Innovating in the South: new forms of co-operation as practices of active citizenship (Part Two)

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This article belongs to the Figli di Annibale stream.

The «Forum on the gift» was a two-day event held (on October 7 and 8, 2015) at the «Federico II» University of Naples, under the aegis of the interdisciplinary research group «A piene mani: dono e beni comuni» (literally, With Hands Full: Gift and the Commons). The first day untangled conceptually the thorny triad of paid employment, volunteer work and gift. To quickly condense that discussion by way of recapitulation: the usual criterion to distinguish between paid employment and volunteer work – the presence or absence of a salary – has lost traction, today, for the purpose of telling exchange transactions apart from the realm of the gift. The precarisation of work, widespread unemployment, outsourcing of public care provision and a regulatory approach tailored to the model of residential institutions are all factors that contribute to infuse volunteer work with a set of expectations and organisational practices that make it a surrogate version of paid employment.

The second day sought to address these theoretical difficulties through the narration of a wealth of practical experiences. Those experiences composed a story of innovation, for harmonizing grassroots collaborative work within organisational forms that negotiate, in original ways, the terrain between gift, paid employment and volunteer work. The majority of the testimonies present at the Forum had been previously gathered by Stefano Consiglio and Agostino Riitano, with the help of Alessia Zabatino, in an edited volume – published by FrancoAngeli in 2015 – with the title «Sud innovation. Patrimonio culturale, innovazione sociale e nuova cittadinanza» (which could be rendered roughly as Innovating in the South: Cultural Heritage, Social Innovation and New Citizenship). To focus the second day of discussion on ongoing experiments was a useful step for gaining some distance from the definitional dilemmas impinging on the notions of gift, volunteer work and employment, and to let speak instead the very practical arrangements by which «people’s desire to get involved [is organised] » (Stefano Consiglio). These arrangements display a remarkable variety, of which I attempt below to offer a cursory overview:

  • one association, «L’Altra Napoli Onlus», models an original role, as support infrastructure and «incubator» for cooperative enterprises operating in the heritage sector;
  • the «Tunnel Borbonico» (Bourbon Tunnel) project is an initiative that grows out of the policy of federal management of state assets (federalismo demaniale), whereby state-owned property can be transferred to regional and municipal authorities, which are in turn empowered to act so as to generate value/revenue from those assets (this encompasses both devolving their upkeep to third-sector organisations or – in the worst case scenario, flagged during the discussion by Tomaso Montanari – outright sale to private actors for speculative ends). In the case of the Bourbon Tunnel (a Tunnel dug underneath the centre of Naples during the Bourbon kingdom), this legal framework enabled a citizens’ association to tend to an abandoned landmark. The presenter for this experiment, Gianluca Minin, was eager to observe how management by an association run on a volunteer basis was crucial for catalysing the collective energy and enthusiasm, necessary to make the warren of tunnels once again practicable and accessible;
  • the «Officine Culturali» (Cultural Workshops) in Catania is a collaboration between the local university, and a collective that curates the cultural offering and the public outreach programme for a monastery that was otherwise being soley used to house University lectures. Francesco Mannino, who was presenting this initiative, earnestly shared the difficulty of ensuring that salaries paid to those that contribute their work to this collective curatorship match actual hours worked. Hence, he suggested it would be a common occurrence that contractual arrangements (like a part-time measured by hours worked) fall short of the actual amount of hours put in. At the same time, Mannino also shared how this discrepancy was not being interpreted by participants as supplying a kind of «hidden labour» (akin to «volunteering» when it becomes a misleading surrogate of employment). Rather – echoing what Emma Ferulano of «La Kumpania» shared the previous day – Mannino felt that the discrepancy revealed instead a gift dimension: disclosing a committment to the overall quality of the project, so as to support its future growth in such a way that it might eventually achieve fuller financial autonomy, also for the security of its active participants.
  • The «Ex Fadda» project from San Vito dei Normanni, the «Eco-museum of the Sea» (Ecomuseo del Mare, in the original Italian) in Palermo and the «Asilo» collective in Naples offered examples (at least from my viewpoint) of generative collaboration with municipal and/or regional authorities. The first was a former wine-processing facility attached to an estate, which was transformed into a cultural laboratory thanks to funds made available through a youth development programme of the Apulia Region called «Bollenti Spiriti» (literally, Ardent Souls). The second project is based on an agreement between the municipal administration of Palermo and a not-for-profit social enterprise that curates a cultural offering, on premises that would otherwise lie abandoned. In essence, a council employee opens and closes the premises, making them available to cultural events, installations and shows. Finaly, the «Asilo» is a collective that was convened on the occasion of the occupation of an underused building in the centre of Naples. From the occupation, however, the community of users and cultural workers that had become active on the premises self-consciously began to work towards its own legalisation – devising hitherto unexplored solutions for securing rights of access and use over an urban commons. Namely, the community resisted formalisation into a legal subject, understanding this as a step that would have concentrated authority for managing the premises over some form of restricted committee. It has, instead, retained openness and horizontality through a public, walk-in assembly that oversees collective use, so as to nurture an impersonal customary practice – dubbed a «civic use» – as opposed to converging on some form of legal personality (such as an association, or the like).
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Final panel (from left): Agostino Riitano, Francesco Bifulco, Stefano Consiglio, Tomaso Montanari and Alessia Zabatino

On the back of this rich material, the final panel attempted to weave a concluding reflection. For instance, Francesco Bifulco – professor of management at the «Federico II» University of Naples – suggested it might be helpful to re-appropriate the word «business» to help bring into focus the specific organisational features that are modelled by the case studies. Indeed, «business» means nothing but «enterprise», to signify the organisational form(s) that grow out of decentralised striving for innovation. On this suggestion, then, the various experiences mentioned above add diversity to the possible meanings of enterprising, articulating original solutions to questions such as procurement and coordination of joint work, the management of both real and financial assets as well as planning of – and reflection upon – practical interventions. Tomaso Montanari, an art historian at the same institution, commended the various undertakings, whilst stressing that these ought to be regarded not as outright alternatives to the retrenchment of state provision, in favour of private outsourcing. Rather, those experiences often entail original partnerships between civil society and local authorities, which can (re-)infuse democratic participation into the realm of public intervention. In this sense, they help reclaim the ambiguous slogan of «generating value» out of cultural heritage. That «value» – he specified – need not be understood in bare monetary terms (despite that often being the case, for instance in relation to experiments in federal management of state assets that lead merely to the demise of public ownership, towards private speculation). Rather, «value» can also mean cultural value, in terms of making heritage accessible and beneficial to as broad as possible a constituency of citizens.

The final two speakers of the day were Agostino Riitano and Alessia Zabatino, both of whom helped gather and present many of the testimonies heard at the Forum, in the edited collection «Sud innovation. Patrimonio culturale, innovazione sociale e nuova cittadinanza» (Innovating in the South: Cultural Heritage, Social Innovation and New Citizenship). Riitano observed how the different experiments presented during the day were expressions of a subtle «art of convening» (virtue of commencement is the literal translation of the term he used in Italian). This entails the skillful and courageous determination to push collective hope beyond the risk of fatalism, or the mental block whereby nothing is to be attempted, unless it is backed first by public money. Riitano appended to this suggestion a clarification, as to why the South, specifically, can be considered a hotbed of grassroots organising and social innovation. The Italian Mezzogiorno, he said, is at the confluence of a number of processes: the abandonment of sites rich in cultural heritage, as well as the «return» migration of youth who have been educated either abroad or in the North of Italy, and have subsequently decided to head back home and try and assemble there the resources for expressing their organisational creativity – with the positive spillover of modelling alternative futures for their respective communities. Following this lead, Alessia Zabatino stressed the importance of not falling prey to the conviction, that tourism is the only means to secure the sustainability of all these generative experiments in grassroots management of cultural commons. Rather, she warmed to a notion of sustainability as the initiation of a virtuous cycle to get local communities involved, not just as producers but also as users and beneficiaries of the resources they are blessed with. A vision of this sort can catalyse new practices of relating together – and this is my suggestion – to redefine the very meaning of inhabiting place, as the space of community. This possibility perhaps gives a flavour for the (re-)elaboration of collective meaning, which the different instances of grassroots enterprising considered during the Forum seem to undertake. It also clarifies how those experiences appear to be on a different trajectory to the triad employment-volunteer work-gift, as they organise into a civic and social activism (Stefano Consiglio) oriented to the cultural transformation of place, and of the possibilities it affords for dwelling together.

The final buffet offered perhaps one more illustration of the «promise of returning» discussed by Agostino Riitano. The buffet was offered by Pietro Parisi, a chef who returned to his native Campania from Paris. Back home, he took to revisiting the traditional and «re-use» cooking he had known during his youth. In doing so, he has become an advocate of local and seasonal produce, as well as of a price policy that resists the temptation to turn once peasant and poor food into a gourmet, luxury offering.