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pompeiicommitment.org is a portal.

Through a program of new weekly publications, from December 21, 2020, for twelve months, Pompeii Commitment reconfigures the archaeological site of Pompeii as a foundation for alternative forms of knowledge, forming through a multiplicity of functions: artists-led research center (Commitments), collection of testimonies (Fabulae) and documents (Historiae), indefinite collection (Collectio), hypothetical and transdisciplinary museum (Inventario), library in formation (Library of Archeology and Futurology). All these possible departments are dedicated to studying and sharing the multiple cognitive potentials of Pompeii and the episteme of its “archaeological matters”.

Evoked by artist Giulio Paolini in his contribution, it is the fourth of the monumental entrances to Pompeii (with Piazza Anfiteatro, Porta Marina Superiore, Porta Marina Inferiore): unlike the others, however, this portal does not physically introduce us to Pompeii but to the episteme that Pompeii brings forth. It operates as the threshold of a construction in the making, through which forms of shared and generative knowledge can be defined, where nothing is predetermined but possible, not singular but plural, where to observe human visitors as well as the stray animals that roam here and there, or the climbing roses that grow over the remains of that once magnificent and intact “archaeological matter”, still co-existing in the site, albeit corroded and impregnated with other forms, substances, existences.

Crossing this threshold, you will enter the spatial and temporal short circuit of a site as real as it is imaginative: although immersed in the flow of history, the Etruscan, Samnite and Roman city of Pompeii became, with the eruption of 79 AD and for the next two millennia, a memory, a fantasy. Rediscovered in 1748, it has inspired, in the last two and a half centuries, our own experience of the past as something malleable and close to us. Pompeii emblematically redefines archaeology itself as the production of knowledge that is always reversible and adventurous.

Even today, faced with the challenging scenario of a possible disappearance and ending of life due to wars and exploitation, climatic crises and pandemics, Pompeii remains, more than a symbol of the end, an enlightening admission of the perennial transformation of all materials and histories, of the fluctuation of every linear concept of time and definitive notion of space.

We refer to this platform as a “portal” rather than a “website” – a word that embodies the sense of being a threshold, a moment when we can break with what we know and imagine new knowledge and new worlds. “A door between one world and another”, to use the words of Arundhati Roy in her essay “The pandemic is a portal”[1].

 

pompeiicommitment.org is an episteme.

The expression “archaeological matter” refers, firstly, to the discipline of archaeology itself (from the ancient Greek ἀρχαιολογία: ἀρχαῖος, “ancient”, λόγος, “study”), i.e. the research on ancient civilizations through the excavation, conservation, cataloguing and analysis of multiple artefacts – such as architectures, sculptures, mosaics, frescoes, and other items of common use, as well as organic and inorganic remains – placed in relation to the environment of their discovery. The definition “archaeological matter” may further indicate the artefacts themselves that can no longer be fully restored or recomposed and which – as a result of erosion processes (over time) or catastrophic events (earthquakes, eruptions, wars, climate change or pandemics) – have transformed through the natural course of those materials of which they were originally composed.

On the one hand, due to the very fact that the archaeologist must, in order to recover the past, act in the present according to a process open to intuition, interpretation and invention, and given the fragmented nature of objects studied by archaeologists and their cultural and space-time diversity – which requires a holistic vision and an integrated use of multiple disciplines – “archaeological matter” is a potentially open discipline aimed at recomposing, from a fragmented state and otherness, a unity and recognizability that is uncertain but only ever possible and conceivable. Its horizon is the present and the future, more than the past, as the archaeologist Salvatore Settis indicates in his 2004 book Futuro del Classico: “Every era, to find identity and strength, has invented a different idea of ‘classic’. Thus the ‘classic’ always concerns not only the past but also the present and a vision of the future. To shape the world of tomorrow it is necessary to rethink our many roots”.

On the other hand, the materials with which the archaeologist is confronted, in their present state, are remains that blur the distinction between nature and culture, human and non-human, destruction and reconstruction, history and fiction, also acting in contrast with the real/virtual dualism. Impregnated with different times and spaces, they are rightfully contemporary materials. In this sense, these remains are an epistemic source, now perhaps more than ever as we contemplate the imminent consequences of profound territorial and structural changes triggered by human activities (the so-called Anthropocene [1]). Pompeii reminds us that what we are witnessing might be not an end, but an umpteenth beginning. Archaeological matters are extraordinarily active and reactive, like any “creatures of the mud, not the sky” (Donna Haraway), elements that belong to a space-time of risk and collaboration (which Haraway defines with the neologism “Chthulucene“). As “entangled and worldly” living species, they also coexist with us human beings in the world [2]: that is, in that “Gaia” whose intrinsic harmony as a living organism capable of self-regulation James Lovelock described in 1979, before outlining its destiny in 2019 – that of a relationship between living organisms and intelligent machines created by us human beings – with the further neologism of “Novacene” [3].

Revealing and claiming their immeasurable generative and regenerative potential, Pompeian materials – which bear countless traces of past events and knowledge – can be qualified as palimpsests and embodied hypotheses, storytelling creations merging project with chance, spaces-times of enduring performance and narration. Pompeii outlines not so much the definitive contours of the memory of a catastrophe, but rather the perspectival and evolving profile of a cyborg and multi-species thought, and of an activism which is both ecological and feminist, evoking the dynamic and inclusive characters of inter-action, involvement and reciprocity. In this ongoing knowledge-building process of discovery and interpretation, “archaeological matters” change with the quality of the light by which they are illuminated once brought to surface. Alike ideas, they lie in that very light, “nameless and formless, about to be birthed, but already felt” (one of Audre Lord’s descriptions of poetry as “illumination”, “revelation” and distillation of experience” [4]).

Their charm and appeal, in this sense, are testified by all those authors who, together, defined the historical, cultural and emotional reasons for the Grand Tour, that ideal and never concluded journey which, starting between the eighteenth and twentieth centuries, led a great number of intellectuals to Pompeii. The legacy of such a wide network of references from previous centuries has deeply influenced views and interpretations of Pompeii, also in the present, at times grounding this unique heritage within a primarily Western-centered discourse. With Pompeii Commitment. Archaeological Matters, we would like to build upon and, equally, expand these established previous narratives.

The discipline and understanding of the materials which together define the episteme of this project originate in this aim, and thus require a constant redefinition not only of the investigative tools but of our concepts of “time”, “space”, “reality”, “creation”.

If reunited, archaeology and contemporaneity (that is, the archaeological finds in their state of preservation and shifting interpretation, and the multiple and contradictory creations of imaginary and not-yet-existing knowledge, proper of contemporary cultural manifestations) reveal to us a succession of civilizations ending up overlapping with each other, and recognizing their common natural origin and destiny, in an evolution which joins together the animal, plant and mineral spheres. Under their fleeting aesthetic skin, and in their derivations and hybridizations across cultures, Pompeii’s architectures, sculptures, mosaics and frescoes suggest the contours of a permanent activity, in which such outcomes of human ingenuity have been, and then returned to be, a natural matter (cut trees, sculptured stones, colored powders extracted from shells, fruits, roots or mineral sources). These ancient finds could be both remakes (perhaps of originals which are now lost) and, at the same time, reboots (re-starts, or new versions) [5], in which fragility becomes the tool for their ongoing re-interpretation. In this stratigraphy, the context of the Archaeological Park of Pompeii epistemologically hands back the utopian outline of a time machine or a multi-verse, in which time has passed for centuries to then temporarily stop and begin to flow again, returning the clues of something that has never really disappeared but that had simply turned into a legend or tale, before reappearing as a rediscovered reality.

That’s why the episteme proposed by this project brings to life the experiences of a plurality of witnesses: from the anonymous artists and artisans of Pompeii to the ancient authors (such as Pliny the Younger, who handed us down the narration of the ancient eruption through his uncle Pliny the Elder’s memory), from the intellectuals of the Grand Tour to the contemporary artists participating in this project that we chose to title, also to honor their crucial role, Pompeii Commitment. Archaeological Matters. An invitation to adopt an approach of responsibility, awareness and commitment towards the enduring epistemic contemporaneity conveyed, almost with urgency, by an archaeological site such as Pompeii.

The proposed method of work connects the testimonies of catastrophes which have already occurred with contemporary scenarios of risk and regeneration, producing an episteme that practices the act of caring for cultural heritage not only as a “legacy” of the past but also as a “responsibility” in the present, and therefore as a “perspective” towards the future. Therefore, this acts not only as a stimulus for the research, enhancement and implementation of existing heritage but also for the creation of new possible and future scenarios, in a context which supports dialogues across generations, backgrounds and disciplines, and that is able to respond critically to the effects of a globalized and digitized society divided by lasting conflict, exposed to the multiple risks of self-destruction, and to the dynamics triggered by social inequality and discriminating access to both material and educational resources.

 

 

[1] Arundhati Roy, “The pandemic is a portal” in Financial Times, April 3, 2020. https://www.ft.com/content/10d8f5e8-74eb-11ea-95fe-fcd274e920ca

[2] See Will Steffen, Paul J Crutzen, John McNeill, “The Anthropocene: Are Humans Now Overwhelming the Great Forces of Nature”, in Ambio. A Journal of the Human Environment, Swedish Academy of Sciences, n. 36, vol. 8, 2007. See also: Slavoy Zizek, Living in the End Times, Verso Press, London/New York, 2010; James Bridle, New Dark Age. Technology, Knowledge and the End of the Future, To Press, London/New York, 2018.

[3] See D. Haraway, “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology and Social-Feminism in late Twenty Century”, in Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, Routledge, New York, 1991; When Species Meet, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis/London, 2008; Staying with the Trouble, Making Kin in the Chthulucene, Duke University Press, Durham/London, 2016). See also: Karen Barad, “Agential realism: feminist interventions in understanding scientific practices”, 1998, in Mario Biagioli (ed.), The Science Studies Reader, Routledge, New York, 1999; “Posthumanist Performativity: Toward an Understanding of how Matter Comes to Life”, in Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, University of Chicago Press, vol. 28, no. 3, 2003); Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things, Duke University Press, Durham/London, 2010).

[4] See J Lovelock, Gaia. A New Look at Life on Earth, Oxford University Press, 1979; Novecene. The Coming Age of Hyperintelligence, The MIT Press, Cambridge (MA), 2019. See also: Bruno Latour, Politiques de la nature: Comment faire entrer les sciences en démocratie, La Découverte, Paris, 1999; Timothy Morton, Humankind. Solidarity with Non-Human People, Verso Press, London/New York, 2018.

[5] Audre Lord, Your Silence Will Not Protect You, Silver Press, London 2017.

[6] See C. Christov-Bakargiev, “When It Disappears, the Energy Is Left”, in Adrián Villar Rojas, Phaidon Press, London, 2020.