Notes from the Underground
by Daniele Balit

You believe in a palace of crystal that can never be destroyed - a palace at which one will not be able to put out one's tongue or make a long nose on the sly. And perhaps that is just why I am afraid of this edifice, that it is of crystal and can never be destroyed and that one cannot put one's tongue out at it even on the sly.

Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes from the Underground

The model of the city in rapid and perpetual transformation, cemented, by now, in today’s collective conscience, often shows a rather limited reactivity with respect to the demands of certain territorial realities. Frequently, in fact, the organic unity of the urban project is reclaimed by the need of control by those in power and by the desire to follow economic policies. In the conversion of entire neighbourhoods, for example, one often looks to the real estate horizons opened slightly by an archeo-industrial requalification or by the opening of a new museum, rather than to more pressing urgencies and needs.
The stitches of the civic fabric thus lose permeability, constricted by the bureaucratising process, and all forms of existence developed in an unregulated way and that risk to create a crisis in the order and functionality of the urban structures must be suffocated.

It is a phenomenology that suggests the concept of “biopolitical power”, delineated by the philosopher Giorgio Agamben, in keeping with the original reflections of Foucault. A power that operates on particular marginal zones of the public sphere, where the existence of the individual is peeled away until reduced to the “simple fact of living”, to “naked life”. The biopower depersonalises and segregates the individual (who becomes homo sacer), distancing him from his status and rights as a citizen in order to make him mere biological life. A human material made easy to govern, remove or confine, according to precise political needs.

The vicissitudes of the individuals living in the underpass of the Scalo San Lorenzo in Rome can be read through this lens. Individuals who, with difficulty, were able to aspire to a condition and recognition different from that of living organisms that colonise and infest public spaces. But viewed as such, they were removed. They left, as the artist Davide Franceschini relates, “an emptiness without meaning, silence, graffiti, rows of manifestos, an incessant passing of cars and, in some cases, still fresh traces of a superficial umpteenth “purification”: water on the ground and on the walls. Some sign of resistance, of “settled recidivism”, but always under the regular threat of forced removal.”

They are citizens deprived of an identity which they still had to conquer, caught in the grip of modern states’ biopolitics which function, in the words of Agamben, like a “sort of de-subjectifying machine, like a machine that blurs all the classic identities and at the same time - Foucault demonstrates this well - like a machine that recodes, particularly from a judicial point of view, the dissolved identities: there is always a resubjugation, a reidentification of these destroyed subjects, of these subjects emptied of every identity.” [1]

Facing this recoding of identity, the response of formazero, the Roman artist collective comprised of Davide Franceschini, Maurizio Giri and Antonio Venti, was to excavate the memory of the place, to try to unearth the multiple identity of a collective experience. Penetrating the mass of earth that today covers, conceals and obliterates the non-place of the underpass, sottovoci (presented at Enzimi festival in Rome in September, as part of the cycle called Setting the Scene, www.settingthescene.info), developed as a work of sonorous possessiveness of the space, born and operating in situ, and engaging the perceptions of the public in the ground that once offered shelter.

Playing on a series of relationships between voids and full loads, the work of formazero transposes the alternation of sounds and silences, notes and pauses, typical of a musical structure, onto a spatial plane. Wind harps embedded in the ground not only delineate the area, but also channel the flow of air. They are the vectors of the technological element, placing the buried, hidden space in relation to the open space of the city. The symbolic valency is evident and adds to the function of catalysis of the sound dynamics produced by the different elements (including the public), by vibrations that spread between earth, air and even the cement racked with the traffic of the east ring road. The device, modulated in real time thanks to the MAX/msp configurations created by Maurizio Giri, becomes an interface to sound out the subterranean memory. And to the sounds of man and nature introduced underground, correspond resonances obtained outside, charged and polluted by the upheaval of the environment.
One of the most interesting aspects of sottovoci is the degree of linguistic elaboration developed by formazero, achieved thanks to the long experience in the field by Franceschini, who has worked in the area since 1999 in social welfare, but also thanks to the territorial analyses by the Roman collective. If the work was initially conceived as a video or photographic piece, the choice of adopting visual language to recount the places of the Scalo through traces of who had lived there later appeared to be limiting. The work was thus configured by formazero in a different way, presented today as a more complex, open structure that adheres to the space and interacts with the public. “Sottovoci – Franceschini explains – had to move in the direction of an all-absorbing intervention capable of sparking debate on the hospitality of the uninhabitable and on the absence of honest readings and constructive interpretations of these informal, but highly significant, practices. It had to become a medium for underlining the failure and uselessness of unsustainable policies. From the beginning, sottovoci underscored the need to absorb collective experiences and ideas with the aim of constructing a discourse capable of communicating an irreducible state of fact in a “polyinstrumental” way.”

Sottovoci thus emerged as a polyphonic intervention born from a Cagean silence – a declared source of inspiration for the group – useful to sharpen listening capabilities in confrontation with the place and its events, to remain adherent to its mutations and its present, and to unearth this space of crisis that the civic nomenclatures took steps to hide.

After an initial phase of aperture, in which a policy of integration was carried out, the institutional design was drastically reduced to an intervention of removal, returning to the ranks of a biopolicy that demonstrates a need for the maintenance of a decorum regulated by rigid visual codes, the same codes that nourish a museumised and commercialised beauty. In modern cities an aesthetic biopower seems to be a dominant, a visual hygiene that refuses the upsetting element, erasing it or making it invisible.

Exemplary of this idea is an event that occurred in the city of Paris, and which also relates to the problem of the homeless, a question that “Médecins du monde” raised by highlighting the key point of visibility [2]. Simple, easy-to-install camping tents were distributed to the Parisian homeless, triggering rapid and impromptu urban mutations. From one day to the next, the area in front of the Pompidou Center was occupied by a row of tents situated to benefit from the hot air pipes of the museum. The “naked lives” found a housing shell that, while removing them from the daily invasive, but indifferent, stares, simultaneously imposed their own presence in the quotidian routes of the citizens. The target of MDM was spot on: similar irruptions in the city’s visual field were unacceptable to the institutions, and the question of the sans-abri emerged with vigour.

The control of the visible responds, therefore, to a precise strategy of the biopower that transforms the relationship with the city into a process of the receiving of visual information projected onto our retinas. Such a mode of access consolidates to the real by means of polydimensional screens that already occupy a large part of our time. Big Brother who controls us, also nourishes us with uninterrupted visual products that reach and fill every possible space.

Exactly for this, a response like that of sottovoci, which eludes similar codifications and thus avoids remaining trapped in the net of the visual, appears fit to hit the target. It saves us, in fact, from the umpteenth window that crushes levels of reality in the press of the two dimensions. The choice of the sonorous language brought to the construction an unedited, temporary, urban ecosystem, whose different elements are held together by the oscillating motion of the sound that spreads through volumes and drags the listener into a dynamic exploration of the space.

At the Scalo San Lorenzo, the housing system (eco – derives from the Greek word oikos, that means house) that had found its marginal equilibrium in the underpass remerges. The names of the people and their nationalities resound again, and the rhythm articulates this reconstruction of identities delivered from the underground and restored to the city.


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[1] « Une biopolitique mineure » interview with Giorgio Agamben by Stany Grelet & Mathieu Potte-Bonneville, Vacarme N. 10, 2000. http://www.vacarme.eu.org/article255.html
[2] Cfr. http://www.liberation.fr/actualite/societe/195349.FR.php