Nanni Balestrini, The Latest Experimental Artist

Last May, Nanni Balestrini passed away. Here is the Italian artist’s story, the last heir of the Neoavanguardia and megaphone of social tensions in Italy

Nanni Balestrini passed away at 83 years old; and with him we lose a piece of Italian culture and history. He was an eclectic artist like few others, telling what happened in Italy during the 1960s and the Years of Lead in a new way. He was born in Milan in 1935, and in the early 60s — due to the new cultural ferver in the city — contributed to the literary magazine “Il Verri” and the anthology “I Novissimi”. Nanni Balestrini, along with other poets, writers, and critics, was tired of traditional patterns in the literature. They made up a new avant-garde literary movement during a meeting in a hotel near Palermo, known as “Gruppo 63,” inspired by modernist American writers such as Ezra Pound and Thomas Stearns Eliot and the German “Group 47.

The “Gruppo 63” was the origin of the Italian literary movement Neoavanguardia (“New Vanguard” in English), which was characterized by the rejection of the neocapitalist ideology and a radical experimentation with language, both in prose and poetry. The artists who gravitated toward this movement never produced a manifest, but they were quite similar to Futurists, opposing the intimistic and sensitive view which affected Italian poetry in this era. Together with Nanni Balestrini, Umberto Eco, Antonio Porta, Elio Pagliarani, Alberto Gozzi and many others joined this language revolution. The techniques of collage and cut-up were rediscovered, and the language went back to being direct and violent, “whipping the brain of the reader.”

A revolutionary artist

Nanni Balestrini was an innovator and forerunner experimental artist: he was the first Italian artist to write a poem (“Trade Mark I” in 1961) and a novel (”Tristano” in 1966) using a computer. His novels went outside traditional frames; in fact he brought to the fore in literary salons the political struggles and conflicts of the ‘70s. Among his masterpieces are “Vogliamo tutto” (We Want Everything) and “Gli invisibili” (The Unseen), which are also translated in English. The former is about a worker who emigrated from southern Italy to Turin working on the assembly line at FIAT, between political demands and union strikes; the latter is the most successful literary column of the 70s and tells the defeat of a whole generation dreaming of a revolution against bourgeois power. The protagonist of the book, Sergio, tells in first person the rapid social change during the ‘70s, culminating in wild strikes at work, house occupations, community assemblies and police repression, even to the point of imprisonment. The experimental style of these books, without breaks and punctuation and focusing solely on the words of the protagonists, is the trademark of Balestrini’s prose.

It is in this style that Nanni Balestrini wrote another of his infamous works, “I Furiosi,” dedicated to the football supporter’s culture and lifestyle. For the first time, this book did not address the issue from a sociological point of view, but left room for the voices of the protagonists, in this case some hooligans of AC Milan belonging to the “Brigate Rossonere” group. This book is a full, formidable immersion in the social life of football supporters during the 1980s and 1990s. In 1988, Nanni Balestrini and Primo Moroni — gotha of far-left politics — published the essay “L’orda d’oro,” a valuable memory enriched with documents and pieces of the revolutionary wave from 1968 to 1977.

The old football supporters of AC Milan, protagonists of the book “I Furiosi”

Nanni did not hide the fact the he was near the militant leftist and their movements: indeed he brought poetry into community centers, and rather than rejecting the dialogue with marginalized people and poor workers, he actually gave them prominence in his novels. On April 1979 Tony Negri — the leader of the autonomist leftist movement “Autonomia Operaia” — was arrested together with several members of this group. He was close friends with Nanni Balestrini and therefore Nanni was also accused of conspiracy against the State. Then our writer escaped arrest by taking refuge in France, illegally crossing the border on Mont Blanc with skis.

His latest production

Also with the advent of the new century Nanni Balestrini did not stop producing art and experiencing languages. Indeed he considered both lexical and visual communication as one thing, bringing the avant-guard movement also into visual art. He exhibited his works in several art galleries, taking part in the Venice Biennale and Documenta in Kassel, Germany. Among his most recent publications are “Sandokan. Storia di camorra” — concerning the cancer of Camorra crimes in Campania region and the capture of one its leaders — “Carbonia. Eravamo tutti comunisti” — which leads us underground and tells of the hard lives and dreams of the Sardinian miners. The new edition of his old novel “Tristano”, became a “Multiple Novel.” That means that Nanni Balestrini published 2000 copies of the same book, but each print different from the others, mixing twenty paragraphs per each of the ten chapters randomly. Thus, destroying the idea of a serial and mechanical novel, Balestrini turned every copy into an original text and makes the reader co-author of his book.

We can finally say that Nanni Balestrini was much more than an artist, much more than a social and cultural animator. He was an out-of-the-box intellectual, the megaphone and the custodian of the utopias which joined — like a collage — whole generations. Before he died he said in an interview that “a revolution is made up of traces, signs indicating a direction. The revolution needs its own time to break out. It will even take one or two centuries to change things.”

We will wait, Nanni!