Book Review: The Italian Avant-Garde: 1968–1976

Sternberg Press seems to offer a good example of how the print editorial production can still offer much not only to the contemporary cultural debate, but also to some fruition modalities “anchored” to the physicality of the object-book. The little German publishing house, founded in 1999 by Caroline Schneider, can boast a catalog composed by hundreds of titles in which curators, critics, designers, artists, writers and philosophers give life to a solid multidisciplinary platform, committed to expanding the critical debate concerning the status quo of art and contemporary culture—and engaged as well in providing historical re-readings and redefinitions and in examining possibilities and perspectives of the near future.

The new Sternberg’s editorial project is the EP series, “the first critically underpinned series of publications that fluidly move between art, design, and architecture. The series creates a discursive platform between popular magazines (“single play”) and academic journals (“long play”) by introducing the notion of the “extended play” into publishing: with thematically edited pocket books as median” (a description that reminds us, in some respects, the editorial nature of Krisis Magazine).

The first EP series’ title is The Italian Avant-Garde: 1968–1976, an anthology dedicated to the radical movements in the field of art, design and architecture appeared during a decade that still finds difficulties in being assimilated and digested by the Italian historical and social memory. And it is exactly for this reason that browsing the volume it is impossible to ignore a certain concern, an intellectual itch ensuing maybe from an alienation feeling. The interventions presented in the volume, which range from interviews to short essays, see in fact the participation of many fellow Italians, many of which are key figures of the historical period at issue here—but such participation is often mediated by foreign authors and critics. After all, the entire project follows such path: an anthology entirely devoted to Italian radical cultural movements, edited by a German publishing house, curated by two English critics—Alex Coles and Catharine Rossi—and whose graphic appearance was designed by Dutch collective Experimental Jetset. In light of this, that concern starts revealing its true nature, ending up defining itself in the following question: “Why an historical period so important for the Italian cultural—but even social and political—history is today almost entirely removed from the collective memory of the country, whereas in the rest of the world many authors are devoting reflections, written pages and critical texts to it?”. The answer is not simple at all, and would require to cross the strictly cultural and artistic border in order to extend a discourse that is inevitably rooted in a plane which is political—and defined by strong social conflicts. Nevertheless remains—in all its coldness—the fact that the constant refusal to deal with a memory considered nowadays inconvenient, as well as the ceaseless tendency to reduce much more complex and stratified dynamics to static and flat extremes—the Terrorism, the Violence, the Extremism—condemns any cultural reflection to a perennial twilight zone.

Even today, in Italy, it is considered improper to speak of some collectives trying to open new lines of flight for practices and professions like those of the architect or the designer. Maybe simply because that particular collective dealt with that other theorist or professor, whose thought was taken as a source of inspiration from a magazine that raised questions concerning the legitimacy of the use of non-non-violent practices—the double negation is almost necessary—in front of a true state violence. After more than forty years, the period spanning from 1968 to the end of the 70’s is still a cultural taboo—to the point that in our collective memory it is referred to as the Years of Lead. Facing this matter of fact, we can only judge favourably an attempt like that of the Sternberg Press’ volume—and what is at stake here is not just a rescue and reconsideration operation, but becomes an opportunity to open a new debate concerning the contemporary cultural and social condition. How it is written in a review appeared on the blog We make money not art: “I would recommend the book not only for its historical perspective but also for the way it echoes some of today’s interests and preoccupations. The architects and designers of the time too were raising environmentalist concerns for alternative sources of energy. They were already questioning the rule of the objects and the role of an art biennial. They too were exploring more powerful uses of ‘new media’ while looking for a more meaningful relationship between man and technology. And believe it or not, they were already inventing designs driven by concepts and encouraging ‘non-professionals’ to build ‘spontaneous structures’ and participate in ongoing debates. Surely there are lessons there that we could all make use of.”