Incontro internazionale Anarchico/Venezia 1984— International Anarchist Gathering/Venice 1984 was organized by the anarchist group Centre Studi libertari (CSL) di Milano with the collaboration of Centre international de Recherches sur l'Anarchisme (CIRA) of Geneva, Switzerland and the Anarchos institute of Montreal Canada. After more than one year of preparation the incontro took place on September 24-30, 1984. Bypassing the more usual words of congress, convention, symposium, the word incontro had been carefully chosen to indicate a wider scope than just an intellectually or politically oriented meeting, but the Italian title, however, had been translated into a slightly off-center English, and the word gathering set off some curious gospel-like overtones that were probably not intended —O Shall we gather at the campo - - - the gathering of the faithful??? The last part of the title alluded to a conference, which was to be the center of this gathering of Utopians, based upon Orwell's anti-utopian novel, 7984, with "a certain conscious irony." This ironical intent was a bit elusive for some of us, who went slouching off to Venice, not with irony, conscious of otherwise, but with great curiosity about who would show up and what would happen. And with some small anticipation of worldly pleasure. As its own contribution to anarchist ideology and archaeology. Black Rose decided to create an outdoor installation piece in a Venetian campo (campo is Venetian usage for piazza or square).
The sun and warmth of the Italian South changed into the grey damp drizzle of the North as I approached the Queen of the Adriatic to join my fellow BR constructivists, Wilfredo and Marcos, who had already been there for several days, busy with initial preparations. Dampness and the quirks of language had held them up: their too literal translation of chicken-wire had only confused those trying to help them and their request for potato sacks instead of burlap were met by the amazed mutterings of our Italian comrades, "Do Americans think we grow potatoes in the canals of Venice?" Dampness was not so humorous a problem as language, nor one so readily overcome. The continual rain of the week had not allowed the plaster elements of the installation piece to dry, and more apprehensively, had brought the now infamous aqua aha: the high water of Venice. When we visited one of the sites of the incontro, we discovered it flooded by water bubbling up the very drains that it was supposed to gurgle down. Fortunately all the aquatic anxieties of our organizational comrades were dispelled at the last moment by the sun, and their persevering efforts were rewarded by an auspicious, if slightly damp, opening.
The poster announcing the incontro with its powerful design by the noted Italian artist and anarchist sympathiser, Enrico Baj, had been put up throughout Venice. Its imagery —a big-busted Picassoesque female floating over a formidable, many-armed, fire breathing male figure, heavily entrailed and prominently penised—dealt, in fact, solely with the theme of the conference, Authoritarian Tendencies and Libertarian Tensions. The poster provoked much discussion and criticism. It was decried by some feminists and gays for what they perceived as its macho male chauvinism, while others find it too brutal or just plain ugly, too uninviting to be an appropriate choice for an incontro. (I, myself. witnessed several small children reduced to tears when they chanced to look upon it.)
Who finally came to Venice for this long-prepared event? The fifty or sixty members of the Centro Studi who had done the hard organizational work would have been pleased if their expectation of about 1,000 participants had been met, but their final estimate suggests that over 3,000 persons attended some part of the incontro, two thousand of whom showed up for the final weekend. This great and unexpected number included the committed, the curious, the interested, the serendipitous, the young (babies of several months), the old (a ninety-two year old Romagnole anarchist), and, of course, the police, who, though mildly annoying at times, generally kept their distance during the incontro.
Participants and anarcho-tourists came from throughout the world, about some forty countries in all —North America (Canada, the U.S.), Latin America (Puerto Rico, Mexico, Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina}, Europe (Finland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, West Germany, Holland, Belgium, Great Britain, France, Spain, Portugal, Switzerland. Italy. Yugoslavia, Greece), Asia (South Korea, Hong Kong, Malaysia), Australia, New Zealand; some were exiles from Chile, Paraguay, Uruguay, Iran, Poland, Rumania. Of The Italians were, of course, the most numerous. Though internal differences within the Italian movement regarding the incontro (which were muted and not clear to me) had apparently kept attendance down during the week, many were attracted for the final weekend when the large turnout of non-Italians became evident. Of the non-Italians, the German-speaking were by far the largest contingent, some two hundred or so, mainly autonomous groups from Germany and Austria, who completely surprised the organisers and their contacts in those countries by coming in such numbers. AH European countries were well-represented. North America sent 20-30, Latin America a bit more, while solitary figures came from such distant places as South Korea, Malaysia, Australia, New Zealand.
The incontro, itself, took place in three different locations, each intended to serve a different purpose. Once one discovered the trick of navigating Venice all three locations were within an easy ten minute walking distance of each other and the joy of a city without automobiles was truly immense. (1 suspected some ironical intent, however, when I noticed the hotel for North American participants looked out upon Venice's sole parking lot.} One walked everywhere (well, almost everywhere. One did take a vaporetto from time to time), and the sounds of everyday life, people, bells, water were not drowned out as in most modern cities, but heard as they should be. The very human scale of Venice was a genuine Utopian element of the incontro.
Campo Santa Margherita was the vital center, "Ciao! Anarchici", it welcomed with a large banner as the newly arrived came to get necessary information about housing, schedules, events, food, it was here that one found the Cucina, a kitchen staffed by anarchist comrades where one could get food at very modest prices in contrast to the very expensive Venetian restaurants. Here there were tables, benches, a covered space where one could eat and drink, socialize and make new friends. To show the dimensions of the operation, some 21,000 portions of food were served, mostly pasta, but consideration was taken for special diets, and 3,000 bottles of wine were drunk. One of the glories of the Cucina was its exceptional wine, supplied by one of Italy's leading wine merchants, Luigi Veronelli, who much to our satisfaction and to the great amazement of the daily press of Italy, turned out to be an anarchist sympathizer, in addition one could browse through an extensive bookfair that displayed anarchist publications from throughout the world, or one could look upon a stage that was used day and night for performance-songs, music, punk, rock, recitals, speeches. Santa Margherita, located in one of the few truly characteristic Venetian quarters that have resisted the onslaught of tourism, had an amazing capacity to absorb many hundred strange and foreign beings and, yet, to retain its own personality. The local stores opened unconcernedly for business, the daily outdoor market went on as usual, the adjoining restaurants allowed their rest-rooms to be used ungrudgingly, the mostly bemused, though occasionally irritated, local residents went for their daily passeggiata, staring at the curious new sights (including some strange red and black ribbon that wrapped itself around a tree) and joining in discussions from time to time; but the children seemed to have the most fun of all — looking, shoving, running, playing. Campo Santa Margherita was a lively and wonderful urban site, an inspired choice that gave great pleasure and served its purpose. Its very success as a space did however give rise to certain difficulties. One of the conditions agreed to by CSL for the use of Santa Margherita had been to suspend ail public activities by 11:30 p.m. Some comrades could not understand why their joyful noises should be halted simply to honor an agreement made with the authorities, while others were tipsily unaware of what they were doing. (Tipsiness was mostly induced by wine; very little pot and drugs were in evidence throughout the week.) With formidable patience and goodwill the Italian comrades explained, cajoled, convinced, and quieted the boisterous so that each evening ended without undue incident.
Permission to use the second outdoor site, Campo San Polo, that of the drains that bubbled up, had been held up until almost the last minute by the political maneuvering and infighting common to Italian municipal councils — the communists antagonizing the anarchists for ancient ideological motives, while the demochristians were concerned over the effects of the incontro upon the public morality... of others. Somehow the CSL inveigled the necessary permits for its use orje week before the scheduled opening and, faced with the great pressure of time, came up with a truly ingenious solution to the problem of housing several major displays and the audio-visual center of the incontro. In one amazing day with great panache they erected a huge bright blue and orange circus tent Its interior certainly induced a strong sense of the world of 1984, particularly when daylight filtered through the translucent orange panels of the tent and bathed everything in a hallucinating orange tint. This very surreal atmosphere did not make it easy to concentrate upon the two informative and nicely mounted exhibits that it contained. The History and Geography of Anarchism, assembled by CIRA, and Art and Anarchy. Because the presence of the huge, brightly colored tent —about the size of a football field —dominated the rather austere milieu of San Polo, the atmosphere of this site seemed a bit weird and less inviting in contrast to the more sociable and amiable Santa Margherita, but the unforeseen drawbacks of reality did not diminish the delights of the solution —not too much, at any rate.
The almost continual presence of films, videotapes and slide shows attracted its own particular crowd, perhaps the youngest of the incontro. Its audiences were spontaneous and open, and its events provoked many animated discussions. The events in San Polo, however, seemed to be treated much more casually by the organizers —and, perhaps, this was intended to be its nature —but, as a result, it was too difficult to get information about what was happening ahead of time, causing much fascinating material about the nature of contemporary anarchist practice, particularly in the videotape and slide formats, to pass by relatively unnoticed- Unfortunately the very difficult milieus of San Polo and the study conference hardly seemed to intersect in any vital fashion.
The central element of the incontro in the conception of its organizers was to be an international conference of studies. The participants in this attempt at "collective intellectual enterprise" were selected by CSL and the Anarchos Institute and were to deal with the theme, "Authoritarian Tendencies and Libertarian Tensions" in ironical Orweilian accents. The School of Architecture was chosen as the site for the conference. Hmm... irony, or symbolism? What more appropriate place could be found than a school of architecture to draw up plans for a brave new world? At any rate the conference took place in the two top floors of the school. Its main auditorium, which held 5-600 auditors had modern facilities that could supply simultaneous translations in as many as four different languages. Originally the four languages were to have been Italian, French, English, and Serbo-Croatian, but, just as Serbo-Croatian had been so mysteriously included so was it dropped for the conference, while a last-minute attempt was made to accommodate the unexpected
influx of so many German-speaking arrivals. Alas! To get a headset so that one could tune into the many voices of anarchism, one had to surrender one's documents, a requirement (libertarian tension?) that disturbed some anarchist militants who preferred to remain headset less. Sessions with smaller anticipated turnouts used adjoining rooms that had no such facilities and had to rely on live, consecutive translation. One got another whiff of 1984 when one met people with wireless headsets, tuned into the main hall, strolling into the smaller gatherings to hear two talks at the same time, translated simultaneously and consecutively.
The translational apparatus in Venice turned out to be cumbersome and stultifying. The simultaneous translations, done by professionals and adequate for the most part, nonetheless had a homogenizing effect. Those who spoke quickly were slowed down so that the translators could follow more easily, which often resulted in a deadly monotone, while the kinks of idiomatic speech were either flattened or left out by hard-pressed translators. In the opening plenary session rapid John Clark in his flavorful English almost reduced a translator to tears of frustration when he referred to Spam in the can and pel rocks. On the other hand consecutive translations bored speakers and auditors by their duration, which often caused the thread of discourse to become hopelessly entangled. (In light of the Venetian experience, I think any future international anarchist meeting should reconsider the role and manner of live translation of papers. Might not all that energy better go into preparing written translations of papers with only live discussion?)
The physical setup of the School of Architecture also played a role in establishing a rigid mood for these sessions. During a session in which 1 assisted as a consecutive translator—that on education and freedom as it turned out—a member of the audience suggested that if the structure of the seating, a single table of participants facing a room of auditors, were changed to a more sociable and egalitarian circle a more libertarian dialog might ensue. His point was unanimously accepted, but because all the chairs of the Facoltà were bolted together in groups of eight (to prevent theft or circles, who knows?), we could only form equilateral triangles.
What was being sent out and how was it being received? Four days, morning and afternoon, of plenaries, round tables, and seminars, chock-a-block full of noted anarchist names contained a plethora of topics — 1984, of course, the militant proletariat, feminism and anarchism, self-management, social ecology, living anarchy, the state and anarchy. Unhappily, the intellectual structure simulated the rigid seating. Despite fine individual contributions, the content was too predetermined, the discussions too restricted —those who were not known were not recognized, most of the curious and the puzzled could not question, and too often had to listen to the convinced and the determined. To be fair, my strictures result from having attended less than one-third of all conference sessions, but similar ones were voices at the final session by younger comrades who had felt especially excluded.
The only unpleasant uproar and disorder of the conference also occurred in this final plenary session. After the criticism of the younger comrades had been presented in a reasonable and non-disruptive manner, several contending fractions of the CNT intervened with a definite intent to halt the session because of the presence of Rudolph De Jong, of the International Institute of Social History of Amsterdam, on the panel. Each of the several different groups wanted the historical CNT archives which had been placed in the custody of the Institute in order to preserve them shortly before the end of the Spanish Civil War. Now that Franco was dead, though the Institute was quite willing to send the archives to a commonly agreed upon address in Spain, each CNT group in Venice seemed to want sole possession of the archive seemingly as a symbol of its authenticity, and all seemed to agree only in accusing Rudolph, as an anarchist and member of the Institute, of unanarchist behavior in not releasing the archives to their particular group. Their actions did not make it very clear how their purpose could be served by upsetting the final session before an audience which knew little of the matter, and finally the impatience of the audience led the CNT fractions to end their intervention and to agree to meet De Jong in an open public discussion on the following day. However, none of them showed up at the appointed time to contest De Jong's persuasive account of the situation. According to a rank and file member of the CNT who did show up and who had been embarrassed by the previous day's uproar, these groups did not represent the majority of the CNT membership, who simply wanted the historical archives to be opened as soon as possible in a responsible manner so that the CNT could proceed to deal with more immediate issues in Spain. There was a general agreement that the CNT groups who had created the uproar cut a sorry figure by not appearing to justify their actions.
Can one version sum up what happened in Venice? I don't think so. The anarchist presence in its wonderful and sometimes chaotic multiplicity—punks, gays, academics, feminists, militants, syndicalists, students, sympathizers, greens, ecologists, alchemists, etc., —continues to give proof of its vitality. We not only saw each other, but others saw us in the brilliant mise-en-scene that was created in Venice by the hard work of so many comrades. The non-anarchist press and media that covered the event churned out their reports, mostly in the usual commonplaces, though some were intelligent. (The CSL had striven to get media coverage — and succeeded. There were accounts of Venice in every major Italian newspaper, an in-house report by Colin Ward in the Manchester Guardian, and TV crews from NBC, BBC, and RAI) Anarchists, not surprisingly, disagreed among themselves about what was worthwhile and what was not. Had the "nipotini di Bakunin" (the grandchildren of Bakunin, as many Italian newspapers described us) come up with a "new" anarchism, emphasizing ecology, feminism, and pacifism instead of the "old" anarchism, proletarian, militant, revolutionary? Had Bakunin been put away up in the attic? Is the anarchism of today no longer a political movement, but a cultural/ethical influence? is there a break between the "old" anarchism and the "new" anarchism? Did any compelling reformation of anarchist ideas and strategies emerge from Venice?
BR presents a number of accounts from others who were there, to comment on such issues and to give a wider perspective on what happened during the incontro in the camp; in the conference halls, in the circus tents, in the gabinetti of Venice. The net effect of our Venetian encounter was not to make us discouraged by the prophecies of 1984, but to be heartened by contact with other anarchists from throughout the world. The memories of Venetian pleasures will instruct BR in our attempt to deal with the problem of day-to-day anarchy and our efforts to imagine new Utopias. For its part BR congratulates the many comrades of CSL who with the aid of CIRA and Anarchos made it happen.