Artificial Labor - Julia Powles - Italy’s New Rural
Artificial Labor
September 20, 2017
Artificial Labor

Italy’s New Rural

Festival in motion at the Palio del Grano in Caselle in Pittari. Photo: Fiscina Giuseppe.

In the Italian mid-south, on a spur east of Naples and Mount Vesuvius, there is a small rustic village, Calvanico, ringed by the spectacular Picentini mountain range. For the past six years, at a rambling farmstead in the heart of this village, an unlikely band of entrepreneurs, researchers, artists, farmers, and technologists have set up their headquarters. They are the frontier of a homegrown Italian hacker community dedicated to rural social innovation—a proactive response to automation, firmly rooted in territory and community.

Tony Ponticiello is the first one I meet, at a summer camp in Calvanico dedicated to the idea of “post-capitalism” in 2015. “I’m the DJ,” he says, lunging forward energetically, all smiles and mischief under a magnificent shock of wiry grey hair. “They call me Mr. Time,” he adds, pulling an oversized watch from his pocket. In 2006, Ponticiello launched an ingenious website, cheorae.it (che ora è; what time is it), which became something of a viral sensation. During the previous year, he’d filmed scenes of himself each minute over a 24-hour cycle, producing 1,440 mini-performances reflecting on the rhythm of time. The result is an interactive multimedia clock; boxy, whimsical, earnest—a perfect calcified glory of Web 2.0.

Music, philosophy, and technology are the driving forces of Ponticiello’s world. In the 1970s he ran southern Italy’s first pirate radio station, Radio Napoli Prima, fighting to liberalize the airwaves. He’s been in continuous service as a DJ ever since, a favorite on radio and TV as well as at gigs and festivals. At Calvanico, he lives up to his famed energy and is always the last to bed, his intoxicating sounds radiating over the sleeping forest.

Ponticiello’s current project is a meditation on movement. He is building pace—or step—maps. These are navigational guides to the islands and metropolis of Naples and a number of other southern towns and municipalities, measured in paces, rather than miles or kilometers­. The project was inspired, as so many are, by frustration. Driven mad by neighbors and tourists electing to drive around his tiny, beautiful island home of Procida, Ponticiello wanted to empower them to rediscover space and time using our most natural form of locomotion. So he started producing bright, clear maps that bring the abstraction of distance into line with human time, aided by the robust and satisfying metric that, on a comfortable walk, we all average 100 paces a minute. Pace, he points out, is the perfect word. “We should live life on time, and in time, with our own pace.”

The pace maps are practical, but they are also a compelling antidote to our technology-saturated lives and their inducements. Ponticiello and his peers are all pioneers of new tech, from radio to video to the web. But what is so interesting about this outpost in Campania is its focus on using technology to touch us in the most human way.

Two figures with a clear and inspiring vision of a different sort of relationship between technology and society are Adam Arvidsson and Alex Giordano. I find them talking animatedly to a group of hip young Italians in the camp, lounging on an arrangement of straw bales. They are an Asterix and Obelix sort of duo—Arvidsson, the sparky professor, rich in insights from sociology, politics, and economics; and Giordano, the large and loveable organizer, entrepreneur, connector. The pair have been collaborating for over a decade. Now they’re the main engine room, or connecting hub, of a number of initiatives in social and rural innovation.

Over the past few years, Arvidsson and Giordano have orchestrated countless residential camps, workshops, and festivals, aiming to concentrate and stimulate the diaspora they call the “neo” or “new rural.” This is a fascinating minor trend in Italy and other pockets of southern Europe, detectable over the past decade, where young, educated knowledge workers, disenchanted with the dulling vibe of careers in the city, return to work the land. They bring with them a keen awareness of the affordances and binds of contemporary technology, and they seek an existence rooted to territory primarily out of ethics, rather than economics. As Brigida Orria, an economic sociologist investigating this phenomenon explains, “a mixture of environmental, economic, identitarian, and communitarian motivations exist for different individuals,” but one common thread is that they “feel themselves alive in a total sense.”

Thirty-one year-old Michele Sica falls into this category. In 2013, a couple of years into an uninspiring advertising career in Rome, he attended a summer school in Calvanico. He’s lived here ever since, now a pivotal frontman of the movement. “It’s an identity,” he says. “Like a protest with modernity. We have our head in the future and we have a foot in the past.”

For Arvidsson, a reputed scholar of brands, markets, and commodity culture, it is clear that the new rural movement depends on the invocation of a cultural imaginary, a fusion of material goods with immaterial value. He refers to Calvanico alums like Funghi Espresso, which sells kits to grow mushrooms on coffee waste; Funky Tomato, a tomato cannery run on ethical labor and funky beats; Primo Principio, an environmental sensing collective in Sardinia; and Cumpanatico, a network of producers of rare, pre-industrial grains. All these enterprises share a Platonian emphasis on beauty and truth, on being able to “taste the ethical values.” “Sure they’re growing olives,” he says, eyes sparkling at the evocation of a quintessential new rural, “but they’re not just growing olives. Agricultural production is reimagined as a political endeavor, able to change the world.”

Arvidsson also emphasizes that the movement is determinedly pro-market, but with conditions. It promotes markets in the classical sense, with strong commitments to competition, transparency, low barriers to entry, and disintermediation. It resists, in particular, the monopolization and financial control that characterizes today’s technology industry.

Arvidsson reserves his strongest critique for our contemporary obsession with startups. He and Giordano have an eviscerating takedown of the “flat white economy,” after the preferred beverage of low-paid, high-skilled startup workers, channeled into a “jackpot economy” by narrow-minded venture capitalists. “In the surrounds of London’s tech hub, for example, champagne consumption has been in continuous free fall, while coffee is drunk at an astonishing rate,” he says. The reason is “so that talented young people can pursue something very narrow with a slim possibility of gain. Nothing about this model generates sustainable employment and economic well-being through market activities. The notion of a ‘startup’ captures all the brevity of a world focused on easy success. Even a failure is a success. But if everything is disruptive, nothing is really disruptive.”

This critique has a strange, unsettling resonance with a lament Ponticiello shared with me on a walk through the olive groves surrounding Calvanico. After a fascinating detour of reminiscences on his experiences as a young man, he quietly declared “there is no true counterculture any more.” A long pause passed, then he added a short, dissatisfied coda: “there’s no force except hipsters.” The mainstreaming aesthetic, the bitter coffees, the utterly credulous relationship with networked devices and services—for the Calvanico crowd, this isn’t good enough.

After first visiting Campania in summer 2015, I returned in mid-2016 for Campo di Grano, held in the tiny southern fortress town of Caselle in Pittari. The camp is tied to the Palio del Grano, a hand-harvesting wheat festival, now in its thirteenth year. Giordano told me that the Palio is an even tie as his favorite annual event along with Foodstock, a thousand-strong festival of local food and music they hold each year in Calvanico. Recently, he’s also added Rural Hack, a program for integrating AI, robotics, big data, blockchain, and open hardware into agricultural projects, into his top three.

An entirely immersive experience, Campo di Grano takes place over the week prior to the Palio—a much-anticipated competition held on a July Sunday morning between eight teams, representing each of the eight districts of Caselle. They race from one end of a dense wheat field to the other, reaping and bundling rows of grain, their bandanas and shirts drenched in sweat. The entire village turns out to cheer them on, admiring the spectacle of scythes and twine. The race celebrates the region’s heritage, but it also powerfully demonstrates the ideals of the new rural movement. Most noticeable is the intergenerational element. The twenty-two participants in the camp spend the mornings working with locals, many of which are well into their 60s, learning about agricultural production, food, and culture. In this setting, older people are empowered in the face of the young, making for new, more respectful, strengthened community relations. The campers acquire an appreciation for the morphology of this landscape, which demands micro-scale agriculture and the embodied knowledge of those who have lived through many seasons. In the afternoons, they engage in workshops led by Arvidsson, Giordano, and a suite of colleagues and guests. It is participatory, enquiring, and celebratory, with an overall effect aptly summed up by one villager: “It wakes up all of Caselle!”

At last year’s edition of Campo di Grano, the workshops focused on unpacking the empty mantras of the tech industry—terms like startup, smart city, and sharing economy—and their role in service of old power and cultural hegemony. But beyond just exposing the vacuous nature of these terms and their ruthlessly capitalistic precepts, the camp also sought to invert and reclaim real versions of the same ideas.

Here, Giordano is in his element. Best known professionally for his expertise in digital media and marketing, and as the founder of successful web consultancy NinjaMarketing, he’s the guy they always get on Italian TV if there is anything remotely internet-related. He explains his motivation as “helping communities to self-determine their own identity using technology.” It is a simple mission, but it’s also radical, given the centralizing tendencies so inherent to this industry. “The real vision of the smart city or sharing economy,” he explains, “requires power, data, and infrastructure in the hands of the community.” Similarly, the way to burst the startup bubble, Giordano argues, is to encourage public participation in venture capital funds, to reflect a wider range of interests, and a truer representation of actual problems.

Two of the guest speakers in Caselle, hacker-artist duo Salvatore Iaconesi and Oriana Persico, elaborate why Giordano’s emphasis on individual and community empowerment is so necessary. “In a world of smart things,” says Iaconesi, “you don’t have a house, or property; you have a collection of licenses. You are managed and controlled by your services. You consume, but more importantly, you are consumed. We need to escape the logic of control and consumption.” Many of the pairs’ projects, assembled within their collective Art is Open Source, explore these themes within the context of small and micro data, with projects including Ubiquitous Commons, Persona Non Data, and Incautious Porn. “We can transgress the smart city by bringing new poetics, by affecting what people desire. That’s where we need to work—on imagination, not on labor,” says Persico. Iaconesi is in vigorous agreement, “the most exciting hook for transformations is at the micro level, where history is made.”

Labor is an element to which the new rural movement returns again and again. Many of the tiny new rural enterprises rely on family labor (and capital), and they may not necessarily declare all workers. Similarly, a substantial proportion of production is retained or shared amongst producers, distorting an already hazy morass of non-traditional entrepreneurial forms. Because many new rural businesses are not economically sustainable in themselves, they diversify their activities through tourism, education, and merchandising. The way, for many, is still being found.

The new rurals are conscious of nostalgia, of not falling prey to Raymond Williams’ critique of idealizing country life and erasing labor and laborers from the land. Indeed, as Sica notes, Calvanico is under increasing ecological threat from erosion and frequent flooding. “When lumberjacks and woodsmen worked in these woods, there were no floods,” he says. “Two generations beyond them, we don’t have their skills, their virtuosity. And we can’t deal with the floods. We need people in rural life. And we need people who have a deep consciousness, an intellectual perspective; people who are culture makers.”

Arvidsson, who is increasingly pessimistic about the future of Europe, sees Italy as “the vanguard of the decline of the western state from the wing-side, due to the failure of the state and of corporate capital to guarantee stability, or to guide the country into modernization.” He sees a number of directions if our current economy stays unreformed, financialized, and decreasingly able—particularly in the face of the omnipresent accelerant of automation—to meet expectations in terms of employment, stability, and leisure. One option is that there might be competitive, ethical markets. Or they might be criminal, or Shanzai, involving the cheap and cheerful economy of copies. There might be common access to knowledge, or there might be a bourgeois-style revolution against the feudalistic system currently controlling it. Many scenarios are possible. Most are bleak. But perhaps, maybe, we might develop a penetrating response to the corporate economy; one that places people at the center.

What is clear is that the way to change the present is not to set up in opposition to, and therefore to be dependent on, entrenched power. “Polarization transforms you into an object of control,” says Iaconesi. “Instead, you need an intervention on the imagination, to define autonomously a way of being.”

A robust project of the imagination is certainly taking place in Campania. Products and projects are imbued with the promise of a different future—and through them, so are individuals and, ultimately, communities. “It is in some ways a performance,” says Carlotta Ebbreo of Sicilian sustainability collective, Porto di Terra. “But it’s also a political project, and it’s real—there is real produce and the creation of something that inspires action and change.” To channel our friend Ponticiello: it might be just in time.

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Artificial Labor is collaborative project between e-flux Architecture and MAK Wien within the context of the VIENNA BIENNALE 2017.

Julia Powles is a Research Fellow at New York University and Cornell Tech, based in New York. Powles is a lawyer with a scientific background who has worked at The Guardian, WIPO, and the University of Cambridge. Recent papers include "Google DeepMind and healthcare in an age of algorithms" (2017) and "The case that won’t be forgotten" (2015).

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