In our latest post, Irene Ros (PhD Researcher at Universities of Edinburgh and Strathclyde, discusses her research on the impact of Italian right-wing terrorism in the 1970s through the perspectives of 17 women who lived through that era.
Siamo in linea [We are online]
Siamo in linea is an interactive installation that was exhibited during the Scottish Graduate School for Arts and Humanities Summer School, in Glasgow, between 23 and 24 June 2022.
I will here give a brief account of the methodology employed in creating the installation, the goals I set and the challenges I faced (and face).
The installation was an output of the SGSAH-funded PhD project “Performing Stragismo and Counter-spectacularisation: Italian right-wing Terrorism and Its Legacies”, which investigates the employment of spectacular elements in the Italian right-wing terrorist attacks (1969-1980) and in their highly politicised yearly commemorations, and asks how they impacted Italian collective memory.
Through a participatory practice – in progress – that has included, so far, video-recorded conversations, over Zoom, with 17 participants, the project encompasses the under-represented narratives of Italian women who were young adults in the Seventies and who belonged to the majority of the population, i.e. people who were not involved in Italian political violence.
I employ oral history as a research methodology; through an initial set of questions drawn from Paul Thompson’s Oral History. The Voice of the Past (2000), I establish a relationship based on trust and active listening, I explore the participants’ background and the paradigms to discuss political violence: through which models are collective trauma and collective memory elaborated and how are they transmitted intergenerationally?
Oral history pertains to the feminine
Academic research on Italian terrorism usually engages with the main actors of these events, namely the victims and their families, and the former terrorists; furthermore, the media’s discourse about terrorism calls women into question only to play the role of victims (grieving mothers, wives, daughters) or of sexually deviated former terrorists. My project intends to offer an alternative to the predominantly man-centred discourse on right-wing terrorism.
Building on the distinction that Peggy Phelan makes between marked and unmarked in her Unmarked: The Politics of Performance, I argue that, as a result of the binary division that characterises Western knowledge, oral history is a domain that pertains to the feminine, in contrast to the written page.
“As Lacanian and Derridean deconstruction have demonstrated, the epistemological, psychic, and political binaries of Western metaphysics create distinctions and evaluations across two terms. One term of the binary is marked with value, the other is unmarked. The male is marked with value; the female is unmarked, lacking measured value and meaning”. (Phelan 1991, 5)
Complexifying the ‘political subject’
This project’s goal is to challenge the concept of ‘political subject’ and to represent – or, better, to create a space to self-represent – the participants as such.
The conversations with the participants started in February 2021, right after one of the highest peaks of covid-19. During my online conversations, I had to acknowledge the isolation that some of the participants were experiencing and attempt to create a connection through a quite cold medium.
The project posed several issues about positionality: being a white, Italian woman and mother, who spent 32 years of her life in her home country, and sharing some cultural values with the participants, I considered myself an insider, although the generation gap and my status as an immigrant made my position liminal and extremely fluctuating, as I realised that some participants considered me an outsider simply because they were from different Italian regions.
The first nine participants were recruited through personal connections, and the conversations with them started with some bias; knowing some of them since I was a child, or knowing them through a friendship with their ‘children’, I assumed, sometimes wrongly, their economic, cultural and political positions. The following participants were mostly recruited through the first group and, in the absence of direct contact, these assumptions were mitigated.
This recruitment model proved successful in terms of the number of participants with whom I ultimately engaged, but it left out a vast slice of Italian women.
Who was not represented?
Although I recognise as woman anyone self-defining themselves as such, almost all the participants were married to someone of the opposite sex and had children. The two participants who were not married did not disclose their sexual orientation. Recruiting participants through friends from my generation (in their late thirties or early forties) I could not reach LGBTQA+ parents, since gay adoptions were not legally possible when we were children.
Immigrant women – of any colour and background – who lived in Italy during the Seventies are also missing from the picture: being born and raised in predominantly white northern Italy, I could not count on direct contact with women of colour who lived in Italy through the 1970s. Moreover, no participant has presented so far any visible disability, not as a result of a choice in the recruitment process. My specimen is therefore not representative of Italian women in their entirety.
Each participant sat through three one-hour meetings, at the end of which they received the audio recording of the conversations, to allow them to request to erase specific parts and give their consent for the future employment of the material. They also received the creative outcomes of my practice, to review them and express their opinion on the way they were portrayed before they were shared with anyone else.
Immigrant women – of any colour and background – who lived in Italy during the Seventies are also missing from the picture: being born and raised in the predominantly white northern Italy, I could not count on direct contacts with women of colour who lived in Italy through the 1970s. Moreover, no participant has presented so far any visible disability, not as a result of a choice in the recruitment process. My specimen is therefore not representative of Italian women in their entirety.
Each participant sat through three one-hour meetings, at the end of which they received the audio-recording of the conversations, to allow them to request to erase specific parts and give their consent for the future employment of the material. They also received the creative outcomes of my practice, to review them and express their opinion on the way they were portrayed before they were shared with anyone else.
Fuori Programma and interactive outcomes
The installation is the second outcome of my project, the first being a ten-minute film (called Fuori Programma [Unscheduled or Off Plan]) in which the first nine participants’ contributions were edited in a dialogue. The shape and content of the film were informed by the participants, as I adopted an open approach that aimed at the co-creation of knowledge. The aesthetics sprang out from the first conversation I had with the first participant (Figure 01) and it reflected the political goal of the project, moving the participants to the foreground and everything else to the background.
The interactive installation Siamo in Linea included five tablets on small tall round tables, each tablet was dedicated to one of the new participants. The audience could select a question or more (out of six, the same for each participant) to ask the participant, having an “interview-like” experience (Figure 02).
More than Fuori Programma, the installation exposes the process of creation: the answers that the women give often result from assembling different bits of conversations, laying bare in front of the audience the incompleteness and partiality of the material with which they engage. At the same time, the cuts reveal the power structure and hopefully encourage the audience to reflect on agency in participatory practices: although the process was set up to be collaborative, I decided what became and what did not become visible.
The participants were aware of being recorded and filmed and hence were, to different degrees, performing themselves, however, in deciding what to include or exclude, I shaped their visibility as political subjects, based on what I determined to be representable, but also relatable. The women answered questions that I chose in retrospect; the choice fell on questions that could create connections with the present, to improve the audience’s engagement with the material. The participants told memories from their childhood (the late 1950s, early 1960s) that could resonate with the memories the audience heard from their parents or grandparents; they talked about the way they socialised as young adults, and, moving on to my research topic, they traced their relationship with politics during the 1970s and they reflected on the way media reported the events, shaped their opinions and changed them in time.
The participants’ virtual presence undeniably gives the audience the sensation of authenticity and truth-telling, similarly to what happens in many testimonial theatre plays, in which the presence of the witnesses is at the centre of the work.
In her Performing the Testimonial: Rethinking Verbatim Dramaturgies, Amanda Stuart Fisher asserts:
“The discourses of authenticity associated with verbatim theatre tend to circulate around two interconnecting ‘promises’ that disclose different kinds of truth claims” (Stuart Fisher 2022, 81)
The two promises are first to show the audience a source of truth, and secondly the sincerity of the personal narratives. These claims do not consider the possibility of faulty and altered (i.e. performed) memories, which could be mitigated if they are put in conversation with original documents, a strategy that I employed in Fuori Programma, but not in Siamo in Linea.
Recognising the memories’ limitations and still wishing to work with under-represented subjects, I have been often questioning: what does constitute a legitimate historical truth?
During the SGSSS-SGSAH-funded Symposium Doing Feminist Research (4-6 May 2022, Edinburgh), Rashné Limki suggested that “It is better to do good work than legitimate work”.
Without disavowing the existence of historical truth, I wish this project will allow me to do some good work.
In my last year, I wish to employ the participants’ memories in the creation of a live performance. The reasons behind this choice are many, but they can be summarised in three points: coming from theatre and performance practice, the live format is still the field in which I feel more comfortable, even after two years of pandemic; a multimedia live performance will allow me to include controversial memories, giving them the necessary context. Ultimately, the participants’ stronger memories originated from a physical engagement with the senses: I wish to offer the audience the gift of presence and to re-present memories through the ephemerality of performance.
 Gay weddings have been celebrated in Italy only since 2016, although the law still uses a different vucabolary for them (unioni civili [civil unions] instead of matrimonio [marriage]). Similarly, adoption was officially possible for gay parents only since 2016, but with several restrictions that do not apply to straight couples.
Irene Ros is a mother of two, a theatre and performance practitioner and a researcher. She graduated with distinction from the MA Performance Design and Practice at CSM in 2018 and she is currently a AHRC-SGSAH-funded PhD student. She ran the Italian theatre organisation Ursa Maior (2002-2012) and she is the co-founder of Cut Moose, whose projects were presented at the Rich Mix, Tête-à-Tête Opera Festival, CSM. In the past year, her works were exhibited by Hope University, Liverpool (Domestic practice in quarantine); College Art Association Annual Conference (US); Centre for the Less good Idea (South Africa); Fabrica (Italy).