thinking of the former as alternative to the latter is the radical act, the departure from the script.

The walls that look at us record everything but remember nothing. Theirs isn’t a history of the city, it’s the city viewed as a perpetual crime scene.

The walls that we look at are the ones on which we write who we are, and that write us. They are the walls on which our past resurfaces, sometimes unwanted, sometimes unsightly, sometimes gloriously defiant. But never, ever grey.

Apropos of nothing except my desire to tell you, I must report that the wonderful Megan has had three poems accepted for publication that she originally posted on this here blog. Huzzah!