By Cristina Moretti
What could an ethnography of textures be like? In Milan, the Italian city where I grew up, and did most of my fieldwork in, it could start from
the soft, wrinkled thickness of paper ….
that covers many of its walls, fences, and sides of buildings. There are poems, announcements, political posters (some with angry and terrible statements), advertisements. All made of paper, superimposed on one another, thick with glue, roughened by the weather, moved by the wind like tiny sails, broken at the corners, interrupted by other writings claiming the same spaces. They are the upholstery of the city. They are the voices of the walls.
It is their sheer density that fascinates me, for in a way, it tricks them all. While they announce their messages, their very body and its texture reveal the complex relations between what is said, what is remembered, what stays on as history, and what is erased yet lingers beneath the surface. Textures can suggest inquiries on who speaks in the city and how.
Here several meters of paper carry instructions on how to apply for social housing and how to vote during a municipal election. I smile: how apt is this medium, the peeling, fading, yet massive and pervasive poster for the voice of the municipality, the voice of bureaucracy, of the state!
The posters’ serious look, the complex language of rule, both clash with the ephemerality of the material they are inscribed on, and resonate with the enduring thickness of the papers, layered one upon the other, month after month. The many, thin lines of writing remind me that for many Italians, the government appears as a series of riddles – complex, inefficient, and very hard to understand.
What could this suggest about citizenship, and how it is constituted? What can the weathered poster say about the everyday encounters of people with the state and its bureaucracy – a relation that is torn and frayed at the border from the very moment that is established, yet multilayered, controlling, and opaque because of its imposing complex presence?
The poster of course is not just the prerogative of the state and of the municipality. Its presence, and the textures it adds to the city, can equally speak of dissent. Here demonstrators use the street to prepare small posters (to tape to buildings and to hand out to passersby) during a rally against a proposed security law and in support for immigrant’s rights in February 2009.
… or from the luminous smoothness of glass
The new buildings in Milan are so luminous and smooth that they invite me to touch them. Milan has been changing profoundly in the past decade. More than thirty urban redevelopment projects have reshaped its landscape and many of its neighbourhoods, transforming previously vacant industrial areas and fields into new residences, parks, and facilities. At times criticized as gentrification, at others heralded as much needed improvements, these initiatives are an effort at marketing the city, and to attract affluent professionals and businesses. This new urban landscape represents global associations and expectations (Bricocoli and Savoldi, 2010; De Koning, 2009), and is a witness to the neoliberal repositioning of the state and it regions (Brenner, 2004).
As a person who grew up in Milan, these transformations are indeed very surprising. As Bricocoli and Savoldi observe, it seems that “the city is founded anew, often erasing all traces of what existed before. A surface without friction becomes the ground for a project which seeks to design new forms and images” (Bricocoli and Savoldi, 2010: 196).
It is this friction, and its absence, that interests me here. How do these changes call upon the senses, and how do they interpellate the moving body within an urban landscape?
As I walk through some of the redeveloping neighbourhoods, I can feel the changes in Milan as a matter of my skin encountering different textures: the opaque and uneven surfaces of older brick buildings are now accompanied or replaced by polished, gleaming edifices and facades. Their curved, transparent forms are beautiful and inviting, almost playful. At the same time, they offer little to hold on. Standing behind gates and fences, watching them grow, I wonder: Who will eventually come to move, name, and remember these places? Who will inhabit them and how? Who will be displaced by the slippery towers?
This might seem inevitable, almost obvious: a simple growing of a city and a changing style of architecture. However, the play of textures emphasize this moment of becoming, the edges between the old and the new, with their many hopes, surprises, concerns, and interrogations.
In the spring of 2011, several people I knew commented that everyday they would check to see if the new towers of Garibaldi Repubblica, one of the redeveloping areas, had grown, “spying” on the new glass corners and cement shapes as they were coming up from behind familiar buildings. The image of the new developments literally peeking from behind the known city gripped me as a powerful metaphor and a strategy for inquiry. How do the new construction areas intervene in people’s everyday life experiences of the city? From which embodied locations can we feel their impacts?
Because of the massive urban transformations, in the past few years, living in Milan often includes living in the shadows of the cranes and of the emerging high rises. This does not mean that they overcome our trajectories, that they create a completely different landscape, or that finally we can bask in their glory. But their shadows do constitute a very particular space, into and out of which our bodies and lives journey.
This is also a passing moment. When I go back to Milan another time, the dusty voids will already have given birth to the luminous smoothness of glass. Looking at textures can be a way both to appreciate a particular time, and to foretell a long conversation that will continue to happen between buildings and places.
Brenner, Neil (2004) New State Spaces: Urban Governance and the Rescaling of Statehood. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press.
Bricocoli, Massimo and Paola Savoldi (2010) Urbanistica e Politiche alla Prova dei Luoghi. In Milano Downtown: Azione Pubblica e Luoghi dell’Abitare, Massimo Brococoli and Paola Savoldi, eds. Pp. 191-231. Milano: Et al. Edizioni.
De Koning, Anouk (2009) Global Dreams: Class, Gender, and Public Space in Cosmopolitan Cairo. Cairo; New York: American University in Cairo Press
For more on the Italian state and bureaucracy see:
Ginsborg, Paul (2003) A History of Contemporary Italy: Society and Politics 1943-1988. New York, N.Y.: Palgrave Macmillan.
Guano, Emanuela (2010) Taxpayers, Thieves, and the State: Fiscal Citizenship in Contemporary Italy. Ethnos 75(4):471-495.