The unMonastery Prototipo Matera saw its existence thanks to an almost unique moment. A group of citizens in the ancient but largely ignored administrative centre of the Basilicata region chose to systematically redefine themselves around questions of culture and inherent content. Generating the momentum, and providing the leverage to perform such a self cross-examination was the audacious act of nominating themselves as the Italian representative as a Capital of European Culture for 2019.
At issue was not their virtue nor essential Italianess, ( the selection of country was already fixed.) The question was the city’s merit in a country replete with bona fide major candidates. Relief and belief were both enormous when among circa 22 other hot-spots of Italian cultural superlatives, the local committee’s proposal made the short list of six cities. Well into their commitment to the unMonastery experiment, justice was seen to be done: we made it so far. Still, up against heavyweights such as Siena, Cagliari and Lecce, many in Matera felt the city a mouse masquerading as a magnificent Creature indeed.
Listening in the background to the soul-searching that accompanied a city with a self-image as peripheral and irrelevant was uniquely rewarding. Comparisons must be fatuous, but pockets of Latin American states renegotiating centuries of gross injustice, who have recently reformed themselves via social turmoil, will offer similar fertile soil. However, it is more likely that these societies have such straight forward demands of life and death infrastructure issues that these allow less time for more existential dilemmas such as: Who are we?
Matera, although long suffering on a scale of progressive national neglect, has retained secure supply lines to the rich food production of the region and is buoyed by a not yet suffocating parallel tourist economy. In addition they have one more enormous advantage: they legitimately possess a claim to being a deep cultural European resource. Some sources have it as the city with the clearest links to a Neolithic past. Others assert the claim of the world’s third oldest city with signs of urban inhabitance 10,000 years ago. In the rhetoric of the candidacy committee; we’ve been here for 8000 years , we want to remain here for 8000 more. Their virtue is a resilience that gets its strength from their very marginality…
Even the most self-declared neutral social anthropologists operate as cultural imperialists; to pronounce something as observation worthy is to intrude upon it. To rush to conclusion is offensive; the preferred tactic is to seep oneself in the social intercourse over time and to gently reflect upon ones own perceptions. To monitor the outer form of culture without having linguistic access to its content is not to wallow in ones exclusion, but to visit a therapeutic health bath that includes us in the core inner life of humanity. To spend time surrounded by a richness of after-a-while familiar faces, all involved in seeking purchase to negotiate their place in their future, is an inspiration. Even with little direct access to the debate, witnessing the forces of renewal and resistance: the passion is readily absorbable.
For an outsider, the pain wasn’t immediately tactile. However, the fault-lines in the city are not minor. And while the fertile earth of a conceptual crisis may not be everyone’s cup of tea; questions of belonging and authentic voice quickly become as familiar as they are fascinating. For a people balanced upon centuries of frustration and repressed rebellion as waves of conquest are illogically enforced, helplessness can easily become a predigested reality. Chronic negativity is only a superficial symptom – it purports to be realism even if it may often be indicative of inherited defeat.
For those of us ensconced in castles of noble concern, besieged by seemingly militant waves of indifference, to probe and provoke the citizenry by offering the luxury of wishing out loud in orderly concentric circles, is to invite rebellion. To carry on is a sign of bravery.
In the vibrant climate at the periphery of such a broad social project, the unMonastery perceives itself as essential. Not in the sense of that the MA2019 process cannot do without us, but we see in our experimental prototype an alchemic distillation that hopefully one day very soon shall surrender the secret essence of all human endeavors.
The brave initiative takers behind both the Materan candidacy and its favorite sub-project The unMonastery may be foolhardy; it shall be a deep tragedy if either of us find no one to carry our banner…