What follows is the integral version of the essay accompanying Toty Ruggieri’s photos in the book Diamond Dogs Officina Post Industriale just published by Rome’s (Italy) Yard Press.
Napoli 1980s: No/New York, but a Factory of Global Social and Cultural Revolution
© Paolo Pontoniere
The Diamond Dogs opened its doors in 1984 in Naples, in the midst of what appeared to be a sudden turn toward ephemeral and hedonism
of Italy’s proverbially political-savvy youths. Salvio Causano, Stefania Vastarella, Salvatore Magnoni, Enzo Casella, Michele Genovese, Alessandra Novelli, Tonino Piccolo, Leopoldo, Gennaro da Piscinola, Luca Cangemi, Salvatore Cusano, Franco il Rosso. As for many juvenile enterprises of these times, the points of stylistic reference were the famous punk-houses of Northern Europe. Berlin, the Risiko. London, the Windsor Castle. The Manna Machine, the Dissidenten, the Clash, David Bowie.
David Bowie/Diamond Dogs: an archetypical binomial of sexual fluidity, political transgressivism, pursuers of glamorous visions of a post-apocalyptic and dystopian future. All true…,But it would be a big mistake reducing the history of the Diamond Dogs to a curious result of imported cultural trends, or even worse to a mere expression of social malaise, to the result of social fragmentation and, or cultural marginalization. To be extremely clear, let me say: to another Punk-me-too experience like the many thousands that emerged, “becoming”, throughout Europe during the ‘80s.
The clothes, the symbolism and the mannerisms may have been similar to those adopted by punks across the old continent but make no mistake, the experience of the Diamond Dogs, as the social and political vicissitudes that Naples lived during those years, were unique in the Italian panorama, and probably in Europe as well.
Foretellers of phenomena to come in years to follow, the events that took place in Naples, and at the Diamond Dogs, during the second half of the nineteen eighties were harbinger of a world to come in which social fluidity, economic instability, and political transformism would become the rule rather than the exception.
In this view the parabola the Diamond Dogs, rather than a marginal trajectory, may constitute one of the most exquisite examples of the social revolution that was taking place in Naples during the eighties.
It was a youth-driven social revolution that–even if just for a short moment–returned Naples to its role of international capital of culture, and social experimentation. Returned the city to a ‘loci’ where debating ideas was anew the bread and butter of a generation of youths who, poised on the frontier of cultural innovation and social involution–as it had been during the times of Vico, Cuoco, Filangieri, Galanti, Pimentel, and Genovesi– aimed to heal the wounds caused by recent natural disasters, by man-made criminal emergencies, and by political mismanagement.
Since the big earthquake that had struck Campania in November of 1980, the city had been poised between grace and desperation, constructivism and destruction; between social progress and political involution, in synthesis between hell—the crumpling historical center in the flatlands and the sprawling project-land that grew eastward and southward beyond its famed hills–and paradise—uptown: Vomero, Posillipo, Santa Lucia. And while the whole nation was coming to terms with the fact that the country had a serious problem with political corruption and criminal infiltrations in the public administration, toward the mid-eighties, for some media alchemy the narrative about crime, moral turpitude and social degradation came to be associated with Naples and the south of Italy. Naples in particular, with its high juvenile unemployment, gripped in the vise of mafia’s gang wars, with its daily bulletin of wounded and killed, a crumbling urban structure and an ineffective public administration, become the image of everything that did not work with the country.
While reports about the north described a country in the midst of an economic boom, in which science, design, fashion and technology were fostering a rapid transition from what was still mainly an agricultural society to an industrial and service based economy, media investigations about Naples and the South focused mainly onto its problems, and on the shortcomings of its people. Thus Napoli became a convenient distraction from other and more troubling developments. From events like the bombing of Itavia flight 870 over Ustica, the bombing of Bologna’s Train station, the bombing of train 940, the discovery of the existence of P2–yet another secret service inspired putschist organization—and of the existence of Operation Gladio, yet another clandestine “stay-behind” plan developed during the Cold War by Italian rightwing politicians in cahoots with CIA and NATO to prepare for resistance in case left-leaning forces should ever gain control of governing levers. Years later Mani Pulite (Clean Hands)–a 1990s’ nationwide judicial investigation into political corruption that lead to the demise of Italy’s so called first republic, and eventually to the dissolution of Italy’s traditional political parties –will in fact confirm that corruption and malfeasance weren’t just a Neapolitan problem, nevertheless the media-driven negative narrative about a community gone astray would associate Naples’ public image indelibly with garbage, petty crime, social and urban chaos.
Was this an original experience? Did it provide a unique insight?
It is by no means a stretch of imagination affirming that attempting to revolutionize the chaos that smothered the city the youth of Napoli, like those who frequented the Diamond Dogs, laid the foundation of phenomena to come. Of phenomena like Italy’s Mani Pulite and the dissolution of Italy’s traditional political system; the Second Republic; the end of the political categories of right and left; Slow Food; Italy’s New Cinema; Italy’s New Theatre, and the quest to pacify and reclaim the Mediterranean as a sea of peace and of all people, as well as a newfound acceptance of ethnic and sexual minorities.
It would in synthesis not be an overstatement to say that from many points of view the city was living a new season of ideal and cultural ferment similar to that it had lived in 1799, when a short lived Illuminist revolution in response to Bourbonic despotism–allowed the city to unleash the creative energy of its people, and to become a leader in events that lead to the end of feudalism, to the rise of modern Europe, and to the beginning a global discourse about the rights of the people, democracy, and freedom. A discourse this one that will reach maturity during the American anti-cololonial Revolution, and that continues today.
The Diamond Dogs, the Selvaggi Napoletani and the New Giacobini
Taking place between 1984 and 1989, the experience of the Diamond Dogs coincides with the ‘escape velocity’ phase of the socio-political processes triggered by the earthquake of 1980.
Four years from the seismic events the metal scaffoldings that had been initially propping-up thousands of the city’s buildings, like arms supporting a sorrowful mourner to prevent her ruinous fall, have become a straitjacket. Their rigid embrace is suffocating not only the view, but also putting a damp on the enthusiasm and the inventiveness for which the city population is renowned around the world. This is the tail-end of the years of lead. Are the years of the heroin epidemic—which like the crack epidemic in the US will erase a generation of political activists–of the state coming to pact with the Camorra via its secret service, while every day’s reality has become a Kafkian experience with unscripted rules, and in which any action can generate multiple and contradictory results.
Skepticism, cynicism, social segregation, cultural marginalization, behavioral anomie and helplessness are causing a diffused lethargy of the spirit and exerting a chilling effect on the collective creativity. The streets are invaded by a daily flood of protesters, both from the right and from the left of the political spectrum, asking for everything and the opposite of everything else. Prone to be easily influenced by demagogues and their promises –from the movement of the unemployed (il movimento dei disoccupati), to that of the homeless (i senza casa)–these crowds hold siege to the city precipitating it into a state of permanent conflict while public-services, from waste-collection to public transportation, are in disarray and can barely meet the needs of the population.
And while in other cities music and culture gave rise to “urban tribes” like the Paninari, the dark, the new romantics, the metal heads and post punks – groups of young people who bonded mostly over clothing style or musical preference–in Naples the social emergency and the structural catastrophe provide fertile ground to the birth of an unique indigenous clan, the Selvaggi Napoletani (the Wild Neapolitans, as they will be quickly dubbed by the media): an unstructured youth movement that sought to oppose creative anarchy and rational thought to the socio-political chaos which would in short order sweep over—first–the city and then the nation.
A transgenerational and tran-stylistic horde-libre that included fine artists, photographers, musicians, journalists, poets, sculptors, actors, and free thinkers, the ‘Selvaggi Napoletani’ emerged from the tufan belly of the city, from the same musky and proto-Christian catacombs where the Diamond Dogs lived its adventure.
Forming a network of tunnels that connects the hills to the Greek palaeopolis buried under city’s center, these guts provided refuge, and a stage, to a generation of artists, scholars, performers, which had set out to cut a different trajectory in the maze of indecipherable and unscripted laws that regulated Napoli’s social dynamics.
While national media had written off the city off as lost cause, teams of Neapolitan investigative photographers and journalists–including this editor—like Toty Ruggieri, Gianni Fiorito, Luciano Ferrara, Marina Arlotta, Michele Buonuomo, Francesco Durante, Gianni Montesano, and Federico Vacalebre were tearing the veil of national indifference toward the Neapolitan drama and, venturing into the soft underbelly of the city, were unveiling uncomfortable truths and secrets worth killing to shroud them from public scrutiny.
Gianni Montesano, Toty Ruggeri and Pino Cimo’s investigation into the assassination of young Neapolitan journalist Giancarlo Siani–“Mani Pulite” ante tempora—indicated the clear existence of an incestuous connubial between organized crime and public institutions. A connection which extended into the high-echelon of power: a leader of the ruling Socialist Party–and mayor of one of the major cities in the county of Naples–emerged in fact among the masterminds of the assassination. Siani had been investigating into shady dealings between local political figures and crime cartels surrounding the distribution of public funds for the reconstruction of the city.
A series of reports about the effects that NATO’s military servitude had on human trafficking, prostitution, drug trade and petty crime in the neighborhoods surrounding the port of Naples, produced by this writer, Ruggieri and Montesano for a now defunct regional magazine, were met with physical treats, and subjected to inexplicable rejections by local media, even though is some cases they had commissioned the reports in the first place.
And while Neapolitan publishers like Vincenzo Sparagna of Editoriale Primo Carnera —Frigidaire, Frizzer, Tempi Supplementari, and Vomito—and Gaetano Colonnese of Colonnese Editore, revived the art and craft of independent book publishing, theatrical revolution was afoot as well. 40 years from another theatrical revolution driven by international giants of dramaturgy like Raffele Viviani and Eduardo De Filippo, innovators the likes of the late playwright Antonio Newiller—founder of Teatro dei Mutamenti—and Enzo Moscato were revitalizing Naples’ storied theatrical tradition with plays such as “Titanic the End” and “Scannasurice”, which allegorizing on the tragic story of steamship RMS Titanic (which sank between the polar ice on April 14, 1912), the first, and the plight of a transgender in a post-earthquake Naples–the second,–offered a suitable and immediately understandable metaphor for the tragic destiny that had befallen not only the city but an entire generation of Neapolitan intellectuals and political leaders who in their soporiferous, and self-serving lethargy, where sleeping at the wheel while the world in which they lived was steadily being swollen –amidst a Babelic chaos–into a sea of banality and incompetence, or even worse into a cruel co-dependency between abused and abusers, exploited and exploiters, degradation and excellence.
Newiller and Moscato weren’t white flies though. At their heels was a news school of talents. The “Nuova Drammaturgia Napoletana” as it will be successively defined, which included groups such as Falso Movimento, and Teatro Studio, founded respectively by Mario Martone and Tony Servillo with a cadre of emerging actors and scenographers who will eventually—currently–become the “New Face” of the city around the world . Actors like Tony Servillo, Licia Maglietta, Andrea Renzi, Daghi Rondanini, Annibale Ruccello, Salvatore Cantalupo. In those years the number of off–houses grew as well. Like mushrooms following a tempest they sprang up an disappeared around the city some times in a matter of weeks. For a minute Napoli rivaled London for the number of off-locations–with the most renowned being the Teatro del Garage, Teatro Nuovo, Teatro Ausonia and San Carluccio.
And while the off-scene was alive and well, the nigthclubbing network provided a fertile ground for an exquisitely unique Neapolitan off-off scene. Locales like Diamond Dogs, the Pulsar in area Costantinopoli, the Riot at Palazzo Donn’Anna off Spaccanapoli, the ZX, the KGB, the Rockery-Nook, the Sensemilla, the Caffe della Luna (The Moon Café’), and social centers such as Segnali di Accelerazione (in the hinterland Acerrano), the Tienament (remember in Neapolitan, on the northwestern board of the city in that of Soccavo), offered an outlet to a slew of personal “pastiches” by budding young performers from local art schools like the Accademia di Belle Arti, and to bands like the Bisca, the Avion Travel, Les bandard Foux, the Liquid Eye, the Detonazione, the Almamegretta, which will produce the first musical expression of an emerging dialectical ethno-punk/ska of Mediterranean flavor, and which will pave the way to the ‘90s phenomenon of the musical posse around this ancient basin.
In the meantime Sparagana’s monthlies Frigidaire, and Freezer had introduced readers to a new kind of reporting. A reporting in which real news, current and political affairs were revisited through the lens of cartoons, and which was promptly imitated across the Alps by French, Spanish and German newspapers and magazines. This new form of narrative in recent years has been dubbed “graphic novel”, and has proven to be extremely useful to Middle Eastern writers attempting to show the human face of the Iraqi war–and of the Palestinian conflict–to readers around the world.
Fine artists merit probably a chapter apart in this history. Poets of inner landscapes reflecting the struggle of an entire generation to gain a seat at the table of history, painters, sculptors and photographers were at the vanguard of this push to explore new paths toward modernity. Their cadre included—among the others–Gabriele Di Matteo, Massimo Latte, Francesco Sansone, Piero Gatto, Michele Ciardiello, Salvatore Giusto, Maurizio Colantuoni, Fathi Hassan, Aldo Arlotta, Umberto Manzo, Salvatore Silvestro, Salvatore Bossone, Saverio Lucariello, Pina de Luca, Maurizio Pivetta and Lucia Gangheri. Taken together they constituted a new Neapolitan school of painting the likes of Neapolitan painters of the sixteen hundreds and revived the Neapolitan pictorial tradition of innovation, as the Transavantagarde had done during the seventies, returning the city the role of historic leader of the visual arts. A role that seemed to have dissolved during the impact with the earthquake.
What was happening in Naples hadn’t escaped artist who were on the cusp of experimentation though. Those were in fact the years in which the international avant-garde attracted by the city’s cultural ferment returned to Naples. Kounellis, Beuys, Nitsch, Kubelka and Warhol, to name a few, descend on Naples attracted by the Jacobin spirit of its artists and its performers. Great exhibitions like Terraemotus; of Naples No New York; Napoli 99 (which will give ‘life’ also to a namesake foundation and to one of the city’s most renowned posses, the 99 Posse); of “Bloque, Cerise, Boquetes, Jacquerte, Bijou”, will bring international attention to the city. Jean Noel Schifano appointment as director of the Grenoble Institute will also reveal an interest among European intellectuals to restitute Naples to its role of European capital of culture. Prophetically anticipating experiences such as California’s ethno-mixed cuisine— Schifano, a bonvivant and an estimator of Neapolitan beauty, will prompt the first ever experiment of culinary fusion, proposing the development of recipes mixing French and Neapolitan cuisine. Welcomed and promoted by the clubs of the nightclubbing network, Schifano’s exhortation will result in the birth a slew of eateries around the city which, managed by young entrepreneurs, will propose a new kind of fast-food, made of traditional foods wrapped in servings of convenience, and so are born the first buds of what will eventually become the Slow Food movement and eateries that, like the Campagnola (The Countrified) of Piazzetta Nilo and La Cantina del Sole (The Tavern of the Sun) at Via Palladino , which were popular grubs locales will in short order turn from taverns of the people into starred Michelin Guide destinations for the enjoyment of gourmands worldwide.
One should not commit the error though to believe that experiences like the Diamond Dogs were meant to fulfill only a superstructural need—to adopt a Materialistic point of view. They promoted also social engagement and political committement. At the end we must not forget that one of the most widespread graffiti of the time—and one of the most diffused slogan among Neapolitan punks and left leaning activists–was “Eroina, Fascisti, e Polizia dai nostril quartieri vi spazzeremo via”— Heroin, Fascists , and police from our neighborhoods we will wipe you out. Clubs like the Diamond Dogs, the Pulsar, Segnali di Accelerazione, and many other played a defining role in local and international campaigns, promoting indigenous, national and international causes; historical the campaign that they organized in favor of the Welsh miners protesting the Thatcher government. It involved practically all the city’s club and led to a national march in their support in Rome.
To recall events that took place more than 30 years ago may appear self-celebratory, the need of a generation well on its way to Sunset Boulevard, but we beg to differ. Napoli is once again a center of international attraction, and its innovative spirit is recognized again by innovators form some of the world’s major technological centers—it is not an accident in fact that giants of technology like Apple and Cisco have decided to open research and development in this city. The first inaugurating a center on the Eastern edge of the city to train European App developers, and the second opening a production center in that of Scampia, one of the largest housing settlement for the poor and the economically disadvantaged in Europe. It is at this juncture, when defining changes are afoot, which risk to change the nature of the city for ever—see for example what a booming tech economy has done to the social fabric of San Francisco and Northern California–important to understand, and to remember, where we came from, and how we got where we are. Experiences like that of the Diamond Dogs contributed to creating what is being defined the Neapolitan Risorgimento. It is imperative to learn from those years what was done that was good, and thus apply it today, and what we should avoid. Not only to avoid that the negatives of history repeat themselves—to get out in other terms for history’s course and recourse loop– but above all to project what we have learned that works into the future, so that new generations of Neapolitan artists, thinkers, politicians, and social activists may prosper, create and thrive.