Saturday, 27 June 2009

underhistory (1)

In 2004, the Croatian performance artist DB Indos took me to a vast rubbish tip near Zagreb; he called it ‘the mountain’, ‘an apocalyptic place, as if something terrible has happened’. A chaotic archive of the broken, the unwanted, the redundant, the forgotten, the repressed: a monumental landscape of fragments of the city’s discarded pasts. He told me about methane build-ups within this mass of refuse, how some years ago a huge explosion had scattered rubbish far and wide across the southern suburbs of the city. Then he told me of his desire to make a performance here, and pointed to a spot high on a crest …

The following texts emerge from a long-term interest in Italian politics and organized crime: its performative modus operandi, and its imbrication in the circuits and flows of globalization. In addition, and more recently, I have been looking at approaches to waste in environmentalism, cultural studies, archaeology, psychology and psychoanalysis, and certain contemporary art practices. As John Scanlan and others have shown, terms like 'garbage', 'trash', 'refuse', 'waste' and 'rubbish' are complex metaphorical terms employed to organize and legitimize the treatment of parts of life normally desired to be overlooked. So perhaps attention to waste can provide uncanny shadow histories and geographies of ‘things, people or activities that are separated, removed, and devalued’ (Scanlan 2005: 10).

What follows in this sequence of three consecutive blog posts are sections from a longer set of texts – very much unfinished, a work-in-progress. In large part, I am inspired here by the work of particular activists, artists and investigators, and I dedicate this research to them: Dan Gretton and his colleagues at Platform; the artist/activist Ursula Biemann; the investigative journalist Roberto Saviano; the artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles; and the Sicilian magistrates Giovanni Falcone & Paolo Borsellino, murdered by the Mafia in the summer of 1992.

I’d like to begin with three prefatory quotations:

First, Iain Sinclair, from his recent book Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire: ‘We are the rubbish, outmoded and unrequired. Dumped on wet pavings and left there for weeks, in the expectation of becoming art objects, a baleful warning. Nobody pays me to do this. It is my own choice, to identify with detritus in a place that has declared war on unconvinced recyclers while erecting expensive memorials to the absence of memory’ (Sinclair 2009: 7).

Second, Isabel Fonseca in Bury Me Standing, her extraordinary 1996 book about Roma & Sinti people in Eastern Europe. In 1940s Britain, she writes, “Gypsies suffering from pulmonary disease attempted a symbolic transference by breathing three times into the mouth of a live fish, and then throwing it back into the stream from which it had been fetched. The hope was that, confused, death would go for the fish” (Fonseca 1995: 248).

And finally, Walter Benjamin, an incomplete fragment from his ‘First Sketches’ for the Arcades Project: ‘And nothing at all of what we are saying here actually existed. None of it has ever lived – as surely as a skeleton has never lived, but only a man. As surely, however … [broken off]’ (Benjamin 1999: 833).


In Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, Leonia is a city that ‘refashions itself every day’ – everything is discarded and replaced on a daily basis. It’s uncertain whether Leonia’s ‘true passion’ is ‘the enjoyment of new and different things’, or rather ‘the joy of expelling, discarding, cleansing itself of a recurrent impurity’. Every day the street cleaners, who are ‘welcomed like angels’, remove ‘the residue of yesterday’s existence’, but nobody in the city knows where they take it. Somewhere ‘outside’. However ‘the bulk of the outflow increases and the piles rise higher, become stratified’, until eventually a ‘fortress of indestructible leftovers surrounds Leonia, dominating it on every side, like a chain of mountains’.

‘This is the result: the more Leonia expels goods, the more it accumulates them; the scales of its past are soldered into a cuirass that cannot be removed. As the city is renewed each day, it preserves all of itself in its only definitive form: yesterday’s sweepings piled up on the sweepings of the day before yesterday, and of all its days and years and decades …’

Meanwhile, the other cities are also ‘pushing mountains of refuse in front of themselves’. ‘Perhaps the whole world, beyond Leonia’s boundaries, is covered by craters of rubbish, each surrounding a metropolis in constant eruption. The boundaries between the alien, hostile cities are infected ramparts where the detritus of both support each other, overlap, mingle’.

As the mountains of refuse grow in height, the danger of a cataclysmic landslide increases. ’A tin can, an old tire, an unravelled wine flask, if it rolls towards Leonia, is enough to bring with it an avalanche of unmated shoes, calendars of bygone years, withered flowers, submerging the city in its own past, which it had tried in vain to reject, mingling with the past of the neighbouring cities, finally clean …’ The other cities are ready to move into the new territory, flatten it with their bulldozers, and erase all trace of Leonia, freeing a space for their own street cleaners to push ‘still farther out’ (Calvino 1974: 114-6).


Campania Felix

The last twenty-five years or so has seen the rise of an organized crime phenomenon known as the ‘Ecomafia’, a term that refers to illegal development and construction, and to waste disposal. Since the late 1970s, the waste disposal industry has become a lucrative context in an extreme form of gangster capitalism, in which toxic materials are dispersed illegally and with devastating effects. Bernardo Provenzano, former boss of bosses in the Sicilian Cosa Nostra, wrote in one his smuggled notes, with a Midas-related boast: “It’s easy - it goes out shit, and comes back gold”. In Italy, investigators suggest that millions of tons of industrial waste ‘disappear’ every year, of which about 300,000 tons are highly toxic. An estimated 500 tons a day go missing from the province of Milan alone, almost 40% of its daily total.

Campania: Campania Felix, as it used to be known – ‘a land as clear as daylight’ is the advertising strap-line of the Regione Campania tourist board. Their brochures quote Pliny the Elder, writing almost exactly 2,000 years ago: ‘This land is so happy, so delightful, so fortunate that it is obvious it is nature’s favorite. This revitalizing air, the perpetually clear skies, the so fertile land …’ However, in the early part of the 21st century, in a semi-circle to the north of Naples, in the so-called ‘Land of Fires’, Campania contains the greatest concentration of illegal toxic and non-toxic dumping and unregulated incineration in Western Europe, which has poisoned the land and many of its inhabitants; there is an estimated illegal dumping of about a million tons a year in this region alone.

The scale is bewildering, to say the least. According to Lagambiente the Italian environmental NGO (the original inventors of the word ‘Ecomafia’ in the 1990s), “if all the trash that has escaped legal inspection in Italy [since the early 1990s] were collected in one place, it would form a mountain […] rising 47,900 feet from a base of 3 hectares. Mont Blanc rises 15,780 feet, Everest 29,015. So this heap of unregulated and unreported waste would be the highest mountain on earth” (Saviano 2007: 283).

In Italy almost all of this waste travels North to South, contracted out at 40-80% below its legal disposal costs: mostly scattered across Campania, Calabria, Puglia, Sicily. As Roberto Saviano points out, these regions with the greatest number of recorded environmental crimes, also “head the list for the largest criminal associations, the highest unemployment rates, the greatest number of volunteers for the military and the police forces” (ibid: 283).

All sorts of materials have been found: derivatives from incinerators & thermoelectric plants; asbestos; polluted soil from reclamation projects; petrochemical companies’ waste; paint residues; chemical thinners; carcinogenic hydrocarbons; radioactive and other waste from hospitals; old road surfaces with a very elevated tar density; sludge from tanning factories and purification plants; heavy metals – lead, mercury, cadmium – as well as arsenic, chrome, nickel, cobalt; even exhumed body parts from cemeteries when they clear space by moving on the so-called ‘superdead’ (over 40 years old). And in the plumes of illegal incinerations, the release of huge quantities of dioxins that find their way into the water table, and agricultural produce, including most famously into buffalo mozzarella cheese.

Saviano describes a farmer ploughing a newly purchased field, his plough blade becoming jammed and uncovering bales of pulped lire bank notes (285). Also, during the public prosecutor’s 2006 covert operation Madre Terra ('Mother Earth'), the discovery of huge dumps of printer toner (286) leaching carcinogenic hexavalent chromium into the soil.

This dispersal has reconfigured the landscape to create ‘previously non-existent hills and suddenly restored lost mass to mountains devoured by quarries’ (Saviano 285). There is a terrible logic to the cycle. Buy land – create new quarries/tips – get the contract for its reclamation.clean-up – re-disperse these materials, and re-use the old quarry/tip sites again – use the capital to drive out small holders, buy more land, create more space … Anywhere is a potential empty space: underground petrol tanks of disused gas stations, abandoned houses. In the documentary Biutiful Cauntri: construction waste is dumped in a pyramidal pile in the middle of the road on an underpass on the motorway. Another common dispersal technique is through mixing waste with cement or asphalt for use in construction (a technique employed in England by London Waste for the illegal dispersal of fly ash), or cutting waste into fertilizer and compost, distributed nationally and spread widely on agricultural land.

Cumulatively, this activity has generated billions of euros for the Camorra clans. It’s known that organized crime makes a lot more money per annum than Fiat, for example. It has produced spiralling health problems in farm stock & humans in Campania. Including (according to research by the WHO and others) an alarming increase in particular cancers - liver, leukaemia, lymphoma etc. - in Caserta, Acerro and other areas around Naples (see Senior & Mazza 2004).

Evidently this is just one part of widespread illegal dumping elsewhere; one thinks of Trafigura’s astounding criminal recklessness in its dispersal of a highly toxic sludge in Abidjan on the Ivory Coast, or of Shell’s implicatedness in the environmental devastation of the Niger delta. For organized crime in Italy it operates via an international network related to drug trade routes and connections, and easy deals with the 3rd world. Also to Eastern Europe (particularly Romania, where there is documentary evidence of radioactive waste having been dumped in the Black Sea); to Albania, China, Costa Rica – and in particular to Africa (Mozambique, Nigeria, Somalia etc.), on land and in the sea. There has been tipping directly off ships – barrels dumped over the side into the sea, as well as the sinking of ships with holds full of waste, then claim the insurance. It’s now known, for example, that ships containing barrels of radioactive waste have been sunk off Calabria in the Mediterranean, as well as much more widely off the east coast of Africa.

Then in December 2004, the tsunami threw up hundreds of decaying barrels of illegally dumped radioactive and heavy metal waste on to the beaches of Somalia. UN reports and other sources confirm the link with Italian organized crime. Recent statements by some of the Somalian ‘pirates’ taking ships hostage have justified their ransom demands in part as compensation to be used in cleaning up the coastline ‘laid waste’ by Ecomafias in this way over the past 20 years, and in helping to protect their fishing territories. There remains very limited discussion of this in the Western media, with the notable exception of Johann Hari in The Independent, and more recently George Monbiot in The Guardian.

Strange reversals: ‘Waste disposal’ as environmental terrorism - the performance of ‘piracy’ as radical environmentalist intervention.


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