The Agency of an Activist Archive. The Primo Moroni Archive
Independent Scholar, Berlin, Germany
Intervento al convegno:
Activism, and Technologies
13th Prato CIRN Conference
November 2 - 4, 2016 - Monash Centre, Prato Italy
Abstract: The Primo Moroni Archive is an activist archive that attempts to embody the values its documents bring to the fore. Founded in 2002, the archive owns one of the largest collections of documents concerning the Italian political struggles of the 1960s and 1970s, along with materials about the political movements that have emerged since the 1980s. The institution is self-managed, self-sufficient and views the pursuance of a dialogue with current leftist struggles and debates as integral to its mission. Its location - a Milanese "centro sociale" - is key to this endeavour, but it exposes the archive to the risk of eviction. In 2009 the squatters were evicted, but the existence of this major archive provided the basis of one of the arguments that pressured the authorities into letting the squatters and the documents back into the premises, which happened shortly after the expulsion. This strategic use of memory and "culture" represents a way in which an activist archive can act as a political weapon. An alternative but compatible strategy informed the exhibit of Australian artist Marco Fusinato, From the Horde to the Bees, at the 2015 Venice Biennale. Fusinato transformed the holdings of the Primo Moroni archive into a work of art, while turning the resulting exhibit into a source of funding for the archive. I will trace the history of the Primo Moroni Archive, focusing in particular on the agency of this archive and its role as a tool to protect an occupied place and introduce a subversive ethos into mainstream culture.
I am going to talk about the Primo Moroni Archive, which owns one of the largest collections of documents concerning the Italian political struggles of the 1960s and 1970s, along with materials about the movements that have emerged since the 1980s. Its creation and ongoing activity are the result of the joint effort of several people, particularly the activists of Cox 18, a Milanese "centro sociale". I will first summarise the history of Cox 18, of the Libreria Calusca, as well as the mission of the Primo Moroni archive. Then I will focus on what can be called the "agency" of this archive. Finally, I will try to develop a broader reflection about activist archives.
Fig 1: Cox 18 today (wall painting by Blu)
Cox 18 is a centro sociale in Milan. It is located in an area that is now one of the hot spots of Milanese nightlife, the "Navigli", a word that describes a system of navigable canals of which only a very small section remains intact today. However, traces of the area's working-class and underclass history can be found everywhere. Clues are, for instance, the sacred images that line the streets, and the omnipresence of the case di ringhiera, the series of flats aligned alongside a shared balcony. Cox 18 boasts a long history, and its origins can be traced to 1976, when two dilapidated buildings in via Conchetta 18 and via Torricelli 19 were occupied. In the 1970s the Navigli were still "red" and proletarian. Several political groups and magazines had their headquarters there. Extensive gentrification only began in earnest in the 1980s. In compliance with a law that facilitated the state purchase of run-down buildings, the city council of Milan imposed upon the owners of the buildings the responsibility for the refurbishment of the real estate. Unable to meet the costs, the owners preferred selling the properties to the city council, which therefore also inherited their occupants. While committed to making the buildings inhabitable, the city council never delivered on its promises, and the building in via Conchetta, the Cox 18, remained occupied until the late 1980s. At the same time an abandoned factory nearby was also squatted. The activists associated with these three spaces ranged from the members of political committees to proletarian workers, grassroots unionists and students experimenting with communitarian life. A specificity of the activists in via Conchetta was their libertarian impulses, which were at odds with the largely Leninist-minded political leanings of Milanese social centres. This contributed to the generation of a productive dialogue with the punk movement that was part and parcel of the activities and concerts that began to take place in via Conchetta in the mid-1980s. In 1989, the building was forcibly evicted by the police, but after long negotiations with the city council it was agreed that the three dilapidated storeys were be torn down and the ground floor given back to the occupiers. Yet, after several months the works came to a standstill, as the money the council had allocated for them had run out. The former occupiers were exasperated and again took control of the building. After a long conflict with the police and a subsequent eviction, they managed to reoccupy the premises. This happened in 1989, for the next twenty years the police did not show up again.
The Calusca Bookshop was probably the most important Milanese activist bookshops in the 1970s and early 1980s. Its founder, Primo Moroni, was a self-thought leftist who had worked as a waiter, private investigator and semi-professional dancer before embarking on the adventure of Calusca, which began in late 1971. The Calusca was moved to different locations, but it always remained in the same area of Milan, between the San Lorenzo Church and the Navigli. Moroni grew up in this area in the post-War years, when the Navigli were Milan's harbour. He was fascinated with the unique social and cultural melting pot of this part of the city, where burglars, prostitutes, forgers, poor workers and artisans deeply influenced by socialism lived together. Sergio Bologna has defined this environment as generating "a unique proletarian culture which defended its prerogatives and recognised the practices of illegality and expropriation".
Until 1979 the Calusca bookshop had at least three aims:
1) to be an independent meeting place for leftists. Moroni was sympathetic with anti-authoritarians and libertarians. However, his bookshop professed no political allegiance. In the seventies readers could find literally everything written by "the movement", from the handouts of the Red Brigades to the fanzine of the post-situationists. This neutral space proved pivotal for a far-leftist camp which was as large as it was contentious;
2) to be a meeting point for teachers who engaged with alternative pedagogies and wanted to share their experience and teaching materials;
3) and to be an active partner in numerous editorial projects and a key outlet for independent publishers. A/Traverso was largely made possible by the fact that Moroni purchased hundreds of copies, partly covering the production costs. Moroni was also a locus for the collection of written material that would be sent to political prisoners. Through Moroni, the magazine Primo Maggio sold 500 copies of some of its issues to inmates.
In 1979, the series of trials against autonomia wreaked havoc in the Milanese far-left. Moroni was among the most committed against the repression and summary arrests. However, the defeat of the movement also had economic repercussion on the bookshop. With a significant amount of its readers in jail, exile or underground, the Calusca was seemingly losing its raison d'étre. Nonetheless, Moroni understood the novelty of punk culture, which emerged around the late 1970s but gained momentum in the 1980s. In 1984-1985 he assigned a space within the bookshop to punks, so that they could produce and distribute their brochures. In hindsight, it is apparent that the Calusca provided an element of continuity between the political movements of the 1970s and the generation of activists that emerged in the 1980s. In 1986, the bookshop closed, but Moroni began putting together an anthology of texts that would become one of the most famous books about the history of the Italian far left in the 1960s and1970s. The volume is entitled the "Golden horde" ("L'orda d'oro") and has been translated into German and French. Moroni died in 1998 aged 62.
Between 1991 and 1992 the Cox 18 undertook construction works to host the Calusca Bookshop. The bookshop has no street entrance. In order to gain access to it, you need to enter the Cox 18. This is probably not accidental, and suggests the interdependence of the two places. In 1995 the newly built second floor was designed to house the Primo Moroni Archive, which can be accessed via a staircase located in the Calusca Bookshop.
Fig 2: The Primo Moroni Archive, the books (image by Tommaso)
Fig 3: The Primo Moroni Archive, the magazines and brochures (image by Tommaso)
The large collection of magazines, fanzines and brochures of the 1970's Italian left is one of the main elements of the archive's holdings. These items are not only inherently fragile, but they were also often seized during the wave of arrests that began in 1979. This makes the archive an invaluable source of first-hand information about the movement's heterogeneous material and visual culture. The Primo Moroni Archive is self-managed, self-sufficient and staffed by activists. As a result, the opening hours are officially limited to one day a week. In reality, the staff will organise longer opening times for patrons with which they are familiar. For someone used to institutional archives, this might initially appear arbitrary and slightly annoying. However, this is not the spirit of the archive. What might be lost in terms of the total number of items perused is gained in insight. Some of the activists working there, especially Roberto, are among the most knowledgeable, if self-effacing, experts in the history of the Italian left. What is more, the location of the archive - an activist bookshop located in a centro sociale - creates a unique environment where past and present struggles cohabit. The Calusca is filled with new books, DVDs, brochures and posters. On the way to the archive, it is not uncommon to be invited to one of the numerous events and meetings taking place at Cox 18.
I want to set the Primo Moroni Archive against what, earlier this year, Sven Spieker defined as a "slow archive". A "slow archive" is a "practice" that supersedes more traditional archiving methods. Whereas these tend to focus on storage and an "allegiance to the traces of the past", a slow archive "exposes itself to the present". This might describe the mission of the Primo Moroni Archive. However, Spieker posits the anachronism of what he terms the "analogue archive", which is defined in his text by "its emphasis on provenance, context, original order, and regulated process". Instead, the slow archive is "digital" and
"not grounded in any specific location or site [...]. In the archive-as-environment, information is no longer consigned; it 'flows' [...]. That's why in global information management, data flows a priori trump permanent storage in the archive".
While I agree with the importance of digitalising items (which is something the Primo Moroni has always committed to doing), Spieker's heuristic category fails to account for the work of many activist archives. Activist archives are often "grounded in a specific location" with which they share histories and vicissitudes. This is not to foster the reactionary idea of belonging to a place - a mantra of identitarian rhetoric - or to deny the vertiginous interconnections of today's world. A critical, anti-identitarian understanding of "rootedness" is a necessary precondition for the implementation of projects and the continued pursuance of political struggles. Since the evictions of the first Diggers in the seventeenth century, which was partly determined by their strained relations with locals, the history of squatting has constantly shown the importance of dialogue and collaboration with neighbours. This is one of the core missions of social centres in general and the Cox 18 in particular, and the Primo Moroni Archive mirrors this impulse.
Spieker tends to think of archives as more or less physical places that contain data. Yet, unlike the "digital archive", the "paper archive" does not only contain information, but also items that are artefacts with a specific history, value and agency. This has several repercussions. For example, an activist paper archive can sabotage the fetishism of collectors and the market value of rare items, putting these aspects to political use. I will to provide two examples of what I call "the agency of an archive".
In January 2009 the Milan city council was ruled by a right-wing administration comprising mostly members of Berlusconi's party. On the 22nd of January the council sent police units to "clear out" the activists of Cox 18. The policed entered the building and began destroying the facilities, but the presence of a large and precious archive raised problems. The archive represented both a physical impediment to the rapid eviction and a symbolic weapon to discredit the enemy. The existence of the Primo Moroni Archive and the Calusca bookshop were key arguments in the debate concerning the legitimacy of the occupation and the denouncing of the Mayor's myopic approach to Milan's heritage. The cultural credentials of the Archive demystified the clichéd view of centri sociali that was embraced by the city council's propaganda. The Mayor, Letizia Moratti, was taken aback by the support the occupiers received in the aftermath of the eviction. She suddenly pretended to have a keen interest in the preservation of the Archive, even committing to find an "appropriate location" for it. However, Moroni's heirs rejected any compromise with Moratti. The police's intervention turned out to be largely a bluff. Three weeks later the occupiers broke the seals and retook control of the building without encountering any resistance. Since then, the council seems to have de facto accepted the occupation.
Artists, museums and art historians are becoming increasingly interested in the work of grassroots activists and far-left struggles. Yet, the political creativity and intellectual sophistication of Italian social centres is still largely a taboo in mainstream institutional discourses. It is therefore not surprising that many acknowledgements come from abroad. For example, the Moroni Archive loaned several magazines to the most important contemporary museum of Madrid, which organised an exhibition devoted to the reinvention of documentary as a genre. The same could be said for another Milanese centro sociale, Leoncavallo, which is the topic of a small book edited by a historian of architecture working at Columbia University. An Australian artist, Marco Fusinato cooperated with this publication and it is in this context that he discovered the Primo Moroni Archive.
Fusinato's exhibit at the latest Venice Biennale provides another example of the agency of the archive. In 2014 Fusinato scanned thousands of images taken from the magazines, brochures, leaflets and books held in the Primo Moroni Archive. Through a collector he managed to obtain the funding to produce 10,000 copies of a book that feature these black-and-white images, but no accompanying text. The copies were on sold for ten euro during the Biennale. Buyers threw the notes and coins on a large table bordered by the piles of books. The money remained where it was tossed, on view and unguarded for the duration of the exhibition. Fusinato did not want the heap to be amassed on a regular basis, but the Biennale implemented this security measure nonetheless.
From the Horde to the Bees, 2015 (image by Marco Fusinato)
Here money gradually loses its condition as "universal equivalent". Its otherwise anecdotal materiality gains the upper hand. Germs and bacteria multiplied, and I was informed by a friend that he had clearly seen spiders crawling in the heap. On the last day of the exhibition the money (which was not counted) was collected by the activists of Cox 18, who left the Biennale with large black bin bags full of money, a scene not unlike that of a bank robbery in a film.
Fusinato's exhibit was entitled "From the Horde to Bees", which has a twofold meaning. It refers to the first and last book covers reproduced in the book, The Golden Horde, which I have already mentioned, and The Bee and the Communist, the most important theoretical text written by the Red Brigades. But the title also reveals the Robin-Hood-like spirit of the work, which is designed to transfer money from the horde visiting the most celebrated contemporary art exhibition to the "bees" of Cox 18. In the idiosyncratic functioning of the art world, a black-and-white book of images with no distinctive design can easily become a seductive artwork. From this perspective, the paper archive serves the purpose, as Fusinato put it in informal conversations, to "fuck the rich". Another way to see this work is to emphasise how it establishes a link between the increasing need for radicalism that informs sectors of the art world and the struggles of a social centre.
I have summarised the history of Cox 18, of the Calusca bookshop, and that of the Primo Moroni Archive. I have argued that activist archives comprising paper materials are not nostalgic remnants of the past. They can act politically, hampering the eviction of a squat or introducing subversive messages into mainstream culture, when an artist such as Fusinato skilfully works on them.
Etymologically the word archive is related to the word αρχω, "to begin, rule, govern". Its semantic field is that of power and origin. "Archives" evokes the possibility of a static, primordial order beyond the vagaries of history and interpretation. Against these associations, I would like to propose a folk etymology of this word, one that is inspired by Fusinato's work. I would say that archives, and especially activist archives, should be seen as akin to hives. Natural beehives occupy places such as hollowed-out trees and abandoned attics, responding to existing natural or architectural forms. They fulfil the function of storage, but they also have a generative role, producing honey, wax, and propolis, as well as creating a site for the successful continuation of the species. Rather than a place to retreat into a putative glorious past or to foster escapist fantasies of order, an activist archive recalls a hive around which histories can swarm en masse.
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Spieker, S. (2016). Manifesto for a Slow Archive. http://www.artmargins.com/index.php/128-articles/772-manifesto-for-a-slow-archive
Wright, S. (2011). "Cattivi Maestri: Some reflections on the legacy of Guido Bianchini, Luciano Ferrari Bravo, and Primo Moroni", Reading Negri: Marxism in the Age of Empire. Lamarche P., Rosenkrantz M., Sherman D. Chicago IL USA, Open Court Publishing: 21-56.
For the history of Cox 18, see: https://cox18stream.noblogs.org/la-storia/
For Moroni's heirs reply to the Mayor, see http://www.agoravox.it/COX-18-i-familiari-di-Primo-Moroni.html