We are living in a time that for too long has been exhausted, that exhausts us but never itself. A strong critique of the political and social aspects of this time exists, there is a heightened awareness of social inequality, and there is a strong critique of neoliberalism, but what remains inadequate and unclear is a critique of the cultural model, a model that is unmistakably still able to captivate and thus to inhibit the construction of a cultural movement directed at overcoming it.
This enduring cultural moment, to define itself, has seized the term Contemporary, and has reversed the original meaning of this word.
Certainly every term has its own becoming, and it is precisely the becoming otherwise of the term contemporary, its extension in time and space, its success, like the Situationists said of Surrealism, that should make manifest its inefficacy and thus the necessity to overcome it. But this has been slow in coming.
Today the contemporary has become a bombastic autonarrative apparatus of the present, a device that swallows up reality, an apparatus that dislodges spaces, time, social and cultural organizations, as well as any creative, innovative, or resistant language or expression whatsoever on the horizon of its reign over the present, impeding their becoming, uprooting them from the past.
It is from this efficacious contemporary apparatus that we must extricate ourselves, in the moment that its meaning is reversed from that which produced it, from when it is no longer a means of expressing critique and renewal, but rather a structure for producing social oppression.
Contemporary today has become a government apparatus of the production of languages, that trusts the control of technological innovation with a merely ostensible renewal of them. The absence of a proper language allows the Contemporary to appropriate any language, be it conservative, progressive, or subversive, granting them all the possibility of “success” and turning them a profit as long as they endorse media success and economic profit as measures for the attribution of value and thus its very logic as truth. In this way the Contemporary dissolves every bond with the history and geography of the contexts in which it places itself, and, like an alien, it colonizes them, plundering them of their resources.
This affirmation of exclusivity on reality, sold off for the liberty of the individual, of the political, or of the market, is erasing every public space and every communal environment that might accommodate the elaboration of a critical discourse that would allow us to realize the urgent and imperative escape from its seemingly endless boundaries.
The Contemporary seeks to hinder the passage of time, displacing ephemeral futures into the space of the present, so that its own time passes.
How can we exit out of contemporary? How can we liberate reality from its colonization by the contemporary? It seems that up until now any system of opposition whatsoever has allowed itself to be beguiled and has become part of it, or has otherwise remained underground, unheard, swindled out of its own instruments, its own language and its own practices, by ranks of creative and academic mercenaries in the service of the Contemporary.
Is it possible to produce a language that exposes this tyrannical and regressive apparatus, reopening the way to dialectics and to debate amongst different cultural realms, putting back into motion both history and the very possibility of the future?
I will take the first steps towards a critique of the contemporary by means of the nearly twenty-year experience that I conducted with Stalker, in the heart of anthropized territory, crossing it – taking steps – on foot. I will use this experience, and the lessons learned from it, as a starting point – subjective and limited – on the trace of a path that, with its limits and its contradictions, can help us to walk out – on foot – of the contemporary.
Walking through, the other side of the Contemporary City: the Actual Territories
Stalker has its beginnings in an action, a simple but paradoxical action, a unique experience: taking a stroll around Rome through the abandoned spaces of the city, without ever exiting the circuit of highways that surrounds it, and avoiding familiar spaces (Stalker attraverso I Territori Attuali, 5-9 October 1995). It took us five days to do it, and we spent four nights in tents. We called that first expedition Stalker through the Actual Territories. With the expression “actual territories” we sought to give name to another space, and also to juxtapose it to the contemporary city. This would not be an exterior space, but its negative; we sought to sanction its existence and to call artists, architects, and scientific researchers into it to understand it and to interpret its dynamics through their own eyes and with their own actions, just as we had sought to do with our own walking through. Coming back into the contemporary city after this movement into the actual territories, we developed a cartography of the experience, and I compiled my own personal diary and a list of reflections that surfaced as a result of the collective experience. From that first stroll around Rome, we have contrasted the Actual against the Contemporary.
Walking – or walking through, rather – is thus a founding principle of Stalker. The construction of contours of collective experiences, paths of space-time continuity through empty spaces, margins and boundaries that separate the islands, the archipelagos, the continents of widespread urbanization adrift.
A flippant movement that doesn’t belong, that refutes the indifference of the contemporary, to reconnect spaces that, although close to one another, are disoriented, and people, disoriented as well, to contexts in which they live, which are often alien to them. Stalker thus constructs a vision of becoming urban that begins at its negative, from the background where memory is by now unconscious. The project, having become a trace, is conquered by the spontaneous reappropriation of space by nature, or the informal and clandestine reappropriation of space by people. It is this spontaneity that gives the future the chance to become something different, to emerge ruggedly and inconceivably from spaces without planning and without supervision. This renders the present an unconscious dimension, alien to the bombastic and media-driven self-representation of the prevailing contemporary.
Walking through thus becomes a means of access that allows us to look beyond the inanity of contemporary spatiality, seeking to seize the lost meaning of places. It is from this backdrop that we can access the decontextualized and fragmented, and often homogenous and autoreferential, spaces of the contemporary city, and towards this backdrop we can silently slip away from them.
This practice permits a reading that is at once critical of and dependent upon the images of those urban apparatuses in which we sometimes find ourselves enclosed, powerless, unable to see outside; spaces that are taken by surprise by the practice of walking through, stripped of their rhetoric, transformed into lucid spaces, spaces to recover, to resignify, to reinvent alongside those who, among the people living there, realize what’s going on and take part.
Walking through thus makes of itself a dance, a celebration, a harbinger that life is taking place there once again. In places that, if uttered in a low voice so that rhetoric is unable to hear and doesn’t settle back into them, can become theaters and canvases, in which walking can become a form of art.
Walking through is at once an aesthetic practice and one of freedom and of awareness. It is a practice aimed more at changing those who enact it than at things themselves; a change of perception that prompts a transformation in behaviors and their coercion to transform places. Walking through allows us to take advantage of change, its physiology, to adapt to it and to bring it about, and to become part of it. It teaches us not to make predictions, not to plan but to experiment, to face errors and accidents, to think about a project as a process – spontaneous, creative – from the bottom up.
Living distances; constructing, as a game, the Commons
Walking through means to live the distances between things, to back out of the real time of contemporaneity, to desecrate the walls that protect its synchronicity and indifference. It brings about a spontaneous, unexpected encounter between different spaces and people; an encounter enacted across the distance and thus one that refutes indifference, as it acknowledges diversity. Horizontal, without hierarchies, the encounter proposes that we live boundaries alongside distances. A way to live that requires us to adapt to that same inhospitable space, which generates eagerness for action, transformation, and sharing. Living the distance between things is a consequence of going through, of settling in lightly, passing through, sleeping in a hammock to start, but perhaps then pitching a tent, to then begin, subsequently, to take care of a place.
These distances to be lived, the distances in which we might linger and in which these encounters might take place, differ. At times they are expansive distances to cross, Actual Territories discharged by the Contemporary as embarrassment, misunderstanding, uncertainty, oblivion.
Erasing these distances to replace them with tidy, exclusionary borders is an obsession of contemporaneity. The calling to real time, to the simultaneity of times and to the globalization of spaces, delegates to these borders the hypocritical protection of differences, pushed towards clash by this very erasure of distances.
Born under the protection of differences, these borders have sanctioned the incommunicability between the various forms of diversity, negating the spontaneous encounter at its inception, designing geographies of exclusivity and of exclusivity, of reciprocal refusal and of indifference, arming, de facto, an ever-ready conflict. It divides and reigns: a prevailing and perennial state of exception. The threshold thus becomes normed, removed from social relations, made into spectacle, rendered a chance for economic speculation on and social exploitation of the differences that it sanctions. Straddling these borders, the need for security and the production of insecurity find nourishment, nourishing the differences and optimizing the efficacy of the apparatus.
In 1999, still in Rome, we lingered on one of these borders. We decided to live it, to allow it to go back to being a distance to be crossed, as a way to get to know each other, to understand each other, to coexist. A distance that we transformed into an experimental space of possible relation that we could construct together.
Stalker was invited to participate to the Biennale dei Giovani Artisti in May 1999. The art exhibition took place in an area adjacent to the Campo Boario. In that occasion, Stalker organised a workshop titled “from Cartonia to Piazza Kurdistan” which involved the students of the school of architecture of Rome, the organisation Azad and the Kurd refugees. During the workshop Stalker decided to occupy and restore the building which had housed the veterinary of Campo Boario in the past. The building was named “Ararat”, which is the name of the sacred mountain where Noè landed after the Flood. During the following months , Ararat became the gathering place of the Kurd community and a working space for artists , architects, researchers, and citizens which were invited to existentially share the experience of such a space.
Without any public financing and any help from the city administration, the space in front of Ararat was transformed into a giant play ground, a blackboard used to freely draw actions and interactions among the different communities who live around it. During three years, from 1999 to 2002, the large asphalt space became the play ground for big collective games: the Carta di non identità ( Non-ID Card) which was distributed to all the inhabitants in the occasion of the Clandestino Day, the Pranzo Boario (Boario Lunch), a big circular dining table where Kurdish food, gypsy gulash and Japanese seaweeds (cooked by Asako Iwama, Japanese artist and architect) were served together, the Globall Game, during which two thousand soccer balls were thrown and were used to write and collect stories of Campo Boario; the Transborderline, a spiral space which symbolically represented a permeable and inhabitable border, which was then illegally installed on the Italian Slovenian borderline; the Tappeto Volante (Flying Carpet), an itinerant ceiling which traces the muqarnas of the Palatine Chapel in Palermo using ropes and copper. Many other games and actions without names were played and left no traces but surely contributed to the transformation and emancipation of this space. This asphalt blackboard has been the place for workshops, parties and interventions by artists and architects.
Today Ararat is a mandatory stop for all Kurd refugees who pass through Europe, more than three thousand until now. It is the main gathering place of the entire Kurd community in Rome. Part of the asphalt has been negotiated with the Cavallari and transformed into the Ortoboario, a public garden where sunflowers and fruit trees were planted; in the common space the Newroz celebration takes place every year, it is the new year Kurd party.
Stalker thus started designating circles, places for encounters and spaces of possible relation. An open, experimental theater, a gymnasium where we can learn to effect change, and to change ourselves. A putting oneself into play to open new paths beyond the strictures of identities, to experiment freely the different forms of a possible coexistence. Sometimes, doing things for fun, we are able to do things that we would never do seriously, able to implement our own identities without the fear of losing them; doing things for fun, we can reconcile seemingly irresolvable conflicts.
Every game, of course, must have rules, but before establishing them we must first instigate the parts of the game that make it fun, stimulate the will to waste time, to live the distance between ourselves and others, to give space and time to a possible relation that the contemporary city refuses to concede to us. A relation that can be realized beyond the disciplinary and normative obsessions of the state and the blind and rapacious interest of private capital, in an uncertain, undetermined space, that becomes the theater of a Commons to invent and to experiment together.
The Beyond-the-City: a reckoning of collective consciousness of the becoming-other of the Contemporary City
Walking through, tracing lines, to desecrate the exclusionary boundaries of the contemporary city. Lucidly living the distances that divide us, drawing circles, to reestablish an unprecedented commons and an unprecedented community.
Lines and circles thus begin to weave networks, to draw unexplored cartographies, in spontaneous evolution, of which we can all be explorers, inhabitants, and cartographers. Cartographies where we can share different experiences, expertise, and knowledge. In this way, against the backdrop of the contemporary city, which begins to take shape, there emerges a complex, dynamic design, whose cartographic representation is no longer a device of planning and control, but the realization of an attempt by collective consciousness to redesign coexistence in the beyond-the-city.
The beyond-the-city is that perspective of meaning in which the Contemporary City can no longer withdraw from a confrontation with the Actual Territories. It is there where boundaries and conflicts between city and countryside, between past and future, between us and them and between inhabitants and institutions, become laboratories, the piazzas and the theaters for the reinvention of the Commons. An unprecedented space to be constructed between public and private, between spontaneity and planning, between local and global, between speed and slowness. A design in which the margin is the center of transformation between that which we can no longer be and that which we can become, provided that the project ceases to be constituted of violent and abstract planning, from the top down, belonging to another, to allow for the emergence of an grasping of collective consciousness, from the bottom up, of itself. A taking of form and consciousness of itself of that informal background of relations and processes that in this way begin to take shape; an emergent awareness of the becoming something other than the contemporary city.
From: Walking out of Contemporary, Romito L. (2014) in Mitrasinovic M. (Ed.) Concurrent Urbanities: Designing infrastructures of Inclusion. Routledge, 2015