Mutoid must stay. The poster was in the window of a small bookshop in my husband’s hometown Santarcangelo di Romagna, in Italy. Wandering around the pedestrianised centre, we saw the same poster in a bar, another shop, then another. It was clear something was afoot. The Mutoids have been part of Santarcangelo life for years, but never before have they been so visible. Asking around, we discovered that the Mutoids’ way of life was under threat and the people of Santarcangelo had mobilised to support them.
Not every town would accept a counterculture community on its doorstep, but then Santarcangelo is not just any town. It might be a small place many kilometres from Rome or Milan, but it’s by no means a backwater. It’s home to an astonishing number of artists and writers, and frequently organises cultural events: storytelling workshops, art displays, wine tasting. Romagna hospitality is famous throughout Italy, and ‘strangers’ are readily accepted into the community. In recent years the area has attracted immigrants from China, Senegal, North Africa, Albania. In the cafe where I’m writing, a young Moroccan woman at the next table is discussing Italy’s debt situation with a young man from Senegal. They’re speaking fluent Italian. Kruder and Dorfmeister on the stereo mingles with sounds of band practice filtering out from the school across the piazza.
The Mutoids are a loose collective of artists, sculptors, performers and other creatives who have made Santarcangelo their home. What makes them special is that their work is made from waste products, things that have been discarded by the rest of us. Why? Not just because recycling is in fashion in Europe at the moment, but also because of a desire to avoid waste, to find a use for things that others don’t have a use for. Listening to their story, I found myself drawing parallels with the musicians who obsessively hunt down obscure, all but forgotten 70s funk tracks to sample for their remixes. Originally from London, UK, the Mutoids were invited to take part in Santarcangelo’s annual theatre festival, and a group of them decided (with the Mayor’s blessing) to stay for a while. Twenty years later, they are still here. Their community lives outside the normal social rules, but this hasn’t stopped them from integrating into Santarcangelo’s social fabric over the years. Their children attend local schools; one of their group runs a restaurant in Santarcangelo’s medieval centre, has accomplished the almost impossible task of bringing fusion cooking to a nation notoriously resistant to culinary innovation. Mutoid parties are legendary. They also organise fire shows, acrobatic displays, amazing installations, travelling around Europe to perform in various festivals (their UK arm recently performed at Glastonbury). The community also collaborates with the local municipality, running workshops on creativity and recycling in local schools and nurseries. For the last three years the Mutoids have provided Santarcangelo’s Christmas decorations; stunning, original pieces made from used plastic water bottles and other objects that would normally be considered rubbish.
When we arrived at Mutonia, it seemed deserted. The home of the Mutoids is a former mineral extraction site on the Marecchia river. It’s a large, open space surrounded by trees. Through a clearing you can see a rocky, sloping hilltop – the Republic of San Marino. We got out of the car and started to wander around the massive metal structures which decorate the site. A horse, made from old metal pipes and bicycle wheels. Hulking, spray painted figures assembled from scrap metal. Three washing machines lined up outside a kind of outhouse, because the Mutoids do laundry like the rest of us, although who knows, maybe they were waiting to be plundered for parts. Other sculptures made from old lorries, a rusted Fiat 500, another car with Carabinieri written on the side. From a workshop came the sound of a metal cutter. From another, the faint sound of music. Some caravans, and, looking closer, huts camouflaged in the trees, subtle signs of human habitation.
We find Silvia chopping vegetables in an outdoor kitchen cum workshop. There’s a small dog curled up in an armchair. Everything in the kitchen looks like it has been rescued from a skip, apart from a small black Sony music player on the counter (here the parallel with digital remix artists ends: since there’s no copyright on physical materials the Mutoids can sell their creations without risking a lawsuit). On another bench, a prehistoric looking cassette deck, a toolbox and some electrical equipment. A canopy protects it all from the elements. The Mutoids are fairly hard to get hold of- no website, no public phone numbers. We finally managed to get in touch via their Facebook page, but we were turning up on spec. Fortunately Silvia agrees to abandon her dinner preparations to talk to us. We sit down around the table and she tells us about the history of the Mutoid movement and how they came to settle in Santarcangelo. She’s reluctant at first, because she’s only been part of the community for seven years, so still considers herself a newcomer. Silvia is from Milan, although many of the Mutoids are originally from the UK. I was interested in how she came to join the group. She told me that she had worked in an advertising agency for 8 years, but finally had to find an outlet for her creativity. When she got the opportunity to join this community she packed up and came. She’s from a family of seamstresses, and now specialises in costumes as well as fire displays. Since I come across many people who keep their creativity under wraps because they worry about earning enough to survive, I was curious whether she had any doubts before making the leap. She fixes me with a frank, open stare:
“Everyone tells me it was a brave decision. For me it wasn’t. It was an enthusiastic decision. It was something I had to do”
The Mutoids defy many of the stereotypes of counterculture communities: collaborative rather than confrontational; preferring to educate rather than fight, careful not to be too critical of local industry. Nonetheless, they are currently in the middle of a dismally stereotypical legislative battle. Although they have stayed with the agreement of local authorities, they have never been granted an official permit, and recently their right to stay has been challenged by a neighbour. Hence the posters. The local community has responded to their situation with ferocious support; the Mutoid must stay campaign has attracted media attention from all over Italy (while we were there, a photographer from Rome arrived to take photos). The Pro Mutoid Facebook page has reached 20,000 fans in just under a month. It’s not the first time the community has faced legislative challenges, but it is the biggest one they have encountered so far. Silvia admits to being surprised, because they have always managed to surmount such difficulties in the past. This is why their normally low-key community is campaigning on such a large scale, desperate to preserve this place which serves as creative inspiration for its inhabitants.
“If they move us into condos the creativity will die” said Silvia.
More likely they would not accept such a move, preferring to move on and take their chances somewhere else. But there are many locals who don’t want that. Their campaign has gone as far as the region of Bologna, where officials are trying to find a solution which would enable them to stay. One possibility is to designate Mutonia as a Site of Cultural Interest. In the meantime, the support of the locals continues. Perhaps the single best example of Romagna spirit is demonstrated by the local community’s response to the Mutoids’ situation. According to Silvia, when asked why the Mutoids should be allowed to stay, the most common response is “Why not?”
Photo Credits: Scrap sculpture, RSM – Marcello Boschetti; Fire show – Rats Rivets (Silvia Cammilleri); Kamikaze Komodo – Wrekon (Deb & Strapper). Other Mutoids: Doghead (Lyle Rowell); Lupan (Lucia Peruch); Su_E_Side (Susan Steele); The rock and roll kamikazes (Andy Macfarlane & Giuseppe de Gregoris); Woolly Wormhead (Ruth Paisley).
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About the authorLucy