On November 14, while Silvio Berlusconi was heading to the Quirinale to resign amidst a crowd chanting “buffoon, thief”, a thousand people were quietly sitting in a former cinema listening to a public reading of David Foster Wallace’s last book. When the news of the resignation came out, somebody jumped on the stage and started to play the piano, while the crowd erupted in a chorus chanting “Bella ciao”, a partisan song from Italy’s resistance against Mussolini. After the one song, they all went back to the reading. The crowd – made up of publishers, actors, artists, book lovers – stayed up all night long reading David Foster Wallace in a technically illegal place.
The old Cinema Palazzo is an occupied building in the San Lorenzo area of Rome that has been renamed “Sala Vittorio Arrigoni” after the Italian activist who was killed in Gaza last April. Months ago, activists took over the historical theatre, which was about to be converted into casino with slot machines. Since then, backed by famous artists and actors like Sabina Guzzanti– an Italian satirist who has always criticised Berlusconi – the Sala Vittorio Arrigoni has held cultural activities – from plays to concerts – relying entirely on people’s donations.
From Palazzo to Valle
Over the past few months, re-appropriation of goods that once have been public or devoted to culture and education has been a growing trend in Italy. This was a reaction not only to Berlusconi, but to the culture he has generated over decades of commercial television and which has been renamed Berlusconismo. Occupations of movie houses and libraries – to reclaim cultural venues as public goods – have been flourishing in small villages and big cities alike. The most significant started June 14 at Teatro Valle, an 18th century theatre at the heart of Rome, where Sarah Bernhardt’s company used to perform.
The day after the 2011 nationwide referendum, which successfully marked the return to daily campaigning against corruption and privatisation of public goods, a group of artists christened Teatro Valle Occupato. The activists settled there and called immediately for a press conference at which they explained the reasons behind the occupation.
“The theatre has been a target of one of these ‘usual’ corruption stories that we unfortunately hear so much about in Italy,” says Mauro, who has worked on the technical staff of the theatre for 20 years.
“Once the property of public body ETI, which was shut down for not being financially productive, Teatro Valle risked being sold to private companies to become a restaurant. And, as theatre employees, we were re-assigned to a different public institution. People who have been working for years on the lighting of the theatre, for example, had to become doormen at the ministry of culture in order not to lose their jobs.”
“The trade unions would tell you, ‘Take it, at least you will have a salary’,” adds Hussein, an Iranian-Italian who is part of the group that planned the occupation of Teatro Valle.
“But they never consider the social cost of moving from a job that you are skilled for to a completely new environment. This way you also destroy the cultural know-how of a profession. By strictly applying the ‘re-assign’ mentality of HR departments, you kill the historical heritage of a place, of a city.”
“We don’t want to hear the ‘this is the only solution’ answer. There are other solutions, but we have to sit all together and think about it,” he adds.
The occupants of Teatro Valle have been thinking about alternatives. After six months of holding free, donations-based plays, movies, poetry readings, concerts and workshops, they are now trying to build a new formula for a cultural foundation that gives the place back to the public.
“The main point is that this theatre is a monument. It should be given back to the citizens and administrated as a public good,” says Fulvio, an editor and TV director who has been in the occupation group from the very beginning.
“We are looking into a ‘third way’ of financing culture. Not private, not entirely public, meaning that it doesn’t have to rely entirely on public institutions’ money. This could imply corruption and go against the quality of cultural offers. We would rather have the citizens micro-financing the activities of theatre, at least for a part.
“We want to have shareholders that love the theatre but have a pro-active relation with it, too. It’s not a matter of paying an entrance free and watching a show anymore. We would rather address to a pro-active audience, who contributes financially but also artistically, by suggesting things to do, people to contact.”
“We are also elaborating a different concept of art direction,” says Simona, a theatre actress who is now leading Teatro Valle’s communication efforts.
“Instead of having one person who keeps the power for a whole mandate and decides everything, we are considering having three people, coming from different disciplines who discuss before taking shared decisions. In a way, that is what has already been going on here for months: each week we have somebody who takes the art direction of the theatre.
“We would always ask this ‘temporary art director’ not to bring only his/her play or songs, but to give back to the community by doing a daily training to share knowledge and skills with everybody. We would ask to develop not only an artistic concept, but also a new political philosophy throughout the week.”
“What we are experimenting here is a new approach to politics,” adds Fulvio. “An idea of peer-producing culture, economy, law. Something which goes beyond the idea of just delegating others to take care of these fundamental sectors.”
So far, the Teatro Valle Occupato experiment has been doing great. Each day, there is a line of people waiting for the evening show. In the morning, training sessions animate the beautiful 18th century stage, which is kept tidy by the occupants. Young people have also started to join the occupation, originally composed mostly of people in their 30s and 40s.
Martina, 25, came from Tuscany and joined the occupation in September. She was fascinated by the experience. “We do stuff here, we see culture on the move,” she says while live-tweeting.
Berlusconi is gone, but the occupiers are already thinking ahead. Their next move will be a popular petition to cancelthe financial privileges and political immunity of members of parliament.
Donatella Della Ratta is a PhD fellow at University of Copenhagen focusing her research on the Syrian TV industry.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent Al Jazeera’s editorial policy