Why Art and Operaismo?


My problem ... [is] to turn into something positive that appalling violence that the memory of power produces in relation to the decade that begins with 1968, the most beautiful decade of our lives.

Antonio Negri, from Rebibbia Prison, 25 April 1981

The cultural hieroglyphics need deciphering: the scientific jargon must be translated into our own illustrious class vernacular.

Mario Tronti, 1970

One by one, the occupants of a sparsely furnished room take a seat in front of the stenographer. Donning a set of headphones, they listen to a recording of courtroom proceedings and stage a live translation from the original Italian into the languages spoken where the performance is taking place. Often, they sound upset, but some remain composed, articulating a complex argument to refute the accusations that have been mounted against them. Sometimes they craft a more defiant voice, addressing an invisible judge. The performers of The Trial re-enact the judges’ questioning of the communists who stood in the ‘7 April’ trial. Sitting on the actual benches of the courtroom, the audience listens to a theatrical rendering of the hearings, as the seamless transcript is a montage that reduces one hundred hours of trial recordings to six. The extracts are reassembled to create a narrative that begins in the 1960s and ends in 1977. The author of the performance, the artist Rossella Biscotti, also made a silent film that accompanies the re-enactment, providing glimpses of the hall of justice where the trial took place between 1982 and 1984. One of the finest examples of 1930s rationalist architecture in Rome, the building hovered ominously over the accused, perhaps reminding them that the trial’s criminal procedure code had been penned by jurists under Fascism. The Casa delle Armi (House of Arms), designed by Luigi Moretti, had initially been used to host fencing competitions before being repurposed to serve as a courtroom and ultimately falling into decay in the 2000s. Biscotti’s film captures its dismantling. Her camera focuses on the removal of the concrete blocks that secured the cell bars behind which defendants observed the proceedings. At Biscotti’s invitation, some of them are shown roaming in the empty hall.

Biscotti created The Trial between 2010 and 2013, and the performance was presented in different venues, including the 2012 documentary.

As with other works by Biscotti, The Trial unpacks a crucial moment in Italian history, using re-enactment and translation as conduits for the past to emerge in the present. The story of The Trial began on 7 April 1979. A wave of arrests had been mandated for the former leaders of Potere Operaio (Workers’ power) and prominent figures of autonomia, including staff members of the Institute of Political Science at the University of Padua, notably Antonio Negri, chair of state doctrine. Facilitated by the recent passing of special counterterrorism laws, the arrests continued relentlessly in the subsequent months. In the early 1980s, no fewer than 6,000 people were serving a prison sentence for crimes related to political activity in Italy. Yet, the 7 April trial was different. The presence of famous professors, journalists and intellectuals almost turned the case into what many, particularly the Italian Communist Party (PCI), wanted it to be: a show trial attracting immense media coverage in Italy and abroad.4 The prosecuting magistrate aimed to demonstrate that the accused were the clandestine leaders of an organisation, allegedly including the Red Brigades, that aimed to subvert the state via armed insurrection. Crimes such as ‘membership in an armed band promoting an insurrection against the state’ do not exist in the Anglo-American legal tradition, but they do resemble the charge of sedition often used against the workers’ movement at the beginning of the twentieth century. In Italy, these charges were introduced by the Fascist regime in order to outlaw the PCI. Sixty years later, the reversal of history could not have been more glaring, with the PCI throwing its political weight behind the judges. By the late 1980s, the vast majority of the accusations presented at the 7 April trial, such as the homicides initially attributed to Negri, appeared preposterous. Before their acquittal, however, the defendants had already languished in prison for four or more years while awaiting trial.5 The nod to Kafka in the title of Biscotti’s work reminds us that the special law exponentially extended the duration of preventive detention, transforming it into a de facto prison sentence without a proper hearing. But the word ‘trial’ also means ‘test’, casting an even darker shadow on the 7 April trial. It suggests that it was also a way of testing public opinion, anticipating future political repressions against putative terrorists.

The Culture of Operaismo and Autonomia

The Trial presents an event using a plurality of visual media, from architecture to film, ready-made objects, oral testimonies and archival documents. Despite the obvious differences between an artistic performance and a written account, The Trial and this book share a number of ambitions and working materials. Here, the narrative relies on the specific conceptual texture of images, supported by oral history and dozens of unpublished or little-known texts, to create a new historical approach to understanding the two decades of radicalism that were put on trial in the early 1980s. In particular, this book focuses on two connected strands of Marxism: operaismo (also known as workerism) and the components of the autonomia (autonomy) movement that were informed by it. Unlike the vast majority of the research that has been conducted on these currents, Images of Class concentrates on the works and concepts developed by the artists, architects, designers, as well as by the art/architecture historians/theorists, who were active alongside the groups associated with operaismo and autonomia. The chapters encompass three generations, beginning with the enthusiasm of de-Stalinisation and ending in the late 1980s with the incipient attempts to historicise twenty years of revolts and projects. The 7 April trial does not, therefore, seal the narrative. For all of its devastating repercussions in terms of political ostracism and amnesia, the trial did not annihilate the impulse to comment in artistic ways on the legacy of the 1970s struggles. At the peak of the repression, when possession of a copy of the magazine A/traverso or the monthly Potere Operaio could occasion a police investigation, artists and architects who had not been involved in the trial pursued a dialogue with their jailed comrades and produced works that warrant sustained analysis. The transnational reappraisal of operaismo and autonomia – especially after the worldwide success of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s Empire – demonstrates that the 1980s campaign to criminalise these currents has largely failed. A concise list of global thinkers who adhered, to varying degrees, to operaismo and/or autonomia confirms these movements’ current vitality. In addition to Negri and Mario Tronti – whose 1966 magnum opus, Workers and Capital, was translated into English in 2019 – one can also mention Silvia Federici, Maurizio Lazzarato, Paolo Virno, Sandro Mezzadra, Christian Marazzi, Giovanni Arrighi, Mariarosa Dalla Costa, Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi, Leopoldina Fortunati and Sergio Bologna. Some of them grew progressively wary of operaismo’s explanatory devices, but it would be difficult to gainsay its fundamental role on their subsequent research, be it on the concept of war, the function of borders, the future of finance or the role of women in the international division of labour.

The existing literature on operaismo and autonomia tends to examine these currents from the perspectives of political theory and social movement studies. While this approach is undoubtedly pertinent, it is also reductive. In fact, as much as operaismo and autonomia were revolutionary movements, they were also complex sociocultural formations involving aspects that pertained to epistemology and ethics, as well as aesthetics. Yet the term ‘aesthetics’ requires a caveat. Here, it has an expansive meaning: it describes visual practices and communicative strategies, implying neither a canon nor an overarching system. Operaismo did not elaborate any sort of general aesthetic, but rather categories, attitudes and approaches to artistic and architectural production that shared an air of kinship. The translation of these ideas into tangible pictures, as well as the appropriations and creative misreadings inherent to how artists incorporated political concepts into their practice, is what this book seeks to explore. An interrogation of this translation requires a focus not simply on the dual relationship between visual arts and politics, but, rather, on the triangulation between visual arts, political ideas and the production of knowledge. In order to minimise the hermeneutical violence immanent to the semantic transpositions from ideas to images (and vice versa), this work explores the living connective tissue – made up of debates, readings, militant hubs and personal acquaintances – that merged artists and theorists. To further avoid the spectre of vague homologies between visual and textual materials, Images of Class discusses practitioners whose exposure to operaismo and autonomia is a manifest and demonstrable feature of their biography and work.

Moving away from an aprioristic, ‘high culture’ conception of what would matter in the aesthetic production surrounding operaismo and autonomia, Images of Class not elude the multitude of media utilised by militants and artists. Consequently, this study is pronouncedly multidisciplinary and refrains from making substantial distinctions between ‘high’ culture and propaganda, visual communication and art, architecture and the fine arts. It combines analyses of posters, videos, cartoons, paintings, typefaces, urban plans, photographs, installations, design pieces and architectural projects. This heterogeneity raises the question of whether the categories of ‘art’ and ‘artist’ are ultimately appropriate. In a recent publication reviving the debates around the history of Marxist art history, Warren Carter delineated a methodological polarity that evolved in English-speaking academia between the 1960s and the 1970s, and retains some validity in the present day. On the one hand, the approach of Otto Karl Werckmeister, for whom a ‘Marxist history of art’ represented a contradiction in terms insofar as the notion of art alongside the disciplinary boundaries it generates, is ideological; on the other hand is the method epitomised by T. J. Clark’s 1970s books, which refer to the intellectual tools of Marxism but remain within the remit of the ‘social art history’. With its focus on a diffuse range of artefacts and political trajectories that occasionally exceed the domain of the history of art and architecture, the methodology adopted by this book suggests my wariness of the discipline. However, rather than jettisoning the categories of ‘art’ and ‘artist’ as ideological, the chapters valorise them as conflicted terrains marked by attempts to provide materialistic redefinitions, be it by constructs such as ‘experimental designer’, ‘aesthetic operator’, the operaista concept of ‘intellectual worker’ or those of ‘poiesis’ and ‘techne’.

In the mid-1970s, New Left Review editor Perry Anderson was sceptical of the increased tendency of Western Marxists to discuss cultural-aesthetic issues. A turn to aesthetics can at times signal political defeat, disenchantment and escapism. Nonetheless, an engagement with art can also represent, as Alberto Toscano noted, a strategic retreat or ‘a point of transit’ of political thinking. Anderson’s remarks suggest a static notion of the aesthetic and of the political, yet these spheres have often intersected, and not necessarily to the detriment of the latter. As art historian Gail Day has argued, the shift criticised by Anderson can be construed, with hindsight, as an ‘insistent social loading of aesthetic categories’. This has become all the more true today. Following the 2007–08 financial crisis, the Occupy movement, the so-called Arab Spring and the protests of late 2019 from Chile to Hong Kong, various forms of activist art have sprung up in several parts of the world. A growing number of young people have buffeted the dichotomy between aesthetics and politics, reshaping it into a fairly unserviceable analytical framework. Not least, to cite Peter Osborne, the Western art world remains, ‘for all its intellectual foibles, the main place beyond the institutions of higher edu- cation where ... political aspects of social and cultural practices can be debated, and where these debates can be transformed’. For these same reasons, the approach to radicalism that is foregrounded in this book should not be regarded as whimsical or peripheral to the ‘real’ research on operaismo and autonomia. Images of Class shows that the exploration of images and aesthetic theories not only reveals novel concepts, debates and figures but also facilitates the task of bringing closer together past and present political struggles around shared preoccupations.