It has been a good amount over a year since I updated this blog, and while I’ve been meaning to post for a long time about the current state of my research (subsequent posts coming over this one), now feels like as good a time as ever to get back into things.
Since Tuesday, I have been in Rome with my partner, having a small getaway around a three-day Victorian studies conference she is attending and presenting at. I am currently sat on a balcony at the apartment we are renting in the southern part of the Trastavere neighbourhood, which lies in the bend of the Tiber just to the south/south-west of the city centre.
While the centre of the city is obviously and undeniably beautiful–and getting to see the Colosseum and the Forum was something that seven-year old me was really grateful to get to do–my favourite part about travelling is being able to walk around the cities I go to and trying to understand and interact with them unguided (for the most part). So far, this blog has looked at Montreal and Bloomington, Indiana, this way, and Rome was no exception.
While my partner has been attending her conference for the last few days, I took the opportunity to wander around the small area of Rome I currently find myself in. Initially this started as a desire to walk along the Tiber, and so setting out in that direction, I found it quite hard to find a way to get access to the cycle path I saw running along the banks. So, I ended up crossing the river out of Trastavere and walking towards Ostiense. Turning left off the main road and walking towards one of the Roma Tre campuses, I was greeted by this painted on a wall, and which set me on a mission to find as much as a could.
For those that don’t know, this is the international sign for Antifascism: the red flag of communism/socialism overlaying (or sometimes overlaid by, depending on who you are talking to) with the black flag of anarchism. Now, I love graffiti and street art. I also don’t get to write about it at any great length in my research, despite doing work recently with the art of Emory Douglass and Tarika Lewis/Matilaba in The Black Panther newspaper in the chapter I have recently been working on. But, not getting to write about it in the thesis means I get to write about it here, so here it goes.
The way I relate to graffiti necessarily intersects with the way I relate to cities and the things that comprise ‘the city’. The approach I take in my research–as I know many others do as well–is to see the city in a series of layers, that can be viewed top to bottom, or vice versa. For example, in Rome, we have Roma–the city. The city, of course, is comprised of multiple inter-related features: the people and the local government (seen in Rome’s continuing use of the designation S.P.Q.R–the Senate and People of Rome); the city is the physical space is occupies; the city is its historical and contemporary positioning; the city is a social idea, as well as a physical space. However, in this instance, the concept of the city that is important here is that the city is a palimpsestual text: layers of writing, with each layer representing a different feature of the city. In my research, one of the most significant layers of the city–and something I suggest is a form of writing–is the city’s physical infrastructure: its roads, its buildings, its subterranean train lines and sewers, its parks and (semi/pseudo) public spaces, its bridges and walls. This infrastructure is, I suggest, text on text. It is the building on the ground that is the city.
One of the major questions I am pursuing in my PhD research is how do different, often marginalised, groups interact with a city space often physically designed and ideologically encoded to ensure/promote their continued marginalisation, even to enact their repression/oppression through the spaces in which they live, (dont’) work, and travel? In pursuit of this, I look into discussions of infrastructure by these groups, alongside looking at the physicality of the city as an object, and try to understand how this physicality broadcasts a repressive/oppressive ideological context, and most crucially, how these groups/marginalised individuals are able to interact with the physicality (and its consequent ideology) in a liberationary fashion, despite being ostracised from the ability to change the city’s physical make-up through planning and construction.
We are constantly, then, reading the city, whether we realise it or not. Level of personal and social privilege dictate how aware/conscious we are of the messages being projected to us, and so for me–a bisexual, but straight-presenting, white man–it becomes a case of walking with my eyes up, to endevaour to see through my own sense of spatial privilege and spatial security to see the threats and coding that would normally not be seen by me. The direction my research takes is to look into instances in which individuals and groups endeavour to rewrite the city through both physical action and through more traditional textual means. Consequently, I look at instances of subvertising, street theatre, protest marches, occupations and, in the thesis directly, sex in public, underground publishing, and–in the most recent case with the Black Panther Party–anti-police patrols and survival programs. In the context of this blog post and my wandering around Rome, we have graffiti.
I saw the above picture of the antifascist flag while I was walking to meet my partner to go and visit the Cimitero Acattolico in Ostiense, where she was very keen to go and see the graves of Keats, Shelley, and Mary Oliphant’s husband and daughter. I, however, was more keen to see the grave of Antonio Gramsci, who is a bit of a personal hero of mine, as well as someone whose writings have greatly influenced my own politics and my research. As a result, I have been keeping my eyes open for more antifascist and anarchist graffiti, and saw all the below on the same day. [Text continues after photos]
So, while it is nice as someone who shares these politics and praxis to see these slogans painted on the walls of the city’s infrastructure, what reading(s) can we take from them? My approach suggests that this graffiti and street art functions as a means by which a (financially and politically) disenfranchised group of people can change the way in which people interact with the city. These acts and the slogans that comprise them are inherently disruptive. Whether on a conscious or sub-conscious level, these literal texts endeavour to disrupt the semiotic systems that comprise the city as text.
Rather than allowing the city–through its infrastructure, the presence of state actors (in Rome’s case, a surprisingly large presence of armed soldiers and police throughout the city), and corporate/state advertising/propaganda–to broadcast its ideological oppression/repression, these instances of street art simultaneously disrupt the extant coded narrative broadcast through the physical text of the city while also providing an alternative conception of the city through this new text. Stripped of the ability to effect the city at a macro-level–through planning and/or finance–those who write on the city engage with it as a palimpsestual text. The oppressive/repressive infrastructure is difficult, if not impossible, to demolish, but it can be overwritten. And despite this overwriting allowing for traces of the underlying to come through, this new writing is afforded an additional degree of power as a result: it is directly disruptive, directly confrontational with the text it is written on, and provides a new and distinct way to interact with the city. With ‘ACAB’ and ‘Libre’–‘All Cops are Bastards’ and ‘Free’–written all over the walls (read: pages) of an oppressive physical infrastructure, the reader can choose to interact with this space differently, even if only internally, even only for a few moments. These pieces of graffiti are street art are not just declarations of personal political positioning, but gestures of solidarity that–intended to or not–provide a new means of reading, and therefore engaging with–the city as text, and the city as the city.
However, this blog post has now gone on for longer than I expected, so I will go back to exploring Rome and adding any new findings to the bottom of this blog post. Tomorrow we are moving from Trastavere to San Lorenzo, so a few more days of exploring in a new area await me before flying back to Manchester on Tuesday. Please expect some more blog posts soon, including one about how my research on the Black Panthers intersected with my MA work on the freeway infrastructure of Los Angeles and a book chapter I have forthcoming through Palgrave MacMillan in an edited collection that I am excited to share with you.
UPDATE: New finds travelling from Trastavere to San Lorenzo